Изображения страниц

every puny versifier could give, if not the same music, at least a very good echo of it. It became a kind of hand-organ operation, in which one hand could grind out the sounds nigh as well as another. Besides this levelling faculty, listening almost exclusively to one fashion of metrical sounds, the ear lost its power of receiving other metres. With the incessant, unrelieved tinkling of the heroic rhyming couplet, the sense of poetical music grew deaf to the richer and varied harmonies in which the elder poets had taken such delight, and exhibited such manifold power both in the language and in themselves. The melody of Shakspeare's admirable dramatic blank verse, and the equally appropriate epic blank verse, and the variety of versifications in his smaller poems, ceased to be appreciated; and, when Pope is extolled as having brought verse to perfection, it is forgotten that there is a multitude of other metrical constructions besides that on which he relied. Indeed, when he departed from the one tune he played so sweetly, in other measures he failed egregiously; for, when attempting an unwonted lyrical strain in honour of St. Cecilia, to whom certainly his best music was due, the strain he uttered was one from which the saint herself could scarce have extracted melody; and in that much overrated ode, “ The Dying Christian to his Soul,” the sound of the verses is at once poor and inappropriate, falling greatly below the solemnity of the subject. But the imitators of Pope risked few such experiments, and followed their model in that species of verse in which he had been so successful, that they were willing to consider it the chief and best of English measure, if not the only one worth cultivating. Prosperous as both Dryden and Pope had been in establishing each in his day, and though there have been critics who have praised that species of poetry as the highest order of poetry, it is a school in which not one poet of eminence has risen. In fact, it died with Pope; for, when carried to its legitimate results, it then became obvious how much nature had been sacrificed to art, and hɔw, sooner or later, the heart of the nation craved that nature should biz brought home to enjoy her own again. The truth was told in some liaes by Dryden :

“ There is music, uninform’d by art, In those wild notes which, with a merry heart, The birds in unfrequented shades express,

Who, better taught at home, yet please us less." Giving to Pope all praise for skill as a versifier in one form of verse, I cannot but consider his metrical powers as greatly overrated, when I remember how limited they were in their application. Indeed, it seems to me conclusive of the sinking of English poetry during that period,



that its music was monotonous. The Muse had given up many of her grandest and sweetest notes. Artificial poetical composition needs but a limited set of metres, like a musical instrument with its certain range of keys. But true poetry has its hundred, its unnumbered voices, like nature. The poet needs them all : each one in its true time is ready in his service. How narrow must the

scope of poetry have grown when, as with the poets and critics of a considerable part of the eighteenth century, the high-wrought, one-toned verse of Pope attained such exaggerated and exclusive favour! It has not been so with the greatest of our poets; and it is indeed one proof of their greatness that there were perpetually rising, in their spirits, imaginations and thoughts and passions, each naturally seeking and finding utterance in varied and appropriate measure. When calling quickly to my memory the vast variety of English metres, the compass of instrumental music seems an inadequate parallel to the many-toned voice of Poetry. I would find it rather in the multitudinous sounds of Nature herself :

“For terror, joy, or pity,
Vast is the compass and the swell of notes ;
From the babe's first cry, to voice of regal city,

Rolling a solemn sea-like bass, that floats
Far as the woodlands, with the trill to blend

Of that shy songstress whose love-tale
Might tempt an angel to descend

While hovering o'er the moonlight vale ;

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

The heavens, whose aspect makes our minds as still

As they themselves appear to be,
Innumerable voices fill

With everlasting harmony;
The towering headlands, crown'd with mist,

Their feet among the billows, know
That Ocean is a mighty harmonist;

Thy pinions, universal air,
Ever waving to and fro,

Are delegates of harmony, and bear
Strains that support the seasons in their round:

Stern winter loves a dirge-like sound.” Turn to the pages of Pope or of his imitators : the sound comes like the melody from a well-tuned and well-touched musical instrument; but when you listen, with an ear well cultivated by the study of the metrical combination and flow of words, to the measured music that may be heard, either sensibly or imaginatively, from the pages of the greater poets, the sound comes with the touching and ever-varied har


mony of nature,-at one time with the loud voice of the stormy wind, again with the soothing murmur of a breeze blowing through the tops of pine-trees; at one time with surges like ocean angry and enchafed, again like the ripples of a lake or river touching the sides of an anchored ship, or the gentle sounds of a running brook.

I notice this subject of versification because the merits of Pope in this department have been, I think, exaggerated in a manner injurious to English poetry, as superseding its noblest and most varied metres. A style of versification was introduced which fascinated the ear, because the tune, though soon monotonous, was not only smooth but marked. If the ear once content itself with this form, it is apt to neglect that cultivation which is essential for the enjoyment of the finest poetical melody in the language. It was a sign of the coming regeneration of English poetry when some appeared who sought other forms of verse than that one which Pope had bequeathed to his imitators. Simultaneous with this was a returning sense of what was due to nature,—an evident desire to quit the path which had been so artificially cut and beaten. Pope's immediate followers had pushed the system to its limits; and readers began at last to ask themselves whether something else was not wanted besides polished language, verse of an unrelieved smoothness, and a certain perpetually-recurring assortment of images, which had become so much the traditional property of the versifiers that a writer could set himself in the business, as any tradesman might supply himself with his stock in trade. People were growing weary of hearing nothing but cold mythological personifications. They scarcely ventured to say so; but, for all that, it was a relief to hear the sun called by his simple almanac-name instead of the loftier prescriptive title of Phæbus. The moon had been known only as Diana. Naiads were as plenty in every watercourse as fish. Dryads were as common as birds; and

every west wind that blew, whether it was the sweet south or the blustering northwester, was a gentle zephyr.” The versifiers who took Pope for their model were like the artists who illustrated his poems by carrying the system out to all its consequences. In one of the early editions of his poems there is an engraving prefixed to the “ Essay on Criticism,” representing some venerable ancient introducing Pope, the little Queen Anne's poet, wrapped in a Roman toga, to the nine Muses, who are seated by the side of a kind of creek, clad in the usual amount of clothing deemed appropriate to the comfort of a Muse, -one of them with a foot in the water and looking up to the sky, and another seated on a small eminence and busy performing on the bass-viol. This was the taste of the times : poetry had set the fashion, and the arts followed in the train.

[ocr errors]
[blocks in formation]


If Pope was followed by servile imitators, there also came after him poets who, with a truer fervour of inspiration, sought to unfetter the poetry of their country from the technicalities and the artifices which had been woven round it. They were obliged to toil against the influence of established authority and a dominant false taste. Thomson, and Gray, and Goldsmith, and Beattie, and Churchhill, and Collins, contributed to the revival of a truer spirit of poetry, and have left behind them poems which it is much easier for me to find


for in my good opinion than in my lectures. There was Chatterton, too truly

“ The marvellous boy, The sleepless soul that perish'd in his pride." Hereditary insanity and the frenzy of a frustrated ambition tortured his

young and, after having baffled half the learning of Britain by his impostures, he ended his brief agony of life by poison.

The poets of the eighteenth century, especially its latter portion, deserved much for ridding English poetry of its cold formalities and pouring fresh life-blood into it. Especially was this the merit of him whom in the last lecture I presented to you in such a hurried, crowded comment,--the happy, unhappy—the cheerful, melancholy---Cowper.

These poets not only threw off the depressing weight of an artificial taste still remaining from the Anglo-Gallican school of poetry, but there was an adverse authority, in the literary dictatorship of Dr. Johnson. This authority was exerted not only to the full extent of his colloquial influence, but made still more absolute and more lasting in a work to which I have alluded once or twice in the course of these lectures, and on which I must now dwell for a few minutes.

Let me preface what I have to say either directly or in illustration of Dr. Johnson with the remark that it applies to him solely as a critic of poetry. As the maker of the great Dictionary of our language, he is entitled to the most reverential gratitude of every student of English literature. He has written much excellent morality, and as a man he was kind in deeds while harsh in words. When the late Bishop White, visiting England in early life, was introduced to him, Dr. Johnson said to him, in allusion to the then recent Stamp Act difficulties, “Sir, if I had been prime minister I would have sent a frigate and levelled one of your principal cities.” “But,” added the bishop, in recording this remark, with the admirable discrimination of a gentle-hearted man, “I heard from him sentiments convincing me he would not have done as he said.” The present examination has reference, however, to Dr. Johnson's words, his critical judgments. I have no ambition to stretch myself to the tiptoe height of my small stature to strike a blow at a lofty


The reputation of Dr. Johnson, and the want of a better work on the subject, has given to his “Lives of the Poets” a circulation which has beyond all question been injurious to the cause of our imaginative literature. It was a luckless day for the poets when they fell into the hands of Samuel Johnson. This work, which it is absolutely necessary for me to notice, because it is the very book which is always resorted to as authority in the history and criticism of English poetry, --this work has an absurdity in the capital letters of its title-page :

The Lives of the most Eminent English Poets ;” and when we open it, to our astonishment, as has been well said, the first name we find is that of Cowley. What has become of the morning star of English poetry? where is the bright Elizabethan constellation ? Or, if names be more acceptable than images, where is the ever-to-be-honoured Chaucer? Where is Spenser ? Where Sydney? And, lastly, where is Shakspeare? These, and a multitude of others, not unworthy to be placed near them, their contemporaries and successors, we have not. But in their stead we have Roscommon, Stepney, and Phillips, and Walsh, and Smith, and Duke, and King, and Sprat, Halifax, Granville, Sheffield, Congreve, Broome, and other, reputed magnates, metrical writers utterly worthless and useless, except as instances to show what a small quantity of brains : is necessary to procure a considerable stock of admiration, provided the aspirant will accommodate himself to the likings and fashions of the day. The truth is, that, amidst all the small deer that were herded together by Johnson as the most eminent English poets, Milton is the one solitary poet of high eminence. But the wrong does not stop here. Passing by the consideration that Johnson's registry excludes all but one of the greatest names, and includes all the little ones, or, at the least, abundance of them, the execution of the work is as wrong as the plan. It is full of false canons of criticism,-false, I do not hesitate to say as absolutely as Dr. Johnson could make an assertion,-false because at variance with the unimpeachable authority of the actual poetic inspirations of the great poets. Its incurable defect is an utter absence of imagination: it is a treatise on imaginative literature produced by an unimaginative intellect. Yet it acquired in its day an authority which none dared publicly to question, though there were minds well endowed with the elements of true poetic character which deeply felt what injury was done to the cause. That ardent enthusiast, full of the fervour of genius, Sir Egerton Brydges, who died only a few years ago, has recorded the impression the work made on his mind at the time of its publication. “The appearance of Johnson's Lives,” are his words, damped my spirits and froze the genial flowings of my soul : their

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »