Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

any need to extend the list of never-famous, now forgotten names? It may be argued and fairly argued that, its form apart, the subject-matter of a poem should, if translated into another language, retain a general and human interest. We

. need not inquire whether to a Frenchman or an Italian this chronicle of Grub Street can afford entertainment; it provides even for English readers little but instruction, with the help of the notes, in the life of the eighteenth-century literary slums. Pope wrote to suit the taste of his age; well, so did Shakespeare!

A complete survey of English mock-heroic poetry might be treated in a volume; a chapter could hardly do more than enumerate the names of authors who in some form attempted it, either for purposes of satire or pleasantry. The eighteenth century alone is strewn with Scribleriads, Hilliads, Battiads, Fribleriads. But the task of writing the history of tame genius, of the would-be Popes and Butlers, may well be postponed to that age foreseen by the goddess in the Dunciad, when

“ This fav'rite Isle, long sever'd from her reign,

Dove-like she gathers to her wings again.”

CHAPTER XIII

NARRATIVE POETRY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY-SCOTT,

SOUTHEY, BYRON

UNLIKE its predecessor the nineteenth century in England made no attempt to comply with the requirements of formal epic. Possibly no attempt to comply with them will ever again be made. Have we not witnessed the triumph of what some call individualism and some caprice? In the century just closed romance was preferred; freer modes in art accompanied the freer modes of thought; it was discovered and preached that the only " laws of poetry” were those imposed by the nature of the subject chosen. What these were none knew, indeed, and few cared to inquire; the most competent judge-how could one doubt?—was the author himself. So far, however, from becoming an extinct species—though a serious rival, the novel, the “comic epic poem in prose,as defined by Fielding, had arisen--narrative poetry flourished in the nineteenth century as never before. But in what varied and bewildering forms! Recall the florid graces of Leigh Hunt's Story of Rimini, the mystic charm of The Ancient Mariner, the sensuous music of The Eve of St. Agnes, the Oriental embroideries of Lalla Rookh, the austere pathos of Wordsworth’s Michael, the humours and amours of Byron's Beppo and Parisina; recall Shelley's Revolt of Islam, Landor's Gebir, Southey's Thalaba, Tennyson's Enoch Arden and Idylls of the King, Browning's The Ring and the Book, Morris's Earthly Paradise, Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum, Clough's Bothie of Tober-Na-V uolichto select a few names from the imposing series and we perceive that no poet of any eminence forbore to essay the novel in verse, that the whole world was scoured for plot and pattern, all types and modes of narrative explored. Manifestly if narrative poetry were epic poetry, the nineteenth century was the great age of epic. But

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

as manifestly, however, make your definition as generous as you please, few if any of these stories in verse will fall within it. Is it possible to propose a clue by means of which this labyrinth may be traversed? Distinguish and divide we may, but frankly it is not possible. Type merges into type, classical forms melt into romantic to produce a confused panorama of scenes, characters, actions, where the distinctions that prevailed prevail no longer, where the old designations fail us. We have reached the ocean where all tributary streams and rivers are lost. At length, then, it seems we are about to reap the fruits of the folly censured by Croce, the folly of attempting to distinguish among works of art by a system of classification. Our main category has broken down; epic, if the word be any longer employed, is bereft of meaning. We have struggled to preserve it, but the attempt must at last, to all appearance, be abandoned. What then remains? Two courses seem open-either to close the survey by the declaration that the term is outworn and must be cast aside, that a category once useful is useful no longer, by the simple admission that epic poetry, even what proposes to be epic poetry, is no longer written; or confessing, as we have already had to confess, that we overstep the proper limits of the subject, so throw our net as to bring within consideration certain of the larger and more ambitious narratives, such as both represent the class to which they rightly belong, and at the same time by their structure, their breadth and scope,

recall in some degree the features of the older poetry cast in the traditional epic form. We may attempt-and this is the course proposed—to test these modern narratives, as suggested in a previous chapter, by the quality of impressiveness, distinguishing greatness from that which is less great; we may say that for our purposes any narrative poetry, if it be sufficiently impressive, here claims consideration.

One is tempted, indeed, to stray from the immediate inquiry and to ask with Arnold 1 whether poetry, such narrative poetry, for example, as the nineteenth century produced, has not, after all, "its boundaries and wholesome regulative laws," whether

1 Preface to First Edition of Poems (1853).

1

success has in any large measure attended upon the departures from the formal tradition; whether, too, the selection of subjects, where instead of action and the conduct of the action, the presentation of “a continued state of mental distress," occupies and absorbs the poet, does not in the end lead to a period of poetic exhaustion and depression. Arnold held that where

everything is endured, nothing done,” where expression is exalted above the situation which calls for expression, the prospects of poetry are not bright, that the only remedy lies in turning resolutely once more to the large and noble themes and the presentation of such themes with the Greek regard for simplicity and grandeur of design. Take what side you prefer in such a debate, the infirmity of narrative poetry in the last century—who can be unaware of it?—is the infirmity which springs from the insistent, overwhelming presence of the artist in his work. Whether we take Byron or Keats, Tennyson or Browning, the reader never escapes the poet, who everywhere thrusts himself in. But to be constantly reminded of the author is to forget his theme. What, then, some one asks, do you wish? I wish to be left uninterruptedly with the action, the situations, the characters, that I may ponder them for the sake of their own significance, their inherent interest and quality, their immediate and native power. In The Prisoner of Chillon, "a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistence," " everything is to be endured, nothing to be done." We are imprisoned with the prisoner's emotion. When we recall Isabella it is to recall chiefly accessories and lovely lines

" For them the Ceylon diver held his breath

And went all naked to the hungry shark."
“ And thou art distant in mortality.”
“And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,

And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,

And she forgot the chilly Autumn breeze." We have here a poem which seems to exist for the sake of single lines and passages." In The Ring and the Book," all made out of an Old Bailey story," as Carlyle said, " that might have been told in ten lines,” we have a receptacle into which Browning hurled—the word is hardly too strong—anything of any kind that interested him. Over eighteen hundred lines are occupied with the remarks of Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis,over fifteen hundred with those of Juris Doctor JohannesBaptista Bottinius. Individualism has certainly had its say! One inclines in such a case to agree with M. Brunetière that

the English seem to write only to give themselves the exterior sensation of their individuality.One does not need to deny the merit, the pleasantness of nineteenth-century poetic narratives, to say this of them—their authors were their own heroes; they interested us greatly in themselves, less in the matters of which they wrote. But is it of Homer one thinks when the aged Priam stoops to clasp the knees of Achilles, the slayer of his sons, and kisses his hands, “ terrible, man-slaying "?? Or of Virgil, even the romantic Virgil, when Aeneas in the shades addresses Dido, and the injured queen listens with averted eyes?

“Nec magis incepto voltum sermone movetur,

Quam si dura silex aut stet Marpesia eautes." Or of Shakespeare when, after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth with the daggers still in his guilty hands, exclaims—

“Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep.' These things remind us that a situation may speak and speak convincingly for itself. Absorption such as Homer's in the matter in hand, the self-effacement of the artist that the work of art, like Donatello's "St. George," or Michael Angelo's "David," or a ballad like Sir Patrick Spens, may strike deep into the imagination of the spectator, remind us in some measure of the doings of Nature herself, perdu in her creations. When the theme, on the other hand, is merely the occasion for the display of the poet's or the painter's talent, is in itself nothing or no more than a point of departure, the artist must needs indeed refrain from too complete a knowledge of, too vital and disturbing a contact with, his subject.

1 Brunetière's Essays, translated by D. Nichol Smith, p. 24. a Iliad, Bk. xxiv., lines 478-479.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »