Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

to be the inspirer and former of an age; he is so only to a few, but to those few he is so still; his thoughts heave and ferment in that undefined mass which this generation is striving to develop into order and life. And similarly we may now see the explanation of the fact already noticed, that while Wordsworth's power gave but few symptoms of itself, poetical or otherwise, in the latter half of his life, that of Coleridge, despite his bodily infirmities, was then most productive. For Wordsworth, having done his task, had nothing more to say ; Coleridge's task never approached completion,

But we must now proceed to the much more essential differences which separate the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth on the one side, from that of Byron and Shelley on the other. The intense, vivid, and original nature of these four men causes the real origin of these differences to lie deep; but the superficial tokens of it are obvious. All four began in a career of vehement liberalism, that 'long fit of indignation' which is often aroused in a generous mind by the first contemplation of the existing state of things. Two of them continued in that career, and not being able to find in England the food necessary to sustain the strong tension of their minds, left their native country and became the foremost poets of that democratic impulse which for eighty years has shaken the continent with expectations that are the hope of some and the dread of others, but of which we in England have till these last years only felt the faint and distant vibrations. These two, having lent all their strength to the aid of this movement, died early. In foreign countries they are still put above their rivals ; Byron far above all the others. Whereas the other two were pulled up, as it were, with a sharp shock, and recoiled from their liberal fervour; began immediately to philosophize and systematize ; lived long, and in their native country, and with few and continually diminishing foreign connexions ; and lastly, left behind them an influence hardly recognised on the continent, but in England not surpassed by any contemporary writer. Passion is the main characteristic of Byron and Shelley, sympathetic vision the main characteristic of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

To develop this distinction, let us leave for a moment the consideration of particular poets, and inquire-What do we mean by poetry? what by a poet? A poet is a man who makes others see and feel what is beautiful; in any manner, if the word be used in its broadest sense ; through rhythmical composition, if it be used in the narrower sense. The perception of beauty is the perception of life, and the power and essence of life lies in passion. For passion is the force by which we live; it is the necessary condition of our being, the necessary condition of the

being

[ocr errors]

being of all living things. If we look downwards through the scale of creatures, we shall see how the faculties which distinguish man gradually fade away and vanish ; first, intellectual energy, and moral sympathy, and self-restraint, and then the different senses one by one-sight, hearing, taste, smell—until at last in a creature like the polypus, a confused mass of sensation takes the place of those varied and complex powers of which we are the possessors. But every creature has a capability of pleasure and pain, and consequently of passion. Passion is not desire, for desire implies a definite object; passion is the straining of the whole being towards that which it feels to be its good. It varies infinitely in its forms, but the laws of it are constant. If unsatisfied, it dies away from inanition ; if satisfied, and then left to lie stagnant, it dies of the stagnation ; it can only be kept alive by a continual energy, that acts on the outward world, and · receives from that world the corresponding reaction. This energy all men seek to obtain, according to the nature and strength of the passion that is in them. Some find it in the ordinary operations of manual labour, in digging the ground, weaving or grinding. Some as the leaders of men, whether as statesmen, or generals, or captains of vessels, or employers of labour. Some in that silent exercise of thought which frames laws for the lawgivers of mankind. And not only does the whole man strive after such an energy, but the different organs seek that appropriate to their respective functions, which being denied to them, their death and the dissolution of the whole organism ensues. And even in the most remote realms of nature, in vegetables, or in the electric and magnetic currents, something corresponding to these workings may be dimly discerned. The universe of life, in short, is composed of this ever-varying flow of forces, which rise in untraceable ways, and seek and imperatively demand for themselves such a sphere of action and reaction as is suitable to their respective strength.

Now, a poet must discern and exhibit this living universe, which lies underneath and is manifested through the phenomenal universe, and make others feel its reality. But how is he to do this ? and what is to impel him to do it?-what, in short, makes him a poet? It must be his own passion, which for some reason or other has not found its exercise elsewhere, and has therefore been forced back on itself. Hence every poet is at first egotistic. What he first observes is his own passion; but the consummation of poetry is to break through this egotism. This Shakspeare did, and this, though in a smaller sphere, Wordsworth and Coleridge did; but this Byron and Shelley did not--at least not so as to free themselves from it entirely.

They

They are, as we have already said, revolutionary. The primæval chaos in them was never subdued into an universe of order and light. Yet a poet must necessarily begin with chaos; it is the first necessity, the condition of his originality. For from whence do new forms of beauty come? Not from cosmos, not from the universe which is already harmonised and known to men; for then they cannot be new. New beauty must ever spring from the darkness which lies at the root of all things, from the travail of the creative spirit in the primal abyss. From that abyss have likewise sprung many things besides beauty; the clear and dispassionate understanding, which shapes itself in science and mathematics, had its root in what was not clear but vague; so also have great deeds of courage and morality, in which men have disregarded all hitherto known rules, and cast themselves on their instincts, which have then become a mould and a form determining them for their future good. Whoever desires to lay hold of something new and undiscovered, must take no account of all the things that at present appear to him, but adventure himself boldly into a darkness, where for a time he will neither see nor hear anything, but from which, if he can endure long enough, he will return laden with trophies of creation, a messenger able to open the eyes of other men, and to give them faculties of which before they had not so much as dreamt.

This is what Byron and Shelley did. And though the light which they discerned was never disentangled from chaos, never harmonised into unity, the merit of their originality remains. Indeed, in one way they have even been a greater force on this very account, For young minds, who themselves are groping in darkness, feel the more vividly that here they have fellowlabourers; and the powerful energy of these two men penetrates those who by their own disorder would be prevented from feeling the perfect influences of Shakspeare or Dante.

How are we to compare the two pairs of poets whom we have selected as regards essential merit? It is scarcely possible. Yet there is much to be said in the way of comparing them, both on the whole and in particular portions.

Coleridge and Wordsworth, as we said, are distinguished for sympathetic vision; they had emerged out of chaos, and the beauty which they saw stood before them in unity and in clear light. This at least is true wherever they were truly poetical, wherever they expressed in their verse the genuine aspect of beauty; for not unfrequently their development took a wrong, that is, an unpoetic turn. For there are many ways in which the mind may emerge out of a chaotic state, besides the way of poetry;

and

a man.

and among these is the way of the intellect, the scientific and critical sense, a genuine source of enjoyment, but quite different from the perception of beauty. Now Coleridge and Wordsworth often fell into the mistake of confounding intellectual effort with poetic inspiration; they wrote verses that were not poetry, but argument. This was in great measure the result of what in itself was a merit, their intellectual energy, in which they surpassed Byron and Shelley. It is indeed hard for one who feels diverse instincts keenly to separate them one from the other; and though where he fails to do so the failure must be confessed, this ought not to diminish our sense of his greatness as

And certainly, though in Byron and Shelley there is a much larger amount of poetic effort than in the other two, a greater variety of beautiful forms; and though in Shelley especially there is perhaps not a single prosaic line, yet there is not in either of them any stretch of poetry so long, so pure, and of such a high order as the 'Ode on Immortality' or Christabel.'

The sum and substance of all that we have said is this. Every poet begins as a chaotic egotist; he ends with the vision of harmonious beauty, the highest order of which is the beauty of human character. Now in this development Wordsworth and Coleridge had reached a much higher stage than Byron and Shelley. What we find in the Ancient Mariner,' or in the lines on Tintern Abbey,' is not, properly speaking, egotism; the poet refers to himself rather as a partaker in the universal human nature than as an individual. But Childe Harold' and the Revolt of Islam' overflow with egotism; the poet in both these cases is clearly throughout thinking of his own individual desires, passions, tumults, hopes. And the fact is, that a poet who cannot find any other thread on which to string his pearls, must use himself as such a thread. All the topics of Childe Harold, Greece, Parnassus, the Rhine, the Alps, Venice, Rome, the ocean, have no other connexion but this, that Byron saw them all.

The greatest of all poets, Shakspeare, as he far surpasses any of these four in the harmoniousness and variety of the beauty which he finally discerned, so also is he the best example of the poetic development. The sonnets of Shakspeare have exquisite single beauties, but they are egotistic and unformed. In both these respects they are like Childe Harold,' but with a great difference; for in Childe Harold'the egotism is rampant and unashamed, in the sonnets it is subdued, kept under, and therefore flows less freely. These sonnets have been compared to

Lycidas' and 'In Memoriam;' but how different are they! Lycidas' and 'In Memoriam' are completed works; Lycidas,

Vol. 125.-No. 249.

II

as

hand upon

as it were, a single picture; “In Memoriam’ a series of mosaics. But the sonnets are not a work, if by that be meant anything deliberately planned and executed; they are the impulsive action of a mind so great that no materials as yet found are great enough for it, and which is therefore compelled to turn round and feed on itself. It is clear that Shakspeare in his youth laid a strong

himself. Egotism, in truth, was so abhorrent from his nature, though in this single instance he indulged in it, that he could not rest till he had found in the human nature around him, in its depths and its superficialities, in its most special as well as in its most general manifestations, a perennial source of splendour in which he himself had no share save as the observer and the recorder of it. How far superior is he to Coleridge and Wordsworth ! superior even in his philosophy, in his general view of mankind; while in the apprehension of individual characteristics and peculiarities they are not to be named together with him.

Let us return to Byron and Shelley. They are egotistic; and their egotism is the symbol at once of their greatness and of their failure. Had they had either less sensitiveness and self-consciousness, or more strength to endure till the order and unity of the world without had become manifest to them, their work would have been more complete. As it is, they appeal to us for pity, and we cannot refuse it. Shakspeare, who is victorious, does not need our pity; success can dispense with any aid on our part. But the hopes and efforts, magnificent with whatever imperfection they were stained, which perished in the Gulf of Spezzia and in the camp at Missolonghi, are of the nature of a tragedy; we are moved by them with an instinctive impulse to action; we cannot but put forth a hand to help those whom we see falling, however vain in reality our assistance may be.

And what lines of light and of beauty shine through this failure! The sublimity of external nature, regarded as a thing in itself, apart from the ways and thoughts of man, was felt and expressed by these two in a manner that cannot be surpassed. Take this from the “Revolt of Islam :'

"A scene of joy and wonder to behold
That river's shapes and shadows changing ever,
Where the broad sunrise filled with deepening gold
Its whirlpools, where all hues did spread and quiver,
And where melodious falls did burst and shiver
Among rocks clad with flowers, the foam and spray
Sparkled like stars upon

the

sunny river,
Or when the moonlight poured a holier day,
One vast and glittering lake around green islands lay;

or

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »