Page images

monarchs, the rise of dynasties, and the splendours of literature. But, in the second place, when he has chosen his subject, it is the part of the poet to impress the great ideas derived from it on the feelings and the memory by the distinctness of the form under which he presents it; and here poetical invention first begins to work. By the imaginative fiction of The Bard,' Gray is enabled to cast the whole course of English history into the form of a prophecy, and to excite the patriotic feelings of the reader, as Virgil roused the pride of his own countrymen, by Anchises' forecast of the grandeur of Rome. Finally, when the main design of the poem is thus conceived, observe with what art all the different parts are made to emphasise the beauty of the general conception; with what dramatic propriety the calamities of the conquering Plantagenet are prophesied by his vanquished foe; while on the other hand, the literary glories of the Tudor Elizabeth awaken the triumph of the patriot and the poet; how martial and spirited is the opening of the poem! how lofty and enthusiastic its close! Perhaps there is no English lyric which, animated by equal fervour, displays so much architectural genius as 'The Bard.

Take, again, the Ode on the Prospect of Eton College.' A subject better adapted for the indulgence of personal feeling, or for those sentimental confidences between the reader and the poet, in which the modern muse so much delights, could not be imagined. But what do we find? The theme is treated in the most general manner. Though emphasising the irony of his reflection by the beautiful touch of memory in the second stanza, the poet speaks throughout as a moralist or spectator; from first to last he seems to lose all thought of himself in contemplating the tragedies he foresees for others; the subject is in fact. handled with the most skilful rhetoric, and every stanza is made to strengthen and elaborate the leading thought. In the Progress of Poesy,' though the general constructive effect is perhaps inferior to The Bard,' we see the same evidence of careful preconsideration, while the course of the poem is particularly distinguished by the beauty of the transitions. Of the form of the Elegy' it is superfluous to speak; a poem so dignified and yet so tender, appeals immediately, and will continue to appeal, to the heart of every Englishman, so long as the care of public liberty and love of the soil maintain their hold in this country. In this poem, as indeed in all that Gray ever wrote, we find it his first principle to prefer his subject to himself; he never forgot that while he was a man he was also an artist, and he knew that the function of art was not merely to indulge nature, but to dignify and refine it.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]


but to cut it down by the root. We very confidently maintain that no poem which he composed on his own principles has in it, as far as language is concerned, the elements of growth and progress. But as we have before shown how the conception of 'Laodamia' is formed in striking defiance of Wordsworth's own laws, let us now show how the style of that great poem violates every injunction of its author as to the true method of metrical composition. Here is the opening :--

'With sacrifice before the rising morn

Vows have I made, by fruitless hope inspired,
And from the infernal gods and shades forlorn

Of night my slaughtered lord have I required;
Celestial pity I again implore,

Restore him to my sight, great Jove, restore.'

This is very noble. But who does not see that the loftiness of the first lines is due to a certain abrupt passion derived from the inversion which would have been impossible to prose? In prose the words would have been, Inspired by fruitless hope, vows have I made with sacrifice before the rise of morning, requiring my slaughtered lord from the infernal gods and forlorn shades of night.' What a difference! And the difference will be manifest throughout the poem to every judicious reader, not so much from any great alteration in the arrangement of the words, as from a majestic selection of phrase, and a studied balance of sense and sound most happily adapted to the movement of the metre. The poet, in possession of a subject congenial to his heart and powers, writes with all the eloquence and lucid order,' which, as Horace says, under such conditions will never be wanting. Two stanzas will illustrate what we have said :

'He spake of love, such love as spirits feel

In worlds whose course is equable and pure,
No fears to beat away, no strife to heal,
The past unsighed for, and the future sure;
Spake of heroic arts in graver mood
Revived, with finer harmony pursued.

"Of all that is most beauteous, imaged there
In happier beauty, more pellucid streams,

An ampler ether, a diviner air,

And fields invested with purpureal gleams;

Climes that the sun, who sheds the brightest day

Earth knows, is all unworthy to survey.

Gray himself never wrote with more classical precision; Gray himself could not more effectually have marked the separation

between prose and metrical composition.


[ocr errors]

Let us now sum up briefly the conclusions we have endeavoured to establish. The attack made by Wordsworth upon Gray represents the quarrel between the classical and romantic schools of poetry. The real question at issue between the two poets concerns the liberty of the imagination. Gray, with all the classical poets, shows by his practice that, so far from holding the imagination to be entirely free, he considers it to be restricted by sense and subject to reason. Wordsworth and the romanticists maintain that it is absolutely paramount; that, quite apart from invention, it has a 'modifying' and 'creative' power of its own, being entitled to abstract qualities' from any object of sense, and to 'confer' others upon it.* Conceiving that the imagination in poetry required the largest possible amount of just liberty, Gray, as we have seen, was careful to select those subjects which, being free from the intrusion of the senses, appealed most readily to the feelings. Wordsworth, on the other hand, declares that the 'res lecta potenter' is an inconsiderable matter where a man is a true poet, and that the 'common objects of daily life' are proper subjects for Poetry, whose prerogative he would extend over the whole of 'external nature, the moral and religious sentiments of man, his natural affections and acquired passions,' thus bringing down the Muse from the sphere of pure imagination and feeling into the working world of sense and intellect. Finally, Gray, holding that poetry was an art appealing, like oratory, to the imagination, through the medium of language, varied his poetical diction in proportion to the nature of his subject, following thereby the practice of all classical poets, whose language rises farthest above the style of prose where the subject is most purely imaginative, as in epic verse, and approaches most closely to a prose manner, where, as in satiric verse, the subject is limited by sense and ordinary experience. His rule is the same as that of Horace

*We wish to guard against all misconception on this important point. Shakespeare, who is, in the best sense of the word, a classical poet, makes his characters on occasions describe external objects in a manner quite contrary to common sense, and with a vivacity of metaphor much beyond what is usual. But is this because he is himself mastered by his imagination? Not at all. It is because Imagination is working in the service of Invention, and is therefore bound to represent the fictitious speakers expressing themselves in language suitable to the situation, and such as in moments of transport men naturally use. Language like this is the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,' not in Shakespeare, but in Juliet or Macbeth. Again the instinctive action of the imagination in the ruder stages of society is to be distinguished from its conscious use by any particular poet as described by Wordsworth. Shakespeare no more imagined, in the sense of creating, the elves in the 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' than Homer the gods in the Iliad.' Each poet only gave form and body to popular belief.

[ocr errors]


'His ego quæ nunc,

Olim quæ scripsit Lucilius, eripias si

Tempora certa modosque, et quod prius ordine verbum est
Posterius facias, præponens ultima primis,

Non, ut si solvas: "Postquam Discordia tetra
Belli ferratos postes portasque refregit,"
Invenias etiam disjecta membra poetæ.'

But Wordsworth taught that poetry was but a branch of philosophy, intended, by a kind of passion of the imagination, to refine and qualify the perceptions of sense; and it was the logical consequence of his doctrines, that any departure in poetry from the language of prose, except so far as to conform with the barest exigencies of metre, was, without regard to circumstance, a poetical defect.


How, then, have Wordsworth's principles been approved by the practice of his immediate disciples? With scarcely an exception the distinguished poets of the present day belong to the romantic school, and embrace in its fullest sense the doctrine that the individual imagination is absolutely free. The poet is regarded as an inspired philosopher, whose business it is to interpret' nature and human life to the uninitiated reader. By the superiority of his imagination he is raised above the common sense of the 'gross world,' and shallow critics are warned not to vex his soul because they cannot fathom it. Grant that this assumption is warranted. Surely then we might expect the poet to impart to the world the discoveries of his philosophical imagination, as Wordsworth did, in plain and simple language, and without mystery or affectation. But does he? We know but of two metrical writers of the present day, who have pushed Wordsworth's principles to their proper consequences, Mr. Browning and Walt Whitman; the style of one of these appears to us to resemble prose in convulsions, and that of the other prose run mad. But for the rest was there ever a period in English poetry when style was so much valued for its own sake; when thepoetical diction' that Wordsworth despised departed so far from the ordinary idiom; when word-painting was so elaborate, metre-making so artificial, alliteration so worked to death? A poet wishes to put forward his views on the subject of marriage, and the social relation of the sexes. What does he do but throw back an entirely modern question into the dim region of tradition, and present the most unromantic of all themes in the persons of legendary knights? Another seeks to dignify the Revolutionary cause with imagery borrowed from the Crucifixion and Resurrection; while a third, with yet more Vol. 141.-No. 281. abominable


abominable blasphemy, represents the passion of animal love under the figure of the Holy Communion. All this shows that Wordsworth's disciples are far more skilful artists than himself. It is a practical admission on their part of the unsoundness of their master's theory, that form in poetry is of no value, and that there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and prose. But it is also an admission, though of course an unconscious one, that the first principle of the romantic school, from which the second logically proceeds,-viz., that the imagination is at liberty to deal as it pleases with objects of sense and experience is equally false. By their extreme artificiality of style the modern poets virtually allow that subjects of the Peter Bell' and Excursion' order cannot be poetically represented in their natural forms, and that, to dignify such subjects, Poetry must condescend to borrow the alien forms of Painting and Music. What is this but the degradation of their art?

Our age is nothing if not sceptical; and we shall be asked, Why this intolerance in matters of taste? De gustibus non est disputandum. If a man be pleased with Wordsworth, or even with Walt Whitman, as much as with Gray, what right have you to find fault with him, since the end of art is pleasure, and all pleasure is merely relative?" That pleasure is the object of art we admit. I would go fifty miles on foot,' says Sterne, 'to kiss the hand of that man whose generous heart will give up the reins of imagination into his author's hands, be pleased he knows not why, and cares not wherefore;' and we allow that the pleasure experienced by the healthy and refined imagination is as much the true canon of good taste, as the character of the virtuous man is the just standard of virtue. But as we are not yet so much enamoured of liberty as to tolerate in polite society the pleasures of the drunkard or the opium-eater, so we conceive that we have an equal, or even greater, right to censure the vices of the imagination. The real question is, how to verify the perceptions of that judgment with which, as Pope says, we are all gifted by nature; and we believe there is but one just method of verification, a constant reference to classical authority. That at the distance of more than two thousand years the poetry of Homer, the father of the classics, should continue to excite pleasure, is a strong presumption that the means which Homer adopted were sound. And when we find that all poets, whose works are still read with pleasure, have, in their several degrees, followed in Homer's footsteps, while those who have temporarily succeeded by other devices now fail to please, this presumption amounts to a certainty. What then is the character of Homer's poetry? Minute enquiries

« PreviousContinue »