Bryan Waller Procter

[Pseud. Barry Cornwall]





Literatur: Procter
Literatur: The Edinburgh Review


1. Specimens of the Earlier English Poets. S. W. Simpson, London. 1824.
2. The Commonplace Book of British Poetry. Anderson. Edinburgh. 1823.
3. The Commonplace Book of British Song. Anderson, Edinburgh. 1823.


We are not aware that any successful attempt has been made to explain the nature of Poetry, or to show by what general characteristics it is distinguished from prose. Most of the discussions upon this pleasant art have been introduced with reference to the merits of particular pieces, and avoid the general question altogether. Some are occupied in analyzing the structure of the story; some in canvassing the probability of the incidents, the truth of the characters, the purity of the diction, or the correctness of the metaphors; leaving the grand distinction between poetry and prose, as well as the component qualities of poetry itself, to the speculation of the reader. With the few who have taken a wider range, it has been usual to consider poetry merely as one of the fine arts, and to compare it accordingly with painting and music and sculpture: And as this forms, no doubt, a branch of the discussion on which we are about to enter, we may as well begin by saying a few words on this comparative view of it.

In so far, then, as Poetry may be considered as one of the fine arts, we apprehend that it is undoubtedly the first of them; because it combines nearly all the excellences of the other arts, with much that is peculiar to itself. It has the vivid beauty of painting, the prominence and simplicity of sculpture, and the touching cadences of music, while it out[32]lasts them all. For Time, which presses on most things with so wasteful a force, seems to have no effect on the masterpieces of Poetry, but to render them holy. The "Venus" of Apelles, and the "grapes" of Zeuxis have vanished, and the music of Timotheus is gone; but the bowers of Circe still remain unfaded, and the "chained Prometheus" has outlived the "Cupid" of Praxiteles and the "brazen bull" of Perillus.

Poetry may not perhaps attain its end so perfectly as painting or sculpture; but that is because its end is so high, and its range so much extended. It deals with more varied and more remote objects, — with abstract ideas and questions of intellect which are beyond the reach of the other arts. It may be considered as a moral science, operating both upon the passions and the reason, although it never, strictly speaking, addresses itself directly to the latter. It operates through the medium of words, which, however inferior, in certain cases, to colours or sounds, are far more generally available, and, in fact, perform what neither sounds nor colours can accomplish. It may indeed be truly said, that the highest object of painting and sculpture, has been to translate into another language, and for the benefit of a different sense, what the imagination of the poet has already created. Almost all the treasures of Italy and Greece are copies, made by the chisel or the pencil, from elevated fable (which is poetry), or from Greek or Hebrew verse. That they have their own peculiar hues and symmetry, does not disturb this opinion; for the original idea existed entire before, and that sprang from the imagination of the poet. Painting, in fact, as well as sculpture, is essentially a mimetic art: But poetry is not essentially, though it may be casually, imitative; and when it is so, it is imitative in a different manner, and in a less degree. As a mimetic art, it is, in one sense, inferior to the others; but it is not limited, like them, to a moment of time; and it can display the characters, the manners, and, above all, the sentiments of mankind, in a way to which the ethers have no pretensions. The very nature of the medium through which it acts, prevents it from being so strictly mimetic as sculpture and painting: For language cannot, in any way, copy directly from nature, unless it be in imitation of sound; and music, although said to imitate motion, in reality does little more than imitate the sounds which accompany motion. In comparison with Music, however, Poetry has a vast and acknowledged superiority, both as to the distinctness and variety of the impressions it conveys. The pleasure of music, in so far as it is not merely organic, and in some sort sensual, seems to consist merely in the suggestion of general moods or tones of feel[33]ing, without any definite image, or intelligible result; and, though it may sometimes prompt or excite the mind to poetical conceptions, it can scarcely of itself attain any intellectual or passionate character, except by being "married to immortal verse," and thus reduced to an accompaniment or exponent of that nobler and more creative art.

In regard to the difficult question, as to what poetry is, it may be as well to begin by negatives; and to separate what may occasionally or accidentally aid its effect, from what is truly essential to its existence.

Poetry, then, is not necessarily eloquence, fiction, morality, description, philosophy, wit — nor even passion; although passion approaches nearest to it, when it spreads that haze before our eyes, which changes and magnifies objects from their actual and prosaic size. Passion, in truth, often stimulates the imagination, and the imagination begets poetry; but it operates also upon other parts of the mind, and the result is simply pathos, indignation, — eloquence, or tears. Philosophy, again, is founded in reason, and is built up of facts and experiments, collected and massed regularly together. It is constituted entirely of realities, and is itself a thing no more to be questioned than an object that stands close before us, visible and tangible: it is always to be proved. But Poetry proceeds upon a principle utterly different; and, in the strict sense, never exists but in the brain of the writer, until it be cast forth in the shape of verse. Neither is Fiction always poetical; for it deals often in the most simple conceptions, and pervades burlesque and farce, where human nature is degraded, as well as poetry, where it is elevated. Again, a Maxim is never, per se, poetical, nor a satire, nor an epigram; although all may be found amongst the writings of our poets. Descriptions of nature are commonly assumed to be poetry, but we think erroneously; for a mere transcript of nature is, of necessity, prosaic. It is true, that the materials out of which poetry is compounded, lie, perhaps, principally in nature; but not poetry itself. Eloquence or rhetoric is nothing more than an exaggeration of prose. Words may be strong, glowing, stimulating, and yet, even though rythmically assorted, possess no imagination or fancy. In oratory, indeed, it may be that poetical figures are mixed up with, and lend a grace to speech; but the staple of the orator's pleadings must be prose, which he uses (or abuses) to convince the understandings of his hearers — or, at, all events, to persuade them, by direct and substantial motives, to some actual and practical end. Demosthenes and Cicero were eloquent; but who will assert that they were poetical? They were rhetorical, vehement, ingenious: they reasoned, and [34] thereby persuaded; but they would not have been persuasive, had they made use of poetry, which is complicated, instead of prose, which is single and obvious, for the purpose of convincing their hearers.

If none of these intellectual qualities be essential to Poetry, we need scarcely say that it is not simply verse; although that may be useful, and perhaps even necessary to its existence. Verse is the limit, or shape by which poetry is bounded: it is the adjunct of poetry, but not its living principle. Neither is poetry music; so that, to try it by the laws, either of metre or of tone, must necessarily be fallacious. It is well enough, as a matter of amusement, to ascertain how the lines of our great poets have been fashioned; but to deduce authoritative rules from poems that have been written without rule, is plainly to derive an argument in favour of bondage, from the most splendid proofs of the benefits of freedom. Shakespeare most assuredly wrote without any reference to rule: he trusted to his ear, and produced the finest dramatic verse in the world. Milton also, beyond competition the greatest writer of epic verse of whom we can boast, learned as he was both in metres and music, and with the finest apprehension for harmony, evidently composed without rule, and trusted to his ear alone for those exquisite cadences with which, from his Lycidas to his Paradise Regained, all his poems abound. It is undeniable indeed, that the verse which is most perfectly according to rule is uniformly the most disagreeable. We are speedily tired of lines where the meaning invariably ends with the tenth syllable: and if we admit this, and allow the poet to terminate his periods in the middle, or in any other part of the line, where is his privilege to cease? Verse, in its own nature, implies nothing but regularity, and any kind or degree of regularity that is found to be agreeable, must be just as legitimate as any other. It might be rash, perhaps, to depart altogether from familiar models; but to insist that certain lines, with certain accents, should alone be held up as models, because they produce a good effect among others of a different modulation, is preposterous. Is it to be supposed that Milton did not know what he was about when he threw in that strange line –

And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old—

or when he speaks of

The secrets of the hoary deep; a dark Illimitable ocean—

or Shakespeare, when he addresses Earth, "our common mother,

Whose womb unmeasurable and infinite breast Teems and feeds all?—

[35] And yet we think the critics would be perplexed, were they to attempt to subdue these lines to their canons of quantity. What would the painters say, if an amateur should stand forward and insist on their piling all their figures in a precise triangle? Yet we know that the pyramidal shape is the "beau ideal" of an artist. Variety, in short, is necessary in poetry as in other things. It is the whole that should be harmonious; and it is not true that this large and effective harmony is to be attained by the absolute and exact uniformity of all the corresponding parts. The poets know this: and it will be well for us to leave them to the free practice of their art, instead of perplexing them with dogmas, which we are sure that the better part of them will never consent to follow. — But to come a little nearer an affirmative.

POETRY is a creation. It is a thing created by the mind, and not merely copied either from nature, or facts in any shape. Next to this general, but most correct and significant definition, if it can be so called, perhaps the best explanation is that given by Lord Bacon, where he says, that "poetry doth raise and erect the mind, by submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind;" though here, as in all the rest of the discussion, we should ever bear in mind, that poetry, after all, is the effect, and not the cause. It does not properly alter "the shows of things," but transcribes from the imagination the new form that results from the alteration. Its after effect upon the reader is produced by this transcript, and he sees merely the new poetic creation, and receives its effects. Poetry, then, is to be understood as a thing "different from prose," which is its antithesis; that is to say, it is always something different from the literal prosaic fact, such as we contemplate it with the eye of sense or reason. However it may be true in itself (and it ought to be true), as a compound image or signification of consistent ideas, it must not be in all respects literally true. The materials of poetry, as we have said, are to be found in nature or art, but not poetry itself; for, if poetry were strewn before us like flowers, or if it irradiated the heavens like sunshine or the stars, we should have nothing to do but to copy it as exactly as we could; and it would then be a "mimetic" art only, and not a "creation." Prose, according to our [36] conception of it, is in substance the presentment of single and separate ideas, arranged for purposes of reasoning, instruction, or persuasion. It is the organ or vehicle of reason, and deals accordingly in realities, and spreads itself out in analysis and deduction — combining and disposing words, as figures are used by arithmeticians, to explain, or prove, or to produce some particular effect from established premises. It acts upon foregone conclusions, or tends by regular gradations to a manifest object; and in proportion as it fails in these, it is clouded or imperfect. Poetry, on the other hand, is essentially complicated. It is produced by various powers common to most persons, but more especially by those which are almost peculiar to the poet, viz. Fancy, and the crowning spirit — Imagination! This last is the first moving or creative principle of the mind, which fashions, out of materials previously existing, new conceptions and original truths, not absolutely justifiable by the ordinary rules of logic, but quite intelligible to the mind when duly elevated — intelligible through our sympathies, our sensibility, — like light or the balmy air, although not sufficiently definite or settled into form to stand the cold calculating survey of our reason. It is not so much, however, that imagination sees things differently from reason, as that it uses them differently; the one dealing with single ideas, and observing, if we may so speak, the naked reality of things; the other combining and reproducing them as they never appear in nature. Nevertheless, poetry, though creative in its principle, comprehends not so much what is impossible, as what is at present unknown; and hence, perhaps, may be urged the claim of its followers to the title of "Vates." It is the harmony of the mind, in short, which embraces and reconciles its seeming discords, it looks not only at the husk and outward show of things, but contemplates them in their principles, and through their secret relations. It is brief and suggestive, rather than explicit and argumentative. Its words are like the breath of an oracle, which it is the business of prose to expound.

Imagination differs from Fancy, inasmuch as it does by a single glance what the latter effects by deliberate comparison. Generally speaking, imagination deals with the passions and the higher moods of the minds It is the fiercer and more potent spirit; and the images are flung out of its burning grasp, as it were, molten, and massed together. It is a complex power, includ[37]ing those faculties which are called by metaphysicians — Conception, Abstraction, and Judgment. It is the genius of personification. It concentrates the many into the one, colouring and investing its own complex creation with the attributes of all. It multiplies and divides and remodels, always changing in one respect or other the literal fact, and always enriching it, when properly exerted. It merges ordinary nature and literal truth in the atmosphere which it exhales, till they come forth like the illuminations of sunset, which were nothing but clouds before. It acts upon all things drawn within its range; sometimes in the creation of character (as in Satan and Ariel, &c.), and sometimes in figures of speech and common expression. It is different in different people; in Shakespeare, bright and rapid as the lightning, fusing things by its power; in Milton, awful as collected thunder. It peoples the elements with fantastic forms, and fills the earth with unearthly heroism, intellect, and beauty. It is the parent of all those passionate creations which Shakespeare has bequeathed to us. It is the origin of that terrible generation of Milton, — Sin, and the shadowy Death, Rumour, and Discord with its thousand tongues, Night and Chaos, "ancestors of Nature," down to all those who lie

Under the boiling ocean, wrapt in chains—

of all phantasies born beneath the moon, and all the miracles of dreams. It is an intense and burning power, and comes

Wing'd with red lightning and impetuous rage—

(which line is itself a magnificent instance of imagination) — and is indeed a concentration of the intellect, gathering together its wandering faculties, and bursting forth in a flood of thought, till the apprehension is staggered which pursues it. The exertion of this faculty is apparent in every page of our two great poets; from

The shout that "tore" Hell's concave,

to the "care" that "sate on the faded cheek" of Satan; from the "wounds of Thammuz" which "allured"

The Syrian damsels to lament his fate,

to those Thoughts that wander through eternity; from the "curses" of Lear upon his daughters, which Stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth to Hamlet Benetted round with villainies, [38] And thousands of others which meet us at every opening of the leaves.

Fancy, on the other hand, is generally (but not always) glittering and cold — the preparatory machinery of poetry, without its passion; sporting with sights which catch the eye only, and sounds which play but on the ear. It proceeds upon a principle of assimilation, and irradiates an idea with similes; but it leaves the original thought untouched, and merely surrounds it with things which ornament, without either hiding or changing it. Fancy seems like an after-thought, springing out of the original idea: but the Imagination is born with it, coequal, inextricable, like the colour and the shape of a flower. Imagination, indeed, is as it were a condensation of the Fancy; acting directly on the idea, And investing it with qualities to which it is the business of Fancy to compare it. The loftiest instances of the last-mentioned. faculty are perhaps in Milton, as, where he describes "the populous North," when her "barbarous sons"

Came — like a deluge on the South!

or where he speaks of the archangel Satan, saying that

He stood — like a tower!

Here, although "the populous North" itself is imaginative, and the conception of Satan a grand fiction of the imagination, the likenesses ascribed to each are the work of Fancy. In both these cases, however, she soars almost beyond her region. Again, in the words of Lear,

Thou think'st 'tis much that this contentious storm Invades us to the skin.

and the well-known line—

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank;

and in that fine expression of Timon, "the dying deck" — where he invests the mere planks of a vessel with all the deeds that have been acted upon them, and colours them with blood and death — it is the Imagination which is evidently at work: — So is it also in the case of the "wilderness of monkeys," where the inhabitants of the forest are made to stand for the forest itself.

The grand distinction, in short, which exists between poetry and prose, is, that the former (independently of its principle of elevation) presents two or more ideas, linked or massed together, where the latter would offer only one. And hence arises the comparative unpopularity of the former with ordinary readers, who prefer humble rhyme to poetry, and a single idea to a complicated one, inasmuch as it saves them from the fatigue of thinking. And the distinction between Imagination and Fancy, is simply, that the former altogether changes and remodels the idea, impregnating it with something extraneous: — the [39] latter leaves it undisturbed, but associates it with things to which, in some view or other, it bears a resemblance.

In the foregoing examples of the operation of Imagination and Fancy, the effects produced by each age — poetry. If Shakespeare had written—

Thou think'st it much that this most violent storm "Should wet" us to the skin.


How sweet the moonlight shines upon this bank—

(although the last line might still have been musical), he would certainly have written prose, and nothing more. When Cleopatra says,

Have I the "aspic" in my lips?

the double idea may not be so obvious, but it is still there: the reptile is confounded with its power (its poison), and made one, the cause and the effect are amalgamated.

Truth was not made for the benefit of infidels, who are its foes; but for willing apprehensions; and, accordingly, it is to these only that Poetry addresses itself. It repels and recoils from the ignorant and the sceptical: the first, from some mal-formation or want of cultivation of the mind, are unable to comprehend it; and the latter try it by laws to which it is not lawfully subject. When Brutus, in Shakespeare's "Tarquin and Lucrece,"

Began to "clothe his wit" in state and pride,

we feel that this is not the language of prose; and that, however pregnant the phrase may be to a willing ear, it is not the sober and severe language of a reasoner. Neither of these two last quotations are, as may be easily seen, absolute facts, because, as we have said, poetry is never literally true. Nevertheless, it must not be considered as void of truth, because it is not a literal transcript of nature, or of ordinary life: Were it so, we should never sympathize with it. On the contrary, it contains, as it were, the essence of truth: and is a concentration of its scattered powers. It is a world different from our own, but not in opposition to it; moved, on the whole, by the same passions, and subject to the same influences as ourselves. It may be that some scene or character is lifted entirely out of ordinary nature, as in the case of Satan, or the Red Cross Knight, Caliban, Ariel, and Oberon; yet these, and all other grand fictions, are true to themselves, and maintain their proportions like a simple metaphor; and we shall generally find, that the natural passions prevail even in the most fantastic creations of the Muse.

Every one who has considered the subject, will own that it is often impossible to justify the finest things in poetry to an un[40]willing mind, or upon the ordinary principles of logic. And the question which arises on this discovery, is — which is imperfect? — the law, or the art? For our parts, we think the former. When Milton tells us of "darkness visible!" we feel that he has uttered a fine paradox; we feel its truth, but cannot prove it. And when — in that appalling passage where the poet stands face to face with Night and Chaos, in their dark pavilion, "spread wide on the wasteful deep," and says that

By them stood Orcus and Ades, and the dreaded NAME Of Demogorgon!

how is it possible to reconcile such expressions to a mere prosaic understanding? — "Darkness" is, strictly speaking, "absence of light." How then shall we say that it is visible, when we see only by the aid of light? — And with respect to the "Name" of Demogorgon, which "stands" by Orcus and Ades, how can such a phrase be justified by the rules of reason? Nevertheless, it is as magnificent as words can make it. It is clothed in a dark and spectral grandeur, and presses upon our apprehensions like a mighty dream. Who is there that would f ive up such things for the sake of logic? May not the truth be, that logic, which is the weapon of prose, touches not the airy nature of poetry? or that the laws of reason are at present too imperfect to make the divinity of poetry clear to human capacity? It is well known that our senses are perpetually deceived, and that our reasoning faculties are incompetent to the understanding of many of the phenomena of the external world. Is it not, then, fair to suppose, that the finer intuitive movements of the mind and feeling may also escape? Assuredly, the sense which apprehends these grand expressions of Milton, is finer and loftier than the hard scepticism which denies them. Why then should the one give place to the other? In the same predicament with Milton is Shakespeare perpetually. When, by a strong effort of the imagination, he fuses two ideas into one, the cause, perhaps, and the consequence; or when he arrays a bare and solitary thought, with all the pomp and circumstance which surround it — talking of the "dying deck" — we admire the prodigious boldness of the figure, and rest contented, without trying it by the rules of common language. It is — like thousands of others — beyond the jurisdiction of prose.

The mind which cannot comprehend poetry may be said to be wanting in a sense. Yet such are precisely the minds which criticise poetry the most narrowly. They try it by the prosaic laws, which they do comprehend, and set up for judges on the ground — of their own defects! — Nevertheless, we do not wish to [41] claim for poetry the exemptions of the "jus divinum." Poetry is subject to reason — not indeed as prose is subject, throughout all its images, but independently of its imagery and elevation of sentiment; and it must not therefore be tried by a standard to which it does not profess to assimilate itself, nor by rules with which it is in its nature at variance. It can never be made good, and demonstrated like a syllogism. But, as it springs from, and is addressed to the imagination, so can it be subject to strict laws, only when the laws of that faculty shall be discovered.

We have already quoted several instances of poetical phraseology; but it is not alone in such expressions that poetry consists. The idea of a character, a person, a place, may be poetically conceived, as well as the expression in which it is dressed. Thus the idea of Milton's "Satan" is purely imaginative and poetical, as are the conceptions of Titania and Oberon, Ariel and Caliban, and the cloudy Witches of Macbeth. Macbeth himself is poetical, on another ground, i.e. from the circumstances into which he is impelled, as are, in like manner, Hamlet, Juliet, and Lear. A chimera, a leviathan, a gorgon, the snake which was fabled to encircle the world, the sylphs and the giants, Echo, Polyphemus, shadowy Demogorgon, Death and the curling Sin, the ocean-born Venus, and Pallas, who sprang out armed from the brain of Jove — are all poetical. Milton's vision of Hell — Spenser's palaces and haunted woods — the Inferno of Dante — the faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, and her home in Arcady — the Arabian fictions, with their silent cities and blazing sights, in air and under ground; their gems and dreams of riches; their fairies, genii, and enchanters; their men turned into marble; and, in short, all that world of wonder which illuminated ancient Bagdad, or grew up like a garden of enchantment on the banks of the Tigris — are all fictions of the imagination, and, as such, have claims to be distinguished as the offspring of the great family of poetry. Again, the meeting of Gabriel and Satan, at the end of the fourth book of Paradise Lost, where the squadron. of angels turn "fiery red" — and the stature of Satan, angry and dilated, "reached the sky" — the speed of Puck, who "puts a girdle round about the earth" in forty minutes — the ghost who revisits the "glimpses of the moon" — Una, taming the forest lion by her beauty — the iron man — the fretted and wealthy cave of Mammon — must all have been poetical, in whatever diction the ideas had been clothed.

The staple of Poetry then is imagery: so that even where it deals with abstract ideas and indefinite, objects, it generally moulds them into shape. It is thus that certain virtues and qualities of the mind are brought visibly before us. Unfortu[42]nately, HOPE and CHARITY, FAITH, and LOVE, and PITY, &c. have now become commonplaces; but they were, notwithstanding, amongst the first and simpler creations of the art. In another way, mere inanimate matter is raised to life, or its essence extracted for some poetical purpose. Thus the air, in its epithet "airy," is applied to motion, and, the "sunny" locks of beauty are extracted from the day. Thus the moon becomes a vestal, and the night is clothed in a starry train; the sea is a monster or a god; the winds and the streams are populous with spirits; and the sun is a giant rejoicing in his strength. Again, as the essence of poetry, generally speaking for it is sometimes otherwise, in the case of sounds and perfumes), consists in its imagery, so its excellence varies in proportion as those images are appropriate and perfect. The imagination, which acts like an intuition, is seldom wrong; but when a thought is spread out into similes, by the aid of fancy, it not unfrequently becomes unnatural. Again, the figures or images may be repeated till they run into cold conceits, or they may not amalgamate and harmonize with the original idea. Petrarch, Donne, Cowley, and Crashaw, all men of genius, offended in these points. They trusted often to their ingenuity instead of their feeling, and so erred. Excellence is not necessarily the property of imagination or of fancy, which may he lofty or tame, clear or obscure, in proportion to the mind of the poet. Nor must we forget that poetry, which depends at least as much upon the vivid sensibility of the writer as upon his intellect, depends also somewhat upon his discretion. When Crashaw, in his "Music's Duel," speaking of the nightingale, who is contending for the palm of music with a man, says,

Her supple breast thrills out Sharp airs, and staggers in a warbling doubt Of dallying sweetness—

we feel instantly that the idea is overloaded, and extended beyond our sympathy. There are four distinct epithets made use of to express a single idea. This argues poverty in the writer, at least as much as a superabundance of imagery. So Cowley maintains a metaphor throughout a whole poem; as in the one entitled "coldness," where he begins by comparing his love to water, and goes on to show how it is acted upon by kindness and rigour, the one causing it to flow, and the other to freeze. This is the masquerade of poetry. On the contrary, when Bolinbroke goes

As confident as is the falcon's flight,

to do battle with Mowbray, and Eneas the Trojan, bearing a challenge to the idle Greeks, cries out,

[43]Trumpet, blow loud! Send thy "brass voice" through all these "lazy tents"—

we admit at once the fine keeping of the images. Again, when this same Eneas, diffidently inquires for the leader Agamemnon (whose "topless deputation," on the other hand, the parasite of Achilles mimics), saying,

I ask that I might waken reverence, And bid the cheek be ready with a blush, Modest as morning when she coldly eyes The youthful Phoebus,

we feel that the picture is perfect.

We have characterized certain things as poetry; but we must not be understood to say, that all which may fairly be called poetry is thus, word by word, impregnated with Imagination and Fancy. We have extracted the essence; whereas the cup of poetry, even at the strongest, is not all essence: But — as wine is not composed entirely of the grape — so is the rich Castalian mixed with the clear waters of the earth, and thereby rendered palatable to all. It requires, like durable gold, some portion of alloy, in order to preserve itself through the common currency. It is a Doric temple, where all is not exclusively divine, but partakes, in common with others, somewhat of the structure of ordinary buildings. So, in poetry, all is not of the "Dorian mood," or of the "order" of poetry, but is intermingled and made stable by a due addition of other materials. It is by these means that poetry acquires its popularity. The most imaginative writings are assuredly but little relished by the common or uninitiated reader. They require too much of the labour of thought — too much quickness of apprehension and power of combination, on the part of readers (as well as authors), to be likely to please generally. A maxim or a sentiment conveyed in prose, especially if it be such as flatters our self-love, will produce twice the effect on the crowd that pure poetry can ever hope to accomplish. Dr Johnson's favourite lines—

I dare do all that may become a man: Who dares do more, is none—

act like electricity; yet they are neither poetry, nor, strictly speaking, truth. They involve a non sequitur, as Partridge would have termed it; and were probably flung out, by Shakespeare, from his boundless hoards, as a plausible bait for the crowd. Even in him and in Milton, our two most undisputed poets, there are many striking, and even beautiful passages interspersed, which can claim but little distinction from prose, in regard to mere phraseology, except that they are compressed [44] within the limits of heroic verse. Thus, those two bulky lines in "Troilus and Cressida"—

The large Achilles, on his press'd bed lolling, From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause—

although they present a grand, bold picture, and seem actually burthened with the words which they bear, are not, with respect to phrase or expression, essentially poetical. Neither have those sad and beautiful words of Antony—

Eros! — I come, my queen. Eros! stay for me. Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand, And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze: Dido and her Eneas shall want troops, And all the haunt be ours—

a decided claim to be considered as poetry, in point of expression only. Even the exquisite pathos of Lear, at the end of that mighty play, when his frenzy quits him, under the influence of Cordelia's care ("Pray do not mock me," &c.), cannot be called essentially poetical, though they are to us more touching than the grandest poetry. They are simple and unimaginative, and purely pathetic, as the situation of Lear then requires that they should be. His days of indignation and sorrow are over: his spirit is calm and sunk; and the winged words which became madness and the tempest, would have been out of place, when his mind and body were relaxing gradually into the repose of death. In these cases, however, and in similar ones, it must be observed, that the picture presented, or the idea originated, may be poetical, although the mere words may have but little claim' to that title. Thus, in that airy and exquisite account of "Mulciber," in the Paradise Lost, where Music and Poetry run clasped together down a stream of divine verse, there is little of the strictly poetical phrase, except where it is told that he

Dropt from the zenith like a falling star;

but the whole picture is nevertheless beautiful, and conceived in the spirit of poetry. These are a few cases, and there are thousands of others. Generally speaking, however, — in the works of true poets, the phrases are glowing with Imagination or bright with Fancy, as well as the pictures presented; and we should have exceeding doubt as to the claims of a writer, whose characters or pictures only had some tinge of imagination, while his details remained couched in language which could not pretend to any other name than "prose."

There has of late been some discussion, amongst a few of our eminent writers, in regard to "objects which are or are not poetical." We are not about to revive the subject at any length; but may observe, that the art of poetry originates in [45] the faculty of its professors. If it existed in nature, and a writer had simply to transcribe her appearances, any body might become a poet as a matter of course. But the poetical faculty does not, as we apprehend, consist simply in describing what is splendid already, for that maybe done by a prosaic mind; nor in selecting what is beautiful, for that is the employment of taste. Nevertheless, it is true that certain objects, inasmuch as they approach to that standard, to which it is the aim of poets to sublime the tamer and ordinary appearances of the world, and may therefore reasonably be considered as the models existing in the poet's mind — may so far be allowed to be the most "poetical," — or the nearest allied to poetry. Poetry (we do not mean satire), it is to be remarked, deals with the grand, the terrible, the beautiful; but seldom or never with the mean. Its principle is elevation, and not depression or degradation. It is true, that in tragedy and narrative, characters and images of the lowest cast are sometimes admitted; but for the purposes of contrast only, or to "point a moral." Poetry is not constituted of those base elements, nor does the true poet luxuriate in them. They are subject to his dominion, but do not rise to his favour.

The nearer, then, that an object approximates to what is evidently the standard or the result of poetic inspiration, the nearer it may be said to approach to poetry itself. For the principle which animates the creator must exist in the thing created. The grandeur which he aspires to fashion, the beauty which he delights to mould, partake surely in some measure of, or bear some resemblance to, the grandeur and beauty which exist independent of his creation. Under this view, — the stream, the valley, the time-wasted ruin and the mossy cell-the breathing Venus, and the marble Gods of Greece and Rome — the riotous waves and the golden sky — the stars, the storm, and the mad winds — ocean, and the mountain which kisses heaven — Love and Beauty, Despair, Ambition and Revenge — all objects or passions which lift our thoughts from the dust, and stir men into madness — almost every thing which has in it a strong principle of impulse, or elevation, has a claim to be considered poetical. It is the meaner things of life, its tameness and mediocrity, its selfishness and envy, and repining, which, though subdued occasionally to the use of poetry — are too base for an alliance with it; and which creep on from age to age, recorded indeed and made notorious; but branded with immortality for the sake of example only, and trampled under the feet of the Muse.

The object of poetry is not to diminish and make mean but [46] to magnify and aggrandize — "to accommodate the shows of things to the desires of the mind;" which, in its healthy state, all tend upwards. It does not seek to dwarf the great statures of nature, nor to reduce the spirit to the contemplation of humble objects. Its standards are above mortality, and not below it. Surely then, if this be almost invariably the tendency of the poetic mind, those objects (be they in art or nature) which approach nearest to the ideas of the poet, must be fairly considered as being in themselves nearest to poetry. Whether art or nature is to be preferred to the highest station, is another question. For our own parts, we are inclined to prefer art to science, and nature to art. A brilliant light may be thrown upon a pack of cards, and the fancy may play and flutter over a game of ombre; but this proves nothing but the skill of the poet in this particular instance. Is it to be supposed, that if he had beheld the dissolution of a world, or seen Uriel gliding on a sunbeam, arrayed in his celestial armour and majestic beauty, he could have done no more? We think otherwise. Occasionally it may have appeared, that the poorest things have been exalted and made level with the loftiest, by a republican spirit of poetry; but we shall find, on close investigation, that most of these instances (if not all) are unavailable; that the things spoken of have reference to matters of higher moment; and that it is from these that they derive their importance. It is not, for instance, the "taper" only which throws a poetic lustre, but it is the flame which shines at "midnight," and burns in solitude and silence. It is not "night's candle" only, but it is when the candle is connected with the time — when jocund Day Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops, that it rises into poetry.

With respect to the end or intention of poetry — its different kinds — and its origin, — a very few words must suffice at present, our business being more particularly with the art, as understood and practised by the loftiest English writers. It has often been asserted, that the object of poetry is — to please; and assuredly this is one, though by no means the sole object of the art. It is said that, although in moral poetry improvement be blended with amusement, the latter is nevertheless the object. We submit that this position is not clear. In the case of didactic poetry ("The Essay on Man" — the "Art of Preserving Health," &c.), the aim is instruction; and verse is but the medium or the attraction which the poet employs. In satire, the object is not to please a friend, but to sting an enemy; and we presume that the prophecies of the Bible must be admitted to have had an object beyond pleasure. The war-songs of the ancients were [47] to stimulate the soldier; and their laments were to soothe regret. Poetry contains in it a strong stimulant; and although a feeling of pleasure may blend with other emotions, it does not follow that the attempts of poetry are not directed to objects different from those of merely "pleasing." As to the different kinds of poetry, there are so many upon each of which a treatise might be written, that we prefer referring the reader to essays on the subject, rather than delay him at present by a brief exposition of that which he would probably wish to see treated in more particular detail. For our own parts, we are not inclined to lay extraordinary stress upon the mere structure and mechanism of poetry. It is not very material, we think, that a poem should be built up according to rules, many of which originated in the caprice of former poets; nor whether it be called an epic or a romance, an epistle or a dirge, an epitaph, an ode, an elegy, a sonnet, or otherwise. If it be full of the material of poetry, and contain something of fitness also, it will go far to satisfy our critical consciences.

We will now request the reader's company, for a short time, while we run hastily along the pages of our poetical history, and glance occasionally at the illustrious names which adorn it.

English poetry must be considered as having had its origin in the chronicles and romances of the Norman trouveurs, they having prepared the way for the more elaborate narratives which succeeded the crusades. It is not material, perhaps, to inquire into the existence of rhyme or fiction among our ancestors before the Norman invasion. Our oldest subsisting debt is due, we think, to the Normans; although even their strains were, for a long time after their emigration here, coloured by the influence of French poetry, and their measures borrowed from the French writers, who from time to time preceded them in fashioning their memorials of love and conquest. Poetry and victory seem to have accompanied each other to our shores, and to have floated upon the same wing. Taillifer, a minstrel (on the invasion of William), is said to have advanced before the soldiers, animating them with "songs of Charlemain and Roland," and then to have rushed amongst the opposing ranks, and perished! A single incident like this is almost enough to stir Poetry from her trance: — for poetry is never dead, but sleepeth, — waiting only the touch of some Ithuriel spear which can waken passion into words, and untie the wings of thought to quit the dust and darkness of human life, and raise herself like Speculation to the stars.

In regard to the Romances and Chronicles to which we have alluded, they appear to have been a mixed brood, springing partly from tradition, and partly from legends which then stood [48] in the place of history. That history, it must be admitted, may have arisen, in its turn, from songs and stories; for, in truth, none of our earlier historical writings, however founded on fact, can be considered as entirely independent of fable. In a word, it is scarcely possible to trace poetry very correctly upwards to its springs. Its fountains are both on Helicon and Pindus, and the waters of Boeotia are as bright and as pregnant with inspirations as the more celebrated streams of Thessaly.

It is not our purpose here to trace the minuter steps of the Muse. She appears, indeed, to have hovered for ages over our hills and forests, before she alighted, and became a denizen of the soil. We shall therefore pass by, for the present, the crowds of ballads (some of which, however, possess great merit), and also the works of Wace, who translated Geoffrey of Monmouth, — and Layamon, who translated Wace into the language of the period, — Robert of Gloucester and his histories of Merlin and Arthur, — Lawrence Minot and his battle songs, — Langlande and his Visions, — and even by the gentle Gower ("ancient Gower"), and come at once upon the patriarch Chaucer.

There is nothing (setting aside the Ballads which are of doubtful date) which can truly be called poetry before the days of CHAUCER. There were indeed verses, in which we now scarcely recognise either the measure or the rhyme; but they were destitute of imagination, and almost barren of fancy. Chaucer's predecessors were the mere pioneers of literature. They cleared the ways, perhaps, a little, by inventing a rude metre, or adopting, from foreign romances, a measure which became not the English tongue; but, after all, they possessed little more than a mechanical power. They cut a road, level and rugged, through the thorny queaches of the English language, but they never left the ground. They could not rise above the obstacles of the age, nor pierce through the mists that lay around them. Chaucer followed, and raised poetry from the dust. He has been likened to "the spring," and has been called the "morning star" of English poetry. He was so; or rather, he was a sun whom no star preceded, — who rose above our literary horizon, dissipating the wandering lights and sullen vapours which hung about it; and who, by a power independent of accident or the time, threw out a dazzling splendour, which showed at once his own lustre, and the wastes by which he was surrounded. He rose upon us like the morning, fresh and beautiful, and kept on his shining way, strong, untired, and rejoicing!

After Chaucer there is scarcely a name worth mentioning until the days of Surrey and Sackville. There were indeed [49] Lydgate, who was traveller, teacher, and Benedictine monk, but little of a poet, — James the First of Scotland, who gave large tokens of promise, — Skelton, who is more remarkable for having written against Wolsey in the plenitude of his power than for his rhymes, — Occleve, a dull writer, though reputed the scholar of Chaucer, — Gawin Douglass, a spirited translator; — and Sir Thomas Wyatt, a clever, and somewhat elegant writer, but who was rather the cotemporary than the precursor of Surrey, as were indeed Lord Rochford and Lord Vaux.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, bears deservedly a high character in story, as an accomplished courtier, a romantic soldier, a tender lover, and a good poet. He signalized himself at Florence and at Floddenfield, and sung the praises of his "Ladye Geraldine" in verses which it even now gives us a pleasure to recur to. He was the first writer of blank verse — of narrative blank verse — we believe, in our language. The following is translated by him from the Eneid, and, making certain allowances, is extremely like the manner of Milton. Dido, Clad in a cloke of Tyre, embroider'd rich, is seen to issue from her "chamber dore:"— The Trojans of her train Before her go, with gladsome Iulus; Eneas eke, the goodliest of the route, Makes one of them, and joineth close the thong. Like when Apollo leaveth Lycia, His wintring place, and Xanthus' flood beside, To visit Delos, his mother's mansion, The Candians and the folke of Driope, With painted Agathmyrsies, shout and crie, Environing the altars round about: So fresh and lustie did Eneas seme, &c. His account of Dido deserted, also, is worth extracting. Alone she mourns within her palace void, And sits her down on her forsaken bed; And absent him she hears when he is gone— and also that of Mercury, alighting upon the head of Atlas, "foregrown with pine."— Here Mercury with equal shining wings First touch-ed; and, with body headlong bent, To the water then took he his descent. Like to the fowl that, endlong coasts and stronds Swarming with fish, flies, sweeping by the sea; Cutting betwixt the winds and Lybian lands, Cyllene's child so came, and then alight Upon the houses with his winged feet.

Thomas Sackville Lord Buckhurst, was the author of' "Ferrex [50] Porrex," (our first regular tragic play), and also of the "Legend of the Duke of Buckingham," incomparably the best part of the "Mirrour for Magistrates." The "Legend" was known of course to Spenser, and appears to have been, to a certain degree, the model after which he fashioned his "Masque of Love." As this poem has been much quoted of late, we will not trouble the reader with any extracts from it. It is, however, a production of great value. After Lord Buckhurst follow Churchyard and Edwards, a large contributor to the "Paradise of Dainty Devices." The poem on "May," by this author, has been praised by Ritson; but it is a mere play upon words, and not a very ingenious one. His stanzas entitled (42) "Amantium irae amoris redintegratio est," eulogized by Warton, are much better. The last four lines of the first stanza, indeed, describing a mother and her child, are tender and graceful.

She was full weary of her watch, and grieved with her child, She rock-ed it, and rat-ed it, until on her it smiled Then did she say, Now have I found the proverb true to prove, That falling out of faithful friends is the renuyng (renewing) of love.

Next in order is George Gascoigne, "one of the smaller poets of Queen Elizabeth's days," but who, however, is by no means without merit. His "Steel Glass" is one of the earliest specimens of blank verse, and about the first regular satire of which we can boast, if we are to boast of our satires at all. Of this one, in particular, we cannot say much that is favourable. We prefer his little poem to "Philip," his sparrow, which, though far below the delightful lines of Catullus, is pretty smoothly enough versified. Gascoigne divided his poems into "Weeds," "Flowers," and "Herbs," &c. according to the fashion of the day; and under those titles may be found occasionally, pleasant specimens of versification.

Christopher Marlowe is more celebrated as a dramatic writer than as a mere poet, although his song of "Come live with me and be my Love" is well known. Beside these things, he translated Coluthus's "Rape of Helen," and also part of Musaeus's "Hero and Leander." The commencement of this last poem is very beautiful

On Hellespont, guilty of true love's blood, in view and opposite, two cities stood, Sea-borderers, disjoined by Neptune's might: The one Abydos, the other Sestos bight. At Sestos HERO dwelt, — Hero the fair, Whom young Apollo courted for her hair, [51] And offered as a dower his burning throne! ———*———*———*———*——— Some say, for her the fairest Cupid pined, And looking in her face was stricken blind. So lovely fair was Hero, Venus' nun! Again, after speaking of the people who flocked to Sestos every year, to be present at the festival of Adonis, the poet says— But far above the loveliest Hero shined, And stole away the enchanted gazer's mind: For, like sea-nymphs' inveigling harmony, So was her beauty to the passers by. Not that night-wandering, pale, and watery star, When yawning dragons draw her whirling car, From Latrnos' mount up to the gloomy sky, Where, crowned with blazing light and majesty She proudly sits, more over-rules the flood, Than she the hearts of those who near her stood.— E'en as when gaudy nymphs pursue the chase, Wretched Ixion's shaggy-footed race, Incensed with savage heat, gallop amain From steep pine-bearing mountains to the plain— So ran the people forth to gaze upon her, &c. In the temple, among the multitude, is her future lover. Hero who has been sacrificing at the altar, opens her eyes modestly as she rises— Thence flew Love's arrow with the golden head, And thus Leander was enamoured. The catastrophe of this story is known to every one.

We now come to the all-famous Sir Philip Sydney. Not unlike Lord Surrey in his renown, he was yet more of a hero than his illustrious precursor. Lord Surrey was an accomplished and illustrious patrician, the first of his age; but Sidney was a refinement upon nobility. He was like the abstract and essence of romantic fiction, having the courage (but not the barbarity) of the "preux chevalier" of ancient time — their unwearied patience — their tender and stainless attachment. He was a hero of chivalry, without the grossness and frailty of the flesh. He lived beloved and admired, and died universally and deservedly lamented. He is the last of those who have passed into a marvel; for he is now remembered almost as the ideal personification of a true knight, and is translated to the skies, like the belt of the hunter Orion, or Berenice's starry hair!

Sir Philip Sidney's poetry was not without the faults of his time. It is full of conceits and strained similes, and the versification is occasionally cramped Nevertheless, many of his Sonnets contain beautiful images and deep sentiment (such as [52] the 31. 82. 84. and others), though a little impoverished by this alloy.

But Sir Philip Sidney's fame was won upon crimson fields, as well as upon poetic mountains. He wooed Bellona as well as the Muses; and his last great act on the plain of battle at Zutphen, is of itself enough to justify the high admiration of his countrymen. It was one of those deeds by which men should be remembered, when the mere animal valour of soldiers, and the accidents of conquest, shall perish in the obscurity of the times to come.

We will not stop now to notice any other writers of this period, but must content ourselves with enumerating Churchyard (whose verses have been reprinted), and Tuberville (best known as a translator of Ovid), — Paynter (the author of "The Palace of Pleasure") — Whetstone and Peele — who are the most remarkable amongst them. Then comes the great name of Edmund Spenser!

SPENSER was steeped in Romance. He was the prince of magicians, and held the keys which unlocked enchanted doors. All the fantastic illusions of the brain belong to him, — the dreamer's secrets, the madman's visions, the poet's golden hopes. He threw a rainbow across the heaven of poetry, at a time when all seemed dark and unpromising. He was the very genius of personification: and yet his imagination was less exerted than his fancy. His spirit was idle, dreaming, and voluptuous. He seems as though he had slumbered through summer evenings, in caves or forests, by Mulla's stream, or the murmuring ocean. Giants and dwarfs, fairies, and knights, and queens, rose up at the waving of his "charming-rod." There was no meagreness in his fancy, no poverty in his details. His invention was without limit. He drew up shape after shape, scene after scene, castle and lake, woods and caverns, monstrous anomalies and beautiful impossibilities, from the unfathomable depths of his mind. There is a prodigality and a consciousness of wealth about his creations, which reminds one of the dash and sweep of Rubens's pencil; but in other respects, his genius differed materially from that of the celebrated Fleming. In colouring they are somewhat alike, and in the "Masque of Cupid," some of the figures even claim an affinity to the artist's shapes. But, generally speaking, Spenser was more etherial and refined. Rubens was a decided painter of flesh and blood. He belonged to earth, and should never have aspired to heaven. His men were, indeed, sometimes chivalrous and intellectual, (his beasts were grand and matchless!); but his women were essentially of clay, and of a very homely fashion. Spen[53]ser sketched with more precision, and infinitely more delicacy. He had not the flush and fever of colouring which lighted up the productions of the other; but his genius was more spiritualized: his fancy traversed a loftier eminence, and loved to wander in remoter haunts. The brain of the one was like an ocean, casting up at a single effort the most common and extraordinary shapes; while the poet had a wilderness of fancy, from whose silent glades and haunted depths stole forth the airiest fictions of romance. The nymphs of Spenser are decidedly different from those of the painter; and his Sylvans have neither the hideous looks of Poussin's carnal satyrs, nor that vinous spirit which flushes and gives life to the reeling Bacchanalians of Rubens.

The adventurous spirit of Sir Walter Raleigh did not extend to his poetry, which, though graceful, is cramped, and somewhat disfigured by the fashions of his age. It is, however, pleasant to think, that a man who had crossed the Atlantic after "barbaric pearl and gold," and had heard the brazen throat of war, should return to the pastures of his own country, and compose the song of "The Shepherd to the Flowers," Sweet violets (Love's paradise), that spread Your gracious odours, which you couched bear Within your palie faces; Upon the gentle wing of some calm-breathing wind That plays amidst the plain, If by the favour of propitious stars you gain Such grace as in my ladie's bosom place to find: Be proud to touch those places; And when her warmth your moisture forth doth wear, Whereby her dainty parts are sweetly fed— You honours of the flowery meads I pray, You pretty daughters of the earth and sun, With mild and seemly breathing strait display My bitter sighs that have my heart undone.

Joshua Silvester the once celebrated translator of Du Bartas, whose popularity more than rivalled the fame of Shakespeare and Spenser, is now almost utterly unknown. It would be difficult to account for such taste, did not the absurdities of fashion render every thing conceivable, The "Divine Weeks" is dull enough on the whole; yet there are parts which might be quoted, sufficient to justify the author's claim to great talent and lively fancy: and some of his minor poems, although full of conceits, are very musical. In his "Posthumi," the one beginning, "They say that shadows of deceased ghosts," — and that commencing, "Thrice toss these oaken ashes in the air," [54] give proofs of a good ear, to say no more. Cotemporary with Silvester were the famous dramatists, Webster, Dekker, Ben Jonson (who has left some delightful flowers amongst his "underwoods"), Maister Middleton, and the rest; and also Fairfax (the translator of Tasso), Fitzgeffrey, Warner (a voluminous writer), Constable (the sonneteer), Sir John Davis, Drayton, and the contributors to "England's Helicon," — Green, Breton, Bar Yong, and others. Several of the little poems in this publication require nothing but modern spelling to suit a reader of the present age.

About this time also lived SHAKESPEARE, the greatest of poets, and of men! — Leaving him, as a dramatist, to his uncontested supremacy, we may venture to assert, that, merely as a writer of lyrical poetry and sonnets, there are few who can stand in competition with him. His sonnets have more concentrated thought than any other productions of the same length in our language, and his songs are to this day unrivalled. As his poems have been lately brought before the public in a very pleasant and useful publication ("The Retrospective Review"), which seems doing to past ages that justice which we are aiming to do towards the present, we shall refrain from any quotations here. We shall leave this mighty spirit, therefore, upright in his renown, and triumphant over commentary and criticism, like that attractive rock which was fatal to the steps of every ignorant adventurer, and the object of admiration to all the world beside.

Between Shakespeare and Milton lived a great number of good writers of verse. Some, indeed, have high claims upon our respect. First, there were Beaumont and Fletcher, who deserve even all their fame, and seem to have run their bright course on earth touching and beautifying all things — sometimes warlike, sometimes jocose, sometimes grand and awful, and sometimes as soothing as evening winds, and as tender as Pity herself. What can excel the song sung to the restless dying emperor, in the tragedy of "Valentinian?"— Care-charming Sleep, thou easer of all woes, Brother to Death, sweetly thyself dispose On this afflicted prince. Fall like a cloud In gentle showers: give nothing that is loud Or painful to his slumbers; easy, sweet, And as a purling stream, thou son of Night Pass by his troubled senses: Sing his pain In hollow murmuring wind, or silver rain. Into this prince gently, oh! gently slide And kiss him into slumbers like a bride!

[55] Then come — Old Chapman, the translator of Homer — Bishop Corbet — Carew, a courtier-like poet — Sir John Suckling, the wit — Quarles, the puritan — Brown, the pastoral writer — Drummond of Hawthornden, a writer of excellent sonnets — Crashaw, the translator of Marino — Lovelace, the cavalier, and lover of Althea — Herrick, a writer of great merit — the "melancholy Cowley," as he called himself — and Sir Richard Fanshawe, who translated Camoens and the Pastor Fido of Guarini. This last-mentioned work is an unequal performance; but parts of it are full of vigour — as, for instance, the Prologue (it speaks of The woods where the old russet Honestie Did live and die)— The lyrical chorus at the end of the fourth act, commencing— Fair Golden Age! when milk was th' only food, And cradle of the infant world, the wood Rocked by the winds; and th' untoucht flocks did bear Their dear young for themselves! None yet did fear The sword or poison: no black thoughts begun To eclipse the light of the eternal Sun; Nor wandering pines unto a foreign shore Or war, or riches, (a worse mischief) bore!— and the opening of the fifth act, where "Carino" says, that "the loadstone," which bears the "wary mariner"— Now to the rising sun, now to his set, Doth never lose that hidden virtue yet, Which makes it to the North retort its look! and other parts which we cannot afford space to give.

We had almost forgotten to mention Donne, a quaint writer, somewhat earlier than Fanshawe, as also Wither, an interminable rhymer (he wrote, however, a glorious apostrophe to Poetry), and Sir John Denham, his cotemporaries. And these bring us to the greatest epic poet of our country.

In regard to MILTON, we scarcely know whether to prefer his sublimity or beauty. His power over both was perfect. We prostrate ourselves before him, alternately in fear and love; while he lets loose the statures of Hell upon us, or unbars the blazing doors of Heaven, or carries us "winding through the marble air," past Libra and the Pole, or laps us in a dream of Paradise, and unfolds the florid richness of his Arcadian landscapes. Milton has told a story of burning ambition. He has sung the Paean of victory over the foes of Heaven, — that "horrid crew," who, banished from the sky, and hurled headlong down to Hell,

Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf, Confounded, though immortal: [56] But he has not dwarfed the contest of the angels, by striking prone their enemies, and arming with stings and reptile tails the legions who scared Chaos and the Deep, and waged even "dubious battle" with the Creator and his myriads in arms.

The Satan of Milton is the most magnificent creation in poetry. He is a personification of all that is gloomy or grand in nature, with more than the daring of man. He has the strength of a giant, the fashion of an angel, — "unconquerable will, immortal hate" — revenge that nothing can soothe, endurance which never shrinks, the intellect of heaven and the pride of earth, ambition immeasurably high, and a courage which quails not, even before God! Satan is essentially ideal. He is not like Macbeth or Lear, real in himself, literally true, and only lifted into poetry by circumstance: But he is altogether moulded in a dream of the imagination. Heaven and earth and hell are explored for gifts to make him eminent and peerless. He is compounded of all; and at last stands up before us, with the starry grandeur of darkness upon his forehead, but having the passions of clay within his heart, and his home and foundation in the depths below. It is this gleaning, as it were, from every element, and compounding them all in one grand design, which constitutes the poetry of the character. Perhaps Ariel and Caliban are as purely ideal as the hero of Milton, and approach as nearly to him as any other fiction that occurs to us; but the latter is incontestably a grander formation, and a mightier agent, and moves through the perplexities of his career with a power that defies competition. Milton's way is like the "terribil via" of Michael-Angelo, which no one before or since has been able to tread.

Comparisons have been instituted between our great poet and Dante; and there are certainly occasional resemblances in the speeches and similes; for instance— As cranes Chaunting their dolorous notes, traverse the sky Stretched out in long array, so I beheld Spirits who came loud wailing, hurried on, &c. — (Inf. c. v.) And again— And now there came o'er the perturbed waves Loud-crashing, terrible, a sound that made Either shore tremble, as if of a wind Impetuous, from conflicting vapours sprung, That 'gainst some forest driving all its might Plucks off the branches, &c. — (Inf. c. 9.) But Dante reminds us oftener of Virgil than Milton, and as [57] often of Spenser, we think, in the treatment of his subject. We recollect the latter, particularly when we read Dante's personifications of Pleasure, of Ambition and Avarice (in the first canto of the Inferno), and the punishment of Fucci for blasphemy (in the twenty-fifth canto), and other things similarly treated. Dante's genius seems to consist in a clear and striking detail of particulars, giving them the air of absolute fact. His strength was made up of units. Milton's, on the other hand, was massy and congregated. His original idea (of Satan) goes sweeping along, and colouring the subject from beginning to end. Dante shifts from place to place, from person to person, subduing his genius to the literal truths of history, which Milton overruled and made subservient. However excellent the Florentine may be (and he is excellent), he had not the grasp nor the soaring power of the English poet. The images of Dante pass by like the phantasmas on a wall, clear, indeed, and picturesque; but although true, in a great measure, to fact, they are wanting in reality. They have complexion and shape, but not flesh or blood. Milton's earthly creatures have the flush of living beauty upon them, and show the changes of human infirmity. They inhale the odours of the garden of Paradise, and wander at will over lawns and flowers: they listen to God; they talk to angels; they love, and are tempted, and fall! And with all this there is a living principle about them, and (although Milton's faculty was by no means generally dramatic) they are brought before the reader, and made — not the shadows of what once existed — but present probable truths. His fiercer creations possess the grandeur of dreams, but they have vitality within them also, and in character and substance are as solid as the rock.

The genius of Milton was as daring as it was great. He did not seek for a theme amidst ordinary passions, with which men must sympathize, or in literal facts, which the many might comprehend. On the contrary, he plunged at once through the deep, and ventured to the gates of Heaven for creatures wherewith to people his story. Even when he descended upon earth, it was not to select from the common materials of humanity: But he dropped at once upon Paradise, and awoke Adam from the dust, and painted the primitive purity of woman, and the erect stature and yet unclouded aspect of man. Nothing can be more beautiful than his pictures of our "first parents," breathing the fragrant airs of Eden, communing with superior natures, dreaming in the golden sun, feeding upon nectareous fruits, and lying "imparadised " in one another's arms, on pillows of violet and asphodel! What can surpass the figure of Adam— [58]His fair large front, and eye sublime, declared Absolute rule, except It be that of Eve, who— —as a veil, down to the slender waist Her unadorned golden tresses wore,

the meekest, the purest, the loveliest of her sex. — Thus has Milton, without any of the ordinary aids, fashioned a poem, which, both for sublimity and beauty, is quite unparalleled in the history of fiction. Homer was more various, more dramatic, more uniformly active, more true to the literal fact, perhaps, than he, and Virgil more correct, while Spenser dwelt as completely upon poetic ground; but there is a grandeur of conception in Milton, a breadth of character, and a towering spirit, which stood over his subject and pervaded it from beginning to end, that we shall scarcely admit to exist in any other poet. He was, in our minds, the greatest epic poet of the world. At any rate, there is no one but Homer who can stand in competition with him. Shakespeare alone excelled them both; but he went beyond all men, and stands in the array of human intellect, like the Sun in the system, single and unapproachable.

The restoration of Charles the Second was fatal to poetry. That prince brought with him a long train of wits; and large bands of exiled courtiers flocked round him, who knew the points of a ruff, and were connoisseurs in silk stockings and Flanders lace, — but of English literature they were utterly ignorant. Adversity had taught them nothing, except hatred for their countrymen at home, and contempt for their taste, in all things. French fashions, French literature, French morals prevailed; and the wholesome examples of conjugal love and social integrity were fast melting away and disappearing before the dazzling influence of a vicious court. The time of the English exiles had been employed in patching their broken fortunes, and rendering themselves agreeable to their French patrons. Had they been reduced simply to banishment, and left to ponder on the past, it is possible that they might have taken a lesson from misfortune, which would have strengthened the relaxed state of their moral constitution, and awaked them to the high gratification derivable from the works of intellect alone. But they had no example and little motive. Their King was utterly without any character, and the French did not require any sterling accomplishments to admit them to the full benefits of their society. They were, however, compelled to turn their wit to present account; and so they contented themselves with paying court to their hosts, with emulating their gallantry, with play, and other such ordinary palliatives as offer themselves most [59] readily to the unhappy. If our exiles ever thought seriously, it was how they might circumvent Old Noll and his Roundheads, not how they might endure philosophically, or qualify themselves for prosperity again. Under all circumstances, it was scarcely possible to avoid adopting the tone and manners of the people with whom they lived. They did adopt them; and the literature of the age of Charles the Second may be considered as one consequence of the exile of the Stuarts.

In a great change of this sort, however, the new current of fashion did not at first entirely destroy, although it completely discoloured, the complexion of the old literature. Some writers, as might have been expected, partook at once of the fresh draughts of wit and humour brought over by Charles and his followers, without utterly forsaking their previous taste, or abandoning to dust and contempt the wisdom of their English ancestors. In this class we may perhaps be allowed to reckon old Isaac Walton, the patriot Marvel, Cotton, and Stanley; although even these writers must, if there be a question raised, be reckoned amongst the later school of poets. "Walton's Angler," to which Cotton added the discourse on fly-fishing, is well known; but the poems of the latter writer are not so common. One of the most pleasant, is that addressed "To my dear and most worthy friend, Mr. Isaac Walton," in which, after telling him how blustring and inclement the country was, he goes on—

Whilst all the ills are so improved Of this dead quarter of the year, That even you so much beloved We would not now wish with us here: In this estate, I say it is Some comfort to us to suppose, That, in a better clime than this, You our dear friend have more repose; And some delight to me the while, Though Nature now does weep in rain, To think that I have seen her smile, And haply may I do again. If the all-ruling Power please We live to see another May, We'll recompense an age of these Foul days, in one fine fishing day! We then shall have a day or two, Perhaps a week, wherein to try, What the best master's hand can do With the most deadly killing flie; [60] A day without too bright a beam, A warm, but not a scorching sun, A southern gale to curl the stream, And, Master, half our work is done! pp. 114, 115.

This, if not very high poetry, is very agreeable writing. Marvel's poems are full of wit or sentiment, as the vein may be which we hit upon. Sometimes indeed, his little plots of Parnassus are laid out rather too much in the style of old English gardening, square and formal, but they never fail in possessing something good. The heart of the poet was in every thing he did, and there was not a purer or a firmer one in the world! Waller is the first writer who made prose sound agreeably in rhyme. He was in truth an indifferent poet, — possessing little genius as an author, or principle as a man, and obtained a name chiefly by reducing verse to "the level of the meanest capacity." But, in fact, the first name of that period which is really great, is that of Dryden.

DRYDEN was at the head of his line. As a bitter, biting satirist, as a writer of sensible, masculine, sounding verse, there is no one who goes beyond him. But as a poet, he was of a different order from those who illuminated the reigns of Elizabeth and James; and he occupied, in our opinions, a decidedly lower step. He was a writer of shrewd sarcasm and of excellent good sense, but he was deficient in imagination, in pathos, and in nature. He was more artificial, generally speaking, than his predecessors — and he ought to have been more natural, — for he resorted far more to common phraseology and existing people. Nevertheless, it is not too much to say that he failed signally in tragedy, and that he did not excel in narrative or in tender serious poetry many of inferior reputation who have preceded and followed him. But in the war of verse he was in his element. He fought well and effectively; he gave blow back for blow, and knew the weak side of his foes, and launched his sounding anathemas against their characters and persons. His "Absalom 'and Achitophel," and "Mac-Flecnoe" are each capital, are each excellent satires, though the palm must assuredly be awarded to the former poem. "The Hind and the Panther" also is a fine thing in its way; but it differs little in point of style from such of his productions as were merely satirical. His description of the Hind, at the commencement, is delightful, (the "many-winged wounds aimed at her heart," is even poetical,) and the account of the Panther—

The Panther, sure the noblst next the Hind And fairest creature of the spotted kind; [61] Oh! could her in-born stains be washed away, She were too good to he a beast of prey! How can I praise, or blame, and not offend, Or how divide the frailty from the friend; Her faults and virtues lie so mixed, that she Nor wholly stands condemned, nor wholly free is terse and good, and seems to have been the parent of five hundred portraits of a similar kind. Cotemporary with Dryden was Lee, a powerful irregular writer, whose stormy verses shook the stage from its propriety, and Shadwell, the "Young Ascanius" of Mac-Flecnoe, who swore That he to death true Dullness would maintain; And in his father's right and realm's defence, Ne'er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense. Then came Sedley and Dorset, and John Phillips, (the author of "the Splendid Shilling") and Rowe, and Parnell, (who wrote the "Hermit") — and witty Dr. Garth, and Addison, so great in prose and so little in poetry, — and lively laughing Mat. Prior, to whom the world was a joke — then followed Vanbrugh and Congreve, the brilliant twins of Comedy, and Gay, (who reduced folly to a fable, and wrote "Black-eyed Susan," and the "Beggars Opera,") and lastly, the better known and more justly celebrated Alexander Pope.

POPE was a fit successor for the chair of Dryden. He had the same good sense, the same stinging sarcasm; the same hatred of what is base or mean, with something more of refinement, and a clearer moral view than can perhaps be ascribed to his predecessor. Each, however, belonged to his age, and illustrated it finely. Dryden would have been out of place at the court of Queen Anne, and Pope could not easily have reconciled himself to the coarse gallants and lascivious wits of the Restoration. The one had a strong arm and a fearless spirit, and struck down whole squadrons of rogues and politicians, with all the indignation of a moralist, and the rancour of a partisan. The other shot his sharp arrows at the heart of the proud man and the knave, the timeserver, and the hypocrite, (whether hidden in an alias or covered with lawn) — he spared neither rank, nor sex, nor age, so it were impudent and profligate — but wisely thought, that if a reformation in morals was to be effected, it must be effected by example, — not of the poor, but of the high born and opulent. This led him amongst the aristocracy of his time; and he whipped the gilded follies and humble sins of the wealthy, with as much good will and more honesty shall the magistrates of our time exercise their summary |62] justice upon the petty offenders who sell cabbages and beef upon the Sabbath. Pope, in a word, was a first-rate writer of the same genius as Dryden, and upon the whole his equal. His poems contain passages of great pathos, of piercing satire, and of admirably turned compliment; and his "Rape of the Lock" has never yet been equalled.

Next to Pope we may record Swift , a stern, shrewd, sarcastic writer of verse, and a "fellow of infinite humour." There were two sides, however, to the Dean's character, one of which we do not desire at present to contemplate: but the other was rich and bright as the genius of wit could make it. After him we find the name of Thomson, who looked on Nature with an observant but easy eye, and transcribed her varying wonders to man. His "Seasons," contain finer or at least more popular things than any of his other poems, (although he but too frequently amplifies a simple fact, till you scarcely know what he is about,) but there is a much more equal power, and far more pure poetry in his delightful "Castle of Indolence." — It was here that he built up those shadowy battlements, and planted those "sleep-soothing" groves, under which lay

Idlesse, in her dreaming mood. It was here that he wove in his poetic loom those pictures of pastoral quiet — of flowery lawns and glittering streams-of flocks and tranquil skies, and verdant plains, And vacant shepherds piping in the dale— the stock-dove, and the nightingale, and the rest of that tuneful quire which lull our minds into forgetfulness, and sing to us on summer mornings and winter nights, in town and in country equally well, until we forget the prose of human life in its romance, and bathe our fevered senses in the fresh flowers of poetry which the bounty of Thomson has bequeathed to us! There is nothing in the history of verse, from the restoration of Charles the Second to the present time, (not even in Collins, we think, and certainly not in Gray,) which can compete with the first part of the "Castle of Indolence." His account of the land of "Drowsy head," and "Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye," of the disappearance of the sons of Indolence, with the exquisite simile with which it closes — the huge covered tables, all odorous with spice and wine — the tapestried halls and their Italian pictures — the melancholy music — and, altogether, the golden magnificence and oriental luxuries of the place, and the ministering of the spirits who

Poured all the Arabian heaven upon our nights, (an exquisite line) — may stand in comparison with almost any thing in the circle of poetry.

We must not forget, in our list, Doctor Young, whose "Night Thoughts" have acquired at least as much reputation as they deserve — nor the unfortunate, and not very deserving Richard Savage, nor Cibber, the prince of coxcombs — nor Churchill, a coarse and immoral satirist — nor Shenstone, fine and finical — though with touches of tenderness and beauty — especially in his sweet Spenserian stanzas of "The Schoolmistress." After him came Mark Akenside — Armstrong — excellent Goldsmith — and Gray — and his satellite Mason. Of these, and indeed of most of the other modern writers of verse, so much has been said in various places, (in fact, we ourselves have had occasion frequently to glance at them), that we shall not now trouble the reader with any further discussion on the subject. In the same manner also must we now pass over the few remaining names on the poetic roll, with the exception of Warton, Cowper, and Burns; in truth, there are no other which can claim our particular attention. The two latter are great names; and we think deserving of all the fame they inherit. The effect of Cowper's writings is even now observable in our poetry; and Burns is beyond all doubt the greatest untaught poet since the time of Shakespeare.

In regard to the character of the poetry of the present day, its growth and comparative excellence, we must leave them (together with our opinion of their living authors), to form the subject of a future article — in which there will be room enough for originality, if we can only bring our illustrious contemporaries into one class, as distinguished from their predecessors; and endeavour to show how much they have each been acted upon by the prevailing spirit of the age.

In regard to the volumes, of which we have prefixed the titles to this article — they are so many indications of the taste and intellect which are widely diffusing themselves amongst all classes of this kingdom. We will not stay to inquire very narrowly into the merit of these little publications; but will content ourselves with observing, that the one entitled "Specimens of the Earlier English Poets," is the most valuable, as far as it goes, inasmuch as it offers to the public some considerable poems of a high order, at a much cheaper rate than is usual. It contains the whole of the translated poem of "Hero and Leander," by Marlowe and Chapman, the whole of Sir Walter Raleigh's, and the best of Crashaw's poems, (to say nothing of some considerable extracts from Chapman's Homer) at less than one fourth of the ordinary price. We are induced to state this, because it is a matter which is but too often lost sight of in reprinting our old English authors. So far as the publisher has done this [64] it is well; but we cannot refrain from stating, that the volume is defective in arrangement, and seems to have been put together without much consideration. Besides these volumes, we understand that a publication is now in progress, in which it is intended to concentrate the spirit of English poetry; and to offer it in such a form as may render it accessible to every one. A work of this sort is much wanted; for our larger collections of the poets are far too expensive, and include a vast deal of trash, as well as the names of a multitude of writers who never had the slightest pretension to the laurel.





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The Edinburgh Review   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 1. Toronto 1966.





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer