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fails him he is sustained by the vigor of his understanding and the largeness of his knowledge. He gave an example of versification in the heroic couplet, which has commanded the admiration of succeeding poets down to our time, — a versification manly, majestic, and of varied modulation, of which Pope took only a certain part as the model of his own, and, contracting its range and reducing it to more regular pauses, made it at first appear more musical to the reader, but in the end fatigued him by its monotony. Dryden drew scarcely a single image from his own observation of external nature, and Pope, though less insensible than he to natural beauty, was still merely the poet of the drawing-room. Yet he is the author of more happy lines, which have passed into the common speech and are quoted as proverbial sayings, than any author we have save Shakespeare; and, whatever may be said in his dispraise, he is likely to be quoted as long as the English is a living language. The footprints of Pope are not those of a giant, but he has left them scattered all over the field of our literature, although the fashion of writing like him has wholly passed away.
Certain faculties of the poetic mind seem to have slumbered from the time of Milton to that of Thomson, who showed the literary world of Great Britain, to its astonishment, what a profusion of materials for poetry Nature offers to him who directly consults her instead of taking his images at second-hand. Thomson's blank verse, however, is often swollen and bladdery to a painful degree. He seems to have imagined, like many other writers of his time, that blank verse could not support itself without the aid of a stilted phraseology; for that fine poem of his, in the Spenserian stanza, the Castle of Indolence, shows that when he wrote in rhyme he did not think it necessary to depart from a natural style.
Wordsworth is generally spoken of as one who gave to our literature that impulse which brought the poets back from the capricious forms of expression in vogue before his time to a certain fearless simplicity ; for it must be acknowledged that until he arose there was scarce any English poet who did not seem in some degree to labor under the apprehension of becoming too simple and natural, — to imagine that a certain pomp of words is necessary to elevate the style and make that grand and noble which in its direct expression would be homely and trivial. Yet the poetry of Wordsworth was but the consummation of a tendency already existing and active. Cowper had already felt it in writing his Task, and in his longer rhymed poems had not only attempted a freer versification than that of Pope, but had clothed his thoughts in the manly English of the better age of our poetry. Percy's Reliques had accustomed English readers to perceive the extreme beauty of the old ballads in their absolute simplicity, and shown how much superior these were to such productions as Percy's own llermit of Warkworth and Goldsmith's Edwin and Angelina, in their feeble elegance. Burns's inimitable Scottish poems — his English verses are tumid and wordy — had taught the same lesson. We may infer that the genius of Wordsworth was in a great degree influenced by these, just as he in his turn contributed to form the taste of those who wrote after him. It was long, however, before he reached the eminence which he now holds in the estimation of the literary world. His Lyrical Ballads, published about the close of the last century, were at first little read, and
of those who liked them there were few who were not afraid to express their admiration. Yet his fame has slowly climbed from stage to stage until now his influence is perceived in all the English poetry of the day. If this were the place to criticise his poetry, I should say, of his more stately poems in blank verse, that they often lack compression, — that the thought suffers by too great expansion. Wordsworth was unnecessarily afraid of being epigrammatic. He abhorred what is called a point as much as Dennis is said to have abhorred a pun. Yet I must own that even his most diffuse amplifications have in them a certain grandeur that fills the mind.
At a somewhat later period arose the poet Keats, who wrote in a manner which carried the reader back to the time when those charming passages of lyrical enthusiasm were produced which we occasionally find in the plays of Shakespeare, in those of Beaumont and Fletcher, and in Milton's Comus. The verses of Keats are occasionally disfigured, especially in his Endymion, by a flatness almost childish, but in the finer passages they clothe the thought in the richest imagery and in words each of which is a poem. Lowell has justly called Keats “over-languaged,” but there is scarce a word that we should be willing to part with in his Ode to the Nightingale, and that on a Grecian Urn, and the same thing may be said of the greater part of his Hyperion. His poems were ridiculed in the Edinburgh Review, but they survived the ridicule, and now, fifty years after their first publication, the poetry of the present day, by certain resemblances of manner, testifies to the admiration with which he is still read.
The genius of Byron was of a more vigorous mould than that of Keats; but rotwithstanding his great popularity and the number of his imitators at one time, he made a less permanent impression on the character of English poetry. His misanthropy and gloom, his scoffing vein, and the fierceness of his animosities, after the first glow of admiration was over, had a repellent effect upon readers, and made them turn to more cheerful strains. Moore had in his time many imitators, but all his gayety, his brilliant fancy, his somewhat feminine graces, and the elaborate music of his numbers, have not saved him from the fate of being imitated no more. Coleridge and Southey were of the same school with Wordsworth, and only added to the effect of his example upon our literature. Coleridge is the author of the two most perfect poetical translations which our language in his day could boast, those of Schiller's Piccolomini and Death of Wallenstein, in which the English verse falls in no respect short of the original German. Southey divides with Scott the honor of writing the first long narrative poems in our language which can be read without occasional weariness.
Of the later poets, educated in part by the generation of authors which produced Wordsworth and Byron and in part by each other, yet possessing their individual peculiarities, I should perhaps speak with more reserve. The number of those who are attempting to win a name in this walk of literature is great, and several of them have already gained, and through many years held, the public favor. To some of them will be assigned an enduring station among the eminent of their class.
There are two tendencies by which the seekers after poetic fame in our day are apt to be misled, through both the example of others and the applause of critics.
One of these is the desire to extort admiration by striking novelties of expression; and the other, the ambition to distinguish themselves by subtilties of thought, remote from the common apprehension.
With regard to the first of these I have only to say what has been often said before, that, however favorable may be the idea which this luxuriance of poetic imagery and of epithet at first gives us of the author's talent, our admiration soon exhausts itself. We feel that the thought moves heavily under its load of garments, some of which perhaps strike us as tawdry and others as ill-fitting, and we lay down the book to take it up no more.
The other mistake, if I may so call it, deserves more attention, since we find able critics speaking with high praise of passages in the poetry of the day to which the general reader is puzzled to attach a meaning. This is often the case when the words themselves seem simple enough, and keep within the range of the Saxon or household element of our language. The obscurity lies sometimes in the phrase itself, and sometimes in the recondite or remote allusion. I will not say that certain minds are not affected by this, as others are by verses in plainer English. To the few it may be genuine poetry, although it may be a riddle to the mass of readers. I remember reading somewhere of a mathematician who was affected with a sense of sublimity by the happy solution of an algebraical or geometrical problem, and I have been assured by one who devoted himself to the science of mathematics that the phenomenon is no uncommon one. Let us beware, therefore, of assigning too narrow limits to the causes which produce the poetic exaltation of mind. The genius of those who write in this manner may be freely acknowledged, but they do not write for mankind at large.
To me it seems that one of the most important requisites for a great poet is a luminous style. The elements of poetry lie in natural objects, in the vicissitudes of human life, in the emotions of the human heart, and the relations of man to man.
He who can present them in combinations and lights which at once affect the mind with a deep sense of their truth and beauty is the poet for his own age and the ages that succeed it. It is no disparagement either to his skill or his power that he finds them near at hand; the nearer they lie to the common track of the human intelligence, the more certain is he of the sympathy of his own generation, and of those which shall come after him. The metaphysician, the subtile thinker, the dealer in abstruse speculations, whatever his skill in versification, misapplies it when he abandons the more convenient form of prose and perplexes himself with the attempt to express his ideas in poetic numbers.
Let me say for the poets of the present day, that in one important respect they have profited by the example of their immediate predecessors ; they have learned to go directly to nature for their imagery, instead of taking it from what had once been regarded as the common stock of the guild of poets. I have often had occasion to verify this remark with no less delight than surprise on meeting in recent verse new images in their untarnished lustre, like coins fresh from the mint, unworn and unsoiled by passing from pocket to pocket. It is curious, also, to observe how a certain set of hackneyed phrases, which Leigh Hunt, I believe, was the first to ridicule, and which were once used for the convenience of rounding out a line or supplying a
rhyme, have disappeared from our poetry, and how our blank verse in the hands of the most popular writers has dropped its stiff Latinisms and all the awkward distortions resorted to by those who thought that by putting a sentence out of its proper shape they were writing like Milton.
I have now brought this brief survey of the progress of our poetry down to the present time, and refer the reader, for samples of it in the different stages of its existence, to those which are set before him in this volume.
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.