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What is Poetry ?-Chaucer—John Gower-Scottish Poets-John
Barbour-James I.-William Dunbar-Gawin Douglas-Sir
THE true nature of poetry has been pithily described by Hazlitt in his well-known “ Lectures on the English poets.” Poetry, he points out, is the language of the imagination and the passions. It relates to whatever gives immediate pleasure or pain to the human mind. It comes home to the bosoms and businesses of men ; for nothing but what so comes home to them in the most general and intelligible shape can be a subject for poetry. He who has a contempt for poetry cannot have much respect for himself or for anything else. It is not a mere frivolous accomplishment, as some have been led to imagine, the trifling amusement of a few idle readers
or leisure hours : it has been the study and delight of mankind in all ages.
Many people suppose that poetry is something to be found only in books, contained in lines of ten syllables with like endings : but wherever there is a sense of beauty, or power or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, in the growth of a flower that “ spreads its sweet leaves to the air and dedicates its beauty to the sun ”—there is poetry, in its birth.
If history is a grave study, poetry may be said to be a graver—its materials lie deeper and are spread wider. History treats, for the most part, of the cumbrous and unwieldy masses of things, the empty cases in which the affairs of the world are packed, under the heads of intrigue or war, in different states, and from century to century ; but there is no thought or feeling that can have entered into the mind of man, which he would be eager to communicate to others, or which they would listen to with delight, that is not a fit subject for poetry. It is not a branch of authorship : it is “the stuff of which our life is made.” The rest is “mere oblivion, a dead letter ;" for all that is worth remembering in life is the poetry of it. Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry; contempt, jealousy, remorse, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry. Poetry is that fine particle within us, that expands, rarefies, refines, raises our whole being ; without it “man's life is poor as beast's." Man is a poetical animal, and those of us who do not study the principles of poetry, act upon them all our lives, like Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who had always spoken prose without knowing it.
Our object in these pages is to trace the course of English poetry from the days of Chaucer, indicating those great men who have given it direction, and the efforts of whose genius we count amongst the chief of our national treasures. It will, we hope, be found a fitting introduction to a collection of specimens, the perusal of which may well excite the reader's desire to know something concerning their authors and the relation in which these authors stand to the other poets of our country.
There are poets no doubt earlier than Chaucer, but his outstanding genius makes him a convenient starting-point, and an inquiry into the particular merits or defects of his predecessors might seem rather to belong to the province of the antiquary than be thought generally interesting to the lover of poetry in the present day.
Chaucer (1329-1400) is one of the brightest names in the English language, and has been distinctively known as the Father of English poetry. Warton, with great beauty and justice, has compared his appearance in our language to a premature day in an English spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms which have been called forth by a transient sunshine are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms.
Chaucer's genius was not fully developed till he was advanced in years, for it was not till he was about sixty, in the calm evening of a busy life, that he composed the great work on which his fame chiefly rests, his Canterbury Tales. What gives us the greatest admiration of the poet is the skill with which he has in this work supported his characters, and the exquisite address that he has shown in adapting his stories to the different humours, sentiments and talents of the reciters.
Chaucer seems to have been content to find grace and beauty in truth. He exhibits, for the most part, the naked object, with little drapery thrown over it. His metaphors, which are few, are not for ornament, but use, and as like as possible to the things themselves. He does not affect to show his power over the reader's mind, but the power which the subject has over his own. The readers of his poetry feel more nearly what the persons he describes must have felt than perhaps those of any other poet.
One of the contemporaries of Chaucer and his intimate friend was John Gower (d. 1402). By a critical cultivation of his native language, he laboured to reform its irregularities and to establish an English style. In these respects he resembled Chaucer, but he has little of his spirit, imagination, and eloquence. His language is tolerably perspicuous, and