« AnteriorContinuar »
English Poetry is generally understood to have died with Milton and to have renewed its life only in this century. Not, indeed, that no poetry was written during the intervening century, but the current was neither full nor strong. The poetic impulse, like every other faculty of man, ebbs and flows through the ages, and there seem to have been three periods of high tide in English poetry, separated by times when men devoted their best intellect to other concerns. The eighteenth century was one of those times of low tide.
In none of these seasons of depression did men cease to write verses, nor is it true that there were no poets of genuine feeling between Chaucer and Shakspere, or between Milton and Wordsworth; but, so far as poetry is concerned, both these ages were characterized by imitation of great men who had gone before, by care for the manner and form of poetry rather than for the soul, by feeble attempts of a few men to introduce a more healthy style.
Each age, too, was followed by the sudden development of a free, natural poetry of the heart. In the reign of Elizabeth this outburst was in part a result of the
immense widening of the horizon of men's thoughts consequent upon the discoveries beyond seas, and the lifeand-death struggle with Spain for national importance and religious independence. In our century, the impulse came with the introduction into England of fresh trains of thought from the German philosophical writers, and also, most strongly, with the new interest in humanity roused by the French Revolution.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, the freshness of poetry, expressing the eagerness of human living and the keen enjoyment of the senses, had already faded; for the court of Charles II. there could be no return to natural simplicity. The same terms might be used, but epigram and wit took the place of genuine song.
Moreover, most men who wrote possessed only mediocre intellects, and, notwithstanding the work of Dryden, their verses displayed neither wit nor form; so that by the time Pope had grown to thinking years, he was right in asserting the necessity for a revolution in the poetic world. We should have either good matter or good manner, if we cannot have both. Most men had neither. Pope perfected the latter. His style is generally acknowledged to be faultless, in his favorite form, the rhymed couplet, which contains some witty or trenchant remark in every pair of lines, completes the idea at the end of the line and allows no irregularities of metre. In our day it is hardly possible to conceive how popular this form became, or for how long a time men considered it to be the standard by which to judge every other form. Goldsmith wrote his two best poems in this metre, and Dr. Johnson lamented the offensive irregularity of Milton's blank verse.
Aside from mere form, there was another characteristic of eighteenth century poetry. It was the fashion to ignore the country, and to live only in and for the town. This was indeed natural, when literary men as a class depended upon some rich patron for the reward of their labors, or when courtiers themselves wrote about the only life they knew. Furthermore, “ from the deep things of the soul, from men's living relations to the external world, educated thought seemed to turn instinctively away;” and “to exult over the ignorant past, to glory in the wonderful present, to have got rid of all prejudices, to have no strong beliefs except in material progress, to be tolerant of all tendencies but fanaticism, this was its highest boast." 1 From these statements, we can see that poetry, as we understand it now, was well nigh impossible.
No doubt when the tide has again turned, when a school corresponding in materialism, in intellectuality, in worship of form, to that of Pope shall have come again, the age will enjoy his poetry and that of his school more generously than we are able to do.
Even before Pope died, there were a few spirits who revolted, perhaps in despair of rivalling the master, perhaps wishing for novelty. In particular, James Thomson (1700-1748), a Scotchman, who had grown up beyond the sphere of Pope's influence, and in a country where simple poetry and a love of nature had never died away, ventured upon two innovations. In the first place, he chose to write on winter, and described what goes on in the country in winter. He followed it by descrip
"J. C. Shairp, “Studies in Poetry and Philosophy,” pp. 91, 92.
tions of the other seasons.
Here is one of his simpler
" Till, in the western sky, the downward Sun
Looks out, effulgent, from amid the flush
This shows some of his faults as well as some merits, but especially it brings out the second innovation which he dared to make, the substitution of blank verse for the rhymed couplet. There is hardly a line in which the sense is not closely connected with the next. It is different enough from
“ Then flash'd the living lightning from her eyes,
Thomson was not strong enough to break altogether with the old style. He made use of such hackneyed phrases as “effulgent” and “dewy gems,” and he was not above employing the adjective form“ instantane
when he needed an adverb. In common with other poets of his century, also, he used nature either solely to fill in a background, or to make a pretty picture in and for itself. He never showed nature as reacting upon man. A sense of the close communion between man and nature is the distinguishing mark of Wordsworth's poetry, and,
16 The Seasons,” Spring, lines 186-193.
in varying degrees, of the poetry of this whole century, but few men in the eighteenth century thought of her as anything more than an element outside of man,—to be enjoyed externally and to be described sympathetically, but yet an entirely distinct and merely physical creation.
Slightly later than Thomson, Collins (1721-1759), in his short life, evinced a truer touch in his descriptions of nature than the poets who had gone before. Though brought up in the city, he loved the country, and unlike Thomson freed himself from the conventional poetic diction which with the elder poet often served to hide really original thoughts.
“ Or where the beetle winds
His small but sullen horn,
is a homely bit of description, but close to nature, and wonderfully suggestive of the spell which evening casts over the open moor. Again, in the same ode, “To Evening,” a few words express the feeling of nightfall:
“ Thy dewy fingers draw
In the latter part of the century Cowper (1731-1800) continued the development of nature poetry and the practice of writing blank verse. To-day we can hardly understand the popularity of his poetry during his lifetime. Cowper was an over-excitable lawyer's clerk, who had several times fallen a prey to insanity, had been forced to give up his profession, and had found a shelter from the disturbing tumult of the world, with his friend, Mrs. Unwin. He was a somewhat sadly contem