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Title: The Bridling of Pegasus - Prose Papers on Poetry
Author: Austin, Alfred, 1835-1913
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Bridling of Pegasus - Prose Papers on Poetry" ***






  _Essay Index Reprint Series_

  (_Originally published by Macmillan and Co._)

  First published 1910
  Reprinted 1967

  Reprinted from a copy in the collections of
  The New York Public Library
  Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

When Bellerophon, mounted on Pegasus, set forth to kill the Chimera,
Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, gave him a golden bridle with which to curb
and guide his winged steed. Hence the title of this volume, "The Bridling
of Pegasus."



I should think you must have observed, in the course of your reading, that
even in the most accredited organs of opinion, principles of literary
criticism, either explicitly stated or tacitly assumed, are often utterly
ignored, in the notice of some work or other in the self-same number. The
result can only be to create confusion in the public mind.

In this volume, consisting of papers written at various times during the
last thirty years, no such contradiction will, I think, be found. Whether
they be deemed sound or otherwise, they are at least coherent; the canons
of criticism underlying them being that no verse which is unmusical or
obscure can be regarded as Poetry, whatever other qualities it may
possess; that Imagination in Poetry, as distinguished from mere Fancy, is
the transfiguring of the Real, or actual, into the Ideal, by what Prospero
calls his "so potent art"; and, if these conditions are complied with,
that the greatness of the poem depends on the greatness of the theme.

To no one so much as to you am I indebted for criticism of the frankest
kind. That alone would lead me to ask you to accept the dedication of
these pages. But I find a yet further and stronger impulse to do so, in
the long and uninterrupted friendship that has subsisted between us, and
to which I attach so much value.

  Believe me always,
      Yours most sincerely,
          ALFRED AUSTIN.

      _January 1910_.



  THE ESSENTIALS OF GREAT POETRY                               1

  THE FEMININE NOTE IN ENGLISH POETRY                         28


  BYRON AND WORDSWORTH                                        78


  DANTE'S POETIC CONCEPTION OF WOMAN                         156

  POETRY AND PESSIMISM                                       170

  A VINDICATION OF TENNYSON                                  197




The decay of authority is one of the most marked features of our time.
Religion, politics, art, manners, speech, even morality, considered in its
widest sense, have all felt the waning of traditional authority, and the
substitution for it of individual opinion and taste, and of the wavering
and contradictory utterances of publications ostensibly occupied with
criticism and supposed to be pronouncing serious judgments. By authority I
do not mean the delivery of dogmatic decisions, analogous to those issued
by a legal tribunal from which there is no appeal, that have to be
accepted and obeyed, but the existence of a body of opinion of long
standing, arrived at after due investigation and experience during many
generations, and reposing on fixed principles or fundamentals of thought.
This it is that is being dethroned in our day, and is being supplanted by
a babel of clashing, irreconcilable utterances, often proceeding from the
same quarters, even the same mouths.

In no department of thought has this been more conspicuous than in that of
literature, especially the higher class of literature; and it is most
patent in the prevailing estimate of that branch of literature to which
lip-homage is still paid as the highest of all, viz. poetry. Chaucer,
Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, have not been openly dethroned; but it would
require some boldness to deny that even their due recognition has been
indirectly questioned by a considerable amount of neglect, as compared
with the interest shown alike by readers and reviewers in poets and poetry
of lesser stature. Are we to conclude from this that there is no standard,
that there exist no permanent canons by which the relative greatness of
poets and poetry can be estimated with reasonable conclusiveness? It is
the purpose of this essay to show that such there are.

The expression of individual opinion upon a subject so wide, no matter who
the individual might be, would obviously be worthless; and I have no wish
to do what has been done too often in our time, to substitute personal
taste or bias for canons of criticism that have stood the test of time,
and whereon the relative position of poets, great, less great, and
comparatively inferior, has reposed. The inductive method was employed
long before it was explicitly proclaimed as distinct from and more
trustworthy than the merely deductive; and it is such method that will, if
indirectly, be employed in this paper. Finally, I shall carefully abstain
from the rhetorical enthusiasm or invective that clouds the judgment of
writers and readers alike, and invariably degenerates into personal
dogmatism, together with intolerance of those who think otherwise. After
indicating, to the best of my ability, the laws of thought and the canons
of criticism on which should repose the estimate of the poetic hierarchy,
I will then ask the reader to observe if the conclusions leave the
recognised Masters of Song--Homer, Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Virgil,
Lucretius, Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron--unassailed
and unshaken in their poetic supremacy.

There must perforce be certain qualities common to all poetry, whether the
greatest, the less great, or the comparatively inferior, and whether
descriptive, lyrical, idyllic, reflective, epic, or dramatic; and, so long
as there existed any authority or body of generally accepted opinion on
the subject, these were at least two such qualities, viz. melodiousness,
whether sweet or sonorous, and lucidity or clearness of expression, to be
apprehended, without laborious investigation, by highly cultured and
simple readers alike. Melodiousness is a quality so essential to, and so
inseparable from, all verse that is poetry, that it often, by its mere
presence, endows with the character of poetry verse of a very rudimentary
kind, verse that just crosses the border between prosaic and poetic verse,
and would otherwise be denied admission to the territory of the Muses.
Some of the enthusiasts to whom allusion has been made have, I am assured,
declared of certain compositions of our time, "This would be poetry, even
if it meant nothing at all"--a dictum calculated, like others enunciated
in our days, to harden the plain man in his disdain of poetry altogether.
It would not be difficult to quote melodious verse published in our time
of which it is no exaggeration to say that the words in it are used rather
as musical notes than as words signifying anything. In all likelihood such
compositions, and the widespread liking for them, arise partly from the
prevailing preference for music over the other arts, and in part from the
mental indolence that usually accompanies emotion in all but the highest
minds. Nevertheless it cannot be too much insisted on that music, or
melodiousness, either sweet or sonorous, is absolutely indispensable to
poetry; and where it is absent, poetry is absent, even though thought and
wide speculation be conspicuous in it. As Horace put it long ago in his
_Art of Poetry_,

  Non satis est pulchra esse poemata: dulcia sunto.

Almost as essential to poetry, and equally as regards poetry of the
loftiest and poetry of the lowliest kind, is lucidity, or clearness of
expression. No poet of much account is ever obscure, unless the text
happens to be corrupt. When essays and even volumes are issued, since
deemed indispensable for the understanding of a writer labelled as a poet,
one may be quite sure that, however deep a thinker, he is not a poet of
the first order, and not a poet at all in the passages that require such
explanation. When one hears a well-authenticated story to the effect that
a great scholar said of an English paraphrase of a well-known Greek poem,
that he thought he had succeeded in gathering its meaning with the help of
the original, one ought to know what to think of the work. Yet, though
much of its author's verse is of that non-lucid character, it is
habitually saluted by many critics as great poetry. With all respect, I
venture to affirm that in such circumstances the designation must be a
misnomer. I remember a poem being read to me, in perfect good faith, by
its author, a man of great mental distinction and no little imagination,
of which, though I listened with the closest attention, not only did I not
understand one word, but I had not the faintest idea, as the colloquial
phrase is, what it was about. When it was published, I asked three ardent
admirers of the author to explain to me its meaning. They failed entirely
to do so. The saying, concerning the orator, _clarescit urendo_, is even
yet more applicable to the poet. He brightens as he burns. Yet, of recent
times, verse fuliginous, clouded, and enshrouded in obscurity, has been
hailed in many quarters, not only as poetry, but poetry of an
exceptionally superior sort.

If it be urged that Dante, and even Shakespeare, do not always yield up
their meaning to the reader at once, the allegation must be traversed
absolutely. The immediate apprehension of the meaning of the _Vita Nuova_
and the _Divina Commedia_ presupposes an intimate acquaintance with the
various dialects of the Italian language existing in Dante's time, and
likewise with the erudition he scatters so profusely, if allusively,
throughout his verse. But to the Italian readers of Dante, even
superficially acquainted with those dialects, and adequate masters of the
theology and the astronomy of Dante's time, those poems present no
difficulty. Of Shakespeare, the greatest of all the poets in our language,
let it be granted that he is not unoften one of the most careless and even
most slovenly; but rarely is he so to the obscuring of his meaning, and
never save casually, and in some brief passage. Yet let it not be inferred
that I am of opinion that the full meaning of the greatest passages in the
greatest poems is to be seized all at once, or by the average reader at
all. That is "deeper than ever plummet sounded," though Tennyson's
"indolent reviewer" apparently imagines that he at once fathoms the more
intellectual poetry of his time. There can be but few readers, and
possibly none but poets themselves, or persons who, to quote Tennyson
again, "have the great poetic heart," who master the full significance of
_Hamlet_ or of the tersely told story of Francesca da Rimini. But the
whole world at once understood the more obvious tenor of both, and is not
puzzled by either. There is a sliding scale of understanding, as there is
a sliding scale of inspiration. "We needs must love the highest when we
see it"; but "when we see it" is an important qualification in the

I do not know that there are any qualities save melodiousness, sweet or
sonorous, and lucidity, that are absolutely essential to whatever is to be
regarded as poetry. In order to preclude misapprehension, let it be added
that, while both are essential to poetry, they will not, by themselves, go
far towards endowing verse with the poetic character. As an example of
this, let me cite verse which is not unmelodious, though not specially
remarkable for melodiousness, and not obscure, yet is not poetry, and
hardly on the border of it:

  I have a boy of five years old;
    His face is fair and fresh to see;
  His limbs are cast in beauty's mould,
    And dearly he loves me.

  One morn we strolled on our dry walk,
    Our quiet home all full in view,
  And held such intermitted talk
    As we are wont to do.

  My thoughts on former pleasures ran;
    I thought of Kilve's delightful shore,
  Our pleasant home when spring began,
    A long, long year before.

  A day it was when I could bear
    Some fond regrets to entertain;
  With so much happiness to spare,
    I could not feel a pain.

This blameless, correct, harmonious, and thoroughly lucid verse is by a
poet who has written poetry of the noblest quality, no less a poet than
Wordsworth. Yet he sorely tries his readers by page after page no more
poetical than the foregoing; and he offered, on the first appearance of
every volume of his, ample matter for such critics as would rather be
sweepingly censorious than discriminating, to depreciate and even to
ridicule him. His reverent admirers, who comprise all true lovers of
poetry, are acquainted with, and probably possess, a copy of Matthew
Arnold's Selection, entitled _Poems of Wordsworth_--a small volume which
that gifted Wordsworthian, who knew and acknowledged with his usual sense
of humour how many unpoetical "sermons," as he called them, Wordsworth had
written, deliberately considered to contain all the real poetry he has
left us. If I may refer for a moment to my own copy of it, this is scored
with brief observations in pencil, the upshot of which is that the small
fraction of his work, which Matthew Arnold too liberally wished to be
regarded as _digna Phoebi_, would have again to be materially reduced by
a dispassionate criticism.

The most generous critic, if he is to be discriminating and just, cannot,
let me say again, allow that any verse which is profoundly obscure or
utterly unmusical, no matter how intellectual in substance, deserves the
appellation of poetry. But on a very thin thread of meaning poetry, or a
very fair imitation of it, may be hung by the aid of musical sound.
Without going so far as Arnold again, who once wrote to me that Shelley's
"My soul is an enchanted boat" seemed to him "mere musical verbiage," that
poem might serve as an instance of verse which, in spite of tenuity of
meaning, becomes poetry by sheer magic of exquisite music.

      My soul is an enchanted boat,
      Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
  Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing;
      And thine doth like an angel sit
      Beside a helm conducting it,
  Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing
      It seems to float ever, for ever,
      Upon that many-winding river,
      Between mountains, woods, abysses.
      A paradise of wildernesses!
      Till, like one in slumber bound,
      Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
      Into a sea profound of ever-spreading sound.

There is a magic of sound in the verse so enchanting to a reader that he
may be pardoned for failing to observe at once that it is mainly musical
fancy. Many may remember a line of Tennyson:

  Like a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong.

And are we not compelled to feel, on second thoughts, if we have any
capacity for discrimination, that here we have poetry of little meaning,
though the verse is exquisitely melodious? This is, I conclude, what
Arnold meant when he designated it, with a little exaggeration, "musical

I have been obliged to linger somewhat on the threshold of my subject in
order to emphasise the essential importance and inseparable quality of
metrical melodiousness and lucidity in poetry, in order that, in whatever
follows in this paper, these indispensable conditions may not be lost
sight of; and also because of late each of them has been ousted from
consideration by those who have striven, and still strive, to induce
literary opinion to accept not only as poetry, but as great poetry, what
is conspicuously lacking in both. That I shall have the assent, however,
of the weight of authority on this point, and likewise that of the
ordinary unaffected lover of poetry, I can scarcely doubt; the more so, as
the conclusions thus far reached leave undisturbed upon their seats those
mighty ones, of all tongues and all nations, whose universally recognised
greatness has received the seal and sanction of many generations.

What may be called the first principles of poetry having thus been
propounded, without any necessity for reaffirming them in the
investigation of other conclusions yet to be reached, I may move on to
what I imagine will be less familiar and perhaps more original in the
search for "The Essentials of Great Poetry." If we carefully observe the
gradual development of mental power in human beings, irrespectively of any
reference to poetry, but as applied to general objects of human interest,
we shall find that the advance from elementary to supreme expansion of
mental power is in the following order of succession, each preceding
element in mental development being retained on the appearance of its
successor: (1) Perception, vague at first, as in the newly born, gradually
becoming more definite, along with desires of an analogous kind; (2)
Sentiment, also vague at first, but by degrees becoming more definite,
until it attaches itself to one or more objects exclusively; (3) Thought
or Reflection, somewhat hazy in its inception, and often remaining in that
condition to the last; (4) Action, which is attended and assisted by the
three preceding qualities of Perception, Sentiment, and Thought or
Reflection. In other words, human beings perceive before they feel,
perceive and feel before they think, perceive, feel, and think before they
act, or at least before they act reasonably, though it may be but
imperfectly, and though the later or higher stages may in many cases
scarcely be reached at all.

Now let us see if, in poetry, the same order or succession in development
and expansion does not exist. Never forgetting the essential qualities of
melody and lucidity, do we not find that mere descriptive verse, which
depends on perception or observation, is the humblest and most elementary
form of poetry; that descriptive verse, when suffused with sentiment,
gains in value and charm; that if, to the foregoing, thought or reflection
be superadded, there is a conspicuous rise in dignity, majesty, and
relative excellence; and finally, that the employment of these in
narrative action, whether epic or dramatic, carries us on to a stage of
supreme excellence which can rarely be predicated of any poetry in which
action is absent? If this be so, we have to the successive development of
observation, feeling, thought, and action, an exact analogy or counterpart
in (1) Descriptive Poetry; (2) Lyrical Poetry; (3) Reflective Poetry; (4)
Epic or Dramatic Poetry; in each of which, melody and lucidity being
always present, there is an advance in poetic value over the preceding
stage, without the preceding one being eliminated from its progress.

Once again let us have recourse to illustration, which, when fairly
chosen, is probably the most effective method for securing assent.
Wordsworth presents us with an ample supply of illustrations in three out
of the four different kinds of poetry; and therefore to him let us have
recourse. In reading the first stanza of _The Pet Lamb_, and two or three
stanzas that follow, we have descriptive verse which may be regarded as
very elementary poetry, but to which it would seem to many to be
hypercritical to refuse that designation. It is too well known to need
citation. The opening lines of _The Leech-Gatherer_ display the same
elementary descriptive character.

  There was a roaring in the wind all night;
  The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
  But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
  The birds are singing in the distant woods;
  Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;
  The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;
  And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

  All things that love the Sun are out of doors;
  The sky rejoices in the morning's birth;
  The grass is bright with rain-drops; on the moors
  The Hare is running races in her mirth;
  And with her feet she from the plashy earth
  Raises a mist, that, glittering in the sun,
  Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

  I was a traveller then upon the moor;
  I saw the Hare that raced about with joy;
  I heard the woods and distant waters roar;
  Or heard them not, as happy as a boy:
  The pleasant season did my heart employ;
  My old remembrances went from me wholly,
  And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.

I perceive that, in my copy of the volume of Selections made by Matthew
Arnold from the poems of Wordsworth, already alluded to, I have written at
the end of _Margaret_, "If this be poetry, surely many people may say they
have written poetry all their lives without knowing it." But as Matthew
Arnold's critical opinions will carry more weight than mine, and he has
included _Margaret_ in his Selection, let me quote a dozen lines or so
from its opening passage:

  'Twas Summer, and the Sun had mounted high:
  Southward the landscape indistinctly glared
  Through a pale steam; but all the northern downs,
  In clearest air ascending, showed far off
  A surface dappled o'er with shadows flung
  From brooding clouds; shadows that lay in spots
  Determined and unmoved, with steady beams
  Of bright and pleasant sunshine interposed;
  Pleasant to him who on the soft cool moss
  Extends his careless limbs along the front
  Of some huge cave, whose rocky ceiling casts
  A twilight of its own, an ample shade,
  Where the Wren warbles.

But there is, it must not be overlooked, merely Descriptive Poetry of a
much higher kind than the foregoing, though Wordsworth may not be the best
source from which to draw it. Perhaps its highest possibilities are to be
found in Byron, and conspicuously in the third and fourth cantos of
_Childe Harold_. Many of the passages of the kind that one remembers there
are, however, either too much suffused with the poet's personal feeling,
or too closely connected with great incidents in history and the fall of
empires, to be quite pertinent examples. A minor but sufficient example
taken from _Childe Harold_ may suffice for illustration:

  It is the hush of night, and all between
  Thy margin and the mountains, dusk, yet clear,
  Mellow'd and mingling, yet distinctly seen,
  Save darken'd Jura, whose capt heights appear
  Precipitously steep; and drawing near,
  There breathes a living fragrance from the shore,
  Of flowers yet fresh with childhood; on the ear
  Drops the light drip of the suspended oar,
  Or chirps the grasshopper one good-night carol more.

Far finer instances of poetry essentially descriptive in the same poem may
be referred to, _e.g._ Canto IV., stanza xcix., beginning "There is a
stern round tower of other days"; stanza cvii., beginning with "Cypress
and ivy, weed and wallflower grown"; stanza clxxiii., descriptive of Lake
Nemi; and even--for it also is strictly descriptive--stanza cxl., opening
with the well-known line "I see before me the gladiator lie."

It could not be allowed that any of these, considered separately,
satisfies the conditions or essentials of great poetry, though, in company
with others, they contribute to that character in a very great poem
indeed. Moreover, they serve to show that even mere Descriptive Poetry,
which I have spoken of as the "lowest" or most elementary kind of poetry,
may rise to striking elevation of merit, and has its counterpart in the
sliding scale of observation in various individuals.

Let us now take a step, and a long one, in the scale of importance
attained by the various kinds of poetry, and consider the classics of
Lyrical Poetry. Here extensive quotation will be less necessary, partly by
reason of the wide ground Lyrical Poetry covers, and partly because of its
relative popularity in our time, and the familiarity of so many readers
with its most enchanting specimens. There is ample room for personal taste
and individual idiosyncrasy within the vast boundaries of this fruitful
field. Many persons are sadly wanting in observation; and to only a
minority can real, serious thought be ascribed. But we all feel, we all
have visitations of sentiment; and therefore to all of us is Lyrical
Poetry more or less welcome.

The causes, personal and social, that have given to Lyrical Poetry in our
time almost exclusive favour in public taste will be dealt with presently.
It will distract less from our main purpose to confine ourselves for the
present to the recognition of the fact, and to seek to show how very
various are the degrees of eminence in Lyrical Poetry. The lyrical note is
so natural to poets and poetry that we may expect to find it in the verse
of all poets, though in a minor degree in didactic verse; while in some
poets it almost monopolises their utterance. Though perhaps not obvious to
many ears to-day, it lurks in no little of Pope's _Epistle of Eloisa to
Abelard_, and is unmistakably present in his _Ode on St. Cecilia's Day_.
If I am asked if the lyrical note is to be found in Chaucer, the reply
must be that, though Chaucer has left nothing which the modern reader
would recognise as lyrical, what is called his iambic or five-foot metre
is far more anapæstic and lyrical than is the case with any subsequent
poet, except Shakespeare. There is a lilt in it equivalent to the lyrical
note, which those who read as Chaucer wrote recognise at once. One has
only to read the opening lines of the Prologue to the _Canterbury Tales_
to perceive this. Not quite to the same extent perhaps as in Chaucer, but
withal very noticeably to the ear, the lyrical note is frequently to be
caught in Spenser, even where he is not obviously offering the reader
Lyrical Poetry; as, for instance, in this stanza in the first canto of the
_Fairy Queen_, beginning:

  A little lowly hermitage it was,
  Down in a dale, hard by a forest's side.

This is not Lyrical Poetry proper, as now understood. But Spenser has left
us in his _Epithalamion_ a lyrical poem with which only one other English
lyric can be placed in competition for the first place. It is too long for
more than one brief excerpt to be cited here:

  Wake now, my love, awake! for it is time;
  The rosy Morne long since left Tithones bed,
  All ready to her silver coche to clyme;
  And Phoebus gins to shew his glorious hed.
  Hark! how the cheerefull birds do chaunt theyr laies
  And carroll of loves praise.
  The merry Larke hir mattins sings aloft;
  The Thrush replyes; the Mavis descant playes;
  The Ouzell shrills; the Ruddock warbles soft;
  So goodly all agree, with sweet consent,
  To this dayes meriment,
  Ah! my deere love, why doe ye sleepe thus long,
  When meeter were that ye should now awake,
  T' awayt the comming of your joyous make,
  And hearken to the birds love-learned song,
  The deawy leaves among?
  For they of joy and pleasance to you sing
  That all the woods them answer, and theyr eccho ring.

One is sorry to think that this long, lovely, and varied lyric is less
known than it ought to be to the modern readers of Lyrical Poetry. I can
only say to them, "Make haste to read it."

In Shakespeare's plays the lyrical note is so often to be heard in the
blank verse that the poet's natural aptitude and inclination for singing
were amply exercised there; and he gives most voice to it in such plays as
_As You Like It_ and _Romeo and Juliet_. But it recurs again and again
throughout his dramas. Such lines as:

  All over-canopied with lush woodbine,

  How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank,

  Under the shade of melancholy boughs,

are illustrations of what I am pointing out.

Without dwelling on the excellent lyrics written in the reigns of Charles
I. and Charles II., and confining ourselves to the _di majores_ of poetry,
we may pass on to Milton, whose _Allegro_ and _Penseroso_ as likewise the
lyrics in _Comus_, are too familiar to every one to be more than mentioned
as evidence of the persistence, in the past as in the present, of the
warbling impulse in all poets. Heard but fitfully during the greater part
of the eighteenth century, yet most arrestingly in Gray, Collins, and
Burns, Lyrical Poetry from the last onward without intermission, to our
own time, in Scott, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson, is
almost the only poetry that has in recent days been much listened to, or
much written and talked about. This circumstance is far from being
conclusive as to whether, during the same period, poems higher and
greater than mere Lyrical Poetry have or have not been produced. But it is
absolutely certain that, if produced, they have been, so far, more or less
ignored; and that, if the same poets have written such and Lyrical Poetry
as well, they will have been considered and estimated by the latter only.

But the domain of feeling and emotion in which Lyrical Poetry has room to
display its power and versatility is so extensive that lyrics are very
various in their themes and in the treatment of them. Love, religion,
patriotism, cosmopolitan benevolence, being, as I have shown in _The Human
Tragedy_, the most elevated and most permanent sources of human sentiment
and emotion, there will necessarily be in Lyrical Poetry, even considered
by itself, and apart from all the other forms of poetry, a scale of
relative elevation and importance.

The love of individuals for each other, whether domestic, romantic, or
sexual, is much more common than any of the other three, being practically
universal; and it has given birth to so many well-known lyrics that it is
unnecessary to cite any of them here. Some of them are very beautiful; but
none of them, by reason of the comparative narrowness of their theme,
satisfies the essentials of great poetry. Not even Tennyson's _Maud_,
which is perhaps the most ambitious and the best known of long poems
dedicated mainly to the subject, though it contains lovely passages,
approaches greatness.

Though what is understood as religious sentiment comes next to the love of
individuals for each other in the extent of its influence, it has produced
much verse, but, it must be allowed, little poetry, the reason probably
being that the religious sentiment of the few who are endowed with the
gift of writing poetry differs from that of the average "religious"
person. Nor can the fact be overlooked that there is a certain character
of reserve in Protestantism which has operated since the Reformation
against the growth of religious Lyrical Poetry. For that we must go either
to pre-Reformation days, or to the poetry of those who, like George
Herbert and the poetic kin of his time, clung to the Roman Catholic creed
after the modification of belief and ritual in the Anglican Church; or to
the poets in our own time trained in the Roman Catholic faith, and to that
extent, and on that ground, debarred from wide popularity among a
Protestant people. The De Veres, Faber, Coventry Patmore, and Newman, the
last notably in his _Dream of Gerontius_, may be named as instances of
what has been done in recent times in the sphere of religious poetry.
Scott's lovely "Ave Maria" in _The Lady of the Lake_, and Byron's stanza

  Ave Maria! 'tis the hour of prayer,

are briefer specimens of what may be, and has been contributed in later
times to religious poetry; much smaller in bulk and volume than poetry
dedicated to the love of individuals for each other, but higher in the
rising scale of greatness, because of the greater dignity of its theme.

Patriotic Lyrical Poetry need not detain us long. Most patriotic verse,
however spirited, is verse only, nothing or little more, though exceptions
could be cited, such as Drayton's _Agincourt_, Tennyson's _Relief of
Lucknow_, and _The Ballad of the "Revenge."_ But if in patriotic Lyrical
Poetry we include, as I think we should, poetry in the English tongue, but
not concerning England or the British Empire, I may name Byron's "Isles
of Greece" in _Don Juan_, which I had in my mind when I observed that
there is in our language only one lyrical poem that can compete for the
first place in Lyrical Poetry with Spenser's _Epithalamion_.

3. Reflective Poetry. Over Reflective Poetry, in itself a stage of advance
beyond Descriptive Poetry and Lyrical Poetry in themselves, we need not
linger long, for the reason that, though Reflective Poetry is ample in
quantity, it is, outside the Drama, very limited in quality, most of it
being of so prosaic a character as not only not to be ranked above average
Lyrical Poetry, but far below it. Wordsworth furnishes us, for the purpose
of illustration, with both kinds, the higher and the lower Reflective
Poetry. As regards the latter, I would rather let Matthew Arnold, than
whom there is no warmer admirer of Wordsworth, be the spokesman:

     _The Excursion_ abounds with Philosophy [I prefer to call it Thought
     or Reflection]; and therefore _The Excursion_ is to the Wordsworthian
     what it never can be to the disinterested lover of poetry, a
     satisfactory work. "Duty exists," says Wordsworth in _The Excursion_;
     and then he proceeds thus:

         ... Immutably survive,
         For our support, the measures and the forms
         Which an abstract Intelligence supplies,
         Whose kingdom is where time and space are not.

     And the Wordsworthian is delighted, and thinks that here is a sweet
     union of philosophy and poetry. But the disinterested lover of poetry
     will feel that the lines carry us really not a step farther than the
     proposition which they would interpret; that they are a tissue of
     elevated but abstract verbiage, alien to the very nature of poetry.

Merely observing that I wholly agree with the foregoing estimate, I pass
to the higher Reflective Poetry, of which Wordsworth has given us such
splendid but comparatively brief instances. The _Lines composed a few
miles above Tintern Abbey_, _Elegiac Stanzas suggested by a Picture of
Peele Castle_, his best Sonnets, the _Character of the Happy Warrior_,
the _Ode to Duty_, and, finally, the _Ode on Intimations of Immortality_
seem to me to place Wordsworth above all other English Poets in the domain
of exclusively Reflective Poetry. I do not forget much noble Reflective
Poetry in _Childe Harold_; but it is too much blent with other elements,
and into it the active quality enters too strongly, for its more
reflective features to be separated from them. Moreover, it generally
falls far short of the intellectual note so strongly marked in
Wordsworth's best Reflective Poetry, into which, be it added, both the
descriptive and the lyrical notes, in accordance with the general law I am
seeking to expound in this paper, enter very largely, if, of course,
subordinately. It will be obvious, however, to any dispassionate lover of
poetry, that a merely reflective poem of any great length cannot well be
entitled to the designation of a great poem. Had such been possible,
Wordsworth would have bequeathed it to us. _The Excursion_ is the answer;
which, notwithstanding a certain number of fine passages, is, for the most
part, what Matthew Arnold says of it, "doctrine such as we hear in church,
religious and philosophical doctrine; and the attached Wordsworthian loves
passages of such doctrine, and brings them forward as proofs of his poet's

If the reader has followed me so far, with more or less assent, he will be
prepared not only to allow, but of himself to feel, that there must be yet
another kind or order of poetry, in which the greatest poems are to be
found, poems that are neither exclusively nor mainly either descriptive,
lyrical, or reflective, but into which all three elements enter
subordinately, though none of them gives it its distinctive and supreme

4. Epic and Dramatic Poetry. That supreme kind of poetry is Epic and
Dramatic Poetry, though there may be very poor Epics, and Dramas in which
true poetry is scarcely to be observed, just as we have seen that there is
very inferior Descriptive, Lyrical, and Reflective Poetry. All that is
asserted is that great epic and dramatic poems must be greater than the
greatest poetry of the preceding kinds by reason of their wider range and
(as a rule) the higher majesty of their theme, and of their including
every other kind of poetry.

It will perhaps have been noticed that Epic and Dramatic Poetry are here
placed in conjunction, not separately; and their being thus conjoined
needs a word of explanation. Though there is a radical distinction between
the two, this provisional union of them has been adopted in order to
afford an opportunity of pointing out what I think is generally
ignored--that poems which are essentially epical, or merely narrative, may
be written in dialogue or dramatic form, and so mislead incautious readers
into inferring that they are offered as dramas, in the acting sense of the
term. It is because, while remaining substantially epical or narrative in
character they may contain, here and there, dramatic situations, dramatic
rhetoric, and dramatic converse. The _Iliad_ is a conspicuous example of
this; the movement in the earlier portion of it being full of debate and
defiance among its characters, and these dramatic elements recurring, if
less frequently, throughout the entire work. To many persons the episodes
in the narrative of the _Divina Commedia_ that give rise to converse,
whether tender, terrible, or pathetic, are the most delightful portions of
it. What is it that makes the first six books of _Paradise Lost_ so much
more telling than the later ones? Surely it is the magnificence of the
speeches emanating from the mouths of the chief characters. _Childe
Harold_ is ostensibly only descriptive, reflective, and narrative; but the
personality and supposed wrongs of Byron himself, so frequently
introduced, confer on it, beyond these characters, certain features of the
drama and of dramatic action. Moreover, the magnificent ruins bequeathed
to the seven-hilled city by the fall of the Roman Empire enter so largely
into the fourth canto that this includes in it every species of verse,
from the descriptive to the dramatic. To cite a much smaller example, I
once said to Tennyson, "Do you not think that, had one met in a tragedy
with the couplet from Pope (_Ep. to the Sat._ ii. 205)--

  _F._ You're strangely proud ...

  _P._ Yes, I am proud: I must be proud to see
       Men not afraid of God, afraid of _me_

--one would be right in regarding it as very fine, dramatically?" and he
replied, "Yes, certainly." I recall the circumstance because it is an
extreme illustration of the momentary intrusion of one style into another.

By slow but successive stages we have reached conclusions that may be thus
briefly stated. (1) The essentials of great poetry are not to be found in
poetry exclusively descriptive. (2) They are rarely to be met with in
poetry that is lyrical, and then only when reflection of a high order, as
in Wordsworth's _Intimations of Immortality_, or what is equivalent to
action operating on a great theme, as in Byron's _Isles of Greece_,
largely and conspicuously enters into these. (3) That they are to be met
with in Reflective Poetry of the very highest character, but never
throughout an exclusively reflective poem of any length. (4) That they are
chiefly to be sought for and most frequently found in either epic or
dramatic poetry where description, emotion, thought, and action all
co-operate to produce the result; that result being, to adduce supreme
examples, the _Iliad_, _Paradise Lost_, the _Divina Commedia_, the third
and fourth cantos of _Childe Harold_, _Hamlet_, _King Lear_, _Macbeth_.

Many years ago, in a couple of papers published in the _Contemporary
Review_ on "New and Old Canons of Poetic Criticism," I propounded, as the
most satisfactory definition of poetry generally, that it is "the
transfiguration, in musical verse, of the Real into the Ideal"; and I have
more than once advocated the definition. The definition applies to poetry
of all kinds. But, while this is so, the transfiguration must operate on a
great theme greatly treated, either lyrically, reflectively, epically, or
dramatically, in order to produce great poetry.

I fancy I hear some people saying, "Quite so; who ever denied or doubted
it?" The answer must be that, for some time past, it has been tacitly, and
often explicitly, denied by critics and readers alike; reviewers to-day
criticising poetry in utter disregard and contravention of any such
canons, and readers in their conversation and practice following suit,
apparently without any knowledge or suspicion that such canons exist. Had
it been otherwise, an inquiry into the essentials of great poetry would
have been unnecessary.

The permanent passions of mankind--love, religion, patriotism,
humanitarianism, hate, revenge, ambition; the conflict between free will
and fate; the rise and fall of empires--these are all great themes, and,
if greatly treated, and in accordance with the essentials applicable to
all poetry, may produce poetry of the loftiest kind; the underlying reason
being what, as usual, has been better and more convincingly stated by
Shakespeare than by any one else:

  We [actors on the stage] are not all alone unhappy:
  This wide and universal theatre
  Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
  Wherein we play.

For the great treatment of great themes in Epic, and yet more in Dramatic,
Poetry, think of what is required! Not mere fancy, not mere emotion, but a
wide and lofty imagination, a full and flexible style, a copious and ready
vocabulary, an ear for verbal melody and all its cadences, profound
knowledge of men, women, and things in general, a congenital and
cultivated sense of form--the foundation of beauty and majesty alike, in
all art; an experience of all the passions, yet the attainment to a
certain majestic freedom from servitude to these; the descriptive,
lyrical, and reflective capacity; abundance and variety of illustration; a
strong apprehension and grasp of the Real, with the impulse and power to
transfigure it into the Ideal, so that the Ideal shall seem to the reader
to be the Real; in a word, "blood and judgment," as Shakespeare says, "so
commingled." These are the qualifications of the writers that have
stirred, and still stir, in its worthier portion, the admiration,
reverence, and gratitude of mankind.

Even this does not exhaust the requisite endowments of those who aspire to
write great poetry. Their sympathy with all that is demands from them a
fund of practical good sense, too often lacking in merely lyrical
poets--a circumstance that may render their work less attractive to the
average person, and even make it seem to such to be wanting in genius
altogether. Sane they must essentially be; and their native sanity must
have been fortified by some share in practical affairs, while their
robustness of mind must have received aid from the open air. They will be
found to be neither extravagant optimists nor extravagant pessimists, but
wise teachers and indulgent moralists; neither teaching nor preaching
overmuch in their verse, but unintentionally and almost unconsciously
communicating their wisdom to others by radiation. Dante always speaks of
Virgil as "Il Saggio." Tennyson puts it well where he says of the poet,
"He saw through good, through ill; He saw through his own soul."
Architecture, sculpture, music, the kindred of his own art, must be
appreciated by him; and nothing that affects mankind is alien to him.

I should like to say, incidentally, and I hope I may do so without giving
offence, that I have sometimes thought that, in an age much given to
theorising and to considering itself more "scientific" than perhaps it
really is, the diminution of practical wisdom, somewhat conspicuous of
late in politics and legislation, is due in no small measure to the
neglect of the higher poetry, in favour, where concern for poetry survives
at all, of brief snatches of lyrical emotion. Hence legislation by emotion
and haste.

If we ask ourselves, as it is but natural to do, what are the chief causes
that have brought about this change in public taste and sentiment, I
believe they will be found to be mainly as follow. (1) The decay of
authority already mentioned. (2) The perpetual reading of novels of every
kind, many of them of a pernicious nature, but nearly all of them
calculated to indispose readers to care for any poetry save of an
emotional lyrical character. (3) The increase--be it said with all due
chivalry--of feminine influence and activity alike in society and
literature; women, generally speaking, showing but a moderate interest in
great issues in public life, and finding their satisfaction, so far as
reading is concerned, in prose romances, newspapers, and short lyrics. (4)
The febrile quality of contemporaneous existence; the ephemeral
excitements of the passing hour; and the wholesale surrender to the
transient as contrasted with the permanent, great poetry concerning itself
only with this last--a circumstance that makes the _Odyssey_, for
instance, as fresh to-day as though it had been published for the first
time last autumn; whereas the life of most prose romances, like the lady's
scanty attire, _commence à peine, et finit tout de suite_.

I hope no one will imagine--for they would be mistaken in doing so--that
these pages have been prompted by a disposition to depreciate the age in
which we are living, and just as little to manifest disdain of it, though
one need not conceal the opinion, in respect of the lower literary taste
so widely prevalent, that, as Shakespeare says, "it is not and it cannot
be for good." My object has been something very different from this. It
has been to recall canons of poetry and standards of literary excellence
which I believe can never be destroyed though for a time they may be
obscured, and which have of late been too much ignored. That such neglect
will in the very faintest degree prevent those whose instinct it is to
say, with Virgil, "paulo majora canamus," from following their vocation,
without a thought of readers or reviewers, I do not suppose. It is good
for poets, and indeed for others, not to be too quickly appreciated. It is
dangerous for them, and sometimes fatal, to be praised prematurely.

The great stumbling-block of literary criticism, alike for the
professional critic and the unprofessional reader, is the tacit assumption
that the opinions, preferences, and estimates of to-day are not merely
passing opinions, preferences, and estimates, but will be permanent ones;
opinions, preferences, and estimates for all future time. There is no
foundation, save self-complacency, for such a surmise. What solid reason
is there to suppose that the present age is any more infallible in its
literary judgments than preceding ages? On the contrary, its infallibility
is all the less probable because of the precipitation with which its
opinions are arrived at. Yet past ages have been proved over and over
again, in course of time, to be wrong in their estimate of contemporaneous
poetry, in consequence of their mistaking the passing for the permanent.
The consequence in our time of this error has been that one has seen the
passing away of several works loudly declared on their appearance to be
immortal. The only chance a critic has of being right in his judgments is
to measure contemporary literature by standards and canons upon which
rests the fame of the great poets and writers of the past, and, tried by
which, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Byron have been assigned
their enduring rank in the poetic hierarchy. "Blessings be with them,"
says Wordsworth (Sonnet xxv.):

  Blessings be with them, and eternal praise,
  Who gave us nobler lives and nobler cares,
  The Poets who on earth have made us heirs
  Of truth and pure delight by heavenly lays.

It is only the great poets, the poets in whom we can recognise the
essentials of greatness, who can do that for us. They are not rebels, as
are too many lyrical poets, but reconcilers; and they offer to external
things and current ideas both receptivity and resistance, being not merely
of an age, but for all time. It is their thoughts and the verse in which
their thoughts are embodied that are enduringly memorable. For great
poetry, as Wordsworth teaches us in a single line, is not mere emotion,
not mere subtle or sensuous singing, but

  Reason in her most exalted mood.

A still greater authority than Wordsworth, no other than Milton, has
immortalised in verse the principles for which I have ventured to contend
in prose. In _Paradise Regained_ (iv. 255-266) he says:

  There thou shalt hear and learn the secret power
  Of harmony, in tones and numbers hit
  By voice or hand, and various-measured verse,
  Æolian charms and Dorian lyrick odes,
  And his who gave them breath but higher sung,
  Blind Melesigenes, thence Homer called,
  Whose poem Phoebus challenged for his own;
  Thence what the lofty grave tragedians taught
  In Chorus or Iambick, teachers best
  Of moral prudence, with delight receiv'd,
  In brief sententious precepts, while they treat
  Of fate, and chance, and change in human life,
  High actions and high passions best describing.


Women, to whom a barbarous description, willingly accepted by themselves,
has been applied, have recently been much in the public eye, and still
more in the public prints. But I should not class them under the
designation of feminine; and, though they may have invaded prose fiction,
they have not been, and I think they never will be, met with in Poetry.
They are noisy, but numerically weak. Eve listening to the Tempter, then
bewailing her weakness; Ruth amid the alien corn; Magdalen and her box of
spikenard; Helen of Troy following evil-hearted Paris; Beatrice in heaven;
Una and the milk-white lamb; Rosalind and Celia in _As You Like It_; the
Lily Maid of Astolat in the _Idylls of the King_--these are women of whom,
or, at least, of the sentiments and sympathies of whom, as manifested in
English poetry, I wish to speak. The most progressive age one can possibly
conceive will never succeed in leaving human nature behind, and I have not
the smallest doubt that women will continue to be womanly to the end of

What, then, is feminine as contrasted with masculine? what is womanly as
compared with manly, whether in literature or in life? Men and women have
many qualities in common, and resemble more than they differ from each
other. But while, speaking generally, the man's main occupations lie
abroad, the woman's main occupation is at home. He has to deal with public
and collective interests; she has to do with private and individual
interests. We need not go so far as to say, with Kingsley, that man must
work and woman must weep; but at least he has to fight and to struggle,
she has to solace and to heal. Ambition, sometimes high, sometimes low,
but still ambition--ambition and success are the main motives and purpose
of his life. Her noblest ambition is to foster domestic happiness, to
bring comfort to the afflicted, and to move with unostentatious but
salutary step over the vast territory of human affection. While man busies
himself with the world of politics, with the world of commerce, with the
rise and fall of empires, with the fortunes and fate of humanity, woman
tends the hearth, visits the sick, consoles the suffering--in a word, in
all she does, fulfils the sacred offices of love.

Now the highest literature--and Poetry is confessedly the highest
literature--is a transfiguring reflex of life; and in its magic mirror we
perforce see reflected all the thoughts, feelings, interests, passions,
and events of human existence. In English poetry, therefore, we shall
expect to hear both the masculine note and the feminine note; and in what
proportions we hear them will be incidentally indicated in the course of
my remarks. But it is the Feminine Note in which we are at present
specially interested, and if I am asked to define briefly what I mean by
this Feminine Note, I should say that I mean the private or domestic note,
the compassionate note or note of pity, and the sentimental note or note
of romantic love.

Now I am well aware there are numbers of people who look on poetry as
something essentially and necessarily feminine, and who will say, "What do
you mean by speaking of the Feminine Note in English poetry? Surely it has
no other note, poetry being an effeminate business altogether, with which
men, real robust men, need not concern themselves." The people who hold
this opinion can have but a very limited acquaintance with English poetry,
and a yet more limited familiarity with the poetry of other ages and other
nations that has come down to us. As a matter of fact, though the feminine
note has rarely, if ever, been wholly absent from poetry, it is only of
late years comparatively that it has become a very audible note. I should
be carried too far away from my subject if I attempted to demonstrate the
accuracy of this assertion by a survey, however rapid, of all the
best-known poetry in languages, dead and living, of other times and other
peoples. But to cite one or two familiar examples, is the feminine note, I
may ask, the predominant, or even a frequent, note in the _Iliad_? The
poem opens, it is true, with a dispute among the Argive chiefs, and mainly
between Agamemnon and Achilles, concerning two young women. But how
quickly Chryseis and Bryseis fall into the background, and in place of any
further reference to them, we have a tempest of manly voices, the clang of
arms, the recriminations of the Gods up in Olympus, and the cataloguing of
the Grecian ships! Lest perhaps tender interest should be absent overmuch,
just when Paris is being worsted in his duel with Menelaus for the
determination of the siege, Venus carries him off under cover of a cloud,
and brings Helen to his side. Then follows a scene in which the fair cause
of strife and slaughter stands distracted between her passion for Paris,
her shame at his defeat and flight, and her recollection of the brave
Argive Chief she once called her lord. But more fighting promptly
supervenes, and, save in such a passing episode as the lovely leave-taking
of Hector and Andromache, the poem moves on through a magnificent medley
of fighting, plotting, and speech-making. Even in that exceptionally
tender episode what are the farewell words of Hector to his wife, "Go to
your house and see to your own duties, the loom and the distaff, and bid
your handmaidens perform their tasks. But for war shall _man_ provide." It
is over the dead body of Patroclus that Achilles weeps; and whatever tears
are shed in the _Iliad_ are shed by heroes for heroes. Life, as
represented in that poem, is a life in which woman plays a shadowy and
insignificant part, and wherein domestic sentiments are subordinated to
the rivalries of the Gods and the clash of chariot-wheels.

This subordinating of woman to man, of individual aims and private
feelings to great aims and public issues, is equally present in the great
Latin poem, the _Æneid_. "Arms and the Man, I sing," says Virgil at once,
and in the very first line of his poem; and though in one book out of the
twelve of which it consists he sings of the woman likewise, it is but to
leave her to her fate and to liberate Æneas from her seductions. Virgil is
rightly esteemed the most tender and refined writer of antiquity. Yet to
the modern reader, accustomed to the feminine note in poetry, there is
something amazingly callous, almost cruel, in the lines with which, while
the funeral pyre of Dido is still smoking, he tells us how Æneas, without
a moment's hesitation, makes for the open sea, and sails away from
Carthage. But then the main business of Æneas was not to soothe or satisfy
the Carthaginian queen, but to build the city and found the Empire of
Rome. "Spirits," says Shakespeare, "are not finely touched save to fine
issues"; and it never would have occurred to Virgil to allow the hero of
the _Æneid_ to be diverted from his masculine purpose by anything so
secondary as the love, or even the self-immolation, of a woman.

Let us, however, overleap the intervening centuries, and betake ourselves
to the poetry of our own land and our own language. Chaucer, the first
great English poet, was, like all writers of supreme genius, a prolific
and voluminous writer, and we have thousands of verses of his besides the
Prologue to the _Canterbury Tales_. But it is by this latter work that he
is best known; and it is pre-eminently and adequately representative, both
of his own genius and of the temper of the times in which he lived. You
will have to hunt very diligently through his description of the Knight,
the Squire, the Yeoman, the Prioress, the Monk, the Merchant, the Sergeant
of the Law, the Franklin, the Miller, the Manciple, and the rest of his
jovial company, in order to find anything approaching the feminine note.
He says little about what any of them thought, and absolutely nothing
concerning what they felt, but confines himself to descriptions of their
personal appearance, of their conduct and their character, in a word, of
their external presentation of themselves. The Knight who wore a doublet
all stained by his coat of mail, was well mounted, and had ridden far, no
man farther. The Squire, or page, had curly locks, and had borne himself
well in Flanders and Picardy. The Yeoman bore a weighty bow, handled his
arrows and tackle in admirable fashion, and was dressed in a coat of
green. The Monk was fat and in good case, and loved a roast swan more than
any other dish. The Friar, we are told, had made many a marriage at his
own cost, and would get a farthing out of a poor widow, though she had
only one shoe left. The Franklin had a white beard and a high complexion,
kept a capital table, and blew up his cook loudly if the sauces were not
to his liking. The Wife of Bath had married five husbands, not to speak of
other company in her youth; and the Sumpnor loved garlic, onions, and
leeks, had a fiery face, and doated on strong wine. There is nothing very
feminine in all this, is there? The one sole touch of tenderness that I
can remember, and it is very elementary and introduced quite casually, is
that in which we are told that the Prioress is so full of pity that she
would weep if she saw a mouse caught in a trap. One can easily surmise
what sort of tales would proceed from such downright, hearty, unromantic
personages; and, save where any of them recite well-known stories from
ancient poets, their own narratives are as buxom, burly, and as
unsentimental as themselves. If princes and princesses, fine lords and
ladies, be the heroes and heroines of the Tale, a certain amount of
conventional pity is extended to their woes. But if the personages of the
story be, as they for the most part are, common folk, and such as the
story-tellers themselves would be likely to know, their misfortunes and
mishaps are used merely as a theme for mirth and merciless banter. The
humour displayed is excellent, but it is not the humour of _charity_. It
is not compassionate, and it is not feminine. The feminine note is not
absent from Chaucer's Tales, but it is generally a subordinate note, a
rare note, a note scarcely heard in his great concert of masculine

Passing from the pages of Chaucer to those of Spenser is like passing from
some cheery tavern where the ale is good and the jokes are excellent, but
a trifle coarse, and the company diverting but a little mixed, to the
banqueting-hall of some stately palace, where the wines and meats are of
the choicest, where all the guests are of high degree, the women all fair,
the men all courtly, and where fine manners and dignified speech leave no
place for loud lewd laughter or even for homely familiarity. Surely in one
who is such a poet, and such a gentleman, and in every respect, to quote a
line of his own "a very perfect gentle knight," we shall come across, ever
and anon at least, the feminine note. And indeed we do. The first three
stanzas of the _Fairy Queen_ are dedicated to the description of the
Knight that was pricking on the plain. But listen to the fourth:

  A lovely lady rode him fair beside,
  Upon a lowly ass more white than snow;
  Yet she much whiter; but the same did hide
  Under a veil that wimpled was full low,
  And over all a black stole did she throw;
  As one that inly mourned, so was she sad,
  And heavy sate upon her palfrey slow.
  Seemëd at heart some hidden care she had.
  And by her in a line a milk-white lamb she lad.
  So pure and innocent as that same lamb
  She was, in life and every virtuous lore.
  She by descent from royal lineage came.

Her name, as doubtless you well know, was Una, and, when by foul
enchantment she is severed a while from her true knight, harken with what
a truly feminine note Spenser bewails her misfortune:

  Nought is there under heaven's wide hollowness
  Did recover more dear compassion of the mind
  Than beauty brought to unworthy wretchedness
  Through envy's snare, or fortune's freaks unkind.
  I, whether lately through her brightness blind,
  Or through allegiance, and fast fealty
  Which I do owe unto all womankind,
  Feel my heart prest with so great agony,
  When such I see, that all for pity I could die.

Spenser cannot endure the thought of beauty in distress. So at once he
brings upon the scene a ramping lion, which, in the ordinary course of
things would have put a speedy end to her woes. But not so Spenser's lion:

  Instead thereof he kissed her weary feet,
  And licked her lily hands with fawning tongue,
  As he her wrongëd innocence did weet.
  O how can beauty master the most strong.

And thus he goes on:

  The lion would not leave her desolate,
  But with her went along, as a strong guard
  Of her chaste person, and a faithful mate
  Of her sad troubles and misfortunes hard:
  Still when she slept, he kept both watch and ward,
  And when she waked, he waited diligent
  With humble service to her will prepared.

This allegiance and fast fealty which Spenser declares he owes unto all
womankind is the attitude, not only of all true knights and all true
gentlemen, but likewise, I trust, of all true poets. But do not suppose on
that account that Spenser is a feminine poet. He is very much the reverse.
It would be impossible for a poet to be more masculine than he.

  Upon a great adventure he was bound,

he says at once of his hero, and describes how the knight's heart groaned
to prove his prowess in battle brave. Spenser has the feminine note, but
in subordination to the masculine note; and if I were asked to name some
one quality by which you may know whether a poet be of the very highest
rank, I should be disposed to say, "See if in his poetry you meet with the
feminine note and the masculine note, and if the first be duly
subordinated to the second."

I wish it were possible, within the limit I have here assigned myself, to
apply this test and pursue this enquiry at length in regard to
Shakespeare, in regard to Milton, and likewise in regard to Dryden and
Pope. But of this I am sure that the wider and deeper the survey the more
clear would be the conclusion that in Shakespeare, as we might have
expected, the masculine note and the feminine note are heard in perfect
harmony, but by far the larger volume of sound proceeds from the former.

When, then, was it that the feminine note, the domestic or personal note,
the compassionate note or note of pity, the purely sentimental note, was
first heard in English poetry as a note asserting equality with the
masculine note, and tending to assert itself as the dominant note?

One of the most beautiful and best-known poems in the English language is
Gray's _Elegy written in a Country Churchyard_; and in the following
stanzas which many of you will recognise as belonging to it, do we not
seem to overhear something like the note of which we are in search?--

  Beneath those rugged elms, that yew tree's shade,
  Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
  Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
  The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

  The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
  The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
  The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
  No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

  For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
  Or busy housewife ply her ev'ning care:
  No children run to lisp their sire's return,
  Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Here our sympathy is asked, not for kings and princesses, not for great
lords and fine ladies, not for the rise and fall of empires, but for the
rude forefathers of the hamlet, for the busy housewife, for the
hard-working peasant and his children, for homely joys and the annals of
the poor. But Gray does not maintain this note beyond the five stanzas I
have just quoted. He quickly again lapses into the traditional, the
classic, the purely masculine note:

  The boast of Heraldry, the pomp of Pow'r,
  And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e'er gave,
  Await alike th' inevitable hour,
  The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

  Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
  If Mem'ry o'er their tombs no trophies raise,
  Where through the long-drawn aisle, and fretted vault,
  The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

  Can storied urn, or animated bust,
  Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
  Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
  Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

The stanzas that follow are splendid stanzas, but they are the stately and
sonorous verse of a detached and moralising mind, not the pathetic verse
of a sympathising heart. We have to wait another twenty years before we
come upon a poem of consequence in which the feminine note is not only
present, but paramount. In the year 1770, nearly a century and a half
ago, appeared Goldsmith's poem, _The Deserted Village_, and in it I catch,
for the first time, as the prevailing and predominant note, the note of
feminine compassion, the note of humble happiness and humble grief. In
Goldsmith's verse we hear nothing of great folks except to be told how
small and insignificant are the ills which they can cause or cure.

  Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
  A breath can make them, as a breath hath made;
  But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
  When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

Goldsmith's themes in _The Deserted Village_ are avowedly:

  The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
  The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
  The decent church that topped the neighbouring hill,
  The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
  For talking age and whispering lovers made.

We seem to have travelled centuries away from the _Troilus and Cressida_,
or the _Palamon and Arcite_ of Chaucer, from the Red Cross Knight and Una,
from the Britomart, the Florimel, the Calidore, the Gloriana of Spenser,
from the kingly ambitions and princely passions of Shakespeare, from the
throes and denunciations of _Paradise Lost_, and equally from the
coffee-house epigrams and savage satire of Pope. We have at last got among
ordinary people, among humble folk, people of our own flesh and blood,
with simple joys and simple sorrows. What could be more unlike the poetry
we have so far been surveying than these lines from _The Deserted

  Sweet was the sound when oft at evening's close
  Up yonder hill the village murmur rose,
  There, as I passed, with careless steps and slow,
  The mingling notes came softened from below.
  The swain responsive as the milkmaid sung,
  The sober herd that lowed to meet their young,
  The noisy geese that gabbled o'er the pool,
  The playful children just let loose from school.

Which of you does not remember the description in the same poem of the
Village Clergyman? the man who was to all his country dear, etc. Some of
you, I daresay, know it by heart. Nothing is too lowly, some would say,
nothing too mean, for Goldsmith's tender Muse. He loves to dwell on the
splendour of the humble parlour, on the whitewashed wall, the sanded
floor, the varnished clock, the chest of drawers, and the chimney-piece
with its row of broken teacups. Truly it is a feminine Muse which can make
poetry, and, in my opinion, very charming poetry, out of broken teacups.

The feminine note once struck, the note of personal tenderness, of
domestic interest, of compassion for the homely, the suffering, or the
secluded was never again to be absent from English poetry; and Cowper
continued, without a break, the still sad music of humanity first clearly
uttered by Goldsmith. What is the name of Cowper's principal and most
ambitious poem? As you know, it is called _The Task_; and what are the
respective titles of the six books into which it is divided? They are:
_The Sofa_, _The Time-Piece_, _The Garden_, _The Winter Evening_, _The
Winter Morning Walk_, _The Winter Walk at Noon_. Other poems of a kindred
character are entitled _Hope_, _Charity_, _Conversation_, _Retirement_.
Open what page you will of Cowper's verse, and you will be pretty sure to
find him either denouncing things which women, good women, at least, find
abhorrent, such as the slave-trade, gin-drinking, gambling, profligacy,
profane language, or dwelling on occupations which are dear to them.

  O for a lodge in some vast wilderness,

he exclaims--

  Some boundless contiguity of shade,
  Where rumour of oppression and deceit
  Of unsuccessful or successful war,
  Might never reach me more! My ear is pained,
  My soul is sick with every day's report
  Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled.
  There is no flesh in man's obdurate heart,
  It does not feel for man.

These are the opening lines of the _Time-Piece_, and they sound what may
be called the note of feminine indignation; a note which is reverted to by
him again and again.

More placidly but still in the same spirit, he exclaims:

  Now stir the fire and close the shutters fast,
  Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
  And while the bubbling and loud hissing urn
  Throws up a steaming column, and the cups
  That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
  So let us welcome peaceful evening in.

Farther on, he describes how--

  'Tis pleasant through the loopholes of retreat
  To peep at such a world, to see the stir
  Of the great Babel, and not feel the crowd.
  Thus sitting, and surveying thus at ease
  The globe and its concerns, I seem advanced
  To some secure and more than mortal height,
  That liberates and exempts me from them all.

Again, invoking evening, he says:

  Come then, and thou shalt find thy votary calm
  Or make me so. Composure is thy gift:
  And whether I devote the gentle hours of evening
  To books, to music, or the poet's toil,
  To weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit,
  Or turning silken threads round ivory reels,
  When they command whom man was born to please.

Could there well be a more feminine picture than that? All the politics,
commerce, passions, conflicts of the world are shut out by Mrs. Unwin's
comfortable curtains, and, with her and Lady Austen for sympathising
companions, the poet fills his time, with perfect satisfaction, by holding
their skeins of wool, and meditating such homely lines as these:

  For I, contented with a humble theme,
  Have poured my stream of panegyric down
  The vale of nature where it creeps and winds
  Among her lovely works, with a secure
  And unambitious ease reflecting clear
  If not the virtues, yet the worth of brutes.
  And I am recompensed, and deem the toils
  Of poetry not lost, if verse of mine
  May stand between an animal and woe,
  And teach one tyrant pity for his drudge.

Cowper was never married, nor ever, as far as I know, in love, though Lady
Austen, to her and his misfortune, for a time seemed to fancy he was; and
in his verse therefore we do not meet with the note of amatory sentiment.
But what love is there in this world more beautiful, more touching, more
truly romantic, than the love of a mother for her son, and of a son for
his mother? And where has it been more charmingly expressed than in
Cowper's lines on the receipt of his mother's picture? After that
beautiful outburst--

  O that those lips had language! Life has passed
  With me but roughly since I heard thee last

--he proceeds to recall the home, the scenes, the tender incidents of his
childhood, but, most of all, the fond care bestowed on him by his mother:

  Thy nightly visits to my chamber made
  That thou mightst know me safe and warmly laid,
  Thy fragrant waters on my cheek bestowed
  By thy own hand, till fresh they were and glowed,
  All this, and more endearing still than all,
  Thy constant flow of love that knew no fall,
  Ne'er roughened by those cataracts and breaks
  That humour interposed too often makes;
  All this still legible in memory's page,
  And still to be so to my latest age,
  Adds joy to duty, makes me glad to pay
  Such honour to thee as my numbers may,
  Perhaps a frail memorial, but sincere,
  Not scorned in Heaven, though little noticed here.

The lines are not in what is called the highest vein of poetry. They have
not the bluff masculinity of Chaucer. They lack the magic of Spenser. They
do not purify the passions through terror as is done by _Lear_ or
_Macbeth_, and they are much inferior in majesty to the

  Cherubic trumpets blowing martial sound

of Milton. But they come straight from the heart, and go straight to the
heart. They are thoroughly human, what we all have felt, or are much to be
pitied if we have not felt. They are instinct with the holiest form of
domestic piety. They are feminine in the best sense, and have all the
feminine power to attract, to chasten, and to subdue.

As far as character and conduct are concerned, there could not well be two
poets more unlike than Cowper and Burns; and their poetry is as unlike as
their temperament. I fear Burns indulged in most of the vices against
which Cowper inveighs; and not unoften he glorified them in verse. Upon
that theme do not ask me to dwell this evening. All it is necessary to
point out here is, that in Burns, as in Cowper, and as in Goldsmith, we
have the compassionate note, the note of pity for suffering, of sympathy
with the lowly; in a word, we again have the feminine note. In _The
Cotter's Saturday Night_ Burns paints a picture, as complete as it is
simple, of humble life. We have the cotter returning home through the
chill November blast with the weary beasts; the collecting of his spades,
his mattocks, and his hoes; the arrival at his cottage; the expectant wee
things running out to meet him; the ingle-nook blinking bonnily; the
cheerful supper of wholesome porridge; the reading of a passage from the
Bible, the evening hymn, and the family prayer before retiring to rest.
There is a line in _The Cotter's Saturday Night_ which might be taken as
the text on which most of Burns's poems are written:

  The cottage leaves the palace far behind.

All his sympathies are with cottages and cottagers, whether he be
expressly describing their existence, writing _A Man's a Man for a' that_,
_The Birks of Aberfeldy_, _Auld Lang Syne_, or addressing lines to a mouse
whose nest he has turned up with his plough. All are written in a spirit
of compassion for suffering, of sympathy with the lowly, of admiration for
honest poverty. They are fundamentally tender, and, though expressed in
manly fashion enough, fundamentally feminine, the poetry of a man who
lived habitually under the influence of women.

I think it will be allowed that I have given no grudging admiration to the
feminine note in English poetry, and in so far as it is a note of sympathy
with the more humble and less fortunate ones of the earth. But, in verse,
kindly and compassionate sentiment is not everything. Indeed, it is
nothing at all unless it be expressed in such a manner, the manner
suffused with charm of style, that it is thereby raised to the dignity of
true poetry. There are many excellent persons who accept as poetry any
sentiment, or any opinion expressed in metre with which they happen to
agree. But neither sound opinion nor wholesome sentiment suffices to
produce that exceedingly delicate and subtle thing which alone is rightly
termed poetry, and, in abandoning lofty themes, and descending to humbler
ones, writers of verse unquestionably expose themselves to the danger not
only of not rising above the level of their subject, but even of sinking
below it. The Romans had a proverb that you cannot carve a Mercury out of
every piece of wood, meaning thereby that by reason of Mercury not being a
standing or reposing figure, but a figure flying through the air, and
therefore with limbs and wings extended, the material out of which he is
made has to be both considerable in size and excellent in quality. What is
true of Mercury is truer still of Apollo. You cannot make poetry out of
every subject; and your only chance of making poetry out of any subject is
to do so by treating the subject either nobly, or with charm. Realism,
unadulterated Realism, which is a dangerous experiment in prose, is a
sheer impossibility in poetry; for in poetry what is offered us, and what
delights us, is not realistic but ideal representation. No doubt the very
music of verse is part of the means whereby this ideal representation is
effected; but it will not of itself suffice, as may easily be proved by
reciting mere nonsense verses in which the rhythm or music may be
faultless. I could quote page after page from Cowper, which is verse only,
and not poetry, because it is nothing more than the bare statement of a
fact set forth in lines consisting of so many feet. Here, for instance, is
a specimen. It comes in his poem on _The Sofa_:

  Joint-stools were then created, on three legs,
  Upborne they stood: three legs upholding firm
  A mossy slab, in fashion square or round.
  At length a generation more refined
  Improved the simple plan, made three legs four,
  Gave them a twisted form vermicular
  And o'er the seat with plenteous wadding stuffed
  Induced a splendid cover, green and blue,
  Yellow and red, of tapestry richly wrought,
  And woven close, or needlework sublime.

Perhaps you think this is a parody of Cowper. But I can assure you it is
nothing of the kind. It was written by the poet himself; and in his
abounding pages you will find hundreds of verses of this realistic and
pedestrian character. But not Cowper alone, one much greater than Cowper,
one who rose over and over again to the very heaven of poesy, Wordsworth
himself, has likewise left hundreds, aye, thousands of verses, little
better than the passage I have just read from Cowper, through the mistaken
notion that kindly feeling, compassion for the poor and the patient, and
sound moral sentiments, when expressed in verse, must result in poetry.
There is no one here whose admiration of Wordsworth at his best can be
greater than mine, but, in order to show you how the feminine note in
poetry, the note of sympathy with the weak, the obscure, and the
unfortunate, can even in the voice of a great master of poetry, lapse into
verse utterly destitute of the soul and spirit of poetry, I will ask you
to allow me to read you a portion of _Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman_:

  And he is lean and he is sick;
  His body, dwindled and awry,
  Rests upon ankles swoln and thick;
  His legs are thin and dry.
  One prop he has, and only one,
  His Wife, an aged woman,
  Lives with him, near the waterfall,
  Upon the village Common.

  Oft, working by her husband's side,
  Ruth does what Simon cannot do;
  For she, with scanty cause for pride,
  Is stouter of the two.
  And though you with your utmost skill
  From labour could not wean them,
  Alas! 'tis very little--all
  Which they can do between them.

  O Reader! had you in your mind
  Such stores as silent thought can bring,
  O gentle Reader! you would find
  A tale in everything.
  What more I have to say is short,
  And you must kindly take it:
  It is no tale; but, should you _think_,
  Perhaps a tale you'll make it.

Is not that sorry stuff, regarded as poetry? Wordsworth here had the
assistance of the music, not only of verse, but of rhyme; and with what a
result! It is the feminine note of pity in its dotage, whereby we see
that it is not enough to have a warm heart, to have tender feelings, to be
full of sympathy for the suffering, and then to express them in verse. In
the prose of conversation and of everyday life, kindly feeling is all well
enough. But the Heavenly Muse will not place herself at our disposal so
readily and cheaply. She is a very difficult lady, is the Heavenly Muse,
not easily won, and never allowing you, if you want to remain in her good
graces, to approach her, that is to say, in dressing gown and slippers.
She is the noblest and most gracious lady in the world, and the best, the
most refined, the most elevating of companions. Therefore you must come
into her presence and win her favour, not with free-and-easy gait and in
slovenly attire, but arrayed in your very best, and with courtly and
deferential mien. When poets wrote of gods and goddesses, of mighty
sieges, and of the foundation and fall of empires; when their theme was
the madness of princes, and the tragic fate of kings, when their hero was
Lucifer, Son of the Morning, nay, even when they discoursed of free will
and fate, or of the drawing-room intrigues of persons to whom powder,
patches, billets-doux were the chief things in existence, there was no
need to remind them that their style must be as lofty, as dignified, as
refined, or as finished as their subject. No doubt, they sometimes waxed
stilted and fell into excess, whether in rhetoric or in conceits, but they
never forgot themselves so far as to be slovenly or familiar. Stella, you
know, said Swift could write beautifully about a broomstick. Possibly he
could; but note the concession, that if a man writes, at least if he would
write poetry, he must write _beautifully_. Both Cowper and Wordsworth set
the example of writing verse that is not beautiful, though indeed Young
in his _Night Thoughts_, and Thomson in _The Seasons_, had already done
something of the same kind. But they have not the authority of Cowper,
much less the authority of Wordsworth. Let who will be the authority for
it, prosaic utterance in verse, realism in rhyme, no matter what the
subject, is an incongruity that cannot be too severely condemned. A very
large proportion of the verse of Crabbe, once so popular, but now, I
fancy, but little read, is of little value, by reason of the presence of
this defect. Yet while I indicate, and venture to reprove, the feebleness
into which the feminine note in English poetry has too often declined and
deteriorated, never let us forget that it has contributed lovely and
immortal poetry to the language, poetry to be found in Wordsworth, poetry
such as melts us almost to tears in Hood's _Song of the Shirt_, or in Mrs.
Barrett Browning's _The Cry of the Children_. Horace, who was a great
critic as well as a great poet, said long ago that it is extremely
difficult to express oneself concerning ordinary everyday facts and
feelings in a becoming and agreeable manner; and to do this in verse
demands supreme genius. As a set-off to the example of feebleness I just
now cited in Wordsworth, listen how, when the mood of inspiration is on
him, he can see a Highland girl reaping in a field--surely an ordinary
everyday sight--and threw around her the heavenly halo of the divinest

  Behold her, single in the field,
  Yon solitary Highland Lass!
  Reaping and singing by herself;
  Stop here, or gently pass!
  Alone she cuts, and binds the grain,
  And sings a melancholy strain;
  O listen! for the Vale profound
  Is overflowing with the sound.

  No Nightingale did ever chaunt
  So sweetly to reposing bands
  Of Travellers in some shady haunt,
  Among Arabian sands:
  A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
  In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
  Breaking the silence of the seas
  Among the farthest Hebrides.

  Will no one tell me what she sings?
  Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
  For old, unhappy, far-off things,
  And battles long ago:
  Or is it some more humble lay,
  Familiar matter of to-day?
  Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
  That has been, and may be again?

  Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
  As if her song could have no ending;
  I saw her singing at her work,
  And o'er the sickle bending;--
  I listened till I had my fill,
  And when I mounted up the hill,
  The music in my heart I bore,
  Long after it was heard no more.

But there is another manifestation of the feminine note in English poetry,
distinct from, though doubtless akin to, the one we have been considering;
a note which likewise was not heard in it till about a hundred years ago,
but which has been heard very frequently since, and which seems at times
to threaten to become its dominant and all-prevailing note, or at any rate
the only one that is keenly listened to. Instead of the note of interest
in and pity for others, it has become the note of interest in and pity
either for oneself, or for one's other self; a note so strongly personal
and suggestive as to become egotistic and entirely self-regarding. This
is the amatory or erotic note, which I think you will all recognise when I
give it that designation; the note which appears to consider the love of
the sexes as the only important thing in life, and certainly the only
thing worth writing or singing about. More than two thousand years ago, a
Greek poet wrote a lyric beginning, "I would fain sing of the heroes of
the House of Atreus, I would fain chant the glories of the line of Cadmus;
but my lyre refuses to sound any note save that of love." In these days
the poet who expressed that sentiment and acted on it would have a great
many listeners; and no doubt Anacreon, too, had his audience in ancient
Greece. But he was not ranked by them side by side with their great poets
who _did_ take the tragic story of the House of Atreus for their theme. It
can only be when feminine influence is supreme in society and in
literature, and when the feminine note in poetry has become, or threatens
to become, paramount, that the sentiment and practice of Anacreon is
viewed with approbation and favour. Byron has said in a well-known

  For love is of man's life a thing apart;
    'Tis woman's whole existence.

If I know anything about women, that is a gross exaggeration, unless in
the term love be included love of parents, love of brothers and sisters,
love of children, in a word, every form and manifestation of affection.
Still it is not necessary to deny--indeed if it be true it is necessary to
admit--that love, in the narrower if more intense signification of the
word, does play a larger part in the lives, or at any rate in the
imagination, of most women than it does in the lives and the imagination
of most men; and it is not to be denied that practically all women, and a
fair sprinkling of men, now take an almost exclusive interest in the
amatory note in poetry. Nor let any one say that this was always so, and
that poetry and poets have from time immemorial occupied themselves mainly
with the passion of love. Indeed they have not done so. It would be to
show an utter ignorance of the genius of Homer, of the great Greek
dramatists, of Virgil, of Dante, of Spenser, of Shakespeare, of Milton,
and of the temper of the times in which they lived, to say that they could
sound only notes of love. They sounded these sometimes, but seldom and
rarely, in comparison with their other and more masculine notes, and
always in due subordination to these. I will not go so far as to say that
they thought, with Napoleon, that love is the occupation of the idle, and
the idleness of the occupied, but they knew that however absorbing for a
season the passion of love as described by many poets and by nearly all
modern novelists may be, it _is_ a thing apart; and, as such, they dealt
with it. They did not ignore its existence, or even its importance, but
they did not exaggerate its existence and its importance, relatively to
other interests, other occupations, other duties in life. It was because
of the high fealty and allegiance which Spenser declared he owed to all
womankind that he did not represent women as perpetually sighing or being
sighed for by men. It was because Shakespeare had such absolute
familiarity, not with this or that part of life, but with the whole of it,
that even in _Romeo and Juliet_, in _Othello_, in _Measure for Measure_,
and again in _As You Like It_, he represented the passion of love at work
and in operation along with other sentiments and other passions; and, in
the greater portion of his dramas either does not introduce it at all, or
assigns to it a quite subordinate place. In _Romeo and Juliet_ the brave
Mercutio, the Tybalt "deaf to peace," the garrulous nurse, the true
apothecary, the comfortable Friar, as Juliet calls him, all these and
more, have their exits and their entrances, and all, in turn, demand our
attention. _Romeo and Juliet_ is a love-drama indeed; but even in _Romeo
and Juliet_, though love occupies the foremost place and plays the leading
part, it stands in relation to other passions and other characters, and
moves onward to its doom surrounded and accompanied by a medley of other
circumstances and occurrences; just as true love, even the most
engrossing, does in real life. The same just apprehension of life, the
same observance of accurate proportion between the action of love and the
action of other passions and other interests, may be observed in
_Othello_. Othello is not represented merely as a man who is consumed and
maddened by jealousy, but as a citizen and a soldier, encompassed by
friends and enemies, and brought into contact, not with Desdemona and Iago
alone, but with the Duke of Venice, with valiant Cassio, with witty
Montano, with Brabantio, with Gratiano, in a word with people and things
in general.

Neither would it be any more to the purpose to object that Herrick, that
Suckling, that Lovelace, and other poets of the seventeenth century wrote
love-lyrics by the score, with many of which I have no doubt you are
acquainted, and some of which are very beautiful. For these, for the most
part, were amatory exercises, not real breathing and burning love-poems;
dainty works of art sometimes, but not sicklied o'er with the pale cast of
amatory passion. They were seventeenth-century reminiscences of the
conventional love-lyrics of the Troubadours of Provence, when there
existed an imaginary court of Love and a host of imaginary lovers.
Indeed, if I were asked what was the truest and most succinct note uttered
by their English imitators, I think I should have to say that I seem to
catch it most distinctly in the lines of Suckling beginning:

  Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
      Prithee, why so pale?

--and ending with:

  If of herself she will not love,
      Nothing can make her:
      The devil take her!

But we catch a very different amatory note, and that of the most personal
and earnest kind, when the voice of Burns, and then the voice of Byron,
were heard in English poetry. In Byron the note is almost always
passionate. In Burns it is sometimes sentimental, sometimes jovial,
sometimes humorous, sometimes frankly and offensively coarse. Many readers
cannot do full justice to the North-Country dialect in the following
lines, but the most Southern of accents could not quite spoil their simple

  The westlin wind blaws loud an' shrill;
    The night's baith mirk and rainy, O;
  But I'll get my plaid, an' out I'll steal,
    An' owre the hills to Nannie, O.

  Her face is fair, her heart is true,
    As spotless as she's bonnie, O:
  The op'ning gowan, wat wi' dew,
    Nae purer is than Nannie, O.

That is one amatory, one feminine note in Burns. Here is another:

  There's nought but care on every han',
    In every hour that passes, O;
  What signifies the life o' man,
    An' 'twere na for the lasses, O.

  Auld Nature swears the lovely dears
    Her noblest work she classes, O:
  Her 'prentice han' she tried on man,
    An' then she made the lasses, O.

I have no fault to find with these lines. They express a profound and
enduring truth; and, if they do so with some little exaggeration, they do
it half humorously, and so protect themselves against criticism. But I
really think--I hope you will not deem me unchivalrous in saying so--we
have, during the present century, heard too much, both in poetry and in
prose romance, as we are now hearing too much in newspapers and magazines,
of "the lasses, O." Not that we can hear too much of them in their
relation to each other, to men, and to life. The "too much" I indicate is
the too much of romantic love, that leaves no place for other emotions and
other passions equally worthy, or relegates these to an inferior position
and to a narrower territory. I should say that there is rather too much of
the sentimental note in Byron, in Shelley, in Keats, just as I should say
that there is not too much of it in Wordsworth or in Scott. To say this is
not to decry Byron, Shelley, and Keats--what lover of poetry would dream
of decrying such splendid poets as they?--but only to indicate a certain
tendency against which I cannot help feeling it is well to be on our
guard. The tendency of the times is to encourage writers, whether in prose
or verse, to deal with this particular theme and to deal with it too
frequently and too pertinaciously. Moreover, there is always a danger that
a subject, in itself so delicate, should not be quite delicately
handled, and indeed that it should be treated with indelicacy and
grossness. That, too, unfortunately, has happened in verse; and when
that happens, then I think the Heavenly Muse veils her face and weeps. It
must have been through some dread of poetry thus dishonouring itself that
Plato in his ideal Republic proposed that poets should be crowned with
laurel, and then banished from the city. For my part, I would willingly
see such poets banished from the city, but not crowned with laurel. No
doubt Plato's notion that poets should chant nothing but hymns to the Gods
and praises of virtue is a little narrow and exacting, but if they are to
sing songs worthy of themselves, and of mankind, they must be on the side
of virtue and of the Gods. Hark with what perfect delicacy a masculine
poet like Scott can deal with a feminine theme:

  What though no rule of courtly grace
  To measured mood had trained her pace,
  A foot more light, a step more true
  Ne'er from the heath-flower dashed the dew.
  Ev'n the light harebell raised its head,
  Elastic from her airy tread.
  What though upon her speech there hung
  The accents of the mountain tongue?
  Those solemn sounds, so soft, so clear,
  The listener held his breath to hear.

That is how manly poets write and think of women. But they do not dwell
over much on the theme; they do not harp on it; and when you turn the
page, you read in a totally different key:

  The fisherman forsook the strand,
  The swarthy smith took dirk and brand;
  With changëd cheer the mower blythe
  Left in the half-cut swathe the scythe.
  The herds without a keeper strayed,
  The plough was in mid-furrow stayed.
  The falconer tossed his hawk away,
  The hunter left the stag at bay.
  Prompt at the signal of alarms,
  Each son of Albion rushed to arms.
  So swept the tumult and affray
  Along the margin of Achray.

Does it not remind you of the passage I quoted from Homer, where Hector
says to Andromache, "Go! to your house, and see to your loom and distaff,
but for war men will provide"? Scott, like Homer, observed the due
proportion between love and life, giving love ample room, but not
allotting it excessive space. If again one wants to hear how delicately,
how worthily, how manfully, poets can write of love and of women, what can
one do better than recall this perfect lyric of Wordsworth's?--

  Three years she grew in sun and shower,
  Then Nature said, "A lovelier flower
  On earth was never sown;
  This Child I to myself will take;
  She shall be mine, and I will make
  A Lady of my own.

  "Myself will to my darling be
  Both law and impulse: and with me
  The Girl, in rock and plain,
  In earth and heaven, in glade and bower,
  Shall feel an overseeing power
  To kindle or restrain.

  "She shall be sportive as the Fawn
  That wild with glee across the lawn
  Or up the mountain springs;
  And hers shall be the breathing balm,
  And hers the silence and the calm
  Of mute insensate things.

  "The floating Clouds their state shall lend
  To her; for her the willow bend;
  Nor shall she fail to see
  Even in the motions of the Storm
  Grace that shall mould the Maiden's form
  By silent sympathy.

  "The Stars of midnight shall be dear
  To her; and she shall lean her ear
  In many a secret place
  Where Rivulets dance their wayward round,
  And beauty born of murmuring sound
  Shall pass into her face.

  "And vital feelings of delight
  Shall rear her form to stately height,
  Her virgin bosom swell;
  Such thoughts to Lucy I will give
  While she and I together live
  Here in this happy Dell."

  Thus Nature spake--The work was done--
  How soon my Lucy's race was run!
  She died, and left to me
  This heath, this calm and quiet scene;
  The memory of what has been,
  And never more will be.

Neither should I like it to be supposed that I think Byron could not write
on this same theme in the noblest manner. He did so frequently; he would
not have been the great poet he is if he had not done so. Listen to this,
for example:

  She walks in beauty, like the night
    Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
  And all that's best of dark and light
    Meet in her aspect and her eyes.
  Thus mellowed to that tender light
    Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

  One shade the more, one ray the less,
    Had half impaired the nameless grace
  Which waves in every raven tress,
    Or softly lightens o'er her face,
  Where thoughts serenely sweet express
    How pure, how dear, their dwelling place.

  And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
    So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
  The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
    But tell of days in goodness spent,
  A mind at peace with all below,
    A heart whose love is innocent.

Women are honoured and exalted when they are sung of in that manner. They
are neither honoured nor exalted, they are dishonoured and degraded, when
they are represented, either in prose or verse, as consuming their days in
morbid longings and sentimental regrets, and men are represented as having
nothing to do save to stimulate or satisfy such feelings. What is written
in prose is not here my theme. I am writing of poets and poetry, and of
the readers of poetry. Novelists and novel-readers are a different and
separate subject. But I may say in passing that poetry and the readers of
poetry have suffered somewhat during the present generation from novels
and novel-readers. A newer and narrower standard of human interest has
been set up; and while the great bulk of readers have turned from poetry
to prose romances, writers of verse have too frequently tried to compete
with novelists, by treating love as the central interest and the main
business of life. Homer did not think it such, neither did Virgil, nor
Dante, nor Chaucer, nor Spenser, nor Shakespeare, nor Milton, and let us
not think so. I urge every one, every now and again at least, to lay down
the novel and open the poem: but let it be a poem that will enlarge one's
conception of life, that will help one to think loftily, and to feel
nobly, will teach us that there is something more important to ourselves
even than _ourselves_, something more important and deserving of attention
than one's own small griefs and own petty woes, the vast and varied
drama of History, the boundless realm of the human imagination, and the
tragic interests and pathetic struggles of mankind. We need not close our
ear to the feminine note, but should not listen to it over much. The
masculine note is necessarily dominant in life; and the note that is
dominant in life should be dominant in literature, and, most of all, in


No celebrations in our time have been more serious, more scholarly, or
more impressive, than the various gatherings, held during the year lately
come to end, in commemoration of the three hundredth anniversary of the
birth of Milton. The earliest was held, with peculiar appropriateness, at
Christ College, Cambridge, in the month of June. In the hall of the
college was given a dinner, presided over by the Master, who had gathered
round him men holding high positions alike at Cambridge and Oxford, and
poets, scholars, artists, historians, and essayists of true distinction.
On this occasion an admirable eulogium of Milton was pronounced by Mr.
Mackail. The dinner was succeeded by a representation of _Comus_ in the
theatre of the town, by the students of the University, with all the charm
that usually accompanies the efforts of competent amateurs. With the
advent of the exact date of the tercentenary the celebrations were many in
number and interesting in variety, in which the members of the British
Academy took a prominent part. On December 9 a musical celebration was
held in the afternoon in the church of St. Mary-le-Bow, at which the
Bishop of Ripon delivered an eloquent sermon; and at the same hour the
writer of this paper gave a private lecture before the Dante Society, from
the notes of which this article is expanded. In the evening he had the
honour of attending and responding to the toast of Poetry, proposed by the
Italian ambassador, at the banquet given by the Lord Mayor of London at
the Mansion House, to the largest and most impressive gathering of men of
eminence in letters, the arts, the drama, the law, and the Legislature,
that has ever met in that spacious hall of traditionally magnificent
hospitality. A week later a performance of _Samson Agonistes_ was given in
the Burlington Theatre before a large and representative audience. The
more serious section of the daily press, moreover, allotted much space to
reports of the celebrations in honour of Milton, the _Times_ maintaining
in this respect its best traditions.

No one, therefore, can say that the birth, the poetry and prose, the
character and the career and the influence of Milton have not been
solemnly celebrated by his countrymen. But it is necessary to add, in the
interests of truth, that the celebrations were essentially and exclusively
scholarly, and were hardly, if at all, shared in by the nation at large.
The intellectual sympathies of the educated were warmly touched, but the
heart of the British people was not reached.

Now let us turn--for the subject of this paper is not Milton alone, but
Milton and Dante--to the sexcentenary of the birth of Dante in the city of
Florence, the month and year of his birth having been May 1265. I had been
spending the winter in the City of Flowers, and I could not leave it, in
order to journey northward, till after the Dante Commemoration had been
held. I shall never forget it. From dawn to dusk the entire Florentine
people held joyous festival; and, with the coming of night, not only the
entire city, its palaces, its bridges, its Duomo, its Palazzo Vecchio,
that noblest symbol of civic liberty, but indeed all its thoroughfares and
the banks of its river broke into lovely light produced by millions of
little cressets filled with olive oil, and every villa round was similarly
illuminated. The pavement of the famous square of the Uffizi Palace was
boarded over; and overhead was spread a canvas covering dyed with the
three Italian national colours. Thither thronged hundreds of peasant men
and women, who danced and made merry till the early hours of the morning.
At the Pagliano Theatre were given _tableaux vivants_ representing the
most famous episodes in the _Divina Commedia_, Ristori, Salvini, and Rossi
reciting the corresponding passages from that immortal poem.

What a comparison, what a contrast it suggests between the solemn,
serious, but limited honour done by us to Milton, and the exultant,
universal, national honour paid by his countrymen to Dante! I should add
that eight thousand Italian municipalities sent a deputation carrying
their local pennons to the square of Santa Croce, where a statue of Dante
was unveiled, amid thunderous applause, to popular gaze.

Now let us turn to a more personal contrast between the two poets. To many
persons, probably to most in these days, the most interesting feature in
the life of a poet is his relation to the sex that is commonly assumed,
perhaps not quite correctly, to be the more romantic of the two. In
comparing Dante and Milton in that respect one is struck at once by the
fact that, while with Dante are not only associated, but inseparably
interwoven, the name and person of Beatrice, so that the two seem in our
minds but one, knit by a spiritual love stronger even than any bond
sanctioned by domestic law for happiness and social stability, Milton had
no Beatrice. It would be idle to contend that the absence of such love has
not detracted, and will not continue to detract, from the interest felt in
Milton and his poetry, not perhaps by scholars, but by the world at large,
and the average lover of poetry and poets. For just as women can do much,
to use a phrase of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, towards "making a poet out
of a man," so can they do even more, either by spiritual influence or by
consummate self-sacrifice, to widen the field and deepen the intensity of
his fame. No poet ever enjoyed this advantage so conspicuously as Dante.
It will perhaps be said that this was effected more by himself than by
her. Let us not be too sure of that. In Italy, far more than in northern
climes, first avowals of love are made by the eyes rather than by the
tongue, by tell-tale looks more than by explicit words. What says
Shakespeare, who knew men and women equally well?

  A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon
  Than love that would seem hid. Love's night is noon.

Dante's own account of his first meeting with Beatrice confirms this
surmise. This is what he himself says, after Beatrice, as Boccaccio
relates, "very winning, very graceful, in aspect very beautiful," had
turned her gaze on Dante from time to time at their first meeting. "At
that moment the spirit of life which abides in the most secret chamber of
the heart began to tremble, and tremulously it spake these words, 'Behold
a god stronger than I, who cometh to lord it over me.'" These may perhaps
seem strange words in which to record the first meeting of a boy of nine
with a girl of eight. But, over and above the fact that they are the
record, written several years later, of the feeling aroused by that first
meeting, allowance must be made for the proverbial precocity of genius,
and also for that of southern over northern temperaments. Its genuineness
is confirmed by the whole sequel, as testified by the _Vita Nuova_ and the
_Divina Commedia_; the presiding presence of Beatrice in both having long
before been anticipated by the words, "If it shall please Him, by whom all
things live, to spare my life for some years longer, I hope to say that of
her which never yet hath been said of any lady." How completely that hope
was attained is to be seen in the closing canto of the _Purgatorio_ and in
the whole of the _Paradiso_.

The life and poetry of Milton contain nothing (if exception be made of his
beautiful and lofty sonnet, written in the very spirit of the _Divina
Commedia_, on his second wife, "Methought I saw my late espousèd Saint")
to compare with Dante's love, at once real and ideal, masculine yet
mystical, for Beatrice. The language used by Eve in addressing Adam, in
_Paradise Lost_--

  My author and disposer, what thou bidst
  Unargued I obey, so God ordains.
  God is thy law, thou mine--

and the very choice of a subject the dominating incident of which is
described by the well-known words, "The woman did give me, and I did eat,"
would almost seem to indicate that Milton's conception of woman, and his
attitude towards her, were such as can be attributed to no other poet. It
is the attitude of unqualified masculine domination. Again, in _Samson
Agonistes_ the very centre and pith of the poem is the incorrigible
frailty and inferiority of women--a thesis that would be extraordinary,
even if true, for a poet. Samson starts with a reproval of himself for
weakly revealing the secret of his strength to the persistent subtlety of
a woman, "that species monster, my accomplished snare," as he calls
Dalila, since "yoked her bond-slave by foul effeminacy"--a servitude he
stigmatises as "ignominious and infamous," whereby he is "shamed,
dishonoured, quelled." When Dalila, profoundly penitent for what she has
done, thereby incurring his displeasure, prostrates herself before him,
and sues for pardon, he spurns her from him with the words,

  Out, out, hyæna! these are thy wonted arts,

and goes on to say they are the arts of every woman, "to deceive, betray,"
and then to "feign remorse." With abject humility she confesses that
curiosity to learn all secrets, and then to publish them, are "common
female faults incident to all our sex." This only causes him to insult and
spurn her yet more fiercely; and he declares that God sent her to "debase
him"--one of those theological peculiarities which apparently made God an
accomplice with "this viper," for which the non-Calvinistic Christian
finds it difficult to account.

Nor can it be said that Milton is here, like Shakespeare, speaking only
dramatically and objectively. The Chorus in _Samson Agonistes_ is of his
opinion, declaring that the man is favoured of heaven who discovers "one
virtuous woman, rarely found"; and that is why

  God's universal law
  Gave to the man despotic power
  Over his female in due awe,
  Nor from that right to part, an hour,
  Smiles she or lour.

After delivering itself of these opinions, the Chorus suddenly exclaims,
"I see a storm," which, in the circumstances, is perhaps scarcely

What a different note is this from that struck by Dante, when he speaks of
"that blessed Beatrice, who now dwells in heaven with the angels, and on
earth in my heart, and with whom my soul is still in love." Far from
thinking that severe command on the part of the one and unquestioning
submission on the part of the other form the proper relation of lover and
maiden, husband and wife, Dante avers that

  Amor e cor gentil son' una cosa,

that love and a gracious gentle heart are one and the same thing; and in
the _Paradiso_, shortly before the close of the poem, he exclaims:

  O Beatrice! dolce guida e cara.

It may perhaps be thought that one might be more lenient towards Milton's
foibles, especially at such a time as the present, in contrasting his
attitude towards woman with that of Dante. But in Milton there was so much
that was noble, so pathetic, and even so attractive, that he can well
afford to have the truth told concerning him; and to omit his view of the
most important of all personal relations in life, as depicted for and
bequeathed to us in his poetry, would be to leave an obvious gap of the
utmost import in comparing and contrasting him with Dante.

But now let us ask, in order to redress the balance, what has Dante to
show, in kind, against _Il Penseroso_, _L'Allegro_, _Lycidas_, and
_Comus_? I put the prose works of both poets aside; and there remains on
the side of Dante only the self-same Dante from first to last, the Dante
of the _Vita Nuova_ and the _Divina Commedia_. Milton, as a poet, had, on
the contrary, a brilliant, an attractive, and a poetically productive
youth. If Dante ever was young in the same sense, he has left no trace of
it in his poetry. Save for Beatrice, there is an austerity even in the
most tender passages of his verse. He seems never to relax in his gravity,
I had almost said in his severity. His very love for Florence is
expressed, for the most part, in harsh upbraiding. An unrelenting awe
dominates his poetry. For Virgil he entertains a humble far-off reverence.
There is no poet of whom it can be so truly said that he remained
unchanged from first to last, and presents to us only one aspect
throughout his works. In reading the English poet one finds oneself in the
presence of two Miltons, not unlike each other in the splendid quality of
the verse, but profoundly differing in tone, temperament, and outlook on
life. In the author of _L'Allegro_, _Il Penseroso_, _Lycidas_, and
_Comus_ there is a youthful buoyancy, an all-pervading cheerful
seriousness worthy of one complacently but justly confident of his powers,
in no degree at war with the world, but on amicable terms with it, and
regarding life on the whole, and on its human side, as a thing to
sympathise with and enjoy. Hear the young Milton's invitation to vernal
exultation and joy:

  But come, thou goddess fair and free,
  In heaven yclept Euphrosyne,
  And, by men, heart-easing Mirth,
  Whom lovely Venus, at a birth,
  With two sister Graces more,
  To ivy-crowned Bacchus bore;
  Or whether (as some sages sing)
  The frolic wind that breathes the spring,
  Zephyr, with Aurora playing,
  As he met her once a-Maying;
  There, on beds of violets blue,
  And fresh-blown roses wash'd in dew,
  Fill'd her with thee, a daughter fair,
  So buxom, blithe, and debonnair.

What is there in Dante to compare with that? There is much by way of
contrast, but no note anywhere in his verse so generous, so exhilarating,
so thoroughly human. And this is how Milton, in the April of his days,

  Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
  Jest, and youthful jollity,
  Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles,
  Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles,
  Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
  And love to live in dimple sleek;
  Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
  And Laughter holding both his sides.
  Come and trip it, as you go,
  On the light fantastic toe;
  And in thy right hand lead with thee
  The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty;
  And, if I give thee honour due,
  Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
  To live with her, and live with thee,
  In unreprovëd pleasures free.

And what, in the yet happy and in no degree morose Milton, are the
"unreproved pleasures"? They are:

  To hear the lark begin his flight,
  And, singing, startle the dull night,
  From his watch-tower in the skies,
  Till the dappled dawn doth rise;
  Then to come, in spite of sorrow,
  And at my window bid good-morrow,
  Through the sweet-briar, or the vine,
  Or the twisted eglantine;
  While the cock, with lively din,
  Scatters the rear of darkness thin,
  And to the stack, or the barn-door,
  Stoutly struts his dames before:
  Oft listening how the hounds and horn
  Cheerly rouse the slumbering morn,
  From the side of some hoar hill,
  Through the high wood echoing shrill.

Where is the stern Puritan Milton in these cheerful, generous verses?
Where the detester and active enemy of the Cavaliers in the lines that
follow, dwelling proudly on the

  Towers and battlements ...
  Bosom'd high in tufted trees,

the homes of the hereditary gentlemen of England? And think of the lines
"Then to the spicy nut-brown ale," down to "The first cock his matin
rings." They are almost Shakespearean in their sympathy with mirth and
laughter, their enjoyment of harmless practical jokes, their boundless
indulgence to human nature. And what is the conclusion of the poem?

  These delights if thou canst give,
  Mirth, with thee I mean to live.

There exists in no language a more lyrical outburst inspired by the
hey-day of life, and lavishly radiating rustic joy. They are as jocund as
a gipsy rondeau of Haydn, as gracious as the tapestries of Fragonard, as
tender as the Amorini of Albani, and as serenely cheerful as the matchless
melodies of Mozart. You may read every line, whether in verse or prose,
that Dante ever wrote, and you will come across no such spring-like note
as this. Frequently he is tearful, tender, pathetic, and paternally
compassionate, but nowhere does he express the faintest sympathy with
"Laughter holding both its sides."

Gradually, however, there stole over the younger Milton a great, a grave
change. His domestic experiences with his first wife could not have
ministered to his happiness or content; experiences partly caused by the
somewhat worldly ideals and desires of his spouse, but still more,
perhaps, by his theory that what the husband bids it is the duty of the
wife "unargued to obey."

Meanwhile the promptings of his muse slackening for a long interval--an
experience that has happened in the lives of other poets--he turned to
prose, and to the controversial side of prose. Being of a dogmatic
temperament, he quickly became involved in the acerbities of political,
theological, and ethical polemics. For a time he employed his
uncompromising pen on what seemed to be the winning side. But the aims of
the ruling party in the Commonwealth were not then, any more than they are
now, in harmony with the main character and ideals of the English people;
and Milton found himself not only in the camp of the vanquished, but
indicated by his previous actions as an object for Anglican and Royalist
retaliation. The buoyant elasticity of youth had subsided in him; even the
generous vigour of early manhood had vanished; and he found himself, in
advanced middle life, disappointed and disheartened. The natural austerity
of his character and principles deepened with his new situation and
changed outlook. He had fallen, as he thought, on evil days and evil
tongues; and, scandalised by the sensual levity of the King's Court and
favourites, he pondered with almost exultant and vindictive retrospect on
Adam and Eve's first disobedience and its fruits, and devoted his severe
genius and magnificent diction to justifying the ways of God to man.

The Milton of these later years was bowed down by many family vexations,
some of them due, no doubt, to his own exacting character and ideas. He
was baffled and beaten in the political field where he had been so doughty
a combatant, and for a time a triumphant one, and was finally deprived of
all hope of regaining his pristine position; and last, and saddest of all,
there fell on him total blindness, which, after his magnificent apostrophe
to _Holy Light, Offspring of Heaven first-born_, he touchingly laments in
the well-known but never too often to be recited passage in the third book
of _Paradise Lost_:

  I sung of Chaos and eternal Night,
  Taught by the heavenly muse to venture down
  The dark descent, and up to reascend,
  Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
  And feel thy sovereign vital lamp; but thou
  Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain
  To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
  So thick a drop serene hath quench'd their orbs,
  Or dim suffusion veil'd. Yet not the more
  Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
  Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
  Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief
  Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks beneath,
  That wash thy hallow'd feet, and warbling flow,
  Nightly I visit; nor sometimes forget
  Those other two equall'd with me in fate,
  So were I equall'd with them in renown,
  Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides,
  And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old.
  Then feed on thoughts, that voluntary move
  Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird
  Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid
  Tunes her nocturnal note. Thus with the year
  Seasons return, but not to me returns
  Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
  Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer's rose,
  Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
  But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
  Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
  Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
  Presented with a universal blank
  Of nature's works, to me expunged and rased,
  And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
  So much the rather, thou celestial light,
  Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
  Irradiate; there plant eyes, all mist from thence
  Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
  Of things invisible to mortal sight.

Could there be poetry of the personal kind more free from reprehensible
egotism, more dignified, more majestic, and at the same time more pathetic
than that? Let us recur to it, and read it, when we are tempted to judge
Milton harshly for any less admirable, less lovable characteristics, from
which no mortal can be wholly free; and the verdict must be, "Everything
is forgiven him, because he suffered much, and expressed those sufferings
in his verse, the truest exponent of his deepest feelings, with
magnanimous and magnificent serenity." Nor let it ever be lost sight of
that, though in the political and theological domain he was anything but
free from fanaticism and bitter partisanship, he uniformly fought for
liberty of speech and printing--liberty, of all our possessions the most
precious, and for the safety and stability of the State the most
indispensable condition. To what extent, in the part Dante played in the
local politics of Florence, which led to his exile, he too was fighting
for liberty, in the sense in which I have just expressed it, it is not
possible for a dispassionate person to hold a confident opinion. In all
probability liberty, as we understand the word, was struggled for and
understood neither by him nor by those who drove him into exile. But, like
Milton, he bore his ostracism with manly dignity, consoling himself and
enriching posterity with a splendid poem, and only craving for safe
shelter and peace, as he said at the monastery gate: _Son' uno che implora

In comparing Milton and Dante one might justly be reproached for an
obvious omission if one did not refer, however briefly, to the intense
love of both for music. Very recently Mr. W. H. Hadow, than whom no one
writes with more knowledge or sympathy of music, lectured before the Royal
Society of Literature on Milton's love and knowledge of it. Music, he
truly said, was Milton's most intimate of delights; and he referred to
what Johnson relates of the poet's constantly playing on the organ. In the
second canto of the _Purgatorio_ Dante recognises the musician Casella,
hails him as "Casella mio," and begs him who on earth had soothed Dante's
soul with music to do the same for him now. Casella obeys, and Dante says
it was done so sweetly that he can hear him still; words that recall
Wordsworth's lovely couplet:

  The music in my heart I bore
  Long after it was heard no more.

To my great surprise an eminent man of letters, who is also a poet, said
to me recently that the present writer was one of the few writers of verse
he knew who loved music, and who continually asked for music, more music,
adding that poets, as a rule, did not care for it. I was amazed, and cited
Shakespeare and Milton as a matter of course, and many a lesser poet,
against so untenable a thesis, concluding with the opening lines of
_Twelfth Night_:

  If music be the food of love, play on.
  Give me excess of it.

Surely music is not only the food of love, but of poetry as well; and do
not "music and sweet poetry agree"?

Another point of similarity between Milton and Dante is their total lack
of humour, so strange in two great poets, and one of them an Englishman.
Chaucer is continually on the edge of boisterous laughter. Spenser seems
constantly on the verge of a well-bred smile. Shakespeare, to use his own
language, asks to be allowed with mirth and laughter to play the fool,
though the most gravely thoughtful and awfully tragic of all poets. The
author of _Childe Harold_ is likewise the author of _The Vision of
Judgment_ and _Don Juan_. Scott is one of the greatest of British
humorists. But on the face of neither Dante nor Milton do we find the
trace of a smile either coming or gone.

The Rev. Lonsdale Ragg, in his searching and erudite work, _Dante and his
Italy_, maintains the opposite view at p. 190 _sqq._ But I, at least, find
him on this head unconvincing. None of the passages in Dante to which he
refers would satisfy the definition of humour as employed by Sterne,
Steele, Addison, or Charles Lamb, and cited by Thackeray in his delightful
papers on _The English Humorists_. Dante is scornful, satirical,
merciless; humorous he never is. Nor is Milton. They meet on the common
ground of uncompromising seriousness.

Another parallel I will presume to draw between Dante and Milton is one of
supreme importance; but I can do so only briefly. No man, in my humble
opinion, has the full requisites of a poet of the highest order unless at
some period or another of his life he has been associated by practice and
direct experience with other men in matters of public interest. Milton and
Dante alike had that experience. So had Chaucer, so had Spenser, so had
Shakespeare, so had Byron. They were men of the world, and did not, as
Matthew Arnold said of Wordsworth, "avert their gaze from half of human
fate." I am aware that the opposite view is assumed in much criticism
to-day; and the highest rank is claimed for poetic recluses who write only
of individual joys, sorrows, and emotions, their own mostly, and manifest
a complete want of concern in the wide issues of mankind. That was not a
standard of criticism till our own time; nor will it, I believe, be the
standard of future ages. Dante and Milton both satisfy the older standard,
the older and the more abiding one.

No comparison of Dante with Milton would be complete that omitted
consideration of the respective themes of their chief works, their two
great epic poems, the _Divina Commedia_ and _Paradise Lost_. I am disposed
to think, though others may think differently, that Dante has in this
respect a signal advantage over Milton. If any one is curious to see how a
man of great parts, but in some respects of rather insular views, can fail
to understand the theme of the _Divina Commedia_, and Dante's treatment of
it, he has only to turn, as Mr. Courthope did in his address to the
British Academy, to Macaulay's essay on Milton, where Dante is written of
as though he were nothing but a great Realist. Many years ago I suggested
as a definition of poetry, and have more than once urged the suggestion,
that it is "the harmonious transfiguration of the Real into the Ideal by
the aid of elevating imagination," so that, when the poet has performed
that operation, his readers accept the ideal representation as real, that
surest test of the greatness of a poet, provided his theme itself be
great. The _Divina Commedia_ stands that test triumphantly; and the result
is that Dante makes credible, even to non-believers while they read the
poem, the central conception and beliefs of medieval Christianity, which
are still those of Roman Catholic Christianity. Hence they remain real
facts for the transfiguring idealism of poets to deal with.

Can the same be said of _Paradise Lost_? What is "real" does not depend on
the arbitrary choice of any one, but on the _communis sensus_, the general
assent of those to whom the treatment of the assumed "real" is addressed.
Is that any longer so in the case of _Paradise Lost_? Are the personality
of the devil, the insurrection of Lucifer and the rebel angels, and their
condemnation to eternal punishment, with power to tempt mortals to do that
which will lead to their sharing that punishment, now believed in by any
large number of Christian Englishmen or English-speaking Christians, or is
it ever likely again to be so believed in? I must leave the question to be
answered by every one for himself. But on the answer to it, it is obvious,
the realistic basis of _Paradise Lost_ depends. If the reply be negative,
then what remains is the magnificence of the imagery and the sonority of
the diction. To extol the one over the other in these respects would
indeed be invidious. It is enough to place them side by side to manifest
their equality. If Milton writes:

                  Him the Almighty Power
  Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
  With hideous ruin and combustion down
  To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
  In adamantine chains and penal fire,
  Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms;

Dante writes:

  Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
  Parole di dolore, accenti d'ira,
  Voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle,
  Facevan un tumulto, il qual s'aggira
  Sempre in quell' aria senza tempo tinta,
  Come l'arena quando il turbo spira.

Withal, it would show imperfect impartiality if one failed to allow that
there is more variety in the _Divina Commedia_ than in _Paradise Lost_.
Milton never halts in his majestic journey to soothe us with such an
episode as that of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, or closes it
with so celestial a strain as that describing the interview of Dante with
Beatrice in Heaven.

No third poet in any nation or tongue could be named that equals Dante and
Milton in erudition, or in the use they made of it in their poetry. The
present writer is himself too lacking in erudition to presume to expatiate
on that theme. Others have done it admirably, and with due competency. But
on this ground, common to them both, I reluctantly part with them. To each
alike may be assigned the words of Ovid, _Os sublime dedit_, and equally
it may be said of both, that, in the splendid phrase of Lucretius, they
passed beyond the _flammantia moenia mundi_. Finally, each could truly
say of himself, in the words of Dante,

  Minerva spira e conducemi Apollo.

"The Goddess of Wisdom inspires me, and the God of Song is my conductor
and my guide."


The present age can hardly be reproached either with an absence of
admirers or with a lack of self-complacency. Even its most fervid
flatterers, however, ever and anon admit that it exhibits a few trifling
defects; and among these is sometimes named a diminution of popular
interest in poetic literature. Some have attributed this decline to one
cause, some to another; but the fact can hardly be disputed. The Heavenly
Muse is suffering a partial eclipse. The gross and material substance of
the earth has somehow got between her and the Soul, that source and centre
of her gentle light; and some enthusiasts aver that with the progress of
Science and the production at will of its precise and steadfast lights,
fitful luminaries of night may henceforth be dispensed with. But spiritual
eclipses, though not to be predicted with the accuracy with which physical
eclipses are foretold, and though unfortunately they endure for longer
periods, are equally transitory; and the nineteenth century was scarcely
original, nor will its successor prove to be correct, in fancying that the
garish and obedient flame of material philosophy will prove a satisfactory
substitute for the precious, if precarious illumination of the Spirit.

Among the causes that have contributed to divert popular affection and
popular sympathy from poetical literature, there are three that deserve to
be specially indicated. The first of these is the multiplication of prose
romances, which, though so much lower in literary value and in artistic
character than poetry, and so much less elevating in their tendency, are
better fitted to stimulate the vulgar imagination, and minister more
freely to the common craving for excitement. The second cause is the
reaction that has settled upon mankind from the fervid hopes inspired by
the propagation of those theories and the propounding of those promises
which the historian associates with the French Revolution. All saner minds
have long since discovered that happiness is to be procured neither for
the individual nor for the community by mere political changes; and the
discovery has been distinctly hostile to literary enthusiasm. Finally,
many poets, and nearly all the critics of poetry, in our time, seem
determined to alienate ordinary human beings from contact with the Muse.
The world is easily persuaded that it is an ignoramus; and the vast
majority of people, after being told, year after year, that what they do
not understand is poetry, and what they do not care one straw about is the
proper theme and the highest expression of song, end by concluding that
poetry has become a mystery beyond their intelligence, a sort of
freemasonry from whose symbols they are jealously excluded. Unable to
appreciate what the critics tell them are the noblest productions of
genius, they modestly infer that between genius and themselves there is no
method of communication; and incapable of reading with pleasure the poetry
they are assured ought to fill them with rapture, they desist from reading
poetry altogether. They have not the self-confidence to choose their own
poets and select their own poetry; and indeed in these days, the only
chance any writer has of being read is that he should first be greatly
talked about. Thus, what between the poets who are talked about by
so-called experts, and thus made notorious, but whom ordinary folks find
unreadable, and the poets, if there be any such, whom ordinary folks would
read with pleasure if they knew of their existence, but of whom they have
scarcely heard, poetry has become "caviare to the general," who content
themselves with the coarser flavour of the novel, and the more easily
digested pabulum of the newspaper.

But if poetry is now comparatively little read, no one can deny that it is
much written about; and many persons would perhaps see in the second of
these facts a reason for doubting the reality of the first. But the
contradiction is only apparent. Poetry is the subject at present of much
prose criticism, prose exposition, and prose controversy; but the
controversialists are largely the poets themselves, or those who aspire to
the title. The subject is treated by them with much earnestness, indeed
with some little heat; and it is easy to perceive that the main object of
most of the disputants is to establish the superiority of the poet whom
the critic himself most admires, and possibly whom he himself most
resembles. The controversy rages around those poets alone who are claimed
by the nineteenth century, and practically, these are five in number;
Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth. Each of these has his
votaries, his disciples, his passionate advocates. The public look on, a
little bewildered; for who is to decide when doctors disagree? Few, if
any, of the disputants lay down explicit canons respecting poetry, which
may enable a competent bystander to play the part of umpire even to his
own satisfaction; and he is left, like the controversialists themselves,
to abide by his own personal tastes, and to estimate poets and poetry
according to his individual fancy.

It was therefore with no slight satisfaction one heard that one of our
poets, who is likewise a critic, but who brings to his criticisms
moderation of language and measure of statement, was about to appraise the
English poets who have written in this century, but who have for many
years joined the Immortals. To Mr. Matthew Arnold, if to any one amongst
us, may be applied the passage from Wordsworth, to be found in the
"Supplementary Essay" published in 1815:

     Whither then shall we turn for that union of qualifications which
     must necessarily exist before the decisions of a critic can be of
     absolute value? For a mind at once poetical and philosophical; for a
     critic whose affections are as free and kindly as the spirit of
     society, and whose understanding is severe as that of dispassionate
     government? Where are we to look for that initiatory composure of
     mind which no selfishness can disturb; for a natural sensibility that
     has been tutored into correctness, without losing anything of its
     quickness; and for active faculties, capable of answering the demands
     which an author of original imagination shall make upon them,
     associated with a judgment that cannot be duped into admiration by
     aught that is unworthy of it? Among those, and those only, who, never
     having suffered their youthful love of poetry to remit much of its
     force, have applied to the consideration of the laws of this art the
     best power of their understandings.

To Mr. Arnold, if to any, we say, this enumeration of the qualities
indispensable to a trustworthy critic of poetry, may be applied; and if
the conclusions at which he bids us to arrive should not turn out to be
such as we can wholly accept, at least we shall have the satisfaction of
feeling that we dissent from one who has not invited our attention in
vain, and who perhaps, by the avowals he incidentally makes in the course
of his argument, has enabled us to hold with all the more confidence
certain opinions which we will endeavour to establish by independent
reasons of our own.

Here, with sufficient brevity for the present, is the conclusion of Mr.
Arnold on the vexed question of the primacy among English poets, no longer
living, of the last century:

     I place Wordsworth's poetry above Byron's, on the whole, although in
     some points he was greatly Byron's inferior. But these two,
     Wordsworth and Byron, stand, it seems to me, first and pre-eminent in
     actual performance, a glorious pair, among the English poets of this
     century. Keats had probably, indeed, a more consummate poetic gift
     than either of them; but he died having produced too little and being
     as yet too immature to rival them. I for my part can never ever think
     of equalling with them any other of their contemporaries; either
     Coleridge, poet and philosopher wrecked in a mist of opium; or
     Shelley, beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his
     luminous wings in vain. Wordsworth and Byron stand out by themselves.
     When the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount her
     poetic glories in the century which has just then ended, the first
     names with her will be these.

We do not propose to traverse the entire field of controversy here lightly
indicated; our purpose being to confine ourselves to a consideration of
Mr. Arnold's particular conclusion, that Wordsworth's poetry should be
placed above Byron's. But before passing to that duty, we may say,
parenthetically, that though we agree with Mr. Arnold that Shelley's
poetry often exhibits a lamentable "want of sound subject-matter," the
claims of the "beautiful and ineffectual angel" are here somewhat
summarily dismissed; and that when Mr. Arnold says further that he "doubts
whether Shelley's delightful Essays and Letters, which deserve to be far
more read than they are now, will not resist the wear and tear of time
better, and finally come to stand higher than his poetry," he makes us
lift our eyes in sheer amazement, and somewhat more than doubt whether
this will not prove to be among the utterly falsified prophecies of very
able critics.

Holding the opinion he does concerning Wordsworth and Byron, Mr. Arnold
has published a selection from the works of both, in distinct and separate
volumes, and he believes that he has thereby rendered an equal service to
each. "Alone," he writes, "among our poets of the earlier part of this
century, Byron and Wordsworth not only furnish material enough for a
volume of this kind, but also, it seems to me, they both of them gain
considerably by being thus exhibited." We, on the contrary, submit that if
the comparison is to end here, and is to be confined to the results
produced by Mr. Arnold's method, a more unjust and inadequate method, as
far as Byron is concerned, could not possibly be resorted to. Wordsworth
gains considerably, but Byron loses considerably, to employ Mr. Arnold's
language, by being thus exhibited. No doubt, Mr. Arnold means to be just.
He always means to be just. But in the very description he gives of the
contents of these two volumes on their respective title-pages, does he not
betray a sort of unconscious consciousness that he is dealing with two
very different poets, and with two poets whose works are very different?
If this be not so, how comes it that he calls one volume _"Poems" of
Wordsworth_, and the other _"Poetry" of Byron_? The distinction is a
genuine one. Indeed, it is something more than genuine; it was inevitable,
and Mr. Arnold was obliged to make it, if the title of each volume was to
describe its contents correctly. The best poems of Wordsworth are short,
most of them remarkably short; and therefore, in a volume of selections
from his works, they can without difficulty be presented in their
integrity. The best poems of Byron, like the best poems of Æschylus, of
Virgil, of Dante, of Shakespeare, of Milton, are of considerable length;
and if selections from Byron are to be made, his best poems must be
mutilated for the purpose. Mr. Arnold has mutilated them accordingly.
Thus, while intending to treat Wordsworth and Byron in precisely the same
manner, he has treated them, and by the very conditions of the case could
not help treating them, in an entirely different manner.

That Mr. Arnold has not been altogether insensible to this objection--and,
indeed, with his calm and dispassionate penetration, he was not likely to
be--is apparent not only in the different description he gives of the
contents of the two volumes, on their respective title-pages, but from
certain observations in his prefatory essay upon Byron. When he says that
"there are portions of Byron's poetry which are far higher in worth, and
far more free from fault than others," or that "Byron cannot but be a
gainer by having attention concentrated upon what is vivid, powerful,
effective, in his work, and withdrawn from what is not so," he is, we
would suggest, stating nothing more than a truism, or what is equally true
of every poet. He is only beating the air, and hesitating to close with
the real difficulty with which he feels himself confronted. But when he
proceeds to urge that "Byron has not a great artist's profound and patient
skill in combining an action or in developing a character,--a skill which
we must watch and follow if we are to do justice to it," he shows that he
feels it to be necessary to offer a defence for applying to Byron a
treatment from which Byron may possibly suffer. We confess, with all our
admiration for Mr. Arnold--and it is as deep as it is sincere--we have
never been able to resist the suspicion that he is _tant soit peu_ a
sophist; and surely it is sophistry, in the course of an attempt to show
that Byron and Wordsworth each equally gain by the "selection" method of
treatment, to urge, with that air of tranquil and well-bred triumph of
which Mr. Arnold is so consummate a master, that "to take passages from
work produced as Byron's was, is a very different thing from taking
passages out of the _Oedipus_ or the _Tempest_ and deprives the poetry
far less of its advantage"? For the question is not whether Sophocles,
Shakespeare, and Byron may be treated ostensibly in the same manner by an
editor of selections, without injustice being done to any of them, but
whether Wordsworth and Byron can. That is the question; and it is not
answered, but avoided, by altering the terms of the proposition.

What, therefore, really remains of this plea of Mr. Arnold's, this excuse
for mutilating Byron's poems and presenting them in fragments, is the
allegation that Byron is not, _above and before all things_, a great,
patient, and systematic artist. That much may be granted; and no competent
critic would deny it. But more cannot be granted than is strictly true;
and candour equally demands that it should be admitted that though Byron
was not long-suffering and far-reaching enough in the conception of his
poems, nor careful and self-critical enough in their execution, he
possessed at least enough of the instinct and the scope of the artist to
produce works that cohere with themselves, and that have a unity of design
sufficiently definite to mark it as something distinct from the mere
succession of executed detail. Will Mr. Arnold seriously pretend that a
more "vivid, powerful, and effective" impression is not created upon the
mind by a perusal of the whole of _Manfred_, than by a perusal of portions
of it, or of one or two dissociated Acts? Mr. Arnold turns Byron's own
modest confessions against himself, and lays stress upon the avowal that
the _Giaour_ is "a string of passages." But if any one were, after due
reflection, to maintain, that more justice is done to Byron by reading
some of its passages than by reading the whole of the poem, we confess we
should be obliged to entertain some doubt as to his own instincts as an
artist. For, where men like Byron are concerned, it is peculiarly true
that the divinity of the Muse shapes their ends, rough-hew these how they
may. Of every one of Byron's tales--the _Siege of Corinth_, _The Bride of
Abydos_, _Parisina_--this is equally true. It has more than once been
observed that _Childe Harold_ suffers from the fact that a period of eight
years elapsed between the composition of the first and second cantos, and
the composition of the third and fourth; and as far as style is concerned,
the contrast is very striking, two of the cantos being for the most part
almost as feeble, and two of them as forcible, as anything deserving the
name of poetry well can be. Nevertheless, there would be no difficulty in
showing, and we think no reader of poetry endowed with a fair amount of
artistic sense would require to be shown, that a certain oneness of
purpose and unity of drift presides over and accompanies the entire poem,
in a word that it is substantially homogeneous; and if any one, after
reading through the third and fourth cantos at a stretch, as we recently
did, were to tell us that he thought a few extracts from each give an
adequate conception of the two, and that reading portions is in effect
equivalent to reading the whole, we should have reached that limit of
controversy which is expressed by a silence that is not assent. It is true
that Mr. Arnold has been fairly lavish in his extracts from _Childe
Harold_; yet out of the 300 stanzas which compose the third and fourth
cantos, his selection contains only 114, or little more than a third. But
it is not only by the curtailment of the quantity, but by the treatment
applied to what is selected, that injury is done to _Childe Harold_. The
passages quoted are scattered at intervals through the volume, so that all
consecutiveness and coherence are lost. The majestic march of the poem is
utterly broken. The subtle argument that lurks in the order of every
poem--whether it be the _lucidus ordo_ of a speech, or an order less
obvious and patent--is completely destroyed. The strain neither begins nor
ends, neither rises nor falls, neither pauses nor progresses. The statue
is shivered to pieces, and we are offered a collection of chips, mixed up
with fragments from other marbles that have been treated with equal
ruthlessness. Here there is a hand, here a portion of a foot, here a
section of the features, here a bit of the torso. They still are
magnificent, and full of suggestiveness. But are they equal and equivalent
to the entire statue? Are they as good as the whole of the original work?
With surprising paradox Mr. Arnold assures us they are considerably

This singular conclusion is attained, it seems to us, by the excessive
assertion, or at least by the exaggerated application, of a theory in
which there is, unquestionably, a solid element of truth. We have said
that Byron is not an austere and consistent artist. But that is not to
affirm that he is not an artist at all; whereas, in thus treating his
productions fragmentarily, Mr. Arnold acts as though such an assertion
were true. Byron, says Mr. Arnold, is not "architectural." But is he not?
There is architecture, and architecture; the severe and systematic
architecture of the Greeks, and the more free, irregular, unmethodical
architecture which we know as Gothic. In the conception, and what in
technical parlance is called the composition, of his works, Byron is
assuredly no Greek. The exquisite oneness of design characteristic of
Athenian genius he certainly did not borrow from the land and the race no
one has so splendidly extolled. But if we turn to some of the noblest
productions of Gothic architecture, what do we find? We find Cathedrals of
unquestioned beauty and of universal fame, produced, it would
superficially seem, almost haphazard; without design, without plan, even
without architect. In our own land we may see Minsters that, begun in the
eleventh, were not finished till the fifteenth century. Like _Childe
Harold_, they bear the evident marks of different ages, and of different
styles; and like _Don Juan_, they show that they were commenced without
their parent knowing where or how they were to end. Nay, like it again,
some of them remain unfinished to this day. But will any one affirm that
their integrity, as they stand, is nothing to them, and nothing to us?
Because no great master-conception presided over their origin and their
execution, will no injury be done to them by taking them to pieces, and
saying, "Here is a lovely apse; here you see a beautiful flying buttress;
here contemplate an exquisite rood-screen; here you have an admirable bit
of the choir, and there a glorious specimen of the roof"?

Nor can it be urged that this illustration does violence to the process
Mr. Arnold has adopted. On the contrary, the analogy is not strong enough;
for _Manfred_, _The Corsair_, _Cain_, _Childe Harold_ itself, were
conceived and executed, not less, but far more homogeneously, than the
edifices with which we have compared them, and if it would be unjust and
inadequate to treat Gothic cathedrals after this fashion, it is still more
unjust and inadequate to treat Byron's poems after this fashion. More
glaring still becomes the injustice, and more utter the inadequacy, when
we remember in whose company he is so treated. Mr. Arnold does not break
Wordsworth's poems to pieces and present us with the fragments; for there
is no necessity to do so. The long ones Mr. Arnold cheerfully throws over,
confessing that _The Excursion_ "can never be a satisfactory work to the
disinterested lover of poetry," and even that Jeffrey was not wrong when
he said of it, "This will never do." To adhere to our metaphor, it is a
large comfortless Meeting-house; and so is the _Recluse_. The best of
Wordsworth's poems, as we have said, and as Mr. Arnold says, are his short
ones. There are charming English cottages, or, if it be preferred--for we
have no intention of decrying them, we admire them vastly--exquisite
little wayside chapels; and they fit conveniently into the space, without
being tampered with, which Mr. Arnold has provided for them. But the best
of Byron's poems are the long ones; are vast Gothic edifices that soar
high into the air and cover a vast amount of ground, and therefore cannot
be compressed into the same compass. We have seen how Mr. Arnold gets over
the difficulty. He pulls them down, places bits and sections of them side
by side with the untouched cottages and still complete oratories of
Wordsworth, and asks us to compare the two. We are far from saying that,
even under these conditions, the comparison ends to Byron's disadvantage.
But it surely must be evident to every one that the conditions are not
equal, and therefore, however fair were the intentions of the editor, that
they are not really just. We should be sorry if any one supposed we
consider Mr. Swinburne as sound a critic as Mr. Arnold. But, upon this
particular question, Mr. Swinburne has propounded a conclusion against
which, we submit, Mr. Arnold contends in vain. "The greatest of Byron's
works was his whole work taken together." Nothing could be more terse or
more true; and if Mr. Swinburne would be content always to form his
judgments thus calmly and comprehensively, and to express them with this
brevity and directness, he would soon come to exercise an authority which
is at present refused by many to his literary verdicts.

But though, if the comparison instituted between Byron and Wordsworth by
Mr. Arnold were to be confined within the conditions he has imposed on
both alike, great injustice would be done to Byron, it may well be doubted
if the plan adopted by Mr. Arnold will really tend to Byron's
disadvantage. On the contrary we suspect that, with the best will in the
world to do all he can for Wordsworth, Mr. Arnold has done him rather an
ill turn. For the whole, or anything approaching to the whole, of the best
of Byron, is not to be found in the volume of selections edited by Mr.
Arnold; and everybody will feel that Byron is a far greater poet than he
could possibly be made to appear by any such method. But all the best
poetry of Wordsworth is in the volume Mr. Arnold dedicates to him; and we
entertain little doubt that there is no dispassionate critic who would not
be obliged to allow that a considerable portion, indeed we fear the
greater portion of it, is not poetry at all. The process Mr. Arnold has
applied to Wordsworth, will have to be applied over again, and with
greater rigour. He has rejected as "not satisfactory work to the
disinterested lover of poetry," an immense quantity of what Wordsworth
conceived to be such. Another editor will have to reject a considerable
proportion of what Mr. Arnold has too indulgently included. His selection
will have to be selected from afresh; and thus, with doubtful
friendliness, he has pointed and prepared the way for some entirely
dispassionate critic who will leave of Wordsworth only what, to "the
disinterested lover of poetry," is worth leaving; and this unfortunately,
though of a high and delightful quality, will prove to be comparatively
little. In a word, to do Byron anything like justice, we require several
volumes of the size of that Mr. Arnold devotes to him; we require, in
fact, most of what he wrote. To do Wordsworth justice, we require a volume
less than half the size of what Mr. Arnold gives us; we require, in fact,
to suppress at least three-fourths of what he wrote.

But, again, we can raise no question, and propound no conclusion which Mr.
Arnold, with his penetrating sense and acute susceptibility, has not
himself more or less discerned. After observing, "we must be on our guard
against Wordsworthians," he thus writes, in a vein of delicate humour:

     I have spoken lightly of Wordsworthians: and if we are to get
     Wordsworth recognised by the public and by the world, we must
     recommend him not in the spirit of a clique, but in the spirit of
     disinterested lovers of poetry. But I am a Wordsworthian myself. I
     can read with pleasure and edification _Peter Bell_, and the whole
     series of _Ecclesiastical Sonnets_, and the addresses to Mr.
     Wilkinson's spade, and even the _Thanksgiving Ode_; everything of
     Wordsworth, I think, except _Vaudracour and Julia_. It is not for
     nothing that one has been brought up in the veneration of a man so
     truly worthy of homage; that one has seen and heard him, lived in his
     neighbourhood, and been familiar with his country.

Alas! even the best of us are mortal; and we accept this graceful passage
as Mr. Arnold's confession that he, too, is a Wordsworthian against whom
we must be on our guard. An extremist of a school he could not now be; but
"it is not for nothing," as he says, that he was trained in it. "Once a
priest," says an Italian proverb, "always a priest"; and, we fear, once a
Wordsworthian, always a Wordsworthian. It is no reproach; but "we must be
on our guard." For our part, we are tolerably familiar with Wordsworth's
country, but, beyond that, we are under no such spell as Mr. Arnold
confesses to above. We entertain profound veneration and homage for
Wordsworth, but it is the result, not so much of early teaching--the most
difficult of all lessons to unlearn--as of independent admiration and
sympathy inspired in riper years. We, too, can read _Peter Bell_ and the
_Ecclesiastical Sonnets_, but with more edification than pleasure; and we
have read, afresh, every word of what Mr. Arnold has included in his
_Poems of Wordsworth_, only to reach the conclusion we have already
stated, that from many, only too many of them, the spirit, the essence,
the indefinable something, of poetry is absent.

We should be sorry to be thought guilty of dogmatism, and there is always
peril in generalisations. Let us therefore descend to particulars, as far
as space will permit, and analyse the contents of Mr. Arnold's _Poems of
Wordsworth_. The volume consists of 317 pages; of which 20 are dedicated
to "Poems of Ballad Form," 92 to "Narrative Poems," 56 to "Lyrical Poems,"
34 to "Poems akin to the Antique and Odes," 32 to "Sonnets," and 83 to
"Reflective and Elegiac Poems."

In the first division, _We are Seven_, _Lucy Gray_, and _The Reverie of
Poor Susan_, are the only poems that can be pronounced wholly
satisfactory, and that give real pleasure. _Anecdote for Fathers_ and
_Alice Fell_ would be just as well away, for they would raise the
reputation of no poet, save it be with those against whom "we must be on
our guard." The poems, _The Childless Father_, _Power of Music_, and
_Star-Gazers_, are redeemed only by their moral; and perhaps of _Power of
Music_, even this cannot be said.

  An Orpheus! an Orpheus!--yes, Faith may grow bold,
  And take to herself all the wonders of old;--
  Near the stately Pantheon you'll meet with the same
  In the street that from Oxford hath borrowed its name.

  His station is there;--and he works on the crowd,
  He sways them with harmony merry and loud;
  He fills with his power all their hearts to the brim--
  Was aught ever heard like his Fiddle and him?

  What an eager assembly! what an empire is this!
  The weary have life, and the hungry have bliss;
  The mourner is cheered, and the anxious have rest;
  And the guilt-burthened soul is no longer opprest.

Then follow eight stanzas, in which the baker, the apprentice, the
newsman, the lamplighter, the porter, the lass with her barrow, the
cripple, the mother, and others, are described as stopping to listen, in
language similar to that of the three stanzas we have quoted; the only
slight improvement upon it being such lines as "She sees the Musician,
'tis all that she sees," until we reach the conclusion:

  Now, coaches and chariots! roar on like a stream;
  Here are twenty souls happy as souls in a dream:
  They are deaf to your murmurs, they care not for you,
  Nor what ye are flying, nor what ye pursue.

The more ardent admirers of Wordsworth are in the habit of assuming that
those persons who approach their favourite poet with a more hesitating
homage, fail to appreciate the beauty of simplicity, and fancy that a
composition is not poetical because it lacks what is called elevation of
language and the "grand style." We can assure them, in all sincerity, that
far from that being the basis of our inability to admire all that they
admire, we admire Wordsworth most, and we admire him immensely, when he is
as simple as it is possible to be. We have just cited a poem, which we
scarcely think deserves that name. But, side by side with it, in Mr.
Arnold's volume, is a much shorter composition, on precisely the same
theme, which is, if possible, still more simple in treatment, but which is
true poetry, if true poetry was ever written. It is called _The Reverie of
Poor Susan_:

  At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
  Hangs a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
  Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
  In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

  'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
  A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
  Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
  And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

  Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
  Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
  And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove's,
  The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

  She looks, and her heart is in heaven; but they fade,
  The mist and the river, the hill and the shade:
  The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
  And the colours have all passed away from her eyes.

After reading _The Reverie of Poor Susan_, we may pay Wordsworth's Muse
the compliment that was paid by the Latin poet to the woman who was
_simplex munditiis_. Its neat simplicity is in great measure the secret of
its success; but it is not mean in its simplicity. Neither, as in the
other poems we have contrasted with it, have we to wait till the end of
the poem for the moral and the meaning. The moral is interwoven and
interfused with it, and every line breathes the soul and essence of the
entire composition. But nearly all these "Poems of Ballad Form" are
didactic; and does not Mr. Arnold tell us, in his preface, "Some kinds of
poetry are in themselves lower kinds than others; the ballad kind is a
lower kind; the didactic kind, still more, is a lower kind"? Of the twenty
pages of these poems of lower kind, we are strongly disposed to think that
the "disinterested lover of poetry" would discard twelve, and retain only
eight, and that Wordsworth, to use Mr. Arnold's phrase, would "stand
higher" if this were done.

But even this proportion between retention and rejection cannot well be
maintained by the disinterested lover of poetry as he advances through the
volume. The "Narrative Poems" occupy nearly a third of it, and in this
section the amount of real poetry is meagre indeed. We had no conception
how many short poems Wordsworth had written, unredeemed by "the gleam, the
light that never was, on sea or land," till we read this collection
consecutively; and we read it in the open air, in a beautiful country, on
the loveliest day of a lovely May. But nothing could possibly attune the
heart of the disinterested lover of poetry to such verses as these:

  When Ruth was left half desolate,
  Her father took another mate;
  And Ruth, not seven years old,
  A slighted child, at her own will
  Went wandering over dale and hill,
  In thoughtless freedom, bold.

  There came a Youth from Georgia's shore--
  A military casque he wore,
  With splendid feathers drest;
  He brought them from the Cherokees;
  The feathers nodded in the breeze,
  And made a gallant crest.

  "Belovèd Ruth!" No more he said.
  The wakeful Ruth at midnight shed
  A solitary tear:
  She thought again--and did agree
  With him to sail across the sea,
  And drive the flying deer.

  "And now, as fitting is and right,
  We in the Church our faith will plight,
  A husband and a wife."
  Even so they did; and I may say
  That to sweet Ruth that happy day
  Was more than human life.

Not only is it impossible, we think, for the disinterested lover of poetry
to read this either with pleasure or with edification, but it is not easy
for him to read it without an ever-broadening smile. As a rule, the verse
to be met with in our less fastidious Magazines is not of a very high
order. But we doubt if the editor of any one of them would consent to
insert the foregoing stanzas, or those that follow, with their, "But as
you have before been told," "Meanwhile, as thus with him it fared, They
for the voyage were prepared," "God help thee, Ruth! Such pains she had,
That she in half a year was mad," and such like specimens of unartistic
and naive childishness. Surely, if there be any one who thinks this
poetry, it must be Mr. Arnold's friend, the British Philistine? If
Murdstone and Quinion could be converted and ever took to reading poetry,
would not this be the sort of verse that would delight them? And would
they not do so by reason of that "stunted sense of beauty," and that
"defective type" of intellect with which Mr. Arnold justly reproaches the
English middle-class?

Did these poems stand alone, in their prosaic puerility, we might be
surprised that Mr. Arnold had reproduced them; but we should have been
content to conclude that, like Homer, both poet and editor had been
nodding. But we turn page after page of these "Narrative Poems" to be
astonished by what we encounter. The next poem to _Ruth_ is _Simon Lee:
The Old Huntsman, with an Incident in which he was Concerned_:

  Few months of life has he in store,
  As he to you will tell,
  For still, the more he works, the more
  Do his weak ankles swell.
  My gentle Reader, I perceive
  How patiently you've waited,
  And now I fear that you'll expect
  Some tale will be related.

  O Reader! had you in your mind
  Such stores as silent thought can bring,
  O gentle Reader! you would find
  A tale in everything.
  What more I have to say is short,
  And you must kindly take it:
  It is no tale; but, should you _think_,
  Perhaps a tale you'll make it.

Simon is grubbing the stump of a tree, but was unequal to the task. The
poet takes the mattock from his hand, and with a blow severs the root, "At
which the poor Old Man so long, And vainly had endeavoured." Thankful
tears come into his eyes, whereupon the poet remarks:

  I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
  With coldness still returning;
  Alas! the gratitude of men
  Hath oftener left me mourning.

The sentiment is nice and pretty, but is it poetry, or, even if it were,
could it make poetry of the doggerel--for surely there really is no other
name for it--that precedes it? And do Wordsworthians against whom Mr.
Arnold tells us we ought to be on our guard, or Wordsworthians who fancy
that we need not be on our guard against _them_, suppose that moralising
correctly and piously in verse about every "incident" in which somebody
happens to be "concerned," renders the narrative a "tale,"--much more,
makes poetry of it? We are far from saying that Wordsworth might not, in a
happier mood, have written poetry upon this particular incident. But we do
say, with some confidence, that he has unfortunately not done so; that the
incident, narrated in the manner in which he has narrated it, cannot of
itself be accepted as poetry--which, as Mr. Arnold well knows, is the
extreme Wordsworthian theory, as advocated by Wordsworth himself in pages
upon pages of controversial prose; and that we are greatly astonished Mr.
Arnold should indirectly lend it countenance, by reprinting and stamping
with his precious approval, such infelicitous triviality as the above. We
cannot shrink from saying this, through an unworthy dread lest we should
be confounded with "the tenth-rate critics and compilers to whom it is
still permissible to speak of Wordsworth's poetry, not only with
ignorance, but with impertinence." Mr. Arnold has himself shown that he
does not hesitate to speak in pretty strong terms of those portions of
Wordsworth's verse which he does not regard as poetry. He describes them
as "abstract verbiage"; he acknowledges that they are so inferior, it
seems wonderful how Wordsworth should have produced them; and in a passage
delightfully humorous he imagines a long passage of Wordsworth being
declaimed at a Social Science Congress to an admiring audience of men with
bald heads and women in spectacles, "and in the soul of any poor child of
nature who may have wandered in thither, an unutterable sense of
lamentation, mourning, and woe."

All that we ask, therefore, is to be allowed the same amount of liberty
which Mr. Arnold himself has exercised, and to be permitted to do what he
has done. We, too, would fain disengage what is valuable in Wordsworth's
poetry from what is worthless. We, too, would fain "exhibit his best work,
and clear away obstructions from around it." But we contend, and we
willingly leave the decision to disinterested lovers of poetry, that such
poems as _Ruth_ and _Simon Lee_ are not only not Wordsworth's best work,
but not good work at all; on the contrary are part of the obstruction from
which it should be cleared.

The next two poems in the "Narrative" section refer to the fidelity of
dogs, and a single stanza will suffice to show that they are of much the
same calibre as the two that precede them:

  But hear a wonder for whose sake
  This lamentable tale I tell!
  A lasting monument of words
  This wonder merits well.
  The Dog, which still was hovering nigh,
  Repeating the same timid cry,
  This Dog, had been through three months' space
  A dweller in that savage place.

Next in order comes _Hart-Leap Well_, which consists of two parts. In the
first we come across such lines and phrases as "Joy sparkled in the
prancing courser's eyes," "A rout that made the echoes roar," "Soon did
the Knight perform what he had said, And far and wide thereof the fame did
ring," "But there is matter for a second rhyme, And I to this would add
another tale," which are simply a distress to the disinterested reader of
poetry. In the second part, the poet warms up, and ends with a passage
which is very beautiful:

  Grey-headed Shepherd, thou hast spoken well;
  Small difference lies between thy creed and mine:
  This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
  His death was mourned by sympathy divine.

  The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
  That is in the green leaves among the groves,
  Maintains a deep and reverential care
  For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.

  The Pleasure-house is dust:--behind, before,
  This is no common waste, no common gloom;
  But Nature, in due course of time, once more
  Shall here put on her beauty and her bloom.

  She leaves these objects to a slow decay,
  That what we are, and have been, may be known;
  But, at the coming of the milder day,
  These monuments shall all be overgrown!

  One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide,
  Taught both by what she shows, and what conceals;
  Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
  With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.

Of course, this is poetry, and very good poetry; and it is, justly, one of
the favourite passages of ardent admirers of Wordsworth. But we can
scarcely refrain from saying that, good as it is, there exists something
of precisely the same kind, and, as it happens, in precisely the same
metre, which is considerably better. Surely, no one will have any
difficulty in naming it. It is Gray's famous _Elegy_. Yet we remember how
indignant the "Wordsworthians against whom we ought to be on our guard"
were with the _Quarterly Review_, because there appeared in it a paper in
which Wordsworth and Gray were compared. To mention them in the same
breath was sacrilege! We do not wish to affirm that the disinterested
lover of poetry believes Gray ever to have scaled the heights where
Wordsworth's wing sometimes floats almost without effort. But it cannot be
uninteresting to mark that, in what we may call the middle notes,
Wordsworth is distinctly inferior to Gray, though ever and anon his voice
gets entirely beyond Gray's compass.

It would be impossible, with any regard for space, to quote from, or even
to name, every poem reproduced by Mr. Arnold, which in our opinion would
have been better suppressed. But if we seem to have established our
contention so far, we think the reader may rely upon it that he would more
or less concur in what else might be said on this score. _The Force of
Prayer_, _The Affliction of Margaret_, _The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian
Woman_, are little if any less trivial than the poems already condemned;
while in _The Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle_, we read six pages
equally poor and unpoetical, suddenly to come upon such a quatrain as the

  Love had he found in huts where poor men lie;
  His daily teachers had been woods and rills,
  The silence that is in the starry sky,
  The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

The last two lines it would be impossible to praise too highly. Only the
silence of profound reverence can do them justice. They are touches like
these, touches like "the harvest of a quiet eye," that give to Wordsworth
his holy predominance, and whatever predominance, after fair examination,
must be adjudged him. But how few they are! Perhaps it is in the nature of
things that they should be so. But being so few and far between, they
cannot fill up the blank that intervenes. They are indeed "Angels'
visits." But even poetry has to do mainly with human guests, and a poet
must be judged, as Mr. Arnold truly affirms, by "the ample body of
powerful work" he leaves behind. We cannot assume that much of
Wordsworth's poetry is not unutterably bad, because some of it is
unutterably beautiful. The utmost we can do is to grant, concerning him,
what he himself said so finely of a young girl:

  If thou appear'st untouched by solemn thought,
  Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
  Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,
  And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
  God being with thee when we know it not.

It is possible that like the "dear child, dear girl," he lay in Abraham's
bosom "all the year," but he communicates the fact, he impresses us with
the fact, but seldom. As a rule, he seems to be outside the Temple
altogether. Hence these magnificent bursts of poetical depth and
sublimity, which, be it said, are peculiar to Wordsworth, are mere short
passages, and there are not many of them. But if they suffice, after a
complete survey of the works of both poets, to place Wordsworth above
Byron, we shall be obliged to conclude that they suffice to place him
above every poet that ever lived. That such a theory of poetry, such a
canon of criticism is untenable, unless we are to cast every hitherto
accepted theory of poetry and every former canon of criticism to the
winds, we trust, in due course, to be able to establish.

We are aware that _The Brothers_ is a favourite composition with
thoroughgoing Wordsworthians. But as we have been told to be on our guard
against them, we need not hesitate to say that it seems to us to consist
of very ordinary verse, and the piece itself to be devoid of any real
poetical temperament, though it fills sixteen pages in Mr. Arnold's
collection. Sixteen more are occupied by _Margaret_, upon which we are
unable to pronounce a different or a modified verdict. Both abound in such
passages as the following:

  He left his house: two wretched days had past,
  And on the third, as wistfully she raised
  Her head from off her pillow, to look forth,
  Like one in trouble, for returning light,
  Within her chamber-casement she espied
  A folded paper, lying as if placed
  To meet her waking eyes. This tremblingly
  She opened--found no writing, but beheld
  Pieces of money carefully enclosed,
  Silver and gold. "I shuddered at the sight,"
  Said Margaret, "for I knew it was his hand
  Which placed it there: and ere that day was ended,
  That long and anxious day! I learned from one
  Sent hither by my husband to impart
  The heavy news,--that he had joined a Troop
  Of soldiers, going to a distant land.
  He left me thus--he could not gather heart
  To take a farewell of me; for he feared
  That I should follow with my Babes, and sink
  Beneath the misery of that wandering life."

If this be poetry, then poetry is very easily written, and what has
hitherto been supposed to be the highest, the most difficult, and the
rarest, of the arts, presents no more difficulty to the person who knows
how to write at all than the simplest, baldest, and most unartistic prose.
What, for instance, is this?--

     At length the expected letter from the kinsman came, with kind
     assurances that he would do his utmost for the welfare of the boy; to
     which requests were added that forthwith he might be sent to him. Ten
     times or more the letter was read over. Isabel went forth to show it
     to the neighbours round; nor was there at that time on English land a
     prouder heart than Luke's. When Isabel had to her house returned, the
     old man said, "He shall depart to-morrow." To this word the housewife
     answered, talking much of things which, if at such short notice he
     should go, would surely be forgotten. But at length she gave consent,
     and Michael was at ease.

Is this prose or verse? We have printed it as prose. Wordsworth wrote it
as verse, and Mr. Arnold has reproduced it as poetry. Had all Wordsworth's
compositions been of this calibre, and a painfully large number of them
are, well might John Stuart Mill affirm that any man of good abilities
might become as good a poet as Wordsworth by giving his mind to it, and we
will add that a man of good abilities could hardly employ them worse. Yet
this passage, and fourteen pages of verse not one whit better than it, are
to be met with in _Michael_, one of the narrative poems Mr. Arnold, with
special emphasis, begs us to admire. "The right sort of verse," he says,
"to choose from Wordsworth, if we are to seize his true and most
characteristic form of expression, is a line like this from _Michael_:

  And never lifted up a single stone.

There is nothing subtle in it, no heightening, no study of poetic style,
strictly so called; yet it is expressive of the highest and most
expressive kind." Of course, in order to properly appreciate it, we must
know the context, which fortunately is easily compressed. Michael and his
son Luke were to build a sheepfold; but, as told in the passage we have
printed, Luke is sent to a kinsman, who will advance him in life. Before
he goes, Michael takes him to lay the first stone of the sheepfold. The
lad then leaves home, falls into dissolute courses, and at last hides
himself beyond the seas. After that, it is narrated of Michael:

  And to that hollow dell from time to time
  Did he repair, to build the Fold of which
  His flock had need. 'Tis not forgotten yet
  The pity which was then in every heart
  For the Old Man--and 'tis believed by all
  That many and many a day he thither went,
  And never lifted up a single stone.

We have asked several disinterested lovers of poetry, some of them ardent
admirers of Wordsworth, what they think of this; and we are bound to say
that most of them failed to see anything in it whatsoever. That is not our
case. We feel the force of the situation, and the apt simplicity of the
concluding line. Yet repeat it, dwell on it, and surrender ourselves to it
as we will, we fail to persuade ourselves that it merits the lofty eulogy
pronounced on it by Mr. Arnold. It is with hesitation that we presume, on
such a point, and where the issue is so direct, to place our opinion in
seeming competition with his; but we can only leave the decision to the
_communis sensus_ of disinterested lovers of poetry. But nothing--not even
Mr. Arnold's authority--could satisfy us that this line suffices to lend
the wings of poetry to fourteen closely printed pages of such pedestrian
verse as that of which _Michael_ for the most part consists.

The only other poem in the "Narrative" section of the volume is _The
Leech-Gatherer_; and it, besides containing many lines of admirable
poetry, is itself a coherently beautiful poem. But when, resuming our
analysis, we enquire how much poetry there is in the 112 pages, or in more
than the third portion of the volume we have as yet examined, what do we
find? Exactly 20, and only 20, which we honestly believe the disinterested
lover of poetry, the critic to whom Mr. Arnold makes appeal, would
recognise as strictly deserving that description. We can seriously assert
that this is the amount we should save from the wreck, if we were editing
a selection from Wordsworth, were disengaging his good work from his bad,
and were seeking to obtain for him readers who care nothing whatever about
him personally, and who only wish ever and anon to steep themselves in the
atmosphere of native and sterling poetry. We are well aware that, from
another and a more extended point of view, Wordsworth never wrote a line,
in verse or in prose, which is not worth preserving, and worth reading.
But that is not at present the question. We are dealing with the critical
contention of a great and influential critic, that "what strikes me with
admiration, what establishes in my opinion Wordsworth's superiority"--to
Byron, be it understood, and to every English poet since Milton--"is the
great and ample body of powerful work which remains to him, even after all
his inferior work has been cleared away." This it is which renders it
necessary to clear away the inferior work, in order that we may see if the
body of "powerful" work that remains be really "ample" or not.

The "Lyrical Poems" contain the best, the most characteristic, and the
most valuable of the compositions of Wordsworth. For our part, we should
have excluded _To a Sky-Lark_, at page 126--not the beautiful one with the
same title at page 142--_Stray Pleasures_, the two poems _At the Grave of
Burns_, _Yarrow Visited_, _Yarrow Revisited_, in spite of their vogue with
Wordsworthians _quand même_, _To May_, and _The Primrose of the Rock_.
There would then be left 33 pages containing the best poems _of their
kind_ anywhere to be found, and of inestimable value to the disinterested
lover of poetry. The fervid lover of poetry knows them by heart, and
carries them with him through life. Is it necessary to give their names?
_She was a Phantom of Delight_, _The Solitary Reaper_, _Three Years She
Grew_, _To the Cuckoo_, _I Wandered lonely as a Cloud_--these, and their
companions, to be found about the middle of Mr. Arnold's volume, are among
the most precious, and will remain among the enduring possessions of
mankind. Nor is it only that they fill the mind with elevating thoughts
and swell the heart with sacred sentiments. They make one regard, with a
peculiar affection, the poet who wrote them. But we must not allow this
literary love to warp literary judgment. No such feeling is awakened for
their authors by _Childe Harold_ or _Hamlet_. But to conclude that
Wordsworth is, therefore, a greater poet than Byron or Shakespeare, would
be as illegitimate in the one instance as in the other. It would be to
imitate the filial and uxorious fondness of the late Mr. Carlyle, who
gravely tells us that his father had a larger intellect than Burns, and
that his amiable, long-suffering wife wrote letters of greater value and
insight than the works of George Sand and George Eliot, and "all the pack
of scribbling women from the beginning of time." To love Wordsworth is
pardonable; nay, it is inevitable to those who are intimate with his
tenderest work. But the critic must disengage his judgment from his
affections, if he is not to mislead the persons he aspires to instruct,
and to injure the art of whose dignity he is bound to be jealous.

Briefly, then, and pursuing to the end the "disinterested-lover-of-poetry"
method recommended to us by Mr. Arnold, and of which we think we have
already given illustrations to enable any one to decide for himself
whether we pursue it with equity and candour, we reach the conclusion
that, of the 317 pages composing Mr. Arnold's collection, only 103, on a
liberal estimate, contain what is worth preserving as poetry; or at least,
if there be any dispute as to whether it is poetry, there can be none,
outside the specially Wordsworthian circle, as to its being very inferior
poetry indeed, and in no degree calculated to confer, extend, or uphold
any man's reputation as a poet. That it is admirable in sentiment and
laudable in moral purpose, may at once be granted. But the purest of
sentiments and the loftiest of purposes do not constitute poetry, even
when apparelled in verse. Indeed we may say of them what Mr. Arnold
himself says of those portions of Wordsworth's writings which he discards,
that they are "doctrine such as we hear in church, religious and
philosophical doctrine; and the attached Wordsworthian loves passages of
such doctrine, and brings them forward in proof of his poet's excellence.
But however true the doctrine may be, it has, as here presented, more of
the characters of _poetic_ truth, the kind of truth we require from a

It may possibly seem an ungracious part to dwell upon the inferior
portions of Wordsworth work, and to play the _rôle_ of Devil's Advocate in
the case of one who is assured beforehand of the honours of canonisation.
But it should be remembered that this invidious task has been imposed upon
us by Mr. Arnold, who has asserted, and challenged contradiction to the
assertion, that in Wordsworth is to be found "an ampler body of powerful
work," which constitutes his superiority over every English poet since
Milton. It is he who has rendered it necessary, in justice to other poets,
to enquire with accuracy, what _is_ the amount of powerful work to be
found in Wordsworth; and this cannot be done without careful and judicial
scrutiny. Our object is the same as Mr. Arnold's; not to decry Wordsworth,
but to ascertain his proper place in relation to other poets. If we seem
to have spoken of him harshly, then so must Mr. Arnold; the only
difference between us being that he thinks a certain proportion of
Wordsworth's verse poor stuff, while we view a yet larger portion of it in
that light. Nor is it the example of Mr. Arnold alone that can be cited in
exoneration of perfect outspokenness. M. Scherer is a distinguished French
critic, whom Mr. Arnold quotes, and M. Scherer has in turn introduced Mr.
Arnold's _Selections_ from Wordsworth to the French public in the pages of
the _Temps_. He is a warm admirer of Wordsworth, and, as Mr. Arnold tells
us, an excessive depreciator of Byron. From him, therefore, we may, with
all the less scruple, cite the following avowals:

     The simplicity of Wordsworth's subjects and manner too often
     degenerates into triviality, the simplicity of his style into
     poverty. He abuses his love for puerile anecdotes, makes us a present
     of stories about dogs, and of recitals of what a little girl has said
     to her sheep. He not only parades enthusiasm for flowers and birds,
     but predilection for beggars, cripples, and idiots. The lower a
     person is in the scale of being, the more he strives to awaken our
     sympathy in his favour. There are no details so minute, so
     insignificant, that he does not take a special pleasure in remarking
     them. Is he narrating a walk he takes in summer, he will speak of
     "the host of insects gathering round his face, and which are ever
     with him as he paces along."

     The habit of seeking and finding lessons in the smallest incidents of
     his walks becomes a didactic mania. He extracts moralities from every
     object, he preaches sermons at every turn. Often, too, this preaching
     vein is far from being poetical. One sometimes seems to be listening
     to the psalm-singing of a Conventicle. This, for example, resembles a
     hymn of Watts.

     The poetry of Wordsworth, with the tendency it always had towards the
     prosaic, often lapses into it altogether.

This, we submit, is only another way of saying what we have ventured to
say, and what Mr. Arnold himself has said. May we not reasonably conclude
that M. Scherer would reject at least all that we have rejected? But, in
any case, that there is substantial agreement between us and him, so far,
is evident.

What, then, is the "ample body of powerful work" that is left of
Wordsworth after the eliminating process has been applied to it by the
disinterested lover of poetry? Between three and four thousand lines;
rather more than the amount of matter in the third and fourth cantos of
_Childe Harold_, rather less than the amount of matter in _Hamlet_. The
quantity therefore, the "body" of work left, is not very large. Still we
should not contest that it was "ample" enough to establish the superiority
of Wordsworth over Byron, if it happened to be sufficiently "powerful" for
the purpose. Though quantity must count for something, even in the
comparison of poet with poet, since quantity implies copiousness, and
usually implies versatility, quality counts for much more, if the
difference in quality be marked, and suffices to abolish the consideration
of quantity altogether, if the superiority in respect of quality be
sufficiently great. If, for example, the four thousand lines, or
thereabouts, of poetry Wordsworth has written, had been embodied, say, in
a _Hamlet_, then work so powerful would have been ample to establish his
superiority not only over every English poet since Milton, but over every
poet since the one who has left us, so to speak, several _Hamlets_.

For what is it that renders _Hamlet_ so great and so powerful? Is it
single lines of beautiful poetry? Is it detached passages of profound and
elevated thought presented in poetic guise? These go for much, more
especially when we consider them in connection with that of which they are
the drapery. But what would they be, and what should we think of them,
detached from the conception of the drama itself, without the plot,
action, and progress of the piece, without the invention and unfolding of
its characters, without its varied and forcible situations, without its
wit, its irony, its humour? What should we think of _Hamlet_ if divested
of the panorama of moving human passions, of its merciless tragedy, and,
finally, of its utter absence of moral so complete, that moralists have
been for a hundred years wrangling what the moral is? These are the
qualities, and these alone, which make great poetry and great poets.

What has Wordsworth of all these? The answer, if candid and disinterested,
must be, Absolutely nothing. He has written no epic, no drama, no poem of
any kind in which so much as an attempt is made to deal with the clashing
of the various passions that "stir this mortal frame." Of Action he is
utterly devoid. Of Invention, he seems absolutely unconscious. He has no
wit; he has no humour. He has conceived no character, he has portrayed no
character. If he can be said to deal with situations at all, they are of
the simplest and most elementary kind, and he does not in any sense create
them. He finds them at his door. No one blames him for making use of them,
where he makes use of them well; but this is a very different thing from
the invention shown in _Macbeth_ or _The Tempest_, or even in _Cain_, in
_Manfred_, and in _The Siege of Corinth_. Sardanapalus is not a Lear, nor
is Myrra a Cordelia. But, as exhibitions and portraitures of human
character and human passion in poetry they are as much beyond _Lucy Gray_,
or _Michael_, or the little Child in _We are Seven_, as Lear and Cordelia
are beyond them in turn.

Upon this point let us again hear M. Scherer:

     We must expect from Wordsworth neither the knowledge of the human
     heart which worldly experience gives, nor that interior drama of the
     passions which a man can describe well only on condition of having
     been their victim, nor those general views upon history and society
     which are formed partly by study, partly by the practice of public
     affairs. Our poet is as much a stranger to the disquietudes of
     thought as to those of ambition, to the sufferings of love and of
     hate as to that resignation at which one arrives when one has
     discerned how very small are the great affairs of this world. He has
     nothing of that sublime melancholy, of those fervid questionings, of
     those audacious revolts, in which poetry delighted fifty years ago.
     Still less has he that mocking scepticism, that raillery now gay now
     bitter, which succeeded the songs of despair. He will never be of
     those who trouble souls as Byron does, who arm them with irony like
     Heine, or who calm them, like Goethe, by the virtue of true
     understanding. Wordsworth is simply a Solitary who has long gazed
     upon Nature and much analysed his own feelings. Scarcely should we
     dare to call him a philosopher, so wanting in him is the reasoning
     and speculative element. Even the title of thinker only half becomes
     him. He is a contemplative.

It is true that, at the end of his review of Wordsworth, and without any
previous admonition that he is going to do so, M. Scherer says, in one
brief sentence, "Wordsworth seems to me to come after Milton, notably
below him in my opinion, but withal the first after him"; thus endorsing
the judgment of Mr. Arnold. But, unlike Mr. Arnold, he makes no attempt to
establish or justify this view, but throws it out, as an _obiter dictum_,
after writing a long essay, every argument and every phrase of which tend
towards a diametrically opposite conclusion. So thoroughly is this the
case, that we can honestly say we agree with every word in his essay, with
the exception of the one brief sentence we have just cited.

But in the longer and more detailed passage quoted above, is not
everything conceded for which we are contending? According to M. Scherer,
Wordsworth has knowledge neither of the human heart nor of the interior
drama of the passions. He has no broad views of history and society. He is
a stranger to love, hatred, ambition, and the disquietudes they cause, as
well as to the disquietudes caused by deep thought; and not having passed
through these, he has necessarily not "come out upon the other side," and
is equally a stranger to the tranquillity of complete knowledge and
complete experience. He is not a philosopher; he is hardly a thinker. He
is a contemplative solitary, who has consorted much with woods, lakes, and
mountains, and has dwelt much upon the sensations they excite in himself.
Verily, this is a sorry equipment for a great poet. Is it an exaggeration
to say that, if all this be true, Wordsworth is destitute of most of the
qualities which in a great poet have hitherto been deemed indispensable?
If, in spite of these remarkable deficiencies, he really be the greatest
English poet since Milton, we shall be forced to conclude that English
poets since Milton have been far less powerful, of far lower calibre, and
of far less value, than has generally been supposed.

What then is the precise value, the real calibre, the particular kind of
power, of that "ampler body of powerful work" which Wordsworth has given
us? We have seen it is not an epic, nor a drama, nor one great
comprehensive poem of any kind. It consists of lyrics, ballads, sonnets,
and odes; of many of which it would not be just or critical to say more
than that they are very sweet and charming, several of which must be
pronounced exquisite, and a few, very few, of which may be designated
sublime. We own we share the general opinion that the greatest composition
of Wordsworth is the _Ode on Intimations of Immortality_. We are surprised
and disappointed to find Mr. Arnold speaking rather coldly of it; and M.
Scherer likewise refers to it in a depreciatory tone, though he gives
different reasons for his conclusion. M. Scherer thinks it "sounds a
little false," and adds that he "cannot help seeing in it a theme adopted
with reference to the poetic developments of which Wordsworth was
susceptible, rather than a very serious belief of the author." We confess
we think the judgment harsh, and the reasons given for it insufficient,
if not indeed irrelevant. The objection Mr. Arnold entertains for it is
that "it has not the character of poetic truth of the best kind; it has no
real solidity. The instinct of delight in Nature and her beauty had no
doubt extraordinary strength in Wordsworth himself as a child. But to say
that universally this instinct is mighty in childhood, and tends to die
away afterwards, is to say what is extremely doubtful."

Now, with all deference to Mr. Arnold, which is due to him in a special
manner when he is expounding Wordsworth, Wordsworth does not say this. In
the first place, Wordsworth, after describing the comparative and
temporary diminution of this instinct, describes its revival and
transfiguration in another guise. But what is far more important to note
is, Wordsworth does _not_ say the instinct is universal. He is writing as
a poet, not as a psychologist; and though he treats of an objective infant
for a time, and uses the pronoun "_our_ infancy," he in reality is
describing his own experience, and letting it take its chance of being the
experience of a certain number of other people. What, we may well ask, can
a poet do more than this, when he gets into the higher range, the upper
atmosphere of poetry? When Shakespeare talks of "the shade of melancholy
boughs," he does not mean that everybody feels them to be melancholy. That
is the privilege--the melancholy privilege, if any one wills it so--of the
higher natures. That what Wordsworth describes in his splendid _Ode_ not
only was true of himself, but is true likewise of all great poetic
spirits, we entertain no doubt; and it will become true of an
ever-increasing number of persons, if mankind is to make progress in the
intimate and integral union of intellectual and poetic sentiment. In our
opinion, the highest note of Wordsworth is struck in this Ode, and
maintained through a composition of considerable length and of
argumentative unity of purpose. It is struck by him elsewhere--indeed in
the lines on Hartley Coleridge, we have a distinct overture, so to speak,
to the Ode; but nowhere is it sustained for so long, or with such oneness,
definiteness, and largeness of aim. There is, perhaps, no finer poem, of
equal length, in any language. We could well understand any one
maintaining that there exists no other so fine.

But, if this Ode be struck out of the account, what remains to represent
an "ample body of powerful work"? For, after all, in criticism, if we
criticise at all, we must use words with some definite meaning. Perhaps
Mr. Arnold would tell us that it is not the business of true Culture to be
too definite; and we should heartily agree with him. One of the things
that makes prose so inferior to poetry is its inaccurate precision. But it
is Mr. Arnold himself who, on this occasion, compels us to be precise. He
has elected to compare Wordsworth with every poet since Milton, and, in
doing so, he has been obliged to use language which, to be of any use,
must be more or less definite. What is meant by "ample"? Still more, what
is meant by "powerful"? Does he mean that Wordsworth's "Lyrical Poems,"
which we think to be the best of Wordsworth's compositions after the Ode,
and which he thinks the best, before the Ode, are "powerful"? Let us quote
perhaps the best of them, already quoted elsewhere, but that can never be
read too often:

  Behold her, single in the field,
  Yon solitary Highland Lass!
  Reaping and singing by herself;
  Stop here, or gently pass!
  Alone she cuts, and binds the grain,
  And sings a melancholy strain;
  O listen! for the Vale profound
  Is overflowing with the sound.

  No Nightingale did ever chaunt
  So sweetly to reposing bands
  Of Travellers in some shady haunt,
  Among Arabian sands:
  A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
  In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
  Breaking the silence of the seas
  Among the farthest Hebrides.

  Will no one tell me what she sings?
  Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
  For old, unhappy, far-off things,
  And battles long ago:
  Or is it some more humble lay,
  Familiar matter of to-day?
  Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
  That has been, and may be again?

  Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
  As if her song could have no ending;
  I saw her singing at her work,
  And o'er the sickle bending;--
  I listened till I had my fill,
  And when I mounted up the hill,
  The music in my heart I bore,
  Long after it was heard no more.

This is exquisite; and of the sort of exquisiteness that leads one, in
private, and in uncritical colloquies, to fall, as the phrase runs, into
ecstasies. But can it, with any regard to accuracy of speech, be described
as "powerful" work? We submit that it cannot. _Lear_ is powerful. The
first six books of _Paradise Lost_ are powerful. The first four cantos of
_Don Juan_ are powerful. The _Ode on Intimations of Immortality_ is
powerful. But unless we are to lose ourselves in a labyrinth of critical
confusion, we must no more allege or allow that _The Solitary Reaper_ is
powerful, than we can affirm that _Where the Bee Sucks_ is powerful, that
Milton's sonnet, _To the Nightingale_ is powerful, or that Byron's _She
Walks in Beauty like the Night_ is powerful. They are all very beautiful;
but that is another matter, and it will not do to confound totally
different things.

How many lyrics, as perfect as the one we have quoted, has Wordsworth
written? We can count but nine; and the most liberal computation could not
extend them beyond twelve. To these would have to be added perhaps twice
as many, very inferior to these, but still very beautiful, a certain
number, but a very limited number, of first-rate sonnets, the Odes we have
referred to, and detached lines and passages from other poems, notably the
passage in the poem _On Revisiting Tintern Abbey_. The result would be
about a third of the amount we ourselves should altogether extract from
Wordsworth, and of which alone it could justly be said that some of it was
powerful, and all of it was very beautiful work.

This is what, we venture to assert, remains, after rigid scrutiny, of "the
ampler body of powerful work" which Wordsworth has given us. These are the
compositions which, according to Mr. Arnold, "in real poetical achievement
... in power, in interest, in the qualities which give enduring
freshness," establish Wordsworth's superiority.

Now can this claim possibly be allowed, unless, as we have said, all
previous canons of criticism, and all previous estimates of poetry are to
be cast to the winds? If it is to be allowed, then Æschylus, Euripides,
Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, must come down from their
pedestals, and be regarded by us with very different eyes from those with
which we have hitherto scanned them. For what are the marks, what the
qualities, which have distinguished these poets above their fellows, and
by reason of which the world has extolled their genius? It is not merely
for poetic diction, for tenderness of sentiment, for elevation of feeling,
for apt simile, appropriate metaphor, illuminating imagery, and the play
of fancy as exhibited in subordinate detail, that we estimate them as we
do. Neither is it, as we have already pointed out, but as we must repeat,
for detached passages of sublimity, nor yet for short poems of exquisite
beauty, that they have been assigned the rank they occupy. They occupy
that rank by reason of their great conceptions, by reason of their
capacity to project long and comparatively complex poems dedicated to a
lofty theme, and to conduct these through all their intricate windings
from first to last, by employing all the arts, all the expedients, all the
resources of Imagination, chief among which are Action, Invention, and
Situation. To these, of course, must be added copious, elastic, and
dignified language, melody, pathos, and just imagery; for, without these,
a man is not a poet at all. These are the very instruments of his craft,
the very credentials of his profession; and if he has these, no one will
challenge his right to be called a poet. But, unless the higher qualities,
the greater credentials are also his, he must be content with an inferior
place, no matter how many beautiful or sublime things he may have said,
and no matter how excellent the doctrines he may have taught. He has
failed to show his mastery over the great materials, his familiarity with
the great purposes, of his art. Wordsworth projected two long poems, _The
Prelude_ and _The Excursion_; and, practically, these two are one. They
are of portentous length; and that is their only claim to be considered
great. They have no Action, no Situation, no Invention, no Characters.
They consist of pages upon pages, nay, of books upon books, of
interminable talk, in which in reality Wordsworth himself is the only
talker. Little of the talk is poetry. Much of it is, as Mr. Arnold says,
"abstract verbiage." But we need not pursue the theme. Mr. Arnold candidly
confesses that when Jeffrey said of _The Excursion_, "this will never do,"
he was quite right.

Unquestionably, he was right; and he would still have been right, even had
_The Excursion_ contained a far greater number of passages of true poetry
than it does. It will be an evil day for poetry, and for the readers of
poetry, if it ever comes to be allowed that the sole or the main function
of poetry is to _talk about_ things, and that a man can get himself
accepted as a great poet by pursuing this course. Unfortunately, it was
Wordsworth's theory that he could. It would be fatal if critics became of
the same opinion. It is their bounden duty, on the contrary, to protest
against such a theory. Wordsworth sets it down, in black and white, both
in prose and verse, over and over again:

  O Reader! had you in your mind
  Such stores as silent thought can bring,
  O gentle Reader! you will find
  A tale in everything.
  What more I have to say is short,
  And you must kindly take it:
  It is no tale; but, should you think,
  Perhaps a tale you'll make it.

Here is the theory full-blown. The poet is not to tell the tale, the
reader is to make it one, by thinking; and if he only thinks enough, he
will find a tale in everything! Could anything be more grotesque, or more
utterly opposed to any sane canon of the function of an author, and his
relation to his readers? It is the business of the poet to tell the tale,
and thereby to set the reader thinking; an altogether different process
from the one here suggested. "Wordsworthians against whom we must be upon
our guard," often cite the following stanza with admiration:

  The moving accident is not my trade;
  To freeze the blood I have no ready arts:
  'Tis my delight, alone in summer shade,
  To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts!

Have they forgotten the "moving accidents by flood and field," or do they
not know whose trade it was to unfold a tale that

  Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood?

Piping a simple song for thinking hearts, is all very well. But it will
not do to say, or to suggest, or to allow it to be inferred, that doing
this makes a man as great a poet as doing what Wordsworth did not and
plainly could not do. In the last book of _The Excursion_, he says:

  Life, death, eternity! momentous themes
  Are they--and might demand a seraph's tongue,
  Were they not equal to their own support;
  And therefore no incompetence of mine
  Could do them wrong....
  Ye wished for art and circumstance, that make
  The individual known and understood;
  And such as my best judgment could select
  From what the place afforded, could be given.

But _no_ subject is equal to its own support, where the poet is concerned,
however it may be with the preacher and the moralist. The poet himself
must support it. We _do_ wish for act and circumstance, in poetry; and
when Wordsworth tells us that he has, in _The Excursion_, given us the
best of these he can, we can only answer that this best is not enough, but
wholly insufficient and inadequate.

That Mr. Arnold would deny all this, if put to him plainly, we do not
believe. It is all the more to be regretted that he should have expressed
himself in such a manner as to encourage others in forming judgments and
holding opinions which imply affirmation to the contrary. When he quotes
from Wordsworth the following lines,

  Of truth, of grandeur, beauty, love, and hope,
  And melancholy fear subdued by faith,
  Of blessëd consolation, in distress,
  Of moral strength and intellectual power,
  Of joy in widest commonalty spread,

and adds that "here we have a poet intent on the best and master thing,"
and wishes us to infer Wordsworth's superiority from that fact, does he
not perceive that he is not only misleading his readers, but flagrantly
contradicting what he himself avers in the selfsame essay? Being "intent"
on these subjects is not enough. A further question remains to be
answered; viz. how has the poet dealt with them? Nowhere has Wordsworth
dealt with them so completely, so ambitiously, so exhaustively, as in _The
Excursion_. Yet what does Mr. Arnold say of it? He says that _The
Excursion_ can never be a satisfactory work to the disinterested lover of
poetry, and that much of it is "a tissue of elevated but abstract
verbiage, alien to the very nature of poetry." It is plain, therefore,
that being "intent" even on "the best and master thing" does not suffice.
The passage Mr. Arnold quotes, leaving the incautious reader to infer that
it _does_ suffice, is merely the

  Life, death, eternity! momentous themes,

and their being "equal to their own support" over again. Wordsworth is
perpetually telling us that his subject is Man, and wishes us to infer
that, the subject being great, what is written on it must be great.
Unfortunately, Man, with him, is like Love with the Scotch girl; it is Man
"in the abstract." Shakespeare also treats of Man; but he treats of him
_in men_, and Wordsworth does not. In fact, he communes. As M. Scherer
says, he is a Solitary, a Contemplative. In a word, he is essentially, and
before all things a subjective poet, and reader after reader has
complained, and critic after critic has confessed, that to be subjective,
not objective, to reflect instead of to act, to think rather than to
narrate, is the bane of modern poetry, and the conclusive mark of the
inferiority of so large a proportion of it.

Yet, this notwithstanding, Mr. Arnold tells us that Wordsworth "deals with
that in which life really consists"; and, not content with this, he
actually goes on to declare that "Wordsworth deals with more of life than
they do";--"they" being every English poet since Milton, and indeed every
poet of every tongue since Milton, with the exception of Goethe! We can
only say that such an assertion is astounding; the most startling paradox,
indeed, we ever encountered in a criticism by a critic of authority. To
argue upon it against Mr. Arnold is, happily, superfluous; for Mr. Arnold
has anticipated and categorically answered his own paradox. Let him open
his own poems; let him turn to _Stanzas In Memory Of Obermann_, and let
him read on until he comes to the following couplet:

  But Wordsworth's eyes avert their ken,
  From half of human fate.

Has he forgotten the passage? or would he now expunge it? Mr. Arnold the
poet, and Mr. Arnold the critic, are evidently at issue. But we think no
one will experience much difficulty in deciding which of two has "hit the
nail on the head," and whether it be sound criticism to affirm that
Wordsworth deals with that in which life really consists, or sound
criticism to affirm that with one half of life he does not deal at all. At
any rate, these rival criticisms are not to be reconciled, and Mr. Arnold
must elect between the two.

What is the first and broad conclusion to be drawn from all that has been
said? It is this: that Wordsworth, as a poet, has treated great subjects
with marked and striking inadequacy, and smaller subjects with marked and
striking success. Now we submit that no man deserves to be called or
considered a great poet who has not treated some great subject in a great
manner. This is the mark, this is the test, of a great poet; and if we
once surrender this distinction, this standard, we soon lose ourselves in
hopeless critical confusion and entanglement. But no great subject _can_
be greatly or adequately treated in poetry, save objectively, and with the
help of action, passion, incident, of all the expedients, in fact, we have
enumerated. It never can be treated adequately or greatly by merely
writing _about_ it. This is all that Wordsworth has done with his great
subjects, with "truth, grandeur, beauty, love," and the rest of them; and
therefore, as far as great subjects are concerned, he has failed, and
failed conspicuously. Where he has succeeded, and succeeded conspicuously,
succeeded admirably, succeeded perfectly, is in smaller subjects, such as
_The Solitary Reaper_, _The Cuckoo_, _Three Years She Grew_, and their
companions. This is to have done much; but it is not to have left behind
"an ample body of powerful work." Much less is it to have left behind an
"ampler" body of powerful work than every English poet since Milton, Byron

For what is the "ample body of powerful work" that Byron has left? If
Byron had failed as completely as Wordsworth in the treatment of his
larger themes, in a word, of his great subjects, then, in spite of much
fine lyrical work in Byron, the palm would have to be adjudged to
Wordsworth. But what critic of authority, who means to retain it, will
come forward and assert that Byron has failed in the treatment of his
larger themes, of his great subjects? Is _Childe Harold_ a failure? Is
_Manfred_ a failure? Is _Cain_ a failure? Is _Don Juan_ a failure? We,
like Mr. Arnold, can honestly say that though we "felt the expiring wave
of Byron's mighty influence," we now "regard him, and have long regarded
him, without illusion"; in fact, with just as little illusion as we regard
Wordsworth, which is perhaps more than Mr. Arnold can yet say. We are
unable to assert, with Scott, that, in _Cain_, "Byron has matched Milton
on his own ground." It would have been very wonderful if he had, as
wonderful as if Virgil had matched Homer on Homer's own ground. "Sero
venientibus ossa"; or, as some one put it during the controversy between
the respective merits of the Ancients and the Moderns, "The Ancients have
stolen all our best ideas." Besides, though Byron has not matched Milton
on the ground Milton occupied first and pretty nigh exhausted, Byron has
done many other things that Milton has not done. We are equally unable to
say that Byron, "as various in composition as Shakespeare himself, has
embraced every topic in human life"; though we strongly incline to think
that a dispassionate and exhaustive survey would show him to be more
various in composition, and to have embraced a greater number of topics
appertaining to human life, than any poet, English or foreign, ancient or
modern, except Shakespeare.[1] Equally unable are we to accept the dictum
of Goethe, which Mr. Arnold vainly endeavours to explain away, by trying
to prove that Goethe did not mean what he certainly said, viz. that Byron
"is in the main greater than any other English poet."

Therefore, as we say, we look upon Byron without any illusion, and without
any wish to extol him above his real rank, by calling on his behalf even
such witnesses as Scott and Goethe. We look at his works with the same
detachment and dispassionateness as we look at the Parthenon or on the
Venus of Milo. But, so looking on them, looking on them not through any
pet theories of our own, not with any moral, theological, or sectarian
bias, but simply with the same "dispassionate-lover-of-poetry" eyes with
which we look on _Antigone_, the _Æneid_, the _Fairy Queen_, or _Faust_,
we find ourselves unable to resist the conclusion, that, like them,
_Childe Harold_, _Manfred_, _Cain_, and _Don Juan_ are great poems, are
great themes, greatly treated. This is not to say that they are perfect,
that they are in every way satisfactory. Is the _Fairy Queen_ perfectly
satisfactory? Is the _Æneid_ perfectly satisfactory? No critic has ever
found them so. Is the _Iliad_ perfectly satisfactory? It would be very odd
if it were, seeing that, as no one but Mr. Gladstone any longer doubts, it
is the work, not of one poet, but of several poets. But when all has been
urged against them that can be urged by the most judicial criticism, they
remain great subjects greatly executed. In the same manner, so do Byron's
greater poems. Roughly and broadly speaking, they _are_ satisfactory;
whereas in no sense can _The Prelude_ and _The Excursion_ be said to be
satisfactory. On the contrary, they are entirely unsatisfactory. In a
word, of Byron's larger works, it may be said that they will "do"; of
Wordsworth's, on the contrary, as Jeffrey said, and as Mr. Arnold himself
allows, they "won't." That is the distinction; and it is an immense one.

Byron is not Shakespeare; for he lags considerably behind Shakespeare in
Invention, Action, and Character, by dint of which, and in conjunction
with which, the highest faculties of the poet are displayed. But a poet
may lag considerably behind Shakespeare, and yet exhibit these in a
conspicuous degree. It is in Character, no doubt, that Byron is more
particularly weak, as compared with Shakespeare, though he is by no means
so weak, in himself, and as compared with others, as people have come to
assume, by hearing the point so superficially iterated. It is not that
Byron cannot depict character; but he does not depict a sufficient number
of characters. They are not numerous and various enough. When M. Scherer
says that "Byron has treated hardly any subject but one--himself," he is
repeating the parrot-cry of very shallow people, and is doing little
justice to his own powers as a critic. Indeed, had Shakespeare never
lived, it is probable that it would never have occurred to any one to urge
against Byron his deficiencies in this respect. It is because he is so
great a poet, because he is so great in other respects, and because some
critics have therefore inadvertently attempted to place him on a level
with Shakespeare, that his inferiority in this particular suggested itself
to those holding a juster view. Once suggested, it was harped upon,
exaggerated, and, we may fairly say, has now been done to death. We
presume, however, that no one would suggest that, even in the poetic
presentation of Character, Byron, however inferior to certain other
writers, is not immeasurably superior to Wordsworth, who never even
attempted to portray Character.

When we turn from the consideration of the power shown by Byron in the
presentation of Character, to his power shown in Action, Invention, and
Situation, the account becomes a very different one. In brisk and rapid
narrative, in striking incident, in prompt and perpetual
movement--qualities in which not only is Wordsworth deficient, but of
which he is absolutely devoid--Byron exhibits his true greatness as a
poet. Even in the _Tales_, in _The Giaour_, _The Bride of Abydos_, _The
Corsair_, _The Siege of Corinth_, _The Prisoner of Chillon_, which it has
of late been the fashion, we had almost said the affectation, to
depreciate, there is a stir, a "go," a swift and swirling torrent of
action, a current of animation, a full and foaming stream of narrative, a
tumult and conflict of incident, which will never cease to be regarded as
among the best, the highest, and the most indispensable elements of
poetry, until we are all laid up in lavender, until we all take to moping
and brooding over our own feelings, until we all confine ourselves to
"smooth passions, smooth discourse, and joyous thought"; until we all
become content

  To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,
  In the loved presence of the cottage-fire.
  And listen to the flapping of the flame,
  Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.

Even if one confined oneself merely to Byron's _Tales_, the assertion that
Wordsworth "deals with more of life" than Byron, would be startling. Love,
hatred, revenge, ambition, the rivalry of creeds, travel, fighting,
fighting by land and fighting by sea, almost every passion, and every form
of adventure, these are the "life" they deal with; and we submit that it
is to deal with a considerable portion of it; with far more of life at any
rate than Wordsworth deals with in the whole of his poems. Listen to his
own confession:

  And thus from day to day my little boat
  Rocks in its harbour, lodging peaceably.

Now turn to Byron:

  O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
  Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
  Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
  Survey our empire, and behold our home.
  These are our realms, no limit to their sway!

That is precisely the difference. The horizon of Byron is so much larger.
Far from it being true that Wordsworth deals with more of life than Byron
does, the precise opposite is the truth, that Byron deals with far more of
life than Wordsworth does, if by life we mean the life of men, of men of
action, of men of the world, and not the life, as M. Scherer says, of
Solitaries, Contemplatives, and Recluses.

If we turn to Byron's Dramas, to _Sardanapalus_, to _The Two Foscari_, to
_The Doge of Venice_, no doubt we crave for yet more action, more
incident, more situation, than Byron gives us. But we do so because
Shakespeare has accustomed us to crave for more; and the craving has been
intensified by the sensational character of modern novels and modern
stage-plays. Nevertheless these are present, in no small amount, in the
plays we have named; and whether people choose to consider the amount
great or small, surely it is immeasurably greater than the amount of
action, invention, and situation Wordsworth exhibits in any and every
poem, of any and every kind, he ever wrote.

We have more than once mentioned _Childe Harold_, but we must refer to it
once more and finally, in support and illustration of what we have been
urging. The persons who are of opinion that Byron never treated any
subject but himself, will perhaps likewise be of opinion that, in _Childe
Harold_, Byron treats only of himself, and that it is a purely
contemplative and subjective poem. A more superficial opinion could not
well be held. In form contemplative, it is in substance a poem full of
action, situation, and incident; in a word, it is a poem essentially and
notably objective. It is the only poem, ostensibly contemplative, of which
this can be said; and it assumes this complexion and character by dint of
Byron's own character, which was above all things active, and could not be
content without action. In _Childe Harold_, Byron summons dead men and
dead nations from their sepulchres, and makes them live and act again. He
revivifies Athens, he resuscitates Rome. He makes Cicero breathe and burn;
he makes the fallen columns and shattered pillars of the Forum as eloquent
as Tully. Petrarch once more waters the tree that bears his lady's name.
The mountains find a tongue. Jura answers from her misty shroud. The
lightning becomes a word. Rousseau tortures himself afresh; Gibbon afresh
saps solemn creeds with solemn sneer; afresh Egeria visits Numa in the
silence of the night, his breast to hers replying. Lake Leman woos, and
kisses away the cries of the Rhone, as they awake. Then she reproves like
a sister's voice. The boats upon the lake are wings to waft us from
distraction. The stars become the poetry of Heaven. Waterloo is fought
before our very eyes. The defiles fatal to Roman rashness are again
crowded with Numidian horse, and Hannibal and Thrasymene flash before our
eyes. A soul is infused into the dead; a spirit is instilled into the
mountains. The torrents talk; the sepulchres act. Movement never ceases,
and the situation is perpetually shifting. Its incidents are almost the
whole of History. In it we have--what M. Scherer justly says Wordsworth
has not--the knowledge of the human heart which worldly experience gives,
the interior drama of the passions which a man can describe well only on
condition of having been their victim, and those general views upon
History and society which are formed partly by study, partly by the
practice of affairs. All this, too, we have, in the third and fourth
cantos--for the first and second are very inferior--presented, in
language, imagery, and music, of the noblest and most elevated kind; till,
swelling, as an organ swells, before it closes, the poem concludes with
that magnificent address to the Ocean, which rounds it off and completes
it, even as the physical ocean rounds off and completes the physical
earth. In no other poem that was ever written are Nature and man--not Man
in the abstract, but men as they act, strive, feel, and suffer--so
thoroughly interfused and interwoven; and they are interwoven and
interfused as they are interwoven and interfused in actual life, not by
men contemplating and talking, but by men doing and acting, in a word, by
living. And if the reference be to men in general and life in general, and
not to a particular sort of man living a particular sort of life away from
other men, then we make bold to say, though in doing so we contradict Mr.
Arnold roundly, that in _Childe Harold_ alone there is "an ampler body of
powerful work," and that _Childe Harold_ alone "deals with more of life,"
than all Wordsworth's poems, not even selected from, but taken in their
integrity, without the diminution of a single passage or the omission of a
single line.

At this point, Mr. Arnold steps in with a notable plea. It may be that
much of what Wordsworth has written is trivial, and that still more of it
is abstract verbiage, or doctrine we hear in church, perfectly true, but
wanting in the sort of truth we require, poetic truth. It may also be that
Wordsworth has written no one great poem, and that the poem he fancied to
be great will not do, and can never be satisfactory to the disinterested
lover of poetry. It may furthermore be the case that in Wordsworth's poems
we have to lament a deficiency, if not indeed a total absence of Action,
Invention, Situation, and Character, and that he is only a Contemplative,
a Recluse, a Solitary, analysing the sensations produced upon himself by
dwelling upon mountains, woods, and waters. All this may be so. But, says
Mr. Arnold, "Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life," the greatness of a
poet depends upon his criticism of life, and Wordsworth's criticism of
life is more complete, more powerful, and more sound, than that of any
English poet since Milton, indeed than that of any poet since Milton, with
the one exception of Goethe.

The great and the justly acquired authority of Mr. Arnold must not deter
us from saying that to no canon of criticism upon poetry with which we are
acquainted do so many objections present themselves. We suspect Mr. Arnold
himself has discerned some of these since he first propounded it; for
while in his Prefatory Essay upon Wordsworth he urges it with absolute
confidence, in his Prefatory Essay on Byron he does so more hesitatingly,
and exhibits more anxiety to explain it. But does he not explain it away,
when he says, "We are not brought much on our way, I admit, towards an
adequate definition of poetry as distinguished from prose by that truth"?
Upon this point M. Scherer, an admirer, like ourselves, of both Wordsworth
and Mr. Arnold, has some just observations:

     Wordsworth seems to Mr. Arnold to have the qualities of poetic
     greatness, and Mr. Arnold accordingly defines these qualities. The
     great poet, in his opinion, is the one that expresses the most noble
     and the most profound idea, upon the nature of man, the one who has a
     philosophy of life, and who impresses it powerfully on the subjects
     which he treats. The definition, it will be perceived, is a little

Mr. Arnold, we all know, is rather partial to vagueness, being of opinion
that it is of the essence of Culture to be more or less vague, and that
without a certain amount of vagueness there can be no sweetness and no
light. We should be sorry to seem to say anything against those delightful
characteristics, lest we should be supposed to be without them; and we
hereby declare ourselves all in favour of our "consciousness playing
about our stock notions," even if those stock notions be sweetness and
light themselves, with their accompanying charm of vagueness. But though,
in all seriousness, what Swift calls sweetness and light are invaluable
qualities, despite the partial vagueness they entail, yet when two poets
are compared, and a definition of the main business and main essence of
poetry is offered, in order that by it the relative greatness of the two
may be tested, it is just as well that the definition should not be too
vague, should be at any rate precise enough to afford the test desired.
But what is the use of it if it does not "bring us much on our way"?

Unfortunately, Mr. Arnold's theory of poetry being a criticism of life not
only does not help us along our road, it tends to take us off our road. We
regret we have not left ourselves space to deal with his theory at length,
and can only hope we may have an opportunity of returning to it. But lest
Mr. Arnold should be tempted to raise it to the dignity of a "stock
notion," and to bestow upon it the privilege of that faithful iteration
which is bestowed upon "culture," "sweetness and light," "Barbarians,
Philistines, and Populace," which have a good deal more to say for
themselves, we think it well to point out to him that, by averring poetry
to be "a criticism of life," he is giving a handle to the Philistines of
criticism, and to the enemies of sweetness and light, which they may turn
against him in a notable manner.

For _whose_ "criticism of life"? Does he not perceive that he is enabling
people to maintain, which unfortunately they are already only too disposed
to do, that this poet is a great poet because they consider his criticism
of life to be right and true, and that other poet to be not a great poet,
or a much smaller poet, because they consider his criticism of life to be
wrong and false? Why, this is the very pest and bane of English criticism
upon poetry, and upon art generally; the criticism which in reality
resolves itself into "I agree with this; I like that." This is the
criticism of sheer and unadulterated Philistinism, against which Mr.
Arnold has been waging such excellent and needed war for several years.
Nor, in spite of much vagueness, will it be possible for Mr. Arnold to
escape from this consequence of his dictum that poetry is a criticism of
life. For at last, after much that seems to us like beating about the
bush, he goes straight to the point, and makes the fatal confession in
plain words.

     As compared with Leopardi, Wordsworth, though at many points less
     lucid, though far less a master of style, far less of an artist,
     gains so much by his criticism of life being, in certain matters of
     profound importance, healthful and true, whereas Leopardi's pessimism
     is not, that the value of Wordsworth's poetry, on the whole, stands
     higher for us, I think, than that of Leopardi's, as it stands higher
     for us, I think, than that of any modern poetry except Goethe's.

Higher, because it is more healthful! That any critic, not an abject
Philistine, should say such a thing, amazes us beyond words. Surely Mr.
Arnold is aware that there are persons whose opinion on that subject
carries much weight, who consider that Goethe's criticism of life is
neither healthful nor true, but on the contrary false or mischievous, yet
who do not on that account deny to Goethe the title of a great poet. Is
Mr. Arnold really serious when he asserts that, other things being equal,
one poet is less great than another poet because the first is a pessimist,
and the other is an optimist? If he is, let us have two more volumes of
Selections; one containing all the best optimist poetry, and the other
containing all the best pessimist poetry, that was ever written. Which
collection would be the more true, we do not undertake to know, and, as
critics and disinterested lovers of poetry, we do not care. But we
entertain no doubt whatever which Selection would contain the finest
poetry. It would not be the optimist one. Some of the finest poetry ever
written upon life is to be found surely in the Old Testament. What might
be taken as its motto? "Vanity of Vanities. All is Vanity." As far as this
life, and any criticism of it are concerned, it is a very Gospel of

Is the conclusion then that a pessimistic criticism of life necessarily
makes a poet greater than another poet who criticises it from an
optimistic point of view? Not in the least. The consideration--we do not
say to the positive philosopher, to the historian, to the moralist,
but--to the disinterested lover of poetry, is simply irrelevant.

But there is an attitude towards life which does give a poet the chance at
least of being greater than either a poet who criticises life as a
pessimist, or than a poet who criticises it as an optimist. That attitude
is one neither of pessimism nor of optimism; indeed, not a criticism of
life at all, or at least not such a criticism of life as to leave it open
to any one to declare that it is healthful and true, or that it is
insalubrious and false. Will Mr. Arnold tell us what is Shakespeare's
criticism of life? Is it pessimistic or optimistic? We are almost alarmed
at asking the question; for who knows that, in doing so, we may not be
sowing the seeds of a controversy as long and as interminable as the
controversy respecting the moral purpose, the criticism of life in
_Hamlet_? Once started, the controversy will go on for ever, precisely
because there is no way of ending it. What constitutes, not the
superiority, but the comparative inferiority, of Byron and Wordsworth
alike, is their excessive criticism of life. They criticise life overmuch.
It is the foible of each of them. What constitutes the superiority of
Shakespeare is, that he does not so much criticise life, as present it. He
holds the mirror up to nature, and is content to do so, showing it with
all its beautiful and all its ugly features, and with perfect
dispassionateness. Hence his unequalled greatness.

We regret we have not space to set this forth more at length. But Mr.
Arnold will scarcely misunderstand us; and we would venture to ask him to
ponder these objections, and to let his consciousness play freely about
them. If he does so, we have little doubt that the theory about poetry
being a criticism of life, with its appalling consequences to the critic,
to the disinterested lover of poetry, to the adherent of culture, to the
friend of sweetness and light, and in fact to every one but the Philistine
with his stock ideas, will silently be dropped.

But if Mr. Arnold sees insuperable objections to this course, and the
canon about poetry being a criticism of life is to be added to that list
of delightful formulæ, which, during the last decade, have shed so much
light on our condition, then we can only once more appeal from Mr. Arnold
to Mr. Arnold, and ask how it is that Wordsworth can be considered to have
criticised life, and to "deal with that in which life really consists," if
it be true, as Mr. Arnold tells us it is true, that

  Wordsworth's eyes avert their ken
  From half of human fate.

How, we shall still have to ask, can a poet be said to have criticised
life of whom such an ardent admirer as M. Scherer can observe, "As for
cities, Wordsworth seeks to ignore them. He takes them for a discordant
note which it is only just and right to drown and get rid of in the
general harmony of creation."

But we must end; and we submit that we have established our case.
Wordsworth can be made to figure as the greatest poet since Milton, only
by canons of criticism that would make him not only a greater poet than
Milton, but a greater poet than any poet that preceded Milton. If this be
so, let us know it. But if not, it is vain work, trying to extol him, as a
poet, above Byron. Mr. Arnold has done Byron injustice by making
selections from his works, and asserting that selections are better than
the whole of the works from which they are selected. You might as well
select from a mountain. What should we think of the process that said,
"Here is an edelweiss, here some heather, here a lump of quartz, here a
bit of ice from a glacier, here some water from a torrent, here some
pine-cones, here some eggs from an eagle's nest; and now you know all
about Mont Blanc"? Byron is no more to be known in that fashion than the
Matterhorn is. You must make acquaintances with pastoral valleys, with
yawning precipices, with roaring cataracts, with tinkling cattle-bells,
with the rumble of avalanches, with the growl of thunder, with the zigzag
lightning, with storm, and mists, and sudden burst of tenderest sunshine,
with these, with more, in fact with all, if Alp or Byron is to be really
known. But Mr. Arnold has rendered Byron one service at least. When he
says that Byron and Wordsworth stand first and pre-eminent among the
English poets of this century, he relieves Byron of danger of rivalry.



To discourse of Dante, concerning whom, ever since Boccaccio lectured on
the _Divina Commedia_ in the _Duomo_ of Florence, more than five hundred
years ago, there has been an unbroken procession of loving commentators,
must always be a difficult undertaking; and the difficulty is increased
when the audience addressed, as I believe is the case this evening, is
composed, for the most part, of serious students of the austere
Florentine. The only claim I can have on your attention is that I am, in
that respect at least, in a more or less degree, one of yourselves. It is
now close on forty years since, in Rome, as Rome then was, one repaired,
day after day, to the Baths of Caracalla--not, as now, denuded of the
sylvan growth of successive centuries, but cloaked, from shattered base to
ruined summit, in tangled greenery--and in the silent sunshine of an
Imperial Past surrendered oneself to

                          quella fonte
  Che spande di parlar sì largo fiume,

that unfailing stream of spacious speech which Dante, you remember,
ascribes to Virgil, which Dante equally shares with him, and to each
alike of whom one can sincerely say:

  Vagliami il lungo studio e il grande amore,
  Che m'han fatto cercar lo tuo volume.

But love and study of Dante will not of themselves suffice to make
discourse concerning him interesting or adequate; and I am deeply
impressed with the disadvantages under which I labour this evening. But my
task has been made even exceptionally perilous, since it has been preceded
by the entrancing influence of music, and music that borrowed an added
charm from the melodious words of the poet himself. May it not be with you
as it was with him when the musician Casella--"Casella mio"--acceded to
his request in the Purgatorial Realm, and sang to him, he says,

                          sì dolcemente,
  Che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona--

sang to him so sweetly that the sweetness of it still sounded in his ears;
words that strangely recall the couplet in Wordsworth, though I scarcely
think Wordsworth was a Dante scholar:

  The music in my heart I bore
  Long after it was heard no more.

Many of you remember, I am sure, the entire passage in the second canto of
the _Purgatorio_. But, since there may be some who have forgotten it--and
the best passages in the _Divina Commedia_ can never be recalled too
often--and since, moreover, it will serve as a fitting introduction to the
theme on which I propose for a brief while to descant this evening, let me
recall it to your remembrance. Companioned by Virgil, and newly arrived
on the shores of Purgatory, Dante perceives a barque approaching, so swift
and light that it causes no ripple on the water, driven and steered only
by the wings of an Angel of the Lord, and carrying a hundred disembodied
spirits, singing "_In exitu Israel de Ægypto_." As they disembark, one of
them recognises Dante, and stretches out his arms to embrace the Poet. The
passage is too beautiful to be shorn of its loveliness either by
curtailment or by mere translation:

  Io vidi uno di lor trarresi avante
  Per abbracciarmi con sì grande affetto,
  Che mosse me a far lo somigliante.
    O ombre vane, fuor che nell' aspetto!
  Tre volte dietro a lei le mani avvinsi,
  E tante mi tornai con esse al petto.

  Among them was there one who forward pressed,
  So keen to fold me to his heart, that I
  Instinctively was moved to do the like.
  O shades intangible, save in your seeming!
  Toward him did I thrice outstretch my arms,
  And thrice they fell back empty to my side.[2]

Words that will recall to many of you the lines in the second book of the
_Æneid_, where Æneas describes to Dido how the phantom of his perished
wife appeared to him as he was seeking for her through the flames and
smoke of Troy, and how in vain he strove to fold her in one farewell

  Ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum,
  Ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago.

Similarly, the incorporeal figure in the _Divine Comedy_ bids Dante desist
from the attempt to embrace him, since it is useless; and then Dante
discerns it is that of Casella, who used oftentimes in Florence to sing
to him, and now assures the poet that, as he loved him upon earth, so here
he loves him still. Encouraged by the tender words, Dante calls him
"Casella mio," and addresses to him the following request:

        Se nuova legge non ti toglie
  Memoria o uso all' amoroso canto,
  Che mi solea quetar tutte mie voglie,
    Di ciò ti piaccia consolare alquanto
  L'anima mia, che con la sua persona
  Venendo qui, è affannata tanto.

  If by new dispensation not deprived
  Of the remembrance of belovëd song
  Wherewith you used to soothe my restlessness,
  I pray you now a little while assuage
  My spirit, which, since burdened with the body
  In journeying here, is wearied utterly.

Quickly comes the melodious response:

  "Amor che nella mente mi ragiona,"
    Cominciò egli allor sì dolcemente,
    Che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona.
  Lo mio Maestro, ed io, e quella gente
    Ch'eran con lui, parevan sì contenti,
    Com'a nessun toccasse altro la mente.

  "Love that holds high discourse within mind,"
  With such sweet tenderness he thus began
  That still the sweetness lingers in my ear.
  Virgil, and I, and that uncarnal group
  That with him were, so captivated seemed,
  That in our hearts was room for naught beside.

Not so, however, the guide of the spirits newly arrived in Purgatory.
Seeing them "_fissi ed attenti alle sue note_," enthralled by Casella's
singing, he begins to rate them soundly as "_spiriti lenti_," lazy,
loitering spirits, asks them what they mean by thus halting on the way,
and bids them hasten to the spot where they will be gradually purged of
their earthly offences, and be admitted to the face of God. The canto
closes with the following exquisite lines:

  Come quando, cogliendo biada o loglio,
    Gli colombi adunati alla pastura,
    Queti, senza mostrar l'usato orgoglio,
  Se cosa appare ond' elli abbian paura,
    Subitamente lasciano star l'esca,
    Perchè assaliti son da maggior cura;
  Così vid'io quella masnada fresca
    Lasciar il canto, e fuggir ver la costa,
    Com'uom che va, nè sa dove riesca.

  As when a flight of doves, in quest of food,
  Have settled on a field of wheat or tares,
  And there still feed in silent quietude,
  If by some apparition that they dread
  A sudden scared, forthway desert the meal,
  Since by more strong anxiety assailed,
  So saw I that new-landed company
  Forsake the song and seek the mountain side,
  Like one who flees, but flies he knows not whither.

Now, if we consider this episode in its integrity, do we not find
ourselves, from first to last, essentially in the region of the Ideal?
Whether you believe in the existence of a local habitation named
Purgatory, or you do not, none of us, not even Dante himself, has seen it,
save with the mind's eye. It was said of his austere countenance by his
contemporaries that it was the face of the man who had seen Hell. But the
phrase, after all, was figurative, and not even the divine poet had, with
the bodily vision, seen what Virgil, in one of the most pathetic of his
lines, calls the further ashore. Moreover, for awhile, and in what may be
termed the exordium of the episode, Dante surrenders himself wholly to
this Ideal, and treats it idealistically. First he discerns only two
wings of pure white light, which, when he has grown more accustomed to
their brightness, he perceives to be the Angel of the Lord, the steersman
of the purgatorial bark:

  Vedi che sdegna gli argomenti umani,
  Sì che remo non vuol, nè altro velo
  Che l'ale sue, tra liti sì lontani

    *       *       *       *       *

  Trattando l'aere con l'eterne penne--

lines that for ethereal beauty, are, I think unmatched; and I will not
presume to render them into verse. But what they say is that the Angel had
no need of mortal expedients, of sail, or oar, or anything beside, save
his own wings, that fanned the air with their eternal breath. The barque,
thus driven and thus steered, is equally unsubstantial and ideal, for it
makes no ripple in the wave through which it glides. But at length--not,
you may be quite sure, of purpose prepense, but guided by that unerring
instinct which is the great poet's supreme gift--Dante gradually passes
from idealistic to realistic treatment of the episode, thereby compelling
you, by what Shakespeare, in _The Tempest_, through the mouth of Prospero,
calls "my so potent art," to believe implicitly in its occurrence, even if
your incapacity to linger too long in the rarefied atmosphere of the Ideal
has begun to render you incredulous concerning it. For all at once he
introduces Casella, Florence, his own past cares and labours there, the
weariness of the spirit that comes over all of us, even from our very
spiritual efforts, and the soothing power of tender music. Then, with a
passing touch of happy egotism, which has such a charm for us in poets
that are dead, but which, I am told, is resented, though perhaps not by
the gracious or the wise, in living ones, Dante enforces our belief by
representing Casella as forthwith chanting a line of the poet's own that
occurs in a _Canzone_ of the _Convito_:

  Amor che nella mente mi ragiona.

  Love that holds high discourse within my mind.

For a moment we seem to be again transported into the pure realm of the
Ideal, as not Dante and Virgil alone, but the souls just landed on the
shores of Purgatory, are described as being so enthralled by the
song--_tutti fissi ed attenti_--that they can think of and heed nothing
else. But quickly comes another realistic touch in the reproof to the
spellbound spirits not there to loiter listening to the strain, but to
hurry forward to their destined bourne. Finally, as if to confirm the
impression of absolute reality, while not removing us from the world, or
withdrawing from us the charm, of the Ideal, the poet ends with the
exquisite but familiar simile of the startled doves already recited to

What is the impression left, what the result produced, by the entire
canto? Surely it is that the poet's imagination, operating through the
poet's realistic treatment of the Ideal, and his idealistic treatment of
the Real, has taken us all captive, so that we feel nothing of the
_Incredulus odi_ disposition, the unwillingness to believe, and the mental
antipathy engendered by that unwillingness, so tersely and so truly
described by Horace, but yield credence wholly and absolutely to the
existence of a place called Purgatory, with its circles, its denizens, its
hopes, its aspirations, and purifying power. But, read where you will in
the pages of the _Divina Commedia_, you will find this is one of the main
causes of its permanent hold on the attention of the world. Its theology
may to many seem open to question, to some obsolete and out of date; its
astronomy necessarily labours under the disadvantage of having been prior
to the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, not to speak of the
great astronomers of later date, including our own times; and its
erudition, weighty and wonderful as it is, can occasionally be shown by
more recent and more advantageously circumstanced scholarship to be faulty
and inaccurate. But so long as these are presented to us nimbused by the
wizard light that fuses the Real and the Ideal, we believe while we read
and listen, and that is enough. The very first line of the _Divina
Commedia_, so familiar to every one, though it is to introduce us to the
horrors of the _Inferno_, is so realistic, so within the range of the
experience of all who have reached the meridian of life or even looked on
that period in others, that we are at once predisposed to yield our
imagination passively to what follows. But I must allow that the passage
which does immediately follow, and which discourses of the panther, the
lion, and the wolf, is so symbolic, and has lent itself to so many
suggestions and interpretations, that, had the poem generally been
conceived and composed in that fashion, it would not only have fallen
short of immortality, it would long since have been buried in the pool of
Lethe, which is the predestined resting-place of all untempered and
unredeemed symbolism in verse. I smile, and I have no doubt you will smile
also, when I say that I, too, have my own interpretation of the inner
meaning of those three menacing beasts. But be assured I have not the
smallest intention of communicating it to you. I gladly pass on, gladly
and quickly, as Dante himself passes on, to a more welcome and less
disputable apparition, who answers, when questioned as to who and what he
is, that man he is not, but man he was; that his parents were of Lombardy,
and all his folk of Mantuan stock; that he lived in the age of the great
Cæsar and the fortunate Augustus; that he was a poet--_Poeta fui_--sang of
the just and right-minded son of Anchises, the pious Æneas, who came to
Italy and founded a greater city even than Troy, when proud Ilium was
levelled to the dust. In the presence of Virgil we forget the embarrassing
symbolism of the preceding passage, and believe once more; and, when Dante
addresses him in lines of affectionate awe, that you all know by heart,
and with repeating which all lovers of poets and poetry console themselves
when the prosaic world passes on the other side, every doubt, every
misgiving, every lingering remnant of incredulity is dismissed, and we are
prepared, nay, we are eager, to take the triple journey, along two-thirds
of which Virgil tells Dante he has been sent by the _Imperador che lassù
regna_, the Ruler of the Universe, to conduct him. Prepared we are, nay,
eager, I say, to hear the _disperate strida_ of the _spiriti dolenti_, the
wailings of despair of the eternally lost, and the yearning sighs of those
_che son contenti nel fuoco_, who are resigned to purgatorial pain, and
scarce suffer from it, since they are buoyed up by the hope of finally
joining the _beate genti_, and, along with the blessed, seeing the face of

  Allor si mosse, ed io gli tenni dietro,

says Dante in the closing line of this, the First Canto of the _Divina

  Then moved he on, and I paced after him.

Could you have a more realistic touch? So realistic, so real is it, in the
Realm of the Ideal, that, just as Dante followed Virgil, so we follow
both, humble and unquestioning believers in whatever may be told us.

I am not unaware that, in an age in which the approval of inflexibly
avenging justice consequent on wrongdoing is less marked and less frequent
than sentimental compassion for the wrongdoer, the punishments inflicted
in the _Inferno_ for the infraction of the Divine Law, as Dante understood
it, are found repellent by many persons, and agreeable to few. I grant
that they are appalling in their sternness; nor was Dante himself
unconscious of this, for he does describe Minos as "scowling horribly" as
the souls of the damned came before him for judgment, and for
discriminating consignment to their allotted circle of torture. Always
terse, and therefore all the more terrible, he nevertheless exhausts the
vocabulary of torment in describing the _doloroso ospizio_, the dolorous
home from which they will never return. As Milton speaks of the "darkness
visible" of Hell, so Dante, before him, writes of it as _loco d'ogni luce
muto_, a place silent of light, but that wails and moans like a
tempestuous sea, battered and buffeted by jarring winds, finally

  La bufera infernal, che mai non resta.

  The infernal hurricane that ceases never.

Of those who are whirled about by it, _di qua, di là, di giù, di su_,
hither and thither, upward and downward, he writes the awful line:

  Nulla speranza li conforta mai,
  Non che di posa, ma di minor pena.

  They have no hope of consolation ever,
  Or even mitigation of their woe.

I could not bring myself, and I am sure you would not wish me to cite more
minutely, the magnificently merciless phrases--all of them thoroughly
realistic touches concerning ideal torment--wherewith Dante here makes his
_terza rima_ an instrument or organ on which to sound the very diapason of
the damned; and, did he dwell overlong on those deep, distressing octaves
of endless suffering, without passing by easy and natural gradations into
the pathetic minor, he would end by alienating all but the austerer
natures. But he is too great an artist, too human, too congenitally and
rootedly a poet, to make that mistake. I am sure you all know in which
canto of the _Inferno_ occur the terrific phrases I have been citing, and
need no telling that they are immediately followed by the most tender and
tearful passage in the wide range of poetic literature. While even yet the
sound of _la bufera infernal_ seems howling in our ears, suddenly it all
subsides, and we hear instead a musically plaintive voice saying:

  Siede la terra, dove nata fui,
  Sulla marina dove il Po discende,
  Per aver pace co' seguaci sui.

  The land where I was born sits by the sea,
  Unto whose shore a restless river rolls,
  To be at peace with all its followers.

Then comes the love-story of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, told
in such exquisite accents, so veiled in music, so transfigured by verse,
that even the sternest moralist, I imagine, can hardly bring himself to
call it illicit. I confess I think it the loveliest single passage in
poetry ever written; yes, lovelier even than anything in Shakespeare, for
it has all Shakespeare's genius, and more than Shakespeare's art; and I
compassionate the man or woman who, having had the gift of birth, goes
down to the grave without having read it. There is no such other
love-story, no such other example of the _lacrymæ rerum_, the deep abiding
tearfulness of things. Nothing should be taken from, nothing can be added
to it. To me it seems sacred, like the Ark of the Covenant, that no one
must presume to touch; and I own I tremble as I presume, here and there,
to attempt, unavailingly, to translate it. It was my good fortune to be in
Florence in the month of May 1865, when the City of Flowers, the City of
Dante, which then seemed peopled with nightingales and roses, was
celebrating the six-hundredth anniversary of the birth of her exiled poet;
and those of us who loved him assembled in the Pagliano Theatre to hear
Ristori, Salvini, and Rossi repeat, to the accompaniment of living
pictures, the best-known passages of the _Divina Commedia_. One of those
supreme elocutionists, who still lives, recited the story of Paolo and
Francesca; and from her gifted voice we heard of the _tempo de' dolci
sospiri_ and _i dubbiosi aesiri_, the season of sweet sighs and hesitating
desires, the _disiato riso_, the longed-for smile, the trembling kiss, the
closing of the volume, and then the final lines of the canto:

  Mentre che l'uno spirto questo disse,
    L'altro piangeva sì, che di pietade
  Io venni men così com'io morisse:
    E caddi, come corpo morto cade.

  While the one told to us this dolorous tale,
  The other wept so bitterly, that I
  Out of sheer pity felt as like to die;
  And down I fell, even as a dead body falls.

This unmatched tale of tender transgression and vainly penitential tears
almost reconciles us to the more abstract description of punishment that
precedes it, and the detailed account of pitiless penalty that follows
it, in succeeding cantos; and the absolute fusion of the ideal and the
real in the woeful story imparts to it a verisimilitude irresistible even
by the most unimaginative and incredulous. Rimini, Ravenna, Malatesta, are
names so familiar to us all that any story concerning them would have to
be to the last degree improbable to move our incredulity. But who is it
that is not prepared to believe in the sorrows of a love-tale?

  Ah me! for aught that ever I could read,
  Could ever hear by tale or history,
  The course of true love never did run smooth.

It is the greatest of all masters of the human heart, the greatest and
wisest teacher concerning human life, who tells us that; and Dante, who in
this respect is to be almost as much trusted as Shakespeare himself, makes
Francesca, with her truly feminine temperament, say:

    Amor, che a nullo amato amar perdona,
  Mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
  Che, come vedi, ancor non m'abbandona.

  Love that compels all who are loved to love,
  Entangled both in such abiding charm,
  That, as you see, he still deserts me not.

As we hear those words, it is no longer Rimini, Ravenna, Malatesta, Paolo,
Francesca, that arrest our attention and rivet it by their reality. We are
enthralled by the ideal realism, or realistic idealism, call it which you
will, of the larger and wider world we all inhabit, of this vast and
universal theatre, of whose stage Love remains to-day, as it was
yesterday, and will remain for ever, the central figure, the dominant

So far we have seen, by illustrations purposely taken from passages in the
_Inferno_ and the _Purgatorio_ familiar to all serious readers of the
_Divine Comedy_, how Dante, by realistic touches, makes us believe in the
ideal, and how, by never for long quitting the region of the Ideal, he
reconciles us to the most accurate and merciless realism. But there is a
third Realm to which he is admitted, and whither he transports us, the
_Paradiso_. Some prosaically precise person would, perhaps, say that the
thirtieth canto of the _Purgatorio_ is not a portion of the _Paradiso_.
But you know better, for in it Beatrice appears to her poet-lover:

                  Sotto verde manto,
  Vestita di color di fiamma viva,

  In mantle green, and girt with living light,

while angelic messengers and ministers from Heaven round her scatter
lilies that never fade; and when Dante, overcome by the celestial vision,
turns to Virgil with the same instinctive feeling of trust

  Col quale il fantolin corre alla mamma,
  Quando ha paura

--trust such as is shown by a little child hurrying to its mother when
afraid, and exclaims, translating a line of Virgil's own:

  Conosco i segni dell' antica fiamma,

  O how I know, and feel, and recognise
  The indications of my youthful love;--

he finds that Virgil, _dolcissimo padre_, his gentle parent and guide, has
left him, and he stands alone in the presence of Beatrice, and hears her
voice saying:

  Non pianger anco, non pianger ancora;
  Chè pianger ti convien per altra spada.

  Weep not as yet, Dante, weep not as yet,
  Though weep you shortly shall, and for good cause.

Tearless, and with downcast eyes, he listens to her just reproaches,
trying not even to see the reflection of himself in the water of the
translucent fountain at his side:--

  Tanta vergogna mi gravò la fronte.

  So strong the shame that weighed my forehead down.

And so he turns aside his glance to the untransparent sward, till comes
the line, awful in its reproving simplicity:

  Guardami ben: ben son, ben son Beatrice!

  Look at me well! Yes, I am Beatrice!

Then full and fast flow the tears, like melting snows of Apennine under
Slavonian blast.

But there is yet worse to come, yet harder to bear, when, not even
addressing him, but turning from him to her heavenly escort, she speaks of
him as "_Questi_," "this man," and tells them, in his hearing, how much
his love for her might have done for him, had he still lived the _vita
nuova_, the pure fresh life with which love had inspired him while she was
yet on earth. But when she was withdrawn from him to Heaven, when she was
of flesh disrobed and became pure spirit, and so was more deserving of
love than before.

  Questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui.

  This man from me withdrew himself, and gave
  Himself to others.

What think you of that as a realistic treatment of the Ideal? If there be
any among my audience, members of the sex commonly supposed to be the
wiser, who but partly feel and imperfectly apprehend it, then let them ask
any woman they will what she thinks of it, and she will answer, "It is
supreme, it is unapproachable."

After such an illustration of the power of Dante over one of the main
secrets of fascination in great poetry, it is unnecessary to go in search
of more. With illustrating my theme of this evening I have done, and it
only remains to add a few words of repetition and enforcement of what has
been already indicated, lest perchance, if they were omitted, my meaning
and purpose should be misapprehended or overlooked. Did you happen to
observe that, a little while back, I used the phrase, "the ideal realism,
or realistic idealism, call it which you will"? But now, before
concluding, let me say, what has been in my mind all along, and has been
there for many years, that great poetry consists of the combination of
ideal Realism, realistic Idealism, and Idealism pure and simple. Upon that
point much might be said, and perhaps some day I may venture to say it. In
all ages the disposition of the more prosaic minds--by which term I do not
mean minds belonging to persons devoid of feeling, or even of sentiment,
but persons destitute of the poetic sense, or of what Poetry essentially
is--has been to incline, in works of fiction whether in prose or verse, to
Realism pure and simple; and the present Age, thanks to the invention of
photography and the dissemination of novels that seek to describe persons
and things such as they are or are supposed to be, has a peculiar and
exceptional leaning in that direction. The direction is a dangerous one,
for the last stage of Realism pure and simple in prose fiction is the
exhibition of demoralised man and degraded woman. In poetry, thank Heaven,
that operation is impossible. No doubt, it is possible in verse just as it
is possible in prose, and perhaps even more so; and there are persons who
will tell you that it is Poetry. But it is not, and never can be made
such. Poetry is either the idealised Real, the realistic Ideal, or the
Ideal pure and simple. In other words, as I long since endeavoured to
show, Poetry is Transfiguration. Attempts are made in these days, as we
all well know, to get you to accept Realism pure and simple as the newest
and most inspired utterance of the Heavenly Maid. But they will not be
successful. In that great hall of the Vatican, whither throng pilgrims
from every quarter of the world, and to whose walls Raphael has bequeathed
the ripest and richest fruits of his lucid, elevated, and elevating
genius, is a presentation of the Muse. She is seated on a throne of
majestic marble. Her feet are planted on the clouds, but her laurelled
head and outstretched wings are high in the Empyrean, and round her maiden
throat is a circlet enamelled with the unageing stars. With one hand she
cherishes the lyre, with the other she grasps the Book of Wisdom; and her
attendants are, not the sycophants of passing popularity, but the eternal
angels of God, upholding a scroll wherein are inscribed the words _Numine
afflatur_. She sings only when inspired. That is the Muse for me. Surely
it is the Muse for you. At any rate, it was the Muse of Dante; the Muse
that inspired the _Divina Commedia_ through his love for Beatrice. As an
old English song has it, "'Tis love that makes the world go round," a
homely truth that Dante idealised and transfigured in the last line of his
immortal poem:

  L'Amor che muove il Sole e l'altre stelle.

  That lights the sun and makes the planets sing;

love of Love, love of Beauty, love of Virtue, love of Country, love of
Mankind; or, as one might put it in this age of physical discovery:

  Electric love illuminates the world.


The imaginative estimate or ideal conception of Woman by the Poets has
always been deemed exceptionally interesting, especially by women
themselves, for, as a rule, it is agreeable; and, even if the presentation
be sometimes a little overcharged with glowing colour, all of us, men and
women alike, are not otherwise than pleased with descriptions that portray
us, not exactly as we are, but as we should like to be. Withal, a
portrait, to obtain recognition, must have in it some resemblance to the
original; and, speaking in the most prosaic manner, one need not hesitate
to affirm that any representation of women, at least of womanly women,
that was not attractive would be a travesty of the fact.

Alike in the _Vita Nuova_ and the _Divina Commedia_, Beatrice Portinari
figures so largely, and Dante's love for her from childhood in her tenth
till her death in her twenty-sixth year is so striking that most persons
think of the great Florentine Poet in association with no other women,
their characters, their occupations, temptations, weaknesses, virtues, and
everyday duties. Yet no man could be a Poet such as Dante who confined his
ken to so limited a field of observation and feeling, and to whom the
whole range of feminine emotion and action was not familiar; and, in the
exposition of that theme, I would invite attention to that wider range and
scope of interest, though from it Beatrice will not be forgotten. Let us
turn, first of all, to the fifteenth canto of the _Paradiso_, where
Cacciaguida, the Poet's ancestor, describes, while Beatrice looks on with
assenting smile, the simplicity of Florentine manners in former times,
alike in men and women, but in women especially--times dear to Dante,
since they immediately preceded those in which he himself lived.


says Cacciaguida, calling the city by its original name,

  Fiorenza, dentro della cerchia antica,
  Si stava in pace, sobria e pudica.
  Non avea catenella, non corona,
  Non donne contigiate, non cintura,
  Che fosse a veder più che la persona.

  Florence, within her ancient boundaries
  Was chaste, and sober, and in peace abode.
  No golden bracelets and no head-tires then,
  Transparent garments, rich embroideries,
  That caught the eye more than the wearer's self.

He goes on to say that the Florentine ladies of that day left their mirror
without any artificial colouring on their cheeks. Mothers themselves
tended the cradle, and maidens and matrons drew off the thread from the
distaff, while listening to old tales of Troy, Fiesole, and Rome. It is
Dante's own description of the manners and customs of the days when he was
a child.

Some, perhaps, will ask, "Surely there is nothing very poetic in the
foregoing description of woman?" If so, one must reply, indeed there is,
and only the acceptance of the idea of Poetry prevailing amongst us of
late years, which is essentially false, because so narrow and so exclusive
of the simplest poetry at one end of the scale, and of the highest poetry
at the other, could make any one doubt that a really poetic and
imaginative conception of woman must include the dedication, though not
the entire dedication, of herself to domestic duty and tenderness.

Is there nothing poetic in Wordsworth's picture of a girl turning her
wheel beside an English fire?

Is there nothing poetic in Byron's description?--

  A mind at peace with all below,
    A heart whose hopes are innocent.

Or in Coventry Patmore's?--

  So wise in all she ought to know,
    So ignorant in all beside.

Is there, I venture to ask, nothing poetic, nothing romantic in the
description of a young girl who blends with cultivated sensibility to
Literature and Art homely tasks thus described?--

            ... She brims the pail,
  Straining the udders with her dainty palms,
  Sweet as the milk they drain. She skims the cream,
  And, with her sleeves rolled up and round white arms,
  Makes the churn sing like boulder-baffled stream.
  A wimple on her head, and kirtled short,
  She hangs the snow-white linen in the wind,
  A heavenly earthliness.

In the whole range of poetic literature there is no more celebrated
passage than the essentially domestic picture, in the Sixth Book of the
_Iliad_, of Hector, Andromache, and their baby boy, where the Trojan hero,
before sallying forth to battle afresh, stretches out his arms to clasp
the little Astyanax. It might be pedantic to recite the passage in the
original. But here is an excellent translation of it by Mr. Walter Leaf:

     So spake glorious Hector, and stretched out his arms to his boy. But
     the child shrank back to the bosom of his fair-girdled nurse,
     dismayed at his dear father's aspect, and in dread at the horse-hair
     crest that he beheld nodding fiercely from the helmet's top. Then his
     dear father laughed aloud, and his lady-mother; and forthwith
     glorious Hector took the helmet from his head and laid it, all
     gleaming, upon the ground; then kissed he his dear son, and dandled
     him in his arms.

Surely everybody feels the poetic, the romantic character of the incident,
founded on the loves of the household and the hearth. Turn to Chaucer, to
Milton, to Shakespeare, to any great Poet, and you will find that, like
Dante, they included simple duties in their poetic conception of woman.
Only in an age sicklied o'er with lackadaisical or sensuous sentimentality
could it be otherwise.

But a poet's ideals of what women should be, and often are, is shown not
only by what he extols, but by what he condemns, and, in this respect,
Dante, poet-like, is sparing and reserved. Most--indeed, nearly all--of
the persons whom he indicates by name as being eternally punished in the
Circles of the Inferno are men; partly, perhaps, because Dante, who, it
must be owned, would have been loved by Doctor Johnson as a good hater,
had political and other scores of the kind to settle with those he
describes as having a perpetual lease in the lower regions, but in part,
also, because he could not bring himself to write harshly of any woman he
had known. But to a few notorious female rebels against what he deemed
womanly character and conduct, and who had lived many hundred years before
his day, he is pitilessly severe. It would be difficult to quote lines
from any Poet more so than those in which he describes Semiramis as among
those whom

  Nulla speranza gli conforta mai.

She has not even hope to fall back on as a mitigation of her endless
torments. Of her offences against his ideal of woman he says:

  A vizio di lussuria fu si rotta,
  Che libito fe lecito in sua legge,
  Per torre il biasmo in che era condotta.

She was so steeped in wickedness that she promulgated laws permitting
others to act as she herself did, in order to annul the stigma that would
otherwise have been attached to her. He is a little hard and unjust to
Dido, whom Virgil treats with such exquisite tenderness, in naming her
along with "lustful Cleopatra" in the same passage. To Helen he is more
indulgent, in words at least, content with saying that she was the guilty
cause of dire events, "_per cui tanto reo tempo si volse_"; but she does
not escape endless expiation. Some of my readers will remember how much
more damning of her conduct is Virgil in the Sixth Book of the _Æneid_,
where Priam represents her as giving the signal to the Greeks to enter
Troy, and having concealed his sword, that he may fall a helpless victim
to the vengeance of Paris, whom the fair wanton wished to propitiate in
the hour of her lord's triumph.

But what is Dante's attitude towards Francesca da Rimini, in the most
beautiful passage, it seems to me, in the whole range of narrative Poetry?
Many, I am sure, know it by heart, and have thereby fortified themselves
against the modern less-refined treatment of it even by men aspiring to be
regarded as poets. Often as one has repeated it to oneself, one has never
felt that Dante had for Francesca any harsher feeling than sympathetic
compassion. He casts around her the halo of the purest sentiment; he
brings music of matchless verbal sweetness to the description of the hour,
the place, the circumstances of her disinterested and unselfish
surrender. The very lines in which he leads up to her pathetic story,
lines in which his feeling concerning frail and hapless love seems to be
purposely expressed in general and wide-embracing language, are in
themselves significant to those who observe their meaning. He says that
when he heard Virgil name the numerous knights and fair dames who were
suffering from having subordinated prudence to impulse, he only felt
troubled for them and bewildered.

  Pietà mi vinse, e fu quasi smarrito.

The first thing he notices in Francesca and her lover is their buoyancy in
the air, as though they were the finest and most tenuous of spirits; and
when he says to Virgil that he would fain have speech with them, the reply
is that he has only to appeal to them by the love that still moves them,
and they will draw nigh to him. Then follows that lovely simile of doves
floating to call, and Francesca's recognition of Dante with the words:

  O animal grazioso e benigno!

who is sure to have pity on her hapless doom. When Francesca pauses in her
narrative, and Dante bows his head for sorrow, Virgil shows what is his
own feeling by the brief question addressed to Dante, "What think you?"
Dante replies in a voice broken by emotion:

           ... O lasso,
  Quanti dolci pensier, quanto disio
  Menò costoro al doloroso passo!

and, turning to Francesca, he says that her fate fills his eyes with tears
and his heart with anguish. Encouraged by the poet's sympathy, she tells
him what happened, "_al tempo de' dolci sospiri_," in the season of sweet
sighs, in itself a preliminary and melodious appeal for indulgence, and
that he must be patient with her if she tells her tale, sobbing as she
speaks. Torn between sweet remembrance and regret, she cannot refrain from

                   ... il disiato riso
  Esser baciato da cotanto amante,

or intimating with supreme delicacy what ensued in the final line of her

  Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante.

The story she had been reading with Paolo Malatesta of Lancelot and
Guinevere fell from their hands, and that day they read no further on. And
Dante? All he says is that he felt like to die for grief, and fell to the
ground even as a dead body falls. From the first line to the last he
utters no word of blame or reproach. He would not have been a poet had he
done so.

Let us now turn from the fifth book of the _Inferno_ to the third of the
_Paradiso_, that we may add to our knowledge of Dante's poetic conception
of Woman. He there beholds Piccarda Donati, whom he had known in her
lifetime on earth, but at first does not recognise, because, as she
herself says with heavenly humility, she is now much fairer to look on
than she was then. Withal, she adds, she occupies only an inferior place
in Heaven, because she was forced, and sorely against her own will, to
violate her vow of virginity. She begins her story by saying simply:

  Io fui nel mondo vergine sorella,

that she was a nun dedicated to God, and goes on to tell how she was
violently torn from her cloister by her brother, Forese Donati, and his
accomplices, to further family ambition, and compelled to submit to the
marriage rite. Dante, feeling, as it seems to me, that this did not
detract from her merit, asks her if she is contented with the relatively
inferior position in Paradise she says she is assigned among celestial
denizens. I trust many readers know her reply, for it is one of the
noblest and most beautiful passages in the whole of the _Divina Commedia_.
Like all fine passages in Poetry, adequate rendering of it in another
tongue is not attainable. But the best translation of it with which I am
acquainted is that of C. B. Cayley--no Cary, mark you--in _terza rima_,
and of which I remember I availed myself when, many years ago, I was
beginning to learn Italian, and read Dante for the first time among the
then leafy-covered ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. Here is Piccarda's

  Our will, O brother mine, is kept at rest
  By power of heavenly love, which makes us will,
  For nought else thirsting, only things possessed.
  If we should crave to be exalted still
  More highly, then our will would not agree
  With His, who gives to us the place we fill.
  For 'tis of our own will the very ground,
  That in the will of God we govern ours.

Then comes that supremely beautiful line, not to be surpassed by any line
even in Dante:

  In la sua voluntade è nostra pace.

  Our peace is in submission to His will.

Is it fanciful to think that in that line also Dante has betrayed and
bequeathed to us, perhaps unconsciously, his main conception of Woman, as
a gentle and adoring creature, who finds her greatest happiness in
subordinating her will to those who are deserving of the trust she reposes
in them?

But Piccarda does not end the dialogue with her own story. She tells Dante
that the great Costanza, as she calls her, who married the German Henry
the Fifth, was also torn from a convent where she had taken the veil, and
forced into Royal nuptials. But when she was thus compelled to violate her

  Contra suo grado e contra buona usanza,
  Non fu dal vel del cuor giammai disciolta.

  She wore the vestal's veil within her heart.

And, as if to indicate that the conduct of each was condoned by the Virgin
of Virgins, Dante concludes by saying:

                                 ... _Ave
      Maria_, cantando; e cantando vanio,

  She faded from our sight, singing _Ave Maria_,

and once again he concentrated his gaze on Beatrice, Beatrice whom he
regarded as his highest poetic conception of Woman. Fully to grasp what
that was, we must descend from Heaven to earth and recall the origin and
growth of his adoration of her, as described in the _Vita Nuova_.

To some commentators on Dante, the narrative to be read there has
suggested difficulties when, in reality, there are none, leading them to
urge that a child of nine years of age could not feel what is therein
described, and that, therefore, it is purely symbolic, and was written not
about any human creature, but indicated Philosophy, or the desire for
spiritual enlightenment and the search for heavenly wisdom, which was
Dante's overpowering impulse almost from the cradle. The answer to such an
interpretation of the passage is that it betrays an utter ignorance of the
emotional precocity of the poetic temperament, and of the vague but
intense hold Love can acquire over Poets from their earliest years.

Of the reality underlying the idealism of the _Vita Nuova_, we therefore
need have no doubt whatever. Dante's Beatrice was Beatrice Portinari, a
Florentine maid first, a Florentine bride later, whose people lived in the
Corso, near the Canto de' Pazzi.

All that follows in the narrative of the _Vita Nuova_ may be relied on
just as implicitly; how, when she was eighteen years of age, he met her
again walking in the streets of Florence between two noble ladies older
than herself, and graciously, as Dante says, returned his salute; how,
with the naïf shyness of a youth consumed with love, he tried to dissemble
it by pretending to be enamoured of another damsel, which only made
Beatrice look away when she met him; and how he contrived to convey to her
indirectly, through a poem he wrote, that she had misjudged him; how,
thereon, she looked on him graciously once more; and how, alas! in her
twenty-fifth year, she was summoned from this world to the world above.
Then the _Vita Nuova_ draws mournfully to a close, ending with these
significant words:--

     After I had written this sonnet, there appeared to me a wonderful
     vision, in which I saw things that made me determine to write no more
     of this dear Saint until I should be able to write of her more
     worthily; and, of a surety, she knows that I study to attain unto
     this end with all my powers. So, if it shall please Him by Whom all
     things live, to spare my life for some more years, I hope to say that
     of her which never yet hath been said of any lady; and then may it
     please Him, who is the Father of all good, to suffer my soul to see
     the glory of its mistress, the sainted Beatrice, who now, abiding in
     glory, looketh upon the face of Him who is blessed for ever and ever.

For the fulfilment of that determination we must return to the _Divina
Commedia_, written in the fullness of the Poet's powers. But there are
three lines in the _Vita Nuova_ about the death of Beatrice that have
haunted me ever since I first read them, and whose beauty, I am sure, all
will feel:

  Non la ci tolse qualità di gelo,
  Nè di color, siccome l'altro fece,
  Ma sola fu sua gran benignitade:

lines very difficult to translate, but the meaning of which is that she
died neither from chill nor from fever, which carries off other mortals,
but only of her great benignness, or excess of goodness, which rendered
earth an unfitting dwelling-place for her, and Paradise her only true

It is not necessary to comment here on the First Canto of the _Divina
Commedia_. That, one has done already before the Dante Society, and it is
not requisite for one's present theme. But in Canto the Second we meet
with the Beatrice of the _Vita Nuova_. She it is that sends Virgil, who
dwells in the neutral territory of Limbo, to the Poet, saying:

  Io son Beatrice, che ti faccio andare:
  Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare.

And not only does she say that she is animated by love, which has caused
her, now in Heaven, to feel so compassionately towards him, but also
because he loved her so while she was on earth, and continued to do so
after she had quitted it, with a fidelity that has lifted him above the
crowd of ordinary mortals, and made of him a Poet. Here, let it be said in
passing, we get another indication of Dante's poetic conception of Woman,
which is, among other qualities, to co-operate in the making and fostering
of Poets, a mission in which they have never been wanting. Where, indeed,
is the Poet who could not say of some woman, and, if he be fortunate, of
more than one, what, in the Twenty-second Canto of the _Purgatorio_, Dante
makes Statius say to Virgil, "_Per te poeta fui_," "It was through you
that I became a Poet."

Throughout the remaining Cantos of the _Inferno_, Beatrice naturally is
never mentioned, nor yet in the _Purgatorio_, till we reach Canto the
Thirtieth, wherein occurs perhaps the most painful scene in the
awe-inspiring poem. In it she descends from Heaven, an apparition of
celestial light, compared by the Poet to the dazzling dawn of a glorious
day. Smitten with fear, he turns for help to Virgil, but Virgil has left
him. "Weep not," says Beatrice to him, "that Virgil is no longer by your
side; you will need all your tears when you hear me." Then begins her
terrible arraignment:

  Guardaci ben: ben sem, ben sem Beatrice.

  Look on me well! Yes, I am Beatrice.

Confused, Dante gazes upon the ground, and then glances at a fountain hard
by; but, seeing his own image trembling in the water, he lowers his eyes
to the green sward encircling it, and fixes them there, while she upbraids
him for his deviation from absolute fidelity to her memory, and his
disregard of her heavenly endeavours still to help and purify him.
Boccaccio says that Dante was a man of strong passions, and possibly,
indeed probably, he was. But Beatrice seems to reproach him with only one
transgression, and, if one is to say what one thinks, she has always
appeared to me a little hard on him. Nor does she rest content till she
has compelled him to confess his fault. He does so, and then she tells him
to lay aside his grief, and think no more of it, for he is forgiven.
Perhaps, in mitigation of the feeling that her severity was in excess of
the cause, one ought to remember, since it is peculiarly pertinent to my
theme, that we are in the above harrowing scene presented with the
crowning characteristic of Dante's poetic conception of Woman, that, be
the offence against her what it may, she forgets and forgives.

It might be interesting on some other occasion to inquire how far Dante's
poetic conception of Woman is shared by Poets generally, and by the
greater Poets of our own land in particular. Meanwhile one may affirm that
the inquiry would serve to show that it is in substance the same, though
no other Poet, in whatsoever tongue, has extolled and glorified a woman as
Dante did Beatrice. But Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, Scott,
Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, could all be shown, by apposite
illustration, to leave on the mind a conception of woman as a being
tender, devoted, faithful, helpful, "sweet, and serviceable," as Tennyson
says of Elaine, quick to respond to affection, sensitive to beauty in
Nature and Arts, sympathising companion alike of the hearth and of man's
struggle with life--in a word, a creature of whom it is true to say, as,
indeed, Byron _has_ said, that "Love is her whole existence," meaning by
Love not what is too frequently in these days falsely presented to us in
novels as such, but Love through all the harmonious scale of loving,
maternal, filial, conjugal, romantic, religious, and universal.

Read then the Poets. They have a nobler conception of woman and of life
than the novelists. Their unobtrusive but conspicuous teaching harmonises
with the conduct of the best women, and has its deep foundation in a
belief in the beneficent potency of Love, from the most elementary up to
an apprehension of the meaning of the last line of the _Divina Commedia_:

  L'amor che muove il Sole e l'altre stelle.

  Love that keeps the sun in its course, and journeys with the planets in
      their orbit.


The term Pessimism has in these later days been so intimately associated
with the philosophical theories of a well-known German writer, that I can
well excuse those who ask, What may be the connection between Pessimism
and Poetry? There are few matters of human interest that may not become
suitable themes for poetic treatment; but I scarcely think Metaphysics is
among them. It is not, therefore, to Schopenhauer's theory of the World
conceived as Will and Idea, that I invite your attention. The Pessimism
with which we are concerned is much older than Metaphysics, is as old as
the human heart, and is never likely to become obsolete. It is the
Pessimism of which the simplest, the least cultured, and the most
unsophisticated of us may become the victims, and which expresses the
feeling that, on the whole, life is rather a bad business, that it is not
worth having, and that it is a thing which, in the language used by the
Duke in _Measure for Measure_, in order to console Claudio, none but fools
would keep.

Now, as all forms of feeling, and most forms of thought, are reflected in
the magic mirror of Poetry, it is only natural that gloomy views of
existence, of the individual life, and of the world's destiny should from
time to time find expression in the poet's verse. There is quite enough
pain in the experience of the individual, quite enough vicissitude in the
history of nations, quite enough doubt and perplexity in the functions and
mission of mankind, for even the most cheerful and masculine Song to
change sometimes into the pathetic minor. What I would ask you to consider
with me is if there be not a danger lest poetry should remain for long in
this minor key, and if the Poet does not find ample justification and
warrant--nay, should he be a true and comprehensive interpreter of life,

  All moods, all passions, all delights,
  Whatever stirs this mortal frame,

if he does not find himself compelled, in reply to the question, "What of
the night?" to answer, "The stars are still shining."

No survey of the attitude of Poetry towards Pessimism would be
satisfactory that confined itself to one particular age; and I shall ask
you, therefore, to attend to the utterances of poets in other generations
than our own. But, since our own age necessarily interests us the most,
let us at least _begin_ with IT.

I should be surprised to find any one doubting that during the last few
years a wave of disillusion, of doubt, misgiving, and despondency has
passed over the world. We are no longer so confident as we were in the
abstract wisdom and practical working of our Institutions; we no longer
express ourselves with such certainty concerning the social and moral
advantages of our material discoveries; we entertain growing anxiety as to
the future of our Commerce; many persons have questioned the very
foundations of religious belief, and numbers have taken refuge from
conflicting creeds in avowed Agnosticism, or the confession that we know
and can know absolutely nothing concerning what it had long been assumed
it most behoves us to know. One by one, all the fondly cherished theories
of life, society and Empire; our belief in Free Trade as the evangelist of
peace, the solution of economic difficulties and struggles, and the sure
foundation of national greatness; all the sources of our satisfaction with
ourselves, our confidence in our capacity to reconcile the rivalry of
capital and labour, to repress drunkenness, to abolish pauperism, to form
a fraternal confederation with our Colonies, and to be the example to the
whole world of wealth, wisdom, and virtue, are one by one deserting us. We
no longer believe that Great Exhibitions will disarm the inherent ferocity
of mankind, that a judicious administration of the Poor Law will gradually
empty our workhouses, or that an elastic law of Divorce will correct the
aberrations of human passion and solve all the problems of the hearth. The
boastfulness, the sanguine expectations, the confident prophecies of olden
times are exchanged for hesitating speculations and despondent whispers.
We no longer seem to know whither we are marching, and many appear to
think that we are marching to perdition. We have curtailed the authority
of kings; we have narrowed the political competence of aristocracies; we
have widened the suffrage, till we can hardly widen it any further; we
have introduced the ballot, abolished bribery and corruption, and called
into play a more active municipal life; we have multiplied our railways,
and the pace of our travel has been greatly accelerated. Telegraph and
telephone traverse the land. Surgical operations of the most difficult and
dangerous character are performed successfully by the aid of anæsthetics,
without pain to the patient. We have forced from heaven more light than
ever Prometheus did; with the result that we transcend him likewise in our
pain. No one would assert that we are happier, more cheerful, more full of
hope, than our predecessors, or that we confront the Future with greater
confidence. All our Progress, so far, has ended in Pessimism more or less
pronounced; by some expressed more absolutely, by some with more
moderation; but felt by all, permeating every utterance, and infiltrating
into every stratum of thought.

Now let us see to what extent these gloomy views have found expression in
poetry, and, first of all, in the writings of not only the most widely
read but the most sensitive and receptive poet of our time, Alfred
Tennyson. Tennyson came of age in 1830, or just on the eve of the first
Reform Bill, when a great Party in the State, which was to enjoy almost a
monopoly of power for the next thirty years, firmly believed, and was
followed by a majority of the nation in believing, that we had only to
legislate in a generous and what was called a liberal sense, to bring
about the Millennium within a reasonable period. They had every possible
opportunity of putting their belief into practice, and they did so with
generous ardour. Now in that year 1830 there appeared what was practically
Tennyson's first volume; and save in the instance of the short poem

  You ask me, why, tho' ill at ease,
      Within this region I subsist,

and the somewhat longer but still comparatively brief one, opening with

  Love thou thy land, with love far-brought
    From out the storied Past,

there is no reference in it to the political or social condition of the
English people. The bulk of the poems had evidently been composed, so to
speak, in the lofty vacuum created by the poet and the artist for himself,
save where, in the lines,

  Vex not thou the Poet's mind
    With thy shallow wit:
  Vex not thou the poet's mind,
    For thou canst not fathom it,

he seemed to be giving the great body of his countrymen notice that they
had nothing in common with him, or he with them. And, in the two
exceptions I have named, what is his attitude? You all remember the lines:

  But pamper not a hasty time,
    Nor feed with vague imaginings
    The herd, wild hearts and feeble wings
  That every sophister can lime.

And so he goes on, through stanzas with which, I am sure, you are
thoroughly familiar, ending with the often-quoted couplet:

    Earn well the thrifty months, nor wed
  Raw Haste, half-sister to Delay.

It would be difficult to find, in verse, a more terse or accurate
embodiment of what, in no Party sense, we may call the Conservative mind,
the Conservative way of looking at things, or a more striking instance of
contemporaneous verse reflecting what had recently been the average public
temper of the moment. The England of the years that immediately preceded
1830 was an England wearied with the strain and stress of the great war
and the mighty agitations of the early part of the century, and now,
craving for repose, was in politics more or less stationary. Therefore in
this earliest volume, of one of the most sensitive and receptive of
writers, we encounter only quiet panegyrics of

  A land of settled government,
      A land of just and old renown,
      Where Freedom slowly broadens down
  From precedent to precedent.

  Where Faction seldom gathers head,
      But, by degrees to fulness wrought,
      The strength of some diffusive thought
  Hath time and space to work and spread.

Here we have none of the rebellious political protests of Byron, none of
the iconoclastic fervour of Shelley, none even of the philosophic yearning
of Wordsworth. It was a Conservative, a self-satisfied England, and the
youthful Tennyson accordingly was perfectly well satisfied with it,
evidently having as yet no cognizance of the fact that Radicalism was
already more than muling and pewking in the arms of its Whig nurse, and
that Reforms were about to be carried neither "slowly," nor by "still
degrees," nor in accordance with any known "precedent."

Tennyson's next volume was not published till 1842. During the twelve
years that had elapsed since the appearance of its predecessor, a mighty
change had come not only over the dream, but over the practice, of the
English People. It was an England in which the stationary or conservative
tone of thought of which I spoke was, if not extinct, discredited and
suppressed, and the fortunes of the Realm were moulded by the generous and
hopeful theories of Liberalism. Tennyson meanwhile had been subjected to
the influences of what he called the wondrous Mother Age; and harken how
now--it scarcely sounds like the same voice--the eulogist of the "storied
Past," the deprecator of "crude imaginings" and of a "hasty time,"
confronts the dominant spirit and rising impulses of the new generation:

  For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
  Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

  Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
  Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

  Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
  With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;

  Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
  In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

  There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
  And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

Did Optimism ever find a clearer, more enthusiastic, or more confident
voice than that? I have sometimes thought that when the Historian comes to
write, in distant times, of the rise, progress, and decline of Liberalism
in England, he will cite that passage as the melodious compendium of its
creed. You all know where the passage comes; for you have, I am sure, the
first _Locksley Hall_ by heart.

But there is another _Locksley Hall_, the _Locksley Hall_ which the Author
himself calls _Locksley Hall Sixty Years After_, published as recently as
1886. You are acquainted with it, no doubt; but I should be surprised to
find any one quite so familiar with it as with its predecessor. It is not
so attractive, so fascinating, so saturated with beauty. But for my
purpose it is eminently instructive, and I will ask you to listen to some
of its rolling couplets.

  Chaos, Cosmos! Cosmos, Chaos! who can tell how all will end?
  Read the wide world's annals, you, and take their wisdom for your friend.

  Hope the best, but hold the Present fatal daughter of the Past,
  Shape your heart to front the hour, but dream not that the hour will last.

  Ay, if dynamite and revolver leave you courage to be wise:
  When was age so cramm'd with menace? madness? written, spoken lies?

  Envy wears the mask of Love, and, laughing sober fact to scorn,
  Cries to Weakest as to Strongest, "Ye are equals, equal-born."

  Equal-born? O yes, if yonder hill be level with the flat.
  Charm us, Orator, till the Lion look no larger than the Cat.

  Till the Cat thro' that mirage of overheated language loom
  Larger than the Lion,--Demos end in working its own doom.

  Chaos, Cosmos! Cosmos, Chaos! once again the sickening game;
  Freedom, free to slay herself, and dying while they shout her name.

  Step by step we gain'd a freedom known to Europe, known to all;
  Step by step we rose to greatness,--thro' the tonguesters we may fall.

Was there ever such a contrast as between these two _Locksley Halls_? The
same poet, the same theme, the same metre, but how different the voice,
the tone, the tendency, the conclusion! All the Liberalism, all the
enthusiasm, the hope, the confidence, of former years have vanished, and
in their place we have reactionary despondency. It is as though the same
hand that wrote the Christening Ode to Liberalism, had composed a dirge to
be chanted over its grave.

The genius of Tennyson needs no fresh panegyric. It is but yesterday he
died, in the fullness of his Fame; and that his works will be read so long
as the English language remains a living tongue, I cannot doubt. But if,
while his claim to the very highest place as an artist must ever remain
uncontested, doubts should be expressed concerning his equality with the
very greatest poets, those who express that doubt will, I imagine, base
their challenge on the excessive receptivity, and consequent lack of
serenity of his mind. In the first _Locksley Hall_ the poet is an
Optimist. In the second _Locksley Hall_ he is a Pessimist. And why?
Because, when the first was written, the prevailing tone of the age was
optimistic; and, when the second was composed, the prevailing tone of the
time had become pessimistic.

It will scarcely be doubted, therefore, that there does exist a real and a
very grave danger lest Poetry should, in these perplexing and despondent
days, not only be closely associated with Pessimism, but should become for
the most part its voice and echo. I am precluded from presenting to you
illustrations of this danger from the works of living writers of verse.
But in truth, the malady of which I am speaking--for malady, in my
opinion, it is--began to manifest itself long before the present
generation, long before Tennyson wrote, and when indeed he was yet a child
in the cradle. The main original source of Modern Pessimism is the French
movement known as the Revolution, which, by exciting extravagant hopes as
to the happy results to be secured from the emancipation of the
individual, at first generated a fretful impatience at the apparently slow
fulfilment of the dream, and finally aroused a sceptical and reactionary
despondency at the only too plain and patent demonstration that the dream
was not going to be fulfilled at all. It is this blending of wild hopes
and extravagant impatience that inspired and informed the poetry of
Shelley, that produced _Queen Mab_, _The Revolt of Islam_, and _Prometheus
Unbound_. In Byron it was impatience blent with disillusion that dictated
_Childe Harold_, _Manfred_, and _Cain_, and finally culminated in the
mockery of _Don Juan_. Keats, while ostensibly holding aloof from the
political and social issues of his time, succumbed and ministered to the
disease, even if unconsciously and unintentionally, more even than either
Byron or Shelley; for _they_ went on fighting against, while _he_
passively submitted, to it. Keats found nothing in his own time worth
sympathising with or singing about, and so took refuge in mythological and
classical themes, or in the expression of states of feeling in which he
grows half in love with easeful death, in which more than ever it seems
sweet to die and to cease upon the midnight with no pain, and to the high
requiem of the nightingale to become a sod that does not hear.

Now it is an instructive circumstance that, in recent years, a distinct
and decided preference has been manifested both by the majority of critics
and by the reading public for the poetry of Keats even over the poetry of
the other two writers I have named in connection with him. In Byron,
notwithstanding his rebellious tendency, notwithstanding the gloom that
often overshadows his verse, notwithstanding his being one of the
exponents of those exaggerated hopes and that exaggerated despondency of
which I have spoken, there was a considerable fund of common sense and a
good deal of manliness. He was a man of the world and could not help being
so, in spite of his attitude of hostility to it. Moreover, in many of his
poems, action plays a conspicuous part, and the general passions,
interests, and politics of mankind are dealt with by him in a more or less
practical spirit, and as though they concerned him likewise. Shelley, too,
not unoften condescended to deal with the political, social, and religious
polemics of his time, though he always did so in a passionate and utterly
impracticable temper, and would necessarily leave on the mind of the
reader, the conviction that everything in the world is amiss, and that
the only possible remedy is the abolition of everything that had hitherto
been regarded as an indispensable part of the foundation of human society.
But Keats does not trouble himself about any of these things. He gives
them the go-by, he ignores them, and only asks to be allowed to leave the
world unseen, and with the nightingale, to fade away into the forest dim.

  Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
    What thou among the leaves hast never known,
  The weariness, the fever, and the fret
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
  Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
      Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
            And leaden-eyed despairs;
    Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
      Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

This is the voice, I say, which, during the last few years, has been
preferred even to Shelley's, and very much preferred to Byron's. And why?
You will perhaps say that Keats's workmanship is fascinatingly beautiful.
In the passage I have cited, and in the entire poem from which it is
taken, that unquestionably is so. But I trust I shall not give offence if
I say that the number of my countrymen and countrywomen who lay stress on
the artistic manner, whether in verse or prose, in which an opinion is
expressed, compared with the number of those who value poetry or prose
chiefly because it expresses the opinions they value and the sentiments
they cherish, is very small. No, Keats is preferred because Keats turns
aside from the world at large, and thinks and writes only of individual
feeling. Hence he has been more welcomed by recent critics, and by recent
readers of poetry. Indeed, certain critics have laboured to erect it into
a dogma, indeed into an absolute literary and critical canon, that a poet
who wishes to attain true distinction must turn his back on politics, on
people, on society, on his country, on patriotism, on everything in fact
save books--his own thoughts, his own feelings, and his own art. Because
Byron did not do so they have dubbed him a Philistine; and because Pope
did precisely the reverse, and the reverse, no doubt, overmuch, they
assert that he was not a poet at all.

It is not necessary to dwell on the fatuousness of such criticism, more
especially as one discerns welcome signs of a disposition on the part of
the reading public to turn away from these guides, and a disposition even
on the part of the guides themselves in some degree to reconsider and
revise their unfortunate utterances. But I have alluded to the doctrine in
question, in order to show you to what lengths Pessimism, which is only a
compendious expression of dissatisfaction with things in general, in other
words with life, with society, and with mankind, can go, and how it has
culminated in such disdain of them by poets, that they brush them aside as
subjects unworthy of the Muse. Surely Pessimism in Poetry can no farther
go, than to assume, without question, that man, life, society, patriotism
are not worth a song?

I should not wonder if some will have been saying to themselves, "But what
about Wordsworth; Wordsworth, who was the contemporary, and at least the
equal, alike in genius and in influence, of the three poets just named?" I
have not forgotten Wordsworth. Wordsworth was of too pious a temperament,
using the word pious in its very largest signification, to be a Pessimist;
for true piety and Pessimism are irreconcilable. Nevertheless Wordsworth,
as a poet, likewise experienced, and experienced acutely, the influence of
the French Revolution. Upon this point there can be no difference of
opinion; for he himself left it on record in a well-known passage.
Everybody knows with what different eyes Wordsworth finally looked on the
French Revolution; how utterly he broke with its tenets, its promises, its
offspring; taking refuge from his disappointment.

But something akin to despondency, if too permeated with sacred
resignation wholly to deserve that description, may be discovered in the
attitude henceforward assumed by Wordsworth, as a poet, towards the world,
society, and mankind. Not only did he write a long poem, _The Recluse_,
but he himself was a recluse, and the whole of _The Excursion_ is the
composition of a recluse. Matthew Arnold, always a high authority on
Wordsworth, has said:

  But Wordsworth's eyes avert their ken
  From half of human fate.

Indeed they did; turning instead to the silence that is in the sky, to the
sleep that is in the hills, to the mountains, the flowers, and the poet's
own solitary _meditations_. He declared that he would rather be a Pagan
suckled in a creed outworn than one of those Christian worldlings, of
which society seemed to him mainly to consist. This is not necessarily
Pessimism. But it goes perilously near to it; and the boundary line would
have been crossed, but that Wordsworth's prayer was answered, in which he
petitioned that his days might be linked each to each by natural piety.

Of Matthew Arnold himself, as a poet, I am able to speak; for though he
was not long ago one's contemporary, he is no longer one of ourselves. In
Matthew Arnold it has always seemed to me, the poet and the man, his
reason and his imagination, were not quite one. They were harnessed
together rather than incorporated one with the other; and, many years
before he died, if I may press the comparison a little farther, the poet,
the imaginative part of him became lame and halt, and he conveyed his mind
in the humbler one-horse vehicle of prose. The poetic impulse in him was
not strong enough to carry him along permanently against the prosaic
opposition of life. Nevertheless, he was a poet who wrote some very
beautiful poetry; and he exercised a powerful influence, both as a poet
and as a prose-writer, on the thoughts and sentiments of his time. Now,
what do we find him saying? Listen!

  Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
  The other powerless to be born,
  With nowhere yet to rest my head,
  Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
  Their faith, My tears, the world deride,
  I come to shed them at your side.

  There yet perhaps may dawn an age,
  More fortunate alas! than we,
  Which without hardness will be sage,
  And gay without frivolity.
  Sons of the world, oh haste those years!
  But, till they rise, allow our tears.

Hark to the words he puts into the mouth of Empedocles:

    And yet what days were those, Parmenides!
  Then we could still enjoy, then neither thought
  Nor outward things were closed and dead to us;
  But we received the shock of mighty thoughts
  On simple minds with a pure natural joy.

      *       *       *       *       *

  We had not lost our balance then, nor grown
  Thought's slaves, and dead to every natural joy.

In another poem he declares:

  Achilles ponders in his tent:
  The Kings of modern thought are dumb;
  Silent they are, though not content,
  And wait to see the future come.

      *       *       *       *       *

  Our fathers watered with their tears
  The sea of time whereon we sail;
  Their voices were in all men's ears
  Who passed within their puissant hail.
  Still the same ocean round us raves,
  But we stand mute and watch the waves.

Last and worst of all, and in utter despondency and pessimism he cries:

  Your creeds are dead, your rites are dead,
      Your social order, too!
  Where tarries He, the Power who said,
      _See_, I make all things new?
          ... The past is out of date,
  The future not yet born;
  And who can be alone elate,
  While the world lies forlorn?

Can Pessimism in Poetry go farther than that? Many will perhaps think it
cannot; but, unfortunately, it can. It is only from poets who are dead, if
dead but recently, that one can draw one's illustrations; otherwise I
could suggest you should read to yourselves volume upon volume of verse,
the one long weary burden of which is the misery of being alive. I daresay
you will not be sorry that one is precluded from introducing these
melancholy minstrels. But the spirit that imbues and pervades them is
compendiously and conveniently expressed in a composition that I _can_
read to you, and which I select because it seems to express, in reasonably
small compass, the indictment which our metrical pessimists labour to
bring against existence.

I have confined my survey entirely to poets of our own land, and have said
nothing to you of Giacomo Leopardi, the celebrated Italian Pessimistic
Poet; nothing of Heine, whose beautiful but too often cynical lyrics must
be known to you either in the original German, or in one or other of the
various English versions, into which they have been rendered; nothing of
the long procession of railers, sometimes bestial, nearly always
repulsive, in French verse, beginning with Baudelaire, and coming down to
the _petits crevés_ of poetry who are not ashamed to be known by the name
of _décadens_, and who certainly deserve it, for if they possess nothing
else, they possess to perfection the art of sinking. One would naturally
expect to find in the country where occurred the French Revolution, the
most violent forms of the malady which, as I have said, is mainly
attributable to it; and surely it is a strong confirmation of the truth of
that theory that it is in France poetic pessimism has in our day had its
most outrageous and most voluminous expression.

I hope no one supposes that I am, even incidentally, intending to
pronounce a sweeping and unqualified condemnation of the great movement
known in history as the French Revolution. That would indeed be to be as
narrow as the narrowest pessimist could possibly show himself. The French
Revolution, as is probably the case with every great political, religious,
or social movement, was in its action partly beneficial, partly
detrimental. It abolished many monstrous abuses, it propounded afresh some
long-neglected or violated truths; and it gave a vigorous impulse to human
hope. But it was perhaps the most violent of all the great movements
recorded in human annals. Accordingly, it destroyed over much, and it
promised over much. In all probability, action and reaction are as nicely
balanced in the intellectual and moral world as in the physical, and
exaggerated hopes must have their equivalent in correlated and co-equal
disappointment. I sometimes think that the nineteenth century now closed
will be regarded in the fullness of time as a colossal egotist, that began
by thinking somewhat too highly of itself, its prospects, its capacity,
its performances, and ended by thinking somewhat too meanly of what I have
called things in general, or those permanent conditions of man, life, and
society, which no amount of Revolutions, French or otherwise, will avail
to get rid of.

In truth, if I were asked to say briefly what Pessimism is, I should say
it is disappointed Egotism; and the description will hold good, whether we
apply it to an individual, to a community, or to an age.

For nothing is more remarkable in the writings of pessimistic poets than
the attention they devote, and that they ask us to devote, to their own
feelings. Far be it from me to deny that some very lovely and very
valuable verse has been written by poets concerning their personal joys,
sorrows, hopes, longings, and disappointments. But then it is verse which
describes the joys, sorrows, hopes, longings, and disappointments common
to the whole human race, and which every sensitive nature experiences at
some time or another, in the course of chequered life, and which are
peculiar to no particular age or generation, but the pathetic possession
of all men, and all epochs. The verse to which I allude with less
commendation, is the verse in which the writer seems to be occupied, and
asking us to occupy ourselves, with exceptional states of suffering which
appertain to him alone, or to him and the little esoteric circle of
superior martyrs to which he belongs, and to some special period of
history in which their lot is cast. The sorrows we entertain in common
with others never lead to pessimism, they lead to pity, sympathy, pathos,
to pious resignation, to courageous hope. I wish these privileged invalids
would take to heart those noble lines of Wordsworth:

  So once it would have been--'tis so no more--
  I have submitted to a new control--
  A power is gone which nothing can restore,
  A deep distress hath humanized my soul!

I sometimes think these doleful bards have never had a really deep
distress, that their very woe is fanciful, and that like the young
gentleman in France of whom Arthur speaks in _King John_, they are as sad
as night, only for wantonness. But far from being rebuked by critics for
their sea-green melancholy, they have been hailed as true masters of song
for scarcely any better reason than that they declare themselves to be
utterly miserable, and life to be equally so. Indeed by some critics it
has been raised into a literary canon, not only that all Poetry, to be of
much account, must be written in the pathetic minor, but that the poets
themselves, if we are to recognise them as endowed with true genius and
real sacred fire, must be unhappy from the cradle to the grave. If they
can die young, if they can go mad, or commit suicide, so much the better.
Their credentials as great poets are then firmly established. Even a
pathetic phrase has been invented to describe the natural and inevitable
condition of such sacred persons, a phrase that must be well known to
you--the Sorrows of Genius.

Therefore, in the really sacred name of Genius, of Literature, of Poetry,
I protest against this pitiable, this mawkish, unmanly, unwholesome, and
utterly untrue estimate both of poetry and poets. No first-rate poet ever
went mad, or ever committed suicide, though one or two, no doubt, have
happened to die comparatively young. It is utterly dishonouring to poets,
it is utterly discrediting to men of genius, to represent them as feeble,
whining, helpless, love-sick, life-sick invalids, galvanised from time to
time into activity by a sort of metrical hysteria. Because Shelley has
truly said that

  Our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought

--and because in _Julian and Maddalo_ he has represented Byron as saying
that men

  ... learn in suffering what they teach in song

--are we to conclude that sadness and suffering are the only things in
life, the only things in it deserving of the poet's music? No one will
ever be a poet of much consequence who has not suffered, for, as Goethe
finely says, he who never ate his bread in sorrow, knows not the Heavenly
Powers. But, if our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest
thought, they are not necessarily our strongest or our greatest songs; and
if we accept the assertion that men learn in suffering what they teach in
song, do not let us forget the "learning" spoken of in the line. The poet,
no doubt, has to learn by suffering, but having learnt, he has then, in my
opinion, to help others not to be miserable, but to be happy.

I cannot here allude to well-known poets of other ages and other nations,
avowedly great and permanent benefactors of mankind, all of whom alike
were completely free from this malady of universal discontent. But let me
at least take a cursory survey of our native poets; for, after all, to us
English men and English women, what English poets have felt and said
concerns us most and interests us most deeply. Let us see what is their
attitude to external nature, to man, woman, life, society, and the general
dispensation of existence.

You know how our modern pessimists cannot see a tree, a flower, or a
mountain, but straightway they drop into what I may call a falling
sickness, and all the beauty of the woods, fields, and sky merely suggests
to them a picturesque background for their own superior sighs and sorrows.
How differently Chaucer looks upon the panorama of this fair earth of
ours! He is a great student, as men in the early days of the Renaissance
were, and he tells us that he hath such delight in reading books, and has
in his heart for them such reverence, that there is no game which can tear
him away from them. But, when the month of May comes, and the birds sing,
and the flowers begin to shoot, then, he adds, "Farewell my book and my
devotion!" He wanders forth and beholds the eye of the daisy; and this
blissful sight, as he calls it, softeneth all his sorrow. Elsewhere he
describes how he cannot lie in bed for the glad beams of the sun that pour
in through the window. He rushes out, and is delighted with everything.
The welkin is fair, the air blue and light, it is neither too hot nor too
cold, and not a cloud is anywhere to be seen. This disposition of content
with and joy in external Nature, Chaucer displays equally when he consorts
with his kind. It is very noticeable, though I am not aware if it has been
pointed out before, how he portrays all the various pilgrims and
personages in the famous _Prologue to the Canterbury Tales_ as of cheerful
and generally jovial spirits. There is not a melancholy person, not a
pessimist, in the whole company. He describes himself as talking and
having fellowship with every one of them, and we may therefore conclude he
also was pretty cheerful and genial himself. Even of his "perfect gentle
knight," whom he evidently intended to describe as the pink of chivalry,
he says:

  And though that he was worthy, he was wise.

And there never was, and never will be, wisdom without cheerfulness. As
for the young Squire, the lover and lusty bachelor, that accompanied the
Knight, Chaucer says of him, in a couplet that has always struck me as
possessing a peculiar charm:

  Singing he was or fluting all the day,
  He was as merry as the month of May.

He says of him, though he could sit a horse well, he could also write
songs; and we can easily surmise what the songs were like. Chaucer's Nun
or Prioress is delineated by him as full pleasant and amiable of port, and
as even taking trouble to feign the cheerful air of a lady of the Court.
When the Monk rides abroad, men could hear his bridle jingling in a
whistling wind as clear and loud as the chapel bell. Do not the words stir
one's blood to cheerfulness, and sound like a very carillon of joy? Of the
Friar it is recorded that certainly he had a merry note, and well could he
sing and play upon the harp, and that while he sang and played, his eyes
twinkled in his head, like stars in the frosty night. The business of the
Clerk of Oxenford was by his speech to sow abroad moral virtue; but
Chaucer adds, "And gladly would he learn--" mark that word "gladly" "--and
gladly teach." The Franklin, a country gentleman, he declares, was wont to
live in delight, for he was Epicurus' own son. The Shipman draws many a
draught of wine from Bordeaux; well can the wife of Bath laugh and jest;
the Miller is a regular joker and buffoon; a better fellow you cannot
find, he avers, than the Sumpnor; and the Pardoner, for very jollity, goes
bareheaded, singing full merrily and loud. As for the Landlord of the
"Tabard," he is described as making great cheer, being a right merry man.
He declares there is no comfort nor mirth in riding to Canterbury, even on
pilgrimage, as dumb as a stone, and that they may smite off his head if he
does not succeed in making them merry; and it all ends by Chaucer
declaring that every wight was blithe and glad. Indeed, these are such a
cheery, such a jovial set, that the only sorrow we can feel in connection
with them is regret that we, too, were not of that delightful company.

I wonder if it has occurred to you, while reading these brief and cursory
extracts from Chaucer, to say to yourselves, "How English it all is!" If
not, may I say it for you? I am free to confess that I am one of those who
think--and I hope there are some in this room who share my opinion--that
the epithet English is an epithet to be proud of, an adjective of praise,
a mark of commendation, and connotes, as the logician would say,
everything that is manly, brave, wholesome, and sane. These latter-day
melancholy moping minstrels are not English at all, they are feeble copies
of foreign originals. Between them and Chaucer there is absolute
alienation. About them there is nothing jolly or jovial, and there is not
one good fellow among them.

Let us turn to the next great name according to chronological order in
English Poetry; let us glance, if but rapidly, at the pages of Spenser.
You could not well have two poets of more different dispositions than
Chaucer and Spenser. One seems to hear Chaucer's own bridle jingling in a
whistling wind, to see his own eyes twinkling in his head like stars in
the frosty night, and one thinks of him, too, as singing or fluting all
the day long and being as merry as the month of May. In the gaze, on the
brow, and in the pages of Spenser, there abides a lofty dignity, as of a
high-born stately gentleman, deferential to all, but familiar with none.
Indeed he resembles his own Gentle Knight in the opening lines of the
_Fairy Queen_, the description of whom I have always thought is none other
than the portraiture of himself. If ever a poet had high seriousness it is
Spenser. He never condescends to indulge in the broad jests dear to
Chaucer, frequent in Shakespeare, common in Byron. Yet between him and
Chaucer, between him and every great poet, there is this similarity, that
he looks on life with a cheerful mind. It is a grave cheerfulness, but
cheerfulness all the same; and, in truth, cheerful gravity, and high
seriousness are one and the same thing.

  Full jolly Knight he seemed, and fair did sit,
  As one for Knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit!

he says in the very first stanza of his noble poem. "Jolly," no doubt,
does not mean quite the same thing with Spenser as it does with Chaucer.
There is the difference in signification, we may say, that there is, in
character, between the Landlord of the "Tabard" and the Gentle Knight. But
never does the latter lapse into melancholy, much less into Pessimism. He
is too active, on too great adventure bound, and too impressed with its
solemn importance, for that. Spenser himself significantly expresses the
fear that his Gentle Knight

  Of his cheer did seem too solemn sad,

as though he wished to let us know that even solemn sadness is a fault.
But he soon enables us to discern that appearance is misleading, and
reflects in reality only a noble, lofty, and serene temper, and that
desire to win the worship and favour of the Fairy Queen, which he tells
us, "of all earthly things, the Knight most did crave." As soon as Spenser
has described the lovely lady that rode the Knight beside, he says:

  And forth they pass, with _pleasure_ forward led.

And again

  Led with _delight_, they thus beguile the way.

There is no buffoonery, as in the _Canterbury Tales_, but a wise equable
serenity that contemplates man and woman, beauty, temptation, danger,
sorrow, struggle, honour, this world and the next, with a Knightly
equanimity that nothing can disturb. But why should I dwell on the point,
when Spenser himself has written one line which I may call his confession
of faith on the subject?--

  The noblest mind the best contentment has.

What a noble line! the noblest, I think, in all literature. Let us commit
it to heart, repeat it morning, noon, and night, and it will cast out for
us all the devils, aye, all the swine of Pessimism. What does this grave,
this serious, this dignified English poet say of the Muses themselves?--

  The Sisters Nine, which dwell on Parnass' height,
  Do make them music for their more delight!

That is Spenser's conception of the mission of poetry, and of the function
of the poet--to make them music for their more delight--I acknowledge it
is mine. I earnestly trust it is that of many.

There is no passion of the human heart, no speculation of the human mind,
to which Shakespeare has not, in some passage or another, given expressive
utterance; and since in life there is much sorrow, no little suffering,
and ample sadness, chapter and verse can readily be found in his universal
pages for any mood or any state of feeling. But what is the one, broad,
final impression we receive of the gaze with which Shakespeare looked on
life? A complete answer to that question would furnish matter for a long
paper. But one brief passage must here suffice. In the most terrible and
tragic of all his tragedies, _King Lear_, and in the most terrible and
tragic of all its appalling incidents, the following brief colloquy takes
place between Edgar and his now sightless father:

  Away, old man; give me thy hand; away!
  King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en:
  Give me thy hand, come on.
  No farther, sir,

replies Gloster in despair,

  No farther, sir! A man may rot even here.

What is Edgar's answer?--

  What! In ill thoughts again? Men must endure
  Their going hence, even as their coming hither,
  Ripeness is all: come on!

If, at such a moment, and in the very darkest hour of disaster,
Shakespeare puts such language into the mouth of Edgar, is it wonderful
that he should, in less gloomy moments, take so cheerful a view of life,
that Milton can only describe his utterances by calling them "woodnotes

And Milton himself? Milton almost as grave as Spenser and certainly more
austere. Yet I do not think that Pessimism, that the advocates of
universal suicide, since life is not worth living, will be able to get
much help or sanction for their doleful gospel from the poet who wrote
_Paradise Lost_ expressly to

       ... assert Eternal Providence
  And justify the ways of God to man.

Milton has given us, in two of the loveliest lyrics in the language, his
conception of Melancholy and of Joy. Of his _L'Allegro_ I need not speak.
But in _Il Penseroso_, if anywhere in Milton, we must look for some
utterance akin to the desolation and the despair of modern pessimistic
poets. We may look, but assuredly we shall not find it.

  Then let the pealing organ blow,
  To the full-voicëd choir below.

In protesting, therefore, against Pessimism in Poetry, I am only returning
to the oldest, soundest, and noblest traditions in English Literature, and
in the English character. I trust no one supposes I am denying or that I
am insensible to the existence of pain, woe, sadness, loss, even anguish
and acute suffering, as integral and inevitable elements in life; and if
poetry did not take note of these, and give to them pathetic and adequate
expression, poetry would not be, as it is, coextensive with life, would
not be the Paraclete or Comforter, with the gift of tongues. In poetry the
note of sorrow will be, and must be, occasionally, and indeed frequently
struck; it should not be the dominant key, much less the only key in which
the poet tunes his song. There is much in our modern civilisation that is
very unbeautiful, nay, that is downright ugly, whether we look on it with
the eye of the artist or with the vision of the moralist. Moreover, I
perceive--who could fail to perceive?--that we have in these days some
very dark and difficult social problems to solve. Then let the poet come
to our assistance by accompanying us with musical encouragement. For,
remember, the poet has to make harmony, not out of language only, but out
of life as well. I was once looking at a violin, a very lovely violin, a
Stradivarius of great value and exquisite tone, and I asked the lady to
whom it belonged of what wood the various parts of the instrument was
composed. She told me, with much loving detail; but, she said, "I ought to
add that I have been told no violin can be made of supreme quality unless
the wood be taken from that side of the tree which faces south." It is the
same with the Poet. If he is to give us the sweetest, the most sonorous,
and the truest notes, his nature must have a bias towards the sunny side.


[This paper appeared in _Macmillan's Magazine_ a quarter of a century ago,
in reply to one that had been published in the same periodical in the
previous month.]

In the days of Chivalry, whose spirit, I trust, still lingers with us,
though its forms may have passed away, the prelude to a peaceful
tournament, or _joute de plaisance_, was the salutation of each other by
the combatants. In the pages which follow an effort will be made in some
degree to dislodge Mr. Swinburne from that seat of critical judgment which
he occupies with such gallant confidence, with such waving of plume and
such clashing of shield. But before the lists are opened, let me salute,
with something more than ceremonial courtesy, the exquisite lyrical genius
of the poet, and the solid accomplishments of the scholar. That premised,
I will, without further preliminary, betake me to my task.

In the latest number of one of the ablest of monthly reviews, Mr.
Swinburne, enlarging on a passage, rather cursory and incidental than
definitive or judicial, inserted by M. Taine at the close of his brilliant
survey of English poetry, institutes a comparison between Mr. Tennyson and
Alfred de Musset. With Mr. Swinburne's opening remark every one must
agree. It is distinctive of this age, he says, that the greatest of the
great writers who were born about the opening of the century, are still
working with splendid persistence. It was affirmed by Menander that those
the gods love die young. Is it because the gods themselves are dead, that
the heavenly favourites are nowadays permitted to exceed even the
scriptural span of life? Be this as it may, to Mr. Tennyson, with peculiar
aptness, may be addressed the lines of Wordsworth, inspired by a very
different personage:

  Thy thoughts and feelings shall not die,
  Nor leave thee when gray hairs are nigh,
      A melancholy slave;
  But an old age serene and bright,
  And lovely as a Lapland night,
      Shall lead thee to thy grave.

More appropriate still perhaps, for the moment, would be an excerpt from
Alfred de Musset himself, whom the gods loved not well enough either to
cut off in the flower of his youth, or to leave hanging till he had
achieved maturity. Mr. Swinburne, no doubt, knows the lines by heart:

  Mais comment fais-tu donc, vieux maître
      Pour renaître?
  Car tes vers, en dépit du temps,
      Ont vingt ans.

  Si jamais ta tête qui penche
      Devient blanche,
  Ce sera comme l'amandier,
      Cher Nodier:

  Ce qui le blanchit n'est pas l'âge,
      Ni l'orage;
  C'est la fraîche rosée en pleurs
      Dans les fleurs.

To this survival of power in Mr. Tennyson, Mr. Swinburne pays homage after
his fashion. Who could possibly withhold it? _The "Revenge,"_ _The Battle
of Lucknow_, and most of all _Rizpah_, show that, even as in the days of
_Locksley Hall_, ancient founts of inspiration well through Mr. Tennyson's
fancy yet; serving to remind us that Nature rejoices in the occasional
violation of her own laws, that roses are not altogether unknown in
November, and that even when the snowdrop whitens the ground, the lark
will sometimes carol up to heaven.

To the wedded strength and sadness in _Rizpah_ Mr. Swinburne offers ample
testimony, and this is how he does it:

     Nothing more piteous, more passionate, more adorable for intensity of
     beauty, was ever before this wrought by human cunning into the
     likeness of such words, as words are powerless to praise. Any
     possible commentary on a poem of this rank must needs be as weak and
     worthless as the priceless thing which evoked it is beautiful and

I confess I am disposed to feel that this is so. But Mr. Swinburne,
disregarding his candid avowal of what is worthless, proceeds with the

     But one which should attempt by selection or indication to underline,
     as it were, and to denote the chiefest among its manifold beauties
     and glories, would be also as long and as wordy as the poem is short
     and reticent. Once or twice in reading it a man may feel, and may
     know himself to be none the unmanlier for feeling, as though the very
     heart in him cried out for agony of pity, and hardly the flesh could
     endure the burden and the strain of it, the burning bitterness of so
     keen and divine a draught. A woman might weep it away and be "all
     right" again--but a man born of woman can hardly be expected to bear
     the pity of it.

There is more to the same effect; indeed two whole pages, in the course of
which we are assured that "never assuredly has any poor penman of the
humblest order been more inwardly conscious of such impotence in words to
sustain the weight of their intention than am I at this moment of my
inability to cast into any shape of articulate speech, the impression and
the emotion produced by the first reading of Tennyson's _Rizpah_"; that
"the poet never lived on earth whose glory would not be heightened by the
attribution of this poem to his hand"; that any one who hesitated to
affirm as much must be "either cancerous with malevolence or paralytic
with stupidity"; that now at least "there must be an end for ever on all
hands to the once debatable question whether the author can properly be
called in the strictest sense a great poet"; and, finally, that "there
must be an end for ever, and a day beyond at least, of a question which
once was even more hotly debatable than this, the long-contested question
of poetic precedence between Alfred Tennyson and Alfred de Musset."

To all who, like myself, admire _Rizpah_ vastly, and who never doubted
that Mr. Tennyson was a larger poet than Alfred de Musset, the above is,
in a sense, consolatory. But I confess that, even when first perusing it,
and not having yet reached what follows, the note of panegyric struck me
as strained, not to say forced, and I had an uncomfortable sort of feeling
that somebody would have to pay the expense of this prodigal eulogium. To
borrow a line Mr. Swinburne himself quotes:

  Cette promotion me laisse un peu rêveur.

Even when Mr. Swinburne praises, and no one praises more liberally, I do
not know how it strikes other people, but he always gives me the idea that
he is directing his panegyric _at_ somebody who is not being panegyrised;
in other words, that he is, to say the least, as much bent upon scarifying
some one who is not mentioned, as on complimenting the person who is. Even
in the passage just reproduced, with the chant over the glories of Mr.
Tennyson, is mingled a gibe at "wandering apes" and "casual mules." This,
I say, put me upon my guard. "Is it conceivable," I said to myself, "that
_Rizpah_, fine, forcible, and effective as it is, should cause all this
difference in a man's estimate of Mr. Tennyson as a poet? Is it possible
that any Englishman at least, should have had to wait till this time of
day to discover that 'any comparison of claims between the two men must be
unprofitable in itself, as well as unfair to the memory of the lesser
poet'?" Finally, and to speak my whole mind with perfect candour, it
struck me that, splendid of its kind as _Rizpah_ undoubtedly is, there is
surely some exaggeration in saying, "If this be not great work, no great
work was ever, or will ever be done in verse by any human hand"; and that
Mr. Tennyson himself has not unfrequently done work fully as good as it,
and, _me judice_, even better.

One had not to read much farther to discern that these misgivings were
well founded. Somebody indeed had to pay for all the lavish praise of
_Rizpah_, and it was the author of _Rizpah_ himself. I felt sure I should
come to the other side of the shield, the obverse hollows of all this
embossed, and, if I may be permitted to say so, somewhat turgid
appreciation; and come to it I did.

     There are whole poems of Mr. Tennyson's first period which are no
     more properly to be called metrical than the more shapeless and
     monstrous parts of Walt Whitman, which are lineally derived as to
     their form--if form that can be called where form is none--from the
     vilest example set by Cowley, when English verse was first infected
     and convulsed by the detestable duncery of sham Pindarics. At times,
     of course, his song was then as sweet as ever it has sounded since;
     but he never could make sure of singing right for more than a few
     minutes or stanzas. The strenuous drill through which since then he
     has felt it necessary to put himself, has done all that hard labour
     can do to rectify this congenital complaint: by dint of stocks and
     backboard he has taught himself a more graceful carriage.... It may
     be the highest imaginable sign of poetic power or native inspiration
     that a man should be able to grind a beauty out of a deformity or
     carve a defect into a perfection; but whatever may be the comparative
     worth of this peculiar faculty, no poet surely ever had it in a
     higher degree or cultivated it with more patient and strenuous
     industry than Mr. Tennyson. Idler men, or men less qualified, and
     disposed to expend such length of time and energy of patience on the
     composition and modification, the rearrangement and recision and
     re-issue, of a single verse or copy of verses, can only look on at
     such a course of labour with amused or admiring astonishment, and a
     certain doubt whether the linnets, to whose method of singing Mr.
     Tennyson compares his own, do really go through the training of such
     a musical gymnasium before they come forth qualified to sing.

Everybody has heard of the operation described by Pope as "damning with
faint praise." But damning with exaggerated praise is a new invention, and
it is employed in Mr. Swinburne's paper, doubtless unintentionally, but
with striking effect. As we shall see directly, it is not only on what Mr.
Swinburne calls "the crowning question of metre," that Mr. Tennyson is
assigned a comparatively inferior place, but he is arraigned for his low
estimate of women, for his sympathy with princes, and for various other
crimes and misdemeanours. To say of _Rizpah_, "never since the beginning
of all poetry were the twin passions of terror and pity more divinely
done into deathless words, or set to more perfect and profound
magnificence of music," seems a poor set-off to the reproaches just cited,
and still more to those that have yet to be set forth. There is no fear
that any one--and Mr. Tennyson himself, I should think, least of all--will
place _Rizpah_ quite in the same category with _Oedipus_ or _Lear_. But
there is perhaps some little danger lest the inadvertent should believe,
on Mr. Swinburne's authority, that Mr. Tennyson hits and maintains the
right note only after the same sad drudgery and pain by dint of which we
are told--with about equal accuracy--poor Malibran was taught to sing. It
is said that women of not very generous temperament will go out of their
way to insist that a beautiful slattern dresses admirably, in order to be
in a position plausibly to challenge her beauty. I am sure Mr. Swinburne
is not purposely ungenerous; but in first extolling Mr. Tennyson to the
skies for his poem of _Rizpah_, and then decrying him almost below the
ground for his defective ear, for his base estimate of women, and for his
adulation of princes, he reminds me of the fable of the eagle who bore the
tortoise aloft into heaven, and then let it fall to earth, in the hope of
smashing its shell, and dining off the contents. If I remember rightly,
the shell did not break after all, and the bird had to flap away as hungry
as ever. In any case, after reading first the extravagant laudation, and
then the yet more extreme obloquy contained in Mr. Swinburne's paper, I
think everybody will agree that, to quote a line with which doubtless he
is familiar, Mr. Tennyson deserved:

  Ni cet excès d'honneur ni cette indignité.

What is the full measure of "_cette indignité_" will be seen by and by.
But before passing to the other reproaches addressed by Mr. Swinburne to
the Laureate, I should like to be allowed to say something about this
question of singing, of ear, of what Mr. Swinburne calls "the crowning
question of metre." It is not the first time Mr. Swinburne has assumed
that he possesses infallible authority upon this point. Now he must
forgive me for remarking that though musicalness is unquestionably the
most noticeable mark, and the most delightful quality, of his own verse,
it is, for the most part, music of a particular kind. It is of the florid
order, rather than of the stately; it is lyrical and Lydian, well
calculated to soothe or to carry along, and sometimes enjoying the Lethean
faculty of making those who read it forget to ask what it means, or indeed
if it means anything very substantial. I will not say that Mr. Swinburne
has adopted the principle, "Take care of the sound, and the sense will
take care of itself." But he not unfrequently reminds one of this facile
theory, and some of his imitators have adopted it without reserve. I
cannot say whether the story is accurate; but I remember being told that,
on hearing a poem of Mr. Swinburne's read aloud, Mr. Tennyson quietly
quoted a line of his own from _The Lotos-Eaters_:

  Like a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong.

I should be as unfair to Mr. Swinburne as Mr. Swinburne is to Mr.
Tennyson, if I hinted that he has not done much work to which the above
verse is altogether inapplicable. But he is at once the poet, the prophet,
and the critic of what I may call, _par excellence_, the Lyrical School;
and his idea of singing, his standard of ear, his touchstone of "the
crowning question of metre," is associated with the great triumphs of
lyricism pure and simple.

Now I trust I am not insensible to the exquisite melody, the delicious
dactyls of Shelley, of De Musset, and, I will add, of Mr. Swinburne
himself. But the Lyricists pure and simple--and certainly, as far as verse
is concerned, De Musset never became anything else--are, after all, the
_flentes in limine primo_. They are children, or at most they are boys.
Every poet, no doubt, should pass through that preliminary stage; but he
should not stay there. There should come a time when the puerile voice
changes, and henceforward is recognised as masculine. It should acquire a
passionate composure, and like the spirit that informs it, should be, not
only spacious as the air, not only soaring and circumambient as the sky,
but deep and sonorous as the sea. De Musset, as Mr. Swinburne half allows,
never underwent this solemn transformation; and it is perhaps, on that
very account, that all of us find him, within limits, so irresistibly
attractive. He is the poet of the transitional period between boyhood and

  Mes premiers vers sont d'un enfant,
  Les seconds, d'un adolescent.

He never got beyond the sweet sick springtime of the soul, when it
searches for what it is never to find, when it strains towards what it
never can clutch, when the "flowers appear on the earth, the time of the
singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our
land; the fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the
tender grape give a good smell," and the whole want and utterance of the
heart is embodied in the cry, "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come
away!" He who has not "_passé par là_" will never be much of a poet; but
he who does not pass beyond it, will never be a great one. Yet this
season of the "Song of Songs" is the eternal quest of the young, the
eternal regret of the old. Nothing can superannuate its charm, nothing can
quench its fascination. At the climax of his strength and his fame, Byron
could not help exclaiming, "The days of our youth are the days of our
glory," and M. Taine was doubtless under the spell of this periodically
recurring sentiment, this irresistible return, ever and anon, to one's
first love, when, for a brief moment, flinging sober criticism and just
judgment to the winds, he asked if it is not pardonable to prefer the
author of _Les Nuits_ to the author of the _Idylls_.

Just one word more about "singing." Speaking of the earlier poems of De
Musset, Mr. Swinburne observes: "Of all thin and shallow criticisms, none
ever was shallower or thinner than that which would describe these
firstlings of Musset's genius as mere Byronic echoes." True enough. But,
he goes on to say, "in that case they would be tuneless as their original,
whereas they are the notes of a singer who cannot but sing."

This is not the first time we have been treated to this opinion. Once
before Mr. Swinburne has spoken of Byron as a singer who could not sing. I
ventured to reply, at the time, that he was a singer who could not or
would not shriek. It is necessary to repeat the protest. No doubt Byron
shows, as a rule, rather volume of voice than flexibility; and from a
determination not to resemble excellent models, but to strike out a line
for himself--a passion for pseudo-originality, from which lesser poets
that could be named, since his time, have likewise suffered--his blank
verse is generally detestable. But Shelley did not find out that Byron
could not sing; neither did Scott, nor Goethe, nor Lamartine, nor
Pushkin, nor Leopardi, nor De Musset himself. He speaks of the "chant" of
Byron as that of "_un cygne_," and compares the echo of his song to "_le
torrent dans la verte vallée_." Mr. Swinburne's discovery is strictly his
own, and I should advise him not to press it. Indeed it would not be
difficult to dispose of it by the method of reasoning familiarly known as
a _reductio ad absurdum_. Mr. Swinburne affirms that the question of metre
is the crowning question, in other words, that the greatest poets are the
most musical, and most people would be disposed to agree with the dictum,
if the question what music is were first satisfactorily settled. But Mr.
Swinburne will have it that Byron cannot sing, whereas it is quite certain
that Mr. Swinburne can. Therefore Mr. Swinburne is a greater poet than
Byron: which, everybody will allow, is absurd. Q.E.D.

I daresay larks do not find much music in the thunder. But they have the
sense to be silent when they hear the roll of that untrembling diapason
that makes all things tremble.

To speak the plain truth, we are threatened, just at present, with too
much of what Mr. Swinburne means by "singing." Does he not remember the
following passage in the Fourth Book of _Paradise Regained_?--

  There shalt thou hear and learn the secret power
  Of harmony, in tones and numbers hit
  By voice or hand, and various-measured verse,
  Æolian charms and Dorian lyric odes,
  And his who gave them birth, _but higher sung_,
  Blind Melesigenes, thence Homer called.

Milton goes on to speak of "the lofty grave tragedians" who employed
"chorus or iambic,"

  High actions and high passions best describing.

Sheer lyricism just now is overmuch the mode. It is all very nice and
pleasant in its way, and within bounds, but one can have too much of a
good thing, and one does not want poetry to become _vox et præterea
nihil_. It is a fashion, doubtless, that will pass. If it does not, I fear
people will begin to say of poetry what some one said of operatic music,
_Ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d'être dit on le chante_, and we shall
require a Wagner in literature to denounce the meaningless _fioriture_ of
musical bards bent on recalling the most irrelevant flourishes of
Donizetti. Mr. Tennyson never does, and has never done, that.

The assertion that Mr. Tennyson was born with an inaptitude for musical
verse, though I conceive it to be very wide of the mark, I can at least
understand. It is made intelligible by remembering the limits Mr.
Swinburne assigns to music, and the characteristic preference he exhibits,
in his own writings, for certain forms of it. But when we are told that
"among all poems of serious pretensions in that line ... this latest epic
of King Arthur took the very lowest view of virtue, set up the very
poorest and most pitiful standard of duty, or of heroism for woman or for
man," I own I feel as much perplexity as surprise. Perhaps the solution of
the riddle might be got at by again resorting to the process just
employed, and by inquiring what is Mr. Swinburne's own standard of duty or
heroism for woman or for man, and informing ourselves through a diligent
reperusal of his poems, and of those writers whose productions he has the
loudest extolled, what it is he and they consider men and women ought
mainly to feel, and what it is they ought mainly to occupy themselves
with. But such a course might be invidious. Happily, moreover, it is
unnecessary. It is enough to bring Mr. Tennyson's men and women into
court, to let men and women be the jury, and to read over to them the
following indictment:

     I cannot say that Mr. Tennyson's life-long tone about women and their
     shortcomings has ever commended itself to my poor mind as the note of
     a very pure or high one. There is always a latent, if not a patent
     propensity in many of his very lovers, to scold and whine after a
     fashion which makes even Alfred de Musset seem by comparison a model
     or a type of manliness. His Enids and Edith Aylmers are much below
     the ideal mark of Wordsworth, who has never, I believe, been
     considered a specially great master in that kind; but his "little
     Letties" were apparently made mean and thin of nature to match their
     pitifully poor-spirited suitors! It cannot respectfully be supposed
     that Mr. Tennyson is unaware of the paltry currishness and
     mean-spirited malice displayed in verse too dainty for such base uses
     by the plaintively spiteful manikins with the thinnest whey of sour
     milk in their poor fretful veins, whom he brings forward to vent upon
     some fickle or too discerning mistress the vain and languid venom of
     their contemptible contempt.

What does it mean? Several years ago I ventured to express the opinion
that Mr. Tennyson's was rather a feminine than a masculine Muse,
borrowing, naturally enough, its idiosyncrasy from the period when it was
most susceptible to surrounding influences. One or two persons of far
higher critical authority than I can pretend to, told me I had struck a
true note, and to the opinion then advanced, I am still disposed in
substance to adhere. But I seize this opportunity to say that I have long
perceived that the opinion was advanced with exaggeration, and somewhat
unbecomingly; that the essay in which it appeared has for a considerable
time been out of print, and will never with the author's consent be
republished; and finally that it would never have appeared at all but for
a circumstance which it would be disagreeable, because egotistical, to
explain explicitly, but which perhaps many will at once understand, if I
quote the following lines of De Musset to Sainte-Beuve:

  Ami, tu l'as bien dit: ...

      *       *       *       *       *

  "Il existe, en un mot, chez les trois quarts des hommes,
  Un poëte mort jeune à qui l'homme survit,"
  Tu l'as bien dit, ami, mais tu l'as trop bien dit.
  Tu ne prenais pas garde, en traçant ta pensée

      *       *       *       *       *

          que tu blasphémais ...
  ... Je te rends à ta Muse offensée,
  Et souviens-toi qu'en nous il existe souvent
  Un poète endormi toujours jeune et vivant.

But it is precisely because there is so much of the feminine quality in
Mr. Tennyson's Muse, that his Muse is beloved of women, and is attractive
to all men to whom women are attractive. How often has it happened to one
to ask "What shall I read?" and to get for answer "Tennyson." And though
one might be almost angry because neither Shakespeare, nor Milton, nor
Byron, nor Wordsworth, could get a hearing, so it was, and _femme le veut
Dieu le veut_. He is the poet of their predilection; and if it were true
that his women are not "very pure or high," it would seem to follow that
the women in flesh and blood who love to read of them, are themselves not
very high or pure. Is not that another _reductio ad absurdum_? I confess I
never knew them ask any one to read _Vivien_. They prefer _Elaine_, and
_Guinevere_. Yet _Vivien_ is a masterpiece, and that "harlot," as Mr.
Tennyson very properly does not shrink from calling her, is the consummate
poetic type of women with very little poetry about them. But the
blameless love of Elaine, and the pardonable passion of Guinevere, are, to
say the least of it, equally emblematic; and I confess I should find
myself so different in blood, in language, in race, in instinct, in
everything, from the man who told me that he found the one mean and low,
or the other poor, pitiful and base, that, as I have declared, I should
not understand him.

On two points, I imagine, most men, on consideration, would agree with Mr.
Swinburne. _The Idylls of the King_, _are_ Idylls of the King, and not an
epic poem, nor indeed _one_ poem of any kind. I am not aware that Mr.
Tennyson has ever said or suggested the contrary; and no man is
responsible for the extravagances of his less discreet or too generous
admirers. I suspect Mr. Tennyson would consider the terms Mr. Swinburne
himself applies to _Rizpah_ as a trifle uncritical. The other point of
agreement they would have with Mr. Swinburne is that King Arthur, in the
_Idylls_, is not an adequate and satisfactory hero. But heroes from time
immemorial have had a knack of breaking in the hands of their creator. The
"pius Æneas" is not worthy of his vicissitudes, his mission, and his fate,
or of the splendid verse in which his name is forever embalmed. Milton
assuredly did not intend to make Lucifer his hero; but the ruined
Archangel dwarfs into insignificance all other personages in _Paradise
Lost_, human, divine, or infernal. From _Childe Harold_, Childe Harold all
but disappears; and I suspect it is only by aid of the drama that a writer
is able to say successfully, "Behold a man!"

I think Mr. Swinburne will perceive that, though my lights may be less
than his, I am sincerely anxious to get at the truth, and that my object
is neither to provoke nor to propitiate, neither to extol nor to decry.
But what can I or any one say, in sufficient moderation, respecting the
following passage?--

     "But," says the Laureate, "it is not Malory's King Arthur, nor yet
     Geoffrey's King Arthur, that I have desired to reproduce: on the
     contrary, it is 'scarcely other than' Prince Albert" ... who, if
     neither a wholly gigantic nor altogether a divine personage, was, at
     least, one would imagine, a human figure.... This fact, it would
     seem, was revealed to Mr. Tennyson himself, of all men on earth, by
     some freak of the same humorous or malicious fairy who disclosed to
     him the not less amusing truth, and induced him to publish it, with a
     face of unmoved gravity, to the nation and the world, that whenever
     he said King Arthur he meant Prince Albert. No satirist could have
     ventured on either stroke of sarcasm.... Not as yet had the blameless
     Albert, at the bidding of his Merlin Palmerston, led forth--we will
     not say his Guinevere--to clasp the thievish hand of a then uncrowned

I said, a little while back, that I would not accuse Mr. Swinburne of
intentional want of generosity. Yet I am compelled to aver that a more
ungenerous passage than the above I never read; and it would seem still
more ungenerous were it to be quoted from more freely. Mr. Swinburne has
not the excuse that might be pleaded by a critic who was stupid. He is a
poet, and he knows what fine, delicate, subtle analogies are as well as
any one. There _is_ a striking resemblance between the nobler qualities of
Mr. Tennyson's "ideal knight" and those of the late Prince Consort, and it
was a true and fresh stroke of poetry to associate them as Mr. Tennyson
has done. But is it true, or fair, or "manly," to assert that the poet
wished the one to be entirely identified with the other, much more that
when he mentions the one he means the other? I fear some people will
conclude that the above unmagnanimous passage was dictated by Mr.
Swinburne's hatred of princes; and less indulgent persons will add, by
his want of love for Mr. Tennyson.

Now, to my thinking, the most loathsome of all characters is a sycophant.
Perhaps I am more comprehensive in my contempt for that tribe even than
Mr. Swinburne himself; for I hold in equal disdain the flatterers of
princes and the flatterers of the people. The folly, the feebleness, and
the fury of kings is to be matched only by the feebleness, the folly, and
the fury of crowds. Sensible men entertain a careful distrust of each, and
devise and maintain every possible barrier against the selfish vagaries of
both alike. It is the rare distinction of Prince Albert that he imposed
upon himself those checks which most men require to have imposed upon them
by others, and against which, whether proceeding from within or from
without, princes usually rebel. When we are shown a _demos_ as wise, as
patriotic, as conscientious, and as capable of self-abnegation, as Prince
Albert, the time will have come for an honest man to chant its virtues,
and we shall be able to look forward to the future of our race with more
hopeful feelings than are at present possible to a sane philanthropy.

Sycophants, therefore, can dance attendance on the Many as easily and as
mischievously as on the One; and of all the unmeasured adulators of the
multitude I know no one to compare with the poet before whom Mr. Swinburne
is perpetually prostrating himself, and before whom he bows and bobs and
genuflects an almost countless number of times in the course of the paper
on which I am commenting--to wit, M. Victor Hugo.

I have no wish to assail any man of letters, be his foibles what they may.
But when Mr. Swinburne girds at both De Musset and Mr. Tennyson for having
written civilly of princes, and observes that "poeticules love
princelings as naturally as poets abhor tyrants," it is perhaps pertinent
to ask him if he is aware that the first verses of M. Victor Hugo were
passionately Royalist; that the refrain of one of his early poems is
"_Vive le Roi! Vive la France!_" that he celebrated the Duc d'Angoulême as
"the greatest of warriors"; that he mourned the death of Louis XVIII. with
loyal pathos; that he wrote a tragedy whose last line was "_Quand on haït
les tyrans, on doit aimer les rois_"; that the first patron of the author
of _Odes et Poésies Diverses_ was a king, who gave M. Victor Hugo a
pension of a thousand francs out of his privy purse, which was afterwards
doubled, and which I believe was not resigned till the year 1832, or when
M. Victor Hugo was thirty years of age; and that though he for a time
seemed disposed to declare himself a Republican, he sought for and
obtained a seat in the House of Peers from Louis Philippe as recently as
1845. Far be it from me to attempt to turn these facts against the
reputation of M. Victor Hugo. I entertain no doubt they are capable of a
perfectly satisfactory explanation. But let us not have two weights and
two measures; and before Mr. Swinburne takes to throwing stones against
those who incur his displeasure, let him look carefully round to see if
some of those who excite his admiration are not living in a house with a
good many glass windows.

Against M. Victor Hugo as a man I have necessarily no word to utter. But
Mr. Swinburne compels one to say something about him as a poet. In this
paper upon Mr. Tennyson and De Musset alone, we come upon the following
phrases, all of them applied to M. Victor Hugo: "The mightiest master of
the nineteenth century"; "One far greater than Byron or Lamartine"; "The
greatest living poet"; "The godlike hand of Victor Hugo"; "Only Victor
Hugo himself can make words thunder and lighten like these." There is
more, I think, of the same kind; but it perhaps suffices to mention these,
for previous experience has made us familiar with the assumption that
underlies them.

It would be as presumptuous in me to make the world a present of my
opinion as to who is the greatest of modern poets, as I conceive it is in
Mr. Swinburne to be perpetually pursuing that course. I will therefore
content myself with saying that to attribute that distinction to M. Hugo
seems to me simply ludicrous, unless clatter be the same thing as fame,
and confident copiousness is to be accepted as a conclusive credential of
superiority; that in the opinion of Sainte-Beuve, De Musset was far more
of a poet than M. Victor Hugo; and that, with the exception of Mr.
Swinburne himself, all English critics, with whom I am acquainted,
entertain no sort of doubt that Mr. Tennyson is a more considerable poet
than both De Musset and M. Victor Hugo put together with a large margin to
spare. In any case, does Mr. Swinburne think that, by "damnable iteration"
about the "great master," he will alter the fact, or convert any human
being to a creed in the propagation of which he seems unaccountably
zealous? If he does, I recommend to his perusal the following brief
observation of Sainte-Beuve, which he will find in a "Causerie" upon
George Sand:

     Ceux qui cherchent à imposer aux autres une foi qu'ils ne sont pas
     bien sûrs d'avoir eux-mêmes, s'échauffent en parlant, affirment sur
     tous les tons, et se font prophètes afin de tâcher d'être croyants.

I have said that the zeal of Mr. Swinburne in perpetually asseverating the
unapproachable superiority of M. Victor Hugo is unaccountable. Perhaps,
however, it is to be accounted for by reading between the lines of the
following passage:

     "As lyric poet and as republican leader, the master poet of the world
     has equally deserved to attain this obloquy, to incur this tribute
     from a journal"--the reference, I believe, is to the _Figaro_ of
     Paris--"to which the principles of republican faith, a writer to whom
     the pretensions of lyric poetry are naturally and equally abhorrent
     and contemptible: nor could any law of nature or any result of chance
     be more equitably satisfactory than one which should gratify the
     wish--or the three wishes--that all who do not love the one should
     hate the other: that all such men should be even as M. Zola: and that
     all such writers as M. Zola, should be haters and scorners alike of
     republican principles and of lyric song."

With every desire not to be intolerant, and to inform oneself of what is
going on in this world, I think one may be pardoned for being unable to
read M. Zola. I should as soon think of doing things I will not even name,
as of reading _L'Assommoir_; and I fancy most Englishmen, whether
Monarchists or Republicans, whether lyrists or the most prosaic folk in
the world, entertain the same repugnance. But what, in the name of all
that is fair, and manly, and magnanimous, have political opinions got to
do with literary merit? Politics and literature are distinct, and though,
as abundant experience has shown, one and the same man may make his mark
in both, they are separate spheres of the same brain, and a man may be a
good poet and a bad politician, or a bad poet and a good politician, or
either good or bad in each capacity alike. Once you care one straw what
are the political opinions of a poet, there is an end of you as a critic.
Royalist, Republican, Communist, Deist, Pantheist,--what care I which of
these a poet is, so he is a poet? As a fact, I fancy the greater sort of
poets usually wear their creeds rather loosely; and if we find a poet, in
his character of poet, a perpetually passionate advocate, misgivings as to
his permanent fame may reasonably be entertained. Still no absolute rule
can be applied to these irregular planets. One likes a poet to love his
country, on the same principle which Cicero says made Ulysses love Ithaca,
"not because it was broad, but because it was his own." Mr. Tennyson loves
his country warmly, and for this Mr. Swinburne rebukes him with indulging
in the "beardless bluster of the Tory member, not of a provincial deputy,
but of a provincial schoolboy." This is perhaps the most inapt of all the
inapt observations in his amazing piece of criticism.

I might say more, but I feel I have said enough, I hope, not too much of a
paper which, it seems to me, would be not unjustly described, in Mr.
Swinburne's own words, as "pseudo-poetic rhapsody in hermaphroditic
prose," and concerning which a person whose authority all would recognise
were I to mention him, observed to me, "This is the _Carmagnole_ of
criticism." But, before concluding, I should like, if Mr. Swinburne will
not think me presuming, to remind him, in all friendliness, that he, no
more than I, is any longer in the consulship of Plancus; that some of us
would have been thankful to have had our youthful follies treated as
leniently as his have been; and that the least return he can make for the
indulgence that has been extended to him in consideration of his genius,
is to remember the lines of the really "great master,"--not M. Victor
Hugo, but Shakespeare:

                             ... Reverence,
  That angel of the world, doth make distinction
  Of place 'tween high and low.


It occasionally happens to men of letters, at political gatherings, to be
asked to respond to the toast of Literature; so one may fairly conclude
that, in the opinion of many persons, there is between literature and
politics a close and familiar relation. I have long believed that there
is; and observation of the opinions of others has led me to inquire
whether the relation be one of amity or of antagonism. I propose to
endeavour, even though it be by reflections that may appear deliberative
rather than dogmatic, to elucidate a question that is not devoid of

Mr. Trevelyan has recorded a saying of Macaulay to this effect, that a man
who, endowed with equal capacity for achieving distinction in literature
and in politics, selects a political career, gives proof of insanity. Most
men of letters, I fancy, would endorse that sentiment. But the decisions
which men have to make in this world are not, as a rule, presented to them
with the definiteness that gives artistic charm, as well as moral meaning,
to a well-known masterpiece in the Palazzo Borghese. Between Sacred and
Profane Love, between the love of literature and the pursuit of politics,
the line is not, in practice, drawn so hard and fast as in the beautiful
apologue immortalised by Titian. Loves that are altogether sacred and in
no degree profane, are not, I imagine, frequently offered to any one; and
though loves wholly profane and in no measure sacred, are, perhaps, not so
uncommon, they are not likely in that absolutely coarse form to exercise
enduring attraction over the finer spirits. It is the curious and
inextricable amalgam of the two that constitutes the embarrassment.
Literature entirely divorced from politics is a thing by no means so
easily attained, or so disinterestedly sought after, as it is sometimes
assumed to be; and though, with much Parliamentary and extra-Parliamentary
oratory before our minds, we should hesitate to affirm that politics are
not occasionally cultivated with a fine disregard for literature, yet the
literary flavour that is still present in the speeches of some Party
Politicians, suffices to show that literature and politics are in practice
not so much distinct territories as border-lands whose boundaries are not
easily defined, but that continually run into, overlap, and are frequently
confounded with, each other.

But is it to be desired, even should it appear to be possible, to restrict
literature and politics each to its own particular sphere, and forbid
either to trespass upon the territory of the other? Would they be gainers
by this absolute severance? I am disposed to think that both would be
losers; and the loss, I fancy, would fall more heavily upon literature
even than upon politics. Dickens is said to have expressed his regret
that, as he worded it, a man like Disraeli should have thrown himself away
by becoming a politician. The observation, perhaps, smacks a little of the
too narrow estimate of life with which that man of genius may not unjustly
be reproached. But few people, if any, would think of denying that Lord
Beaconsfield might have won more enduring distinction in the Republic of
Letters than can be accurately placed to his account, had he dedicated
himself with less ardour--or, perhaps it would be more correct to say,
with less tenacity--to party politics. Like most persons of a
contemplative disposition, he read sparingly, and found in the pages of
others not so much what they themselves put there, as a provocation and
stimulus to fresh thoughts of his own. "See what my gracious Sovereign
sent me as a present at Christmas," he said to me one day. It was a copy
of the edition de luxe of _Romola_; and in it was written, in the
beautiful flowing hand of the Queen, "To the Earl of Beaconsfield, K.G.,
from his affectionate and grateful friend, Victoria." "But," he added, "I
cannot read it." I ventured to recommend him not to make that confession
to everybody, for it would not raise their estimate of his literary
acumen. "Well," he said, "it's no use. I can't." No doubt _Romola_ not
unoften smells overmuch of the lamp, and in all probability will not
permanently occupy the position assigned to it with characteristic
over-confidence by contemporaneous enthusiasm. But, if a man can read
novels at all, and if he demands from the novelist something more than the
mere craft of the story-teller, surely _Romola_ ought to give him
pleasure; and I suspect it would have pleased him, had he permitted his
taste as a man of letters the same amount of expansion he afforded to his
tendencies as a practical politician. At the same time, I could well
understand a person arguing, though I could hardly agree with him, that he
was not designed by nature to be a more complete and finished man of
letters than he actually became, and that his keen interest in politics,
and the knowledge of political and social life he in consequence acquired,
contribute to his written works their principal charm and their most
valuable ingredients. I suspect the truth to be, that he was compounded in
such equal proportions of the man of meditation and the man of action,
that under no circumstances would he have been content to be merely a man
of letters, or merely a politician, and that he fulfilled his nature by
being alternately one and the other. That a man should attain to supreme
eminence in literature by pursuing such a course, is out of the question.
The wonder is that, having achieved even such literary distinction as he
did, he should have attained to such supreme eminence as a statesman.

If, therefore, Lord Beaconsfield might have been a more distinguished man
of letters, had he not been so keen a politician, the proper conclusion
would seem to be that literature in his case suffered hurt, not from
politics, but from an excess of politics. It would not be easy to name a
character more utterly unlike his than Wordsworth--a man of letters pure
and simple, if we are ever to find one. True it is that Wordsworth in
extreme youth wrote some political verse, that he loved his country with
ardour, and that the word England had for him great and stimulating
associations; but, as a rule, he lived remote from human ken, divorced
from human business, amid the silence of the starry sky and the sleep of
the everlasting hills. What was the result? I admire the best and highest
poetry of Wordsworth with a fervour and an enthusiasm not exceeded by
those who will, perhaps, forgive me for calling them his more fanatical
worshippers. But I must continue to think that Wordsworth would have given
himself the chance of being a yet greater poet than he was, had he--I do
not say quitted his lakes, and hills, and streams; heaven forbid!--but had
he consorted at times more freely and fully with his fellow-men, had he
been not a poet only, but something in addition to a poet; had he led a
rather more mixed life; had he done, in fact, what we know was done by the
great Athenian dramatists, by Virgil, by Dante, by Chaucer, Spenser,
Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, and even by Shelley. Politics do not
necessarily mean party politics, though in this country, at this moment,
the one runs dangerously near to implying the other. Politics mean, or
ought to mean, the practical concerns of the many, of the state, of the
Empire, or of mankind at large, as contradistinguished from the mere
personal or class interests. But with those wider concerns Wordsworth
would have little or nothing to do, except in the most abstract way; and
the consequence is that his poetry is the poetry of the individual, and
nearly always of the same individual, and is lacking in the element of
variety, especially in the greatest element of all, viz. action, in which
is necessarily included the portrayal of passion and character.

Would not the proper conclusion, therefore--a conclusion not overstrained
and if not stated with excessive dogmatism--seem to be, that literature,
though demanding precedence in the affections, and exacting the chief
attention of one who professes really to love it, is not a jealous
mistress, but, on the contrary, is only too well pleased to see even its
most attached votaries combine with their one supreme passion a number of
minor interests and even minor affections. A very sagacious person has
said, "Action may not bring happiness; but there is no happiness without
action." I am not sure that that is quite true, for Epictetus, and even
Epicurus, would have something to say on the other side. But I entertain
little doubt that it is strictly true to affirm that the highest literary
eminence is not attainable by persons who stand aloof, and have always
stood aloof, from the field of action; that mere contemplation, no matter
how lofty, how profound, or how persistent, will not make a man a supreme
poet or a supreme artist of any kind; and that the doctrine of "art for
art's sake," if applied in a perverse signification, must end by narrowing
and finally debasing what it is intended to elevate. Action helps thought,
and thought helps action. By action thought is rendered more masculine,
attains to greater breadth, and acquires a certain nobleness and dignity.
Thanks to thought, action may become more definite, more precise, more
fruitful. But that is on the assumption that each exerts itself in due
times and seasons, and leaves to the other abundant opportunities and
ample latitude. When we are bidden to observe that

           the native hue of resolution
  Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

we well understand that thought has been excessive, that action has not
had fair play, and that the brain has paralysed the hand.

No one can read the _Iliad_ without feeling that the writer, or writers,
of the stirring debates with which it is thronged had consorted with, and
was intimately familiar with public life. Many years ago, addressing an
assembling of Cambridge undergraduates at a political meeting, and seeking
to justify the toast of literature they had given me as a text, I
ventured, with a certain levity congenial to my young but classical
audience, to ask if the _Iliad_ is not a political poem, for is it not
full of discussions as animated as any of our own Parliamentary ones, in
which Agamemnon, Nestor, Ulysses, to say nothing of Thersites,
successively take part; and are not these succeeded, as in our own case,
by deliberations in an Upper House, where Juno, Venus, Vulcan, and even
Jove himself, participate in the oratorical debate? The first and last
note of the _Æneid_, indeed the one text of the great poem of Virgil, is
_Romanam condere gentem_, to show how was established, and to intimate how
might be extended, the Empire of Rome. Virgil, the most tender, the most
finished, the most literary of poets, took the warmest interest in the
politics of his country, or he would never have got much beyond the range
of his Pastorals and Bucolics. The first word in the first ode of Horace
is the name of an Augustan minister, quickly to be followed by the ode,
_Jam satis terris_, with its patriotic allusions to national pride and
military honour. Most people, I imagine, associate Dante with the period
of his exile, forgetting why he was exiled. He had to thank the interest
he displayed in the politics of his native city for that prolonged
banishment; and so keen a politician was this great contemplative bard,
that in the same poem in which Beatrice reproves him in heaven, Dante
represents his political enemies as gnashing their teeth in hell. That was
when he had become the man of letters pure and simple. But, in the hey-day
of his fortunes, and long after he had first seen and become enamoured of
Beatrice, and had written the _Vita Nuova_, he had taken so active a part
and become so influential a personage in the public affairs of Florence,
that, when invited to go on a difficult embassy, he exclaimed, "If I go,
who will stay? Yet, if I stay, who will go?" It was no backsliding,
therefore, no hesitation, that made Dante a public character for a moment,
quickly to repent his infidelity to the Muse. To the last, it is
abundantly evident that he would fain have combined in his career the poet
and the politician. Yet the first words addressed by Virgil to Dante, when
they met _nel gran diserto_, and Dante asked him whether he was _ombra od
uomo certo_, seem almost to imply that Virgil meant to reprove the
intruder upon the _selva oscura_ with condescending to mix in the turmoil
of public life, instead of confining himself to literature and philosophy.
These are the words, which students of the _Divina Commedia_ will scarcely
require to have cited for them:

         Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
         Figliuol d'Anchise, che venne da Troia,
         Poichè il superbo Ilion fu combusto.
         Ma tu perchè ritorni a tanta noia?
         Perchè non sali il dilettoso monte,
         Ch'è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?

     I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises, who came from
     Troy after proud Ilion was laid in ashes. But you--why do you return
     to worries of that sort! Why do you not ascend the delectable
     mountain, which is the principle and cause of all true happiness?

We must bear in mind, however, that the words are not the real words of
Virgil, but words put into his mouth by Dante at a period when Dante
himself was weary and sick to death of _tanta noia_, the annoyances and
mortifications of political life, and had cast longing eyes upon the
_dilettoso monte_. What real man of letters that ever ventured into the
arid and somewhat vulgar domain of Party-politics has not felt the same
feeling of revulsion, the same longing for the water-brooks? But, years
after Dante wrote that passage, he strove, petitioned, and conspired to be
allowed to return to Florence and its perpetual civic strife, and envied,
as Byron makes him say, in _The Prophecy of Dante_:

    ... Every dove its nest and wings,
  Which waft it where the Apennine look down
  On Arno, till it perches, it may be,
  Within my all inexorable town.

If the Crusades were not politics, we should have to narrow the meaning of
the word very considerably; and if the Crusades were political, another
Italian poet must be added to the list of those who have not disdained to
draw inspiration from public affairs, Torquato Tasso, the author of
_Gerusalemme Liberata_. And what are the first two lines of the _Orlando

  Le donne, i cavallier, l'arme, gli amori,
  Le cortesie, l'audaci imprese, io canto.

_L'audaci imprese!_ The loves of fair ladies were not enough for Ariosto,
but with them he needs must blend the clash of arms and mighty enterprise.
Both these poets were, in the phrase of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
"unscrupulously epic," and fused the red-hot lava of their time in the
mould of their enduring verse. No one should need to be reminded that
Chaucer was the friend of statesmen and the colleague of ambassadors. In
him we find the two salient characteristics of all the best English
poetry--a close observation and tender love of external nature, and a keen
interest in the characters and doings of men; and, for this reason, he has
often been hailed as the precursor of Shakespeare. The lofty symbolism of
Spenser, and the unvarying elevation and dignity of his style, seem to
place him rather remote from the common herd, and to make him, in a sense,
a little less human than some might wish him to be. But in his writings he
holds himself aloof from the vulgar no more than Dante does; and like
Dante, he was a man of the world, and participated in the art of
government and the administration of public affairs. The "poet of the
poets" combined literature with politics.

The days of Burleigh were hardly days when the son of a provincial
wool-stapler was likely to be much heard of in the domain of politics. But
the historical plays of Shakespeare traverse a space of more than two
hundred years, or from King John to Henry VIII., and could not have been
written by one who did not combine with his unmatched poetic gifts a
lively interest in the politics of his country. Shakespeare is the idol of
us all, the only reproach I have ever heard addressed to him being that he
was rather too aristocratic in his sympathies, and too Conservative in the
non-Party sense, in his views; foibles which perhaps ought not to surprise
us in one who had so intimate a knowledge of human nature, and so shrewd
an appreciation of its strong and weak points. Nor was it an injury, but a
distinct gain, to the prince of dramatic poets, that he should have been
compelled to concern himself with the practical affairs of life, and to
busy himself actively with the management of a theatre. The lament about
his nature being subdued to what it worked in, may be taken as an
ebullition of momentary weakness, even in that robust and manly
temperament. Shakespeare was compounded of too many and too large elements
to have been a poet only; and "art for art's sake," wrongly interpreted,
could never have found lodgment in his wide sympathies, his capacious
understanding, and his versatile imagination.

If Conservatism may, in a non-party sense, claim Shakespeare as an
authority in its favour, in Milton, on the other hand, I suppose
Liberalism again in a non-party sense would recognise a support. At any
rate, Cromwell's secretary was a keen politician, and even a passionate
partisan. I have always thought the allusion made by Walter Scott to him
in his Life of Dryden hasty and unfair. "Waller was awed into silence," he
says, "by the rigour of the puritanic spirit; and even the muse of Milton
was scared from him by the clamour of religious and political controversy,
and only returned, like a sincere friend, to cheer the adversity of one
who had neglected her during his career of worldly importance." A more
recent writer seems to echo the same charge. "In 1641," he says, "Milton
stepped into the lists of controversy as a prose writer, beginning the
series of works which, far more than his poetry, gave him his conspicuous
public standing during his lifetime, and have doubtless bereaved the world
of many an immortal verse which it would otherwise have to treasure." That
Milton's controversial writings gave him more conspicuous public standing
in his lifetime than his poetry is indisputable, and not to be wondered
at. A man's contemporaries would naturally rather have him useful than
ornamental, provided he be useful on their side; and while persons whose
opinions were furthered by his political writings were, as might have been
expected, more interested in these than in poems from which they reaped no
advantage, those people, on the other hand, to whom his political writings
were obnoxious, felt themselves, as might also have been expected, but
little disposed to extol, or even to read, his poetry. It may, perhaps, be
taken as an absolute rule that a man of letters who takes a conspicuous
interest in contemporary politics thereby debars himself to a considerable
extent from literary popularity in his lifetime; a matter of little
moment, however, since to every reflective mind contemporary popularity is
no pledge of enduring fame, while contemporary neglect is not necessarily
an omen of eternal oblivion. But it is quite another thing to affirm that
men of letters who, like Milton, participate freely in the political
controversies of their time "bereave the world of many an immortal verse,"
or to insinuate, with Scott, that they desert the Muse for "a career of
worldly importance," and only remember its charms in the season of their
adversity. I think any one who has read _Paradise Lost_ and _Paradise
Regained_ will be of opinion that Milton wrote quite as much verse as was
desirable, whether for our delectation or for his own fame. We see the
appalling result of always writing verse and never doing anything else, in
the portentous bulk bequeathed to us by even so eminent a poet as
Wordsworth, of matter that his idolaters persist in asking the world to
accept as a precious revelation, but which the world persists, and I
cannot doubt will always persist, in regarding as verse that ought to have
gone up the chimney. Matthew Arnold has, in current phrase, "boiled down"
Wordsworth, in order to make him more palatable to general consumption;
and he gives excellent reasons for having done so.

"In Wordsworth's seven volumes," he says, "the pieces of high merit are
mingled with a mass of pieces very inferior to them: so inferior to them,
that it seems wonderful how the same poet should have produced both. Work
altogether inferior, work quite uninspired, flat and dull, is produced by
him with evident unconsciousness of its defects, and he presents it to us
with the same faith and seriousness as his best work."

Even in the edition of Wordsworth's poetry Matthew Arnold has given us,
and which contains not a tenth of what Wordsworth published, he has
himself exhibited a little too much "faith and seriousness" respecting
what he has laboured to save from Lethe, and the "boiling down" process
will have to be gone through again by somebody else. The tenth part will
have to undergo the operation applied to the whole, and be itself reduced
to another one-tenth. The corn must be winnowed by a yet finer sieve; all
the chaff and husk must be blown away; and what then remains will be the
_fine fleur_ of poetry indeed. In a word, had Wordsworth, like Milton,
devoted himself, at some season of his life, to public affairs, he would
doubtless have written less verse, and possibly more poetry. Had Milton
abstained altogether from politics, he would possibly have written more
verse, but it is improbable that he would have written more poetry. What
he wrote acquired strength, and even elevation, from his temporary contact
with affairs and his judicious co-operation with the active interests of
the State. "As the giant Antæus," says Heine, "remained invincible in
strength as long as he touched mother earth with his feet, and lost this
power when Hercules lifted him into the air, so also is the poet strong
and mighty as long as he does not abandon the firm ground of reality, but
forfeits his power when he loses himself in the blue ether." No doubt the
poet must have his head in the air, and no ether need be too high or too
rarefied for his imagination to breathe; but without a strong foothold of
the ground he runs the risk of too often lapsing, as Matthew Arnold
affirms Wordsworth constantly lapsed, into "abstract verbiage," or of
falling into intolerable puerilities.

Nor is it just to assert that Milton neglected the Muse during his career
of worldly importance. It would be as fair to say the same of Dante,
between whom and Milton, in point of genius as well as in vicissitudes of
life, there is a striking similarity. Dante wrote the _Vita Nuova_ at a
comparatively early age, just as Milton wrote _L'Allegro_, _Il Penseroso_,
_Comus_, and _Lycidas_ in the springtime of his life. Then came a pause,
indeed a long silence, for each of them, and it was not till they had
reached the meridian of intellectual life that they betook themselves each
to his _magnum opus_, Dante to the _Divina Commedia_, Milton to _Paradise
Lost_. Any one observant of the habit of our best English song-birds must
be aware that after singing, with a rapturous lyrical carelessness,
through the vernal months, they become silent during the heat of summer.
Then in early autumn they sing again, with more measure, more continence,
let us say with more self-criticism and fastidiousness; and though the
note may not be so boisterous, it is more mellow and mature.

No doubt Dante and Milton did not take this course, of deliberate purpose;
with them, too, it was an instinct; but may we not suspect that poets
would give themselves a better chance of writing works that posterity will
not willingly let die, by observing a "close time," a season of summer
silence between the April of the soul when sing they must, and the advent
of the early autumn days, with auburn tints, meditative haze, and grave
tranquil retrospects. Who shall say when the fruits of harvest-time begin
to ripen? But this clearly one may affirm, that but for the summer months,
when they seem almost to be stationary in colour, they would never ripen
at all. We know, I think, as a fact, that Milton commenced writing
_Paradise Lost_ some years before the restoration of the Monarchy, but no
one can tell how much earlier still it was really commenced. Milton
himself could not have told. The children of the Muse are conceived long
before they quicken; and even a lyric, apparently born in a moment, was
often begotten in the darkness and the silence of the days gone by. Works
as colossal as the _Divine Comedy_ and _Paradise Lost_ have deep and
distant foundations, and the noblest passages of human verse are the
unpremeditated outpourings of men who are habitually plunged in
meditation. The least serious reflection upon the subject, if coupled with
any insight into the methods and operations of imaginative genius, will
satisfy anybody that in the very midst of his political controversies and
ecclesiastical polemics Milton was in reality already composing _Paradise
Lost_. Dante never returned to Florence after he was exiled, and it was in
banishment that he wrote the _Divina Commedia_. Yet the "Sasso di Dante,"
the stone on which he used to sit, gazing intently at the Duomo and at
Giotto's Campanile, is one of the sacred sights of the profane Tuscan
city, and his townsmen had already learnt to speak of him as "One who had
seen Hell." What enabled him to see it so clearly was his familiarity with
the ways of men and the uncelestial politics of Florence. It was through
Beatrice and the passion of Love--_Amor, che il ciel governi_--that he
gained access to Paradise, and a knowledge of those things of which he

                 ... che ridire
  Nè sa nè può qual di lassù discende.

But the sadness of Purgatory, and the horrors of Hell, these he learned
from the wrangles of Guelph and Ghibelline, of these he obtained mastery
by being, in A.D. 1300, Priore of the fairest, but most mercurial of
cities. We have the authority of Shakespeare, who ought to have been well
informed on that subject, that the lover and the poet are of imagination
all compact, and the brisk air of public policy is the best corrective for
the disease of narrow intensity to which both alike are peculiarly

There would be no difficulty, I think, in showing that all the greater men
of letters of the eighteenth century were largely indebted for the
literary success they attained to the vivid interest they displayed in
public affairs. To mention Dryden, Swift, Pope, Addison is to conjure up
before the mind chapter upon chapter of English political history. Pope

  Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory;

and not without some reason, for, like his friend Swift, he cared more for
his own career than for either Party in the State. But no one can read the
valuable notes appended by Mr. Courthorpe to his edition of the great
satirist, without seeing how alive Pope was to the _quidquid agunt
homines_ of his generation. As for Swift, he was for a time, as the writer
of an admirable paper upon him in the _Quarterly Review_ asserts, the
political dictator of Ireland. When Gibbon betook himself to the task of
writing that monumental work which, I find, many persons to-day declare to
be unreadable, but which, I suspect, will be read when the most popular
books of this generation are forgotten, he wisely retired to the studious
quietude of Lausanne. But he narrates how the description of the tactics
of Roman legions and the victories of Roman Proconsuls was rendered more
facile and familiar to him by his previous experience as a Captain of
Yeomanry at home, while even his brief tenure of a seat in the British
Parliament enabled him to grasp with more alacrity and precision the
legislative conduct of the Conscript Fathers.

In the nineteenth century which, despite its many privileges--not the
least of which, perhaps, was that of being able to express a very high
opinion of itself, without at the time being contradicted--enjoyed no
immunity from the general laws of human nature, I think the proposition
still holds good that men of letters who aspire to high distinction do
well not to disdain altogether the politics of their time. I have already
referred to Wordsworth, and ventured to suggest that he suffered in some
degree, as a poet, from being nothing but a poet. Byron presents a marked
contrast in this respect; and I am still of opinion, which I am comforted
to find is shared by most persons who are men of the world, and by men of
letters who are something more than men of letters, that Byron is, on the
whole, the most considerable English poet since Milton. Art for Art's sake
is a creed that has been embraced by too many critics of our time. Do we
not find in this circumstance an explanation of their tendency to extol
the quietistic and solitary poets, and, on the other hand, to depreciate
the poets who deal with action and the more complex features of life? It
is the business of poets to deal with the relation of the individual to
himself, to the silent uniform forces of nature, and to other individuals,
singly and collectively: in other words, to be dramatic or epic, as well
as lyrical or idyllic. All poets of the first rank are both; yet the
quietistic and purely introspective critics assign a place, and a prior
place as a rule, in the front rank, to poets who are only second. I cannot
think that conclusions reposing on such demonstrably unsound canons of
criticism will permanently hold their ground. Byron contrived to crowd
into a very short life a vast amount both of poetry and of public
activity; acting upon his own recorded opinion that a man was sent into
the world to do something more than to write poetry. A writer who, I
fancy, belongs to the school, now happily becoming obsolete, whose verdict
was that Byron's poetry, though good enough for Scott, Shelley, and
Goethe, is only "the apotheosis of common-place," has recently expressed
the opinion that "Byron would not have gone to Greece if he had not become
tired of the Contessa Guiccioli." As far as she is concerned, I can only
say, as one who knew her, and has many letters written by her on the
subject of Byron, that if at any time she ever became indifferent to him,
her affection for him experienced a marvellous revival. As for the
suggestion that he went to Greece because he was tired of his companion,
it surely was not necessary for a man to go to Greece to get rid of a
woman of whom he was tired, and certainly Byron was not the man to
consider the "world well lost" for a woman. But the letters he wrote to
his "companion" from Greece attest that his affection for her was still
not slight. In any case there is no necessity to cast about one for any
reason to explain Byron's going to Greece, beyond the exceedingly simple
one that he was a man of action as well as a poet. Had he lived, instead
of dying, for Greece, I cannot doubt that English poetry would have reaped
a yet more glorious harvest from him, thanks to his incidental experiences
as a soldier and a statesman.

The theme is one that easily lends itself to illustration; but enough
perhaps has been said to justify the conclusion that it is for the best
and highest interests of literature that those who love it before all
other things, and cherish it beyond all other considerations, should
nevertheless take a large and liberal view of what constitutes life, and
should include in the excursions of their experience and in the survey of
their contemplation what are called politics, or the business and
interests of the State. I do not propose that they should be vestrymen,
though I cannot forget that Shakespeare did not disdain to concern himself
in the local business of Stratford-upon-Avon. For men of letters to be
willing to interest themselves in politics, politics generally, must be
interesting. The issues raised must be issues of moment and dignity,
issues affecting the greatness of an Empire, the stability of a State, or
the general welfare of humanity. In a country like our own, where Party
Government prevails, it is not easy, indeed it is impossible, for a man of
letters to interest himself in politics without inclining, through
sympathy and conviction, to one Party in the State rather than to the
other; and there are occasions, no doubt, when Party issues are synonymous
with the greatness of the Empire, the stability of the State, and the
welfare of mankind. But a wise man of letters will do well to stand more
or less aloof from all smaller issues, and to avoid, as degrading to the
character and lowering to the imagination, Party wrangles that are mere
Party wrangles and nothing more.

There have been seasons in the history of the human race, melancholy
seasons for the human mind, the "evil days" spoken of by Milton, when men
of letters could not, with any self-respect, mix in politics. How much
more highly we should think of Seneca if that literary Stoic had not been
a minister of Nero. There was no room for a self-respecting man of letters
in French politics during the reign of Napoleon I., none during the
earlier years of the reign of Napoleon III., unless he happened to be a
sincere admirer of a corrupt and brilliant despotism. There are
despotisms that are corrupt, or what is equally bad, vulgar and servile,
without being brilliant; and I am not alone in entertaining the fear lest
unadulterated Democracy--that is to say, the passions, interests, and
power of a homogeneous majority, acting without any regard to the passions
and interests that exist outside of it, and purged of all respect for
intellect that does not provide it with specious reasons and feed it with
constant adulation--should inflict upon us a despotism under which, again,
there will be no room in the domain of politics for men of letters who
respect themselves. It is not the business of a man of letters to take his
politics either from a Monarch or a Mob, or to push his fortunes--slightly
to alter a celebrated phrase--by those services which demagogues render to
crowds. If the love and pursuit of literature do not make a man more
independent in character, more disinterested in his reasonings, more
elevated in his views, they will not have done for him what I should have
expected from them. That politicians pure and simple are becoming less
imbued with the literary spirit is, I think, certain, and it is to be
regretted, because polite Politics are almost as much to be desired as
polite Literature, and should be little less imbued with the Horatian
sentiment, _Emollit mores, nec sinit esse feros_. Many years ago I heard a
prominent politician in the House of Commons reproach Disraeli, then
Leader of the House, with servility to the Crown, for no other reason that
I could see than that, in explaining certain communications that had
passed between the Queen and the Prime Minister, he had made use of the
customary mode of speaking of the Sovereign. The imperturbability of
Disraeli in debate under the strongest provocation was notoriously one of
the secrets of his authority and influence. But it was plain on that
occasion, when he rose to reply, that he had been irritated by the charge.
But how did he rebut it? "The right honourable gentleman," he said, "has
been pleased to accuse me of servility to the Crown. Well, Sir, I appeal
to gentlemen on both sides of the House, for they _are_ gentlemen on both
sides of the House----" There was a sudden outburst of cheering. He did
not finish the sentence, but turned away to another matter. Could there
have been a more crushing yet a more parliamentary and well-bred rebuke?
Mr. Gladstone did not possess the same quiet power of reproval. But his
courtesy was uniformly faultless, even when he most indulged in indignant
invective. It is told of Guizot, that, when President of the Council in
France, on being interrupted by his opponents with unseemly clamour, he
observed, "I do not think, gentlemen, the solution of the controversy will
be assisted by shouting; and such clamour, however loud, will never reach
the height of my disdain." One does not ask politicians to disarm; but
they must use the rapier, not the tomahawk; and it is Literature, and
Literature only, that can adequately teach them how to employ with ample
effect the seemly weapons of debate. If politicians and even Monarchs are
wise, they will respect Literature. After all, Literature has always the
last word. "A hundred years hence," said a French poet to a rather saucy
beauty, "you will be just as beautiful as I choose to say you were"; and
the verses in which he said this have survived. Politicians whom
Literature ignores are in the same position. If Literature ignores them
they will be forgotten. If Literature condemns them they will stand
condemned. But Literature, in turn, should be fair-minded and sincere,
not disingenuous, not a partisan. It wields, in the long run, enormous
power, and therefore has corresponding responsibilities. If the public
taste in any direction, in politics, in letters, or any of the other Arts
grows debased, and current critical opinion follows the debasement,
Literature can only stand apart, or loftily reprehend them. Of all
influences, Literature is the most patient, the most persistent, and the
most enduring. Unfairness cannot long injure, malevolence cannot
permanently damage or depreciate it; for, as I have said, Literature,
lofty self-respecting Literature, always has the last word, the final
hearing, political partisanship having no power over the final estimation
in which it is held. At the beginning of the nineteenth century current
Tory criticism strove to belittle men of letters who happened to be
Liberals; and, since Toryism was then in the ascendant, it for a time, but
only for a time, partially succeeded. In our day, and for some few years
past, the influence of Liberalism has been visibly uppermost in current
criticism, which has in turn done scant justice to men of letters
suspected of holding different views. To the latter, as to the great
Liberal poets and other men of letters in the earlier days of the
nineteenth century, such patent partisanship can do no lasting injury.
Perhaps men of letters might themselves raise the standard of
dispassionate criticism were they always fair to each other, and not, as I
fear sometimes happens, be ungenerous to contemporaries, who for one
reason or another are not much favoured by them. There is a curious
passage in the 11th Canto of the _Purgatorio_ of the _Divina Commedia_,
where Dante recognises a certain Oderesi, and compliments him on the
talent he showed when on earth as an illuminator or miniature painter.
Oderesi replies that Franco Bolognese was his superior in that art, but
that from jealousy he had failed to allow as much, and adds

  Di tal superbia qui si paga il fio:

meaning thereby that he was now undergoing punishment for his unworthy
jealousy on earth.

Even those to whom an Inferno or Purgatorio is a sheer fiction may be
reminded that Time's final court of appeal, when it readjusts balances
falsely weighted in days gone by, will not fail to stigmatise those who
once belittled what, had they been more candid, they would have better


I am aware that, in these days, when realism is all the rage and true
imagination at a discount, people will ask how, not being either an Æneas
or a Dante, I came to be admitted to an actual sight of the Elysian
Fields, and will not be fobbed off by any fanciful explanation such as
used to satisfy the more unsophisticated reader of former times. I
therefore hasten to satisfy their exacting curiosity by saying that I
happen to have done a good turn of late to the Pagan gods--not forgetting
the goddesses, whom one should always have on one's side, since they hold
the keys of the position equally on earth, in the air, and
underground--and they made their acknowledgments to me by letting me know
that I might have my choice of an interview with any one, but only one, of
the personages among those who are now disporting themselves in the other
world. At first, I was rather tempted to name Eve, in order that I might
get an intelligible account from the most trustworthy source of the Tree
of Knowledge and the Tree of Good and Evil. But I thought she perhaps
would know as little about them as myself; so I thought I would ask for an
interview, with either Helen of Troy or with Cleopatra, when it suddenly
struck me that I should probably find both one and the other not very
unlike women I had already come across here in this upper world. So,
anxious to know whether or not there ever was a real flesh-and-blood
Shakespeare, and explaining that, if there was not, I had not the smallest
desire to have a talk with my Lord Verulam, I said, "Let me have a
colloquy with Shakespeare, the wisest, sweetest, wittiest,
largest-hearted, biggest-brained of human beings"; and, almost before I
had finished the sentence, I found myself in the Elysian Fields.

At first, I forgot what I was there for at all, in my amazement at the
place itself. Though I am a tolerably close observer of external Nature, I
could not for the life of me surmise what season of the year I was in, and
finally perceived that I was in all the four seasons at one and the same
time. Primroses and bluebells were to be seen side by side with roses and
irises, with meadowsweet and traveller's joy, grass ready for the scythe
not far from swaying wheat and heavily-burred hop-garden; while, well
within view, I could see slopes of virgin snow, and folks making ready to
go tobogganing on them. It was just the same with bird-life. Stormcock,
nightingale, cuckoo, corncrake, woodpecker, robin redbreast, were all
singing together, yet there was no discord in the concert.

"You want to see me, I am told," I heard some one say behind me, and,
turning, I at once perceived that it was Shakespeare, not from the
striking resemblance to any of the portraits or busts, Droeshout, Chandos,
Stratford-on-Avon, or other effigy, but by his seeming to be compounded of
them all, with something superadded that I could recall in none of them.
Similarly, he did not seem to be of any particular age, either of youth,
early manhood, middle life, or yet elderly, but compounded of all the
years, at once young and engaging, in the grand climacteric, and withal
full of mellow wisdom. His eye glowed with fine frenzy, withal was tender
and melting as that of a boy-lover. I could not fail to observe this
extraordinary combination of ages and qualities; yet they did not strike
me as in any way incongruous, any more than I had found incongruity in all
the seasons being contemporaneous, and blossom and fruit subsisting
together. I had expected to be rather embarrassed and somewhat overawed on
first coming across this king of men; but his manner was so simple, so
frank and friendly, that he put me at my ease at once, and I ventured to
inquire if, in the Elysian Fields, they had any knowledge of what was
going on in the world they had once inhabited.

"Ample knowledge," he replied, "though we are not troubled with
newspapers, nor yet tormented by telegrams or telephones, but confine our
regard to what interests us."

"Have you happened to notice," I asked, "that _A Winter's Tale_ has
recently been produced at His Majesty's Theatre?"

"Yes, and all the more because that indefatigable manager and
all-embracing actor, Mr. Tree, has not taken a part in it. He would have
rendered Autolycus very suitably."

"Perhaps," I went on, since I now felt on a footing of the most friendly
familiarity with one I had hitherto always thought of at a respectful
distance, "perhaps you have observed some of the criticisms on the play."

"To tell the truth," he replied, "I have not. There were few such things
in my time, save by the audience; and my recollection of what few there
were does not dispose me to read fresh ones. But, if they have said
anything instructive or amusing, I shall be most happy to hear it."

"I am afraid," I said, "they are more amusing than instructive."

"Then let me have them by all means. The only thing one is sometimes
tempted to find fault with in the Elysian Fields is that its denizens are
a trifle too serious for me; being just as much inclined as ever to say,
when I find myself in the company of my fellow-creatures, 'With mirth and
laughter let me play the fool.'"

Thus encouraged, I said that one critic had pronounced the play to be dull
as drama, and inferior as poetry; Autolycus to be a bore, yet by no means
the only tiresome feature in the play; the plot to be a succession of gaps
and puerilities; and that another observed what a pity it was you had made
Leontes a lunatic, a raving maniac, and a nuisance. As I recounted these
opinions, I could see no sign of annoyance on the face of the playwright,
but only a philosophic smile illumining his tranquil features.

"I seem," he said, "to have heard that some time ago some one commented on
the meanness of the fable and the extravagant conduct of it, and declared
that the comedy caused no mirth, and the serious portion no concernment. I
daresay there is truth in the first part of the criticism, but, in regard
to the second, I seem to remember that, at the Globe, there was a good
deal of mirth at the lighter scenes, and no small attention at the grave
ones. But perhaps audiences in my day were different from audiences in
yours. I am by no means sure that I wrote the whole of the play; indeed I
am pretty certain I did not. My chief share in it was the love-scene
between Florizel and Perdita."

"Which I have always thought very beautiful, and the very opposite of
'inferior as poetry.'"

"Very good of you to say so; for I much enjoyed writing it. For the rest,
I suspect that a change has come over audiences, and still more over those
people whom you call critics. From what I have heard, they appear not to
confine themselves to appraising what is offered them, but want authors to
offer them something quite different, which is scarcely reasonable.
Moreover, they impute to an author motives he did not entertain, and ends
he did not have in view. For instance, I am supposed by them to have been
a rather successful delineator of character; overlooking the fact that I
over and over again cast character to the winds, in favour of the
situation, to which one surrendered oneself only too willingly, because in
doing so one was enabled to indulge one's humour and temperament more
freely and fully."

"Am I right," I asked, "in thinking that your humour and temperament lay
chiefly in a keen enjoyment of rural nature, the delineation of love
between men and women, and philosophic reflections on the various passions
of human beings?"

"You put it rather flatteringly," he said. "But I will not deny that what
you say concerning one's disposition is true. The external world is so
beautiful, loving and being loved are so delightful, and human beings are
so interesting, that it is a writer's own defect if he does not make them
appear beautiful, delightful, and interesting to others, no matter in what
form he presents them. If he has what you call the way with him, he will
make you accept as true almost any story, so long as he is telling it, no
matter what you may think of it afterwards. As a famous poet and critic
said long ago, _Incredulus odi_. Men naturally turn away from what seems
incredible. But what seems somewhat incredible when only read, appears
credible enough when acted, if acted well; and Ellen Terry was so
attractive and winning in her treatment of Polixenes, that the conjugal
jealousy of Leontes becomes, at least, almost intelligible."

"That was exactly what I myself felt the other day, when I went to see the
performance," I said. "But I observe you quote Horace, though many persons
have maintained that you had little Latin, if any."

"Rather a mistake that, arising, I imagine, from their not knowing what
Grammar Schools were like in my time, when we were taught something more
than the rudiments of Latin, with the assistance of prompt corporal
chastisement if we showed a disinclination to master them. Nowadays, I
see, the birch, the ferule, and the cane, have fallen into disfavour, with
the result that many English boys, at schools supposed to be very superior
in the education they provide, refuse to learn anything except cricket and
rowing; two excellent accomplishments, but not quite covering the whole
ground of a liberal education."

"May I inquire," I said, "if you, among others, had a liberal application
of the cane?"

"My fair share," he said, "but not for refusing to learn, since I enjoyed
being taught, and, still more, teaching myself; and a very little
learning, though some people have said it is a dangerous thing, goes a
long way if you only know how to turn it to account. My thrashings, which
were richly deserved, were given for being behindhand of a morning because
I had loitered with some rustic sight or sound that arrested me, and
suchlike irregularities of conduct. But what was taught us was taught
thoroughly, and I have sometimes thought that men deemed poets may be
taught and learn too much, as, for instance, my good friend Ben Jonson,
who has been justly compared to a heavy galleon, though a very well
trimmed and steered one, but which perhaps would sometimes have benefited
by a portion of its dead weight being cast overboard. Still he was a rare
poet all the same."

"Who is that, may I ask, with the pointed beard, that has just been joking
with a rubicund friar whom I no longer see, and then more gravely with a
seemly and tender-looking young woman, also vanished 'into air, into thin
air,' while he now stoops to gather daisies from the grass? I seem to know
his face."

"That is a delightful fellow, perhaps of all my companions here the most
congenial; the morning star of English song, Geoffrey Chaucer. _He_ could,
and did, delineate character consistently if you like. I think it is his
cheerful, kindly sense of humour that recommends him so strongly to me.
But a nearer contemporary of mine in the other world whom you see there,
wearing an aspect of stately distinction, essentially what English folk
call a perfect gentleman, likewise enters much into the study of my
imagination. See! Now he turns his face towards you."

"Surely it is Edmund Spenser, is it not?"

"Yes, the Poet's poet. His verse is at once so natural and so noble, as to
be irresistible. I often repeat to myself two exquisitely musical and
briefly descriptive lines of his:

  A little lowly Hermitage it was,
  Down in a dale, hard by a forest side.

No amount of elaboration and detail would enable one to see the Hermitage
better, or indeed, as well; and the lyrical freedom of the ostensibly
iambic verse gives to it an irresistible charm."

"And, over and over again, if I may say so, gives to the blank verse of
your dramas the same magical quality that a more stately treatment of it
can never confer. But where is Milton?"

"One sees him but seldom," he replied; "and when Chaucer and I do catch
sight of him, we behave rather like truant schoolboys, and put on a grave
face, especially if he finds us in one of our lighter moods. We are all
rather in awe of him, for he never stoops to playfulness; and Chaucer, who
is rather irreverent sometimes, says he is so uniformly sublime as now and
then to be ridiculous. But, in our hearts, we greatly revere him. To tell
the truth, I think he prefers Wordsworth's company to ours; and we find
more congenial society from time to time in--look! that handsome youth,
who carries his head with unconscious pride, and even here seems
half-discontented. The best is never good enough for him, and he cannot be
deluded even by his own illusions, poor fellow!"

"It's Byron," I said, "is it not?"

"Yes, there is no mistaking him; part man, part god, part devil. I believe
there was some doubt about admitting him here, lest he should rouse even
the Elysian Fields to mutiny, and a question whether he should not have an
enclosure all to himself. But he is a man of the world, and knows how to
behave himself when he chooses; and, when one of his misanthropic moods
comes over him, he wanders about scowling and muttering like a gathering
thunderstorm. I am told he breaks bounds sometimes to go in search of
Sappho. There would be a pair of them, would there not? What an
explosive power there was in him! for in the mind, as in your melanite,
force packs small."

"And Shelley? Where is Shelley?"

"Where the bee sucks, I suspect; for he is the very Ariel of our company;
ever, even here, in search of the unattainable! But he is a great
favourite with all of us, he is so lovable."

"And the poet who has delighted my own generation," I inquired. "Surely he
is among you."

"Not yet," he replied; "though I have not the least doubt he will be, in
due course. No one is admitted here until he has been dead for fifty
years; Time, the door-keeper and guardian of Eternity, being more
deliberate than the janitors of Westminster Abbey, who, you must allow,
make some rather ludicrous blunders in admitting, on the very morrow of
their decease, at the importunity of friends and associates, persons for
whom, half a century later, no one will dream of claiming any special
posthumous distinction."

"I fear that is so," I confessed. "We have been rather fussy and feverish
of late, and attribute to notoriety an enduring power it does not

"Just so. Notoriety is one thing, Fame quite another. Will not the result
be that men who may without presumption entertain a humble hope that, as
our lofty friend Milton puts it, Posterity will not willingly let die all
that they may have done or written, will feel a distaste for these
precipitate distinctions, and even take precautions against them. We
notice that something of the same kind is taking place among you in regard
to what you call titular honours, since they have become so common, and
are lavished on such undistinguished persons, as to be no longer valued by
the truly distinguished."

"That is so," I said; "but it is inevitable in these days, and probably
useful to the State, satisfying a number of small ambitions."

"I understand," he replied; and I thought to myself, of course he does, he
who understood everything. "In these days it is more important to satisfy
the many," he went on, "than to content the few, and persons of real
distinction must always be few; and, after all, if these are wise as well
as distinguished, they must be content with anything that ministers to the
welfare of the community at large."

It was so interesting to me to hear this great dramatist and supreme poet
talking wisdom in this familiar manner, like any ordinary being, that I
made the most of my opportunity, and asked him if he thought what he had
just said served to explain the magnificent manner in which his plays are
presented to modern audiences, and if he approved of such presentation.

"I should approve," he replied, "if there were no danger of the mounting
of the piece diverting the attention of the audience from the play itself,
and if it did not appear necessary to modern stage-managers to cut out
whatever does not easily lend itself to spectacular devices. I quite
understand their motive; for, having been in my time not only an actor,
but part proprietor, and part stage-manager of theatres, I do not forget
that they must take into consideration the material results of their
enterprise. But my colleagues and I contrived to make a fair livelihood
out of our theatres without any large outlay on the scenery or the
dresses. Apparently, your modern audiences would yawn at, and not
understand, speeches that not only the courtiers of Elizabeth, but the
citizens of Blackfriars and the Chepe, listened to with rapt and
straining ears. We observe that you pique yourselves upon what you call
the progress you have made during the last three hundred years, and some
of us are rather amused at the self-complacent claim; and, though you
travel much faster, live much more luxuriously, and blow each other to
pieces more successfully than we did, it may be doubted if men's minds
have made much advance, or if their intellectual qualities are not,
notwithstanding the increase of what you deem education, poorer and more
stinted than when the bulk of the nation read less, but reflected more."

"In one respect," I ventured to say, "you can hardly withhold your
sympathy from the claim of our having made progress. We no longer regard
actors as vagabonds."

"I am not quite so sure of that," he said, with a significant smile.
"Myself an actor as well as an author, my utterances in the second
capacity respecting the former are not particularly flattering; and the
fuss you have of late made over actors and actresses, as over millionaires
and transatlantic heiresses, is perhaps evidence less of admiration than
of self-interest, and an appetite for diversion."

"But," I observed, "an actor was recently buried, with the customary
honours, in Westminster Abbey."

"But did everybody approve of it? Milton took care to inform me that many
did not; but my withers remained unwrung, and I playfully replied that I
was rather disposed to think that special form of posthumous
acknowledgment might not unsuitably be reserved for actors and
politicians--the author of _Paradise Lost_ was, every now and then, an
active politician, was he not?--since the two have much in common, both
appealing to their audiences by voice, intonation, gesticulation, and
pursuit of popularity, and enjoying a wide but ephemeral notoriety."

I remembered the passage in _Henry the Sixth_ where he says that he hates
"the loud applause and _aves_ vehement" of the many, and of his little
esteem for those who "affect" such, and I followed up that silent
recollection by saying:

"And, after all, Milton, Pope, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, lie far away from
that edifice; also, I might add, one greater than any of them--yourself."

"Dear old Stratford-on-Avon!" he said, as though he were musing rather
than addressing himself to me. "I am well content to be sepulchred there.
How I loved it! How I love it still! And how much I owed to it! My works,
such as they are, have in your ingenious age been attributed to one much
more nobly born, more highly educated, more deeply read, more erudite,
than I. They who started, and those who have accepted, that theory, little
understand that no such man could have written them. Whatever may be their
merit or demerit, their author could only be one who, born in a modest
condition, began by having the closest touch with frank unaffected human
nature, and for whom life and society expanded by degrees, until, though
still preferring the life removed, he could tell sad stories of the death
of kings, find books in the running brooks, and good in everything."

As he slowly uttered these familiar majestic words, he faded from my
sight; and all that was left was an enduring recollection of that
privileged interview.


[1] In estimating Byron, people too often forget that the same poet wrote
_Manfred_ and _Beppo_, _Childe Harold_ and _Don Juan_. It is the variety,
in other words the extent, of Byron's genius, that constitutes his

[2] The renderings into English verse from Dante are by the author of the

Transcriber's Notes:

Passages in italics are indicated by _italics_.

The misprint "Wordworth" was corrected to "Wordsworth" (page 181).

Hyphenation inconsistencies have been retained from the original.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Bridling of Pegasus - Prose Papers on Poetry" ***

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