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Title: English Critical Essays - Nineteenth Century
Author: Jones, Edmund David, 1869-1941 [Editor]
Language: English
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                         The World’s Classics


                                 CCVI

                        ENGLISH CRITICAL ESSAYS
                          NINETEENTH CENTURY


                                OXFORD
                           UNIVERSITY PRESS
                      LONDON: AMEN HOUSE, E.C. 4
                       EDINBURGH GLASGOW LEIPZIG
                      COPENHAGEN NEW YORK TORONTO
                       MELBOURNE CAPETOWN BOMBAY
                       CALCUTTA MADRAS SHANGHAI
                           HUMPHREY MILFORD
                           PUBLISHER TO THE
                              UNIVERSITY



                        ENGLISH CRITICAL ESSAYS
                          NINETEENTH CENTURY


                        SELECTED AND EDITED BY
                            EDMUND D. JONES


                        OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
                       LONDON: HUMPHREY MILFORD


_The present selection of English Critical Essays (Nineteenth Century)
was first published in ‘The World’s Classics’ in 1916 and reprinted in
                   1919, 1920, 1921, 1924 and 1928._


   PRINTED IN ENGLAND AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OXFORD
               BY JOHN JOHNSON PRINTER TO THE UNIVERSITY



PREFACE


The essays here brought together are meant to illustrate English
literary criticism during the nineteenth century. A companion volume
representative of Renaissance and Neo-classic criticism will, it is
hoped, be issued at a future date. Meanwhile this volume may well go
forth alone. For the nineteenth century forms an epoch in English
literature whose beginnings are more clearly defined than those of
most literary epochs. The publication of the _Lyrical Ballads_ in
1798, and of Wordsworth’s Preface to the second edition in 1800, show
the Romantic Movement grown conscious and deliberate, with results
that have coloured the whole stream of English poetry and criticism
ever since.

The greater part of the present collection deals with general
principles rather than with criticisms of individual books or authors.
The nineteenth century, having discarded the dogmas and ‘rules’ of
Neo-classicism, had perforce to investigate afresh the Theory of
Poetry, and though no systematic treatment of the subject in all its
bearings appeared, some valuable contributions were made, the most
notable of which came from the poets themselves.

The extracts from the _Biographia Literaria_ are placed next to the
Wordsworthian doctrines which they criticize; otherwise the
arrangement of the essays is chronological.

American criticism is represented--inadequately, but, it is hoped, not
unworthily--by the last two essays.

In the preparation of this volume I have received much valuable help
from Mr. J. C. Smith, which I now gratefully acknowledge.

                                              EDMUND D. JONES.



CONTENTS


                                                                 PAGE
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, 1770-1850
  Poetry and Poetic Diction. (1800)                                1

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, 1772-1834
  Wordsworth’s Theory of Diction. (1817)                          40
  Metrical Composition. (1817)                                    57

WILLIAM BLAKE, 1757-1827
  The Canterbury Pilgrims. (1809)                                 85

CHARLES LAMB, 1775-1834
  On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, Considered with Reference
  to their Fitness for Stage Representation. (1811)               95

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, 1792-1822
  A Defence of Poetry. (1821)                                    120

WILLIAM HAZLITT, 1778-1830
  My First Acquaintance with Poets. (1823)                       164

JOHN KEBLE, 1792-1866
  Sacred Poetry. (1825)                                          191

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, 1801-1890
  Poetry with reference to Aristotle’s Poetics. (1829)           223

THOMAS CARLYLE, 1795-1881
  The Hero as Poet. Dante; Shakespeare. (1840)                   254

JAMES HENRY LEIGH HUNT, 1784-1859
  An Answer to the Question: What is Poetry? (1844)              300

MATTHEW ARNOLD, 1822-1888
  The Choice of Subjects in Poetry. (1853)                       356

JOHN RUSKIN, 1819-1900
  Of the Pathetic Fallacy. (1856)                                378

JOHN STUART MILL, 1806-1873
  Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties. (1833, revised 1859)     398

WALTER BAGEHOT, 1826-1877
  Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning; or, Pure, Ornate and
  Grotesque Art in English Poetry. (1864)                        430

WALTER HORATIO PATER, 1839-1894
  Coleridge’s Writings. (1866)                                   492

RALPH WALDO EMERSON, 1803-1882
  Shakespeare; or, the Poet. (1850)                              535

JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL, 1819-1891
  Wordsworth. (1875)                                             558



WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

1770-1850

POETRY AND POETIC DICTION

[Preface to the Second Edition of _Lyrical Ballads_, 1800]


The first Volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general
perusal. It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be
of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement
a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,
that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted,
which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart.

I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect of
those Poems: I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with
them would read them with more than common pleasure: and, on the other
hand, I was well aware, that by those who should dislike them, they
would be read with more than common dislike. The result has differed
from my expectation in this only, that a greater number have been
pleased than I ventured to hope I should please.

       *       *       *       *       *

Several of my Friends are anxious for the success of these Poems, from
a belief, that, if the views with which they were composed were
indeed realized, a class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to
interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the quality, and
in the multiplicity of its moral relations: and on this account they
have advised me to prefix a systematic defence of the theory upon
which the Poems were written. But I was unwilling to undertake the
task, knowing that on this occasion the Reader would look coldly upon
my arguments, since I might be suspected of having been principally
influenced by the selfish and foolish hope of _reasoning_ him into an
approbation of these particular Poems: and I was still more unwilling
to undertake the task, because, adequately to display the opinions,
and fully to enforce the arguments, would require a space wholly
disproportionate to a preface. For, to treat the subject with the
clearness and coherence of which it is susceptible, it would be
necessary to give a full account of the present state of the public
taste in this country, and to determine how far this taste is healthy
or depraved; which, again, could not be determined, without pointing
out in what manner language and the human mind act and re-act on each
other, and without retracing the revolutions, not of literature alone,
but likewise of society itself. I have therefore altogether declined
to enter regularly upon this defence; yet I am sensible, that there
would be something like impropriety in abruptly obtruding upon the
Public, without a few words of introduction, Poems so materially
different from those upon which general approbation is at present
bestowed.

It is supposed, that by the act of writing in verse an Author makes a
formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of
association; that he not only thus apprises the Reader that certain
classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that
others will be carefully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth
by metrical language must in different eras of literature have excited
very different expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus,
Terence, and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our
own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and
that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I will not take upon me
to determine the exact import of the promise which, by the act of
writing in verse, an Author in the present day makes to his reader:
but it will undoubtedly appear to many persons that I have not
fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. They
who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of
many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its
conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings
of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and
will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts
can be permitted to assume that title. I hope therefore the reader
will not censure me for attempting to state what I have proposed to
myself to perform; and also (as far as the limits of a preface will
permit) to explain some of the chief reasons which have determined me
in the choice of my purpose: that at least he may be spared any
unpleasant feeling of disappointment, and that I myself may be
protected from one of the most dishonourable accusations which can be
brought against an Author; namely, that of an indolence which
prevents him from endeavouring to ascertain what is his duty, or, when
his duty is ascertained, prevents him from performing it.

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose
incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe
them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language
really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a
certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be
presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above
all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in
them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature:
chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a
state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen,
because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a
better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under
restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in
that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of
greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately
contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of
rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the
necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily
comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that
condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and
permanent forms of nature. The language, too, of these men has been
adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects,
from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because
such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best
part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank
in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse,
being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their
feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.
Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and
regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical
language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets,
who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their
art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of
men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in
order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of
their own creation.[1]

    [1] It is worth while here to observe, that the affecting
    parts of Chaucer are almost always expressed in language pure
    and universally intelligible even to this day.

I cannot, however, be insensible to the present outcry against the
triviality and meanness, both of thought and language, which some of
my contemporaries have occasionally introduced into their metrical
compositions; and I acknowledge that this defect, where it exists, is
more dishonourable to the Writer’s own character than false refinement
or arbitrary innovation, though I should contend at the same time,
that it is far less pernicious in the sum of its consequences. From
such verses the Poems in these volumes will be found distinguished at
least by one mark of difference, that each of them has a worthy
_purpose_. Not that I always began to write with a distinct purpose
formally conceived; but habits of meditation have, I trust, so
prompted and regulated my feelings, that my descriptions of such
objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry
along with them a _purpose_. If this opinion be erroneous, I can have
little right to the name of a Poet. For all good poetry is the
spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true,
Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any
variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than
usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our
continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our
thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past
feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general
representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to
men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings
will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be
originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be
produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of
those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such
a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the
understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree
enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.

It has been said that each of these poems has a purpose. Another
circumstance must be mentioned which distinguishes these Poems from
the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein
developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the
action and situation to the feeling.

A sense of false modesty shall not prevent me from asserting, that the
Reader’s attention is pointed to this mark of distinction, far less
for the sake of these particular Poems than from the general
importance of the subject. The subject is indeed important! For the
human mind is capable of being excited without the application of
gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception
of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not
further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion
as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that
to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best
services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this
service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day.
For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting
with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind,
and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state
of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the
great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing
accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their
occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the
rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency
of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the
country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder
writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are
driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German
Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.--When
I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am
almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble endeavour made in these
volumes to counteract it; and, reflecting upon the magnitude of the
general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonourable melancholy,
had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible
qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the
great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally
inherent and indestructible; and were there not added to this
impression a belief, that the time is approaching when the evil will
be systematically opposed, by men of greater powers, and with far more
distinguished success.

Having dwelt thus long on the subjects and aim of these Poems, I shall
request the Reader’s permission to apprise him of a few circumstances
relating to their _style_, in order, among other reasons, that he may
not censure me for not having performed what I never attempted. The
Reader will find that personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur
in these volumes; and are utterly rejected, as an ordinary device to
elevate the style, and raise it above prose. My purpose was to
imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt the very language of men;
and assuredly such personifications do not make any natural or regular
part of that language. They are, indeed, a figure of speech
occasionally prompted by passion, and I have made use of them as such;
but have endeavoured utterly to reject them as a mechanical device of
style, or as a family language which Writers in metre seem to lay
claim to by prescription. I have wished to keep the Reader in the
company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall
interest him. Others who pursue a different track will interest him
likewise; I do not interfere with their claim, but wish to prefer a
claim of my own. There will also be found in these volumes little of
what is usually called poetic diction; as much pains has been taken to
avoid it as is ordinarily taken to produce it; this has been done for
the reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language
of men; and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed to
myself to impart, is of a kind very different from that which is
supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry. Without
being culpably particular, I do not know how to give my Reader a more
exact notion of the style in which it was my wish and intention to
write, than by informing him that I have at all times endeavoured to
look steadily at my subject; consequently, there is I hope in these
Poems little falsehood of description, and my ideas are expressed in
language fitted to their respective importance. Something must have
been gained by this practice, as it is friendly to one property of all
good poetry, namely, good sense: but it has necessarily cut me off
from a large portion of phrases and figures of speech which from
father to son have long been regarded as the common inheritance of
Poets. I have also thought it expedient to restrict myself still
further, having abstained from the use of many expressions, in
themselves proper and beautiful, but which have been foolishly
repeated by bad Poets, till such feelings of disgust are connected
with them as it is scarcely possible by any art of association to
overpower.

If in a poem there should be found a series of lines, or even a single
line, in which the language, though naturally arranged, and according
to the strict laws of metre, does not differ from that of prose, there
is a numerous class of critics, who, when they stumble upon these
prosaisms, as they call them, imagine that they have made a notable
discovery, and exult over the Poet as over a man ignorant of his own
profession. Now these men would establish a canon of criticism which
the Reader will conclude he must utterly reject, if he wishes to be
pleased with these volumes. And it would be a most easy task to prove
to him, that not only the language of a large portion of every good
poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except
with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of good
prose, but likewise that some of the most interesting parts of the
best poems will be found to be strictly the language of prose when
prose is well written. The truth of this assertion might be
demonstrated by innumerable passages from almost all the poetical
writings, even of Milton himself. To illustrate the subject in a
general manner, I will here adduce a short composition of Gray, who
was at the head of those who, by their reasonings, have attempted to
widen the space of separation betwixt Prose and Metrical composition,
and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure
of his own poetic diction.

    In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
    And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire:
    The birds in vain their amorous descant join,
    Or cheerful fields resume their green attire.
    These ears, alas! for other notes repine;
    _A different object do these eyes require;
    My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
    And in my breast the imperfect joys expire;_
    Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
    And new-born pleasure brings to happier men;
    The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
    To warm their little loves the birds complain.
    _I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
    And weep the more because I weep in vain_.

It will easily be perceived, that the only part of this Sonnet which
is of any value is the lines printed in Italics; it is equally
obvious, that, except in the rhyme, and in the use of the single word
‘fruitless’ for fruitlessly, which is so far a defect, the language of
these lines does in no respect differ from that of prose.

By the foregoing quotation it has been shown that the language of
Prose may yet be well adapted to Poetry; and it was previously
asserted, that a large portion of the language of every good poem can
in no respect differ from that of good Prose. We will go further. It
may be safely affirmed, that there neither is, nor can be, any
_essential_ difference between the language of prose and metrical
composition. We are fond of tracing the resemblance between Poetry and
Painting, and, accordingly, we call them Sisters: but where shall we
find bonds of connexion sufficiently strict to typify the affinity
betwixt metrical and prose composition? They both speak by and to the
same organs; the bodies in which both of them are clothed may be said
to be of the same substance, their affections are kindred, and almost
identical, not necessarily differing even in degree; Poetry[2] sheds
no tears ‘such as Angels weep’, but natural and human tears; she can
boast of no celestial ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from
those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of
them both.

    [2] I here use the word ‘Poetry’ (though against my own
    judgement) as opposed to the word Prose, and synonymous with
    metrical composition. But much confusion has been introduced
    into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose,
    instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of
    Fact, or Science. The only strict antithesis to Prose is
    Metre; nor is this, in truth, a _strict_ antithesis, because
    lines and passages of metre so naturally occur in writing
    prose, that it would be scarcely possible to avoid them, even
    were it desirable.

If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of themselves
constitute a distinction which overturns what has just been said on
the strict affinity of metrical language with that of prose, and paves
the way for other artificial distinctions which the mind voluntarily
admits, I answer that the language of such Poetry as is here
recommended is, as far as is possible, a selection of the language
really spoken by men; that this selection, wherever it is made with
true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater
than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the
composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life; and, if
metre be superadded thereto, I believe that a dissimilitude will be
produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational
mind. What other distinction would we have? Whence is it to come? And
where is it to exist? Not, surely, where the Poet speaks through the
mouths of his characters: it cannot be necessary here, either for
elevation of style, or any of its supposed ornaments: for, if the
Poet’s subject be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit
occasion, lead him to passions the language of which, if selected
truly and judiciously, must necessarily be dignified and variegated,
and alive with metaphors and figures. I forbear to speak of an
incongruity which would shock the intelligent Reader, should the Poet
interweave any foreign splendour of his own with that which the
passion naturally suggests: it is sufficient to say that such addition
is unnecessary. And, surely, it is more probable that those passages,
which with propriety abound with metaphors and figures, will have
their due effect, if, upon other occasions where the passions are of a
milder character, the style also be subdued and temperate.

But, as the pleasure which I hope to give by the Poems now presented
to the Reader must depend entirely on just notions upon this subject,
and, as it is in itself of high importance to our taste and moral
feelings, I cannot content myself with these detached remarks. And if,
in what I am about to say, it shall appear to some that my labour is
unnecessary, and that I am like a man fighting a battle without
enemies, such persons may be reminded, that, whatever be the language
outwardly holden by men, a practical faith in the opinions which I am
wishing to establish is almost unknown. If my conclusions are
admitted, and carried as far as they must be carried if admitted at
all, our judgements concerning the works of the greatest Poets both
ancient and modern will be far different from what they are at
present, both when we praise, and when we censure: and our moral
feelings influencing and influenced by these judgements will, I
believe, be corrected and purified.

Taking up the subject, then, upon general grounds, let me ask, what is
meant by the word Poet? What is a Poet? To whom does he address
himself? And what language is to be expected from him?--He is a man
speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively
sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater
knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are
supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own
passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the
spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar
volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe,
and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. To
these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than
other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of
conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the
same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts
of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more
nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than anything
which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are
accustomed to feel in themselves:--whence, and from practice, he has
acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks
and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his
own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him
without immediate external excitement.

But whatever portion of this faculty we may suppose even the greatest
Poet to possess, there cannot be a doubt that the language which it
will suggest to him, must often, in liveliness and truth, fall short
of that which is uttered by men in real life, under the actual
pressure of those passions, certain shadows of which the Poet thus
produces, or feels to be produced, in himself.

However exalted a notion we would wish to cherish of the character of
a Poet, it is obvious, that while he describes and imitates passions,
his employment is in some degree mechanical, compared with the freedom
and power of real and substantial action and suffering. So that it
will be the wish of the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of
the persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of
time, perhaps, to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even
confound and identify his own feelings with theirs; modifying only the
language which is thus suggested to him by a consideration that he
describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure. Here,
then, he will apply the principle of selection which has been already
insisted upon. He will depend upon this for removing what would
otherwise be painful or disgusting in the passion; he will feel that
there is no necessity to trick out or to elevate nature: and, the more
industriously he applies this principle, the deeper will be his faith
that no words, which _his_ fancy or imagination can suggest, will be
to be compared with those which are the emanations of reality and
truth.

But it may be said by those who do not object to the general spirit
of these remarks, that, as it is impossible for the Poet to produce
upon all occasions language as exquisitely fitted for the passion as
that which the real passion itself suggests, it is proper that he
should consider himself as in the situation of a translator, who does
not scruple to substitute excellencies of another kind for those which
are unattainable by him; and endeavours occasionally to surpass his
original, in order to make some amends for the general inferiority to
which he feels that he must submit. But this would be to encourage
idleness and unmanly despair. Further, it is the language of men who
speak of what they do not understand; who talk of Poetry as of a
matter of amusement and idle pleasure; who will converse with us as
gravely about a _taste_ for Poetry, as they express it, as if it were
a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or
Sherry. Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most
philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not
individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon
external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth
which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to
the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same
tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature. The obstacles which
stand in the way of the fidelity of the Biographer and Historian, and
of their consequent utility, are incalculably greater than those which
are to be encountered by the Poet who comprehends the dignity of his
art. The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity
of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that
information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a
physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as
a Man. Except this one restriction, there is no object standing
between the Poet and the image of things; between this, and the
Biographer and Historian, there are a thousand.

Nor let this necessity of producing immediate pleasure be considered
as a degradation of the Poet’s art. It is far otherwise. It is an
acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgement the
more sincere, because not formal, but indirect; it is a task light and
easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love: further, it
is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand
elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and
lives, and moves. We have no sympathy but what is propagated by
pleasure: I would not be misunderstood; but wherever we sympathize
with pain, it will be found that the sympathy is produced and carried
on by subtle combinations with pleasure. We have no knowledge, that
is, no general principles drawn from the contemplation of particular
facts, but what has been built up by pleasure, and exists in us by
pleasure alone. The Man of science, the Chemist and Mathematician,
whatever difficulties and disgusts they may have had to struggle with,
know and feel this. However painful may be the objects with which the
Anatomist’s knowledge is connected, he feels that his knowledge is
pleasure; and where he has no pleasure he has no knowledge. What then
does the Poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as
acting and re-acting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite
complexity of pain and pleasure; he considers man in his own nature
and in his ordinary life as contemplating this with a certain quantity
of immediate knowledge, with certain convictions, intuitions, and
deductions, which from habit acquire the quality of intuitions; he
considers him as looking upon this complex scene of ideas and
sensations, and finding everywhere objects that immediately excite in
him sympathies which, from the necessities of his nature, are
accompanied by an overbalance of enjoyment.

To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these
sympathies in which, without any other discipline than that of our
daily life, we are fitted to take delight, the Poet principally
directs his attention. He considers man and nature as essentially
adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of
the fairest and most interesting properties of nature. And thus the
Poet, prompted by this feeling of pleasure, which accompanies him
through the whole course of his studies, converses with general
nature, with affections akin to those, which, through labour and
length of time, the Man of science has raised up in himself, by
conversing with those particular parts of nature which are the objects
of his studies. The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of science
is pleasure; but the knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary
part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance; the
other is a personal and individual acquisition, slow to come to us,
and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our
fellow-beings. The Man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown
benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet,
singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in
the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion.
Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the
impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.
Emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare hath said of
man, ‘that he looks before and after.’ He is the rock of defence for
human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him
relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of
language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently
gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds
together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as
it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of
the Poet’s thoughts are everywhere; though the eyes and senses of man
are, it is true, his favourite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever
he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings.
Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as
the heart of man. If the labours of Men of science should ever create
any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in
the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then
no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the
Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he
will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects
of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the
Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art
as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come
when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under
which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective
sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying
and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now
called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as
it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine
spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus
produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.--It is
not, then, to be supposed that any one, who holds that sublime notion
of Poetry which I have attempted to convey, will break in upon the
sanctity and truth of his pictures by transitory and accidental
ornaments, and endeavour to excite admiration of himself by arts, the
necessity of which must manifestly depend upon the assumed meanness of
his subject.

What has been thus far said applies to Poetry in general; but
especially to those parts of composition where the Poet speaks through
the mouths of his characters; and upon this point it appears to
authorize the conclusion that there are few persons of good sense, who
would not allow that the dramatic parts of composition are defective,
in proportion as they deviate from the real language of nature, and
are coloured by a diction of the Poet’s own, either peculiar to him as
an individual Poet or belonging simply to Poets in general; to a body
of men who, from the circumstance of their compositions being in
metre, it is expected will employ a particular language.

It is not, then, in the dramatic parts of composition that we look
for this distinction of language; but still it may be proper and
necessary where the Poet speaks to us in his own person and character.
To this I answer by referring the Reader to the description before
given of a Poet. Among the qualities there enumerated as principally
conducing to form a Poet, is implied nothing differing in kind from
other men, but only in degree. The sum of what was said is, that the
Poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness
to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater
power in expressing such thoughts and feelings as are produced in him
in that manner. But these passions and thoughts and feelings are the
general passions and thoughts and feelings of men. And with what are
they connected? Undoubtedly with our moral sentiments and animal
sensations, and with the causes which excite these; with the
operations of the elements, and the appearances of the visible
universe; with storm and sunshine, with the revolutions of the
seasons, with cold and heat, with loss of friends and kindred, with
injuries and resentments, gratitude and hope, with fear and sorrow.
These, and the like, are the sensations and objects which the Poet
describes, as they are the sensations of other men, and the objects
which interest them. The Poet thinks and feels in the spirit of human
passions. How, then, can his language differ in any material degree
from that of all other men who feel vividly and see clearly? It might
be _proved_ that it is impossible. But supposing that this were not
the case, the Poet might then be allowed to use a peculiar language
when expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of
men like himself. But Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men.
Unless therefore we are advocates for that admiration which subsists
upon ignorance, and that pleasure which arises from hearing what we do
not understand, the Poet must descend from this supposed height; and,
in order to excite rational sympathy, he must express himself as other
men express themselves. To this it may be added, that while he is only
selecting from the real language of men, or, which amounts to the same
thing, composing accurately in the spirit of such selection, he is
treading upon safe ground, and we know what we are to expect from him.
Our feelings are the same with respect to metre; for, as it may be
proper to remind the Reader, the distinction of metre is regular and
uniform, and not, like that which is produced by what is usually
called POETIC DICTION, arbitrary, and subject to infinite caprices
upon which no calculation whatever can be made. In the one case, the
Reader is utterly at the mercy of the Poet, respecting what imagery or
diction he may choose to connect with the passion; whereas, in the
other, the metre obeys certain laws, to which the Poet and Reader both
willingly submit because they are certain, and because no interference
is made by them with the passion, but such as the concurring testimony
of ages has shown to heighten and improve the pleasure which co-exists
with it.

It will now be proper to answer an obvious question, namely, Why,
professing these opinions, have I written in verse? To this, in
addition to such answer as is included in what has been already said,
I reply, in the first place, Because, however I may have restricted
myself, there is still left open to me what confessedly constitutes
the most valuable object of all writing, whether in prose or verse;
the great and universal passions of men, the most general and
interesting of their occupations, and the entire world of nature
before me--to supply endless combinations of forms and imagery. Now,
supposing for a moment that whatever is interesting in these objects
may be as vividly described in prose, why should I be condemned for
attempting to superadd to such description the charm which, by the
consent of all nations, is acknowledged to exist in metrical language?
To this, by such as are yet unconvinced, it may be answered that a
very small part of the pleasure given by Poetry depends upon the
metre, and that it is injudicious to write in metre, unless it be
accompanied with the other artificial distinctions of style with which
metre is usually accompanied, and that, by such deviation, more will
be lost from the shock which will thereby be given to the Reader’s
associations than will be counterbalanced by any pleasure which he can
derive from the general power of numbers. In answer to those who still
contend for the necessity of accompanying metre with certain
appropriate colours of style in order to the accomplishment of its
appropriate end, and who also, in my opinion, greatly underrate the
power of metre in itself, it might, perhaps, as far as relates to
these Volumes, have been almost sufficient to observe, that poems are
extant, written upon more humble subjects, and in a still more naked
and simple style, which have continued to give pleasure from
generation to generation. Now, if nakedness and simplicity be a
defect, the fact here mentioned affords a strong presumption that
poems somewhat less naked and simple are capable of affording pleasure
at the present day; and, what I wished _chiefly_ to attempt, at
present, was to justify myself for having written under the impression
of this belief.

But various causes might be pointed out why, when the style is manly,
and the subject of some importance, words metrically arranged will
long continue to impart such a pleasure to mankind as he who proves
the extent of that pleasure will be desirous to impart. The end of
Poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of
pleasure; but, by the supposition, excitement is an unusual and
irregular state of the mind; ideas and feelings do not, in that state,
succeed each other in accustomed order. If the words, however, by
which this excitement is produced be in themselves powerful, or the
images and feelings have an undue proportion of pain connected with
them, there is some danger that the excitement may be carried beyond
its proper bounds. Now the co-presence of something regular, something
to which the mind has been accustomed in various moods and in a less
excited state, cannot but have great efficacy in tempering and
restraining the passion by an intertexture of ordinary feeling, and of
feeling not strictly and necessarily connected with the passion. This
is unquestionably true; and hence, though the opinion will at first
appear paradoxical, from the tendency of metre to divest language, in
a certain degree, of its reality, and thus to throw a sort of
half-consciousness of unsubstantial existence over the whole
composition, there can be little doubt but that more pathetic
situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a greater
proportion of pain connected with them, may be endured in metrical
composition, especially in rhyme, than in prose. The metre of the old
ballads is very artless; yet they contain many passages which would
illustrate this opinion; and, I hope, if the following Poems be
attentively perused, similar instances will be found in them. This
opinion may be further illustrated by appealing to the Reader’s own
experience of the reluctance with which he comes to the re-perusal of
the distressful parts of _Clarissa Harlowe_, or the _Gamester_; while
Shakespeare’s writings, in the most pathetic scenes, never act upon
us, as pathetic, beyond the bounds of pleasure--an effect which, in a
much greater degree than might at first be imagined, is to be ascribed
to small, but continual and regular impulses of pleasurable surprise
from the metrical arrangement.--On the other hand (what it must be
allowed will much more frequently happen) if the Poet’s words should
be incommensurate with the passion, and inadequate to raise the Reader
to a height of desirable excitement, then (unless the Poet’s choice of
his metre has been grossly injudicious), in the feelings of pleasure
which the Reader has been accustomed to connect with metre in general,
and in the feeling, whether cheerful or melancholy, which he has been
accustomed to connect with that particular movement of metre, there
will be found something which will greatly contribute to impart
passion to the words, and to effect the complex end which the Poet
proposes to himself.

If I had undertaken a SYSTEMATIC defence of the theory here
maintained, it would have been my duty to develop the various causes
upon which the pleasure received from metrical language depends. Among
the chief of these causes is to be reckoned a principle which must be
well known to those who have made any of the Arts the object of
accurate reflection; namely, the pleasure which the mind derives from
the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the
great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder.
From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the
passions connected with it, take their origin: it is the life of our
ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in
dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend
our taste and our moral feelings. It would not be a useless employment
to apply this principle to the consideration of metre, and to show
that metre is hence enabled to afford much pleasure, and to point out
in what manner that pleasure is produced. But my limits will not
permit me to enter upon this subject, and I must content myself with a
general summary.

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful
feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in
tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of
reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion,
kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is
gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In
this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood
similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind,
and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various
pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are
voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of
enjoyment. If Nature be thus cautious to preserve in a state of
enjoyment a being so employed, the Poet ought to profit by the lesson
held forth to him, and ought especially to take care, that, whatever
passions he communicates to his Reader, those passions, if his
Reader’s mind be sound and vigorous, should always be accompanied with
an overbalance of pleasure. Now the music of harmonious metrical
language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association
of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or
metre of the same or similar construction, an indistinct perception
perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life,
and yet, in the circumstance of metre, differing from it so
widely--all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight,
which is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling
always found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper
passions. This effect is always produced in pathetic and impassioned
poetry; while, in lighter compositions, the ease and gracefulness with
which the Poet manages his numbers are themselves confessedly a
principal source of the gratification of the Reader. All that it is
_necessary_ to say, however, upon this subject, may be effected by
affirming, what few persons will deny, that, of two descriptions,
either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well
executed, the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be
read a hundred times where the prose is read once.

Having thus explained a few of my reasons for writing in verse, and
why I have chosen subjects from common life, and endeavoured to bring
my language near to the real language of men, if I have been too
minute in pleading my own cause, I have at the same time been treating
a subject of general interest; and for this reason a few words shall
be added with reference solely to these particular poems, and to some
defects which will probably be found in them. I am sensible that my
associations must have sometimes been particular instead of general,
and that, consequently, giving to things a false importance, I may
have sometimes written upon unworthy subjects; but I am less
apprehensive on this account, than that my language may frequently
have suffered from those arbitrary connexions of feelings and ideas
with particular words and phrases, from which no man can altogether
protect himself. Hence I have no doubt, that, in some instances,
feelings, even of the ludicrous, may be given to my Readers by
expressions which appeared to me tender and pathetic. Such faulty
expressions, were I convinced they were faulty at present, and that
they must necessarily continue to be so, I would willingly take all
reasonable pains to correct. But it is dangerous to make these
alterations on the simple authority of a few individuals, or even of
certain classes of men; for where the understanding of an Author is
not convinced, or his feelings altered, this cannot be done without
great injury to himself: for his own feelings are his stay and
support; and, if he set them aside in one instance, he may be induced
to repeat this act till his mind shall lose all confidence in itself,
and become utterly debilitated. To this it may be added, that the
critic ought never to forget that he is himself exposed to the same
errors as the Poet, and, perhaps, in a much greater degree: for there
can be no presumption in saying of most readers, that it is not
probable they will be so well acquainted with the various stages of
meaning through which words have passed, or with the fickleness or
stability of the relations of particular ideas to each other; and,
above all, since they are so much less interested in the subject, they
may decide lightly and carelessly.

Long as the Reader has been detained, I hope he will permit me to
caution him against a mode of false criticism which has been applied
to Poetry, in which the language closely resembles that of life and
nature. Such verses have been triumphed over in parodies, of which Dr.
Johnson’s stanza is a fair specimen:--

    I put my hat upon my head
    And walked into the Strand,
    And there I met another man
    Whose hat was in his hand.

Immediately under these lines let us place one of the most
justly-admired stanzas of the ‘Babes in the Wood.’

    These pretty Babes with hand in hand
    Went wandering up and down;
    But never more they saw the Man
    Approaching from the Town.

In both these stanzas the words, and the order of the words, in no
respect differ from the most unimpassioned conversation. There are
words in both, for example, ‘the Strand’, and ‘the Town’, connected
with none but the most familiar ideas; yet the one stanza we admit as
admirable, and the other as a fair example of the superlatively
contemptible. Whence arises this difference? Not from the metre, not
from the language, not from the order of the words; but the _matter_
expressed in Dr. Johnson’s stanza is contemptible. The proper method
of treating trivial and simple verses, to which Dr. Johnson’s stanza
would be a fair parallelism, is not to say, this is a bad kind of
poetry, or, this is not poetry; but, this wants sense; it is neither
interesting in itself, nor can _lead_ to anything interesting; the
images neither originate in that sane state of feeling, which arises
out of thought, nor can excite thought or feeling in the Reader. This
is the only sensible manner of dealing with such verses. Why trouble
yourself about the species till you have previously decided upon the
genus? Why take pains to prove that an ape is not a Newton, when it is
self-evident that he is not a man?

One request I must make of my reader, which is, that in judging these
Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by
reflection upon what will probably be the judgement of others. How
common is it to hear a person say, I myself do not object to this
style of composition, or this or that expression, but, to such and
such classes of people it will appear mean or ludicrous! This mode of
criticism, so destructive of all sound unadulterated judgement, is
almost universal: let the Reader then abide, independently, by his own
feelings, and, if he finds himself affected, let him not suffer such
conjectures to interfere with his pleasure.

If an Author, by any single composition, has impressed us with respect
for his talents, it is useful to consider this as affording a
presumption, that on other occasions where we have been displeased,
he, nevertheless, may not have written ill or absurdly; and further,
to give him so much credit for this one composition as may induce us
to review what has displeased us, with more care than we should
otherwise have bestowed upon it. This is not only an act of justice,
but, in our decisions upon poetry especially, may conduce, in a high
degree, to the improvement of our own taste; for an _accurate_ taste
in poetry, and in all the other arts, as Sir Joshua Reynolds has
observed, is an _acquired_ talent, which can only be produced by
thought and a long-continued intercourse with the best models of
composition. This is mentioned, not with so ridiculous a purpose as to
prevent the most inexperienced Reader from judging for himself, (I
have already said that I wish him to judge for himself;) but merely to
temper the rashness of decision, and to suggest, that, if Poetry be a
subject on which much time has not been bestowed, the judgement may be
erroneous; and that, in many cases, it necessarily will be so.

Nothing would, I know, have so effectually contributed to further the
end which I have in view, as to have shown of what kind the pleasure
is, and how that pleasure is produced, which is confessedly produced
by metrical composition essentially different from that which I have
here endeavoured to recommend: for the Reader will say that he has
been pleased by such composition; and what more can be done for him?
The power of any art is limited; and he will suspect, that, if it be
proposed to furnish him with new friends, that can be only upon
condition of his abandoning his old friends. Besides, as I have said,
the Reader is himself conscious of the pleasure which he has received
from such composition, composition to which he has peculiarly attached
the endearing name of Poetry; and all men feel an habitual gratitude,
and something of an honourable bigotry, for the objects which have
long continued to please them: we not only wish to be pleased, but to
be pleased in that particular way in which we have Been accustomed to
be pleased. There is in these feelings enough to resist a host of
arguments; and I should be the less able to combat them successfully,
as I am willing to allow, that, in order entirely to enjoy the Poetry
which I am recommending, it would be necessary to give up much of what
is ordinarily enjoyed. But, would my limits have permitted me to point
out how this pleasure is produced, many obstacles might have been
removed, and the Reader assisted in perceiving that the powers of
language are not so limited as he may suppose; and that it is possible
for poetry to give other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and
more exquisite nature. This part of the subject has not been
altogether neglected, but it has not been so much my present aim to
prove, that the interest excited by some other kinds of poetry is less
vivid, and less worthy of the nobler powers of the mind, as to offer
reasons for presuming, that if my purpose were fulfilled, a species of
poetry would be produced, which is genuine poetry; in its nature well
adapted to interest mankind permanently, and likewise important in
the multiplicity and quality of its moral relations.

From what has been said, and from a perusal of the Poems, the Reader
will be able clearly to perceive the object which I had in view: he
will determine how far it has been attained; and, what is a much more
important question, whether it be worth attaining: and upon the
decision of these two questions will rest my claim to the approbation
of the Public.


APPENDIX

ON POETIC DICTION

Perhaps, as I have no right to expect that attentive perusal, without
which, confined, as I have been, to the narrow limits of a preface, my
meaning cannot be thoroughly understood, I am anxious to give an exact
notion of the sense in which the phrase poetic diction has been used;
and for this purpose, a few words shall here be added, concerning the
origin and characteristics of the phraseology, which I have condemned
under that name.

The earliest poets of all nations generally wrote from passion excited
by real events; they wrote naturally, and as men: feeling powerfully
as they did, their language was daring, and figurative. In succeeding
times, Poets, and Men ambitious of the fame of Poets, perceiving the
influence of such language, and desirous of producing the same effect
without being animated by the same passion, set themselves to a
mechanical adoption of these figures of speech, and made use of them,
sometimes with propriety, but much more frequently applied them to
feelings and thoughts with which they had no natural connexion
whatsoever. A language was thus insensibly produced, differing
materially from the real language of men in _any situation_. The
Reader or Hearer of this distorted language found himself in a
perturbed and unusual state of mind: when affected by the genuine
language of passion he had been in a perturbed and unusual state of
mind also: in both cases he was willing that his common judgement and
understanding should be laid asleep, and he had no instinctive and
infallible perception of the true to make him reject the false; the
one served as a passport for the other. The emotion was in both cases
delightful, and no wonder if he confounded the one with the other, and
believed them both to be produced by the same, or similar causes.
Besides, the Poet spake to him in the character of a man to be looked
up to, a man of genius and authority. Thus, and from a variety of
other causes, this distorted language was received with admiration;
and Poets, it is probable, who had before contented themselves for the
most part with misapplying only expressions which at first had been
dictated by real passion, carried the abuse still further, and
introduced phrases composed apparently in the spirit of the original
figurative language of passion, yet altogether of their own invention,
and characterized by various degrees of wanton deviation from good
sense and nature.

It is indeed true, that the language of the earliest Poets was felt to
differ materially from ordinary language, because it was the language
of extraordinary occasions; but it was really spoken by men, language
which the Poet himself had uttered when he had been affected by the
events which he described, or which he had heard uttered by those
around him. To this language it is probable that metre of some sort or
other was early superadded. This separated the genuine language of
Poetry still further from common life, so that whoever read or heard
the poems of these earliest Poets felt himself moved in a way in which
he had not been accustomed to be moved in real life, and by causes
manifestly different from those which acted upon him in real life.
This was the great temptation to all the corruptions which have
followed: under the protection of this feeling succeeding Poets
constructed a phraseology which had one thing, it is true, in common
with the genuine language of poetry, namely, that it was not heard in
ordinary conversation; that it was unusual. But the first Poets, as I
have said, spake a language which, though unusual, was still the
language of men. This circumstance, however, was disregarded by their
successors; they found that they could please by easier means: they
became proud of modes of expression which they themselves had
invented, and which were uttered only by themselves. In process of
time metre became a symbol or promise of this unusual language, and
whoever took upon him to write in metre, according as he possessed
more or less of true poetic genius, introduced less or more of this
adulterated phraseology into his compositions, and the true and the
false were inseparably interwoven until, the taste of men becoming
gradually perverted, this language was received as a natural language:
and at length, by the influence of books upon men, did to a certain
degree really become so. Abuses of this kind were imported from one
nation to another, and with the progress of refinement this diction
became daily more and more corrupt, thrusting out of sight the plain
humanities of nature by a motley masquerade of tricks, quaintnesses,
hieroglyphics, and enigmas.

It would not be uninteresting to point out the causes of the pleasure
given by this extravagant and absurd diction. It depends upon a great
variety of causes, but upon none, perhaps, more than its influence in
impressing a notion of the peculiarity and exaltation of the Poet’s
character, and in flattering the Reader’s self-love by bringing him
nearer to a sympathy with that character; an effect which is
accomplished by unsettling ordinary habits of thinking, and thus
assisting the Reader to approach to that perturbed and dizzy state of
mind in which if he does not find himself, he imagines that he is
_balked_ of a peculiar enjoyment which poetry can and ought to bestow.

The sonnet quoted from Gray, in the Preface, except the lines printed
in Italics, consists of little else but this diction, though not of
the worst kind; and indeed, if one may be permitted to say so, it is
far too common in the best writers both ancient and modern. Perhaps in
no way, by positive example, could more easily be given a notion of
what I mean by the phrase _poetic diction_ than by referring to a
comparison between the metrical paraphrase which we have of passages
in the Old and New Testament, and those passages as they exist in our
common Translation. See Pope’s ‘Messiah’ throughout; Prior’s ‘Did
sweeter sounds adorn my flowing tongue,’ &c. &c. ‘Though I speak with
the tongues of men and of angels,’ &c. &c. 1 Corinthians, chap. xiii.
By way of immediate example take the following of Dr. Johnson:--

    Turn on the prudent Ant thy heedless eyes,
    Observe her labours, Sluggard, and be wise;
    No stern command, no monitory voice,
    Prescribes her duties, or directs her choice;
    Yet, timely provident, she hastes away
    To snatch the blessings of a plenteous day;
    When fruitful Summer loads the teeming plain,
    She crops the harvest, and she stores the grain.
    How long shall sloth usurp thy useless hours,
    Unnerve thy vigour, and enchain thy powers?
    While artful shades thy downy couch enclose,
    And soft solicitation courts repose,
    Amidst the drowsy charms of dull delight,
    Year chases year with unremitted flight,
    Till Want now following, fraudulent and slow,
    Shall spring to seize thee, like an ambush’d foe.

From this hubbub of words pass to the original. ‘Go to the Ant, thou
Sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide,
overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth
her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O Sluggard? when
wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little
slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep. So shall thy poverty
come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.’ Proverbs,
chap. vi.

One more quotation, and I have done. It is from Cowper’s _Verses
supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk_:

    Religion! what treasure untold
    Resides in that heavenly word!
    More precious than silver and gold,
    Or all that this earth can afford.
    But the sound of the church-going bell
    These valleys and rocks never heard,
    Ne’er sighed at the sound of a knell,
    Or smiled when a sabbath appeared.
    Ye winds, that have made me your sport,
    Convey to this desolate shore
    Some cordial endearing report
    Of a land I must visit no more.
    My Friends, do they now and then send
    A wish or a thought after me?
    O tell me I yet have a friend,
    Though a friend I am never to see.

This passage is quoted as an instance of three different styles of
composition. The first four lines are poorly expressed; some Critics
would call the language prosaic; the fact is, it would be bad prose,
so bad, that it is scarcely worse in metre. The epithet ‘church-going’
applied to a bell, and that by so chaste a writer as Cowper, is an
instance of the strange abuses which Poets have introduced into their
language, till they and their Readers take them as matters of course,
if they do not single them out expressly as objects of admiration. The
two lines ‘Ne’er sighed at the sound’, &c., are, in my opinion, an
instance of the language of passion wrested from its proper use, and,
from the mere circumstance of the composition being in metre, applied
upon an occasion that does not justify such violent expressions; and I
should condemn the passage, though perhaps few Readers will agree with
me, as vicious poetic diction. The last stanza is throughout admirably
expressed: it would be equally good whether in prose or verse, except
that the Reader has an exquisite pleasure in seeing such natural
language so naturally connected with metre. The beauty of this stanza
tempts me to conclude with a principle which ought never to be lost
sight of, and which has been my chief guide in all I have
said,--namely, that in works of _imagination and sentiment_, for of
these only have I been treating, in proportion as ideas and feelings
are valuable, whether the composition be in prose or in verse, they
require and exact one and the same language. Metre is but adventitious
to composition, and the phraseology for which that passport is
necessary, even where it may be graceful at all, will be little valued
by the judicious.



SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE

1772-1834

WORDSWORTH’S THEORY OF DICTION

[_Biographia Literaria_, chap. xvii, 1817]


As far as Mr. Wordsworth in his preface contended, and most ably
contended, for a reformation in our poetic diction, as far as he has
evinced the truth of passion, and the _dramatic_ propriety of those
figures and metaphors in the original poets, which, stripped of their
justifying reasons, and converted into mere artifices of connexion or
ornament, constitute the characteristic falsity in the poetic style of
the moderns; and as far as he has, with equal acuteness and clearness,
pointed out the process by which this change was effected, and the
resemblances between that state into which the reader’s mind is thrown
by the pleasureable confusion of thought from an unaccustomed train of
words and images; and that state which is induced by the natural
language of impassioned feeling; he undertook a useful task, and
deserves all praise, both for the attempt and for the execution. The
provocations to this remonstrance in behalf of truth and nature were
still of perpetual recurrence before and after the publication of this
preface. I cannot likewise but add, that the comparison of such poems
of merit, as have been given to the public within the last ten or
twelve years, with the majority of those produced previously to the
appearance of that preface, leave no doubt on my mind, that Mr.
Wordsworth is fully justified in believing his efforts to have been by
no means ineffectual. Not only in the verses of those who have
professed their admiration of his genius, but even of those who have
distinguished themselves by hostility to his theory, and depreciation
of his writings, are the impressions of his principles plainly
visible. It is possible, that with these principles others may have
been blended, which are not equally evident; and some which are
unsteady and subvertible from the narrowness or imperfection of their
basis. But it is more than possible, that these errors of defect or
exaggeration, by kindling and feeding the controversy, may have
conduced not only to the wider propagation of the accompanying truths,
but that, by their frequent presentation to the mind in an excited
state, they may have won for them a more permanent and practical
result. A man will borrow a part from his opponent the more easily, if
he feels himself justified in continuing to reject a part. While there
remain important points in which he can still feel himself in the
right, in which he still finds firm footing for continued resistance,
he will gradually adopt those opinions, which were the least remote
from his own convictions, as not less congruous with his own theory
than with that which he reprobates. In like manner with a kind of
instinctive prudence, he will abandon by little and little his weakest
posts, till at length he seems to forget that they had ever belonged
to him, or affects to consider them at most as accidental and ‘petty
annexments’, the removal of which leaves the citadel unhurt and
unendangered.

My own differences from certain supposed parts of Mr. Wordsworth’s
theory ground themselves on the assumption, that his words had been
rightly interpreted, as purporting that the proper diction for poetry
in general consists altogether in a language taken, with due
exceptions, from the mouths of men in real life, a language which
actually constitutes the natural conversation of men under the
influence of natural feelings. My objection is, first, that in any
sense this rule is applicable only to certain classes of poetry;
secondly, that even to these classes it is not applicable, except in
such a sense, as hath never by any one (as far as I know or have read)
been denied or doubted; and lastly, that as far as, and in that degree
in which it is practicable, yet as a rule it is useless, if not
injurious, and therefore either need not, or ought not to be
practised. The poet informs his reader that he had generally chosen
low and rustic life; but not _as_ low and rustic, or in order to
repeat that pleasure of doubtful moral effect, which persons of
elevated rank and of superior refinement oftentimes derive from a
happy imitation of the rude unpolished manners and discourse of their
inferiors. For the pleasure so derived may be traced to three exciting
causes. The first is the naturalness, in fact, of the things
represented. The second is the apparent naturalness of the
representation, as raised and qualified by an imperceptible infusion
of the author’s own knowledge and talent, which infusion does, indeed,
constitute it an imitation as distinguished from a mere copy. The
third cause may be found in the reader’s conscious feeling of his
superiority awakened by the contrast presented to him; even as for the
same purpose the kings and great barons of yore retained sometimes
actual clowns and fools, but more frequently shrewd and witty fellows
in that character. These, however, were not Mr. Wordsworth’s objects.
He chose low and rustic life, ‘because in that condition the essential
passions of the heart find a better soil, in which they can attain
their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more
emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary
feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently
may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated;
because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary
feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are
more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in
that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful
and permanent forms of nature.’

Now it is clear to me, that in the most interesting of the poems, in
which the author is more or less dramatic, as the _Brothers_,
_Michael_, _Ruth_, the _Mad Mother_, &c., the persons introduced are
by no means taken from low or rustic life in the common acceptation of
those words; and it is not less clear, that the sentiments and
language, as far as they can be conceived to have been really
transferred from the minds and conversation of such persons, are
attributable to causes and circumstances not necessarily connected
with ‘their occupations and abode’. The thoughts, feelings, language,
and manners of the shepherd-farmers in the vales of Cumberland and
Westmoreland, as far as they are actually adopted in those poems, may
be accounted for from causes, which will and do produce the same
results in every state of life, whether in town or country. As the two
principal I rank that INDEPENDENCE, which raises a man above
servitude, or daily toil for the profit of others, yet not above the
necessity of industry and a frugal simplicity of domestic life; and
the accompanying unambitious, but solid and religious, EDUCATION,
which has rendered few books familiar, but the Bible, and the liturgy
or hymnbook. To the latter cause, indeed, which is so far accidental,
that it is the blessing of particular countries and a particular age,
not the product of particular places or employments, the poet owes the
show of probability, that his personages might really feel, think, and
talk with any tolerable resemblance to his representation. It is an
excellent remark of Dr. Henry More’s that ‘a man of confined
education, but of good parts, by constant reading of the Bible will
naturally form a more winning and commanding rhetoric than those that
are learned: the intermixture of tongues and of artificial phrases
debasing their style’.

It is, moreover, to be considered that to the formation of healthy
feelings, and a reflecting mind, negations involve impediments not
less formidable than sophistication and vicious intermixture. I am
convinced, that for the human soul to prosper in rustic life a certain
vantage-ground is pre-requisite. It is not every man that is likely to
be improved by a country life or by country labours. Education, or
original sensibility, or both, must pre-exist, if the changes, forms,
and incidents of nature are to prove a sufficient stimulant. And where
these are not sufficient, the mind contracts and hardens by want of
stimulants: and the man becomes selfish, sensual, gross, and
hard-hearted. Let the management of the POOR LAWS in Liverpool,
Manchester, or Bristol be compared with the ordinary dispensation of
the poor rates in agricultural villages, where the farmers are the
overseers and guardians of the poor. If my own experience have not
been particularly unfortunate, as well as that of the many respectable
country clergymen with whom I have conversed on the subject, the
result would engender more than scepticism concerning the desirable
influences of low and rustic life in and for itself. Whatever may be
concluded on the other side, from the stronger local attachments and
enterprising spirit of the Swiss, and other mountaineers, applies to a
particular mode of pastoral life, under forms of property that permit
and beget manners truly republican, not to rustic life in general, or
to the absence of artificial cultivation. On the contrary the
mountaineers, whose manners have been so often eulogized, are in
general better educated and greater readers than men of equal rank
elsewhere. But where this is not the case, as among the peasantry of
North Wales, the ancient mountains, with all their terrors and all
their glories, are pictures to the blind, and music to the deaf.

I should not have entered so much into detail upon this passage, but
here seems to be the point, to which all the lines of difference
converge as to their source and centre;--I mean, as far as, and in
whatever respect, my poetic creed does differ from the doctrines
promulgated in this preface. I adopt with full faith the principle of
Aristotle, that poetry, as poetry, is essentially ideal, that it
avoids and excludes all accident; that its apparent individualities
of rank, character, or occupation must be representative of a class;
and that the persons of poetry must be clothed with generic
attributes, with the common attributes of the class: not with such as
one gifted individual might possibly possess, but such as from his
situation it is most probable beforehand that he would possess. If my
premises are right and my deductions legitimate, it follows that there
can be no poetic medium between the swains of Theocritus and those of
an imaginary golden age.

The characters of the vicar and the shepherd-mariner in the poem of
_The Brothers_, that of the shepherd of Green-head Ghyll in the
_Michael_, have all the verisimilitude and representative quality,
that the purposes of poetry can require. They are persons of a known
and abiding class, and their manners and sentiments the natural
product of circumstances common to the class. Take Michael for
instance:

    An old man stout of heart, and strong of limb:
    His bodily frame had been from youth to age
    Of an unusual strength: his mind was keen,
    Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs,
    And in his shepherd’s calling he was prompt
    And watchful more than ordinary men.
    Hence he had learned the meaning of all winds,
    Of blasts of every tone; and oftentimes
    When others heeded not, he heard the South
    Make subterraneous music, like the noise
    Of bagpipers on distant Highland hills.
    The shepherd, at such warning, of his flock
    Bethought him, and he to himself would say,
    The winds are now devising work for me!
    And truly at all times the storm, that drives
    The traveller to a shelter, summon’d him
    Up to the mountains. He had been alone
    Amid the heart of many thousand mists,
    That came to him and left him on the heights.
    So liv’d he, until his eightieth year was pass’d.
    And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
    That the green valleys, and the streams and rocks,
    Were things indifferent to the shepherd’s thoughts.
    Fields, where with chearful spirits he had breath’d
    The common air; the hills, which he so oft
    Had climb’d with vigorous steps; which had impress’d
    So many incidents upon his mind
    Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
    Which, like a book, preserved the memory
    Of the dumb animals, whom he had sav’d,
    Had fed or shelter’d, linking to such acts,
    So grateful in themselves, the certainty
    Of honourable gain; these fields, these hills
    Which were his living being, even more
    Than his own blood--what could they less? had laid
    Strong hold on his affections, were to him
    A pleasureable feeling of blind love.
    The pleasure which there is in life itself.

On the other hand, in the poems which are pitched at a lower note, as
the _Harry Gill_, _Idiot Boy_, the feelings are those of human nature
in general; though the poet has judiciously laid the scene in the
country, in order to place himself in the vicinity of interesting
images, without the necessity of ascribing a sentimental perception of
their beauty to the persons of his drama. In _The Idiot Boy_, indeed,
the mother’s character is not so much a real and native product of a
‘situation where the essential passions of the heart find a better
soil, in which they can attain their maturity and speak a plainer and
more emphatic language’, as it is an impersonation of an instinct
abandoned by judgement. Hence the two following charges seem to me not
wholly groundless: at least, they are the only plausible objections,
which I have heard to that fine poem. The one is, that the author has
not, in the poem itself, taken sufficient care to preclude from the
reader’s fancy the disgusting images of ordinary morbid idiocy, which
yet it was by no means his intention to represent. He has even by the
‘burr, burr, burr’, uncounteracted by any preceding description of the
boy’s beauty, assisted in recalling them. The other is, that the
idiocy of the boy is so evenly balanced by the folly of the mother, as
to present to the general reader rather a laughable burlesque on the
blindness of anile dotage, than an analytic display of maternal
affection in its ordinary workings.

In _The Thorn_, the poet himself acknowledges in a note the necessity
of an introductory poem, in which he should have portrayed the
character of the person from whom the words of the poem are supposed
to proceed: a superstitious man moderately imaginative, of slow
faculties and deep feelings, ‘a captain of a small trading vessel, for
example, who, being past the middle age of life, had retired upon an
annuity, or small independent income, to some village or country town
of which he was not a native, or in which he had not been accustomed
to live. Such men having nothing to do become credulous and talkative
from indolence’. But in a poem, still more in a lyric poem--and the
Nurse in Shakespeare’s _Romeo and Juliet_ alone prevents me from
extending the remark even to dramatic poetry, if indeed even the Nurse
itself can be deemed altogether a case in point--it is not possible to
imitate truly a dull and garrulous discourser, without repeating the
effects of dullness and garrulity. However this may be, I dare assert,
that the parts--(and these form the far larger portion of the
whole)--which might as well or still better have proceeded from the
poet’s own imagination, and have been spoken in his own character, are
those which have given, and which will continue to give, universal
delight; and that the passages exclusively appropriate to the supposed
narrator, such as the last couplet of the third stanza;[3] the seven
last lines of the tenth;[4] and the five following stanzas, with the
exception of the four admirable lines at the commencement of the
fourteenth, are felt by many unprejudiced and unsophisticated hearts,
as sudden and unpleasant sinkings from the height to which the poet
had previously lifted them, and to which he again re-elevates both
himself and his reader.

    [3]

        I’ve measured it from side to side;
        ’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

    [4]

        Nay, rack your brain--’tis all in vain,
        I’ll tell you every thing I know;
        But to the Thorn, and to the Pond
        Which is a little step beyond,
        I wish that you would go:
        Perhaps, when you are at the place,
        You something of her tale may trace.

        I’ll give you the best help I can:
        Before you up the mountain go,
        Up to the dreary mountain-top,
        I’ll tell you all I know.
        ’Tis now some two-and-twenty years
        Since she (her name is Martha Ray)
        Gave, with a maiden’s true good will,
        Her company to Stephen Hill;
        And she was blithe and gay,
        And she was happy, happy still
        Whene’er she thought of Stephen Hill.

        And they had fix’d the wedding-day,
        The morning that must wed them both;
        But Stephen to another maid
        Had sworn another oath;
        And, with this other maid, to church
        Unthinking Stephen went--
        Poor Martha! on that woeful day
        A pang of pitiless dismay
        Into her soul was sent;
        A fire was kindled in her breast,
        Which might not burn itself to rest.

        They say, full six months after this,
        While yet the summer leaves were green,
        She to the mountain-top would go,
        And there was often seen.
        ’Tis said a child was in her womb,
        As now to any eye was plain;
        She was with child, and she was mad;
        Yet often she was sober sad
        From her exceeding pain.
        Oh me! ten thousand times I’d rather
        That he had died, that cruel father!

           *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *       *
           *       *       *       *       *

        Last Christmas when we talked of this,
        Old farmer Simpson did maintain,
        That in her womb the infant wrought
        About its mother’s heart, and brought
        Her senses back again:
        And, when at last her time drew near,
        Her looks were calm, her senses clear.

        No more I know, I wish I did,
        And I would tell it all to you:
        For what became of this poor child
        There’s none that ever knew:
        And if a child was born or no,
        There’s no one that could ever tell;
        And if ’twas born alive or dead,
        There’s no one knows, as I have said:
        But some remember well,
        That Martha Ray about this time
        Would up the mountain often climb.

If then I am compelled to doubt the theory, by which the choice of
characters was to be directed, not only _à priori_, from grounds of
reason, but both from the few instances in which the poet himself need
be supposed to have been governed by it, and from the comparative
inferiority of those instances; still more must I hesitate in my
assent to the sentence which immediately follows the former citation;
and which I can neither admit as particular fact, nor as general rule.
‘The language, too, of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what
appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of
dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best
objects from which the best part of language is originally derived;
and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow
circle of their intercourse, being less under the action of social
vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and
unelaborated expressions.’ To this I reply; that a rustic’s language,
purified from all provincialism and grossness, and so far
reconstructed as to be made consistent with the rules of
grammar--(which are in essence no other than the laws of universal
logic, applied to psychological materials)--will not differ from the
language of any other man of common sense, however learned or refined
he may be, except as far as the notions, which the rustic has to
convey, are fewer and more indiscriminate. This will become still
clearer, if we add the consideration--(equally important though less
obvious)--that the rustic, from the more imperfect development of his
faculties, and from the lower state of their cultivation, aims almost
solely to convey insulated facts, either those of his scanty
experience or his traditional belief; while the educated man chiefly
seeks to discover and express those connexions of things, or those
relative bearings of fact to fact, from which some more or less
general law is deducible. For facts are valuable to a wise man,
chiefly as they lead to the discovery of the indwelling law, which is
the true being of things, the sole solution of their modes of
existence, and in the knowledge of which consists our dignity and our
power.

As little can I agree with the assertion, that from the objects with
which the rustic hourly communicates the best part of language is
formed. For first, if to communicate with an object implies such an
acquaintance with it, as renders it capable of being discriminately
reflected on; the distinct knowledge of an uneducated rustic would
furnish a very scanty vocabulary. The few things and modes of action
requisite for his bodily conveniences would alone be individualized;
while all the rest of nature would be expressed by a small number of
confused general terms. Secondly, I deny that the words and
combinations of words derived from the objects, with which the rustic
is familiar, whether with distinct or confused knowledge, can be
justly said to form the best part of language. It is more than
probable, that many classes of the brute creation possess
discriminating sounds, by which they can convey to each other notices
of such objects as concern their food, shelter, or safety. Yet we
hesitate to call the aggregate of such sounds a language, otherwise
than metaphorically. The best part of human language, properly so
called, is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself. It
is formed by a voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal
acts, to processes and results of imagination, the greater part of
which have no place in the consciousness of uneducated man; though in
civilized society, by imitation and passive remembrance of what they
hear from their religious instructors and other superiors, the most
uneducated share in the harvest which they neither sowed nor reaped.
If the history of the phrases in hourly currency among our peasants
were traced, a person not previously aware of the fact would be
surprised at finding so large a number, which three or four centuries
ago were the exclusive property of the universities and the schools;
and, at the commencement of the Reformation, had been transferred from
the school to the pulpit, and thus gradually passed into common life.
The extreme difficulty, and often the impossibility, of finding words
for the simplest moral and intellectual processes of the languages of
uncivilized tribes has proved perhaps the weightiest obstacle to the
progress of our most zealous and adroit missionaries. Yet these tribes
are surrounded by the same nature as our peasants are; but in still
more impressive forms; and they are, moreover, obliged to
particularize many more of them. When, therefore, Mr. Wordsworth adds,
‘accordingly, such a language’--(meaning, as before, the language of
rustic life purified from provincialism)--‘arising out of repeated
experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more
philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for
it by poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves
and their art in proportion as they indulge in arbitrary and
capricious habits of expression;’ it may be answered, that the
language, which he has in view, can be attributed to rustics with no
greater right, than the style of Hooker or Bacon to Tom Brown or Sir
Roger L’Estrange. Doubtless, if what is peculiar to each were omitted
in each, the result must needs be the same. Further, that the poet,
who uses an illogical diction, or a style fitted to excite only the
low and changeable pleasure of wonder by means of groundless novelty,
substitutes a language of folly and vanity, not for that of the
rustic, but for that of good sense and natural feeling.

Here let me be permitted to remind the reader, that the positions,
which I controvert, are contained in the sentences--‘_a selection of
the_ REAL _language of men_’;--‘_the language of these men_’ (i. e.
men in low and rustic life) ‘_I propose to myself to imitate, and, as
far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men._’ ‘_Between the
language of prose and that of metrical composition, there neither is,
nor can be, any essential difference._’ It is against these
exclusively that my opposition is directed.

I object, in the very first instance, to an equivocation in the use of
the word ‘real’. Every man’s language varies, according to the extent
of his knowledge, the activity of his faculties, and the depth or
quickness of his feelings. Every man’s language has, first, its
individualities; secondly, the common properties of the class to which
he belongs; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use. The
language of Hooker, Bacon, Bishop Taylor, and Burke differs from the
common language of the learned class only by the superior number and
novelty of the thoughts and relations which they had to convey. The
language of Algernon Sidney differs not at all from that, which every
well-educated gentleman would wish to write, and (with due allowance
for the undeliberateness, and less connected train, of thinking
natural and proper to conversation) such as he would wish to talk.
Neither one nor the other differ half so much from the general
language of cultivated society, as the language of Mr. Wordsworth’s
homeliest composition differs from that of a common peasant. For
‘real’ therefore, we must substitute ordinary, or _lingua communis_.
And this, we have proved, is no more to be found in the phraseology of
low and rustic life than in that of any other class. Omit the
peculiarities of each and the result of course must be common to all.
And assuredly the omissions and changes to be made in the language of
rustics, before it could be transferred to any species of poem, except
the drama or other professed imitation, are at least as numerous and
weighty, as would be required in adapting to the same purpose the
ordinary language of tradesmen and manufacturers. Not to mention, that
the language so highly extolled by Mr. Wordsworth varies in every
county, nay in every village, according to the accidental character of
the clergyman, the existence or non-existence of schools; or even,
perhaps, as the exciseman, publican, and barber happen to be, or not
to be, zealous politicians, and readers of the weekly newspaper _pro
bono publico_. Anterior to cultivation the _lingua communis_ of every
country, as Dante has well observed, exists everywhere in parts, and
nowhere as a whole.

Neither is the case rendered at all more tenable by the addition of
the words, _in a state of excitement_. For the nature of a man’s
words, where he is strongly affected by joy, grief, or anger, must
necessarily depend on the number and quality of the general truths,
conceptions and images, and of the words expressing them, with which
his mind had been previously stored. For the property of passion is
not to create; but to set in increased activity. At least, whatever
new connexions of thoughts or images, or (which is equally, if not
more than equally, the appropriate effect of strong excitement)
whatever generalizations of truth or experience the heat of passion
may produce; yet the terms of their conveyance must have pre-existed
in his former conversations, and are only collected and crowded
together by the unusual stimulation. It is indeed very possible to
adopt in a poem the unmeaning repetitions, habitual phrases, and other
blank counters, which an unfurnished or confused understanding
interposes at short intervals, in order to keep hold of his subject,
which is still slipping from him, and to give him time for
recollection; or, in mere aid of vacancy, as in the scanty companies
of a country stage the same player pops backwards and forwards, in
order to prevent the appearance of empty spaces, in the procession of
_Macbeth_, or _Henry VIII_. But what assistance to the poet, or
ornament to the poem, these can supply, I am at a loss to conjecture.
Nothing assuredly can differ either in origin or in mode more widely
from the apparent tautologies of intense and turbulent feeling, in
which the passion is greater and of longer endurance than to be
exhausted or satisfied by a single representation of the image or
incident exciting it. Such repetitions I admit to be a beauty of the
highest kind; as illustrated by Mr. Wordsworth himself from the song
of Deborah. _At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet
he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead._


METRICAL COMPOSITION

[_Biographia Literaria_, chap. xviii, 1817]

I conclude, therefore, that the attempt is impracticable; and that,
were it not impracticable, it would still be useless. For the very
power of making the selection implies the previous possession of the
language selected. Or where can the poet have lived? And by what rules
could he direct his choice, which would not have enabled him to select
and arrange his words by the light of his own judgement? We do not
adopt the language of a class by the mere adoption of such words
exclusively, as that class would use, or at least understand; but
likewise by following the order, in which the words of such men are
wont to succeed each other. Now this order, in the intercourse of
uneducated men, is distinguished from the diction of their superiors
in knowledge and power, by the greater disjunction and separation in
the component parts of that, whatever it be, which they wish to
communicate. There is a want of that prospectiveness of mind, that
surview, which enables a man to foresee the whole of what he is to
convey, appertaining to any one point; and by this means so to
subordinate and arrange the different parts according to their
relative importance, as to convey it at once, and as an organized
whole.

Now I will take the first stanza, on which I have chanced to open, in
the _Lyrical Ballads_. It is one the most simple and the least
peculiar in its language.

    In distant countries have I been,
    And yet I have not often seen
    A healthy man, a man full grown,
    Weep in the public roads, alone.
    But such a one, on English ground,
    And in the broad highway, I met;
    Along the broad highway he came,
    His cheeks with tears were wet:
    Sturdy he seem’d, though he was sad;
    And in his arms a lamb he had.

The words here are doubtless such as are current in all ranks of life;
and of course not less so in the hamlet and cottage than in the shop,
manufactory, college, or palace. But is this the order, in which the
rustic would have placed the words? I am grievously deceived, if the
following less compact mode of commencing the same tale be not a far
more faithful copy. ‘I have been in a many parts, far and near, and I
don’t know that I ever saw before a man crying by himself in the
public road; a grown man I mean, that was neither sick nor hurt,’ &c.,
&c. But when I turn to the following stanza in _The Thorn_:

    At all times of the day and night
    This wretched woman thither goes,
    And she is known to every star,
    And every wind that blows:
    And there, beside the thorn, she sits,
    When the blue day-light’s in the skies:
    And when the whirlwind’s on the hill,
    Or frosty air is keen and still;
    And to herself she cries,
    Oh misery! Oh misery!
    Oh woe is me! Oh misery!

and compare this with the language of ordinary men; or with that which
I can conceive at all likely to proceed, in real life, from such a
narrator, as is supposed in the note to the poem; compare it either in
the succession of the images or of the sentences; I am reminded of the
sublime prayer and hymn of praise, which MILTON, in opposition to an
established liturgy, presents as a fair specimen of common extemporary
devotion, and such as we might expect to hear from every self-inspired
minister of a conventicle! And I reflect with delight, how little a
mere theory, though of his own workmanship, interferes with the
processes of genuine imagination in a man of true poetic genius, who
possesses, as Mr. Wordsworth, if ever man did, most assuredly does
possess,

    The Vision and the Faculty Divine.

       *       *       *       *       *

One point then alone remains, but that the most important; its
examination having been, indeed, my chief inducement for the preceding
inquisition. ‘_There neither is nor can be any essential difference
between the language of prose and metrical composition._’ Such is Mr.
Wordsworth’s assertion. Now prose itself, at least in all
argumentative and consecutive works, differs, and ought to differ,
from the language of conversation; even as reading ought to differ
from talking. Unless therefore the difference denied be that of the
mere words, as materials common to all styles of writing, and not of
the style itself in the universally admitted sense of the term, it
might be naturally presumed that there must exist a still greater
between the ordonnance of poetic composition and that of prose, than
is expected to distinguish prose from ordinary conversation.

There are not, indeed, examples wanting in the history of literature,
of apparent paradoxes that have summoned the public wonder as new and
startling truths, but which, on examination, have shrunk into tame and
harmless truisms; as the eyes of a cat, seen in the dark, have been
mistaken for flames of fire. But Mr. Wordsworth is among the last men,
to whom a delusion of this kind would be attributed by any one who had
enjoyed the slightest opportunity of understanding his mind and
character. Where an objection has been anticipated by such an author
as natural, his answer to it must needs be interpreted in some sense
which either is, or has been, or is capable of being controverted. My
object then must be to discover some other meaning for the term
‘_essential difference_’ in this place, exclusive of the indistinction
and community of the words themselves. For whether there ought to
exist a class of words in the English, in any degree resembling the
poetic dialect of the Greek and Italian, is a question of very
subordinate importance. The number of such words would be small
indeed, in our language; and even in the Italian and Greek, they
consist not so much of different words, as of slight differences in
the forms of declining and conjugating the same words; forms,
doubtless, which having been, at some period more or less remote, the
common grammatic flexions of some tribe or province, had been
accidentally appropriated to poetry by the general admiration of
certain master intellects, the first established lights of
inspiration, to whom that dialect happened to be native.

Essence, in its primary signification, means the principle of
individuation, the inmost principle of the possibility of any thing,
as that particular thing. It is equivalent to the idea of a thing,
whenever we use the word, idea, with philosophic precision. Existence,
on the other hand, is distinguished from essence, by the
superinduction of reality. Thus we speak of the essence, and essential
properties of a circle; but we do not therefore assert, that any
thing, which really exists, is mathematically circular. Thus too,
without any tautology we contend for the existence of the Supreme
Being; that is, for a reality correspondent to the idea. There is,
next, a secondary use of the word essence, in which it signifies the
point or ground of contradistinction between two modifications of the
same substance or subject. Thus we should be allowed to say, that the
style of architecture of Westminster Abbey is essentially different
from that of St. Paul’s, even though both had been built with blocks
cut into the same form, and from the same quarry. Only in this latter
sense of the term must it have been denied by Mr. Wordsworth (for in
this sense alone is it affirmed by the general opinion) that the
language of poetry (i. e. the formal construction, or architecture, of
the words and phrases) is essentially different from that of prose.
Now the burthen of the proof lies with the oppugner, not with the
supporters of the common belief. Mr. Wordsworth, in consequence,
assigns as the proof of his position, ‘that not only the language of a
large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character,
must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect
differ from that of good prose, but likewise that some of the most
interesting parts of the best poems will be found to be strictly the
language of prose, when prose is well written. The truth of this
assertion might be demonstrated by innumerable passages from almost
all the poetical writings even of Milton himself.’ He then quotes
Gray’s sonnet:--

    In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
    And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire;
    The birds in vain their amorous descant join,
    Or cheerful fields resume their green attire.
    These ears, alas! for other notes repine;
    _A different object do these eyes require;
    My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
    And in my breast the imperfect joys expire._
    Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
    And newborn pleasure brings to happier men;
    The fields to all their wonted tribute bear,
    To warm their little loves the birds complain.
    _I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
    And weep the more because I weep in vain_,

and adds the following remark:--‘It will easily be perceived, that the
only part of this Sonnet, which is of any value, is the lines printed
in italics. It is equally obvious, that, except in the rhyme, and in
the use of the single word “fruitless” for “fruitlessly”, which is so
far a defect, the language of these lines does in no respect differ
from that of prose.’

An idealist defending his system by the fact, that when asleep we
often believe ourselves awake, was well answered by his plain
neighbour, ‘Ah, but when awake do we ever believe ourselves
asleep?’--Things identical must be convertible. The preceding passage
seems to rest on a similar sophism. For the question is not, whether
there may not occur in prose an order of words, which would be equally
proper in a poem; nor whether there are not beautiful lines and
sentences of frequent occurrence in good poems, which would be equally
becoming as well as beautiful in good prose; for neither the one nor
the other has ever been either denied or doubted by any one. The true
question must be, whether there are not modes of expression, a
construction, and an order of sentences, which are in their fit and
natural place in a serious prose composition, but would be
disproportionate and heterogeneous in metrical poetry; and, vice
versa, whether in the language of a serious poem there may not be an
arrangement both of words and sentences, and a use and selection of
(what are called) _figures of speech_, both as to their kind, their
frequency, and their occasions, which on a subject of equal weight
would be vicious and alien in correct and manly prose. I contend, that
in both cases this unfitness of each for the place of the other
frequently will and ought to exist.

And first from the origin of metre. This I would trace to the balance
in the mind effected by that spontaneous effort which strives to hold
in check the workings of passion. It might be easily explained
likewise in what manner this salutary antagonism is assisted by the
very state, which it counteracts; and how this balance of antagonists
became organized into metre (in the usual acceptation of that term) by
a supervening act of the will and judgement, consciously and for the
foreseen purpose of pleasure. Assuming these principles, as the data
of our argument, we deduce from them two legitimate conditions, which
the critic is entitled to expect in every metrical work. First, that,
as the elements of metre owe their existence to a state of increased
excitement, so the metre itself should be accompanied by the natural
language of excitement. Secondly, that as these elements are formed
into metre artificially, by a voluntary act, with the design and for
the purpose of blending delight with emotion, so the traces of present
volition should throughout the metrical language be proportionately
discernible. Now these two conditions must be reconciled and
co-present. There must be not only a partnership, but a union; an
interpenetration of passion and of will, of spontaneous impulse and of
voluntary purpose. Again, this union can be manifested only in a
frequency of forms and figures of speech (originally the offspring of
passion, but now the adopted children of power), greater than would be
desired or endured, where the emotion is not voluntarily encouraged
and kept up for the sake of that pleasure, which such emotion, so
tempered and mastered by the will, is found capable of communicating.
It not only dictates, but of itself tends to produce, a more frequent
employment of picturesque and vivifying language, than would be
natural in any other case, in which there did not exist, as there does
in the present, a previous and well understood, though tacit,
_compact_ between the poet and his reader, that the latter is entitled
to expect, and the former bound to supply, this species and degree of
pleasurable excitement. We may in some measure apply to this union the
answer of POLIXENES, in the _Winter’s Tale_, to PERDITA’S neglect of
the streaked gilly-flowers, because she had heard it said:

    There is an art which, in their piedness, shares
    With great creating nature.
                          _Pol._ Say there be;
    Yet nature is made better by no mean,
    But nature makes that mean; so, ev’n that art,
    Which, you say, adds to nature, is an art,
    That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
    _A gentler scion to the wildest stock;_
    And make conceive a bark of ruder kind
    By bud of nobler race. This is an art,
    Which does mend nature--change it rather; but
    The art itself is nature.

Secondly, I argue from the EFFECTS of metre. As far as metre acts in
and for itself, it tends to increase the vivacity and susceptibility
both of the general feelings and of the attention. This effect it
produces by the continued excitement of surprise, and by the quick
reciprocations of curiosity still gratified and still re-excited,
which are too slight indeed to be at any one moment objects of
distinct consciousness, yet become considerable in their aggregate
influence. As a medicated atmosphere, or as wine during animated
conversation, they act powerfully, though themselves unnoticed. Where,
therefore, correspondent food and appropriate matter are not provided
for the attention and feelings thus roused, there must needs be a
disappointment felt; like that of leaping in the dark from the last
step of a staircase, when we had prepared our muscles for a leap of
three or four.

The discussion on the powers of metre in the preface is highly
ingenious and touches at all points on truth. But I cannot find any
statement of its powers considered abstractly and separately. On the
contrary Mr. Wordsworth seems always to estimate metre by the powers
which it exerts during (and, as I think, in consequence of) its
combination with other elements of poetry. Thus the previous
difficulty is left unanswered, what the elements are with which it
must be combined, in order to produce its own effects to any
pleasureable purpose. Double and tri-syllable rhymes, indeed, form a
lower species of wit, and, attended to exclusively for their own sake,
may become a source of momentary amusement; as in poor Smart’s distich
to the Welsh Squire who had promised him a hare:

    Tell me, thou son of great Cadwallader!
    Hast sent the hare? or hast thou swallowed her?

But for any poetic purposes, metre resembles (if the aptness of the
simile may excuse its meanness) yeast, worthless or disagreeable by
itself, but giving vivacity and spirit to the liquor with which it is
proportionately combined.

The reference to _The Children in the Wood_ by no means satisfies my
judgement. We all willingly throw ourselves back for awhile into the
feelings of our childhood. This ballad, therefore, we read under such
recollections of our own childish feelings, as would equally endear to
us poems, which Mr. Wordsworth himself would regard as faulty in the
opposite extreme of gaudy and technical ornament. Before the invention
of printing, and in a still greater degree, before the introduction of
writing, metre, especially alliterative metre (whether alliterative at
the beginning of the words, as in _Piers Plowman_, or at the end, as
in rhymes), possessed an independent value as assisting the
recollection, and consequently the preservation, of _any_ series of
truths or incidents. But I am not convinced by the collation of facts,
that _The Children in the Wood_ owes either its preservation, or its
popularity, to its metrical form. Mr. Marshal’s repository affords a
number of tales in prose inferior in pathos and general merit, some of
as old a date, and many as widely popular. _Tom Hickathrift_, _Jack
the Giant-killer_, _Goody Two-shoes_, and _Little Red Riding-hood_ are
formidable rivals. And that they have continued in prose, cannot be
fairly explained by the assumption, that the comparative meanness of
their thoughts and images precluded even the humblest forms of metre.
The scene of _Goody Two-shoes_ in the church is perfectly susceptible
of metrical narration; and, among the Θαὑματα θαυμαστὁτατα even of the
present age, I do not recollect a more astonishing image than that of
the ‘_whole rookery, that flew out of the giant’s beard_’, scared by
the tremendous voice, with which this monster answered the challenge
of the heroic _Tom Hickathrift_!

If from these we turn to compositions universally, and independently
of all early associations, beloved and admired, would _The Maria_,
_The Monk_, or _The Poor Man’s Ass_ of Sterne, be read with more
delight, or have a better chance of immortality, had they without any
change in the diction been composed in rhyme, than in their present
state? If I am not grossly mistaken, the general reply would be in the
negative. Nay, I will confess, that, in Mr. Wordsworth’s own volumes,
the _Anecdote for Fathers_, _Simon Lee_, _Alice Fell_, _The Beggars_,
and _The Sailor’s Mother_, notwithstanding the beauties which are to
be found in each of them where the poet interposes the music of his
own thoughts, would have been more delightful to me in prose, told and
managed, as by Mr. Wordsworth they would have been, in a moral essay,
or pedestrian tour.

Metre in itself is simply a stimulant of the attention, and therefore
excites the question: Why is the attention to be thus stimulated? Now
the question cannot be answered by the pleasure of the metre itself:
for this we have shown to be conditional, and dependent on the
appropriateness of the thoughts and expressions, to which the metrical
form is superadded. Neither can I conceive any other answer that can
be rationally given, short of this: I write in metre, because I am
about to use a language different from that of prose. Besides, where
the language is not such, how interesting soever the reflections are,
that are capable of being drawn by a philosophic mind from the
thoughts or incidents of the poem, the metre itself must often become
feeble. Take the last three stanzas of _The Sailor’s Mother_, for
instance. If I could for a moment abstract from the effect produced on
the author’s feelings, as a man, by the incident at the time of its
real occurrence, I would dare appeal to his own judgement, whether in
the metre itself he found a sufficient reason for their being written
metrically?

    And, thus continuing, she said,
    I had a son, who many a day
    Sailed on the seas; but he is dead;
    In Denmark he was cast away;
    And I have travelled far as Hull, to see
    What clothes he might have left, or other property.

    The bird and cage they both were his:
    ’Twas my son’s bird; and neat and trim
    He kept it: many voyages
    This singing-bird hath gone with him;
    When last he sailed he left the bird behind;
    As it might be, perhaps, from bodings of his mind.

    He to a fellow-lodger’s care
    Had left it, to be watched and fed,
    Till he came back again; and there
    I found it when my son was dead;
    And now, God help me for my little wit!
    I trail it with me, Sir! he took so much delight in it.

If disproportioning the emphasis we read these stanzas so as to make
the rhymes perceptible, even tri-syllable rhymes could scarcely
produce an equal sense of oddity and strangeness, as we feel here in
finding rhymes at all in sentences so exclusively colloquial. I would
further ask whether, but for that visionary state, into which the
figure of the woman and the susceptibility of his own genius had
placed the poet’s imagination (a state, which spreads its influence
and colouring over all, that co-exists with the exciting cause, and in
which

    The simplest, and the most familiar things
    Gain a strange power of spreading awe around them),

I would ask the poet whether he would not have felt an abrupt downfall
in these verses from the preceding stanza?

    The ancient spirit is not dead;
    Old times, thought I, are breathing there;
    Proud was I that my country bred
    Such strength, a dignity so fair:
    She begged an alms, like one in poor estate;
    I looked at her again, nor did my pride abate.

It must not be omitted, and is besides worthy of notice, that those
stanzas furnish the only fair instance that I have been able to
discover in all Mr. Wordsworth’s writings, of an actual adoption, or
true imitation, of the real and very language of low and rustic life,
freed from provincialisms.

Thirdly, I deduce the position from all the causes elsewhere assigned,
which render metre the proper form of poetry, and poetry imperfect and
defective without metre. Metre, therefore, having been connected with
poetry most often and by a peculiar fitness, whatever else is combined
with metre must, though it be not itself essentially poetic, have
nevertheless some property in common with poetry, as an intermedium of
affinity, a sort (if I may dare borrow a well-known phrase from
technical chemistry) of _mordaunt_ between it and the superadded
metre. Now poetry, Mr. Wordsworth truly affirms, does always imply
PASSION: which word must be here understood in its most general sense,
as an excited state of the feelings and faculties. And as every
passion has its proper pulse, so will it likewise have its
characteristic modes of expression. But where there exists that degree
of genius and talent which entitles a writer to aim at the honours of
a poet, the very act of poetic composition itself is, and is allowed
to imply and to produce, an unusual state of excitement, which of
course justifies and demands a correspondent difference of language,
as truly, though not perhaps in as marked a degree, as the excitement
of love, fear, rage, or jealousy. The vividness of the descriptions or
declamations in DONNE or DRYDEN is as much and as often derived from
the force and fervour of the describer, as from the reflections, forms
or incidents, which constitute their subject and materials. The wheels
take fire from the mere rapidity of their motion. To what extent, and
under what modifications, this may be admitted to act, I shall attempt
to define in an after remark on Mr. Wordsworth’s reply to this
objection, or rather on his objection to this reply, as already
anticipated in his preface.

Fourthly, and as intimately connected with this, if not the same
argument in a more general form, I adduce the high spiritual instinct
of the human being impelling us to seek unity by harmonious
adjustment, and thus establishing the principle, that all the parts of
an organized whole must be assimilated to the more important and
essential parts. This and the preceding arguments may be strengthened
by the reflection, that the composition of a poem is among the
imitative arts; and that imitation, as opposed to copying, consists
either in the interfusion of the same throughout the radically
different, or of the different throughout a base radically the same.

Lastly, I appeal to the practice of the best poets, of all countries
and in all ages, as authorizing the opinion, (deduced from all the
foregoing,) that in every import of the word essential, which would
not here involve a mere truism, there may be, is, and ought to be an
essential difference between the language of prose and of metrical
composition.

In Mr. Wordsworth’s criticism of Gray’s Sonnet, the readers’ sympathy
with his praise or blame of the different parts is taken for granted
rather perhaps too easily. He has not, at least, attempted to win or
compel it by argumentative analysis. In my conception at least, the
lines rejected as of no value do, with the exception of the two first,
differ as much and as little from the language of common life, as
those which he has printed in italics as possessing genuine
excellence. Of the five lines thus honourably distinguished, two of
them differ from prose, even more widely than the lines which either
precede or follow, in the position of the words.

    _A different object do these eyes require;_
    My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
    _And in my breast the imperfect joys expire._

But were it otherwise, what would this prove, but a truth, of which no
man ever doubted? Videlicet, that there are sentences, which would be
equally in their place both in verse and prose. Assuredly it does not
prove the point, which alone requires proof; namely, that there are
not passages, which would suit the one and not suit the other. The
first line of this sonnet is distinguished from the ordinary language
of men by the epithet to ‘_morning_’. (For we will set aside, at
present, the consideration, that the particular word ‘_smiling_’ is
hackneyed and (as it involves a sort of personification) not quite
congruous with the common and material attribute of _shining_.) And,
doubtless, this adjunction of epithets for the purpose of additional
description, where no particular attention is demanded for the quality
of the thing, would be noticed as giving a poetic cast to a man’s
conversation. Should the sportsman exclaim, ‘_Come boys! the rosy
morning calls you up_’, he will be supposed to have some song in his
head. But no one suspects this, when he says, ‘A wet morning shall not
confine us to our beds.’ This then is either a defect in poetry, or it
is not. Whoever should decide in the affirmative, I would request him
to re-peruse any one poem, of any confessedly great poet from Homer to
Milton, or from Aeschylus to Shakespeare; and to strike out (in
thought I mean) every instance of this kind. If the number of these
fancied erasures did not startle him, or if he continued to deem the
work improved by their total omission, he must advance reasons of no
ordinary strength and evidence, reasons grounded in the essence of
human nature. Otherwise, I should not hesitate to consider him as a
man not so much proof against all authority, as dead to it.

The second line,

    And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire;--

has indeed almost as many faults as words. But then it is a bad line,
not because the language is distinct from that of prose, but because
it conveys incongruous images, because it confounds the cause and the
effect, the real thing with the personified representative of the
thing; in short, because it differs from the language of good sense!
That the ‘Phoebus’ is hackneyed, and a school-boy image, is an
accidental fault, dependent on the age in which the author wrote, and
not deduced from the nature of the thing. That it is part of an
exploded mythology, is an objection more deeply grounded. Yet when the
torch of ancient learning was rekindled, so cheering were its beams,
that our eldest poets, cut off by Christianity from all accredited
machinery, and deprived of all acknowledged guardians and symbols of
the great objects of nature, were naturally induced to adopt, as a
poetic language, those fabulous personages, those forms of the
supernatural in nature, which had given them such dear delight in the
poems of their great masters. Nay, even at this day what scholar of
genial taste will not so far sympathize with them, as to read with
pleasure in Petrarch, Chaucer, or Spenser, what he would perhaps
condemn as puerile in a modern poet?

I remember no poet, whose writings would safelier stand the test of
Mr. Wordsworth’s theory, than Spenser. Yet will Mr. Wordsworth say,
that the style of the following stanza is either undistinguished from
prose, and the language of ordinary life? Or that it is vicious, and
that the stanzas are blots in the _Faerie Queene_?

    By this the northern wagoner had set
    His sevenfold teme behind the steadfast starre,
    That was in ocean waves yet never wet,
    But firme is fixt, and sendeth light from farre
    To all that in the wild deep wandering are:
    And chearful chanticleer with his note shrill
    Had warned once that Phoebus’ fiery carre
    In haste was climbing up the easterne hill,
    Full envious that night so long his roome did fill.

                                 Book I, Can. 2, St. 2.

    At last the golden orientall gate
    Of greatest heaven gan to open fayre,
    And Phœbus fresh, as brydegrome to his mate,
    Came dauncing forth, shaking his deawie hayre,
    And hurl’d his glist’ring beams through gloomy ayre:
    Which when the wakeful elfe perceived, streightway
    He started up, and did him selfe prepayre
    In sun-bright armes and battailous array;
    For with that pagan proud he combat will that day.

                                 Book I, Can. 5, St. 2.

On the contrary to how many passages, both in hymn books and in blank
verse poems, could I (were it not invidious) direct the reader’s
attention, the style of which is most unpoetic, because, and only
because, it is the style of prose? He will not suppose me capable of
having in my mind such verses, as

    I put my hat upon my head
    And walk’d into the Strand;
    And there I met another man,
    Whose hat was in his hand.

To such specimens it would indeed be a fair and full reply, that these
lines are not bad, because they are unpoetic; but because they are
empty of all sense and feeling; and that it were an idle attempt to
prove that an ape is not a Newton, when it is evident that he is not a
man. But the sense shall be good and weighty, the language correct and
dignified, the subject interesting and treated with feeling; and yet
the style shall, notwithstanding all these merits, be justly blamable
as prosaic, and solely because the words and the order of the words
would find their appropriate place in prose, but are not suitable to
metrical composition. The _Civil Wars_ of Daniel is an instructive,
and even interesting work; but take the following stanzas (and from
the hundred instances which abound I might probably have selected
others far more striking):

    And to the end we may with better ease
    Discern the true discourse, vouchsafe to show
    What were the times foregoing near to these,
    That these we may with better profit know.
    Tell how the world fell into this disease;
    And how so great distemperature did grow;
    So shall we see with what degrees it came;
    How things at full do soon wax out of frame.

    Ten kings had from the Norman conqu’ror reign’d
    With intermixt and variable fate,
    When England to her greatest height attain’d
    Of power, dominion, glory, wealth, and state;
    After it had with much ado sustain’d
    The violence of princes, with debate
    For titles and the often mutinies
    Of nobles for their ancient liberties.

    For first, the Norman, conqu’ring all by might,
    By might was forc’d to keep what he had got;
    Mixing our customs and the form of right
    With foreign constitutions he had brought;
    Mast’ring the mighty, humbling the poorer wight,
    By all severest means that could be wrought;
    And, making the succession doubtful, rent
    His new-got state, and left it turbulent.

                                 Book I, St. vii, viii, and ix.

Will it be contended on the one side, that these lines are mean and
senseless? Or on the other, that they are not prosaic, and for that
reason unpoetic? This poet’s well-merited epithet is that of the
‘_well-languaged Daniel_’; but likewise, and by the consent of his
contemporaries no less than of all succeeding critics, the ‘prosaic
Daniel.’ Yet those, who thus designate this wise and amiable writer,
from the frequent incorrespondency of his diction to his metre in the
majority of his compositions, not only deem them valuable and
interesting on other accounts, but willingly admit that there are to
be found throughout his poems, and especially in his _Epistles_ and in
his _Hymen’s Triumph_, many and exquisite specimens of that style
which, as the neutral ground of prose and verse, is common to both. A
fine and almost faultless extract, eminent, as for other beauties, so
for its perfection in these species of diction, may be seen in Lamb’s
_Dramatic Specimens_, &c., a work of various interest from the nature
of the selections themselves, (all from the plays of Shakespeare’s
contemporaries), and deriving a high additional value from the notes,
which are full of just and original criticism, expressed with all the
freshness of originality.

Among the possible effects of practical adherence to a theory that
aims to identify the style of prose and verse,--(if it does not indeed
claim for the latter a yet nearer resemblance to the average style of
men in the viva voce intercourse of real life)--we might anticipate
the following as not the least likely to occur. It will happen, as I
have indeed before observed, that the metre itself, the sole
acknowledged difference, will occasionally become metre to the eye
only. The existence of prosaisms, and that they detract from the
merit of a poem, must at length be conceded, when a number of
successive lines can be rendered, even to the most delicate ear,
unrecognizable as verse, or as having even been intended for verse, by
simply transcribing them as prose; when if the poem be in blank verse,
this can be effected without any alteration, or at most by merely
restoring one or two words to their proper places, from which they
have been transplanted[5] for no assignable cause or reason but that
of the author’s convenience; but if it be in rhyme, by the mere
exchange of the final word of each line for some other of the same
meaning, equally appropriate, dignified and euphonic.

    [5] As the ingenious gentleman under the influence of the
    Tragic Muse contrived to dislocate, ‘I wish you a good
    morning, Sir! Thank you, Sir, and I wish you the same,’ into
    two blank-verse heroics:--

        To you a good morning, good Sir! I wish.
        You, Sir! I thank: to you the same wish I.

    In those parts of Mr. Wordsworth’s works which I have
    thoroughly studied, I find fewer instances in which this
    would be practicable than I have met in many poems, where an
    approximation of prose has been sedulously and on system
    guarded against. Indeed excepting the stanzas already quoted
    from _The Sailor’s Mother_, I can recollect but one instance:
    viz. a short passage of four or five lines in _The Brothers_,
    that model of English pastoral, which I never yet read with
    unclouded eye.--‘James, pointing to its summit, over which
    they had all purposed to return together, informed them that
    he would wait for them there. They parted, and his comrades
    passed that way some two hours after, but they did not find
    him at the appointed place, _a circumstance of which they
    took no heed_: but one of them, going by chance into the
    house, which at this time was James’s house, learnt _there_,
    that nobody had seen him all that day.’ The only change which
    has been made is in the position of the little word _there_
    in two instances, the position in the original being clearly
    such as is not adopted in ordinary conversation. The other
    words printed in _italics_ were so marked because, though
    good and genuine English, they are not the phraseology of
    common conversation either in the word put in apposition, or
    in the connexion by the genitive pronoun. Men in general
    would have said, ‘but that was a circumstance they paid no
    attention to, or took no notice of;’ and the language is, on
    the theory of the preface, justified only by the narrator’s
    being the _Vicar_. Yet if any ear _could_ suspect, that these
    sentences were ever printed as metre, on those very words
    alone could the suspicion have been grounded.

The answer or objection in the preface to the anticipated remark ‘that
metre paves the way to other distinctions’, is contained in the
following words. ‘The distinction of rhyme and metre is voluntary and
uniform, and not, like that produced by (what is called) poetic
diction, arbitrary, and subject to infinite caprices, upon which no
calculation whatever can be made. In the one case the reader is
utterly at the mercy of the poet respecting what imagery or diction he
may choose to connect with the passion.’ But is this a poet, of whom a
poet is speaking? No surely! rather of a fool or madman: or at best of
a vain or ignorant phantast! And might not brains so wild and so
deficient make just the same havoc with rhymes and metres, as they are
supposed to effect with modes and figures of speech? How is the reader
at the mercy of such men? If he continue to read their nonsense, is it
not his own fault? The ultimate end of criticism is much more to
establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass
judgement on what has been written by others; if indeed it were
possible that the two could be separated. But if it be asked, by what
principles the poet is to regulate his own style, if he do not adhere
closely to the sort and order of words which he hears in the market,
wake, high-road, or plough-field? I reply; by principles, the
ignorance or neglect of which would convict him of being no poet, but
a silly or presumptuous usurper of the name! By the principles of
grammar, logic, psychology! In one word, by such a knowledge of the
facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to his art, as, if
it have been governed and applied by good sense, and rendered
instinctive by habit, becomes the representative and reward of our
past conscious reasonings, insights, and conclusions, and acquires the
name of TASTE. By what rule that does not leave the reader at the
poet’s mercy, and the poet at his own, is the latter to distinguish
between the language suitable to suppressed, and the language, which
is characteristic of indulged, anger? Or between that of rage and that
of jealousy? Is it obtained by wandering about in search of angry or
jealous people in uncultivated society, in order to copy their words?
Or not far rather by the power of imagination proceeding upon the all
in each of human nature? By meditation, rather than by observation?
And by the latter in consequence only of the former? As eyes, for
which the former has pre-determined their field of vision, and to
which, as to its organ, it communicates a microscopic power? There is
not, I firmly believe, a man now living, who has, from his own inward
experience, a clearer intuition than Mr. Wordsworth himself, that the
last mentioned are the true sources of genial discrimination. Through
the same process and by the same creative agency will the poet
distinguish the degree and kind of the excitement produced by the very
act of poetic composition. As intuitively will he know, what
differences of style it at once inspires and justifies; what
intermixture of conscious volition is natural to that state; and in
what instances such figures and colours of speech degenerate into mere
creatures of an arbitrary purpose, cold technical artifices of
ornament or connexion. For, even as truth is its own light and
evidence, discovering at once itself and falsehood, so is it the
prerogative of poetic genius to distinguish by parental instinct its
proper offspring from the changelings, which the gnomes of vanity or
the fairies of fashion may have laid in its cradle or called by its
names. Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be
poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μὁρφωσις, not
ποἱησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers
of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible,
present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A
deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be
elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children
only put it to their mouths. We find no difficulty in admitting as
excellent, and the legitimate language of poetic fervour
self-impassioned, Donne’s apostrophe to the Sun in the second stanza
of his _Progress of the Soul_.

    Thee, eye of heaven! this great soul envies not;
    By thy male force is all, we have, begot.
    In the first East thou now beginn’st to shine,
    Suck’st early balm and island spices there,
    And wilt anon in thy loose-rein’d career
    At Tagus, Po, Seine, Thames, and Danow dine,
    And see at night this western world of mine:
    Yet hast thou not more nations seen than she,
    Who before thee one day began to be,
    And, thy frail light being quench’d, shall long, long outlive thee!

Or the next stanza but one:

    Great destiny, the commissary of God,
    That hast mark’d out a path and period
    For ev’ry thing! Who, where we offspring took,
    Our way and ends see’st at one instant: thou
    Knot of all causes! Thou, whose changeless brow
    Ne’er smiles nor frowns! O! vouchsafe thou to look,
    And show my story in thy eternal book, &c.

As little difficulty do we find in excluding from the honours of
unaffected warmth and elevation the madness prepense of pseudo-poesy,
or the startling hysteric of weakness over-exerting itself, which
bursts on the unprepared reader in sundry odes and apostrophes to
abstract terms. Such are the Odes to Jealousy, to Hope, to Oblivion,
and the like, in Dodsley’s collection and the magazines of that day,
which seldom fail to remind me of an Oxford copy of verses on the two
Suttons, commencing with

    INOCULATION, heavenly maid! descend!

It is not to be denied that men of undoubted talents, and even poets
of true, though not of first-rate, genius, have from a mistaken theory
deluded both themselves and others in the opposite extreme. I once
read to a company of sensible and well-educated women the introductory
period of Cowley’s preface to his _Pindaric Odes, written in imitation
of the style and manner of the odes of Pindar_. ‘If (says Cowley) a
man should undertake to translate Pindar, word for word, it would be
thought that one madman had translated another: as may appear, when
he, that understands not the original, reads the verbal traduction of
him into Latin prose, than which nothing seems more raving.’ I then
proceeded with his own free version of the second Olympic, composed
for the charitable purpose of rationalizing the Theban Eagle.

    Queen of all harmonious things,
    Dancing words and speaking strings,
    What God, what hero, wilt thou sing?
    What happy man to equal glories bring?
    Begin, begin thy noble choice,
    And let the hills around reflect the image of thy voice.
    Pisa does to Jove belong,
    Jove and Pisa claim thy song.
    The fair first-fruits of war, th’ Olympic games,
    Alcides offer’d up to Jove;
    Alcides too thy strings may move!
    But, oh! what man to join with these can worthy prove?
    Join Theron boldly to their sacred names;
    Theron the next honour claims;
    Theron to no man gives place,
    Is first in Pisa’s and in Virtue’s race;
    Theron there, and he alone,
    Ev’n his own swift forefathers has outgone.

One of the company exclaimed, with the full assent of the rest, that
if the original were madder than this, it must be incurably mad. I
then translated the ode from the Greek, and as nearly as possible,
word for word; and the impression was, that in the general movement of
the periods, in the form of the connexions and transitions, and in the
sober majesty of lofty sense, it appeared to them to approach more
nearly, than any other poetry they had heard, to the style of our
Bible in the prophetic books. The first strophe will suffice as a
specimen:

    Ye harp-controling hymns! (or) ye hymns the sovereigns of harps!
    What God? what Hero?
    What Man shall we celebrate?
    Truly Pisa indeed is of Jove,
    But the Olympiad (or the Olympic games) did Hercules establish,
    The first-fruits of the spoils of war.
    But Theron for the four-horsed car,
    That bore victory to him,
    It behoves us now to voice aloud:
    The Just, the Hospitable,
    The Bulwark of Agrigentum,
    Of renowned fathers
    The Flower, even him
    Who preserves his native city erect and safe.

But are such rhetorical caprices condemnable only for their deviation
from the language of real life? and are they by no other means to be
precluded, but by the rejection of all distinctions between prose and
verse, save that of metre? Surely good sense, and a moderate insight
into the constitution of the human mind, would be amply sufficient to
prove, that such language and such combinations are the native produce
neither of the fancy nor of the imagination; that their operation
consists in the excitement of surprise by the juxtaposition and
apparent reconciliation of widely different or incompatible things. As
when, for instance, the hills are made to reflect the image of a
voice. Surely, no unusual taste is requisite to see clearly, that this
compulsory juxtaposition is not produced by the presentation of
impressive or delightful forms to the inward vision, nor by any
sympathy with the modifying powers with which the genius of the poet
had united and inspirited all the objects of his thought; that it is
therefore a species of wit, a pure work of the will, and implies a
leisure and self-possession both of thought and of feeling,
incompatible with the steady fervour of a mind possessed and filled
with the grandeur of its subject. To sum up the whole in one sentence.
When a poem, or a part of a poem, shall be adduced, which is evidently
vicious in the figures and contexture of its style, yet for the
condemnation of which no reason can be assigned, except that it
differs from the style in which men actually converse, then, and not
till then, can I hold this theory to be either plausible, or
practicable, or capable of furnishing either rule, guidance, or
precaution, that might not, more easily and more safely, as well as
more naturally, have been deduced in the author’s own mind from
considerations of grammar, logic, and the truth and nature of things,
confirmed by the authority of works, whose fame is not of ONE country
nor of ONE age.



WILLIAM BLAKE

1757-1827

THE CANTERBURY PILGRIMS (1809)

SIR GEFFREY CHAUCER AND THE NINE-AND-TWENTY PILGRIMS ON THEIR JOURNEY
TO CANTERBURY[6]

    [6] From _A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures_.


The time chosen is early morning, before sunrise, when the jolly
company are just quitting the Tabarde Inn. The Knight and Squire with
the Squire’s Yeoman lead the Procession; next follow the youthful
Abbess, her Nun, and three Priests; her greyhounds attend her:

    Of small hounds had she that she fed
    With roast flesh, milk, and wastel bread.

Next follow the Friar and Monk; then the Tapiser, the Pardoner, and
the Sompnour and Manciple. After these ‘Our Host’, who occupies the
centre of the cavalcade, directs them to the Knight as the person who
would be likely to commence their task of each telling a tale in their
order. After the Host follow the Shipman, the Haberdasher, the Dyer,
the Franklin, the Physician, the Ploughman, the Lawyer, the Poor
Parson, the Merchant, the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Cook, the
Oxford Scholar, Chaucer himself; and the Reeve comes as Chaucer has
described:

    And ever he rode hinderest of the rout.

These last are issuing from the gateway of the Inn the Cook and the
Wife of Bath are both taking their morning’s draught of comfort.
Spectators stand at the gateway of the Inn, and are composed of an old
Man, a Woman, and Children.

The Landscape is an eastward view of the country, from the Tabarde Inn
in Southwark, as it may be supposed to have appeared in Chaucer’s
time, interspersed with cottages and villages. The first beams of the
Sun are seen above the horizon; some buildings and spires indicate the
situation of the Great City. The Inn is a Gothic building, which
Thynne in his Glossary says was the lodging of the Abbot of Hyde, by
Winchester. On the Inn is inscribed its title, and a proper advantage
is taken of this circumstance to describe the subject of the Picture.
The words written over the gateway of the Inn are as follow: ‘The
Tabarde Inn, by Henry Baillie, the lodgynge-house for Pilgrims who
journey to Saint Thomas’s Shrine at Canterbury.’

The characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose
all ages and nations. As one age falls, another rises, different to
mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same
characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals,
and in men. Nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever
varies, Substance can never suffer change nor decay.

Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his _Canterbury Tales_, some
of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters
themselves for ever remain unaltered; and consequently they are the
physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which
Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter. I have known
multitudes of those who would have been monks in the age of monkery,
who in this deistical age are deists. As Newton numbered the stars,
and as Linnaeus numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes
of men.

The Painter has consequently varied the heads and forms of his
personages into all Nature’s varieties; the horses he has also varied
to accord to their riders; the costume is correct according to
authentic monuments.

The Knight and Squire with the Squire’s Yeoman lead the Procession, as
Chaucer has also placed them first in his Prologue. The Knight is a
true Hero, a good, great and wise man; his whole-length portrait on
horseback, as written by Chaucer, cannot be surpassed. He has spent
his life in the field, has ever been a conqueror, and is that species
of character which in every age stands as the guardian of man against
the oppressor. His son is like him, with the germ of perhaps greater
perfection still, as he blends literature and the arts with his
warlike studies. Their dress and their horses are of the first rate,
without ostentation, and with all the true grandeur that unaffected
simplicity when in high rank always displays. The Squire’s Yeoman is
also a great character, a man perfectly knowing in his profession:

    And in his hand he bare a mighty bow.

Chaucer describes here a mighty man, one who in war is the worthy
attendant on noble heroes.

The Prioress follows these with her female Chaplain:

    Another Nonne also with her had she,
    That was her Chaplaine, and Priests three.

This Lady is described also as of the first rank, rich and honoured.
She has certain peculiarities and little delicate affectations, not
unbecoming in her, being accompanied with what is truly grand and
really polite; her person and face Chaucer has described with
minuteness; it is very elegant, and was the beauty of our ancestors
till after Elizabeth’s time, when voluptuousness and folly began to be
accounted beautiful.

Her companion and her three Priests were no doubt all perfectly
delineated in those parts of Chaucer’s work which are now lost; we
ought to suppose them suitable attendants on rank and fashion.

The Monk follows these with the Friar. The Painter has also grouped
with these the Pardoner and the Sompnour and the Manciple, and has
here also introduced one of the rich citizens of London--characters
likely to ride in company, all being above the common rank in life, or
attendants on those who were so.

For the Monk is described by Chaucer, as a man of the first rank in
society, noble, rich, and expensively attended; he is a leader of the
age, with certain humorous accompaniments in his character, that do
not degrade, but render him an object of dignified mirth, but also
with other accompaniments not so respectable.

The Friar is a character of a mixed kind:

    A friar there was, a wanton and a merry;

but in his office he is said to be a ‘full solemn man’; eloquent,
amorous, witty and satirical; young, handsome and rich; he is a
complete rogue, with constitutional gaiety enough to make him a
master of all the pleasures of the world:

    His neck was white as the flour de lis,
    Thereto strong he was as a champioun.

It is necessary here to speak of Chaucer’s own character, that I may
set certain mistaken critics right in their conception of the humour
and fun that occur on the journey. Chaucer is himself the great
poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and
eternize its acts. This he does as a master, as a father and superior,
who looks down on their little follies from the Emperor to the Miller,
sometimes with severity, oftener with joke and sport.

Accordingly Chaucer has made his Monk a great tragedian, one who
studied poetical art. So much so that the generous Knight is, in the
compassionate dictates of his soul, compelled to cry out:

    ‘Ho,’ quoth the Knyght, ‘good Sir, no more of this;
    That ye have said is right ynough, I wis,
    And mokell more; for little heaviness
    Is right enough for much folk, as I guesse.
    I say, for me, it is a great disease,
    Whereas men have been in wealth and ease,
    To heare of their sudden fall, alas!
    And the contrary is joy and solas.’

The Monk’s definition of tragedy in the proem to his tale is worth
repeating:

    Tragedie is to tell a certain story,
    As old books us maken memory,
    Of hem that stood in great prosperity,
    And be fallen out of high degree,
    Into miserie, and ended wretchedly.

Though a man of luxury, pride and pleasure, he is a master of art and
learning, though affecting to despise it. Those who can think that
the proud huntsman and noble housekeeper, Chaucer’s Monk, is intended
for a buffoon or burlesque character, know little of Chaucer.

For the Host who follows this group, and holds the centre of the
cavalcade, is a first-rate character, and his jokes are no trifles;
they are always, though uttered with audacity, and equally free with
the Lord and the Peasant--they are always substantially and weightily
expressive of knowledge and experience; Henry Baillie, the keeper of
the greatest Inn of the greatest City, for such was the Tabarde Inn in
Southwark near London, our Host, was also a leader of the age.

By way of illustration I instance Shakespeare’s Witches in _Macbeth_.
Those who dress them for the stage, consider them as wretched old
women, and not, as Shakespeare intended, the Goddesses of Destiny;
this shows how Chaucer has been misunderstood in his sublime work.
Shakespeare’s Fairies also are the rulers of the vegetable world, and
so are Chaucer’s; let them be so considered, and then the poet will be
understood, and not else.

But I have omitted to speak of a very prominent character, the
Pardoner, the Age’s Knave, who always commands and domineers over the
high and low vulgar. This man is sent in every age for a rod and
scourge, and for a blight, for a trial of men, to divide the classes
of men; he is in the most holy sanctuary, and he is suffered by
Providence for wise ends, and has also his great use, and his grand
leading destiny.

His companion the Sompnour is also a Devil of the first magnitude,
grand, terrific, rich, and honoured in the rank of which he holds the
destiny. The uses to society are perhaps equal of the Devil and of the
Angel; their sublimity who can dispute?

    In daunger had he at his own gise,
    The young girls of his diocese,
    And he knew well their counsel, &c.

The principal figure in the next group is the Good Parson; an Apostle,
a real Messenger of Heaven, sent in every age for its light and its
warmth. This man is beloved and venerated by all, and neglected by
all: he serves all, and is served by none. He is, according to
Christ’s definition, the greatest of his age: yet he is a Poor Parson
of a town. Read Chaucer’s description of the Good Parson, and bow the
head and the knee to Him, Who in every age sends us such a burning and
a shining light. Search, O ye rich and powerful, for these men and
obey their counsel; then shall the golden age return. But alas! you
will not easily distinguish him from the Friar or the Pardoner; they
also are ‘full solemn men’, and their counsel you will continue to
follow.

I have placed by his side the Sergeant-at-Lawe, who appears delighted
to ride in his company, and between him and his brother the Ploughman;
as I wish men of law would always ride with them, and take their
counsel, especially in all difficult points. Chaucer’s Lawyer is a
character of great venerableness, a Judge and a real master of the
jurisprudence of his age.

The Doctor of Physic is in this group; and the Franklin, the
voluptuous country gentleman, contrasted with the Physician, and, on
his other hand, with two Citizens of London. Chaucer’s characters
live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass
on, each sustaining one of these characters; nor can a child be born
who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer. The Doctor of
Physic is described as the first of his profession, perfect, learned,
completely Master and Doctor in his art. Thus the reader will observe
that Chaucer makes every one of his characters perfect in his kind;
every one is an Antique Statue, the image of a class and not of an
imperfect individual.

This group also would furnish substantial matter, on which volumes
might be written. The Franklin is one who keeps open table, who is the
genius of eating and drinking, the Bacchus; as the Doctor of Physic is
the Aesculapius, the Host is the Silenus, the Squire is the Apollo,
the Miller is the Hercules, &c. Chaucer’s characters are a description
of the eternal Principles that exist in all ages. The Franklin is
voluptuousness itself, most nobly portrayed:

    It snewed in his house of meat and drink.

The Ploughman is simplicity itself, with wisdom and strength for its
stamina. Chaucer has divided the ancient character of Hercules between
his Miller and his Ploughman. Benevolence is the Ploughman’s great
characteristic; he is thin with excessive labour, and not with old age
as some have supposed:

    He would thresh, and thereto dike and delve,
    For Christe’s sake, for every poore wight,
    Withouten hire, if it lay in his might.

Visions of these eternal principles or characters of human life appear
to poets in all ages; the Grecian gods were the ancient Cherubim of
Phoenicia; but the Greeks, and since them the Moderns, have neglected
to subdue the gods of Priam. These gods are visions of the eternal
attributes, or divine names, which, when erected into gods, become
destructive to humanity. They ought to be the servants, and not the
masters of man or of society. They ought to be made to sacrifice to
man, and not man compelled to sacrifice to them; for, when separated
from man or humanity, who is Jesus the Saviour, the Vine of Eternity?
They are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers.

The Ploughman of Chaucer is Hercules in his supreme Eternal State,
divested of his Spectrous Shadow, which is the Miller, a terrible
fellow, such as exists in all times and places for the trial of men,
to astonish every neighbourhood with brutal strength and courage, to
get rich and powerful, to curb the pride of Man.

The Reeve and the Manciple are two characters of the most consummate
worldly wisdom. The Shipman, or Sailor, is a similar genius of
Ulyssean art, but with the highest courage superadded.

The Citizens and their Cook are each leaders of a class. Chaucer has
been somehow made to number four citizens, which would make his whole
company, himself included, thirty-one. But he says there was but
nine-and-twenty in his company:

    Full nine and twenty in a company.

The Webbe, or Weaver, and the Tapiser, or Tapestry Weaver, appear to
me to be the same person; but this is only an opinion, for ‘full nine
and twenty’ may signify one more or less. But I daresay that Chaucer
wrote ‘A Webbe Dyer’, that is a Cloth Dyer:

    A Webbe Dyer and a Tapiser.

The Merchant cannot be one of the Three Citizens, as his dress is
different, and his character is more marked, whereas Chaucer says of
his rich citizens:

    All were yclothed in o liverie.

The characters of Women Chaucer has divided into two classes, the Lady
Prioress and the Wife of Bath. Are not these leaders of the ages of
men? The Lady Prioress in some ages predominates; and in some the Wife
of Bath, in whose character Chaucer has been equally minute and exact;
because she is also a scourge and a blight. I shall say no more of
her, nor expose what Chaucer has left hidden; let the young reader
study what he has said of her: it is useful as a scarecrow. There are
of such characters born too many for the peace of the world.

I come at length to the Clerk of Oxenford. This character varies from
that of Chaucer, as the contemplative philosopher varies from the
poetical genius. There are always these two classes of learned sages,
the poetical and the philosophical. The Painter has put them side by
side, as if the youthful clerk had put himself under the tuition of
the mature poet. Let the Philosopher always be the servant and scholar
of Inspiration, and all will be happy.



CHARLES LAMB

1775-1834

ON THE TRAGEDIES OF SHAKESPEARE,

CONSIDERED WITH REFERENCE TO THEIR FITNESS FOR STAGE REPRESENTATION
(1811)


Taking a turn the other day in the Abbey, I was struck with the
affected attitude of a figure, which I do not remember to have seen
before, and which upon examination proved to be a whole-length of the
celebrated Mr. Garrick. Though I would not go so far with some good
Catholics abroad as to shut players altogether out of consecrated
ground, yet I own I was not a little scandalized at the introduction
of theatrical airs and gestures into a place set apart to remind us of
the saddest realities. Going nearer, I found inscribed under this
harlequin figure the following lines:

    To paint fair Nature, by divine command,
    Her magic pencil in his glowing hand,
    A Shakespeare rose: then, to expand his fame
    Wide o’er this breathing world, a Garrick came.
    Though sunk in death the forms the Poet drew,
    The Actor’s genius bade them breathe anew;
    Though, like the bard himself, in night they lay,
    Immortal Garrick call’d them back to day:
    And till Eternity with power sublime
    Shall mark the mortal hour of hoary Time,
    Shakespeare and Garrick like twin-stars shall shine,
    And earth irradiate with a beam divine.

It would be an insult to my readers’ understandings to attempt
anything like a criticism on this farrago of false thoughts and
nonsense. But the reflection it led me into was a kind of wonder, how,
from the days of the actor here celebrated to our own, it should have
been the fashion to compliment every performer in his turn, that has
had the luck to please the town in any of the great characters of
Shakespeare, with the notion of possessing a _mind congenial with the
poet’s_: how people should come thus unaccountably to confound the
power of originating poetical images and conceptions with the faculty
of being able to read or recite the same when put into words;[7] or
what connexion that absolute mastery over the heart and soul of man,
which a great dramatic poet possesses, has with those low tricks upon
the eye and ear, which a player by observing a few general effects,
which some common passion, as grief, anger, &c. usually has upon the
gestures and exterior, can so easily compass. To know the internal
workings and movements of a great mind, of an Othello or a Hamlet for
instance, the _when_ and the _why_ and the _how far_ they should be
moved; to what pitch a passion is becoming; to give the reins and to
pull in the curb exactly at the moment when the drawing in or the
slackening is most graceful; seems to demand a reach of intellect of a
vastly different extent from that which is employed upon the bare
imitation of the signs of these passions in the countenance or
gesture, which signs are usually observed to be most lively and
emphatic in the weaker sort of minds, and which signs can after all
but indicate some passion, as I said before, anger, or grief,
generally; but of the motives and grounds of the passion, wherein it
differs from the same passion in low and vulgar natures, of these the
actor can give no more idea by his face or gesture than the eye
(without a metaphor) can speak, or the muscles utter intelligible
sounds. But such is the instantaneous nature of the impressions which
we take in at the eye and ear at a playhouse, compared with the slow
apprehension oftentimes of the understanding in reading, that we are
apt not only to sink the play-writer in the consideration which we pay
to the actor, but even to identify in our minds in a perverse manner,
the actor with the character which he represents. It is difficult for
a frequent playgoer to disembarrass the idea of Hamlet from the person
and voice of Mr. K. We speak of Lady Macbeth, while we are in reality
thinking of Mrs. S. Nor is this confusion incidental alone to
unlettered persons, who, not possessing the advantage of reading, are
necessarily dependent upon the stage-player for all the pleasure which
they can receive from the drama, and to whom the very idea of _what an
author is_ cannot be made comprehensible without some pain and
perplexity of mind: the error is one from which persons otherwise not
meanly lettered, find it almost impossible to extricate themselves.

    [7] It is observable that we fall into this confusion only in
    _dramatic_ recitations. We never dream that the gentleman who
    reads Lucretius in public with great applause, is therefore a
    great poet and philosopher; nor do we find that Tom Davies,
    the bookseller, who is recorded to have recited the _Paradise
    Lost_ better than any man in England in his day (though I
    cannot help thinking there must be some mistake in this
    tradition), was therefore, by his intimate friends, set upon
    a level with Milton.

Never let me be so ungrateful as to forget the very high degree of
satisfaction which I received some years back from seeing for the
first time a tragedy of Shakespeare performed, in which these two
great performers sustained the principal parts. It seemed to embody
and realize conceptions which had hitherto assumed no distinct shape.
But dearly do we pay all our life after for this juvenile pleasure,
this sense of distinctness. When the novelty is past, we find to our
cost that instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized and
brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have
let go a dream, in quest of an unattainable substance.

How cruelly this operates upon the mind, to have its free conceptions
thus crampt and pressed down to the measure of a strait-lacing
actuality, may be judged from that delightful sensation of freshness
with which we turn to those plays of Shakespeare which have escaped
being performed, and to those passages in the acting plays of the same
writer which have happily been left out in performance. How far the
very custom of hearing anything _spouted_, withers and blows upon a
fine passage, may be seen in those speeches from _Henry the Fifth_,
&c. which are current in the mouths of school-boys from their being to
be found in _Enfield Speakers_, and such kind of books. I confess
myself utterly unable to appreciate that celebrated soliloquy in
_Hamlet_, beginning ‘To be or not to be’, or to tell whether it be
good, bad, or indifferent, it has been so handled and pawed about by
declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place
and principle of continuity in the play, till it is become to me a
perfect dead member.

It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that the
plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage,
than those of almost any other dramatist whatever. Their distinguished
excellence is a reason that they should be so. There is so much in
them, which comes not under the province of acting, with which eye,
and tone, and gesture, have nothing to do.

The glory of the scenic art is to personate passion, and the turns of
passion; and the more coarse and palpable the passion is, the more
hold upon the eyes and ears of the spectators the performer obviously
possesses. For this reason, scolding scenes, scenes where two persons
talk themselves into a fit of fury, and then in a surprising manner
talk themselves out of it again, have always been the most popular
upon our stage. And the reason is plain, because the spectators are
here most palpably appealed to, they are the proper judges in this war
of words, they are the legitimate ring that should be formed round
such ‘intellectual prize-fighters’. Talking is the direct object of
the imitation here. But in all the best dramas, and in Shakespeare
above all, how obvious it is, that the form of _speaking_, whether it
be in soliloquy or dialogue, is only a medium, and often a highly
artificial one, for putting the reader or spectator into possession of
that knowledge of the inner structure and workings of mind in a
character, which he could otherwise never have arrived at _in that
form of composition_ by any gift short of intuition. We do here as we
do with novels written in the _epistolary form_. How many
improprieties, perfect solecisms in letter-writing, do we put up with
in _Clarissa_ and other books, for the sake of the delight which that
form upon the whole gives us.

But the practice of stage representation reduces everything to a
controversy of elocution. Every character, from the boisterous
blasphemings of Bajazet to the shrinking timidity of womanhood, must
play the orator. The love-dialogues of Romeo and Juliet, those
silver-sweet sounds of lovers’ tongues by night; the more intimate and
sacred sweetness of nuptial colloquy between an Othello or a Posthumus
with their married wives, all those delicacies which are so delightful
in the reading, as when we read of those youthful dalliances in
Paradise

                            As beseem’d
    Fair couple link’d in happy nuptial league
    Alone:

by the inherent fault of stage representation, how are these things
sullied and turned from their very nature by being exposed to a large
assembly; when such speeches as Imogen addresses to her lord, come
drawling out of the mouth of a hired actress, whose courtship, though
nominally addressed to the personated Posthumus, is manifestly aimed
at the spectators, who are to judge of her endearments and her returns
of love.

The character of Hamlet is perhaps that by which, since the days of
Betterton, a succession of popular performers have had the greatest
ambition to distinguish themselves. The length of the part may be one
of their reasons. But for the character itself, we find it in a play,
and therefore we judge it a fit subject of dramatic representation.
The play itself abounds in maxims and reflections beyond any other,
and therefore we consider it as a proper vehicle for conveying moral
instruction. But Hamlet himself--what does he suffer meanwhile by
being dragged forth as a public schoolmaster, to give lectures to the
crowd! Why, nine parts in ten of what Hamlet does, are transactions
between himself and his moral sense, they are the effusions of his
solitary musings, which he retires to holes and corners and the most
sequestered parts of the palace to pour forth; or rather, they are the
silent meditations with which his bosom is bursting, reduced to
_words_ for the sake of the reader, who must else remain ignorant of what
is passing there. These profound sorrows, these light-and-noise-abhorring
ruminations, which the tongue scarce dares utter to deaf walls and
chambers, how can they be represented by a gesticulating actor, who
comes and mouths them out before an audience, making four hundred
people his confidants at once? I say not that it is the fault of the
actor so to do; he must pronounce them _ore rotundo_, he must
accompany them with his eye, he must insinuate them into his auditory
by some trick of eye, tone, or gesture, or he fails. _He must be
thinking all the while of his appearance, because he knows that all
the while the spectators are judging of it._ And this is the way to
represent the shy, negligent, retiring Hamlet.

It is true that there is no other mode of conveying a vast quantity of
thought and feeling to a great portion of the audience, who otherwise
would never earn it for themselves by reading, and the intellectual
acquisition gained this way may, for aught I know, be inestimable; but
I am not arguing that Hamlet should not be acted, but how much Hamlet
is made another thing by being acted. I have heard much of the wonders
which Garrick performed in this part; but as I never saw him, I must
have leave to doubt whether the representation of such a character
came within the province of his art. Those who tell me of him, speak
of his eye, of the magic of his eye, and of his commanding voice:
physical properties, vastly desirable in an actor, and without which
he can never insinuate meaning into an auditory,--but what have they
to do with Hamlet? what have they to do with intellect? In fact, the
things aimed at in theatrical representation, are to arrest the
spectator’s eye upon the form and the gesture, and so to gain a more
favourable hearing to what is spoken: it is not what the character is,
but how he looks; not what he says, but how he speaks it. I see no
reason to think that if the play of _Hamlet_ were written over again
by some such writer as Banks or Lillo, retaining the process of the
story, but totally omitting all the poetry of it, all the divine
features of Shakespeare, his stupendous intellect; and only taking
care to give us enough of passionate dialogue, which Banks or Lillo
were never at a loss to furnish; I see not how the effect could be
much different upon an audience, nor how the actor has it in his power
to represent Shakespeare to us differently from his representation of
Banks or Lillo. Hamlet would still be a youthful accomplished prince,
and must be gracefully personated; he might be puzzled in his mind,
wavering in his conduct, seemingly-cruel to Ophelia, he might see a
ghost, and start at it, and address it kindly when he found it to be
his father; all this in the poorest and most homely language of the
servilest creeper after nature that ever consulted the palate of an
audience; without troubling Shakespeare for the matter: and I see not
but there would be room for all the power which an actor has, to
display itself. All the passions and changes of passion might remain:
for those are much less difficult to write or act than is thought, it
is a trick easy to be attained, it is but rising or falling a note or
two in the voice, a whisper with a significant foreboding look to
announce its approach, and so contagious the counterfeit appearance of
any emotion is, that let the words be what they will, the look and
tone shall carry it off and make it pass for deep skill in the
passions.

It is common for people to talk of Shakespeare’s plays being _so
natural_; that everybody can understand him. They are natural indeed,
they are grounded deep in nature, so deep that the depth of them lies
out of the reach of most of us. You shall hear the same persons say
that George Barnwell is very natural, and Othello is very natural,
that they are both very deep; and to them they are the same kind of
thing. At the one they sit and shed tears, because a good sort of
young man is tempted by a naughty woman to commit _a trifling
peccadillo_, the murder of an uncle or so, that is all, and so comes
to an untimely end, which is _so moving_; and at the other, because a
blackamoor in a fit of jealousy kills his innocent white wife: and the
odds are that ninety-nine out of a hundred would willingly behold the
same catastrophe happen to both the heroes, and have thought the rope
more due to Othello than to Barnwell. For of the texture of Othello’s
mind, the inward construction marvellously laid open with all its
strengths and weaknesses, its heroic confidences and its human
misgivings, its agonies of hate springing from the depths of love,
they see no more than the spectators at a cheaper rate, who pay their
pennies a-piece to look through the man’s telescope in
Leicester-fields, see into the inward plot and topography of the moon.
Some dim thing or other they see, they see an actor personating a
passion, of grief, or anger, for instance, and they recognize it as a
copy of the usual external effects of such passions; for at least as
being true to _that symbol of the emotion which passes current at the
theatre for it_, for it is often no more than that: but of the grounds
of the passion, its correspondence to a great or heroic nature, which
is the only worthy object of tragedy,--that common auditors know any
thing of this, or can have any such notions dinned into them by the
mere strength of an actor’s lungs,--that apprehensions foreign to them
should be thus infused into them by storm, I can neither believe, nor
understand how it can be possible.

We talk of Shakespeare’s admirable observation of life, when we should
feel, that not from a petty inquisition into those cheap and every-day
characters which surrounded him, as they surround us, but from his own
mind, which was, to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson’s, the very ‘sphere
of humanity’, he fetched those images of virtue and of knowledge, of
which every one of us recognizing a part, think we comprehend in our
natures the whole; and oftentimes mistake the powers which he
positively creates in us, for nothing more than indigenous faculties
of our own minds which only waited the action of corresponding virtues
in him to return a full and clear echo of the same.

To return to Hamlet.--Among the distinguishing features of that
wonderful character, one of the most interesting (yet painful) is that
soreness of mind which makes him treat the intrusions of Polonius
with harshness, and that asperity which he puts on in his interviews
with Ophelia. These tokens of an unhinged mind (if they be not mixed
in the latter case with a profound artifice of love, to alienate
Ophelia by affected discourtesies, so to prepare her mind for the
breaking off of that loving intercourse, which can no longer find a
place amidst business so serious as that which he has to do) are parts
of his character, which to reconcile with our admiration of Hamlet,
the most patient consideration of his situation is no more than
necessary; they are what we _forgive afterwards_, and explain by the
whole of his character, but _at the time_ they are harsh and
unpleasant. Yet such is the actor’s necessity of giving strong blows
to the audience, that I have never seen a player in this character,
who did not exaggerate and strain to the utmost these ambiguous
features,--these temporary deformities in the character. They make him
express a vulgar scorn at Polonius which utterly degrades his
gentility, and which no explanation can render palatable; they make
him show contempt, and curl up the nose at Ophelia’s father,--contempt
in its very grossest and most hateful form; but they get applause by
it: it is natural, people say; that is, the words are scornful, and
the actor expresses scorn, and that they can judge of: but why so much
scorn, and of that sort, they never think of asking.

So to Ophelia.--All the Hamlets that I have ever seen, rant and rave
at her as if she had committed some great crime, and the audience are
highly pleased, because the words of the part are satirical, and they
are enforced by the strongest expression of satirical indignation of
which the face and voice are capable. But then, whether Hamlet is
likely to have put on such brutal appearances to a lady whom he loved
so dearly, is never thought on. The truth is, that in all such deep
affections as had subsisted between Hamlet and Ophelia, there is a
stock of _supererogatory love_, (if I may venture to use the
expression) which in any great grief of heart, especially where that
which preys upon the mind cannot be communicated, confers a kind of
indulgence upon the grieved party to express itself, even to its
heart’s dearest object, in the language of a temporary alienation; but
it is not alienation, it is a distraction purely, and so it always
makes itself to be felt by that object: it is not anger, but grief
assuming the appearance of anger,--love awkwardly counterfeiting hate,
as sweet countenances when they try to frown: but such sternness and
fierce disgust as Hamlet is made to show, is no counterfeit, but the
real face of absolute aversion,--of irreconcilable alienation. It may
be said he puts on the madman; but then he should only so far put on
this counterfeit lunacy as his own real distraction will give him
leave; that is, incompletely, imperfectly; not in that confirmed
practised way, like a master of his art, or, as Dame Quickly would
say, ‘like one of those harlotry players.’

I mean no disrespect to any actor, but the sort of pleasure which
Shakespeare’s plays give in the acting seems to me not at all to
differ from that which the audience receive from those of other
writers; and, _they being in themselves essentially so different from
all others_, I must conclude that there is something in the nature of
acting which levels all distinctions. And in fact, who does not speak
indifferently of the _Gamester_ and of _Macbeth_ as fine stage
performances, and praise the Mrs. Beverley in the same way as the Lady
Macbeth of Mrs. S.? Belvidera, and Calista, and Isabella, and
Euphrasia, are they less liked than Imogen, or than Juliet, or than
Desdemona? Are they not spoken of and remembered in the same way? Is
not the female performer as great (as they call it) in one as in the
other? Did not Garrick shine, and was not he ambitious of shining in
every drawling tragedy that his wretched day produced,--the
productions of the Hills and the Murphys and the Browns,--and shall he
have that honour to dwell in our minds for ever as an inseparable
concomitant with Shakespeare? A kindred mind! O who can read that
affecting sonnet of Shakespeare which alludes to his profession as a
player:

    Oh for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
    The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
    That did not better for my life provide
    Than public means which public custom breeds--
    Thence comes it that my name receives a brand;
    And almost thence my nature is subdued
    To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand--

Or that other confession:

    Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
    And made myself a motley to thy view,
    Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear--

Who can read these instances of jealous self-watchfulness in our sweet
Shakespeare, and dream of any congeniality between him and one that,
by every tradition of him, appears to have been as mere a player as
ever existed; to have had his mind tainted with the lowest players’
vices,--envy and jealousy, and miserable cravings after applause; one
who in the exercise of his profession was jealous even of the
women-performers that stood in his way; a manager full of managerial
tricks and stratagems and finesse: that any resemblance should be
dreamed of between him and Shakespeare,--Shakespeare who, in the
plenitude and consciousness of his own powers, could with that noble
modesty, which we can neither imitate nor appreciate, express himself
thus of his own sense of his own defects:

    Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
    Featur’d like him, like him with friends possest;
    Desiring _this man’s art, and that man’s scope_.

I am almost disposed to deny to Garrick the merit of being an admirer
of Shakespeare. A true lover of his excellences he certainly was not;
for would any true lover of them have admitted into his matchless
scenes such ribald trash as Tate and Cibber, and the rest of them,
that

    With their darkness durst affront his light,

have foisted into the acting plays of Shakespeare? I believe it
impossible that he could have had a proper reverence for Shakespeare,
and have condescended to go through that interpolated scene in Richard
the Third, in which Richard tries to break his wife’s heart by telling
her he loves another woman, and says, ‘if she survives this she is
immortal.’ Yet I doubt not he delivered this vulgar stuff with as much
anxiety of emphasis as any of the genuine parts; and for acting, it is
as well calculated as any. But we have seen the part of Richard lately
produce great fame to an actor by his manner of playing it, and it
lets us into the secret of acting, and of popular judgements of
Shakespeare derived from acting. Not one of the spectators who have
witnessed Mr. C.’s exertions in that part, but has come away with a
proper conviction that Richard is a very wicked man, and kills little
children in their beds, with something like the pleasure which the
giants and ogres in children’s books are represented to have taken in
that practice; moreover, that he is very close and shrewd and devilish
cunning, for you could see that by his eye.

But is in fact this the impression we have in reading the Richard of
Shakespeare? Do we feel anything like disgust, as we do at that
butcher-like representation of him that passes for him on the stage? A
horror at his crimes blends with the effect which we feel, but how is
it qualified, how is it carried off, by the rich intellect which he
displays, his resources, his wit, his buoyant spirits, his vast
knowledge and insight into characters, the poetry of his part,--not an
atom of all which is made perceivable in Mr. C.’s way of acting it.
Nothing but his crimes, his actions, is visible; they are prominent
and staring; the murderer stands out, but where is the lofty genius,
the man of vast capacity,--the profound, the witty, accomplished
Richard?

The truth is, the Characters of Shakespeare are so much the objects of
meditation rather than of interest or curiosity as to their actions,
that while we are reading any of his great criminal characters,--Macbeth,
Richard, even Iago,--we think not so much of the crimes which they
commit, as of the ambition, the aspiring spirit, the intellectual
activity, which prompts them to overleap those moral fences. Barnwell
is a wretched murderer; there is a certain fitness between his neck
and the rope; he is the legitimate heir to the gallows; nobody who
thinks at all can think of any alleviating circumstances in his case
to make him a fit object of mercy. Or to take an instance from the
higher tragedy, what else but a mere assassin is Glenalvon! Do we
think of anything but of the crime which he commits, and the rack
which he deserves? That is all which we really think about him.
Whereas in corresponding characters in Shakespeare so little do the
actions comparatively affect us, that while the impulses, the inner
mind in all its perverted greatness, solely seems real and is
exclusively attended to, the crime is comparatively nothing. But when
we see these things represented, the acts which they do are
comparatively everything, their impulses nothing. The state of sublime
emotion into which we are elevated by those images of night and horror
which Macbeth is made to utter, that solemn prelude with which he
entertains the time till the bell shall strike which is to call him to
murder Duncan,--when we no longer read it in a book, when we have
given up that vantage-ground of abstraction which reading possesses
over seeing, and come to see a man in his bodily shape before our eyes
actually preparing to commit a murder, if the acting be true and
impressive, as I have witnessed it in Mr. K.’s performance of that
part, the painful anxiety about the act, the natural longing to
prevent it while it yet seems unperpetrated, the too close pressing
semblance of reality, give a pain and an uneasiness which totally
destroy all the delight which the words in the book convey, where the
deed doing never presses upon us with the painful sense of presence:
it rather seems to belong to history,--to something past and
inevitable, if it has anything to do with time at all. The sublime
images, the poetry alone, is that which is present to our minds in the
reading.

So to see Lear acted--to see an old man tottering about the stage with
a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy
night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want
to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling
which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. But the Lear of
Shakespeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machinery by which they
mimic the storm which he goes out in, is not more inadequate to
represent the horrors of the real elements, than any actor can be to
represent Lear: they might more easily propose to personate the Satan
of Milton upon a stage, or one of Michael Angelo’s terrible figures.
The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in
intellectual: the explosions of his passion are terrible as a volcano:
they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his
mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare.
This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on;
even as he himself neglects it. On the stage we see nothing but
corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we
read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear,--we are in his mind, we are
sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and
storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty
irregular power of reasoning, immethodized from the ordinary purposes
of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth,
at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind. What have looks,
or tones, to do with that sublime identification of his age with that
of the _heavens themselves_, when in his reproaches to them for
conniving at the injustice of his children, he reminds them that ‘they
themselves are old’. What gesture shall we appropriate to this? What
has the voice or the eye to do with such things? But the play is
beyond all art, as the tamperings with it show: it is too hard and
stony; it must have love-scenes, and a happy ending. It is not enough
that Cordelia is a daughter, she must shine as a lover too. Tate has
put his hook in the nostrils of this Leviathan, for Garrick and his
followers, the showmen of the scene, to draw the mighty beast about
more easily. A happy ending!--as if the living martyrdom that Lear had
gone through,--the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a fair
dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him. If
he is to live and be happy after, if he could sustain this world’s
burden after, why all this pudder and preparation,--why torment us
with all this unnecessary sympathy? As if the childish pleasure of
getting his gilt robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over
again his misused station,--as if at his years, and with his
experience, anything was left but to die.

Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage. But how
many dramatic personages are there in Shakespeare, which though more
tractable and feasible (if I may so speak) than Lear, yet from some
circumstance, some adjunct to their character, are improper to be
shown to our bodily eye. Othello for instance. Nothing can be more
soothing, more flattering to the nobler parts of our natures, than to
read of a young Venetian lady of highest extraction, through the force
of love and from a sense of merit in him whom she loved, laying aside
every consideration of kindred, and country, and colour, and wedding
with _a coal-black Moor_--(for such he is represented, in the
imperfect state of knowledge respecting foreign countries in those
days, compared with our own, or in compliance with popular notions,
though the Moors are now well enough known to be by many shades less
unworthy of a white woman’s fancy)--it is the perfect triumph of
virtue over accidents, of the imagination over the senses. She sees
Othello’s colour in his mind. But upon the stage, when the imagination
is no longer the ruling faculty, but we are left to our poor
unassisted senses, I appeal to every one that has seen Othello played,
whether he did not, on the contrary, sink Othello’s mind in his
colour; whether he did not find something extremely revolting in the
courtship and wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona; and whether
the actual sight of the thing did not over-weigh all that beautiful
compromise which we make in reading;--and the reason it should do so
is obvious, because there is just so much reality presented to our
senses as to give a perception of disagreement, with not enough of
belief in the internal motives--all that which is unseen--to overpower
and reconcile the first and obvious prejudices.[8] What we see upon a
stage is body and bodily action; what we are conscious of in reading
is almost exclusively the mind, and its movements: and this I think
may sufficiently account for the very different sort of delight with
which the same play so often affects us in the reading and the seeing.

    [8] The error of supposing that because Othello’s colour does
    not offend us in the reading, it should also not offend us in
    the seeing, is just such a fallacy as supposing that an Adam
    and Eve in a picture shall affect us just as they do in the
    poem. But in the poem we for a while have Paradisaical senses
    given us, which vanish when we see a man and his wife without
    clothes in the picture. The painters themselves feel this, as
    is apparent by the awkward shifts they have recourse to, to
    make them look not quite naked; by a sort of prophetic
    anachronism, antedating the invention of fig-leaves. So in
    the reading of the play, we see with Desdemona’s eyes; in the
    seeing of it, we are forced to look with our own.

It requires little reflection to perceive, that if those characters in
Shakespeare which are within the precincts of nature, have yet
something in them which appeals too exclusively to the imagination, to
admit of their being made objects to the senses without suffering a
change and a diminution,--that still stronger the objection must lie
against representing another line of characters, which Shakespeare has
introduced to give a wildness and a supernatural elevation to his
scenes, as if to remove them still farther from that assimilation to
common life in which their excellence is vulgarly supposed to consist.
When we read the incantations of those terrible beings the Witches in
_Macbeth_, though some of the ingredients of their hellish composition
savour of the grotesque, yet is the effect upon us other than the most
serious and appalling that can be imagined? Do we not feel spell-bound
as Macbeth was? Can any mirth accompany a sense of their presence? We
might as well laugh under a consciousness of the principle of Evil
himself being truly and really present with us. But attempt to bring
these beings on to a stage, and you turn them instantly into so many
old women, that men and children are to laugh at. Contrary to the old
saying, that ‘seeing is believing’, the sight actually destroys the
faith; and the mirth in which we indulge at their expense, when we see
these creatures upon a stage, seems to be a sort of indemnification
which we make to ourselves for the terror which they put us in when
reading made them an object of belief,--when we surrendered up our
reason to the poet, as children, to their nurses and their elders; and
we laugh at our fears, as children who thought they saw something in
the dark, triumph when the bringing in of a candle discovers the
vanity of their fears. For this exposure of supernatural agents upon a
stage is truly bringing in a candle to expose their own delusiveness.
It is the solitary taper and the book that generates a faith in these
terrors: a ghost by chandelier light, and in good company, deceives no
spectators,--a ghost that can be measured by the eye, and his human
dimensions made out at leisure. The sight of a well-lighted house, and
a well-dressed audience, shall arm the most nervous child against any
apprehensions: as Tom Brown says of the impenetrable skin of Achilles
with his impenetrable armour over it, ‘Bully Dawson would have fought
the devil with such advantages.’

Much has been said, and deservedly, in reprobation of the vile mixture
which Dryden has thrown into the _Tempest_: doubtless without some
such vicious alloy, the impure ears of that age would never have sate
out to hear so much innocence of love as is contained in the sweet
courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda. But is the _Tempest_ of
Shakespeare at all a subject for stage representation? It is one thing
to read of an enchanter, and to believe the wondrous tale while we are
reading it; but to have a conjurer brought before us in his
conjuring-gown, with his spirits about him, which none but himself and
some hundred of favoured spectators before the curtain are supposed to
see, involves such a quantity of the _hateful incredible_, that all
our reverence for the author cannot hinder us from perceiving such
gross attempts upon the senses to be in the highest degree childish
and inefficient. Spirits and fairies cannot be represented, they
cannot even be painted,--they can only be believed. But the elaborate
and anxious provision of scenery, which the luxury of the age demands,
in these cases works a quite contrary effect to what is intended. That
which in comedy, or plays of familiar life, adds so much to the life
of the imitation, in plays which appeal to the higher faculties,
positively destroys the illusion which it is introduced to aid. A
parlour or a drawing-room,--a library opening into a garden,--a garden
with an alcove in it,--a street, or the piazza of Covent Garden, does
well enough in a scene; we are content to give as much credit to it as
it demands; or rather, we think little about it,--it is little more
than reading at the top of a page, ‘Scene, a Garden;’ we do not
imagine ourselves there, but we readily admit the imitation of
familiar objects. But to think by the help of painted trees and
caverns, which we know to be painted, to transport our minds to
Prospero, and his island and his lonely cell;[9] or by the aid of a
fiddle dexterously thrown in, in an interval of speaking, to make us
believe that we hear those supernatural noises of which the isle was
full:--the Orrery Lecturer at the Haymarket might as well hope, by his
musical glasses cleverly stationed out of sight behind his apparatus,
to make us believe that we do indeed hear the chrystal spheres ring
out that chime, which if it were to inwrap our fancy long, Milton
thinks,

    Time would run back and fetch the age of gold,
    And speckled vanity
    Would sicken soon and die,
    And leprous Sin would melt from earthly mould;
    Yea Hell itself would pass away,
    And leave its dolorous mansions to the peering day.

The Garden of Eden, with our first parents in it, is not more
impossible to be shown on a stage, than the Enchanted Isle, with its
no less interesting and innocent first settlers.

    [9] It will be said these things are done in pictures. But
    pictures and scenes are very different things. Painting is a
    world of itself, but in scene-painting there is the attempt
    to deceive; and there is the discordancy, never to be got
    over, between painted scenes and real people.

The subject of Scenery is closely connected with that of the Dresses,
which are so anxiously attended to on our stage. I remember the last
time I saw Macbeth played, the discrepancy I felt at the changes of
garment which he varied--the shiftings and re-shiftings, like a Romish
priest at mass. The luxury of stage-improvements, and the importunity
of the public eye, require this. The coronation robe of the Scottish
monarch was fairly a counterpart to that which our king wears when he
goes to the Parliament-house,--just so full and cumbersome, and set
out with ermine and pearls. And if things must be represented, I see
not what to find fault with in this. But in reading, what robe are we
conscious of? Some dim images of royalty--a crown and sceptre, may
float before our eyes, but who shall describe the fashion of it? Do we
see in our mind’s eye what Webb or any other robe-maker could pattern?
This is the inevitable consequence of imitating everything, to make
all things natural. Whereas the reading of a tragedy is a fine
abstraction. It presents to the fancy just so much of external
appearances as to make us feel that we are among flesh and blood,
while by far the greater and better part of our imagination is
employed upon the thoughts and internal machinery of the character.
But in acting, scenery, dress, the most contemptible things, call upon
us to judge of their naturalness.

Perhaps it would be no bad similitude, to liken the pleasure which we
take in seeing one of these fine plays acted, compared with that quiet
delight which we find in the reading of it, to the different feelings
with which a reviewer, and a man that is not a reviewer, reads a fine
poem. The accursed critical habit,--the being called upon to judge and
pronounce, must make it quite a different thing to the former. In
seeing these plays acted, we are affected just as judges. When Hamlet
compares the two pictures of Gertrude’s first and second husband, who
wants to see the pictures? But in the acting, a miniature must be
lugged out; which we know not to be the picture, but only to show how
finely a miniature may be represented. This showing of everything,
levels all things: it makes tricks, bows, and curtesies, of
importance. Mrs. S. never got more fame by anything than by the
manner in which she dismisses the guests in the banquet-scene in
_Macbeth_: it is as much remembered as any of her thrilling tones or
impressive looks. But does such a trifle as this enter into the
imaginations of the readers of that wild and wonderful scene? Does not
the mind dismiss the feasters as rapidly as it can? Does it care about
the gracefulness of the doing it? But by acting, and judging of
acting, all these non-essentials are raised into an importance,
injurious to the main interest of the play.

I have confined my observations to the tragic parts of Shakespeare. It
would be no very difficult task to extend the inquiry to his comedies;
and to show why Falstaff, Shallow, Sir Hugh Evans, and the rest, are
equally incompatible with stage representation. The length to which
this essay has run, will make it, I am afraid, sufficiently
distasteful to the Amateurs of the Theatre, without going any deeper
into the subject at present.



PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

1792-1822

A DEFENCE OF POETRY (1821)


According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action,
which are called reason and imagination, the former may be considered
as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another,
however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts
so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as
from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the
principle of its own integrity. The one is the τὸ ποιεῖν, or the
principle of synthesis, and has for its objects those forms which are
common to universal nature and existence itself; the other is the τὸ
λογίζειν, or principle of analysis, and its action regards the
relations of things, simply as relations; considering thoughts, not in
their integral unity, but as the algebraical representations which
conduct to certain general results. Reason is the enumeration of
quantities already known; imagination is the perception of the value
of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects
the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is
to the imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the
spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be ‘the expression of
the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is
an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions
are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an
Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody.
But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within
all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and
produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of
the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite
them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions
of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound; even
as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre. A
child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and
motions; and every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact
relation to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions
which awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression;
and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so
the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration
of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In
relation to the objects which delight a child, these expressions are,
what poetry is to higher objects. The savage (for the savage is to
ages what the child is to years) expresses the emotions produced in
him by surrounding objects in a similar manner; and language and
gesture, together with plastic or pictorial imitation, become the
image of the combined effect of those objects, and of his apprehension
of them. Man in society, with all his passions and his pleasures,
next becomes the object of the passions and pleasures of man; an
additional class of emotions produces an augmented treasure of
expressions; and language, gesture, and the imitative arts, become at
once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture,
the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony. The social
sympathies, or those laws from which, as from its elements, society
results, begin to develop themselves from the moment that two human
beings coexist; the future is contained within the present, as the
plant within the seed; and equality, diversity, unity, contrast,
mutual dependence, become the principles alone capable of affording
the motives according to which the will of a social being is
determined to action, inasmuch as he is social; and constitute
pleasure in sensation, virtue in sentiment, beauty in art, truth in
reasoning, and love in the intercourse of kind. Hence men, even in the
infancy of society, observe a certain order in their words and
actions, distinct from that of the objects and the impressions
represented by them, all expression being subject to the laws of that
from which it proceeds. But let us dismiss those more general
considerations which might involve an inquiry into the principles of
society itself, and restrict our view to the manner in which the
imagination is expressed upon its forms.

In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural
objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain
rhythm or order. And, although all men observe a similar, they observe
not the same order, in the motions of the dance, in the melody of the
song, in the combinations of language, in the series of their
imitations of natural objects. For there is a certain order or rhythm
belonging to each of these classes of mimetic representation, from
which the hearer and the spectator receive an intenser and purer
pleasure than from any other: the sense of an approximation to this
order has been called taste by modern writers. Every man in the
infancy of art observes an order which approximates more or less
closely to that from which this highest delight results: but the
diversity is not sufficiently marked, as that its gradations should be
sensible, except in those instances where the predominance of this
faculty of approximation to the beautiful (for so we may be permitted
to name the relation between this highest pleasure and its cause) is
very great. Those in whom it exists in excess are poets, in the most
universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the
manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon
their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of
reduplication from that community. Their language is vitally
metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of
things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which
represent them become, through time, signs for portions or classes of
thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new
poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been
thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of
human intercourse. These similitudes or relations are finely said by
Lord Bacon to be ‘the same footsteps of nature impressed upon the
various subjects of the world’;[10] and he considers the faculty
which perceives them as the storehouse of axioms common to all
knowledge. In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a
poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to
apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists
in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception,
and secondly between perception and expression. Every original
language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem:
the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are
the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of
the creations of poetry.

    [10] _De Augment. Scient._, cap. i, lib. iii.

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order,
are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and
architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of
laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts
of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the
beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of
the invisible world which is called religion. Hence all original
religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and, like
Janus, have a double face of false and true. Poets, according to the
circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were
called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets:
a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he
not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those
laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he
beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of
the flower and the fruit of latest time. Not that I assert poets to
be prophets in the gross sense of the word, or that they can foretell
the form as surely as they foreknow the spirit of events: such is the
pretence of superstition, which would make poetry an attribute of
prophecy, rather than prophecy an attribute of poetry. A poet
participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as
relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The
grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference
of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect
to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses
of Aeschylus, and the book of _Job_, and Dante’s _Paradise_, would
afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the
limits of this essay did not forbid citation. The creations of
sculpture, painting, and music, are illustrations still more decisive.

Language, colour, form, and religious and civil habits of action, are
all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry
by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonym of
the cause. But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those
arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are
created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the
invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature itself of
language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and
passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and
delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more
plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the
creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and
has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments,
and conditions of art, have relations among each other, which limit
and interpose between conception and expression. The former is as a
mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the
light of which both are mediums of communication. Hence the fame of
sculptors, painters, and musicians, although the intrinsic powers of
the great masters of these arts may yield in no degree to that of
those who have employed language as the hieroglyphic of their
thoughts, has never equalled that of poets in the restricted sense of
the term; as two performers of equal skill will produce unequal
effects from a guitar and a harp. The fame of legislators and founders
of religions, so long as their institutions last, alone seems to
exceed that of poets in the restricted sense; but it can scarcely be a
question, whether, if we deduct the celebrity which their flattery of
the gross opinions of the vulgar usually conciliates, together with
that which belonged to them in their higher character of poets, any
excess will remain.

We have thus circumscribed the word poetry within the limits of that
art which is the most familiar and the most perfect expression of the
faculty itself. It is necessary, however, to make the circle still
narrower, and to determine the distinction between measured and
unmeasured language; for the popular division into prose and verse is
inadmissible in accurate philosophy.

Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both between each other and
towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order of
those relations has always been found connected with a perception of
the order of the relations of thoughts. Hence the language of poets
has ever affected a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence of
sound, without which it were not poetry, and which is scarcely less
indispensable to the communication of its influence, than the words
themselves, without reference to that peculiar order. Hence the vanity
of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that
you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as
seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a
poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no
flower--and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel.

An observation of the regular mode of the recurrence of harmony in the
language of poetical minds, together with its relation to music,
produced metre, or a certain system of traditional forms of harmony
and language. Yet it is by no means essential that a poet should
accommodate his language to this traditional form, so that the
harmony, which is its spirit, be observed. The practice is indeed
convenient and popular, and to be preferred, especially in such
composition as includes much action: but every great poet must
inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact
structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets
and prose writers is a vulgar error. The distinction between
philosophers and poets has been anticipated. Plato was essentially a
poet--the truth and splendour of his imagery, and the melody of his
language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive. He
rejected the measure of the epic, dramatic, and lyrical forms, because
he sought to kindle a harmony in thoughts divested of shape and
action, and he forbore to invent any regular plan of rhythm which
would include, under determinate forms, the varied pauses of his
style. Cicero sought to imitate the cadence of his periods, but with
little success. Lord Bacon was a poet.[11] His language has a sweet
and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the
almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it
is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the
reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the
universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy. All the
authors of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily poets as
they are inventors, nor even as their words unveil the permanent
analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth;
but as their periods are harmonious and rhythmical, and contain in
themselves the elements of verse; being the echo of the eternal music.
Nor are those supreme poets, who have employed traditional forms of
rhythm on account of the form and action of their subjects, less
capable of perceiving and teaching the truth of things, than those who
have omitted that form. Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton (to confine
ourselves to modern writers) are philosophers of the very loftiest
power.

    [11] See the _Filum Labyrinthi_, and the Essay on Death
    particularly.

A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. There
is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a
catalogue of detached facts, which have no other connexion than time,
place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of
actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as
existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all
other minds. The one is partial, and applies only to a definite period
of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again
recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of
a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible
varieties of human nature. Time, which destroys the beauty and the use
of the story of particular facts, stripped of the poetry which should
invest them, augments that of poetry, and for ever develops new and
wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains. Hence
epitomes have been called the moths of just history; they eat out the
poetry of it. A story of particular facts is as a mirror which
obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: poetry is a
mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

The parts of a composition may be poetical, without the composition as
a whole being a poem. A single sentence may be considered as a whole,
though it may be found in the midst of a series of unassimilated
portions: a single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable
thought. And thus all the great historians, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy,
were poets; and although the plan of these writers, especially that of
Livy, restrained them from developing this faculty in its highest
degree, they made copious and ample amends for their subjection, by
filling all the interstices of their subjects with living images.

Having determined what is poetry, and who are poets, let us proceed to
estimate its effects upon society.

Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure: all spirits on which it
falls open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with its
delight. In the infancy of the world, neither poets themselves nor
their auditors are fully aware of the excellence of poetry: for it
acts in a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above
consciousness; and it is reserved for future generations to
contemplate and measure the mighty cause and effect in all the
strength and splendour of their union. Even in modern times, no living
poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in
judgement upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be
composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the
selectest of the wise of many generations. A poet is a nightingale,
who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet
sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen
musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not
whence or why. The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were the
delight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that social system
which is the column upon which all succeeding civilization has
reposed. Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human
character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses were
awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector, and
Ulysses: the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and
persevering devotion to an object, were unveiled to the depths in
these immortal creations: the sentiments of the auditors must have
been refined and enlarged by a sympathy with such great and lovely
impersonations, until from admiring they imitated, and from imitation
they identified themselves with the objects of their admiration. Nor
let it be objected, that these characters are remote from moral
perfection, and that they can by no means be considered as edifying
patterns for general imitation. Every epoch, under names more or less
specious, has deified its peculiar errors; Revenge is the naked idol
of the worship of a semi-barbarous age; and Self-deceit is the veiled
image of unknown evil, before which luxury and satiety lie prostrate.
But a poet considers the vices of his contemporaries as a temporary
dress in which his creations must be arrayed, and which cover without
concealing the eternal proportions of their beauty. An epic or
dramatic personage is understood to wear them around his soul, as he
may the ancient armour or the modern uniform around his body; whilst
it is easy to conceive a dress more graceful than either. The beauty
of the internal nature cannot be so far concealed by its accidental
vesture, but that the spirit of its form shall communicate itself to
the very disguise, and indicate the shape it hides from the manner in
which it is worn. A majestic form and graceful motions will express
themselves through the most barbarous and tasteless costume. Few poets
of the highest class have chosen to exhibit the beauty of their
conceptions in its naked truth and splendour; and it is doubtful
whether the alloy of costume, habit, &c., be not necessary to temper
this planetary music for mortal ears.

The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a
misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral
improvement of man. Ethical science arranges the elements which poetry
has created, and propounds schemes and proposes examples of civil and
domestic life: nor is it for want of admirable doctrines that men
hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one
another. But poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and
enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand
unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the
hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they
were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the
impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the
minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that
gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and
actions with which it coexists. The great secret of morals is love; or
a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with
the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively;
he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the
pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great
instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to
the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference
of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new
delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their
own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and
interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens
the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same
manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet therefore would do ill
to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually
those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which
participate in neither. By this assumption of the inferior office of
interpreting the effect, in which perhaps after all he might acquit
himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in
the cause. There was little danger that Homer, or any of the eternal
poets, should have so far misunderstood themselves as to have
abdicated this throne of their widest dominion. Those in whom the
poetical faculty, though great, is less intense, as Euripides, Lucan,
Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect
of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in
which they compel us to advert to this purpose.

Homer and the cyclic poets were followed at a certain interval by the
dramatic and lyrical poets of Athens, who flourished contemporaneously
with all that is most perfect in the kindred expressions of the
poetical faculty; architecture, painting, music, the dance, sculpture,
philosophy, and, we may add, the forms of civil life. For although the
scheme of Athenian society was deformed by many imperfections which
the poetry existing in chivalry and Christianity has erased from the
habits and institutions of modern Europe; yet never at any other
period has so much energy, beauty, and virtue, been developed; never
was blind strength and stubborn form so disciplined and rendered
subject to the will of man, or that will less repugnant to the
dictates of the beautiful and the true, as during the century which
preceded the death of Socrates. Of no other epoch in the history of
our species have we records and fragments stamped so visibly with the
image of the divinity in man. But it is poetry alone, in form, in
action, or in language, which has rendered this epoch memorable above
all others, and the storehouse of examples to everlasting time. For
written poetry existed at that epoch simultaneously with the other
arts, and it is an idle inquiry to demand which gave and which
received the light, which all, as from a common focus, have scattered
over the darkest periods of succeeding time. We know no more of cause
and effect than a constant conjunction of events: poetry is ever found
to co-exist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and
perfection of man. I appeal to what has already been established to
distinguish between the cause and the effect.

It was at the period here adverted to, that the drama had its birth;
and however a succeeding writer may have equalled or surpassed those
few great specimens of the Athenian drama which have been preserved to
us, it is indisputable that the art itself never was understood or
practised according to the true philosophy of it, as at Athens. For
the Athenians employed language, action, music, painting, the dance,
and religious institutions, to produce a common effect in the
representation of the highest idealisms of passion and of power; each
division in the art was made perfect in its kind by artists of the
most consummate skill, and was disciplined into a beautiful proportion
and unity one towards the other. On the modern stage a few only of the
elements capable of expressing the image of the poet’s conception are
employed at once. We have tragedy without music and dancing; and music
and dancing without the highest impersonations of which they are the
fit accompaniment, and both without religion and solemnity. Religious
institution has indeed been usually banished from the stage. Our
system of divesting the actor’s face of a mask, on which the many
expressions appropriated to his dramatic character might be moulded
into one permanent and unchanging expression, is favourable only to a
partial and inharmonious effect; it is fit for nothing but a
monologue, where all the attention may be directed to some great
master of ideal mimicry. The modern practice of blending comedy with
tragedy, though liable to great abuse in point of practice, is
undoubtedly an extension of the dramatic circle; but the comedy should
be as in _King Lear_, universal, ideal, and sublime. It is perhaps the
intervention of this principle which determines the balance in favour
of _King Lear_ against the _Oedipus Tyrannus_ or the _Agamemnon_, or,
if you will, the trilogies with which they are connected; unless the
intense power of the choral poetry, especially that of the latter,
should be considered as restoring the equilibrium. _King Lear_, if it
can sustain this comparison, may be judged to be the most perfect
specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world; in spite of the
narrow conditions to which the poet was subjected by the ignorance of
the philosophy of the drama which has prevailed in modern Europe.
Calderon, in his religious _Autos_, has attempted to fulfil some of
the high conditions of dramatic representation neglected by
Shakespeare; such as the establishing a relation between the drama and
religion, and the accommodating them to music and dancing; but he
omits the observation of conditions still more important, and more is
lost than gained by the substitution of the rigidly-defined and
ever-repeated idealisms of a distorted superstition for the living
impersonations of the truth of human passion.

But I digress.--The connexion of scenic exhibitions with the
improvement or corruption of the manners of men, has been universally
recognized: in other words, the presence or absence of poetry in its
most perfect and universal form, has been found to be connected with
good and evil in conduct or habit. The corruption which has been
imputed to the drama as an effect, begins, when the poetry employed in
its constitution ends: I appeal to the history of manners whether the
periods of the growth of the one and the decline of the other have not
corresponded with an exactness equal to any example of moral cause and
effect.

The drama at Athens, or wheresoever else it may have approached to its
perfection, ever co-existed with the moral and intellectual greatness
of the age. The tragedies of the Athenian poets are as mirrors in
which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of
circumstance, stript of all but that ideal perfection and energy which
every one feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires,
and would become. The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains
and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the
capacity of that by which they are conceived; the good affections are
strengthened by pity, indignation, terror, and sorrow; and an exalted
calm is prolonged from the satiety of this high exercise of them into
the tumult of familiar life: even crime is disarmed of half its horror
and all its contagion by being represented as the fatal consequence
of the unfathomable agencies of nature; error is thus divested of its
wilfulness; men can no longer cherish it as the creation of their
choice. In a drama of the highest order there is little food for
censure or hatred; it teaches rather self-knowledge and self-respect.
Neither the eye nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon
that which it resembles. The drama, so long as it continues to express
poetry, is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the
brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from
the simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with
majesty and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it
with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.

But in periods of the decay of social life, the drama sympathizes with
that decay. Tragedy becomes a cold imitation of the form of the great
masterpieces of antiquity, divested of all harmonious accompaniment of
the kindred arts; and often the very form misunderstood, or a weak
attempt to teach certain doctrines, which the writer considers as
moral truths; and which are usually no more than specious flatteries
of some gross vice or weakness, with which the author, in common with
his auditors, are infected. Hence what has been called the classical
and domestic drama. Addison’s _Cato_ is a specimen of the one; and
would it were not superfluous to cite examples of the other! To such
purposes poetry cannot be made subservient. Poetry is a sword of
lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would
contain it. And thus we observe that all dramatic writings of this
nature are unimaginative in a singular degree; they affect sentiment
and passion, which, divested of imagination, are other names for
caprice and appetite. The period in our own history of the grossest
degradation of the drama is the reign of Charles II, when all forms in
which poetry had been accustomed to be expressed became hymns to the
triumph of kingly power over liberty and virtue. Milton stood alone
illuminating an age unworthy of him. At such periods the calculating
principle pervades all the forms of dramatic exhibition, and poetry
ceases to be expressed upon them. Comedy loses its ideal universality:
wit succeeds to humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph,
instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm, and contempt, succeed to
sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile. Obscenity, which
is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, becomes, from the
very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting: it is a
monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings forth new
food, which it devours in secret.

The drama being that form under which a greater number of modes of
expression of poetry are susceptible of being combined than any other,
the connexion of poetry and social good is more observable in the
drama than in whatever other form. And it is indisputable that the
highest perfection of human society has ever corresponded with the
highest dramatic excellence; and that the corruption or the extinction
of the drama in a nation where it has once flourished, is a mark of a
corruption of manners, and an extinction of the energies which sustain
the soul of social life. But, as Machiavelli says of political
institutions, that life may be preserved and renewed, if men should
arise capable of bringing back the drama to its principles. And this
is true with respect to poetry in its most extended sense: all
language, institution and form, require not only to be produced but to
be sustained: the office and character of a poet participates in the
divine nature as regards providence, no less than as regards creation.

Civil war, the spoils of Asia, and the fatal predominance first of the
Macedonian, and then of the Roman arms, were so many symbols of the
extinction or suspension of the creative faculty in Greece. The
bucolic writers, who found patronage under the lettered tyrants of
Sicily and Egypt, were the latest representatives of its most glorious
reign. Their poetry is intensely melodious; like the odour of the
tuberose, it overcomes and sickens the spirit with excess of
sweetness; whilst the poetry of the preceding age was as a meadow-gale
of June, which mingles the fragrance of all the flowers of the field,
and adds a quickening and harmonizing spirit of its own, which endows
the sense with a power of sustaining its extreme delight. The bucolic
and erotic delicacy in written poetry is correlative with that
softness in statuary, music, and the kindred arts, and even in manners
and institutions, which distinguished the epoch to which I now refer.
Nor is it the poetical faculty itself, or any misapplication of it, to
which this want of harmony is to be imputed. An equal sensibility to
the influence of the senses and the affections is to be found in the
writings of Homer and Sophocles: the former, especially, has clothed
sensual and pathetic images with irresistible attractions. Their
superiority over these succeeding writers consists in the presence of
those thoughts which belong to the inner faculties of our nature, not
in the absence of those which are connected with the external: their
incomparable perfection consists in a harmony of the union of all. It
is not what the erotic poets have, but what they have not, in which
their imperfection consists. It is not inasmuch as they were poets,
but inasmuch as they were not poets, that they can be considered with
any plausibility as connected with the corruption of their age. Had
that corruption availed so as to extinguish in them the sensibility to
pleasure, passion, and natural scenery, which is imputed to them as an
imperfection, the last triumph of evil would have been achieved. For
the end of social corruption is to destroy all sensibility to
pleasure; and, therefore, it is corruption. It begins at the
imagination and the intellect as at the core, and distributes itself
thence as a paralysing venom, through the affections into the very
appetites, until all become a torpid mass in which hardly sense
survives. At the approach of such a period, poetry ever addresses
itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed, and its
voice is heard, like the footsteps of Astraea, departing from the
world. Poetry ever communicates all the pleasure which men are capable
of receiving: it is ever still the light of life; the source of
whatever of beautiful or generous or true can have place in an evil
time. It will readily be confessed that those among the luxurious
citizens of Syracuse and Alexandria, who were delighted with the poems
of Theocritus, were less cold, cruel, and sensual than the remnant of
their tribe. But corruption must utterly have destroyed the fabric of
human society before poetry can ever cease. The sacred links of that
chain have never been entirely disjoined, which descending through
the minds of many men is attached to those great minds, whence as from
a magnet the invisible effluence is sent forth, which at once
connects, animates, and sustains the life of all. It is the faculty
which contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of
social renovation. And let us not circumscribe the effects of the
bucolic and erotic poetry within the limits of the sensibility of
those to whom it was addressed. They may have perceived the beauty of
those immortal compositions, simply as fragments and isolated
portions: those who are more finely organized, or born in a happier
age, may recognize them as episodes to that great poem, which all
poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up
since the beginning of the world.

The same revolutions within a narrower sphere had place in ancient
Rome; but the actions and forms of its social life never seem to have
been perfectly saturated with the poetical element. The Romans appear
to have considered the Greeks as the selectest treasuries of the
selectest forms of manners and of nature, and to have abstained from
creating in measured language, sculpture, music, or architecture,
anything which might bear a particular relation to their own
condition, whilst it should bear a general one to the universal
constitution of the world. But we judge from partial evidence, and we
judge perhaps partially. Ennius, Varro, Pacuvius, and Accius, all
great poets, have been lost. Lucretius is in the highest, and Virgil
in a very high sense, a creator. The chosen delicacy of expressions of
the latter, are as a mist of light which conceal from us the intense
and exceeding truth of his conceptions of nature. Livy is instinct
with poetry. Yet Horace, Catullus, Ovid, and generally the other great
writers of the Virgilian age, saw man and nature in the mirror of
Greece. The institutions also, and the religion of Rome were less
poetical than those of Greece, as the shadow is less vivid than the
substance. Hence poetry in Rome seemed to follow, rather than
accompany, the perfection of political and domestic society. The true
poetry of Rome lived in its institutions; for whatever of beautiful,
true, and majestic, they contained, could have sprung only from the
faculty which creates the order in which they consist. The life of
Camillus, the death of Regulus; the expectation of the senators, in
their godlike state, of the victorious Gauls: the refusal of the
republic to make peace with Hannibal, after the battle of Cannae, were
not the consequences of a refined calculation of the probable personal
advantage to result from such a rhythm and order in the shows of life,
to those who were at once the poets and the actors of these immortal
dramas. The imagination beholding the beauty of this order, created it
out of itself according to its own idea; the consequence was empire,
and the reward everliving fame. These things are not the less poetry
_quia carent vate sacro_. They are the episodes of that cyclic poem
written by Time upon the memories of men. The Past, like an inspired
rhapsodist, fills the theatre of everlasting generations with their
harmony.

At length the ancient system of religion and manners had fulfilled the
circle of its revolutions. And the world would have fallen into utter
anarchy and darkness, but that, there were found poets among the
authors of the Christian and chivalric systems of manners and
religion, who created forms of opinion and action never before
conceived; which, copied into the imaginations of men, become as
generals to the bewildered armies of their thoughts. It is foreign to
the present purpose to touch upon the evil produced by these systems:
except that we protest, on the ground of the principles already
established, that no portion of it can be attributed to the poetry
they contain.

It is probable that the poetry of Moses, Job, David, Solomon, and
Isaiah, had produced a great effect upon the mind of Jesus and his
disciples. The scattered fragments preserved to us by the biographers
of this extraordinary person, are all instinct with the most vivid
poetry. But his doctrines seem to have been quickly distorted. At a
certain period after the prevalence of a system of opinions founded
upon those promulgated by him, the three forms into which Plato had
distributed the faculties of mind underwent a sort of apotheosis, and
became the object of the worship of the civilized world. Here it is to
be confessed that ‘Light seems to thicken’, and

          The crow makes wing to the rooky wood,
    Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
    And night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

But mark how beautiful an order has sprung from the dust and blood of
this fierce chaos! how the world, as from a resurrection, balancing
itself on the golden wings of knowledge and of hope, has reassumed its
yet unwearied flight into the heaven of time. Listen to the music,
unheard by outward ears, which is as a ceaseless and invisible wind,
nourishing its everlasting course with strength and swiftness.

The poetry in the doctrines of Jesus Christ, and the mythology and
institutions of the Celtic conquerors of the Roman empire, outlived
the darkness and the convulsions connected with their growth and
victory, and blended themselves in a new fabric of manners and
opinion. It is an error to impute the ignorance of the dark ages to
the Christian doctrines or the predominance of the Celtic nations.
Whatever of evil their agencies may have contained sprang from the
extinction of the poetical principle, connected with the progress of
despotism and superstition. Men, from causes too intricate to be here
discussed, had become insensible and selfish: their own will had
become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of
the will of others; lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud,
characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of
_creating_ in form, language, or institution. The moral anomalies of
such a state of society are not justly to be charged upon any class of
events immediately connected with them, and those events are most
entitled to our approbation which could dissolve it most
expeditiously. It is unfortunate for those who cannot distinguish
words from thoughts, that many of these anomalies have been
incorporated into our popular religion.

It was not until the eleventh century that the effects of the poetry
of the Christian and chivalric systems began to manifest themselves.
The principle of equality had been discovered and applied by Plato in
his _Republic_, as the theoretical rule of the mode in which the
materials of pleasure and of power, produced by the common skill and
labour of human beings, ought to be distributed among them. The
limitations of this rule were asserted by him to be determined only by
the sensibility of each, or the utility to result to all. Plato,
following the doctrines of Timaeus and Pythagoras, taught also a moral
and intellectual system of doctrine, comprehending at once the past,
the present, and the future condition of man. Jesus Christ divulged
the sacred and eternal truths contained in these views to mankind, and
Christianity, in its abstract purity, became the exoteric expression
of the esoteric doctrines of the poetry and wisdom of antiquity. The
incorporation of the Celtic nations with the exhausted population of
the south, impressed upon it the figure of the poetry existing in
their mythology and institutions. The result was a sum of the action
and reaction of all the causes included in it; for it may be assumed
as a maxim that no nation or religion can supersede any other without
incorporating into itself a portion of that which it supersedes. The
abolition of personal and domestic slavery, and the emancipation of
women from a great part of the degrading restraints of antiquity, were
among the consequences of these events.

The abolition of personal slavery is the basis of the highest
political hope that it can enter into the mind of man to conceive. The
freedom of women produced the poetry of sexual love. Love became a
religion, the idols of whose worship were ever present. It was as if
the statues of Apollo and the Muses had been endowed with life and
motion, and had walked forth among their worshippers; so that earth
became peopled by the inhabitants of a diviner world. The familiar
appearance and proceedings of life became wonderful and heavenly, and
a paradise was created as out of the wrecks of Eden. And as this
creation itself is poetry, so its creators were poets; and language
was the instrument of their art: ‘Galeotto fù il libro, e chi lo
scrisse.’ The Provençal Trouveurs, or inventors, preceded Petrarch,
whose verses are as spells, which unseal the inmost enchanted
fountains of the delight which is in the grief of love. It is
impossible to feel them without becoming a portion of that beauty
which we contemplate: it were superfluous to explain how the
gentleness and the elevation of mind connected with these sacred
emotions can render men more amiable, more generous and wise, and lift
them out of the dull vapours of the little world of self. Dante
understood the secret things of love even more than Petrarch. His
_Vita Nuova_ is an inexhaustible fountain of purity of sentiment and
language: it is the idealized history of that period, and those
intervals of his life which were dedicated to love. His apotheosis of
Beatrice in Paradise, and the gradations of his own love and her
loveliness, by which as by steps he feigns himself to have ascended to
the throne of the Supreme Cause, is the most glorious imagination of
modern poetry. The acutest critics have justly reversed the judgement
of the vulgar, and the order of the great acts of the ‘Divine Drama’,
in the measure of the admiration which they accord to the Hell,
Purgatory, and Paradise. The latter is a perpetual hymn of everlasting
love. Love, which found a worthy poet in Plato alone of all the
ancients, has been celebrated by a chorus of the greatest writers of
the renovated world; and the music has penetrated the caverns of
society, and its echoes still drown the dissonance of arms and
superstition. At successive intervals, Ariosto, Tasso, Shakespeare,
Spenser, Calderon, Rousseau, and the great writers of our own age,
have celebrated the dominion of love, planting as it were trophies in
the human mind of that sublimest victory over sensuality and force.
The true relation borne to each other by the sexes into which human
kind is distributed, has become less misunderstood; and if the error
which confounded diversity with inequality of the powers of the two
sexes has been partially recognized in the opinions and institutions
of modern Europe, we owe this great benefit to the worship of which
chivalry was the law, and poets the prophets.

The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the
stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world. The
distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival Milton
have idealized, are merely the mask and the mantle in which these
great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised. It is a
difficult question to determine how far they were conscious of the
distinction which must have subsisted in their minds between their own
creeds and that of the people. Dante at least appears to wish to mark
the full extent of it by placing Riphaeus, whom Virgil calls
_iustissimus unus_, in Paradise, and observing a most heretical
caprice in his distribution of rewards and punishments. And Milton’s
poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system,
of which, by a strange and natural antithesis, it has been a chief
popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the
character of Satan as expressed in _Paradise Lost_. It is a mistake to
suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular
personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a
sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremest anguish on an
enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial in a slave, are not
to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed by much that ennobles
his defeat in one subdued, are marked by all that dishonours his
conquest in the victor. Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far
superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he
has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to
one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most
horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of
inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the
alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments. Milton has
so far violated the popular creed (if this shall be judged to be a
violation) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his
God over his Devil. And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is
the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton’s genius. He
mingled as it were the elements of human nature as colours upon a
single pallet, and arranged them in the composition of his great
picture according to the laws of epic truth; that is, according to the
laws of that principle by which a series of actions of the external
universe and of intelligent and ethical beings is calculated to excite
the sympathy of succeeding generations of mankind. The _Divina
Commedia_ and _Paradise Lost_ have conferred upon modern mythology a
systematic form; and when change and time shall have added one more
superstition to the mass of those which have arisen and decayed upon
the earth, commentators will be learnedly employed in elucidating the
religion of ancestral Europe, only not utterly forgotten because it
will have been stamped with the eternity of genius.

Homer was the first and Dante the second epic poet: that is, the
second poet, the series of whose creations bore a defined and
intelligible relation to the knowledge and sentiment and religion of
the age in which he lived, and of the ages which followed it:
developing itself in correspondence with their development. For
Lucretius had limed the wings of his swift spirit in the dregs of the
sensible world; and Virgil, with a modesty that ill became his genius,
had affected the fame of an imitator, even whilst he created anew all
that he copied; and none among the flock of mock-birds, though their
notes were sweet, Apollonius Rhodius, Quintus Calaber, Nonnus, Lucan,
Statius, or Claudian, have sought even to fulfil a single condition of
epic truth. Milton was the third epic poet. For if the title of epic
in its highest sense be refused to the _Aeneid_, still less can it be
conceded to the _Orlando Furioso_, the _Gerusalemme Liberata_, the
_Lusiad_, or the _Faerie Queene_.

Dante and Milton were both deeply penetrated with the ancient religion
of the civilized world; and its spirit exists in their poetry probably
in the same proportion as its forms survived in the unreformed worship
of modern Europe. The one preceded and the other followed the
Reformation at almost equal intervals. Dante was the first religious
reformer, and Luther surpassed him rather in the rudeness and
acrimony, than in the boldness of his censures of papal usurpation.
Dante was the first awakener of entranced Europe; he created a
language, in itself music and persuasion, out of a chaos of
inharmonious barbarisms. He was the congregator of those great spirits
who presided over the resurrection of learning; the Lucifer of that
starry flock which in the thirteenth century shone forth from
republican Italy, as from a heaven, into the darkness of the benighted
world. His very words are instinct with spirit; each is as a spark, a
burning atom of inextinguishable thought; and many yet lie covered in
the ashes of their birth, and pregnant with a lightning which has yet
found no conductor. All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first
acorn, which contained all oaks potentially. Veil after veil may be
undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed. A
great poem is a fountain for ever overflowing with the waters of
wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all
its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to
share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever
developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight.

The age immediately succeeding to that of Dante, Petrarch, and
Boccaccio, was characterized by a revival of painting, sculpture, and
architecture. Chaucer caught the sacred inspiration, and the
superstructure of English literature is based upon the materials of
Italian invention.

But let us not be betrayed from a defence into a critical history of
poetry and its influence on society. Be it enough to have pointed out
the effects of poets, in the large and true sense of the word, upon
their own and all succeeding times.

But poets have been challenged to resign the civic crown to reasoners
and mechanists, on another plea. It is admitted that the exercise of
the imagination is most delightful, but it is alleged that that of
reason is more useful. Let us examine as the grounds of this
distinction, what is here meant by utility. Pleasure or good, in a
general sense, is that which the consciousness of a sensitive and
intelligent being seeks, and in which, when found, it acquiesces.
There are two kinds of pleasure, one durable, universal and permanent;
the other transitory and particular. Utility may either express the
means of producing the former or the latter. In the former sense,
whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the
imagination, and adds spirit to sense, is useful. But a narrower
meaning may be assigned to the word utility, confining it to express
that which banishes the importunity of the wants of our animal nature,
the surrounding men with security of life, the dispersing the grosser
delusions of superstition, and the conciliating such a degree of
mutual forbearance among men as may consist with the motives of
personal advantage.

Undoubtedly the promoters of utility, in this limited sense, have
their appointed office in society. They follow the footsteps of poets,
and copy the sketches of their creations into the book of common life.
They make space, and give time. Their exertions are of the highest
value, so long as they confine their administration of the concerns of
the inferior powers of our nature within the limits due to the
superior ones. But whilst the sceptic destroys gross superstitions,
let him spare to deface, as some of the French writers have defaced,
the eternal truths charactered upon the imaginations of men. Whilst
the mechanist abridges, and the political economist combines labour,
let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence
with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not
tend, as they have in modern England, to exasperate at once the
extremes of luxury and want. They have exemplified the saying, ‘To him
that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little
that he hath shall be taken away.’ The rich have become richer, and
the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven
between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. Such are
the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the
calculating faculty.

It is difficult to define pleasure in its highest sense; the
definition involving a number of apparent paradoxes. For, from an
inexplicable defect of harmony in the constitution of human nature,
the pain of the inferior is frequently connected with the pleasures of
the superior portions of our being. Sorrow, terror, anguish, despair
itself, are often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the
highest good. Our sympathy in tragic fiction depends on this
principle; tragedy delights by affording a shadow of the pleasure
which exists in pain. This is the source also of the melancholy which
is inseparable from the sweetest melody. The pleasure that is in
sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself. And hence the
saying, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the
house of mirth.’ Nor that this highest species of pleasure is
necessarily linked with pain. The delight of love and friendship, the
ecstasy of the admiration of nature, the joy of the perception and
still more of the creation of poetry, is often wholly unalloyed.

The production and assurance of pleasure in this highest sense is true
utility. Those who produce and preserve this pleasure are poets or
poetical philosophers.

The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau,[12] and
their disciples, in favour of oppressed and deluded humanity, are
entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the
degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would
have exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would
have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men,
women, and children, burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment
have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the
Inquisition in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what
would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante,
Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor
Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been
born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of
the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments
of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of
the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with
its belief. The human mind could never, except by the intervention of
these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser
sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the
aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the
direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.

    [12] Although Rousseau has been thus classed, he was
    essentially a poet. The others, even Voltaire, were mere
    reasoners.

We have more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know how
to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical
knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the
produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought,
is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes.
There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in
morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what is wiser
and better than what men now practise and endure. But we let ‘_I dare
not_ wait upon _I would_, like the poor cat in the adage.’ We want the
creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous
impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our
calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can
digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the
limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of
the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the
internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself
a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree
disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the
basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention
for abridging and combining labour, to the exasperation of the
inequality of mankind? From what other cause has it arisen that the
discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the
curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which
money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.

The functions of the poetical faculty are twofold; by one it creates
new materials of knowledge and power and pleasure; by the other it
engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according
to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and
the good. The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than
at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating
principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed
the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of
human nature. The body has then become too unwieldy for that which
animates it.

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and
circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science,
and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time
the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from
which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if
blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren
world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of
life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all
things; it is as the odour and the colour of the rose to the texture
of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendour of unfaded
beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue,
love, patriotism, friendship--what were the scenery of this beautiful
universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of
the grave--and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not
ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the
owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not
like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination
of the will. A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’ The greatest
poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal,
which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to
transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour
of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the
conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its
approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its
original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness
of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on
the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been
communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original
conceptions of the poet. I appeal to the greatest poets of the present
day, whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of
poetry are produced by labour and study. The toil and the delay
recommended by critics can be justly interpreted to mean no more than
a careful observation of the inspired moments, and an artificial
connexion of the spaces between their suggestions by the intertexture
of conventional expressions; a necessity only imposed by the
limitedness of the poetical faculty itself; for Milton conceived the
_Paradise Lost_ as a whole before he executed it in portions. We have
his own authority also for the muse having ‘dictated’ to him the
‘unpremeditated song’. And let this be an answer to those who would
allege the fifty-six various readings of the first line of the
_Orlando Furioso_. Compositions so produced are to poetry what mosaic
is to painting. This instinct and intuition of the poetical faculty is
still more observable in the plastic and pictorial arts; a great
statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in
the mother’s womb; and the very mind which directs the hands in
formation is incapable of accounting to itself for the origin, the
gradations, or the media of the process.

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest
and best minds. We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought and
feeling sometimes associated with place or person, sometimes regarding
our own mind alone, and always arising unforeseen and departing
unbidden, but elevating and delightful beyond all expression: so that
even in the desire and regret they leave, there cannot but be
pleasure, participating as it does in the nature of its object. It is
as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own;
but its footsteps are like those of a wind over the sea, which the
coming calm erases, and whose traces remain only, as on the wrinkled
sand which paves it. These and corresponding conditions of being are
experienced principally by those of the most delicate sensibility and
the most enlarged imagination; and the state of mind produced by them
is at war with every base desire. The enthusiasm of virtue, love,
patriotism, and friendship, is essentially linked with such emotions;
and whilst they last, self appears as what it is, an atom to a
universe. Poets are not only subject to these experiences as spirits
of the most refined organization, but they can colour all that they
combine with the evanescent hues of this ethereal world; a word, a
trait in the representation of a scene or a passion, will touch the
enchanted chord, and reanimate, in those who have ever experienced
these emotions, the sleeping, the cold, the buried image of the past.
Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the
world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the
interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form,
sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to
those with whom their sisters abide--abide, because there is no portal
of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into
the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of
the divinity in man.

Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that
which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most
deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure,
eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light yoke all
irreconcilable things. It transmutes all that it touches, and every
form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous
sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes: its secret
alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from
death through life; it strips the veil of familiarity from the world,
and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of
its forms.

All things exist as they are perceived; at least in relation to the
percipient. ‘The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a
heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ But poetry defeats the curse which
binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.
And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s
dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a
being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to
which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe
of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our
inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder
of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to
imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has
been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted
by reiteration. It justifies the bold and true words of Tasso: _Non
merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta_.

A poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure,
virtue and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best,
the wisest, and the most illustrious of men. As to his glory, let time
be challenged to declare whether the fame of any other institutor of
human life be comparable to that of a poet. That he is the wisest, the
happiest, and the best, inasmuch as he is a poet, is equally
incontrovertible: the greatest poets have been men of the most
spotless virtue, of the most consummate prudence, and, if we would
look into the interior of their lives, the most fortunate of men: and
the exceptions, as they regard those who possessed the poetic faculty
in a high yet inferior degree, will be found on consideration to
confine rather than destroy the rule. Let us for a moment stoop to the
arbitration of popular breath, and usurping and uniting in our own
persons the incompatible characters of accuser, witness, judge, and
executioner, let us decide without trial, testimony, or form, that
certain motives of those who are ‘there sitting where we dare not
soar’, are reprehensible. Let us assume that Homer was a drunkard,
that Virgil was a flatterer, that Horace was a coward, that Tasso was
a madman, that Lord Bacon was a peculator, that Raphael was a
libertine, that Spenser was a poet laureate. It is inconsistent with
this division of our subject to cite living poets, but posterity has
done ample justice to the great names now referred to. Their errors
have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their
sins ‘were as scarlet, they are now white as snow’: they have been
washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time. Observe in
what a ludicrous chaos the imputations of real or fictitious crime
have been confused in the contemporary calumnies against poetry and
poets; consider how little is, as it appears--or appears, as it is;
look to your own motives, and judge not, lest ye be judged.

Poetry, as has been said, differs in this respect from logic, that it
is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind, and
that its birth and recurrence have no necessary connexion with the
consciousness or will. It is presumptuous to determine that these are
the necessary conditions of all mental causation, when mental effects
are experienced unsusceptible of being referred to them. The frequent
recurrence of the poetical power, it is obvious to suppose, may
produce in the mind a habit of order and harmony correlative with its
own nature and with its effects upon other minds. But in the intervals
of inspiration, and they may be frequent without being durable, a poet
becomes a man, and is abandoned to the sudden reflux of the influences
under which others habitually live. But as he is more delicately
organized than other men, and sensible to pain and pleasure, both his
own and that of others, in a degree unknown to them, he will avoid the
one and pursue the other with an ardour proportioned to this
difference. And he renders himself obnoxious to calumny, when he
neglects to observe the circumstances under which these objects of
universal pursuit and flight have disguised themselves in one
another’s garments.

But there is nothing necessarily evil in this error, and thus cruelty,
envy, revenge, avarice, and the passions purely evil, have never
formed any portion of the popular imputations on the lives of poets.

I have thought it most favourable to the cause of truth to set down
these remarks according to the order in which they were suggested to
my mind, by a consideration of the subject itself, instead of
observing the formality of a polemical reply; but if the view which
they contain be just, they will be found to involve a refutation of
the arguers against poetry, so far at least as regards the first
division of the subject. I can readily conjecture what should have
moved the gall of some learned and intelligent writers who quarrel
with certain versifiers; I confess myself, like them, unwilling to be
stunned by the Theseids of the hoarse Codri of the day. Bavius and
Maevius undoubtedly are, as they ever were, insufferable persons. But
it belongs to a philosophical critic to distinguish rather than
confound.

The first part of these remarks has related to poetry in its elements
and principles; and it has been shown, as well as the narrow limits
assigned them would permit, that what is called poetry, in a
restricted sense, has a common source with all other forms of order
and of beauty, according to which the materials of human life are
susceptible of being arranged, and which is poetry in a universal
sense.

The second part[13] will have for its object an application of these
principles to the present state of the cultivation of poetry, and a
defence of the attempt to idealize the modern forms of manners and
opinions, and compel them into a subordination to the imaginative and
creative faculty. For the literature of England, an energetic
development of which has ever preceded or accompanied a great and free
development of the national will, has arisen as it were from a new
birth. In spite of the low-thoughted envy which would undervalue
contemporary merit, our own will be a memorable age in intellectual
achievements, and we live among such philosophers and poets as surpass
beyond comparison any who have appeared since the last national
struggle for civil and religious liberty. The most unfailing herald,
companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a
beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such
periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and
receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and
nature. The persons in whom this power resides may often, as far as
regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent
correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the
ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet
compelled to serve, the power which is seated on the throne of their
own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most
celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the
electric life which burns within their words. They measure the
circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a
comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves
perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is
less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the
hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the
gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words
which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to
battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved
not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the
world.

    [13] This was never written.



WILLIAM HAZLITT

1778-1830

MY FIRST ACQUAINTANCE WITH POETS (1823)


My father was a Dissenting Minister at Wem in Shropshire; and in the
year 1798 (the figures that compose the date are to me like the
‘dreaded name of Demogorgon’) Mr. Coleridge came to Shrewsbury, to
succeed Mr. Rowe in the spiritual charge of a Unitarian congregation
there. He did not come till late on the Saturday afternoon before he
was to preach; and Mr. Rowe, who himself went down to the coach in a
state of anxiety and expectation to look for the arrival of his
successor, could find no one at all answering the description but a
round-faced man in a short black coat (like a shooting-jacket) which
hardly seemed to have been made for him, but who seemed to be talking
at a great rate to his fellow-passengers. Mr. Rowe had scarce returned
to give an account of his disappointment, when the round-faced man in
black entered, and dissipated all doubts on the subject, by beginning
to talk. He did not cease while he stayed; nor has he since, that I
know of. He held the good town of Shrewsbury in delightful suspense
for three weeks that he remained there, ‘fluttering the _proud
Salopians_ like an eagle in a dove-cote’; and the Welsh mountains that
skirt the horizon with their tempestuous confusion, agree to have
heard no such mystic sounds since the days of

    High-born Hoel’s harp or soft Llewelyn’s lay!

As we passed along between Wem and Shrewsbury, and I eyed their blue
tops seen through the wintry branches, or the red rustling leaves of
the sturdy oak-trees by the road-side, a sound was in my ears as of a
Siren’s song; I was stunned, startled with it, as from deep sleep; but
I had no notion then that I should ever be able to express my
admiration to others in motley imagery or quaint allusion, till the
light of his genius shone into my soul, like the sun’s rays glittering
in the puddles of the road. I was at that time dumb, inarticulate,
helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding, lifeless;
but now, bursting from the deadly bands that ‘bound them,

    With Styx nine times round them,’

my ideas float on winged words, and as they expand their plumes, catch
the golden light of other years. My soul has indeed remained in its
original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and
unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay,
has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that
my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length
found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge. But this is
not to my purpose.

My father lived ten miles from Shrewsbury, and was in the habit of
exchanging visits with Mr. Rowe, and with Mr. Jenkins of Whitchurch
(nine miles farther on) according to the custom of Dissenting
Ministers in each other’s neighbourhood. A line of communication is
thus established, by which the flame of civil and religious liberty is
kept alive, and nourishes its smouldering fire unquenchable, like the
fires in the _Agamemnon_ of Aeschylus, placed at different stations,
that waited for ten long years to announce with their blazing pyramids
the destruction of Troy. Coleridge had agreed to come over to see my
father, according to the courtesy of the country, as Mr. Rowe’s
probable successor; but in the meantime I had gone to hear him preach
the Sunday after his arrival. A poet and a philosopher getting up into
a Unitarian pulpit to preach the Gospel, was a romance in these
degenerate days, a sort of revival of the primitive spirit of
Christianity, which was not to be resisted.

It was in January, 1798, that I rose one morning before daylight, to
walk ten miles in the mud, to hear this celebrated person preach.
Never, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk
as this cold, raw, comfortless one, in the winter of the year 1798.
_Il y a des impressions que ni le temps ni les circonstances peuvent
effacer. Dussé-je vivre des siècles entiers, le doux temps de ma
jeunesse ne peut renaitre pour moi, ni s’effacer jamais dans ma
mémoire._ When I got there, the organ was playing the 100th psalm,
and, when it was done, Mr. Coleridge rose and gave out his text, ‘And
he went up into the mountain to pray, HIMSELF, ALONE.’ As he gave out
this text, his voice ‘rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes,’
and when he came to the two last words, which he pronounced loud,
deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the
sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that
prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The
idea of St. John came into mind, ‘of one crying in the wilderness, who
had his loins girt about, and whose food was locusts and wild honey.’
The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying
with the wind. The sermon was upon peace and war; upon church and
state--not their alliance, but their separation--on the spirit of the
world and the spirit of Christianity, not as the same, but as opposed
to one another. He talked of those who had ‘inscribed the cross of
Christ on banners dripping with human gore.’ He made a poetical and
pastoral excursion,--and to show the fatal effects of war, drew a
striking contrast between the simple shepherd boy, driving his team
afield, or sitting under the hawthorn, piping to his flock, ‘as though
he should never be old,’ and the same poor country-lad, crimped,
kidnapped, brought into town, made drunk at an alehouse, turned into a
wretched drummer-boy, with his hair sticking on end with powder and
pomatum, a long cue at his back, and tricked out in the loathsome
finery of the profession of blood.

    Such were the notes our once-lov’d poet sung.

And for myself, I could not have been more delighted if I had heard
the music of the spheres. Poetry and Philosophy had met together,
Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of
Religion. This was even beyond my hopes. I returned home well
satisfied. The sun that was still labouring pale and wan through the
sky, obscured by thick mists, seemed an emblem of the _good cause_;
and the cold dank drops of dew that hung half-melted on the beard of
the thistle, had something genial and refreshing in them; for there
was a spirit of hope and youth in all nature, that turned everything
into good The face of nature had not then the brand of JUS DIVINUM on
it:

    Like to that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe.

On the Tuesday following, the half-inspired speaker came. I was called
down into the room where he was, and went half-hoping, half-afraid. He
received me very graciously, and I listened for a long time without
uttering a word. I did not suffer in his opinion by my silence. ‘For
those two hours,’ he afterwards was pleased to say, ‘he was conversing
with W. H.’s forehead!’ His appearance was different from what I had
anticipated from seeing him before. At a distance, and in the dim
light of the chapel, there was to me a strange wildness in his aspect,
a dusky obscurity, and I thought him pitted with the small-pox. His
complexion was at that time clear, and even bright--

    As are the children of yon azure sheen.

His forehead was broad and high, light as if built of ivory, with
large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them like a
sea with darkened lustre. ‘A certain tender bloom his face
o’erspread,’ a purple tinge as we see it in the pale thoughtful
complexions of the Spanish portrait-painters, Murillo and Velasquez.
His mouth was gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent; his chin
good-humoured and round; but his nose, the rudder of the face, the
index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing--like what he has done.
It might seem that the genius of his face as from a height surveyed
and projected him (with sufficient capacity and huge aspiration) into
the world unknown of thought and imagination, with nothing to support
or guide his veering purpose, as if Columbus had launched his
adventurous course for the New World in a scallop, without oars or
compass. So at least I comment on it after the event. Coleridge in his
person was rather above the common size, inclining to the corpulent,
or like Lord Hamlet, ‘somewhat fat and pursy.’ His hair (now, alas!
grey) was then black and glossy as the raven’s, and fell in smooth
masses over his forehead. This long pendulous hair is peculiar to
enthusiasts, to those whose minds tend heavenward; and is
traditionally inseparable (though of a different colour) from the
pictures of Christ. It ought to belong, as a character to all who
preach _Christ crucified_, and Coleridge was at that time one of
those!

It was curious to observe the contrast between him and my father, who
was a veteran in the cause, and then declining into the vale of years.
He had been a poor Irish lad, carefully brought up by his parents, and
sent to the University of Glasgow (where he studied under Adam Smith)
to prepare him for his future destination. It was his mother’s
proudest wish to see her son a Dissenting Minister. So if we look back
to past generations (as far as eye can reach) we see the same hopes,
fears, wishes, followed by the same disappointments, throbbing in the
human heart; and so we may see them (if we look forward) rising up for
ever, and disappearing, like vapourish bubbles, in the human breast!
After being tossed about from congregation to congregation in the
heats of the Unitarian controversy, and squabbles about the American
war, he had been relegated to an obscure village, where he was to
spend the last thirty years of his life, far from the only converse
that he loved, the talk about disputed texts of Scripture and the
cause of civil and religious liberty. Here he passed his days,
repining but resigned, in the study of the Bible, and the perusal of
the Commentators--huge folios, not easily got through, one of which
would outlast a winter! Why did he pore on these from morn to night
(with the exception of a walk in the fields or a turn in the garden to
gather broccoli-plants or kidney-beans of his own rearing, with no
small degree of pride and pleasure)?--Here were ‘no figures nor no
fantasies,’--neither poetry nor philosophy--nothing to dazzle, nothing
to excite modern curiosity; but to his lack-lustre eyes there
appeared, within the pages of the ponderous, unwieldy, neglected
tomes, the sacred name of JEHOVAH in Hebrew capitals: pressed down by
the weight of the style, worn to the last fading thinness of the
understanding, there were glimpses, glimmering notions of the
patriarchal wanderings, with palm-trees hovering in the horizon, and
processions of camels at the distance of three thousand years; there
was Moses with the Burning Bush, the number of the Twelve Tribes,
types, shadows, glosses on the law and the prophets; there were
discussions (dull enough) on the age of Methuselah, a mighty
speculation! there were outlines, rude guesses at the shape of Noah’s
Ark and at the riches of Solomon’s Temple; questions as to the date of
the creation, predictions of the end of all things; the great lapses
of time, the strange mutations of the globe were unfolded with the
voluminous leaf, as it turned over; and though the soul might slumber
with an hieroglyphic veil of inscrutable mysteries drawn over it, yet
it was in a slumber ill-exchanged for all the sharpened realities of
sense, wit, fancy, or reason. My father’s life was comparatively a
dream; but it was a dream of infinity and eternity, of death, the
resurrection, and a judgement to come!

No two individuals were ever more unlike than were the host and his
guest. A poet was to my father a sort of nondescript: yet whatever
added grace to the Unitarian cause was to him welcome. He could hardly
have been more surprised or pleased, if our visitor had worn wings.
Indeed, his thoughts had wings; and as the silken sounds rustled round
our little wainscoted parlour, my father threw back his spectacles
over his forehead, his white hairs mixing with its sanguine hue; and a
smile of delight beamed across his rugged cordial face, to think that
Truth had found a new ally in Fancy![14] Besides, Coleridge seemed to
take considerable notice of me, and that of itself was enough. He
talked very familiarly, but agreeably, and glanced over a variety of
subjects. At dinner-time he grew more animated, and dilated in a very
edifying manner on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mackintosh. The last, he
said, he considered (on my father’s speaking of his _Vindiciae
Gallicae_ as a capital performance) as a clever scholastic man--a
master of the topics,--or as the ready warehouseman of letters, who
knew exactly where to lay his hand on what he wanted, though the goods
were not his own. He thought him no match for Burke, either in style
or matter. Burke was a metaphysician, Mackintosh a mere logician.
Burke was an orator (almost a poet) who reasoned in figures, because
he had an eye for nature: Mackintosh, on the other hand, was a
rhetorician, who had only an eye to commonplaces. On this I ventured
to say that I had always entertained a great opinion of Burke, and
that (as far as I could find) the speaking of him with contempt might
be made the test of a vulgar democratical mind. This was the first
observation I ever made to Coleridge, and he said it was a very just
and striking one. I remember the leg of Welsh mutton and the turnips
on the table that day had the finest flavour imaginable. Coleridge
added that Mackintosh and Tom Wedgwood (of whom, however, he spoke
highly) had expressed a very indifferent opinion of his friend Mr.
Wordsworth, on which he remarked to them--‘He strides on so far before
you, that he dwindles in the distance!’ Godwin had once boasted to him
of having carried on an argument with Mackintosh for three hours with
dubious success; Coleridge told him--‘If there had been a man of
genius in the room he would have settled the question in five
minutes.’ He asked me if I had ever seen Mary Wollstonecraft, and I
said, I had once for a few moments, and that she seemed to me to turn
off Godwin’s objections to something she advanced with quite a
playful, easy air. He replied, that ‘this was only one instance of the
ascendancy which people of imagination exercised over those of mere
intellect.’ He did not rate Godwin very high[15] (this was caprice or
prejudice, real or affected) but he had a great idea of Mrs.
Wollstonecraft’s powers of conversation, none at all of her talent for
book-making. We talked a little about Holcroft. He had been asked if
he was not much struck _with_ him, and he said, he thought himself in
more danger of being struck _by_ him. I complained that he would not
let me get on at all, for he required a definition of every the
commonest word, exclaiming, ‘What do you mean by a _sensation_, Sir?
What do you mean by an _idea_?’ This, Coleridge said, was barricadoing
the road to truth:--it was setting up a turnpike-gate at every step we
took. I forget a great number of things, many more than I remember;
but the day passed off pleasantly, and the next morning Mr. Coleridge
was to return to Shrewsbury. When I came down to breakfast, I found
that he had just received a letter from his friend, T. Wedgwood,
making him an offer of 150_l._ a year if he chose to waive his present
pursuit, and devote himself entirely to the study of poetry and
philosophy. Coleridge seemed to make up his mind to close with this
proposal in the act of tying on one of his shoes. It threw an
additional damp on his departure. It took the wayward enthusiast quite
from us to cast him into Deva’s winding vales, or by the shores of old
romance. Instead of living at ten miles’ distance, of being the pastor
of a Dissenting congregation at Shrewsbury, he was henceforth to
inhabit the Hill of Parnassus, to be a Shepherd on the Delectable
Mountains. Alas! I knew not the way thither, and felt very little
gratitude for Mr. Wedgwood’s bounty. I was presently relieved from
this dilemma; for Mr. Coleridge, asking for a pen and ink, and going
to a table to write something on a bit of card, advanced towards me
with undulating step, and giving me the precious document, said that
that was his address, _Mr. Coleridge, Nether-Stowey, Somersetshire_;
and that he should be glad to see me there in a few weeks’ time, and,
if I chose, would come half-way to meet me. I was not less surprised
than the shepherd-boy (this simile is to be found in _Cassandra_) when
he sees a thunderbolt fall close at his feet. I stammered out my
acknowledgements and acceptance of this offer (I thought Mr.
Wedgwood’s annuity a trifle to it) as well as I could; and this mighty
business being settled, the poet-preacher took leave, and I
accompanied him six miles on the road. It was a fine morning in the
middle of winter, and he talked the whole way. The scholar in Chaucer
is described as going

    ----Sounding on his way.

    [14] My father was one of those who mistook his talent after
    all. He used to be very much dissatisfied that I preferred
    his Letters to his Sermons. The last were forced and dry; the
    first came naturally from him. For ease, half-plays on words,
    and a supine, monkish, indolent pleasantry, I have never seen
    them equalled.

    [15] He complained in particular of the presumption of his
    attempting to establish the future immortality of man,
    ‘without’ (as he said) ‘knowing what Death was or what Life
    was’--and the tone in which he pronounced these two words
    seemed to convey a complete image of both.

So Coleridge went on his. In digressing, in dilating, in passing from
subject to subject, he appeared to me to float in air, to slide on
ice. He told me in confidence (going along) that he should have
preached two sermons before he accepted the situation at Shrewsbury,
one on Infant Baptism, the other on the Lord’s Supper, showing that he
could not administer either, which would have effectually disqualified
him for the object in view. I observed that he continually crossed me
on the way by shifting from one side of the footpath to the other.
This struck me as an odd movement; but I did not at that time connect
it with any instability of purpose or involuntary change of principle,
as I have done since. He seemed unable to keep on in a straight line.
He spoke slightingly of Hume (whose Essay on Miracles he said was
stolen from an objection started in one of South’s Sermons--_Credat
Judaeus Apella!_). I was not very much pleased at this account of
Hume, for I had just been reading, with infinite relish, that
completest of all metaphysical _choke-pears_, his _Treatise on Human
Nature_, to which the _Essays_, in point of scholastic subtlety and
close reasoning, are mere elegant trifling, light summer-reading.
Coleridge even denied the excellence of Hume’s general style, which I
think betrayed a want of taste or candour. He however made me amends
by the manner in which he spoke of Berkeley. He dwelt particularly on
his _Essay on Vision_ as a masterpiece of analytical reasoning. So it
undoubtedly is. He was exceedingly angry with Dr. Johnson for striking
the stone with his foot, in allusion to this author’s Theory of Matter
and Spirit, and saying, ‘Thus I confute him, Sir.’ Coleridge drew a
parallel (I don’t know how he brought about the connexion) between
Bishop Berkeley and Tom Paine. He said the one was an instance of a
subtle, the other of an acute mind, than which no two things could be
more distinct. The one was a shop-boy’s quality, the other the
characteristic of a philosopher. He considered Bishop Butler as a true
philosopher, a profound and conscientious thinker, a genuine reader of
nature and his own mind. He did not speak of his _Analogy_, but of his
_Sermons at the Rolls’ Chapel_, of which I had never heard. Coleridge
somehow always contrived to prefer the _unknown_ to the _known_. In
this instance he was right. The _Analogy_ is a tissue of sophistry, of
wire-drawn, theological special-pleading; the _Sermons_ (with the
Preface to them) are in a fine vein of deep, matured reflection, a
candid appeal to our observation of human nature, without pedantry and
without bias. I told Coleridge I had written a few remarks, and was
sometimes foolish enough to believe that I had made a discovery on the
same subject (the _Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind_)--and
I tried to explain my view of it to Coleridge, who listened with great
willingness, but I did not succeed in making myself understood. I sat
down to the task shortly afterwards for the twentieth time, got new
pens and paper, determined to make clear work of it, wrote a few
meagre sentences in the skeleton style of a mathematical
demonstration, stopped half-way down the second page; and, after
trying in vain to pump up any words, images, notions, apprehensions,
facts, or observations, from that gulf of abstraction in which I had
plunged myself for four or five years preceding, gave up the attempt
as labour in vain, and shed tears of helpless despondency on the blank
unfinished paper. I can write fast enough now. Am I better than I was
then? Oh no! One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being
able to express it, is better than all the fluency and flippancy in
the world. Would that I could go back to what I then was! Why can we
not revive past times as we can revisit old places? If I had the
quaint Muse of Sir Philip Sidney to assist me, I would write a _Sonnet
to the Road between Wem and Shrewsbury_, and immortalize every step
of it by some fond enigmatical conceit. I would swear that the very
milestones had ears, and that Harmer-hill stooped with all its pines,
to listen to a poet, as he passed! I remember but one other topic of
discourse in this walk. He mentioned Paley, praised the naturalness
and clearness of his style, but condemned his sentiments, thought him
a mere time-serving casuist, and said that ‘the fact of his work on
Moral and Political Philosophy being made a text-book in our
Universities was a disgrace to the national character.’ We parted at
the six-mile stone; and I returned homeward pensive but much pleased.
I had met with unexpected notice from a person whom I believed to have
been prejudiced against me. ‘Kind and affable to me had been his
condescension, and should be honoured ever with suitable regard.’ He
was the first poet I had known, and he certainly answered to that
inspired name. I had heard a great deal of his powers of conversation,
and was not disappointed. In fact, I never met with any thing at all
like them, either before or since. I could easily credit the accounts
which were circulated of his holding forth to a large party of ladies
and gentlemen, an evening or two before, on the Berkeleian Theory,
when he made the whole material universe look like a transparency of
fine words; and another story (which I believe he has somewhere told
himself) of his being asked to a party at Birmingham, of his smoking
tobacco and going to sleep after dinner on a sofa, where the company
found him to their no small surprise, which was increased to wonder
when he started up of a sudden, and rubbing his eyes, looked about
him, and launched into a three hours’ description of the third
heaven, of which he had had a dream, very different from Mr. Southey’s
Vision of Judgement, and also from that other Vision of Judgement,
which Mr. Murray, the Secretary of the Bridge Street Junto, has taken
into his especial keeping.

On my way back, I had a sound in my ears, it was the voice of Fancy: I
had a light before me, it was the face of Poetry. The one still
lingers there, the other has not quitted my side! Coleridge in truth
met me half-way on the ground of philosophy, or I should not have been
won over to his imaginative creed. I had an uneasy, pleasurable
sensation all the time, till I was to visit him. During those months
the chill breath of winter gave me a welcoming; the vernal air was
balm and inspiration to me. The golden sunsets, the silver star of
evening, lighted me on my way to new hopes and prospects. _I was to
visit Coleridge in the Spring._ This circumstance was never absent
from my thoughts, and mingled with all my feelings. I wrote to him at
the time proposed, and received an answer postponing my intended visit
for a week or two, but very cordially urging me to complete my promise
then. This delay did not damp, but rather increase my ardour. In the
meantime I went to Llangollen Vale, by way of initiating myself in the
mysteries of natural scenery; and I must say I was enchanted with it.
I had been reading Coleridge’s description of England, in his fine
_Ode on the Departing Year_, and I applied it, _con amore_, to the
objects before me. That valley was to me (in a manner) the cradle of a
new existence: in the river that winds through it, my spirit was
baptized in the waters of Helicon!

I returned home, and soon after set out on my journey with unworn
heart and untried feet. My way lay through Worcester and Gloucester,
and by Upton, where I thought of Tom Jones and the adventure of the
muff. I remember getting completely wet through one day, and stopping
at an inn (I think it was at Tewkesbury) where I sat up all night to
read _Paul and Virginia_. Sweet were the showers in early youth that
drenched my body, and sweet the drops of pity that fell upon the books
I read! I recollect a remark of Coleridge’s upon this very book, that
nothing could show the gross indelicacy of French manners and the
entire corruption of their imagination more strongly than the
behaviour of the heroine in the last fatal scene, who turns away from
a person on board the sinking vessel, that offers to save her life,
because he has thrown off his clothes to assist him in swimming. Was
this a time to think of such a circumstance? I once hinted to
Wordsworth, as we were sailing in his boat on Grasmere lake, that I
thought he had borrowed the idea of his _Poems on the Naming of
Places_ from the local inscriptions of the same kind in _Paul and
Virginia_. He did not own the obligation, and stated some distinction
without a difference, in defence of his claim to originality. And the
slightest variation would be sufficient for this purpose in his mind;
for whatever _he_ added or omitted would inevitably be worth all that
any one else had done, and contain the marrow of the sentiment.--I was
still two days before the time fixed for my arrival, for I had taken
care to set out early enough. I stopped these two days at Bridgewater,
and when I was tired of sauntering on the banks of its muddy river,
returned to the inn, and read _Camilla_. So have I loitered my life
away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing,
thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one
thing to make me happy; but wanting that, have wanted everything!

I arrived, and was well received. The country about Nether Stowey is
beautiful, green and hilly, and near the sea-shore. I saw it but the
other day, after an interval of twenty years, from a hill near
Taunton. How was the map of my life spread out before me, as the map
of the country lay at my feet! In the afternoon, Coleridge took me
over to All-Foxden, a romantic old family mansion of the St. Aubins,
where Wordsworth lived. It was then in the possession of a friend of
the poet’s, who gave him the free use of it. Somehow that period (the
time just after the French Revolution) was not a time when _nothing
was given for nothing_. The mind opened, and a softness might be
perceived coming over the heart of individuals, beneath ‘the scales
that fence’ our self-interest. Wordsworth himself was from home, but
his sister kept house, and set before us a frugal repast; and we had
free access to her brother’s poems, the _Lyrical Ballads_, which were
still in manuscript, or in the form of _Sibylline Leaves_. I dipped
into a few of these with great satisfaction, and with the faith of a
novice. I slept that night in an old room with blue hangings, and
covered with the round-faced family-portraits of the age of George I
and II, and from the wooded declivity of the adjoining park that
overlooked my window, at the dawn of day, could

    ----hear the loud stag speak.

In the outset of life (and particularly at this time I felt it so) our
imagination has a body to it. We are in a state between sleeping and
waking, and have indistinct but glorious glimpses of strange shapes,
and there is always something to come better than what we see. As in
our dreams the fullness of the blood gives warmth and reality to the
coinage of the brain, so in youth our ideas are clothed, and fed, and
pampered with our good spirits; we breathe thick with thoughtless
happiness, the weight of future years presses on the strong pulses of
the heart, and we repose with undisturbed faith in truth and good. As
we advance, we exhaust our fund of enjoyment and of hope. We are no
longer wrapped in _lamb’s-wool_, lulled in Elysium. As we taste the
pleasures of life, their spirit evaporates, the sense palls; and
nothing is left but the phantoms, the lifeless shadows of what _has
been_!

That morning, as soon as breakfast was over, we strolled out into the
park, and seating ourselves on the trunk of an old ash-tree that
stretched along the ground, Coleridge read aloud with a sonorous and
musical voice, the ballad of _Betty Foy_. I was not critically or
sceptically inclined. I saw touches of truth and nature, and took the
rest for granted. But in the _Thorn_, the _Mad Mother_, and the
_Complaint of a Poor Indian Woman_, I felt that deeper power and
pathos which have been since acknowledged,

    In spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,

as the characteristics of this author; and the sense of a new style
and a new spirit in poetry came over me. It had to me something of
the effect that arises from the turning up of the fresh soil, or of
the first welcome breath of Spring,

    While yet the trembling year is unconfirmed.

Coleridge and myself walked back to Stowey that evening, and his voice
sounded high

    Of Providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
    Fix’d fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute,

as we passed through echoing grove, by fairy stream or waterfall,
gleaming in the summer moonlight! He lamented that Wordsworth was not
prone enough to believe in the traditional superstitions of the place,
and that there was a something corporeal, a _matter-of-fact-ness_, a
clinging to the palpable, or often to the petty, in his poetry, in
consequence. His genius was not a spirit that descended to him through
the air; it sprung out of the ground like a flower, or unfolded itself
from a green spray, on which the goldfinch sang. He said, however (if
I remember right), that this objection must be confined to his
descriptive pieces, that his philosophic poetry had a grand and
comprehensive spirit in it, so that his soul seemed to inhabit the
universe like a palace, and to discover truth by intuition, rather
than by deduction. The next day Wordsworth arrived from Bristol at
Coleridge’s cottage. I think I see him now. He answered in some degree
to his friend’s description of him, but was more gaunt and Don
Quixote-like. He was quaintly dressed (according to the _costume_ of
that unconstrained period) in a brown fustian jacket and striped
pantaloons. There was something of a roll, a lounge in his gait, not
unlike his own Peter Bell. There was a severe, worn pressure of
thought about his temples, a fire in his eye (as if he saw something
in objects more than the outward appearance), an intense high narrow
forehead, a Roman nose, cheeks furrowed by strong purpose and feeling,
and a convulsive inclination to laughter about the mouth, a good deal
at variance with the solemn, stately expression of the rest of his
face. Chantrey’s bust wants the marking traits; but he was teased into
making it regular and heavy: Haydon’s head of him, introduced into the
_Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem_, is the most like his drooping
weight of thought and expression. He sat down and talked very
naturally and freely, with a mixture of clear gushing accents in his
voice, a deep guttural intonation, and a strong tincture of the
northern _burr_, like the crust on wine. He instantly began to make
havoc of the half of a Cheshire cheese on the table, and said
triumphantly that ‘his marriage with experience had not been so
productive as Mr. Southey’s in teaching him a knowledge of the good
things of this life.’ He had been to see the _Castle Spectre_ by Monk
Lewis, while at Bristol, and described it very well. He said ‘it
fitted the taste of the audience like a glove.’ This _ad captandum_
merit was, however, by no means a recommendation of it, according to
the severe principles of the new school, which reject rather than
court popular effect. Wordsworth, looking out of the low, latticed
window, said, ‘How beautifully the sun sets on that yellow bank!’ I
thought within myself, ‘With what eyes these poets see nature!’ and
ever after, when I saw the sunset stream upon the objects facing it,
conceived I had made a discovery, or thanked Mr. Wordsworth for
having made one for me! We went over to All-Foxden again the day
following, and Wordsworth read us the story of Peter Bell in the open
air; and the comment made upon it by his face and voice was very
different from that of some later critics! Whatever might be thought
of the poem, ‘his face was as a book where men might read strange
matters,’ and he announced the fate of his hero in prophetic tones.
There is a _chaunt_ in the recitation both of Coleridge and
Wordsworth, which acts as a spell upon the hearer, and disarms the
judgement. Perhaps they have deceived themselves by making habitual
use of this ambiguous accompaniment. Coleridge’s manner is more full,
animated, and varied; Wordsworth’s more equable, sustained, and
internal. The one might be termed more _dramatic_, the other more
_lyrical_. Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in
walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling
branches of a copse wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he
could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot
where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption.
Returning that same evening, I got into a metaphysical argument with
Wordsworth, while Coleridge was explaining the different notes of the
nightingale to his sister, in which we neither of us succeeded in
making ourselves perfectly clear and intelligible. Thus I passed three
weeks at Nether Stowey and in the neighbourhood, generally devoting
the afternoons to a delightful chat in an arbour made of bark by the
poet’s friend Tom Poole, sitting under two fine elm-trees, and
listening to the bees humming round us, while we quaffed our _flip_.
It was agreed, among other things, that we should make a jaunt down
the Bristol Channel, as far as Lynton. We set off together on foot,
Coleridge, John Chester, and I. This Chester was a native of Nether
Stowey, one of those who were attracted to Coleridge’s discourse as
flies are to honey, or bees in swarming-time to the sound of a brass
pan. He ‘followed in the chace, like a dog who hunts, not like one
that made up the cry.’ He had on a brown cloth coat, boots, and
corduroy breeches, was low in stature, bow-legged, had a drag in his
walk like a drover, which he assisted by a hazel switch, and kept on a
sort of trot by the side of Coleridge, like a running footman by a
state coach, that he might not lose a syllable or sound, that fell
from Coleridge’s lips. He told me his private opinion, that Coleridge
was a wonderful man. He scarcely opened his lips, much less offered an
opinion the whole way: yet of the three, had I to choose during that
journey, I would be John Chester. He afterwards followed Coleridge
into Germany, where the Kantean philosophers were puzzled how to bring
him under any of their categories. When he sat down at table with his
idol, John’s felicity was complete; Sir Walter Scott’s, or Mr.
Blackwood’s, when they sat down at the same table with the King, was
not more so. We passed Dunster on our right, a small town between the
brow of a hill and the sea. I remember eyeing it wistfully as it lay
below us: contrasted with the woody scene around, it looked as clear,
as pure, as _embrowned_ and ideal as any landscape I have seen since,
of Gaspar Poussin’s or Domenichino’s. We had a long day’s march--(our
feet kept time to the echoes of Coleridge’s tongue)--through Minehead
and by the Blue Anchor, and on to Lynton, which we did not reach till
near midnight, and where we had some difficulty in making a lodgement.
We, however, knocked the people of the house up at last, and we were
repaid for our apprehensions and fatigue by some excellent rashers of
fried bacon and eggs. The view in coming along had been splendid. We
walked for miles and miles on dark brown heaths overlooking the
channel, with the Welsh hills beyond, and at times descended into
little sheltered valleys close by the sea-side, with a smuggler’s face
scowling by us, and then had to ascend conical hills with a path
winding up through a coppice to a barren top, like a monk’s shaven
crown, from one of which I pointed out to Coleridge’s notice the bare
masts of a vessel on the very edge of the horizon, and within the
red-orbed disk of the setting sun, like his own spectre-ship in the
_Ancient Mariner_. At Lynton the character of the sea-coast becomes
more marked and rugged. There is a place called the ‘Valley of Rocks’
(I suspect this was only the poetical name for it) bedded among
precipices overhanging the sea, with rocky caverns beneath, into which
the waves dash, and where the sea-gull for ever wheels its screaming
flight. On the tops of these are huge stones thrown transverse, as if
an earthquake had tossed them there, and behind these is a fretwork of
perpendicular rocks, something like the ‘Giant’s Causeway’. A
thunder-storm came on while we were at the inn, and Coleridge was
running out bareheaded to enjoy the commotion of the elements in the
‘Valley of Rocks’, but as if in spite, the clouds only muttered a few
angry sounds, and let fall a few refreshing drops. Coleridge told me
that he and Wordsworth were to have made this place the scene of a
prose-tale, which was to have been in the manner of, but far superior
to, the _Death of Abel_, but they had relinquished the design. In the
morning of the second day, we breakfasted luxuriously in an
old-fashioned parlour on tea, toast, eggs, and honey, in the very
sight of the bee-hives from which it had been taken, and a garden full
of thyme and wild flowers that had produced it. On this occasion
Coleridge spoke of Virgil’s _Georgics_, but not well. I do not think
he had much feeling for the classical or elegant. It was in this room
that we found a little worn-out copy of the _Seasons_, lying in a
window-seat, on which Coleridge exclaimed, ‘_That_ is true fame!’ He
said Thomson was a great poet, rather than a good one; his style was
as meretricious as his thoughts were natural. He spoke of Cowper as
the best modern poet. He said the _Lyrical Ballads_ were an experiment
about to be tried by him and Wordsworth, to see how far the public
taste would endure poetry written in a more natural and simple style
than had hitherto been attempted; totally discarding the artifices of
poetical diction, and making use only of such words as had probably
been common in the most ordinary language since the days of Henry II.
Some comparison was introduced between Shakespeare and Milton. He said
‘he hardly knew which to prefer. Shakespeare appeared to him a mere
stripling in the art; he was as tall and as strong, with infinitely
more activity than Milton, but he never appeared to have come to man’s
estate; or if he had, he would not have been a man, but a monster.’ He
spoke with contempt of Gray, and with intolerance of Pope. He did not
like the versification of the latter. He observed that ‘the ears of
these couplet-writers might be charged with having short memories,
that could not retain the harmony of whole passages.’ He thought
little of Junius as a writer; he had a dislike of Dr. Johnson; and a
much higher opinion of Burke as an orator and politician, than of Fox
or Pitt. He however thought him very inferior in richness of style and
imagery to some of our elder prose-writers, particularly Jeremy
Taylor. He liked Richardson, but not Fielding; nor could I get him to
enter into the merits of _Caleb Williams_.[16] In short, he was
profound and discriminating with respect to those authors whom he
liked, and where he gave his judgement fair play; capricious,
perverse, and prejudiced in his antipathies and distastes. We loitered
on the ‘ribbed sea-sands’, in such talk as this, a whole morning, and
I recollect met with a curious sea-weed, of which John Chester told us
the country name! A fisherman gave Coleridge an account of a boy that
had been drowned the day before, and that they had tried to save him
at the risk of their own lives. He said ‘he did not know how it was
that they ventured, but, Sir, we have a _nature_ towards one another.’
This expression, Coleridge remarked to me, was a fine illustration of
that theory of disinterestedness which I (in common with Butler) had
adopted. I broached to him an argument of mine to prove that
_likeness_ was not mere association of ideas. I said that the mark in
the sand put one in mind of a man’s foot, not because it was part of a
former impression of a man’s foot (for it was quite new) but because
it was like the shape of a man’s foot. He assented to the justness of
this distinction (which I have explained at length elsewhere, for the
benefit of the curious) and John Chester listened; not from any
interest in the subject, but because he was astonished that I should
be able to suggest anything to Coleridge that he did not already know.
We returned on the third morning, and Coleridge remarked the silent
cottage-smoke curling up the valleys where, a few evenings before, we
had seen the lights gleaming through the dark.

    [16] He had no idea of pictures, of Claude or Raphael, and at
    this time I had as little as he. He sometimes gives a
    striking account at present of the Cartoons at Pisa by
    Buffamalco and others; of one in particular, where Death is
    seen in the air brandishing his scythe, and the great and
    mighty of the earth shudder at his approach, while the
    beggars and the wretched kneel to him as their deliverer. He
    would, of course, understand so broad and fine a moral as
    this at any time.

In a day or two after we arrived at Stowey, we set out, I on my return
home, and he for Germany. It was a Sunday morning, and he was to
preach that day for Dr. Toulmin of Taunton. I asked him if he had
prepared anything for the occasion? He said he had not even thought of
the text, but should as soon as we parted. I did not go to hear
him,--this was a fault,--but we met in the evening at Bridgewater. The
next day we had a long day’s walk to Bristol, and sat down, I
recollect, by a well-side on the road, to cool ourselves and satisfy
our thirst, when Coleridge repeated to me some descriptive lines of
his tragedy of _Remorse_; which I must say became his mouth and that
occasion better than they, some years after, did Mr. Elliston’s and
the Drury Lane boards,--

    Oh memory! shield me from the world’s poor strife,
    And give those scenes thine everlasting life.

I saw no more of him for a year or two, during which period he had
been wandering in the Hartz Forest in Germany; and his return was
cometary, meteorous, unlike his setting out. It was not till some time
after that I knew his friends Lamb and Southey. The last always
appears to me (as I first saw him) with a commonplace book under his
arm, and the first with a _bon-mot_ in his mouth. It was at Godwin’s
that I met him with Holcroft and Coleridge, where they were disputing
fiercely which was the best--_Man as he was, or man as he is to be_.
‘Give me’, says Lamb, ‘man as he is _not_ to be.’ This saying was the
beginning of a friendship between us, which I believe still
continues.--Enough of this for the present.

    But there is matter for another rhyme,
    And I to this may add a second tale.



JOHN KEBLE

1792-1866

SACRED POETRY (1825)

_The Star in the East; with other Poems._ By Josiah Conder. London.
1824.


There are many circumstances about this little volume, which tend
powerfully to disarm criticism. In the first place, it is, for the
most part, of a _sacred_ character: taken up with those subjects which
least of all admit, with propriety, either in the author or critic,
the exercise of intellectual subtlety. For the _practical_ tendency,
indeed, of such compositions, both are most deeply responsible; the
author who publishes, and the critic who undertakes to recommend or to
censure them. But if they appear to be written with any degree of
sincerity and earnestness, we naturally shrink from treating them
merely as literary efforts. To interrupt the current of a reader’s
sympathy in such a case, by critical objections, is not merely to
deprive him of a little harmless pleasure, it is to disturb him almost
in a devotional exercise. The most considerate reviewer, therefore, of
a volume of sacred poetry, will think it a subject on which it is
easier to say too much than too little.

In the present instance, this consideration is enforced by the
unpretending tone of the volume, which bears internal evidence, for
the most part, of not having been written to meet the eye of the
world. It is in vain to say that this claim on the critic’s favour is
nullified by publication. The author may give it up, and yet the work
may retain it. We may still feel that we have no right to judge
severely of what was not, at first, intended to come before our
judgement at all. This of course applies only to those compositions,
which indicate, by something within themselves, this freedom from the
pretension of authorship. And such are most of those to which we are
now bespeaking our readers’ attention.

_Most_ of them, we say, because the first poem in the volume, _The
Star in the East_, is of a more ambitious and less pleasing character.
Although in blank verse, it is, in fact, a lyrical effusion; an ode on
the rapid progress and final triumph of the Gospel. It looks like the
composition of a young man: harsh and turgid in parts, but
interspersed with some rather beautiful touches. The opening lines are
a fair specimen.

    O to have heard th’ unearthly symphonies,
    Which o’er the starlight peace of Syrian skies
    Came floating like a dream, that blessed night
    When angel songs were heard by sinful men,
    Hymning Messiah’s advent! O to have watch’d
    The night with those poor shepherds, whom, when first
    The glory of the Lord shed sudden day--
    Day without dawn, starting from midnight, day
    Brighter than morning--on those lonely hills
    Strange fear surpris’d--fear lost in wondering joy,
    When from th’ angelic multitude swell’d forth
    The many-voicèd consonance of praise:--
    Glory in th’ highest to God, and upon earth
    Peace, towards men good will. But once before,
    In such glad strains of joyous fellowship,
    The silent earth was greeted by the heavens,
    When at its first foundation they looked down
    From their bright orbs, those heavenly ministries,
    Hailing the new-born world with bursts of joy.

Notwithstanding beauties scattered here and there, there is an effort
and constrained stateliness in the poem, very different from the
rapidity and simplicity of many of the shorter lyrics, which follow
under the titles of Sacred and Domestic Poems. Such, for instance, as
the Poor Man’s Hymn

    As much have I of worldly good
      As e’er my master had:
    I diet on as dainty food,
      And am as richly clad,
    Tho’ plain my garb, though scant my board,
    As Mary’s Son and Nature’s Lord.

    The manger was his infant bed,
      His home, the mountain-cave,
    He had not where to lay his head,
      He borrow’d even his grave.
    Earth yielded him no resting spot,--
    Her Maker, but she knew him not.

    As much the world’s good will I bear,
      Its favours and applause,
    As He, whose blessed name I bear,--
      Hated without a cause,
    Despis’d, rejected, mock’d by pride,
    Betray’d, forsaken, crucified.

    Why should I court my Master’s foe?
      Why should I fear its frown?
    Why should I seek for rest below,
      Or sigh for brief renown?--
    A pilgrim to a better land,
    An heir of joys at GOD’s right hand?

Or the following sweet lines on Home, which occur among the Domestic
poems:

    That is not home, where day by day
    I wear the busy hours away.
    That is not home, where lonely night
    Prepares me for the toils of light--
    ’Tis hope, and joy, and memory, give
    A home in which the heart can live--
    These walls no lingering hopes endear,
    No fond remembrance chains me here,
    Cheerless I heave the lonely sigh--
    Eliza, canst thou tell me why?
    ’Tis where thou art is home to me,
    And home without thee cannot be.

    There are who strangely love to roam,
    And find in wildest haunts their home;
    And some in halls of lordly state,
    Who yet are homeless, desolate.
    The sailor’s home is on the main,
    The warrior’s, on the tented plain,
    The maiden’s, in her bower of rest,
    The infant’s, on his mother’s breast--
    But where thou art is home to me,
    And home without thee cannot be.

    There is no home in halls of pride,
    They are too high, and cold, and wide.
    No home is by the wanderer found:
    ’Tis not in place: it hath no bound.
    It is a circling atmosphere
    Investing all the heart holds dear;--
    A law of strange attractive force,
    That holds the feelings in their course;

    It is a presence undefin’d,
    O’er-shadowing the conscious mind,
    Where love and duty sweetly blend
    To consecrate the name of friend;--
    Where’er thou art is home to me,
    And home without thee cannot be.

    My love, forgive the anxious sigh--
    I hear the moments rushing by,
    And think that life is fleeting fast,
    That youth with us will soon be past.
    Oh! when will time, consenting, give
    The home in which my heart can live?
    There shall the past and future meet,
    And o’er our couch, in union sweet,
    Extend their cherub wings, and shower
    Bright influence on the present hour,
    Oh! when shall Israel’s mystic guide,
    The pillar’d cloud, our steps decide,
    Then, resting, spread its guardian shade,
    To bless the home which love hath made?
    Daily, my love, shall thence arise
    Our hearts’ united sacrifice;
    And home indeed a home will be,
    Thus consecrate and shar’d with thee.

We will add one more specimen of the same kind, which forms a natural
and pleasing appendix to the preceding lines.

    Louise! you wept, that morn of gladness
      Which made your Brother blest;
    And tears of half-reproachful sadness
      Fell on the Bridegroom’s vest:
    Yet, pearly tears were those, to gem
    A Sister’s bridal diadem.

    No words could half so well have spoken,
      What thus was deeply shown
    By Nature’s simplest, dearest token,
      How much was then my own;
    Endearing her for whom they fell,
    And Thee, for having loved so well.

    But now no more--nor let a Brother,
      Louise, regretful see,
    That still ’tis sorrow to another,
      That he should happy be.
    Those were, I trust, the only tears
    That day shall cost through coming years.

    Smile with us. Happy and light-hearted,
      We three the time will while.
    And, when sometimes a season parted,
      Still think of us, and smile.
    But come to us in gloomy weather;
    We’ll weep, when we must weep, together.

Now, what is the reason of the great difference between these extracts
and that from the _Star in the East_?--a difference which the earlier
date of the latter, so far from accounting for, only makes the more
extraordinary. In some instances, the interval of time is very short,
but at all events more effort and turgidness might have been expected
in the earlier poems, more simplicity and care and a more subdued tone
in the later. We suspect a reason, which both poets and poetical
readers are too apt to leave out of sight. There is a want of _truth_
in the _Star in the East_--not that the author is otherwise than quite
in earnest--but his earnestness seems rather an artificial glow, to
which he has been worked up by reading and conversation of a
particular cast, than the overflowing warmth of his own natural
feelings, kindled by circumstances in which he was himself placed. In
a word, when he writes of the success of the Bible Society, and the
supposed amelioration of the world in consequence, he writes from
report and fancy only; but when he speaks of a happy home, of kindly
affections, of the comforts which piety can administer in
disappointment and sorrow; either we are greatly mistaken, or he
speaks from real and present experience. The poetical result is what
the reader has seen:

        ----mens onus reponit, et peregrino
    Labore fessi venimus Larem ad nostrum--

We turn gladly from our fairy voyage round the world to refresh
ourselves with a picture, which we feel to be drawn from the life, of
a happy and innocent fireside. Nor is it, in the slightest degree,
derogatory to an author’s talent to say that he has failed,
comparatively, on that subject of which he must have known
comparatively little.

Let us here pause a moment to explain what is meant when we speak of
such prospects as are above alluded to, being shadowy and unreal in
respect of what is matter of experience. It is not that we doubt the
tenor of the Scripture, regarding the final conversion of the whole
world, or that we close our eyes to the wonderful arrangements, if the
expression may be used, which Divine Providence seems everywhere
making, with a view to that great consummation. One circumstance, in
particular, arrests our attention, as pervading the whole of modern
history, but gradually standing out in a stronger light as the view
draws nearer our own times: we mean the rapid increase of colonization
_from Christian nations only_. So that the larger half of the globe,
and what in the nature of things will soon become the more populous,
is already, in profession, Christian. The event, therefore, is
unquestionable: but experience, we fear, will hardly warrant the
exulting anticipations, which our author, in common with many of whose
sincerity there is no reason to doubt, has raised upon it. It is but
too conceivable that the whole world may become nominally Christian,
yet the face of things may be very little changed for the better. And
any view of the progress of the gospel, whether in verse or in prose,
which leaves out this possibility, is so far wanting in truth, and in
that depth of thought which is as necessary to the higher kinds of
poetical beauty as to philosophy or theology itself.

This, however, is too solemn and comprehensive a subject to be lightly
or hastily spoken of. It is enough to have glanced at it, as
accounting, in some measure, for the general failure of modern poets
in their attempts to describe the predicted triumph of the gospel in
the latter days.

To return to the sacred and domestic poems, thus advantageously
distinguished from that which gives name to the volume. Affection,
whether heavenly or earthly, is the simplest idea that can be; and in
the graceful and harmonious expression of it lies the principal beauty
of these poems. In the descriptive parts, and in the development of
abstract sentiment, there is more of effort, and occasionally
something very like affectation: approaching, in one instance (the
_Nightingale_,) far nearer than we could wish, to the most vicious of
all styles, the style of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his miserable followers.

Now, these are just the sort of merit and the sort of defect, which
one might naturally expect to find united; the very simplicity of
attachment, which qualifies the mind for sacred or domestic poetry,
making its movements awkward and constrained, when scenes are to be
described, or thoughts unravelled of more complication and less
immediate interest. This is the rather to be observed, as many other
sacred poets have become less generally pleasing and useful, than they
otherwise would have been, from this very circumstance. The simple and
touching devoutness of many of Bishop Ken’s lyrical effusions has been
unregarded, because of the ungraceful contrivances, and heavy movement
of his narrative. The same may be said, in our own times, of some
parts of Montgomery’s writings. His bursts of sacred poetry, compared
with his _Greenland_, remind us of a person singing enchantingly by
ear, but becoming languid and powerless the moment he sits down to a
note-book.

Such writers, it is obvious, do not sufficiently trust to the command
which the simple expression of their feelings would obtain over their
readers. They think it must be relieved with something of more variety
and imagery, to which they work themselves up with laborious, and
therefore necessarily unsuccessful, efforts. The model for correcting
their error is to be found in the inspired volume. We can, in general,
be but incompetent judges of this, because we have been used to it
from our boyhood. But let us suppose a person, whose ideas of poetry
were entirely gathered from modern compositions, taking up the Psalms
for the first time. Among many other remarkable differences, he would
surely be impressed with the sacred writer’s total carelessness about
originality, and what is technically called _effect_. He would say,
‘This is something better than merely attractive poetry; it is
absolute and divine truth.’ The same remark ought to be suggested by
all sacred hymns; and it is, indeed, greatly to be lamented, that such
writers as we have just mentioned should have ever lost sight of
it--should have had so little confidence in the power of simplicity,
and have condescended so largely to the laborious refinements of the
profane Muse.

To put the same truth in a light somewhat different; it is required,
we apprehend, in all poets, but particularly in sacred poets, that
they should seem to write with a view of unburthening their minds, and
not for the sake of writing; for love of the subject, not of the
employment. The distinction is very striking in descriptive poetry.
Compare the landscapes of Cowper with those of Burns. There is, if we
mistake not, the same sort of difference between them, as in the
conversation of two persons on scenery, the one originally an
enthusiast in his love of the works of nature, the other driven, by
disappointment or weariness, to solace himself with them as he might.
It is a contrast which every one must have observed, when such topics
come under discussion in society; and those who think it worth while,
may find abundant illustration of it in the writings of this
unfortunate but illustrious pair. The one all overflowing with the
love of nature, and indicating, at every turn, that whatever his lot
in life, he could not have been happy without her. The other visibly
and wisely soothing himself, but not without effort, by attending to
rural objects, in default of some more congenial happiness, of which
he had almost come to despair. The latter, in consequence, laboriously
sketching every object that came in his way: the other, in one or two
rapid lines, which operate, as it were, like a magician’s spell,
presenting to the fancy just that picture, which was wanted to put the
reader’s mind in unison with the writer’s. We would quote, as an
instance, the description of Evening in the Fourth Book of the _Task_:

    Come Ev’ning, once again, season of peace;
    Return, sweet Ev’ning, and continue long!
    Methinks I see thee in the streaking west
    With matron-step slow-moving, while the night
    Treads on thy sweeping train; one hand employ’d
    In letting fall the curtain of repose
    On bird and beast, the other charg’d for man
    With sweet oblivion of the cares of day:
    Not sumptuously adorn’d, nor needing aid,
    Like homely-featur’d night, of clust’ring gems;
    A star or two, just twinkling on thy brow,
    Suffices thee; save that the moon is thine
    No less than her’s, not worn indeed on high
    With ostentatious pageantry, but set
    With modest grandeur in thy purple zone,
    Resplendent less, but of an ampler round.
    Come then, and thou shalt find thy vot’ry calm,
    Or make me so. Composure is thy gift.

And we would set over against it that purely pastoral chant:

    Now rosy May comes in wi’ flowers
    To deck her gay, green spreading bowers;
    And now comes in my happy hours,
      To wander wi’ my Davie.
        Meet me on the warlock knowe,
          Dainty Davie, dainty Davie,
        There I’ll spend the day wi’ you,
          My ain dear dainty Davie.

    The crystal waters round us fa’,
    The merry birds are lovers a’,
    The scented breezes round us blaw,
      A wandering wi’ my Davie.
        Meet me, &c.

    When purple morning starts the hare
    To steal upon her early fare,
    Then thro’ the dews I will repair,
      To meet my faithful Davie.
        Meet me, &c.

    When day, expiring in the west,
    The curtain draws o’ nature’s rest,
    I flee to his arms I lo’e best,
      And that’s my ain dear Davie.
        Meet me, &c.

There is surely no need to explain how this instinctive attachment to
his subject is especially requisite in the sacred poet. If even the
description of material objects is found to languish without it, much
more will it be looked for when the best and highest of all affections
is to be expressed and communicated to others. The nobler and worthier
the object, the greater our disappointment to find it approached with
anything like languor or constraint.

We must just mention one more quality, which may seem, upon
consideration, essential to perfection in this kind: viz. that the
feelings the writer expresses should appear to be specimens of his
general tone of thought, not sudden bursts and mere flashes of
goodness. Wordsworth’s beautiful description of the Stock-dove might
not unaptly be applied to him. He should sing

                   ‘of love with silence blending,
    Slow to begin, yet never ending,
    Of serious faith and inward glee’.

Some may, perhaps, object to this, as a dull and languid strain of
sentiment. But before we yield to their censures we would inquire of
them what style they consider, themselves, as most appropriate to
similar subjects in a kindred art. If grave, simple, sustained
melodies--if tones of deep but subdued emotion are what our minds
naturally suggest to us upon the mention of sacred _music_--why should
there not be something analogous, a kind of plain chant, in sacred
_poetry_ also? fervent, yet sober; awful, but engaging; neither wild
and passionate, nor light and airy; but such as we may with submission
presume to be the most acceptable offering in its kind, as being
indeed the truest expression of the best state of the affections. To
many, perhaps to most, men, a tone of more violent emotion may sound
at first more attractive. But before we _indulge_ such a preference,
we should do well to consider, whether it is quite agreeable to that
spirit, which alone can make us worthy readers of sacred poetry.
‘Ἔνθεον ἥ ποιήσις’, it is true; there must be rapture and inspiration,
but these will naturally differ in their character as the powers do
from whom they proceed. The worshippers of Baal may be rude and
frantic in their cries and gestures; but the true Prophet, speaking to
or of the true GOD, is all dignity and calmness.

If then, in addition to the ordinary difficulties of poetry, all these
things are essential to the success of the Christian lyrist--if what
he sets before us must be true in substance, and in manner marked by a
noble simplicity and confidence in that truth, by a sincere attachment
to it, and entire familiarity with it--then we need not wonder that so
few should have become eminent in this branch of their art, nor need
we have recourse to the disheartening and unsatisfactory solutions
which are sometimes given of that circumstance.

     ‘Contemplative piety,’ says Dr. Johnson, ‘or the intercourse
     between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man,
     admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the
     merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than
     poetry can confer.’[17]

    [17] _Life of Waller._

The sentiment is not uncommon among serious, but somewhat fearful,
believers; and though we believe it erroneous, we desire to treat it
not only with tenderness, but with reverence. They start at the very
mention of sacred poetry, as though poetry were in its essence a
profane amusement. It is, unquestionably, by far the safer extreme to
be too much afraid of venturing with the imagination upon sacred
ground. Yet, if it be an error, and a practical error, it may be worth
while cautiously to examine the grounds of it. In the generality,
perhaps, it is not so much a deliberate opinion, as a prejudice
against the use of the art, arising out of its abuse. But the great
writer just referred to has endeavoured to establish it by direct
reasoning. He argues the point, first, from the nature of poetry, and
afterwards from that of devotion.

     The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by
     producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The
     topics of devotion are few.

It is to be hoped that many men’s experience will refute the latter
part of this statement. How can the topics of devotion be few, when we
are taught to make every part of life, every scene in nature, an
occasion--in other words, a topic--of devotion? It might as well be
said that connubial love is an unfit subject for poetry, as being
incapable of novelty, because, after all, it is only ringing the
changes upon one simple affection, which every one understands. The
novelty there consists, not in the original topic, but in continually
bringing ordinary things, by happy strokes of natural ingenuity, into
new associations with the ruling passion.

    There’s not a bonny flower that springs
      By fountain, shaw, or green;
    There’s not a bonnie bird that sings
      But minds me of my Jean.

Why need we fear to extend this most beautiful and natural sentiment
to ‘the intercourse between the human soul and its Maker’, possessing,
as we do, the very highest warrant for the analogy which subsists
between conjugal and divine love?

Novelty, therefore, sufficient for all the purposes of poetry, we may
have on sacred subjects. Let us pass to the next objection.

     Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the
     mind than things themselves afford. This effect proceeds
     from the display of those parts of nature which attract,
     and the concealment of those which repel, the imagination;
     but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and
     addition equally corrupt it; and, such as it is, it is known
     already.

A fallacy may be apprehended in both parts of this statement. There
are, surely, real landscapes which delight the mind as sincerely and
intensely as the most perfect description could; and there are family
groups which give a more exquisite sensation of domestic happiness
than anything in Milton, or even Shakespeare. It is partly by
association with these, the treasures of the memory, and not
altogether by mere excitement of the imagination, that Poetry does her
work. By the same rule sacred pictures and sacred songs cannot fail to
gratify the mind which is at all exercised in devotion; recalling, as
they will, whatever of highest perfection in that way she can remember
in herself, or has learned of others.

Then again, it is not the religious doctrine itself, so much as the
effect of it upon the human mind and heart, which the sacred poet has
to describe. What is said of suppression and addition may be true
enough with regard to the former, but is evidently incorrect when
applied to the latter: it being an acknowledged difficulty in all
devotional writings, and not in devotional verse only, to keep clear
of the extreme of languor on the one hand, and debasing rapture on the
other. This requires a delicacy in the perception and enunciation of
truth, of which the most earnest believer may be altogether destitute.
And since, probably, no man’s condition, in regard to eternal things,
is exactly like that of any other man, and yet it is the business of
the sacred poet to sympathize with all, his store of subjects is
clearly inexhaustible, and his powers of discrimination--in other
words, of suppression and addition--are kept in continual exercise.

Nor is he, by any means, so straitly limited in the other and more
difficult branch of his art, the exhibition of religious doctrine
itself, as is supposed in the following statement:

     Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in
     the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be
     exalted; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be
     improved.

True: all perfection is implied in the name of GOD; and so all the
beauties and luxuries of spring are comprised in that one word. But is
it not the very office of poetry to develop and display the
particulars of such complex ideas? in such a way, for example, as the
idea of GOD’S omnipresence is developed in the 139th Psalm? and thus
detaining the mind for a while, to force or help her to think steadily
on truths which she would hurry unprofitably over, how strictly soever
they may be implied in the language which she uses. It is really
surprising that this great and acute critic did not perceive that the
objection applies as strongly against any kind of composition of which
the Divine Nature is the subject, as against devotional poems.

We forbear to press the consideration that, even if the objection were
allowed in respect of natural religion, it would not hold against the
devotional compositions of a Christian; the object of whose worship
has condescended also to become the object of description, affection,
and sympathy, in the literal sense of these words. But this is,
perhaps, too solemn and awful an argument for this place; and
therefore we pass on to the concluding statement of the passage under
consideration, in which the writer turns his view downwards, and
argues against sacred poetry from the nature of man, as he had before
from the nature of GOD.

     The employments of pious meditation are faith, thanksgiving,
     repentance and supplication. Faith, invariably uniform,
     cannot be invested by fancy with decorations. Thanksgiving,
     the most joyful of all holy effusions, yet addressed to a
     Being without passions, is confined to a few modes, and is
     to be felt rather than expressed.

What we have said of the variation of the devout affections, as they
exist in various persons, is sufficient, we apprehend, to answer this.
But the rest of the paragraph requires some additional reflection:

     Repentance, trembling in the presence of the Judge, is not
     at leisure for cadences and epithets.

This is rather invidiously put, and looks as if the author had not
entire confidence in the truth of what he was saying. Indeed, it may
very well be questioned; since many of the more refined passions, it
is certain, naturally express themselves in poetical language. But
repentance is not merely a passion, nor is its only office to tremble
in the presence of the Judge. So far from it, that one great business
of sacred poetry, as of sacred music, is to quiet and sober the
feelings of the penitent--to make his compunction as much of ‘a
reasonable service’ as possible.

To proceed:

     Supplication of man to man may diffuse itself through many
     topics of persuasion: but supplication to God can only cry
     for mercy.

Certainly, this would be true, if the abstract nature of the Deity
were alone considered. But if we turn to the sacred volume, which
corrects so many of our erring anticipations, we there find that,
whether in condescension to our infirmities, or for other wise
purposes, we are furnished with inspired precedents for addressing
ourselves to God in all the various tones, and by all the various
topics, which we should use to a good and wise man standing in the
highest and nearest relation to us. This is so palpably the case
throughout the scriptures, that it is quite surprising how a person of
so much serious thought as Dr. Johnson could have failed to recollect
it when arguing on the subject of prayer. In fact, there is a simple
test, by which, perhaps, the whole of his reasoning on Sacred Poetry
might be fairly and decisively tried. Let the reader, as he goes over
it, bear in mind the Psalms of David, and consider whether every one
of his statements and arguments is not there practically refuted.

It is not, then, because sacred subjects are peculiarly unapt for
poetry, that so few sacred poets are popular. We have already glanced
at some of the causes to which we attribute it--we ought to add
another, which strikes us as important. Let us consider how the case
stands with regard to books of devotion in _prose_.

We may own it reluctantly, but must it not be owned? that if two new
publications meet the eye at once, of which no more is known than that
the one is what is familiarly called _a good book_, the other a work
of mere literature, nine readers out of ten will take up the second
rather than the first? If this be allowed, whatever accounts for it
will contribute to account also for the comparative failure of
devotional poetry. For this sort of coldness and languor in the reader
must act upon the author in more ways than one. The large class who
write for money or applause will of course be carried, by the tide of
popularity, towards some other subject. Men of more sincere minds,
either from true or false delicacy, will have little heart to expose
their retired thoughts to the risk of mockery or neglect; and if they
do venture, will be checked every moment, like an eager but bashful
musician before a strange audience, not knowing how far the reader’s
feelings will harmonize with their own. This leaves the field open, in
a great measure, to harder or more enthusiastic spirits; who offending
continually, in their several ways, against delicacy, the one by
wildness, the other by coarseness, aggravate the evil which they
wished to cure; till the sacred subject itself comes at last to bear
the blame due to the indifference of the reader and the indiscretion
of the writer.

Such, we apprehend, would be a probable account of the condition of
sacred poetry, in a country where religion was coldly acknowledged,
and literature earnestly pursued. How far the description may apply to
England and English literature, in their various changes since the
Reformation--how far it may hold true of our own times--is an inquiry
which would lead us too far at present; but it is surely worth
considering. It goes deeper than any question of mere literary
curiosity. It is a sort of test of the genuineness of those
pretensions, which many of us are, perhaps, too forward to advance, to
a higher state of morality and piety, as well as knowledge and
refinement, than has been known elsewhere or in other times.

Those who, in spite of such difficulties, desire in earnest to do good
by the poetical talent, which they may happen to possess, have only,
as it should seem, the following alternative. Either they must veil,
as it were, the sacredness of the subject--not necessarily by
allegory, for it may be done in a thousand other ways--and so deceive
the world of taste into devotional reading--

    Succhi amari intanto ei beve,
    E dall’ inganno sua vita riceve--

or else, directly avowing that their subject as well as purpose is
devotion, they must be content with a smaller number of readers; a
disadvantage, however, compensated by the fairer chance of doing good
to each.

It may be worth while to endeavour to trace this distinction, as
exemplified in the most renowned of the sacred poets of England; and
to glean from such a survey the best instruction we can, in the happy
art of turning the most fascinating part of literature to the highest
purposes of religion.

We must premise that we limit the title of ‘sacred poet’ by excluding
those who only devoted a small portion of their time and talent now
and then, to sacred subjects. In all ages of our literary history it
seems to have been considered almost as an essential part of a poet’s
duty to give up some pages to scriptural story, or to the praise of
his Maker, how remote so ever from anything like religion the general
strain of his writings might be. Witness the Lamentation of Mary
Magdalene in the works of Chaucer, and the beautiful legend of Hew of
Lincoln, which he has inserted in his Canterbury Tales; witness also
the hymns of Ben Jonson. But these fragments alone will not entitle
their authors to be enrolled among sacred poets. They indicate the
taste of their age, rather than their own; a fact which may be thought
to stand rather in painful contrast with the literary history of later
days.

There is another class likewise, of whom little need be said in this
place; we mean those who composed, strictly and only, for the sake of
unburthening their own minds, without any thought of publication. But
as Chaucer’s sacred effusions indicate chiefly the character of the
times, so poems such as those we now allude to, mark only the turn of
mind of the individual writers; and our present business is rather
with that sort of poetry which combines both sorts of instruction;
that, namely, which bears internal evidence of having been written by
sincere men, with an intention of doing good, and with consideration
of the taste of the age in which they lived.

Recurring then to the distinction above laid down, between the direct
and indirect modes of sacred poetry; at the head of the two classes,
as the reader may perhaps have anticipated, we set the glorious names
of Spenser and of Milton. The claim of Spenser to be considered as a
sacred poet does by no means rest upon his hymns alone: although even
those would be enough alone to embalm and consecrate the whole volume
which contains them; as a splinter of the true cross is supposed by
Catholic sailors to ensure the safety of the vessel. But whoever will
attentively consider the _Faerie Queene_ itself, will find that it is,
almost throughout, such as might have been expected from the author of
those truly sacred hymns. It is a continual, deliberate endeavour to
enlist the restless intellect and chivalrous feeling of an inquiring
and romantic age, on the side of goodness and faith, of purity and
justice.

This position is to be made good, not solely or perhaps chiefly, yet
with no small force, from the allegorical structure of the poem. Most
of us, perhaps, are rather disposed to undervalue this contrivance;
and even among the genuine admirers of Spenser, there are not a few
who on purpose leave it out of their thoughts; finding, as they say,
that it only embarrasses their enjoyment of the poetry. This is
certainly far from reasonable: it is a relic of childish feeling, and
mere love of amusement, which ill becomes any one who is old enough to
appreciate the real beauties of Spenser. Yet it is so natural, so
obviously to be expected, that we must suppose a scholar and
philosopher (for such Spenser was, as well as a poet) to have been
aware of it, and to have made up his mind to it, with all its
disadvantages, for some strong reason or other. And what reason so
likely as the hope of being seriously useful, both to himself and his
readers?

To _himself_, because the constant recurrence to his allegory would
serve as a check upon a fancy otherwise too luxuriant, and would
prevent him from indulging in such liberties as the Italian poets, in
other respects his worthy masters, were too apt to take. The
consequence is, that even in his freest passages, and those which one
would most wish unwritten, Spenser is by no means a _seductive_ poet.
Vice in him, however truly described, is always made contemptible or
odious. The same may be said of Milton and Shakespeare; but Milton was
of a cast of mind originally austere and rigorous. He looked on vice
as a judge; Shakespeare, as a satirist. Spenser was far more indulgent
than either, and acted therefore the more wisely in setting himself a
rule, which should make it essential to the plan of his poem to be
always recommending some virtue; and remind him, like a voice from
heaven, that the place on which he was standing was holy ground.

Then as to the benefit which the _readers_ of the _Faerie Queene_ may
derive from its allegorical form; a good deal surely is to be gained
from the mere habit of looking at things with a view to something
beyond their qualities merely sensible; to their sacred and moral
meaning, and to the high associations they were intended to create in
us. Neither the works nor the word of God, neither poetry nor
theology, can be duly comprehended without constant mental exercise of
this kind. The comparison of the Old Testament with the New is nothing
else from beginning to end. And without something of this sort,
poetry, and all the other arts, would indeed be relaxing to the tone
of the mind. The allegory obviates this ill effect, by serving as a
frequent remembrancer of this higher application. Not that it is
necessary to bend and strain everything into conformity with it; a
little leaven, of the genuine kind, will go a good way towards
leavening the whole lump. And so it is in the _Faerie Queene_; for one
stanza of direct allegory there are perhaps fifty of poetical
embellishment; and it is in these last, after all, that the chief
moral excellency of the poem lies; as we are now about to show.

But to be understood rightly, we would premise, that there is a
disposition,--the very reverse of that which leads to parody and
caricature,--which is common indeed to all generous minds, but is
perhaps unrivalled in Spenser. As parody and caricature debase what is
truly noble, by connecting it with low and ludicrous associations; so
a mind, such as we are now speaking of, ennobles what of itself might
seem trivial; its thoughts and language, on all occasions, taking a
uniform and almost involuntary direction towards the best and highest
things.

This, however, is a subject which can be hardly comprehended without
examples. The first which occurs to us is the passage which relates
the origin of Belphœbe.

    Her birth was of the womb of morning dew,
    And her conception of the joyous prime,
    And all her whole creation did her show
    Pure and unspotted from all loathly crime
    That is ingenerate in fleshly slime.
    So was this Virgin born, so was she bred,
    So was she trained up from time to time,
    In all chaste virtue and true bounti-hed,
    Till to her due perfection she was ripenèd.

It is evident how high and sacred a subject was present to the poet’s
mind in composing this stanza; and any person who is well read in the
Bible, with a clue like this may satisfy himself that all Spenser’s
writings are replete with similar tacit allusions to the language and
the doctrines of sacred writ; allusions breathed, if we may so speak,
rather than uttered, and much fitter to be silently considered, than
to be dragged forward for quotation or minute criticism. Of course,
the more numerous and natural such allusions are, the more entirely
are we justified in the denomination we have ventured to bestow on
their author, of a truly ‘sacred’ poet.

It may be felt, as some derogation from this high character, what he
has himself avowed--that much of his allegory has a turn designedly
given it in honour of Queen Elizabeth; a turn which will be called
courtly or adulatory according to the humour of the critic. But, in
the first place, such was the custom of the times; it was adopted even
in sermons by men whose sincerity it would be almost sacrilege to
question. Then, the merits of Queen Elizabeth in respect of the
Protestant cause were of that dazzling order, which might excuse a
little poetical exuberance in her praise. And, what is very deserving
of consideration, it is certain that the most gentle and generous
spirits are commonly found laying themselves open to this charge of
excessive compliment in addressing princes and patrons. Witness the
high style adopted by the venerable Hooker, in speaking of this very
Queen Elizabeth: ‘Whose sacred power, matched with incomparable
goodness of nature, hath hitherto been God’s most happy instrument, by
him miraculously kept for works of so miraculous preservation and
safety unto others,’ &c. Another instance of the same kind may be seen
in Jeremy Taylor’s dedication of his _Worthy Communicant_ to the
Princess of Orange. Nor is it any wonder it should be so, since such
men feel most ardently the blessing and benefit as well as the
difficulty of whatever is right in persons of such exalted station;
and are also most strongly tempted to bear their testimony against the
illiberal and envious censures of the vulgar. All these things, duly
weighed, may seem to leave little, if anything, in the panegyrical
strains of this greatest of laureates, to be excused by the common
infirmity of human nature; little to detract from our deliberate
conviction that he was seriously guided, in the exercise of his art,
by a sense of duty, and zeal for what is durably important.

Spenser then was essentially a _sacred_ poet; but the delicacy and
insinuating gentleness of his disposition were better fitted to the
veiled than the direct mode of instruction. His was a mind which would
have shrunk more from the chance of debasing a sacred subject by
unhandsome treatment, than of incurring ridicule by what would be
called unseasonable attempts to hallow things merely secular. It was
natural therefore for him to choose not a scriptural story, but a tale
of chivalry and romance; and the popular literature, and, in no small
measure, the pageantry and manners of his time, would join to attract
his efforts that way. In this way too he was enabled, with more
propriety and grace, to introduce allusions, political or courtly, to
subjects with which his readers were familiar; thus agreeably
diversifying his allegory, and gratifying his affection for his
friends and patrons, without the coarseness of direct compliment.

In Milton, most evidently, a great difference was to be expected: both
from his own character and from that of the times in which he lived.
Religion was in those days the favourite topic of discussion; and it
is indeed painful to reflect, how sadly it was polluted by
intermixture with earthly passions: the most awful turns and most
surprising miracles of the Jewish history being made to serve the base
purposes of persons, of whom it is hard to say whether they were more
successful in misleading others, or in deceiving themselves. It was an
effort worthy of a manly and devout spirit to rescue religion from
such degradation, by choosing a subject, which, being scriptural,
would suit the habit of the times, yet, from its universal and eternal
importance, would give least opportunity for debasing temporary
application. Then it was the temper of the man always to speak out.
He carried it to a faulty excess, as his prose works too amply
demonstrate. The more unfashionable his moral was, the more he would
have disdained to veil it: neither had he the shrinking delicacy of
Spenser to keep him back, through fear of profaning things hallowed by
an unworthy touch.

Thus the great epic poem of our language came to be, avowedly, a
sacred poem. One hardly dares to wish any thing other than it is in
such a composition; yet it may be useful to point out in what respects
the moral infirmity of the times, or of the author, has affected the
work; so that we are occasionally tempted to regret even Milton’s
choice. But as the leading error of his mind appears to have been
_intellectual_ pride, and as the leading fault of the generation with
which he acted was unquestionably _spiritual_ pride, so the main
defects of his poetry may probably be attributed to the same causes.

There is a studious undervaluing of the female character, which may be
most distinctly perceived by comparing the character of Eve with that
of the Lady in Comus: the latter conceived, as we imagine, before the
mind of the poet had become so deeply tainted with the fault here
imputed to him. A remarkable instance of it is his describing Eve as
unwilling, or unworthy, to discourse herself with the angel.

            Such pleasure she reserved,
    Adam relating; she sole auditress.--

The sentiment may be natural enough, since the primaeval curse upon
women: but does it not argue rather too strong a sense of her original
inferiority, to put it into her mind before the fall?

What again can be said for the reproachful and insulting tone, in
which, more than once, the good angels are made to address the bad
ones? or of the too attractive colours, in which, perhaps
unconsciously, the poet has clothed the Author of Evil himself? It is
a well-known complaint among many of the readers of _Paradise Lost_,
that they can hardly keep themselves from sympathizing, in some sort,
with Satan, as the hero of the poem. The most probable account of
which surely is, that the author himself partook largely of the
haughty and vindictive republican spirit which he has assigned to the
character, and consequently, though perhaps unconsciously, drew the
portrait with a peculiar zest.

These blemishes are in part attributable to the times in which he
lived: but there is another now to be mentioned, which cannot be so
accounted for: we mean a want of purity and spirituality in his
conceptions of Heaven and heavenly joys. His Paradise is a vision not
to be surpassed; but his attempts to soar higher are embarrassed with
too much of earth still clinging as it were to his wings. Remarks of
this kind are in general best understood by comparison, and we invite
our readers to compare Milton with Dante, in their descriptions of
Heaven. The one as simple as possible in his imagery, producing
intense effect by little more than various combinations of _three_
leading ideas--light, motion, and music--as if he feared to introduce
anything more gross and earthly, and would rather be censured, as
doubtless he often is, for coldness and poverty of invention. Whereas
Milton, with very little selection or refinement, transfers to the
immediate neighbourhood of God’s throne the imagery of Paradise and
Earth. Indeed he seems himself to have been aware of something
unsatisfactory in this, and has inserted into the mouth of an angel,
a kind of apology for it:

              Though what if earth
    Be but the shadow of heav’n, and things therein
    Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?

These are blemishes, and sometimes almost tempt us to wish that even
Milton had taken some subject not so immediately and avowedly
connected with religion. But they do not affect his claim to be
considered as the very lodestar and pattern of that class of sacred
poets in England. As such we have here considered him next to Spenser;
not that there were wanting others of the same order before him. In
fact, most of the distinguished names in the poetical annals of
Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I, might be included in the list. It
may be enough just to recollect Drayton and Cowley, Herbert, Crashaw
and Quarles.

The mention of these latter names suggests the remark, how very
desirable it is to encourage as indulgent and, if we may so term it,
_catholic_ a spirit as may be, in poetical criticism. From having been
over-praised in their own days, they are come now to be as much
undervalued; yet their quaintness of manner and constrained imagery,
adopted perhaps in compliance with the taste of their age, should
hardly suffice to overbalance their sterling merits. We speak
especially of Crashaw and Quarles: for Herbert is a name too venerable
to be more than mentioned in our present discussion.

After Milton, sacred poetry seems to have greatly declined, both in
the number and merit of those who cultivated it. No other could be
expected from the conflicting evils of those times: in which one party
was used to brand everything sacred with the name of Puritanism, and
the other to suspect every thing poetical of being contrary to
morality and religion.

Yet most of the great names of that age, especially among the
Romanists, as Dryden, Pope, and before them Habington, continued to
dedicate some of their poetry to religion. By their faith they were
remote from the controversies which agitated the established church,
and their devotion might indulge itself without incurring the
suspicion of a fanatical spirit. Then the solemnity of their worship
is fitted to inspire splendid and gorgeous strains, such as Dryden’s
paraphrase of the Veni Creator; and their own fallen fortunes in
England, no less naturally, would fill them with a sense of decay very
favourable to the plaintive tenderness of Habington and Crashaw.

A feeling of this kind, joined to the effect of distressing languor
and sickness, may be discerned, occasionally, in the writings of
Bishop Ken; though he was far indeed from being a Romanist. We shall
hardly find, in all ecclesiastical history, a greener spot than the
later years of this courageous and affectionate pastor; persecuted
alternately by both parties, and driven from his station in his
declining age; yet singing on, with unabated cheerfulness, to the
last. His poems are not popular, nor probably ever will be, for
reasons already touched upon; but whoever in earnest loves his three
well-known hymns, and knows how to value such unaffected strains of
poetical devotion, will find his account, in turning over his four
volumes, half narrative and half lyric, and all avowedly on sacred
subjects; the narrative often cumbrous, and the lyric verse not seldom
languid and redundant: yet all breathing such an angelic spirit,
interspersed with such pure and bright touches of poetry, that such a
reader as we have supposed will scarcely find it in his heart to
criticize them.

Between that time and ours, the form of sacred poetry which has
succeeded best in attracting public attention, is the didactic: of
which Davies in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Sir Richard Blackmore in King
William’s, Young in the middle, and Cowper in the close, of the last
century, may fairly be taken as specimens, differing from each other
according to the differences of their respective literary eras.
Davies, with his Lucretian majesty (although he wants the moral pathos
of the Roman poet), representing aptly enough the age of Elizabeth;
Blackmore, with his easy paragraphs, the careless style of King
Charles’s days; Young, with his pointed sentences, transferring to
graver subjects a good deal of the manner of Pope; and Cowper, with
his agreeable but too unsparing descriptions, coming nearer to the
present day, which appears, both in manners and in scenery, to delight
in Dutch painting, rather than in what is more delicately classical.

With regard to the indirect, and, perhaps, more effective, species of
sacred poetry, we fear it must be acknowledged, to the shame of the
last century, that there is hardly a single specimen of it (excepting,
perhaps, Gray’s Elegy, and possibly some of the most perfect of
Collins’s poems) which has obtained any celebrity. We except the
writers of our own times, who do not fall within the scope of this
inquiry.

To Spenser, therefore, upon the whole, the English reader must revert,
as being, pre-eminently, the sacred poet of his country: as most
likely, in every way, to answer the purposes of his art; especially in
an age of excitation and refinement, in which the gentler and more
homely beauties, both of character and of scenery, are too apt to be
despised: with passion and interest enough to attract the most ardent,
and grace enough to win the most polished; yet by a silent preference
everywhere inculcating the love of better and more enduring things;
and so most exactly fulfilling what he has himself declared to be ‘the
general end of all his book’--‘to fashion a gentleman, or noble
person, in virtuous and gentle discipline’: and going the straight way
to the accomplishment of his own high-minded prayer:

    That with the glory of so goodly sight,
    The hearts of men, which fondly here admire
    Fair-seeming shows, and feed on vain delight,
    Transported with celestial desire
    Of those fair forms, may lift themselves up higher,
    And learn to love, with zealous humble duty,
    Th’ eternal fountain of that heavenly beauty.



JOHN HENRY NEWMAN

1801-1890

POETRY

WITH REFERENCE TO ARISTOTLE’S POETICS (1829).

_The Theatre of the Greeks; or the History, Literature, and Criticism
of the Grecian Drama. With an original Treatise on the Principal
Tragic and Comic Metres._ Second Edition. Cambridge. 1827.


This work is well adapted for the purpose it has in view--the
illustration of the Greek drama. It has been usual for the young
student to engage in a perusal of this difficult branch of classical
literature, with none of that previous preparation or collateral
assistance which it pre-eminently requires. Not to mention his
ordinary want of information as regards the history of the drama,
which, though necessary to the full understanding the nature of that
kind of poetry, may still seem too remotely connected with the
existing Greek plays to be an actual deficiency; nor, again, his
ignorance of the dramatic dialect and metres, which, without external
helps, may possibly be overcome by minds of superior talent while
engaged upon them; at least without some clear ideas of the usages of
the ancient stage, the Greek dramas are but partially intelligible.
The circumstances under which the representation was conducted, the
form and general arrangements of the theatre, the respective offices
and disposition of the actors, the nature and duties of the chorus,
the proprieties of the scene itself, are essential subjects of
information, yet they are generally neglected. The publication before
us is a compilation of the most useful works or parts of works on the
criticism, history, and antiquities of the drama; among which will be
found extracts from Bentley’s _Dissertation on the Epistles of
Phalaris_ and from Schlegel’s work on Dramatic Literature; the more
important parts of Twining’s Translation of Aristotle’s _Poetics_, and
critical remarks, by Dawes, Porson, Elmsley, Tate, and the writers in
the _Museum Criticum_.

If we were disposed to find fault with a useful work, we should
describe it as over-liberal of condensed critical information. Such
ample assistance is given to the student, that little is left to
exercise his own personal thought and judgement. This is a fault of
not a few publications of the present day, written for our
universities. From a false estimate of the advantages of accurate
scholarship, the reader is provided with a multitude of minute facts,
which are useful to his mind, not when barely remembered, but chiefly
when he has acquired them for himself. It is of comparatively trifling
importance, whether the scholar knows the force of οὐ μή or ἀλλα γάρ;
but it may considerably improve his acumen or taste, to have gone
through a process of observation, comparison, and induction, more or
less original and independent of grammarians and critics. It is an
officious aid which renders the acquisition of a language mechanical.
Commentators are of service to stimulate the mind, and suggest
thought; and though, when we view the wide field of criticism, it is
impossible they should do more, yet, when that field is narrowed to
the limit of academical success, there is a danger of their indulging
indolence, or confirming the contracted views of dullness. These
remarks are not so much directed against a valuable work like the
present, the very perusal of which may be made an exercise for the
mind, as against an especial fault of the age. The uses of knowledge
in forming the intellectual and moral character, are too commonly
overlooked; and the possession itself being viewed as a peculiar good,
short ways are on all subjects excogitated for avoiding the labour of
learning; whereas the very length and process of the journey is in
many the chief, in all an important advantage.

But, dismissing a train of thought which would soon lead us very far
from the range of subjects which the _Theatre of the Greeks_
introduces to our notice, we propose to offer some speculations of our
own on Greek tragedy and poetry in general, founded on the doctrine of
Aristotle as contained in the publication before us. A compilation of
standard works, (and such in its general character is the _Greek
Theatre_,) scarcely affords the occasion of lengthened criticism on
itself; whereas it may be of use to the classical student to add some
further illustrations of the subject which is the common basis of the
works compiled.

Aristotle considers the excellence of a tragedy to depend upon its
_plot_--and, since a tragedy, as such, is obviously the exhibition of
an _action_, no one can deny his statement to be abstractedly true.
Accordingly he directs his principal attention to the economy of the
fable; determines its range of subjects, delineates its proportions,
traces its progress from a complication of incidents to their just
and satisfactory arrangement, investigates the means of making a train
of events striking or affecting, and shows how the exhibition of
character may be made subservient to the purposes of the action. His
treatise is throughout interesting and valuable. It is one thing,
however, to form the beau idéal of a tragedy on scientific principles;
another to point out the actual beauty of a particular school of
dramatic composition. The Greek tragedians are not generally
felicitous in the construction of their plots. Aristotle, then, rather
tells us what tragedy should be, than what Greek tragedy really was.
And this doubtless was the intention of the philosopher. Since,
however, the Greek drama has obtained so extended and lasting a
celebrity, and yet its excellence does not fall under the strict rules
of the critical art, we should inquire in what it consists.

That the charm of Greek tragedy does not ordinarily arise from
scientific correctness of plot, is certain as a matter of fact. Seldom
does any great interest arise from the action; which, instead of being
progressive and sustained, is commonly either a mere necessary
condition of the drama, or a convenience for the introduction of
matter more important than itself. It is often stationary--often
irregular--sometimes either wants or outlives the catastrophe. In the
plays of Aeschylus it is always simple and inartificial--in four out
of the seven there is hardly any plot at all;--and, though it is of
more prominent importance in those of Sophocles, yet even here the
_Oedipus at Colonus_ is a mere series of incidents, and the _Ajax_ a
union of two separate tales; while in the _Philoctetes_, which is
apparently busy, the circumstances of the action are but slightly
connected with the _dénouement_. The carelessness of Euripides in the
construction of his plots is well known. The action then will be more
justly viewed as the vehicle for introducing the personages of the
drama, than as the principal object of the poet’s art; it is not in
the plot, but in the characters, sentiments, and diction, that the
actual merit and poetry of the composition is placed. To show this to
the satisfaction of the reader, would require a minuter investigation
of details than our present purpose admits; yet a few instances in
point may suggest others to the memory. E. g. in neither the _Oedipus
Coloneus_ nor the _Philoctetes_, the two most beautiful plays of
Sophocles, is the plot striking; but how exquisite is the delineation
of the characters of Antigone and Oedipus, in the former tragedy,
particularly in their interview with Polynices, and the various
descriptions of the scene itself which the Chorus furnishes! In the
_Philoctetes_, again, it is the contrast between the worldly wisdom of
Ulysses, the inexperienced frankness of Neoptolemus, and the
simplicity of the afflicted Philoctetes, which constitutes the
principal charm of the drama. Or we may instance the spirit and nature
displayed in the grouping of the characters in the _Prometheus_ which
is almost without action;--the stubborn enemy of the new dynasty of
gods; Oceanus trimming, as an accomplished politician, with the change
of affairs; the single-hearted and generous Nereids; and Hermes the
favourite and instrument of the usurping potentate. So again, the
beauties of the _Thebae_ are almost independent of the plot;--it is
the Chorus which imparts grace and interest to the actionless scene;
and the speech of Antigone at the end, one of the most simply striking
in any play, has, scientifically speaking, no place in the tragedy,
which should already have been brought to its conclusion. Amid the
multitude of the beauties of the irregular Euripides, it is obvious to
notice the characters of Alcestis and the Clytemnestra of the
_Electra_; the soliloquies of _Medea_; the picturesque situation of
Ion, the minister of the Pythian temple; the opening scene of the
_Orestes_; and the dialogues between Phaedra and her attendant in the
_Hippolytus_, and the old man and Antigone in the _Phoenissae_;--passages
which are either unconnected with the development of the plot, or of
an importance superior to it. Thus the Greek drama, as a fact, was
modelled on no scientific principle. It was a pure recreation of the
imagination, revelling without object or meaning beyond its own
exhibition. Gods, heroes, kings, and dames, enter and retire: they may
have a good reason for appearing--they may have a very poor one;
whatever it is, still we have no right to ask for it;--the question is
impertinent. Let us listen to their harmonious and majestic
language--to the voices of sorrow, joy, compassion, or religious
emotion--to the animated odes of the chorus. Why interrupt so divine a
display of poetical genius by inquiries degrading it to the level of
every-day events, and implying incompleteness in the action till a
catastrophe arrives? The very spirit of beauty breathes through every
part of the composition. We may liken the Greek drama to the music of
the Italian school; in which the wonder is, how so much richness of
invention in detail can be accommodated to a style so simple and
uniform. Each is the development of grace, fancy, pathos, and taste,
in the respective media of representation and sound.

However true then it may be, that one or two of the most celebrated
dramas answer to the requisitions of Aristotle’s doctrine, still for
the most part, Greek Tragedy has its own distinct and peculiar praise,
which must not be lessened by a criticism conducted on principles,
whether correct or not, still leading to excellence of another
character. This being, as we hope, shown, we shall be still bolder,
and proceed to question even the sufficiency of the rules of Aristotle
for the production of dramas of the highest order. These rules, it
would appear, require a plot not merely natural and unaffected, as a
vehicle of more poetical matter, but one laboured and complicated as
the sole legitimate channel of tragic effect; and thus tend to
withdraw the mind of the poet from the spontaneous exhibition of
pathos or imagination, to a minute diligence in the formation of a
plan. To explain our views on the subject, we will institute a short
comparison between three tragedies, the _Agamemnon_, the _Oedipus_,
and the _Bacchae_, one of each of the tragic poets, where, by
reference to Aristotle’s principles, we think it will be found that
the most perfect in plot is not the most poetical.

Of these the action of the _Oedipus Tyrannus_ is frequently instanced
by the critic as a specimen of judgement and skill in the selection
and combination of the incidents; and in this point of view it is
truly a masterly composition. The clearness, precision, certainty,
and vigour, with which the line of the action moves on to its
termination, is admirable. The character of Oedipus too is finely
drawn, and identified with the development of the action.

The _Agamemnon_ of Aeschylus presents us with the slow and difficult
birth of a portentous secret--an event of old written in the resolves
of destiny, a crime long meditated in the bosom of the human agents.
The Chorus here has an importance altogether wanting in the Chorus of
the _Oedipus_. They throw a pall of ancestral honour over the bier of
the hereditary monarch, which would have been unbecoming in the case
of the upstart king of Thebes. Till the arrival of Agamemnon, they
occupy our attention, as the prophetic organ, not commissioned indeed
but employed by heaven, to proclaim the impending horrors. Succeeding
to the brief intimation of the watcher who opens the play, they seem
oppressed with forebodings of woe and crime which they can neither
justify nor analyse. The expression of their anxiety forms the stream
in which the plot flows--every thing, even news of joy, takes a
colouring from the depth of their gloom. On the arrival of the king,
they retire before Cassandra, a more regularly commissioned
prophetess; who, speaking first in figure, then in plain terms, only
ceases that we may hear the voice of the betrayed monarch himself,
informing us of the striking of the fatal blow. Here then the very
simplicity of the fable constitutes its especial beauty. The death of
Agamemnon is intimated at first--it is accomplished at last:
throughout we find but the growing in volume and intensity of one and
the same note--it is a working up of one musical ground, by fugue and
imitation, into the richness of combined harmony. But we look in vain
for the progressive and thickening incidents of the _Oedipus_.

The action of the _Bacchae_ is also simple. It is the history of the
reception of the worship of Bacchus in Thebes; who, first depriving
Pentheus of his reason, and thereby drawing him on to his ruin,
establishes his divinity. The interest of the scene arises from the
gradual process by which the derangement of the Theban king is
effected, which is powerfully and originally described. It would be
comic, were it unconnected with religion. As it is, it exhibits the
grave irony of a god triumphing over the impotent presumption of man,
the sport and terrible mischievousness of an insulted deity. It is an
exemplification of the adage, _quem deus vult perdere, prius
dementat_. So delicately balanced is the action along the verge of the
sublime and grotesque, that it is both solemn and humorous, without
violence to the propriety of the composition: the mad and merry fire
of the Chorus, the imbecile mirth of old Cadmus and Tiresias, and the
infatuation of Pentheus, who is ultimately induced to dress himself in
female garb to gain admittance among the Bacchae, are made to
harmonize with the terrible catastrophe which concludes the life of
the intruder. Perhaps the victim’s first discovery of the disguised
deity is the finest conception in this splendid drama. His madness
enables him to discern the emblematic horns on the head of Bacchus,
which were hid from him when in his sound mind; yet this discovery,
instead of leading him to an acknowledgement of the divinity,
provides him only with matter for a stupid and perplexed
astonishment.

    καὶ ταῦρος ἡμῖν πρόσθεν ἡγεῖσθαι δοκεῖς,
    καὶ σῶ κέρατε κρατὶ προσπεφυκέναι.
    ἀλλ’ ἦ ποτ’ ἦσθα θήρ; τεταύρωσαι γὰρ οὖν.[18]

This play is on the whole the most favourable specimen of the genius
of Euripides--not breathing the sweet composure, the melodious
fullness, the majesty and grace of Sophocles; nor rudely and
overpoweringly tragic as Aeschylus; but brilliant, versatile,
imaginative, as well as deeply pathetic.

    [18]

        A Bull, thou seem’st to lead us; on thy head
        Horns have grown forth: wast heretofore a beast?
        For such thy semblance now.

Here then are two dramas of extreme poetical power, but deficient in
skilfulness of plot. Are they on that account to be rated below the
_Oedipus_, which, in spite of its many beauties, has not even a share
of the richness and sublimity of either?

Aristotle, then, it must be allowed, treats dramatic composition more
as an exhibition of ingenious workmanship, than as a free and
unfettered effusion of genius. The inferior poem may, on his
principle, be the better tragedy. He may indeed have intended solely
to delineate the outward framework most suitable to the reception of
the spirit of poetry, not to discuss the nature of poetry itself. If
so, it cannot be denied that, the poetry being given equal in the two
cases, the more perfect plot will merit the greater share of praise.
And it may seem to agree with this view of his meaning, that he
pronounces Euripides, in spite of the irregularity of his plots, to
be, after all, the most tragic of the Greek dramatists, inasmuch (i.
e.) as he excels in his appeal to those passions which the outward
form of the drama merely subserves. Still there is surely too much
stress laid by the philosopher upon the artificial part; which, after
all, leads to negative, more than to positive excellence; and should
rather be the natural and (so to say) unintentional result of the
poet’s feeling and imagination, than be separated from them as the
direct object of his care. Perhaps it is hardly fair to judge of
Aristotle’s sentiments by the fragment of his work which has come down
to us. Yet as his natural taste led him to delight in the explication
of systems, and in those large and connected views which his vigorous
talent for thinking through subjects supplied, we may be allowed to
suspect him of entertaining too cold and formal conceptions of the
nature of poetical composition, as if its beauties were less subtle
and delicate than they really are. A word has power to convey a world
of information to the imagination, and to act as a spell upon the
feelings: there is no need of sustained fiction--often no room for
it.[19] Some confirmation of the judgement we have ventured to pass on
the greatest of analytical philosophers, is the account he gives of
the source of poetical pleasure; which he almost identifies with a
gratification of the reasoning faculty, placing it in the satisfaction
derived from recognizing in fiction a resemblance to the realities of
life--συμβαίνει θεωροῦντας μανθάνειν καὶ συλλογίζεσθαι, τί ἕκαστον.[20]

    [19] The sudden inspiration, e. g. of the blind Oedipus, in
    the second play bearing his name, by which he is enabled,
    ἄθικτος ἡγητῆρος [‘without a guide’], to lead the
    way to his place of death, in our judgement, produces more
    poetical effect than all the skilful intricacy of the plot of
    the _Tyrannus_. The latter excites an interest which scarcely
    lasts beyond the first reading--the former _decies repetita
    placebit_.

    [20] In seeing the picture one is at the same time
    learning,--gathering the meaning of things.

But as we have treated, rather unceremoniously, a deservedly high
authority, we will try to compensate for our rudeness, by illustrating
his general doctrine of the nature of poetry, which we hold to be most
true and philosophical.

Poetry, according to Aristotle, is a representation of the ideal.
Biography and history represent individual characters and actual
facts; poetry, on the contrary, generalizing from the phenomena of
nature and life, supplies us with pictures drawn not after an existing
pattern, but after a creation of the mind. _Fidelity_ is the primary
merit of biography and history; the essence of poetry is _fiction_.
_Poesis nihil aliud est_ (says Bacon) _quam historiae imitatio ad
placitum_. It delineates that perfection which the imagination
suggests, and to which as a limit the present system of divine
Providence actually tends. Moreover, by confining the attention to one
series of events and scene of action, it bounds and finishes off the
confused luxuriance of real nature; while, by a skilful adjustment of
circumstances, it brings into sight the connexion of cause and effect,
completes the dependence of the parts one on another, and harmonizes
the proportions of the whole. It is then but the type and model of
history or biography, if we may be allowed the comparison, bearing
some resemblance to the abstract mathematical formula of physics,
before it is modified by the contingencies of gravity and friction.
Hence, while it recreates the imagination by the superhuman loveliness
of its views, it provides a solace for the mind broken by the
disappointments and sufferings of actual life; and becomes, moreover,
the utterance of the inward emotions of a right moral feeling, seeking
a purity and a truth which this world will not give.

It follows that the poetical mind is one full of the eternal forms of
beauty and perfection; these are its material of thought, its
instrument and medium of observation--these colour each object to
which it directs its view. It is called imaginative or creative, from
the originality and independence of its modes of thinking, compared
with the common-place and matter-of-fact conceptions of ordinary
minds, which are fettered down to the particular and individual. At
the same time it feels a natural sympathy with everything great and
splendid in the physical and moral world; and selecting such from the
mass of common phenomena, incorporates them, as it were, into the
substance of its own creations. From living thus in a world of its
own, it speaks the language of dignity, emotion, and refinement.
Figure is its necessary medium of communication with man; for in the
feebleness of ordinary words to express its ideas, and in the absence
of terms of abstract perfection, the adoption of metaphorical language
is the only poor means allowed it for imparting to others its intense
feelings. A metrical garb has, in all languages, been appropriated to
poetry--it is but the outward development of the music and harmony
within. The verse, far from being a restraint on the true poet, is the
suitable index of his sense, and is adopted by his free and deliberate
choice.

We shall presently show the applicability of our doctrine to the
various departments of poetical composition; first, however, it will
be right to volunteer an explanation which may save it from much
misconception and objection. Let not our notion be thought arbitrarily
to limit the number of poets, generally considered such. It will be
found to lower particular works, or parts of works, rather than the
writers themselves; sometimes to condemn only the vehicle in which the
poetry is conveyed. There is an ambiguity in the word poetry, which is
taken to signify both the talent itself, and the written composition
which is the result of it. Thus there is an apparent, but no real
contradiction, in saying a poem may be but partially poetical; in some
passages more so than in others; and sometimes not poetical at all. We
only maintain--not that writers forfeit the name of poet who fail at
times to answer to our requisitions, but--that they are poets only so
far forth and inasmuch as they do answer to them. We may grant, for
instance, that the vulgarities of old Phoenix in the ninth _Iliad_, or
of the nurse of Orestes in the _Choephoroe_, or perhaps of the
grave-diggers in _Hamlet_, are in themselves unworthy of their
respective authors, and refer them to the wantonness of exuberant
genius; and yet maintain that the scenes in question contain much
_incidental_ poetry. Now and then the lustre of the true metal catches
the eye, redeeming whatever is unseemly and worthless in the rude ore;
still the ore is not the metal. Nay sometimes, and not unfrequently in
Shakespeare, the introduction of unpoetical matter may be necessary
for the sake of relief, or as a vivid expression of recondite
conceptions, and (as it were) to make friends with the reader’s
imagination. This necessity, however, cannot make the additions in
themselves beautiful and pleasing. Sometimes, on the other hand, while
we do not deny the incidental beauty of a poem, we are ashamed and
indignant on witnessing the unworthy substance in which that beauty is
imbedded. This remark applies strongly to the immoral compositions to
which Lord Byron devoted his last years. Now to proceed with our
proposed investigation.

We will notice _descriptive poetry_ first. Empedocles wrote his
physics in verse, and Oppian his history of animals. Neither were
poets--the one was an historian of nature, the other a sort of
biographer of brutes. Yet a poet may make natural history or
philosophy the material of his composition. But under his hands they
are no longer a bare collection of facts or principles, but are
painted with a meaning, beauty, and harmonious order not their own.
Thomson has sometimes been commended for the novelty and minuteness of
his remarks upon nature. This is not the praise of a poet; whose
office rather is to represent _known_ phenomena in a new connexion or
medium. In _L’Allegro_ and _Il Penseroso_ the poetical magician
invests the commonest scenes of a country life with the hues, first of
a mirthful, then of a pensive mind.[21] Pastoral poetry is a
description of rustics, agriculture, and cattle, softened off and
corrected from the rude health of nature. Virgil, and much more Pope
and others, have run into the fault of colouring too highly;--instead
of drawing generalized and ideal forms of _shepherds_, they have given
us pictures of _gentlemen_ and _beaux_. Their composition may be
poetry, but it is not pastoral poetry.

    [21] It is the charm of the descriptive poetry of a religious
    mind, that nature is viewed in a moral connexion. Ordinary
    writers (e. g.) compare aged men to trees in autumn--a gifted
    poet will reverse the metaphor. Thus:--

        ‘How quiet shows the woodland scene!
          Each flower and tree, its duty done,
        Reposing in decay serene,
          _Like weary men when age is won_,’ &c.

The difference between poetical and historical _narrative_ may be
illustrated by the ‘Tales Founded on Facts’, generally of a religious
character, so common in the present day, which we must not be thought
to approve, because we use them for our purpose. The author finds in
the circumstances of the case many particulars too trivial for public
notice, or irrelevant to the main story, or partaking perhaps too much
of the peculiarity of individual minds:--these he omits. He finds
connected events separated from each other by time or place, or a
course of action distributed among a multitude of agents; he limits
the scene or duration of the tale, and dispenses with his host of
characters by condensing the mass of incident and action in the
history of a few. He compresses long controversies into a concise
argument--and exhibits characters by dialogue--and (if such be his
object) brings prominently forward the course of Divine Providence by
a fit disposition of his materials. Thus he selects, combines,
refines, colours--in fact, _poetizes_. His facts are no longer
_actual_ but _ideal_--a tale _founded on_ facts is a tale _generalized
from_ facts. The authors of _Peveril of the Peak_, and of _Brambletye
House_, have given us their respective descriptions of the profligate
times of Charles II. Both accounts are interesting, but for different
reasons. That of the latter writer has the fidelity of history;
Walter Scott’s picture is the hideous reality unintentionally softened
and decorated by the poetry of his own mind. Miss Edgeworth sometimes
apologizes for certain incidents in her tales, by stating they took
place ‘by one of those strange chances which occur in life, but seem
incredible when found in writing’. Such an excuse evinces a
misconception of the principle of fiction, which, being the
_perfection_ of the actual, prohibits the introduction of any such
anomalies of experience. It is by a similar impropriety that painters
sometimes introduce unusual sunsets, or other singular phenomena of
lights and forms. Yet some of Miss Edgeworth’s works contain much
poetry of narrative. _Manœuvring_ is perfect in its way--the plot and
characters are natural, without being too real to be pleasing.

_Character_ is made poetical by a like process. The writer draws
indeed from experience; but unnatural peculiarities are laid aside,
and harsh contrasts reconciled. If it be said, the fidelity of the
imitation is often its greatest merit, we have only to reply, that in
such cases the pleasure is not poetical, but consists in the mere
recognition. All novels and tales which introduce real characters, are
in the same degree unpoetical. Portrait-painting, to be poetical,
should furnish an abstract representation of an individual; the
abstraction being more rigid, inasmuch as the painting is confined to
one point of time. The artist should draw independently of the
accidents of attitude, dress, occasional feeling, and transient
action. He should depict the general spirit of his subject--as if he
were copying from memory, not from a few particular sittings. An
ordinary painter will delineate with rigid fidelity, and will make a
caricature. But the learned artist contrives so to temper his
composition, as to sink all offensive peculiarities and hardnesses of
individuality, without diminishing the striking effect of the
likeness, or acquainting the casual spectator with the secret of his
art. Miss Edgeworth’s representations of the Irish character are
actual, and not poetical--nor were they intended to be so. They are
interesting, because they are faithful. If there is poetry about them,
it exists in the personages themselves, not in her representation of
them. She is only the accurate reporter in word of what was poetical
in fact. Hence, moreover, when a deed or incident is striking in
itself, a judicious writer is led to describe it in the most simple
and colourless terms, his own being unnecessary; e. g. if the
greatness of the action itself excites the imagination, or the depth
of the suffering interests the feelings. In the usual phrase, the
circumstances are left to ‘speak for themselves’.

Let it not be said that our doctrine is adverse to that individuality
in the delineation of character, which is a principal charm of
fiction. It is not necessary for the ideality of a composition to
avoid those minuter shades of difference between man and man, which
give to poetry its plausibility and life; but merely such violation of
general nature, such improbabilities, wanderings, or coarsenesses, as
interfere with the refined and delicate enjoyment of the imagination;
which would have the elements of beauty extracted out of the confused
multitude of ordinary actions and habits, and combined with
consistency and ease. Nor does it exclude the introduction of
imperfect or odious characters. The original conception of a weak or
guilty mind may have its intrinsic beauty. And much more so, when it
is connected with a tale which finally adjusts whatever is
reprehensible in the personages themselves. Richard and Iago are
subservient to the plot. Moral excellence of character may sometimes
be even a fault. The Clytemnestra of Euripides is so interesting, that
the divine vengeance, which is the main subject of the drama, seems
almost unjust. Lady Macbeth, on the contrary, is the conception of one
deeply learned in the poetical art. She is polluted with the most
heinous crimes, and meets the fate she deserves. Yet there is nothing
in the picture to offend the taste, and much to feed the imagination.
Romeo and Juliet are too good for the termination to which the plot
leads--so are Ophelia and the bride of Lammermoor. In these cases
there is something inconsistent with correct beauty, and therefore
unpoetical. We do not say the fault could be avoided without
sacrificing more than would be gained; still it is a fault. It is
scarcely possible for a poet satisfactorily to connect innocence with
ultimate unhappiness, when the notion of a future life is excluded.
Honours paid to the memory of the dead are some alleviation of the
harshness. In his use of the doctrine of a future life, Southey is
admirable. Other writers are content to conduct their heroes to
temporal happiness--Southey refuses present comfort to his Ladurlad,
Thalaba, and Roderick, but carries them on through suffering to
another world. The death of his hero is the termination of the action;
yet so little in two of them, at least, does this catastrophe excite
sorrowful feelings, that some readers may be startled to be reminded
of the fact. If a melancholy is thrown over the conclusion of the
_Roderick_, it is from the peculiarities of the hero’s previous
history.

Opinions, feelings, manners, and customs, are made poetical by the
delicacy or splendour with which they are expressed. This is seen in
the _ode_, _elegy_, _sonnet_, and _ballad_; in which a single idea
perhaps, or familiar occurrence, is invested by the poet with pathos
or dignity. The ballad of _Old Robin Gray_ will serve, for an
instance, out of a multitude; again, Lord Byron’s _Hebrew Melody_,
beginning ‘Were my bosom as false’, &c.; or Cowper’s _Lines on his
Mother’s Picture_; or Milman’s ‘Funeral Hymn’ in the _Martyr of
Antioch_; or Milton’s _Sonnet on his Blindness_; or Bernard Barton’s
_Dream_. As picturesque specimens, we may name Campbell’s _Battle of
the Baltic_; or Joanna Baillie’s _Chough and Crow_; and for the more
exalted and splendid style, Gray’s _Bard_; or Milton’s _Hymn on the
Nativity_; in which facts, with which every one is familiar, are made
new by the colouring of a poetical imagination. It must all along be
observed, that we are not adducing instances for their own sake; but
in order to illustrate our general doctrine, and to show its
applicability to those compositions which are, by universal consent,
acknowledged to be poetical.

The department of poetry we are now speaking of, is of much wider
extent than might at first sight appear. It will include such
moralizing and philosophical poems as Young’s _Night Thoughts_, and
Byron’s _Childe Harold_.[22] There is much bad taste, at present, in
the judgement passed on compositions of this kind. It is the fault of
the day to mistake mere eloquence for poetry; whereas, in direct
opposition to the conciseness and simplicity of the poet, the talent
of the orator consists in making much of a single idea. ‘_Sic dicet
ille ut verset saepe multis modis eandem et unam rem, ut haereat in
eadem commoreturque sententia._’ This is the great art of Cicero
himself, who, whether he is engaged in statement, argument, or
raillery, never ceases till he has exhausted the subject; going round
about it, and placing it in every different light, yet without
repetition to offend or weary the reader. This faculty seems to
consist in the power of throwing off harmonious sentences, which,
while they have a respectable proportion of meaning, yet are
especially intended to charm the ear. In popular poems, common ideas
are unfolded with copiousness, and set off in polished verse--and this
is called poetry. In the _Pleasures of Hope_ we find this done with
exquisite taste; but it is in his minor poems that the author’s
powerful and free poetical genius rises to its natural elevation. In
_Childe Harold_, too, the writer is carried through his Spenserian
stanza with the unweariness and equable fullness of accomplished
eloquence; opening, illustrating, and heightening one idea, before he
passes on to another. His composition is an extended funeral oration
over buried joys and pleasures. His laments over Greece, Rome, and the
fallen in various engagements, have quite the character of panegyrical
orations; while by the very attempt to describe the celebrated
buildings and sculptures of antiquity, he seems to confess that _they_
are the poetical text, his the rhetorical comment. Still it is a work
of splendid talent, though, as a whole, not of the highest poetical
excellence. Juvenal is, perhaps, the only ancient author who
habitually substitutes declamation for poetry.[23]

    [22] We would here mention Rogers’s _Italy_, if such a
    cursory notice could convey our high opinion of its merit.

    [23] The difference between oratory and poetry is well
    illustrated by a passage in a recent tragedy.

          _Col._ Joined! by what tie?

          _Rien._ By hatred--
        By danger--the two hands that tightest grasp
        Each other--the two cords that soonest knit
        A fast and stubborn tie; your true love knot
        Is nothing to it. Faugh! the supple touch
        Of pliant interest, or the dust of time,
        Or the pin-point of temper, loose or rot
        Or snap love’s silken band. Fear and old hate,
        They are sure weavers--they work for the storm,
        The whirlwind, and the rocking surge; their knot
        Endures till death.

    The idea is good, and if expressed in a line or two, might
    have been poetry--spread out into nine or ten lines, it
    yields but a languid and ostentatious declamation.

The _philosophy of mind_ may equally be made subservient to poetry, as
the philosophy of nature. It is a common fault to mistake a mere
knowledge of the heart for poetical talent. Our greatest masters have
known better;--they have subjected metaphysics to their art. In
_Hamlet_, _Macbeth_, _Richard_, and _Othello_, the philosophy of mind
is but the material of the poet. These personages are ideal; they are
effects of the contact of a given internal character with given
outward circumstances, the results of combined conditions determining
(so to say) a moral curve of original and inimitable properties.
Philosophy is exhibited in the same subserviency to poetry in many
parts of Crabbe’s _Tales of the Hall_. In the writings of this author
there is much to offend a refined taste; but at least in the work in
question there is much of a highly poetical cast. It is a
representation of the action and re-action of two minds upon each
other and upon the world around them. Two brothers of different
characters and fortunes, and strangers to each other, meet. Their
habits of mind, the formation of those habits by external
circumstances, their respective media of judgement, their points of
mutual attraction and repulsion, the mental position of each in
relation to a variety of trifling phenomena of every-day nature and
life, are beautifully developed in a series of tales moulded into a
connected narrative. We are tempted to single out the fourth book,
which gives an account of the childhood and education of the younger
brother, and which for variety of thought as well as fidelity of
description is in our judgement beyond praise. The Waverley novels
would afford us specimens of a similar excellence. One striking
peculiarity of these tales is the author’s practice of describing a
group of characters bearing the same general features of mind, and
placed in the same general circumstances; yet so contrasted with each
other in minute differences of mental constitution, that each diverges
from the common starting-place into a path peculiar to himself. The
brotherhood of villains in _Kenilworth_, of knights in _Ivanhoe_, and
of enthusiasts in _Old Mortality_ are instances of this. This bearing
of character and plot on each other is not often found in Byron’s
poems. The Corsair is intended for a remarkable personage. We pass by
the inconsistencies of his character, considered by itself. The grand
fault is that, whether it be natural or not, we are obliged to accept
the author’s word for the fidelity of his portrait. We are told, not
shown, what the hero was. There is nothing in the plot which results
from his peculiar formation of mind. An every-day bravo might equally
well have satisfied the requirements of the action. Childe Harold,
again, if he is any thing, is a being professedly isolated from the
world, and uninfluenced by it. One might as well draw Tityrus’s stags
grazing in the air, as a character of this kind; which yet, with more
or less alteration, passes through successive editions in his other
poems. Byron had very little versatility or elasticity of genius; he
did not know how to make poetry out of existing materials. He declaims
in his own way, and has the upper hand as long as he is allowed to go
on; but, if interrogated on principles of nature and good sense, he is
at once put out and brought to a stand. Yet his conception of
Sardanapalus and Myrrha is fine and ideal, and in the style of
excellence which we have just been admiring in Shakespeare and Scott.

These illustrations of Aristotle’s doctrine may suffice.

Now let us proceed to a fresh position; which, as before, shall first
be broadly stated, then modified and explained. How does originality
differ from the poetical talent? Without affecting the accuracy of a
definition, we may call the latter the originality of right moral
feeling.

Originality may perhaps be defined as the power of abstracting for
oneself, and is in thought what strength of mind is in action. Our
opinions are commonly derived from education and society. Common minds
transmit as they receive, good and bad, true and false; minds of
original talent feel a continual propensity to investigate subjects
and strike out views for themselves;--so that even old and established
truths do not escape modification and accidental change when subjected
to this process of mental digestion. Even the style of original
writers is stamped with the peculiarities of their minds. When
originality is found apart from good sense, which more or less is
frequently the case, it shows itself in paradox and rashness of
sentiment, and eccentricity of outward conduct. Poetry, on the other
hand, cannot be separated from its good sense, or taste, as it is
called; which is one of its elements. It is originality energizing in
the world of beauty; the originality of grace, purity, refinement, and
feeling. We do not hesitate to say, that poetry is ultimately founded
on correct moral perception;--that where there is no sound principle
in exercise there will be no poetry, and that on the whole
(originality being granted) in proportion to the standard of a
writer’s moral character, will his compositions vary in poetical
excellence. This position, however, requires some explanation.[24]

    [24] A living prelate, in his Academical Prelections, even
    suggests the converse of our position--‘_Neque enim facile
    crediderim de eo qui semel hac imbutus fuerit disciplina, qui
    in id tota mentis acie assuefactus fuerit incumbere, ut quid
    sit in rebus decens, quid pulchrum, quid congruum, penitus
    intueretur, quin idem harum rerum perpetuum amorem foveat, et
    cum ab his studiis discesserit, etiam ad reliqua vitae
    officia earum imaginem quasi animo infixam transferat._’

Of course, then, we do not mean to imply that a poet must necessarily
_display_ virtuous and religious feeling;--we are not speaking of the
actual _material_ of poetry, but of its _sources_. A right moral state
of heart is the formal and scientific condition of a poetical mind.
Nor does it follow from our position that every poet must in fact be a
man of consistent and practical principle; except so far as good
feeling commonly produces or results from good practice. Burns was a
man of inconsistent practice--still, it is known, of much really sound
principle at bottom. Thus his acknowledged poetical talent is in no
wise inconsistent with the truth of our doctrine, which will refer the
beauty which exists in his compositions to the remains of a virtuous
and diviner nature within him. Nay, further than this, our theory
holds good even though it be shown that a bad man may write a poem. As
motives short of the purest lead to actions intrinsically good, so
frames of mind short of virtuous will produce a partial and limited
poetry. But even where it is exhibited, the poetry of a vicious mind
will be inconsistent and debased; i. e. so far only such, as the
traces and shadows of holy truth still remain upon it. On the other
hand, a right moral feeling places the mind in the very centre of that
circle from which all the rays have their origin and range; whereas
minds otherwise placed command but a portion of the whole circuit of
poetry. Allowing for human infirmity and the varieties of opinion,
Milton, Spenser, Cowper, Wordsworth, and Southey, may be considered,
as far as their writings go, to approximate to this moral centre. The
following are added as further illustrations of our meaning. Walter
Scott’s centre is chivalrous honour; Shakespeare exhibits the ἦθος,
the physiognomy of an unlearned and undisciplined piety; Homer the
religion of nature and the heart, at times debased by polytheism. All
these poets are religious:--the occasional irreligion of Virgil’s
poetry is painful to the admirers of his general taste and delicacy.
Dryden’s _Alexander’s Feast_ is a magnificent composition, and has
high poetical beauties; but to a delicate judgement there is something
intrinsically unpoetical in the end to which it is devoted, the
praises of revel and sensuality. It corresponds to a process of
clever reasoning erected on an untrue foundation--the one is a
fallacy, the other is out of taste. Lord Byron’s _Manfred_ is in parts
intensely poetical; yet the refined mind naturally shrinks from the
spirit which here and there reveals itself, and the basis on which the
fable is built. From a perusal of it we should infer, according to the
above theory, that there was right and fine feeling in the poet’s
mind, but that the central and consistent character was wanting. From
the history of his life we know this to be the fact. The connexion
between want of the religious principle and want of poetical feeling,
is seen in the instances of Hume and Gibbon; who had radically
unpoetical minds. Rousseau is not an exception to our doctrine, for
his heart was naturally religious. Lucretius too had much poetical
talent; but his work evinces that his miserable philosophy was rather
the result of a bewildered judgement than a corrupt heart.

According to the above theory, revealed religion should be especially
poetical--and it is so in fact. While its disclosures have an
originality in them to engage the intellect, they have a beauty to
satisfy the moral nature. It presents us with those ideal forms of
excellence in which a poetical mind delights, and with which all grace
and harmony are associated. It brings us into a new world--a world of
overpowering interest, of the sublimest views, and the tenderest and
purest feelings. The peculiar grace of mind of the New Testament
writers is as striking as the actual effect produced upon the hearts
of those who have imbibed their spirit. At present we are not
concerned with the practical, but the poetical nature of revealed
truth. With Christians a poetical view of things is a duty--we are bid
to colour all things with hues of faith, to see a divine meaning in
every event, and a superhuman tendency. Even our friends around are
invested with unearthly brightness--no longer imperfect men, but
beings taken into divine favour, stamped with his seal, and in
training for future happiness. It may be added that the virtues
peculiarly Christian are especially poetical;--meekness, gentleness,
compassion, contentment, modesty, not to mention the devotional
virtues: whereas the ruder and more ordinary feelings are the
instruments of rhetoric more justly than of poetry--anger,
indignation, emulation, martial spirit, and love of independence.

A few remarks on poetical composition, and we have done.--The art of
composition is merely accessory to the poetical talent. But where that
talent exists it necessarily gives its own character to the style, and
renders it perfectly different from all others. As the poet’s habits
of mind lead to contemplation rather than communication with others,
he is more or less obscure, according to the particular style of
poetry he has adopted; less so, in epic or narrative and dramatic
representation--more so, in odes and choruses. He will be obscure,
moreover, from the depth of his feelings, which require a congenial
reader to enter into them--and from their acuteness, which shrinks
from any formal accuracy in the expression of them. And he will be
obscure, not only from the carelessness of genius and from the
originality of his conceptions, but (it may be) from natural
deficiency in the power of clear and eloquent expression, which, we
must repeat, is a talent distinct from poetry, though often mistaken
for it.

Dexterity in composition, or _eloquence_ as it may be called in a
contracted sense of the word, is however manifestly more or less
necessary in every branch of literature, though its elements may be
different in each. _Poetical_ eloquence consists, first in the power
of illustration--which the poet uses, not as the orator, voluntarily,
for the sake of clearness or ornament; but almost by constraint, as
the sole outlet and expression of intense inward feeling. The
spontaneous power of comparison is in some poetical minds entirely
wanting; these of course cannot show to advantage as poets.--Another
talent necessary to composition is the power of unfolding the meaning
in an orderly manner. A poetical mind is often too impatient to
explain itself justly; it is overpowered by a rush of emotions, which
sometimes want of power, sometimes the indolence of inward enjoyment
prevents it from describing. Nothing is more difficult than to analyse
the feelings of our own minds; and the power of doing so, whether
natural or acquired, is clearly distinct from experiencing them. Yet,
though distinct from the poetical talent, it is obviously necessary to
its exhibition. Hence it is a common praise bestowed upon writers,
that they express what we have often felt but could never describe.
The power of arrangement, which is necessary for an extended poem, is
a modification of the same talent;--being to poetry what method is to
logic. Besides these qualifications, poetical compositions requires
that command of language which is the mere effect of practice. The
poet is a compositor; words are his types; he must have them within
reach, and in unlimited abundance. Hence the need of careful labour to
the accomplished poet--not in order that his diction may attract, but
that language may be subjected to him. He studies the art of
composition as we might learn dancing or elocution; not that we may
move or speak according to rule, but that by the very exercise our
voice and carriage may become so unembarrassed as to allow of our
doing what we will with them.

A talent for composition then is no essential part of poetry, though
indispensable to its exhibition. Hence it would seem that attention to
the language _for its own sake_ evidences not the true poet but the
mere artist. Pope is said to have tuned our tongue. We certainly owe
much to him--his diction is rich, musical, and expressive. Still he is
not on this account a poet; he elaborated his composition for its own
sake. If we give him poetical praise on this account, we may as
appropriately bestow it on a tasteful cabinet-maker. This does not
forbid us to ascribe the grace of his verse to an inward principle of
poetry, which supplied him with archetypes of the beautiful and
splendid to work by. But a similar internal gift must direct the skill
of every fancy-artist who subserves the luxuries and elegancies of
life. On the other hand, though Virgil is celebrated as a master of
composition, yet his style is so identified with his conceptions, as
their outward development, as to preclude the possibility of our
viewing the one apart from the other. In Milton, again, the harmony of
the verse is but the echo of the inward music which the thoughts of
the poet breathe. In Moore’s style the ornament continually outstrips
the sense. Cowper and Walter Scott, on the other hand, are slovenly in
their versification. Sophocles writes, on the whole, without studied
attention to the style; but Euripides frequently affects a simplicity
and prettiness which exposed him to the ridicule of the comic poets.
Lastly, the style of Homer’s poems is perfect in their particular
department. It is free, manly, simple, perspicuous, energetic, and
varied. It is the style of one who rhapsodized without deference to
hearer or judge, in an age prior to the temptations which more or less
prevailed over succeeding writers--before the theatre had degraded
poetry into an exhibition, and criticism narrowed it into an art.



THOMAS CARLYLE

1795-1881

THE HERO AS POET. DANTE; SHAKESPEARE (1840)


The Hero as Divinity, the Hero as Prophet, are productions of old
ages; not to be repeated in the new. They presuppose a certain
rudeness of conception, which the progress of mere scientific
knowledge puts an end to. There needs to be, as it were, a world
vacant, or almost vacant of scientific forms, if men in their loving
wonder are to fancy their fellow-man either a god or one speaking with
the voice of a god. Divinity and Prophet are past. We are now to see
our Hero in the less ambitious, but also less questionable, character
of Poet; a character which does not pass. The Poet is a heroic figure
belonging to all ages; whom all ages possess, when once he is
produced, whom the newest age as the oldest may produce;--and will
produce, always when Nature pleases. Let Nature send a Hero-soul; in
no age is it other than possible that he may be shaped into a Poet.

Hero, Prophet, Poet,--many different names, in different times and
places, do we give to Great Men; according to varieties we note in
them, according to the sphere in which they have displayed themselves!
We might give many more names, on this same principle. I will remark
again, however, as a fact not unimportant to be understood, that the
different _sphere_ constitutes the grand origin of such distinction;
that the Hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will,
according to the kind of world he finds himself born into. I confess,
I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be _all_ sorts of
men. The Poet who could merely sit on a chair, and compose stanzas,
would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic
warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior too. I fancy
there is in him the Politician, the Thinker, Legislator,
Philosopher;--in one or the other degree, he could have been, he is
all these. So too I cannot understand how a Mirabeau, with that great
glowing heart, with the fire that was in it, with the bursting tears
that were in it, could not have written verses, tragedies, poems, and
touched all hearts in that way, had his course of life and education
led him thitherward. The grand fundamental character is that of Great
Man; that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like
Austerlitz Battles. Louis Fourteenth’s Marshals are a kind of poetical
men withal; the things Turenne says are full of sagacity and
geniality, like sayings of Samuel Johnson. The great heart, the clear
deep-seeing eye: there it lies; no man whatever, in what province
soever, can prosper at all without these. Petrarch and Boccaccio did
diplomatic messages, it seems, quite well: one can easily believe it;
they had done things a little harder than these! Burns, a gifted
song-writer, might have made a still better Mirabeau. Shakespeare,--one
knows not what _he_ could not have made, in the supreme degree.

True, there are aptitudes of Nature too. Nature does not make all
great men, more than all other men, in the self-same mould. Varieties
of aptitude doubtless; but infinitely more of circumstance; and far
oftenest it is the _latter_ only that are looked to. But it is as with
common men in the learning of trades. You take any man, as yet a vague
capability of a man, who could be any kind of craftsman; and make him
into a smith, a carpenter, a mason: he is then and thenceforth that
and nothing else. And if, as Addison complains, you sometimes see a
street-porter staggering under his load on spindle-shanks, and near at
hand a tailor with the frame of a Samson handling a bit of cloth and
small Whitechapel needle,--it cannot be considered that aptitude of
Nature alone has been consulted here either!--The Great Man also, to
what shall he be bound apprentice? Given your Hero, is he to become
Conqueror, King, Philosopher, Poet? It is an inexplicably complex
controversial-calculation between the world and him! He will read the
world and its laws; the world with its laws will be there to be read.
What the world, on _this_ matter, shall permit and bid is, as we said,
the most important fact about the world.--

       *       *       *       *       *

Poet and Prophet differ greatly in our loose modern notions of them.
In some old languages, again, the titles are synonymous; _Vates_ means
both Prophet and Poet: and indeed at all times, Prophet and Poet, well
understood, have much kindred of meaning. Fundamentally indeed they
are still the same; in this most important respect especially, That
they have penetrated both of them into the sacred mystery of the
Universe; what Goethe calls ‘the open secret’. ‘Which is the great
secret?’ asks one.--‘The _open_ secret,’--open to all, seen by almost
none! That divine mystery, which lies everywhere in all Beings, ‘the
Divine Idea of the World, that which lies at the bottom of
Appearance,’ as Fichte styles it; of which all Appearance, from the
starry sky to the grass of the field, but especially the Appearance of
Man and his work, is but the _vesture_, the embodiment that renders it
visible. This divine mystery _is_ in all times and in all places;
veritably is. In most times and places it is greatly overlooked; and
the Universe, definable always in one or the other dialect, as the
realized Thought of God, is considered a trivial, inert, commonplace
matter,--as if, says the Satirist, it were a dead thing, which some
upholsterer had put together! It could do no good, at present, to
_speak_ much about this; but it is a pity for every one of us if we do
not know it, live ever in the knowledge of it. Really a most mournful
pity;--a failure to live at all, if we live otherwise!

But now, I say, whoever may forget this divine mystery, the _Vates_,
whether Prophet or Poet, has penetrated into it; is a man sent hither
to make it more impressively known to us. That always is his message;
he is to reveal that to us,--that sacred mystery which he more than
others lives ever present with. While others forget it, he knows
it;--I might say, he has been driven to know it; without consent asked
of _him_, he finds himself living in it, bound to live in it. Once
more, here is no Hearsay, but a direct Insight and Belief; this man
too could not help being a sincere man! Whosoever may live in the
shows of things, it is for him a necessity of nature to live in the
very fact of things. A man, once more, in earnest with the Universe,
though all others were but toying with it. He is a _Vates_, first of
all, in virtue of being sincere. So far Poet and Prophet,
participators in the ‘open secret,’ are one.

With respect to their distinction again: The _Vates_ Prophet, we might
say, has seized that sacred mystery rather on the moral side, as Good
and Evil, Duty and Prohibition; the _Vates_ Poet on what the Germans
call the æsthetic side, as Beautiful, and the like. The one we may
call a revealer of what we are to do, the other of what we are to
love. But indeed these two provinces run into one another, and cannot
be disjoined. The Prophet too has his eye on what we are to love: how
else shall he know what it is we are to do? The highest Voice ever
heard on this Earth said withal, ‘Consider the lilies of the field;
they toil not, neither do they spin: yet Solomon in all his glory was
not arrayed like one of these.’ A glance, that, into the deepest deep
of Beauty. ‘The lilies of the field,’--dressed finer than earthly
princes, springing up there in the humble furrow-field; a beautiful
_eye_ looking out on you, from the great inner Sea of Beauty! How
could the rude Earth make these, if her Essence, rugged as she looks
and is, were not inwardly Beauty?--In this point of view, too, a
saying of Goethe’s, which has staggered several, may have meaning:
‘The Beautiful’, he intimates, ‘is higher than the Good; the Beautiful
includes in it the Good.’ The _true_ Beautiful; which however, I have
said somewhere, ‘differs from the _false_, as Heaven does from
Vauxhall!’ So much for the distinction and identity of Poet and
Prophet.--

In ancient and also in modern periods, we find a few Poets who are
accounted perfect; whom it were a kind of treason to find fault with.
This is noteworthy; this is right: yet in strictness it is only an
illusion. At bottom, clearly enough, there is no perfect Poet! A vein
of Poetry exists in the hearts of all men; no man is made altogether
of Poetry. We are all poets when we _read_ a poem well. The
‘imagination that shudders at the Hell of Dante,’ is not that the same
faculty, weaker in degree, as Dante’s own? No one but Shakespeare can
embody, out of Saxo Grammaticus, the story of _Hamlet_ as Shakespeare
did: but every one models some kind of story out of it; every one
embodies it better or worse. We need not spend time in defining. Where
there is no specific difference, as between round and square, all
definition must be more or less arbitrary. A man that has _so_ much
more of the poetic element developed in him as to have become
noticeable, will be called Poet by his neighbours. World-Poets too,
those whom we are to take for perfect Poets, are settled by critics in
the same way. One who rises _so_ far above the general level of Poets
will, to such and such critics, seem a Universal Poet; as he ought to
do. And yet it is, and must be, an arbitrary distinction. All Poets,
all men, have some touches of the Universal; no man is wholly made of
that. Most Poets are very soon forgotten: but not the noblest
Shakespeare or Homer of them can be remembered _for ever_;--a day
comes when he too is not!

Nevertheless, you will say, there must be a difference between true
Poetry and true Speech not Poetical: what is the difference? On this
point many things have been written, especially by late German
Critics, some of which are not very intelligible at first. They say,
for example, that the Poet has an _infinitude_ in him; communicates an
_Unendlichkeit_, a certain character of ‘infinitude’, to whatsoever he
delineates. This, though not very precise, yet on so vague a matter is
worth remembering: if well meditated, some meaning will gradually be
found in it. For my own part, I find considerable meaning in the old
vulgar distinction of Poetry being _metrical_, having music in it,
being a Song. Truly, if pressed to give a definition, one might say
this as soon as anything else: If your delineation be authentically
_musical_, musical not in word only, but in heart and substance, in
all the thoughts and utterances of it, in the whole conception of it,
then it will be poetical; if not, not.--Musical: how much lies in
that! A _musical_ thought is one spoken by a mind that has penetrated
into the inmost heart of the thing; detected the inmost mystery of it,
namely the _melody_ that lies hidden in it; the inward harmony of
coherence which is its soul, whereby it exists, and has a right to be,
here in this world. All inmost things, we may say, are melodious;
naturally utter themselves in Song. The meaning of Song goes deep. Who
is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on
us? A kind of inarticulate unfathomable speech, which leads us to the
edge of the Infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that!

Nay all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in
it: not a parish in the world but has its parish-accent;--the rhythm
or _tune_ to which the people there _sing_ what they have to say!
Accent is a kind of chanting; all men have accent of their
own,--though they only _notice_ that of others. Observe too how all
passionate language does of itself become musical,--with a finer music
than the mere accent; the speech of a man even in zealous anger
becomes a chant, a song. All deep things are Song. It seems somehow
the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but
wrappages and hulls! The primal element of us; of us, and of all
things. The Greeks fabled of Sphere-Harmonies: it was the feeling they
had of the inner structure of Nature; that the soul of all her voices
and utterances was perfect music. Poetry, therefore, we will call
_musical Thought_. The Poet is he who _thinks_ in that manner. At
bottom, it turns still on power of intellect; it is a man’s sincerity
and depth of vision that makes him a Poet. See deep enough, and you
see musically; the heart of Nature _being_ everywhere music, if you
can only reach it.

The _Vates_ Poet, with his melodious Apocalypse of Nature, seems to
hold a poor rank among us, in comparison with the _Vates_ Prophet; his
function, and our esteem of him for his function, alike slight. The
Hero taken as Divinity; the Hero taken as Prophet; then next the Hero
taken only as Poet: does it not look as if our estimate of the Great
Man, epoch after epoch, were continually diminishing? We take him
first for a god, then for one god-inspired; and now in the next stage
of it, his most miraculous word gains from us only the recognition
that he is a Poet, beautiful verse-maker, man of genius, or
such-like!--It looks so; but I persuade myself that intrinsically it
is not so. If we consider well, it will perhaps appear that in man
still there is the _same_ altogether peculiar admiration for the
Heroic Gift, by what name soever called, that there at any time was.

I should say, if we do not now reckon a Great Man literally divine, it
is that our notions of God, of the supreme unattainable Fountain of
Splendour, Wisdom and Heroism, are ever rising _higher_; not
altogether that our reverence for these qualities, as manifested in
our like, is getting lower. This is worth taking thought of. Sceptical
Dilettantism, the curse of these ages, a curse which will not last for
ever, does indeed in this the highest province of human things, as in
all provinces, make sad work; and our reverence for great men, all
crippled, blinded, paralytic as it is, comes out in poor plight,
hardly recognizable. Men worship the shows of great men; the most
disbelieve that there is any reality of great men to worship. The
dreariest, fatallest faith; believing which, one would literally
despair of human things. Nevertheless look, for example, at Napoleon!
A Corsican lieutenant of artillery; that is the show of _him_: yet is
he not obeyed, _worshipped_ after his sort, as all the Tiaraed and
Diademed of the world put together could not be? High Duchesses, and
ostlers of inns, gather round the Scottish rustic, Burns;--a strange
feeling dwelling in each that they never heard a man like this; that,
on the whole, this is the man! In the secret heart of these people it
still dimly reveals itself, though there is no accredited way of
uttering it at present, that this rustic, with his black brows and
flashing sun-eyes, and strange words moving laughter and tears, is of
a dignity far beyond all others, incommensurable with all others. Do
not we feel it so? But now, were Dilettantism, Scepticism, Triviality,
and all that sorrowful brood, cast-out of us,--as, by God’s blessing,
they shall one day be; were faith in the shows of things entirely
swept out, replaced by clear faith in the _things_, so that a man
acted on the impulse of that only, and counted the other non-extant;
what a new livelier feeling towards this Burns were it!

Nay here in these ages, such as they are, have we not two mere Poets,
if not deified, yet we may say beatified? Shakespeare and Dante are
Saints of Poetry; really, if we will think of it, _canonized_, so that
it is impiety to meddle with them. The unguided instinct of the world,
working across all these perverse impediments, has arrived at such
result. Dante and Shakespeare are a peculiar Two. They dwell apart, in
a kind of royal solitude; none equal, none second to them: in the
general feeling of the world, a certain transcendentalism, a glory as
of complete perfection, invests these two. They _are_ canonized,
though no Pope or Cardinals took hand in doing it! Such, in spite of
every perverting influence, in the most unheroic times, is still our
indestructible reverence for heroism.--We will look a little at these
Two, the Poet Dante and the Poet Shakespeare: what little it is
permitted us to say here of the Hero as Poet will most fitly arrange
itself in that fashion.

       *       *       *       *       *

Many volumes have been written by way of commentary on Dante and his
Book; yet, on the whole, with no great result. His Biography is, as it
were, irrecoverably lost for us. An unimportant, wandering,
sorrowstricken man, not much note was taken of him while he lived; and
the most of that has vanished, in the long space that now intervenes.
It is five centuries since he ceased writing and living here. After
all commentaries, the Book itself is mainly what we know of him. The
Book;--and one might add that Portrait commonly attributed to Giotto,
which, looking on it, you cannot help inclining to think genuine,
whoever did it. To me it is a most touching face; perhaps of all faces
that I know, the most so. Lonely there, painted as on vacancy, with
the simple laurel wound round it; the deathless sorrow and pain, the
known victory which is also deathless;--significant of the whole
history of Dante! I think it is the mournfullest face that ever was
painted from reality; an altogether tragic, heart-affecting face.
There is in it, as foundation of it, the softness, tenderness, gentle
affection as of a child; but all this is as if congealed into sharp
contradiction, into abnegation, isolation, proud hopeless pain. A soft
ethereal soul looking out so stern, implacable, grim-trenchant, as
from imprisonment of thick-ribbed ice! Withal it is a silent pain too,
a silent scornful one: the lip is curled in a kind of god-like disdain
of the thing that is eating-out his heart,--as if it were withal a
mean insignificant thing, as if he whom it had power to torture and
strangle were greater than it. The face of one wholly in protest, and
lifelong unsurrendering battle, against the world. Affection all
converted into indignation: an implacable indignation; slow, equable,
silent, like that of a god! The eye too, it looks out as in a kind of
_surprise_, a kind of inquiry, Why the world was of such a sort? This
is Dante: so he looks, this ‘voice of ten silent centuries’, and sings
us ‘his mystic unfathomable song’.

The little that we know of Dante’s Life corresponds well enough with
this Portrait and this Book. He was born at Florence, in the upper
class of society, in the year 1265. His education was the best then
going; much school-divinity, Aristotelean logic, some Latin
classics,--no inconsiderable insight into certain provinces of things:
and Dante, with his earnest intelligent nature, we need not doubt,
learned better than most all that was learnable. He has a clear
cultivated understanding, and of great subtlety; this best fruit of
education he had contrived to realize from these scholastics. He knows
accurately and well what lies close to him; but, in such a time,
without printed books or free intercourse, he could not know well what
was distant: the small clear light, most luminous for what is near,
breaks itself into singular _chiaroscuro_ striking on what is far off.
This was Dante’s learning from the schools. In life, he had gone
through the usual destinies; been twice out campaigning as a soldier
for the Florentine State, been on embassy; had in his thirty-fifth
year, by natural gradation of talent and service, become one of the
Chief Magistrates of Florence. He had met in boyhood a certain
Beatrice Portinari, a beautiful little girl of his own age and rank,
and grown-up thenceforth in partial sight of her, in some distant
intercourse with her. All readers know his graceful affecting account
of this; and then of their being parted; of her being wedded to
another, and of her death soon after. She makes a great figure in
Dante’s Poem; seems to have made a great figure in his life. Of all
beings it might seem as if she, held apart from him, far apart at last
in the dim Eternity, were the only one he had ever with his whole
strength of affection loved. She died: Dante himself was wedded; but
it seems not happily, far from happily. I fancy, the rigorous earnest
man, with his keen excitabilities, was not altogether easy to make
happy.

We will not complain of Dante’s miseries: had all gone right with him
as he wished it, he might have been Prior, Podestà, or whatsoever they
call it, of Florence, well accepted among neighbours,--and the world
had wanted one of the most notable words ever spoken or sung. Florence
would have had another prosperous Lord Mayor; and the ten dumb
centuries continued voiceless, and the ten other listening centuries
(for there will be ten of them and more) had no _Divina Commedia_ to
hear! We will complain of nothing. A nobler destiny was appointed for
this Dante; and he, struggling like a man led towards death and
crucifixion, could not help fulfilling it. Give _him_ the choice of
his happiness! He knew not, more than we do, what was really happy,
what was really miserable.

In Dante’s Priorship, the Guelf-Ghibelline, Bianchi-Neri, or some
other confused disturbances rose to such a height, that Dante, whose
party had seemed the stronger, was with his friends cast unexpectedly
forth into banishment; doomed thenceforth to a life of woe and
wandering. His property was all confiscated and more; he had the
fiercest feeling that it was entirely unjust, nefarious in the sight
of God and man. He tried what was in him to get reinstated; tried even
by warlike surprisal, with arms in his hand: but it would not do; bad
only had become worse. There is a record, I believe, still extant in
the Florence Archives, dooming this Dante, wheresoever caught, to be
burnt alive. Burnt alive; so it stands, they say: a very curious
civic document. Another curious document, some considerable number of
years later, is a Letter of Dante’s to the Florentine Magistrates,
written in answer to a milder proposal of theirs, that he should
return on condition of apologizing and paying a fine. He answers, with
fixed stern pride: ‘If I cannot return without calling myself guilty,
I will never return, _nunquam revertar_.’

For Dante there was now no home in this world. He wandered from patron
to patron, from place to place; proving, in his own bitter words, ‘How
hard is the path, _Come è duro calle_.’ The wretched are not cheerful
company. Dante, poor and banished, with his proud earnest nature, with
his moody humours, was not a man to conciliate men. Petrarch reports
of him that being at Can della Scala’s court, and blamed one day for
his gloom and taciturnity, he answered in no courtier-like way. Della
Scala stood among his courtiers, with mimes and buffoons (_nebulones
ac histriones_) making him heartily merry; when turning to Dante, he
said: ‘Is it not strange, now, that this poor fool should make himself
so entertaining; while you, a wise man, sit there day after day, and
have nothing to amuse us with at all?’ Dante answered bitterly: ‘No,
not strange; your Highness is to recollect the Proverb, _Like to
Like_;’--given the amuser, the amusee must also be given! Such a man,
with his proud silent ways, with his sarcasms and sorrows, was not
made to succeed at court. By degrees, it came to be evident to him
that he had no longer any resting-place, or hope of benefit, in this
earth. The earthly world had cast him forth, to wander, wander; no
living heart to love him now; for his sore miseries there was no
solace here.

The deeper naturally would the Eternal World impress itself on him;
that awful reality over which, after all, this Time-world, with its
Florences and banishments, only flutters as an unreal shadow. Florence
thou shalt never see: but Hell and Purgatory and Heaven thou shalt
surely see! What is Florence, Can della Scala, and the World and Life
altogether? ETERNITY: thither, of a truth, not elsewhither, art thou
and all things bound! The great soul of Dante, homeless on earth, made
its home more and more in that awful other world. Naturally his
thoughts brooded on that, as on the one fact important for him. Bodied
or bodiless, it is the one fact important for all men:--but to Dante,
in that age, it was bodied in fixed certainty of scientific shape; he
no more doubted of that _Malebolge_ Pool, that it all lay there with
its gloomy circles, with its _alti guai_, and that he himself should
see it, than we doubt that we should see Constantinople if we went
thither. Dante’s heart, long filled with this, brooding over it in
speechless thought and awe, bursts forth at length into ‘mystic
unfathomable song’; and this his _Divine Comedy_, the most remarkable
of all modern Books, is the result.

It must have been a great solacement to Dante, and was, as we can see,
a proud thought for him at times, That he, here in exile, could do
this work; that no Florence, nor no man or men, could hinder him from
doing it, or even much help him in doing it. He knew too, partly, that
it was great; the greatest a man could do. ‘If thou follow thy star,
_Se tu segui tua stella_,’--so could the Hero, in his forsakenness, in
his extreme need, still say to himself: ‘Follow thou thy star, thou
shalt not fail of a glorious heaven!’ The labour of writing, we find,
and indeed could know otherwise, was great and painful for him; he
says, This Book, ‘which has made me lean for many years.’ Ah yes, it
was won, all of it, with pain and sore toil,--not in sport, but in
grim earnest. His Book, as indeed most good Books are, has been
written, in many senses, with his heart’s blood. It is his whole
history, this Book. He died after finishing it; not yet very old, at
the age of fifty-six;--broken-hearted rather, as is said. He lies
buried in his death-city Ravenna: _Hic claudor Dantes patriis extorris
ab oris_. The Florentines begged back his body, in a century after;
the Ravenna people would not give it. ‘Here am I Dante laid, shut out
from my native shores.’

       *       *       *       *       *

I said, Dante’s Poem was a Song: it is Tieck who calls it ‘a mystic
unfathomable Song’; and such is literally the character of it.
Coleridge remarks very pertinently somewhere, that wherever you find a
sentence musically worded, of true rhythm and melody in the words,
there is something deep and good in the meaning too. For body and
soul, word and idea, go strangely together here as everywhere. Song:
we said before, it was the Heroic of Speech! All _old_ Poems, Homer’s
and the rest, are authentically Songs. I would say, in strictness,
that all right Poems are; that whatsoever is not _sung_ is properly no
Poem, but a piece of Prose cramped into jingling lines,--to the great
injury of the grammar, to the great grief of the reader, for most
part! What we want to get at is the _thought_ the man had, if he had
any: why should he twist it into jingle, if he _could_ speak it out
plainly? It is only when the heart of him is rapt into true passion
of melody, and the very tones of him, according to Coleridge’s remark,
become musical by the greatness, depth and music of his thoughts, that
we can give him right to rhyme and sing; that we call him a Poet, and
listen to him as the Heroic of Speakers,--whose speech _is_ Song.
Pretenders to this are many; and to an earnest reader, I doubt, it is
for most part a very melancholy, not to say an insupportable business,
that of reading rhyme! Rhyme that had no inward necessity to be
rhymed;--it ought to have told us plainly, without any jingle, what it
was aiming at. I would advise all men who _can_ speak their thought,
not to sing it; to understand that, in a serious time, among serious
men, there is no vocation in them for singing it. Precisely as we love
the true song, and are charmed by it as by something divine, so shall
we hate the false song, and account it a mere wooden noise, a thing
hollow, superfluous, altogether an insincere and offensive thing.

I give Dante my highest praise when I say of his _Divine Comedy_ that
it is, in all senses, genuinely a Song. In the very sound of it there
is a _canto fermo_; it proceeds as by a chant. The language, his
simple _terza rima_, doubtless helped him in this. One reads along
naturally with a sort of _lilt_. But I add, that it could not be
otherwise; for the essence and material of the work are themselves
rhythmic. Its depth, and rapt passion and sincerity, makes it
musical;--go _deep_ enough, there is music everywhere. A true inward
symmetry, what one calls an architectural harmony, reigns in it,
proportionates it all: architectural; which also partakes of the
character of music. The three kingdoms, _Inferno_, _Purgatorio_,
_Paradiso_, look out on one another like compartments of a great
edifice; a great supernatural world-cathedral, piled up there, stern,
solemn, awful; Dante’s World of Souls! It is, at bottom, the
_sincerest_ of all Poems; sincerity, here too, we find to be the
measure of worth. It came deep out of the author’s heart of hearts;
and it goes deep, and through long generations, into ours. The people
of Verona, when they saw him on the streets, used to say, ‘_Eccovi l’
uom ch’ è stato all’ Inferno_, See, there is the man that was in
Hell!’ Ah, yes, he had been in Hell;--in Hell enough, in long severe
sorrow and struggle; as the like of him is pretty sure to have been.
Commedias that come-out _divine_ are not accomplished otherwise.
Thought, true labour of any kind, highest virtue itself, is it not the
daughter of Pain? Born as out of the black whirlwind;--true _effort_,
in fact, as of a captive struggling to free himself: that is Thought.
In all ways we are ‘to become perfect through _suffering_.’--But, as I
say, no work known to me is so elaborated as this of Dante’s. It has
all been as if molten, in the hottest furnace of his soul. It had made
him ‘lean’ for many years. Not the general whole only; every
compartment of it is worked-out, with intense earnestness, into truth,
into clear visuality. Each answers to the other; each fits in its
place, like a marble stone accurately hewn and polished. It is the
soul of Dante, and in this the soul of the Middle Ages, rendered for
ever rhythmically visible there. No light task; a right intense one:
but a task which is _done_.

Perhaps one would say, _intensity_, with the much that depends on it,
is the prevailing character of Dante’s genius. Dante does not come
before us as a large catholic mind; rather as a narrow, and even
sectarian mind: it is partly the fruit of his age and position, but
partly too of his own nature. His greatness has, in all senses,
concentered itself into fiery emphasis and depth. He is world-great
not because he is world-wide, but because he is world-deep. Through
all objects he pierces as it were down into the heart of Being. I know
nothing so intense as Dante. Consider, for example, to begin with the
outermost development of his intensity, consider how he paints. He has
a great power of vision; seizes the very type of a thing; presents
that and nothing more. You remember that first view he gets of the
Hall of Dite: _red_ pinnacle, red-hot cone of iron glowing through the
dim immensity of gloom;--so vivid, so distinct, visible at once and
for ever! It is as an emblem of the whole genius of Dante. There is a
brevity, an abrupt precision in him: Tacitus is not briefer, more
condensed; and then in Dante it seems a natural condensation,
spontaneous to the man. One smiting word; and then there is silence,
nothing more said. His silence is more eloquent than words. It is
strange with what a sharp decisive grace he snatches the true likeness
of a matter: cuts into the matter as with a pen of fire. Plutus, the
blustering giant, collapses at Virgil’s rebuke; it is ‘as the sails
sink, the mast being suddenly broken’. Or that poor Sordello, with the
_cotto aspetto_, ‘face _baked_’, parched brown and lean; and the
‘fiery snow’ that falls on them there, a ‘fiery snow without wind’,
slow, deliberate, never-ending! Or the lids of those Tombs; square
sarcophaguses, in that silent dim-burning Hall, each with its Soul in
torment; the lids laid open there; they are to be shut at the Day of
Judgement, through Eternity. And how Farinata rises; and how
Cavalcante falls--at hearing of his Son, and the past tense ‘_fue_!’
The very movements in Dante have something brief; swift, decisive,
almost military. It is of the inmost essence of his genius this sort
of painting. The fiery, swift Italian nature of the man, so silent,
passionate, with its quick abrupt movements, its silent ‘pale rages’,
speaks itself in these things.

For though this of painting is one of the outermost developments of a
man, it comes like all else from the essential faculty of him; it is
physiognomical of the whole man. Find a man whose words paint you a
likeness, you have found a man worth something; mark his manner of
doing it, as very characteristic of him. In the first place, he could
not have discerned the object at all, or seen the vital type of it,
unless he had, what we may call, _sympathized_ with it,--had sympathy
in him to bestow on objects. He must have been _sincere_ about it too;
sincere and sympathetic: a man without worth cannot give you the
likeness of any object; he dwells in vague outwardness, fallacy and
trivial hearsay, about all objects. And indeed may we not say that
intellect altogether expresses itself in this power of discerning what
an object is? Whatsoever of faculty a man’s mind may have will come
out here. Is it even of business, a matter to be done? The gifted man
is he who _sees_ the essential point, and leaves all the rest aside as
surplusage: it is his faculty too, the man of business’s faculty, that
he discern the true _likeness_, not the false superficial one, of the
thing he has got to work in. And how much of _morality_ is in the kind
of insight we get of anything; ‘the eye seeing in all things what it
brought with it the faculty of seeing!’ To the mean eye all things are
trivial, as certainly as to the jaundiced they are yellow. Raphael,
the Painters tell us, is the best of all Portrait-painters withal. No
most gifted eye can exhaust the significance of any object. In the
commonest human face there lies more than Raphael will take away with
him.

Dante’s painting is not graphic only, brief, true, and of a vividness
as of fire in dark night; taken on the wider scale, it is everyway
noble, and the outcome of a great soul. Francesca and her Lover, what
qualities in that! A thing woven as out of rainbows, on a ground of
eternal black. A small flute-voice of infinite wail speaks there, into
our very heart of hearts. A touch of womanhood in it too: _della bella
persona, che mi fu tolta_; and how, even in the Pit of woe, it is a
solace that _he_ will never part from her! Saddest tragedy in these
_alti guai_. And the racking winds, in that _aer bruno_, whirl them
away again, to wail for ever!--Strange to think: Dante was the friend
of this poor Francesca’s father; Francesca herself may have sat upon
the Poet’s knee, as a bright innocent little child. Infinite pity, yet
also infinite rigour of law: it is so Nature is made; it is so Dante
discerned that she was made. What a paltry notion is that of his
_Divine Comedy’s_ being a poor splenetic impotent terrestrial libel;
putting those into Hell whom he could not be avenged upon on earth! I
suppose if ever pity, tender as a mother’s, was in the heart of any
man, it was in Dante’s. But a man who does not know rigour cannot pity
either. His very pity will be cowardly, egoistic,--sentimentality, or
little better. I know not in the world an affection equal to that of
Dante. It is a tenderness, a trembling, longing, pitying love: like
the wail of Aeolean harps, soft, soft; like a child’s young
heart;--and then that stern, sore-saddened heart! These longings of
his towards his Beatrice; their meeting together in the _Paradiso_;
his gazing in her pure transfigured eyes, her that had been purified
by death so long, separated from him so far:--one likens it to the
gong of angels; it is among the purest utterances of affection,
perhaps the very purest, that ever came out of a human soul.

For the _intense_ Dante is intense in all things; he has got into the
essence of all. His intellectual insight as painter, on occasion too
as reasoner, is but the result of all other sorts of intensity.
Morally great, above all, we must call him; it is the beginning of
all. His scorn, his grief are as transcendent as his love;--as indeed,
what are they but the _inverse_ or _converse_ of his love? ‘_A Dio
spiacenti, ed a’ nemici sui_, Hateful to God and to the enemies of
God:’ lofty scorn, unappeasable silent reprobation and aversion; ‘_Non
ragionam di lor_, We will not speak of _them_, look only and pass.’ Or
think of this: ‘They have not the _hope_ to die, _Non han speranza di
morte_.’ One day, it had risen sternly benign on the scathed heart of
Dante, that he, wretched, never-resting, worn as he was, would full
surely _die_; ‘that Destiny itself could not doom him not to die.’
Such words are in this man. For rigour, earnestness and depth, he is
not to be paralleled in the modern world; to seek his parallel we must
go into the Hebrew Bible, and live with the antique Prophets there.

I do not agree with much modern criticism, in greatly preferring the
_Inferno_ to the two other parts of the Divine _Commedia_. Such
preference belongs, I imagine, to our general Byronism of taste, and
is like to be a transient feeling. The _Purgatorio_ and _Paradiso_,
especially the former, one would almost say, is even more excellent
than it. It is a noble thing that _Purgatorio_, ‘Mountain of
Purification’; an emblem of the noblest conception of that age. If Sin
is so fatal, and Hell is and must be so rigorous, awful, yet in
Repentance too is man purified; Repentance is the grand Christian act.
It is beautiful how Dante works it out. The _tremolar dell’ onde_,
that ‘trembling’ of the ocean-waves, under the first pure gleam of
morning, dawning afar on the wandering Two, is as the type of an
altered mood. Hope has now dawned; never-dying Hope, if in company
still with heavy sorrow. The obscure sojourn of daemons and reprobate
is under foot; a soft breathing of penitence mounts higher and higher,
to the Throne of Mercy itself. ‘Pray for me,’ the denizens of that
Mount of Pain all say to him. ‘Tell my Giovanna to pray for me,’ my
daughter Giovanna; ‘I think her mother loves me no more!’ They toil
painfully up by that winding steep, ‘bent-down like corbels of a
building,’ some of them,--crushed together so ‘for the sin of pride’;
yet nevertheless in years, in ages and aeons, they shall have reached
the top, which is Heaven’s gate, and by Mercy shall have been admitted
in. The joy too of all, when one has prevailed; the whole Mountain
shakes with joy, and a psalm of praise rises, when one soul has
perfected repentance, and got its sin and misery left behind! I call
all this a noble embodiment of a true noble thought.

But indeed the Three compartments mutually support one another, are
indispensable to one another. The _Paradiso_, a kind of inarticulate
music to me, is the redeeming side of the _Inferno_; the _Inferno_
without it were untrue. All three make up the true Unseen World, as
figured in the Christianity of the Middle Ages; a thing for ever
memorable, for ever true in the essence of it, to all men. It was
perhaps delineated in no human soul with such depth of veracity as in
this of Dante’s; a man _sent_ to sing it, to keep it long memorable.
Very notable with what brief simplicity he passes out of the every-day
reality, into the Invisible one; and in the second or third stanza, we
find ourselves in the World of Spirits; and dwell there, as among
things palpable, indubitable! To Dante they _were_ so; the real world,
as it is called, and its facts, was but the threshold to an infinitely
higher Fact of a World. At bottom, the one was as _preter_natural as
the other. Has not each man a soul? He will not only be a spirit, but
is one. To the earnest Dante it is all one visible Fact; he believes
it, sees it; is the Poet of it in virtue of that. Sincerity, I say
again, is the saving merit, now as always.

Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, are a symbol withal, an emblematic
representation of his Belief about this Universe:--some Critic in a
future age, like those Scandinavian ones the other day, who has ceased
altogether to think as Dante did, may find this too all an ‘Allegory’,
perhaps an idle Allegory! It is a sublime embodiment, or sublimest, of
the soul of Christianity. It expresses, as in huge world-wide
architectural emblems, how the Christian Dante felt Good and Evil to
be the two polar elements of this Creation, on which it all turns;
that these two differ not by _preferability_ of one to the other, but
by incompatibility absolute and infinite; that the one is excellent
and high as light and Heaven, the other hideous, black as Gehenna and
the Pit of Hell! Everlasting Justice, yet with Penitence, with
everlasting Pity,--all Christianism, as Dante and the Middle Ages had
it, is emblemed there. Emblemed: and yet, as I urged the other day,
with what entire truth of purpose; how unconscious of any embleming!
Hell, Purgatory, Paradise: these things were not fashioned as emblems;
was there, in our Modern European Mind, any thought at all of their
being emblems! Were they not indubitable awful facts; the whole heart
of man taking them for practically true, all Nature everywhere
confirming them? So is it always in these things. Men do not believe
an Allegory. The future Critic, whatever his new thought may be, who
considers this of Dante to have been all got-up as an Allegory, will
commit one sore mistake!--Paganism we recognized as a veracious
expression of the earnest awe-struck feeling of man towards the
Universe; veracious, true once, and still not without worth for us.
But mark here the difference of Paganism and Christianism; one great
difference. Paganism emblemed chiefly the Operations of Nature; the
destinies, efforts, combinations, vicissitudes of things and men in
this world; Christianism emblemed the Law of Human Duty, the Moral Law
of Man. One was for the sensuous nature: a rude helpless utterance of
the _first_ Thought of men,--the chief recognized virtue, Courage,
Superiority to Fear. The other was not for the sensuous nature, but
for the moral. What a progress is here, if in that one respect only!--

       *       *       *       *       *

And so in this Dante, as we said, had ten silent centuries, in a very
strange way, found a voice. The _Divina Commedia_ is of Dante’s
writing; yet in truth _it_ belongs to ten Christian centuries, only
the finishing of it is Dante’s. So always. The craftsman there, the
smith with that metal of his, with these tools, with these cunning
methods,--how little of all he does is properly _his_ work! All past
inventive men work there with him;--as indeed with all of us, in all
things. Dante is the spokesman of the Middle Ages; the Thought they
lived by stands here, in everlasting music. These sublime ideas of
his, terrible and beautiful, are the fruit of the Christian Meditation
of all the good men who had gone before him. Precious they; but also
is not he precious? Much, had not he spoken, would have been dumb; not
dead, yet living voiceless.

On the whole, is it not an utterance, this mystic Song, at once of one
of the greatest human souls, and of the highest thing that Europe had
hitherto realized for itself? Christianism, as Dante sings it, is
another than Paganism in the rude Norse mind; another than ‘Bastard
Christianism’ half articulately spoken in the Arab desert, seven
hundred years before!--The noblest _idea_ made _real_ hitherto among
men, is sung, and emblemed forth abidingly, by one of the noblest men.
In the one sense and in the other, are we not right glad to possess
it? As I calculate, it may last yet for long thousands of years. For
the thing that is uttered from the inmost parts of a man’s soul,
differs altogether from what is uttered by the outer part. The outer
is of the day, under the empire of mode; the outer passes away, in
swift endless changes; the inmost is the same yesterday, to-day, and
for ever. True souls, in all generations of the world, who look on
this Dante, will find a brotherhood in him; the deep sincerity of his
thoughts, his woes and hopes, will speak likewise to their sincerity;
they will feel that this Dante too was a brother. Napoleon in
Saint-Helena is charmed with the genial veracity of old Homer. The
oldest Hebrew Prophet, under a vesture the most diverse from ours,
does yet, because he speaks from the heart of man, speak to all men’s
hearts. It is the one sole secret of continuing long memorable. Dante,
for depth of sincerity, is like an antique Prophet too; his words,
like theirs, come from his very heart. One need not wonder if it were
predicted that his Poem might be the most enduring thing our Europe
has yet made; for nothing so endures as a truly spoken word. All
cathedrals, pontificalities, brass and stone, and outer arrangement
never so lasting, are brief in comparison to an unfathomable
heart-song like this: one feels as if it might survive, still of
importance to men, when these had all sunk into new irrecognizable
combinations, and had ceased individually to be. Europe has made much;
great cities, great empires, encyclopaedias, creeds, bodies of opinion
and practice: but it has made little of the class of Dante’s Thought.
Homer yet _is_, veritably present face to face with every open soul of
us; and Greece, where is _it_? Desolate for thousands of years; away,
vanished; a bewildered heap of stones and rubbish, the life and
existence of it all gone. Like a dream; like the dust of King
Agamemnon! Greece was; Greece, except in the _words_ it spoke, is not.

The uses of this Dante? We will not say much about his ‘uses’. A human
soul who has once got into that primal element of _Song_, and sung
forth fitly somewhat therefrom, has worked in the _depths_ of our
existence; feeding through long times the life-_roots_ of all
excellent human things whatsoever,--in a way that ‘utilities’ will not
succeed well in calculating! We will not estimate the Sun by the
quantity of gas-light it saves us; Dante shall be invaluable, or of no
value. One remark I may make: the contrast in this respect between the
Hero-Poet and the Hero-Prophet. In a hundred years, Mahomet, as we
saw, had his Arabians at Grenada and at Delhi; Dante’s Italians seem
to be yet very much where they were. Shall we say, then, Dante’s
effect on the world was small in comparison? Not so: his arena is far
more restricted; but also it is far nobler, clearer;--perhaps not less
but more important. Mahomet speaks to great masses of men, in the
coarse dialect adapted to such; a dialect filled with inconsistencies,
crudities, follies: on the great masses alone can he act, and there
with good and with evil strangely blended. Dante speaks to the noble,
the pure and great, in all times and places. Neither does he grow
obsolete, as the other does. Dante burns as a pure star, fixed there
in the firmament, at which the great and the high of all ages kindle
themselves: he is the possession of all the chosen of the world for
uncounted time. Dante, one calculates, may long survive Mahomet. In
this way the balance may be made straight again.

But, at any rate, it is not by what is called their effect on the
world by what _we_ can judge of their effect there, that a man and his
work are measured. Effect? Influence? Utility? Let a man _do_ his
work; the fruit of it is the care of Another than he. It will grow its
own fruit; and whether embodied in Caliph Thrones and Arabian
Conquests, so that it ‘fills all Morning and Evening Newspapers’, and
all Histories, which are a kind of distilled Newspapers; or not
embodied so at all;--what matters that? That is not the real fruit of
it! The Arabian Caliph, in so far only as he did something, was
something. If the great Cause of Man, and Man’s work in God’s Earth,
got no furtherance from the Arabian Caliph, then no matter how many
scimitars he drew, how many gold piastres pocketed, and what uproar
and blaring he made in this world,--_he_ was but a loud-sounding
inanity and futility; at bottom, he _was_ not at all. Let us honour
the great empire of _Silence_, once more! The boundless treasury which
we do _not_ jingle in our pockets, or count up and present before men!
It is perhaps, of all things, the usefulest for each of us to do, in
these loud times.-- --

       *       *       *       *       *

As Dante, the Italian man, was sent into our world to embody musically
the Religion of the Middle Ages, the Religion of our Modern Europe,
its Inner Life; so Shakespeare, we may say, embodies for us the Outer
Life of our Europe as developed then, its chivalries, courtesies,
humours, ambitions, what practical way of thinking, acting, looking at
the world, men then had. As in Homer we may still construe Old Greece;
so in Shakespeare and Dante, after thousands of years, what our Modern
Europe was, in Faith and in Practice, will still be legible. Dante has
given us the Faith or soul; Shakespeare, in a not less noble way, has
given us the Practice or body. This latter also we were to have; a man
was sent for it, the man Shakespeare. Just when that chivalry way of
life had reached its last finish, and was on the point of breaking
down into slow or swift dissolution, as we now see it everywhere, this
other sovereign Poet, with his seeing eye, with his perennial singing
voice, was sent to take note of it, to give long-enduring record of
it. Two fit men: Dante, deep, fierce as the central fire of the world;
Shakespeare, wide, placid, far-seeing, as the Sun, the upper light of
the world. Italy produced the one world-voice; we English had the
honour of producing the other.

Curious enough how, as it were by mere accident, this man came to us.
I think always, so great, quiet, complete and self-sufficing is this
Shakespeare, had the Warwickshire Squire not prosecuted him for
deer-stealing, we had perhaps never heard of him as a Poet! The woods
and skies, the rustic Life of Man in Stratford there, had been enough
for this man! But indeed that strange outbudding of our whole English
Existence, which we call the Elizabethan Era, did not it too come as
of its own accord? The ‘Tree Igdrasil’ buds and withers by its own
laws,--too deep for our scanning. Yet it does bud and wither, and
every bough and leaf of it is there, by fixed eternal laws; not a Sir
Thomas Lucy but comes at the hour fit for him. Curious, I say, and not
sufficiently considered: how everything does co-operate with all; not
a leaf rotting on the highway but is indissoluble portion of solar and
stellar systems; no thought, word or act of man but has sprung withal
out of all men, and works sooner or later, recognizably or
irrecognizably, on all men! It is all a Tree: circulation of sap and
influences, mutual communication of every minutest leaf with the
lowest talon of a root, with every other greatest and minutest portion
of the whole. The Tree Igdrasil, that has its roots down in the
Kingdoms of Hela and Death, and whose boughs overspread the highest
Heaven!--

In some sense it may be said that this glorious Elizabethan Era with
its Shakespeare, as the outcome and flowerage of all which had
preceded it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle
Ages. The Christian Faith, which was the theme of Dante’s Song, had
produced this Practical Life which Shakespeare was to sing. For
Religion then, as it now and always is, was the soul of Practice; the
primary vital fact in men’s life. And remark here, as rather curious,
that Middle-Age Catholicism was abolished, so far as Acts of
Parliament could abolish it, before Shakespeare, the noblest product
of it, made his appearance. He did make his appearance nevertheless.
Nature at her own time, with Catholicism or what else might be
necessary, sent him forth; taking small thought of Acts of Parliament.
King-Henrys, Queen-Elizabeths go their way; and Nature too goes hers.
Acts of Parliament, on the whole, are small, notwithstanding the noise
they make. What Act of Parliament, debate at St. Stephens, on the
hustings or elsewhere, was it that brought this Shakespeare into
being? No dining at Freemasons’ Tavern, opening subscription-lists,
selling of shares, and infinite other jangling and true or false
endeavouring! This Elizabethan Era, and all its nobleness and
blessedness, came without proclamation, preparation of ours. Priceless
Shakespeare was the free gift of Nature; given altogether
silently;--received altogether silently, as if it had been a thing of
little account. And yet, very literally, it is a priceless thing. One
should look at that side of matters too.

Of this Shakespeare of ours, perhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a
little idolatrously expressed is, in fact, the right one; I think the
best judgement not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is
slowly pointing to the conclusion, That Shakespeare is the chief of
all Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world,
has left record of himself in the way of literature. On the whole, I
know not such a power of vision, such a faculty of thought, if we take
all the characters of it, in any other man. Such a calmness of depth;
placid joyous strength; all things imaged in that great soul of his so
true and clear, as in a tranquil unfathomable sea! It has been said,
that in the constructing of Shakespeare’s Dramas there is, apart from
all other ‘faculties’ as they are called, an understanding manifested,
equal to that in Bacon’s _Novum Organum_. That is true; and it is not
a truth that strikes every one. It would become more apparent if we
tried, any of us for himself, how, out of Shakespeare’s dramatic
materials, _we_ could fashion such a result! The built house seems all
so fit,--everyway as it should be, as if it came there by its own law
and the nature of things,--we forget the rude disorderly quarry it was
shaped from. The very perfection of the house, as if Nature herself
had made it, hides the builder’s merit. Perfect, more perfect than any
other man, we may call Shakespeare in this: he discerns, knows as by
instinct, what condition he works under, what his materials are, what
his own force and its relation to them is. It is not a transitory
glance of insight that will suffice; it is deliberate illumination of
the whole matter; it is a calmly _seeing_ eye; a great intellect, in
short. How a man, of some wide thing that he has witnessed, will
construct a narrative, what kind of picture and delineation he will
give of it,--is the best measure you could get of what intellect is
in the man. Which circumstance is vital and shall stand prominent;
which unessential, fit to be suppressed; where is the true
_beginning_, the true sequence and ending? To find out this, you task
the whole force of insight that is in the man. He must _understand_
the thing; according to the depth of his understanding, will the
fitness of his answer be. You will try him so. Does like join itself
to like; does the spirit of method stir in that confusion, so that its
embroilment becomes order? Can the man say, _Fiat lux_, Let there be
light; and out of chaos make a world? Precisely as there, is _light_
in himself, will he accomplish this.

Or indeed we may say again, it is in what I called Portrait-painting,
delineating of men and things, especially of men, that Shakespeare is
great. All the greatness of the man comes out decisively here. It is
unexampled, I think, that calm creative perspicacity of Shakespeare.
The thing he looks at reveals not this or that face of it, but its
inmost heart and generic secret: it dissolves itself as in light
before him, so that he discerns the perfect structure of it. Creative,
we said: poetic creation, what is this too but _seeing_ the thing
sufficiently? The _word_ that will describe the thing, follows of
itself from such clear intense sight of the thing. And is not
Shakespeare’s _morality_, his valour, candour, tolerance,
truthfulness; his whole victorious strength and greatness, which can
triumph over such obstructions, visible there too? Great as the world!
No _twisted_, poor convex-concave mirror, reflecting all objects with
its own convexities and concavities; a perfectly _level_ mirror;--that
is to say withal, if we will understand it, a man justly related to
all things and men, a good man. It is truly a lordly spectacle how
this great soul takes in all kinds of men and objects, a Falstaff, an
Othello, a Juliet, a Coriolanus; sets them all forth to us in their
round completeness; loving, just, the equal brother of all. _Novum
Organum_, and all the intellect you will find in Bacon, is of a quite
secondary order; earthy, material, poor in comparison with this. Among
modern men, one finds, in strictness, almost nothing of the same rank.
Goethe alone, since the days of Shakespeare, reminds me of it. Of him
too you say that he _saw_ the object; you may say what he himself says
of Shakespeare: ‘His characters are like watches with dial-plates of
transparent crystal; they show you the hour like others, and the
inward mechanism also is all visible.’

The seeing eye! It is this that discloses the inner harmony of things;
what Nature meant, what musical idea Nature has wrapped up in these
often rough embodiments. Something she did mean. To the seeing eye
that something were discernible. Are they base, miserable things? You
can laugh over them, you can weep over them; you can in some way or
other genially relate yourself to them;--you can, at lowest, hold your
peace about them, turn away your own and others’ face from them, till
the hour come for practically exterminating and extinguishing them! At
bottom, it is the Poet’s first gift, as it is all men’s, that he have
intellect enough. He will be a Poet if he have: a Poet in word; or
failing that, perhaps still better, a Poet in act. Whether he write at
all; and if so, whether in prose or in verse, will depend on
accidents: who knows on what extremely trivial accidents,--perhaps on
his having had a singing-master, on his being taught to sing in his
boyhood! But the faculty which enables him to discern the inner heart
of things, and the harmony that dwells there (for what soever exists
has a harmony in the heart of it, or it would not hold together and
exist), is not the result of habits or accidents, but the gift of
Nature herself; the primary outfit for a Heroic Man in what sort
soever. To the Poet, as to every other, we say first of all, _See_. If
you cannot do that, it is of no use to keep stringing rhymes together,
jingling sensibilities against each other, and _name_ yourself a Poet;
there is no hope for you. If you can, there is, in prose or verse, in
action or speculation, all manner of hope. The crabbed old
Schoolmaster used to ask, when they brought him a new pupil, ‘But are
ye sure he’s _not a dunce_?’ Why, really one might ask the same thing,
in regard to every man proposed for whatsoever function; and consider
it as the one inquiry needful: Are ye sure he’s not a dunce? There is,
in this world, no other entirely fatal person.

For, in fact, I say the degree of vision that dwells in a man is a
correct measure of the man. If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty,
I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all
under that. What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they
were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect,
imagination, fancy, &c., as he has hands, feet and arms. That is a
capital error. Then again, we hear of a man’s ‘intellectual nature’,
and of his ‘moral nature’, as if these again were divisible, and
existed apart. Necessities of language do perhaps prescribe such forms
of utterance; we must speak, I am aware, in that way, if we are to
speak at all. But words ought not to harden into things for us. It
seems to me, our apprehension of this matter is, for most part,
radically falsified thereby. We ought to know withal, and to keep for
ever in mind, that these divisions are at bottom but _names_; that
man’s spiritual nature, the vital Force which dwells in him, is
essentially one and indivisible; that what we call imagination, fancy,
understanding, and so forth, are but different figures of the same
Power of Insight, all indissolubly connected with each other,
physiognomically related; that if we knew one of them, we might know
all of them. Morality itself, what we call the moral quality of a man,
what is this but another _side_ of the one vital Force whereby he is
and works? All that a man does is physiognomical of him. You may see
how a man would fight, by the way in which he sings; his courage, or
want of courage, is visible in the word he utters, in the opinion he
has formed, no less than in the stroke he strikes. He is _one_; and
preaches the same Self abroad in all these ways.

Without hands a man might have feet, and could still walk: but,
consider it,--without morality, intellect were impossible for him; a
thoroughly immoral _man_ could not know anything at all! To know a
thing, what we can call knowing, a man must first _love_ the thing,
sympathize with it: that is, be _virtuously_ related to it. If he have
not the justice to put down his own selfishness at every turn, the
courage to stand by the dangerous-true at every turn, how shall he
know? His virtues, all of them, will lie recorded in his knowledge.
Nature, with her truth, remains to the bad, to the selfish and the
pusillanimous for ever a sealed book: what such can know of Nature is
mean, superficial, small; for the uses of the day merely.--But does
not the very Fox know something of Nature? Exactly so: it knows where
the geese lodge! The human Reynard, very frequent everywhere in the
world, what more does he know but this and the like of this? Nay, it
should be considered too, that if the Fox had not a certain vulpine
_morality_, he could not even know where the geese were, or get at the
geese! If he spent his time in splenetic atrabiliar reflections on his
own misery, his ill usage by Nature, Fortune and other Foxes, and so
forth; and had not courage, promptitude, practicality, and other
suitable vulpine gifts and graces, he would catch no geese. We may say
of the Fox too, that his morality and insight are of the same
dimensions; different faces of the same internal unity of vulpine
life!--These things are worth stating; for the contrary of them acts
with manifold very baleful perversion, in this time: what limitations,
modifications they require, your own candour will supply.

If I say, therefore, that Shakespeare is the greatest of Intellects, I
have said all concerning him. But there is more in Shakespeare’s
intellect than we have yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious
intellect; there is more virtue in it than he himself is aware of.
Novalis beautifully remarks of him, that those Dramas of his are
Products of Nature too, deep as Nature herself. I find a great truth
in this saying. Shakespeare’s Art is not Artifice; the noblest worth
of it is not there by plan or precontrivance. It grows up from the
deeps of Nature, through this noble sincere soul, who is a voice of
Nature. The latest generations of men will find new meanings in
Shakespeare, new elucidations of their own human being; ‘new harmonies
with the infinite structure of the Universe; concurrences with later
ideas, affinities with the higher powers and senses of man.’ This
well deserves meditating. It is Nature’s highest award to a true
simple great soul, that he get thus to be _a part of herself_. Such a
man’s works, whatsoever he with utmost conscious exertion and
forethought shall accomplish, grow up withal _un_consciously, from the
unknown deeps in him;--as the oak-tree grows from the Earth’s bosom,
as the mountains and waters shape themselves; with a symmetry grounded
on Nature’s own laws, conformable to all Truth whatsoever. How much in
Shakespeare lies hid; his sorrows, his silent struggles known to
himself; much that was not known at all, not speakable at all: like
_roots_, like sap and forces working underground! Speech is great; but
Silence is greater.

Withal the joyful tranquillity of this man is notable. I will not
blame Dante for his misery: it is as battle without victory; but true
battle,--the first, indispensable thing. Yet I call Shakespeare
greater than Dante, in that he fought truly, and did conquer. Doubt it
not, he had his own sorrows: those _Sonnets_ of his will even testify
expressly in what deep waters he had waded, and swum struggling for
his life;--as what man like him ever failed to have to do? It seems to
me a heedless notion, our common one, that he sat like a bird on the
bough; and sang forth, free and offhand, never knowing the troubles of
other men. Not so; with no man is it so. How could a man travel
forward from rustic deer-poaching to such tragedy-writing, and not
fall in with sorrows by the way? Or, still better, how could a man
delineate a Hamlet, a Coriolanus, a Macbeth, so many suffering heroic
hearts, if his own heroic heart had never suffered?--And now, in
contrast with all this, observe his mirthfulness, his genuine
overflowing love of laughter! You would say, in no point does he
_exaggerate_ but only in laughter. Fiery objurgations, words that
pierce and burn, are to be found in Shakespeare; yet he is always in
measure here; never what Johnson would remark as a specially ‘good
hater’. But his laughter seems to pour from him in floods; he heaps
all manner of ridiculous nicknames on the butt he is bantering,
tumbles and tosses him in all sorts of horse-play; you would say,
roars and laughs. And then, if not always the finest, it is always a
genial laughter. Not at mere weakness, at misery or poverty; never. No
man who _can_ laugh, what we call laughing, will laugh at these
things. It is some poor character only _desiring_ to laugh, and have
the credit of wit, that does so. Laughter means sympathy; good
laughter is not ‘the crackling of thorns under the pot’. Even at
stupidity and pretension this Shakespeare does not laugh otherwise
than genially. Dogberry and Verges tickle our very hearts; and we
dismiss them covered with explosions of laughter: but we like the poor
fellows only the better for our laughing; and hope they will get on
well there, and continue Presidents of the City-watch.--Such laughter,
like sunshine on the deep sea, is very beautiful to me.

       *       *       *       *       *

We have no room to speak of Shakespeare’s individual works; though
perhaps there is much still waiting to be said on that head. Had we,
for instance, all his plays reviewed as _Hamlet_, in _Wilhelm
Meister_, is! A thing which might, one day, be done. August Wilhelm
Schlegel has a remark on his Historical Plays, _Henry Fifth_ and the
others, which is worth remembering. He calls them a kind of National
Epic. Marlborough, you recollect, said, he knew no English History but
what he had learned from Shakespeare. There are really, if we look to
it, few as memorable Histories. The great salient points are admirably
seized; all rounds itself off, into a kind of rhythmic coherence; it
is, as Schlegel says, _epic_;--as indeed all delineation by a great
thinker will be. There are right beautiful things in those Pieces,
which indeed together form one beautiful thing. That battle of
Agincourt strikes me as one of the most perfect things, in its sort,
we anywhere have of Shakespeare’s. The description of the two hosts:
the worn-out, jaded English; the dread hour, big with destiny, when
the battle shall begin; and then that deathless valour: ‘Ye good
yeomen, whose limbs were made in England!’ There is a noble Patriotism
in it,--far other than the ‘indifference’ you sometimes hear ascribed
to Shakespeare. A true English heart breathes, calm and strong,
through the whole business; not boisterous, protrusive; all the better
for that. There is a sound in it like the ring of steel. This man too
had a right stroke in him, had it come to that!

But I will say, of Shakespeare’s works generally, that we have no full
impress of him there; even as full as we have of many men. His works
are so many windows, through which we see a glimpse of the world that
was in him. All his works seem, comparatively speaking, cursory,
imperfect, written under cramping circumstances; giving only here and
there a note of the full utterance of the man. Passages there are that
come upon you like splendour out of Heaven; bursts of radiance,
illuminating the very heart of the thing: you say, ‘That is _true_,
spoken once and forever; wheresoever and whensoever there is an open
human soul, that will be recognized as true!’ Such bursts, however,
make us feel that the surrounding matter is not radiant; that it is,
in part, temporary, conventional. Alas, Shakespeare had to write for
the Globe Playhouse: his great soul had to crush itself, as it could,
into that and no other mould. It was with him, then, as it is with us
all. No man works save under conditions. The sculptor cannot set his
own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he could translate it
into the stone that was given, with the tools that were given.
_Disjecta membra_ are all that we find of any Poet, or of any man.

       *       *       *       *       *

Whoever looks intelligently at this Shakespeare may recognize that he
too was a _Prophet_, in his way; of an insight analogous to the
Prophetic, though he took it up in another strain. Nature seemed to
this man also divine; _un_speakable, deep as Tophet, high as Heaven:
‘We are such stuff as Dreams are made of!’ That scroll in Westminster
Abbey, which few read with understanding, is of the depth of any Seer.
But the man sang; did not preach, except musically. We called Dante
the melodious Priest of Middle-Age Catholicism. May we not call
Shakespeare the still more melodious Priest of a _true_ Catholicism,
the ‘Universal Church’ of the Future and of all times? No narrow
superstition, harsh asceticism, intolerance, fanatical fierceness or
perversion: a Revelation, so far as it goes, that such a thousandfold
hidden beauty and divineness dwells in all Nature; which let all men
worship as they can! We may say without offence, that there rises a
kind of universal Psalm out of this Shakespeare too; not unfit to make
itself heard among the still more sacred Psalms. Not in disharmony
with these, if we understood them, but in unison!--I cannot call this
Shakespeare a ‘Sceptic’, as some do; his indifference to the creeds
and theological quarrels of his time misleading them. No: neither
unpatriotic, though he says little about his Patriotism; no sceptic,
though he says little about his Faith. Such ‘indifference’ was the
fruit of his greatness withal: his whole heart was in his own grand
sphere of worship (we may call it such); these other controversies,
vitally important to other men, were not vital to him.

But call it worship, call it what you will, is it not a right glorious
thing and set of things, this that Shakespeare has brought us? For
myself, I feel that there is actually a kind of sacredness in the fact
of such a man being sent into this Earth. Is he not an eye to us all;
a blessed heaven-sent Bringer of Light?--And, at bottom, was it not
perhaps far better that this Shakespeare, everyway an unconscious man,
was _conscious_ of no Heavenly message? He did not feel, like Mahomet,
because he saw into those internal Splendours, that he specially was
the ‘Prophet of God’: and was he not greater than Mahomet in that?
Greater; and also, if we compute strictly, as we did in Dante’s case,
more successful. It was intrinsically an error that notion of
Mahomet’s, of his supreme Prophethood; and has come down to us
inextricably involved in error to this day; dragging along with it
such a coil of fables, impurities, intolerances, as makes it a
questionable step for me here and now to say, as I have done, that
Mahomet was a true Speaker at all, and not rather an ambitious
charlatan, perversity, and simulacrum, no Speaker, but a Babbler! Even
in Arabia, as I compute, Mahomet will have exhausted himself and
become obsolete, while this Shakespeare, this Dante may still be
young;--while this Shakespeare may still pretend to be a Priest of
Mankind, of Arabia as of other places, for unlimited periods to come!
Compared with any speaker or singer one knows, even with Aeschylus or
Homer, why should he not, for veracity and universality, last like
them? He is _sincere_ as they; reaches deep down like them, to the
universal and perennial. But as for Mahomet, I think it had been
better for him _not_ to be so conscious! Alas, poor Mahomet; all that
he was _conscious_ of was a mere error; a futility and triviality,--as
indeed such ever is. The truly great in him too was the unconscious:
that he was a wild Arab lion of the desert, and did speak out with
that great thunder-voice of his, not by words which he _thought_ to be
great, but by actions, by feelings, by a history which _were_ great!
His Koran has become a stupid piece of prolix absurdity; we do not
believe, like him, that God wrote that! The Great Man here too, as
always, is a Force of Nature: whatsoever is truly great in him springs
up from the _in_articulate deeps.

       *       *       *       *       *

Well: this is our poor Warwickshire Peasant, who rose to be Manager of
a Playhouse, so that he could live without begging; whom the Earl of
Southampton cast some kind glances on; whom Sir Thomas Lucy, many
thanks to him, was for sending to the Treadmill! We did not account
him a god, like Odin, while he dwelt with us;--on which point there
were much to be said. But I will say rather, or repeat: In spite of
the sad state Hero-worship now lies in, consider what this Shakespeare
has actually become among us. Which Englishman we ever made, in this
land of ours, which million of Englishmen, would we not give up rather
than the Stratford Peasant? There is no regiment of highest
Dignitaries that we would sell him for. He is the grandest thing we
have yet done. For our honour among foreign nations, as an ornament to
our English Household, what item is there that we would not surrender
rather than him? Consider now, if they asked us, Will you give up your
Indian Empire or your Shakespeare, you English; never have had any
Indian Empire, or never have had any Shakespeare? Really it were a
grave question. Official persons would answer doubtless in official
language; but we, for our part too, should not we be forced to answer:
Indian Empire, or no Indian Empire; we cannot do without Shakespeare!
Indian Empire will go, at any rate, some day; but this Shakespeare
does not go, he lasts for ever with us; we cannot give up our
Shakespeare!

Nay, apart from spiritualities; and considering him merely as a real,
marketable, tangibly-useful possession. England, before long, this
Island of ours, will hold but a small fraction of the English: in
America, in New Holland, east and west to the very Antipodes, there
will be a Saxondom covering great spaces of the Globe. And now, what
is it that can keep all these together into virtually one Nation, so
that they do not fall out and fight, but live at peace, in brotherlike
intercourse, helping one another? This is justly regarded as the
greatest practical problem, the thing all manner of sovereignties and
governments are here to accomplish: what is it that will accomplish
this? Acts of Parliament, administrative prime-ministers cannot.
America is parted from us, so far as Parliament could part it. Call it
not fantastic, for there is much reality in it: Here, I say, is an
English King, whom no time or chance, Parliament or combination of
Parliaments, can dethrone! This King Shakespeare, does not he shine,
in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet
strongest of rallying-signs; _in_destructible; really more valuable in
that point of view, than any other means or appliance whatsoever? We
can fancy him as radiant aloft over all the Nations of Englishmen, a
thousand years hence. From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever,
under what sort of Parish-Constable soever, English men and women are,
they will say to one another: ‘Yes, this Shakespeare is ours: we
produced him, we speak and think by him; we are of one blood and kind
with him.’ The most common-sense politician, too, if he pleases, may
think of that.

Yes, truly, it is a great thing for a Nation that it get an articulate
voice; that it produce a man who will speak forth melodiously what the
heart of it means! Italy, for example, poor Italy lies dismembered,
scattered asunder, not appearing in any protocol or treaty as a unity
at all; yet the noble Italy is actually _one_: Italy produced its
Dante: Italy can speak! The Czar of all the Russias, he is strong,
with so many bayonets, Cossacks, and cannons: and does a great feat in
keeping such a tract of Earth politically together; but he cannot yet
speak. Something great in him, but it is a dumb greatness. He has had
no voice of genius, to be heard of all men and times. He must learn to
speak. He is a great dumb monster hitherto. His cannons and Cossacks
will all have rusted into nonentity, while that Dante’s voice is still
audible. The Nation that has a Dante is bound together as no dumb
Russia can be.--We must here end what we had to say of the
_Hero-Poet_.



JAMES HENRY LEIGH HUNT

1784-1859

AN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION

WHAT IS POETRY? (1844)


Poetry, strictly and artistically so called, that is to say,
considered not merely as poetic feeling, which is more or less shared
by all the world, but as the operation of that feeling, such as we see
it in the poet’s book, is the utterance of a passion for truth,
beauty, and power, embodying and illustrating its conceptions by
imagination and fancy, and modulating its language on the principle of
variety in uniformity. Its means are whatever the universe contains;
and its ends, pleasure and exaltation. Poetry stands between nature
and convention, keeping alive among us the enjoyment of the external
and the spiritual world: it has constituted the most enduring fame of
nations; and, next to Love and Beauty, which are its parents, is the
greatest proof to man of the pleasure to be found in all things, and
of the probable riches of infinitude.

Poetry is a passion,[25] because it seeks the deepest impressions; and
because it must undergo, in order to convey, them.

    [25] _Passio_, suffering in a good sense,--ardent subjection
    of one’s-self to emotion.

It is a passion for truth, because without truth the impression would
be false or defective.

It is a passion for beauty, because its office is to exalt and refine
by means of pleasure, and because beauty is nothing but the loveliest
form of pleasure.

It is a passion for power, because power is impression triumphant,
whether over the poet, as desired by himself, or over the reader, as
affected by the poet.

It embodies and illustrates its impressions by imagination, or images
of the objects of which it treats, and other images brought in to
throw light on those objects, in order that it may enjoy and impart
the feeling of their truth in its utmost conviction and affluence.

It illustrates them by fancy, which is a lighter play of imagination,
or the feeling of analogy coming short of seriousness, in order that
it may laugh with what it loves, and show how it can decorate it with
fairy ornament.

It modulates what it utters, because in running the whole round of
beauty it must needs include beauty of sound; and because, in the
height of its enjoyment, it must show the perfection of its triumph,
and make difficulty itself become part of its facility and joy.

And lastly, Poetry shapes this modulation into uniformity for its
outline, and variety for its parts, because it thus realizes the last
idea of beauty itself, which includes the charm of diversity within
the flowing round of habit and ease.

Poetry is imaginative passion. The quickest and subtlest test of the
possession of its essence is in expression; the variety of things to
be expressed shows the amount of its resources; and the continuity of
the song completes the evidence of its strength and greatness. He who
has thought, feeling, expression, imagination, action, character, and
continuity, all in the largest amount and highest degree, is the
greatest poet.

Poetry includes whatsoever of painting can be made visible to the
mind’s eye, and whatsoever of music can be conveyed by sound and
proportion without singing or instrumentation. But it far surpasses
those divine arts in suggestiveness, range, and intellectual
wealth;--the first, in expression of thought, combination of images,
and the triumph over space and time; the second, in all that can be
done by speech, apart from the tones and modulations of pure sound.
Painting and music, however, include all those portions of the gift of
poetry that can be expressed and heightened by the visible and
melodious. Painting, in a certain apparent manner, is things
themselves; music, in a certain audible manner, is their very emotion
and grace. Music and painting are proud to be related to poetry, and
poetry loves and is proud of them.

Poetry begins where matter of fact or of science ceases to be merely
such, and to exhibit a further truth; that is to say, the connexion it
has with the world of emotion, and its power to produce imaginative
pleasure. Inquiring of a gardener, for instance, what flower it is we
see yonder, he answers, ‘a lily’. This is matter of fact. The botanist
pronounces it to be of the order of ‘Hexandria Monogynia’. This is
matter of science. It is the ‘lady’ of the garden, says Spenser; and
here we begin to have a poetical sense of its fairness and grace. It
is

    The plant and flower of _light_,

says Ben Jonson; and poetry then shows us the beauty of the flower in
all its mystery and splendour.

If it be asked, how we know perceptions like these to be true, the
answer is, by the fact of their existence--by the consent and delight
of poetic readers. And as feeling is the earliest teacher, and
perception the only final proof, of things the most demonstrable by
science, so the remotest imaginations of the poets may often be found
to have the closest connexion with matter of fact; perhaps might
always be so, if the subtlety of our perceptions were a match for the
causes of them. Consider this image of Ben Jonson’s--of a lily being
the flower of light. Light, undecomposed, is white; and as the lily is
white, and light is white, and whiteness itself is nothing _but_
light, the two things, so far, are not merely similar, but identical.
A poet might add, by an analogy drawn from the connexion of light and
colour, that there is a ‘golden dawn’ issuing out of the white lily,
in the rich yellow of the stamens. I have no desire to push this
similarity farther than it may be worth. Enough has been stated to
show that, in poetical as in other analogies, ‘the same feet of
Nature’, as Bacon says, may be seen ‘treading in different paths’; and
that the most scornful, that is to say, dullest disciple of fact,
should be cautious how he betrays the shallowness of his philosophy by
discerning no poetry in its depths.

But the poet is far from dealing only with these subtle and analogical
truths. Truth of every kind belongs to him, provided it can bud into
any kind of beauty, or is capable of being illustrated and impressed
by the poetic faculty. Nay, the simplest truth is often so beautiful
and impressive of itself, that one of the greatest proofs of his
genius consists in his leaving it to stand alone, illustrated by
nothing but the light of its own tears or smiles, its own wonder,
might, or playfulness. Hence the complete effect of many a simple
passage in our old English ballads and romances, and of the passionate
sincerity in general of the greatest early poets, such as Homer and
Chaucer, who flourished before the existence of a ‘literary world’,
and were not perplexed by a heap of notions and opinions, or by doubts
how emotion ought to be expressed. The greatest of their successors
never write equally to the purpose, except when they can dismiss
everything from their minds but the like simple truth. In the
beautiful poem of _Sir Eger, Sir Graham and Sir Gray-Steel_ (see it in
Ellis’s _Specimens_, or Laing’s _Early Metrical Tales_), a knight
thinks himself disgraced in the eyes of his mistress:--

    Sir Eger said, ‘If it be so,
    Then wot I well I must forgo
    Love-liking, and manhood, all clean!’
    _The water rush’d out of his een!_

Sir Gray-Steel is killed:

    Gray-Steel into his death thus thraws[26]
    He _walters[27] and the grass up draws;_

           *       *       *       *       *

    _A little while then lay he still
    (Friends that him saw, liked full ill)
    And bled into his armour bright._

    [26] throes?

    [27] welters,--throws himself about.

The abode of Chaucer’s _Reeve_, or Steward, in the _Canterbury Tales_,
is painted in two lines, which nobody ever wished longer:

    His wonning[28] was full fair upon an heath,
    With greeny trees yshadowed was his place.

    [28] dwelling.

Every one knows the words of Lear, ‘most _matter-of-fact_, most
melancholy.’

            Pray, do not mock me;
    I am a very foolish fond old man,
    Fourscore and upwards:
    Not an hour more, nor less; and, to deal plainly
    I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

It is thus, by exquisite pertinence, melody, and the implied power of
writing with exuberance, if need be, that beauty and truth become
identical in poetry, and that pleasure, or at the very worst, a balm
in our tears, is drawn out of pain.

It is a great and rare thing, and shows a lovely imagination, when the
poet can write a commentary, as it were, of his own, on such sufficing
passages of nature, and be thanked for the addition. There is an
instance of this kind in Warner, an old Elizabethan poet, than which I
know nothing sweeter in the world. He is speaking of Fair Rosamond,
and of a blow given her by Queen Eleanor.

    With that she dash’d her on the lips,
      _So dyèd double red:
    Hard was the heart that gave the blow,
      Soft were those lips that bled._

There are different kinds and degrees of imagination, some of them
necessary to the formation of every true poet, and all of them
possessed by the greatest. Perhaps they may be enumerated as
follows:--First, that which presents to the mind any object or
circumstance in every-day life; as when we imagine a man holding a
sword, or looking out of a window;--Second, that which presents real,
but not every-day circumstances; as King Alfred tending the loaves,
or Sir Philip Sidney giving up the water to the dying soldier;--Third,
that which combines character and events directly imitated from real
life, with imitative realities of its own invention; as the probable
parts of the histories of Priam and _Macbeth_, or what may be called
natural fiction as distinguished from supernatural;--Fourth, that
which conjures up things and events not to be found in nature; as
Homer’s gods, and Shakespeare’s witches, enchanted horses and spears,
Ariosto’s hippogriff, &c.;--Fifth, that which, in order to illustrate
or aggravate one image, introduces another; sometimes in simile, as
when Homer compares Apollo descending in his wrath at noon-day to the
coming of night-time: sometimes in metaphor, or simile comprised in a
word, as in Milton’s ‘motes that _people_ the sunbeams’; sometimes in
concentrating into a word the main history of any person or thing,
past or even future, as in the ‘starry Galileo’ of Byron, and that
ghastly foregone conclusion of the epithet ‘murdered’ applied to the
yet living victim in Keats’s story from Boccaccio,--

    So the two brothers and their _murder’d_ man
    Rode towards fair Florence;--

sometimes in the attribution of a certain representative quality which
makes one circumstance stand for others; as in Milton’s grey-fly
winding its ‘_sultry_ horn’, which epithet contains the heat of a
summer’s day;--Sixth, that which reverses this process, and makes a
variety of circumstances take colour from one, like nature seen with
jaundiced or glad eyes, or under the influence of storm or sunshine;
as when in _Lycidas_, or the Greek pastoral poets, the flowers and
the flocks are made to sympathize with a man’s death; or, in the
Italian poet, the river flowing by the sleeping Angelica seems talking
of love--

    Parea che l’erba le fiorisse intorno,
    _E d’amor ragionasse quella riva!_

                    _Orlando Innamorato_, Canto iii.

or in the voluptuous homage paid to the sleeping Imogen by the very
light in the chamber, and the reaction of her own beauty upon itself;
or in the ‘witch element’ of the tragedy of _Macbeth_ and the May-day
night of _Faust_;--Seventh, and last, that which by a single
expression, apparently of the vaguest kind, not only meets but
surpasses in its effect the extremest force of the most particular
description; as in that exquisite passage of Coleridge’s _Christabel_,
where the unsuspecting object of the witch’s malignity is bidden to go
to bed:

    Quoth Christabel, So let it be!
    And as the lady bade, did she.
    Her gentle limbs did she undress,
    _And lay down in her loveliness;--_

a perfect verse surely, both for feeling and music. The very
smoothness and gentleness of the limbs is in the series of the letter
_l’s_.

I am aware of nothing of the kind surpassing that most lovely
inclusion of physical beauty in moral, neither can I call to mind any
instances of the imagination that turns accompaniments into
accessories, superior to those I have alluded to. Of the class of
comparison, one of the most touching (many a tear must it have drawn
from parents and lovers) is in a stanza which has been copied into
the _Friar of Orders Grey_, out of Beaumont and Fletcher:

    Weep no more, lady, weep no more,
      Thy sorrow is in vain;
    _For violets pluck’d the sweetest showers
      Will ne’er make grow again._

And Shakespeare and Milton abound in the very grandest; such as
Antony’s likening his changing fortunes to the cloud-rack; Lear’s
appeal to the old age of the heavens; Satan’s appearance in the
horizon, like a fleet ‘hanging in the clouds’; and the comparisons of
him with the comet and the eclipse. Nor unworthy of this glorious
company, for its extraordinary combination of delicacy and vastness,
is that enchanting one of Shelley’s in the _Adonais_:

    Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
    Stains the white radiance of eternity.

I multiply these particulars in order to impress upon the reader’s
mind the great importance of imagination in all its phases, as a
constituent part of the highest poetic faculty.

The happiest instance I remember of imaginative metaphor, is
Shakespeare’s moonlight ‘sleeping’ on a bank; but half his poetry may
be said to be made up of it, metaphor indeed being the common coin of
discourse. Of imaginary creatures, none out of the pale of mythology
and the East are equal, perhaps, in point of invention, to
Shakespeare’s Ariel and Caliban; though poetry may grudge to prose the
discovery of a Winged Woman, especially such as she has been described
by her inventor in the story of _Peter Wilkins_; and in point of
treatment, the Mammon and Jealousy of Spenser, some of the monsters
in Dante, particularly his Nimrod, his interchangements of creatures
into one another, and (if I am not presumptuous in anticipating what I
think will be the verdict of posterity) the Witch in Coleridge’s
_Christabel_, may rank even with the creations of Shakespeare. It may
be doubted, indeed, whether Shakespeare had bile and nightmare enough
in him to have thought of such detestable horrors as those of the
interchanging adversaries (now serpent, now man), or even of the huge,
half-blockish enormity of Nimrod,--in Scripture, the ‘mighty hunter’
and builder of the tower of Babel,--in Dante, a tower of a man in his
own person, standing with some of his brother giants up to the middle
in a pit in hell, blowing a horn to which a thunderclap is a whisper,
and hallooing after Dante and his guide in the jargon of a lost
tongue! The transformations are too odious to quote: but of the
towering giant we cannot refuse ourselves the ‘fearful joy’ of a
specimen. It was twilight, Dante tells us, and he and his guide Virgil
were silently pacing through one of the dreariest regions of hell,
when the sound of a tremendous horn made him turn all his attention to
the spot from which it came. He there discovered through the dusk,
what seemed to be the towers of a city. Those are no towers, said his
guide; they are giants, standing up to the middle in one of these
circular pits.

    I look’d again; and as the eye makes out,
    By little and little, what the mist conceal’d
    In which, till clearing up, the sky was steep’d;
    So, looming through the gross and darksome air,
    As we drew nigh, those mighty bulks grew plain,
    And error quitted me, and terror join’d:
    For in like manner as all round its height
    Montereggione crowns itself with towers,
    So tower’d above the circuit of that pit,
    Though but half out of it, and half within,
    The horrible giants that fought Jove, and still
    Are threaten’d when he thunders. As we near’d
    The foremost, I discern’d his mighty face,
    His shoulders, breast, and more than half his trunk,
    With both the arms down hanging by the sides.
    His face appear’d to me, in length and breadth,
    Huge as St. Peter’s pinnacle at Rome,
    And of a like proportion all his bones.
    He open’d, as we went, his dreadful mouth,
    Fit for no sweeter psalmody; and shouted
    After us, in the words of some strange tongue,
    Ràfel ma-èe amech zabèe almee!--
    ‘Dull wretch!’ my leader cried, ‘keep to thine horn,
    And so vent better whatsoever rage
    Or other passion stuff thee. Feel thy throat
    And find the chain upon thee, thou confusion!
    Lo! what a hoop is clench’d about thy gorge.’
    Then turning to myself, he said, ‘His howl
    Is its own mockery. This is Nimrod, he
    Through whose ill thought it was that humankind
    Were tongue-confounded. Pass him, and say nought:
    For as he speaketh language known of none,
    So none can speak save jargon to himself.’

                       _Inferno_, Canto xxxi, ver. 34.

Assuredly it could not have been easy to find a fiction so uncouthly
terrible as this in the hypochondria of Hamlet. Even his father had
evidently seen no such ghost in the other world. All his phantoms were
in the world he had left. Timon, Lear, Richard, Brutus, Prospero,
Macbeth himself, none of Shakespeare’s men had, in fact, any thought
but of the earth they lived on, whatever supernatural fancy crossed
them. The thing fancied was still a thing of this world, ‘in its habit
as it lived,’ or no remoter acquaintance than a witch or a fairy. Its
lowest depths (unless Dante suggested them) were the cellars under the
stage. Caliban himself is a cross-breed between a witch and a clown.
No offence to Shakespeare; who was not bound to be the greatest of
healthy poets, and to have every morbid inspiration besides. What he
might have done, had he set his wits to compete with Dante, I know
not: all I know is, that in the infernal line he did nothing like him;
and it is not to be wished he had. It is far better that, as a higher,
more universal, and more beneficent variety of the genus Poet, he
should have been the happier man he was, and left us the plump cheeks
on his monument, instead of the carking visage of the great, but
over-serious, and comparatively one-sided Florentine. Even the
imagination of Spenser, whom we take to have been a ‘nervous
gentleman’ compared with Shakespeare, was visited with no such dreams
as Dante. Or, if it was, he did not choose to make himself thinner (as
Dante says _he_ did) with dwelling upon them. He had twenty visions of
nymphs and bowers, to one of the mud of Tartarus. Chaucer, for all he
was ‘a man of this world’ as well as the poets’ world, and as great,
perhaps a greater enemy of oppression than Dante, besides being one of
the profoundest masters of pathos that ever lived, had not the heart
to conclude the story of the famished father and his children, as
finished by the inexorable anti-Pisan. But enough of Dante in this
place. Hobbes, in order to daunt the reader from objecting to his
friend Davenant’s want of invention, says of these fabulous creations
in general, in his letter prefixed to the poem of _Gondibert_, that
‘impenetrable armours, enchanted castles, invulnerable bodies, iron
men, flying horses, and a thousand other such things, are easily
feigned by them that dare’. These are girds at Spenser and Ariosto.
But, with leave of Hobbes (who translated Homer as if on purpose to
show what execrable verses could be written by a philosopher),
enchanted castles and flying horses are not easily feigned as Ariosto
and Spenser feigned them; and that just makes all the difference. For
proof, see the accounts of Spenser’s enchanted castle in Book the
Third, Canto Twelfth, of the _Faerie Queene_; and let the reader of
Italian open the _Orlando Furioso_ at its first introduction of the
Hippogriff (Canto iii, st. 4), where Bradamante, coming to an inn,
hears a great noise, and sees all the people looking up at something
in the air; upon which, looking up herself, she sees a knight in
shining armour riding towards the sunset upon a creature with
variegated wings, and then dipping and disappearing among the hills.
Chaucer’s steed of brass, that was

    So horsly and so quick of eye,

is copied from the life. You might pat him and feel his brazen
muscles. Hobbes, in objecting to what he thought childish, made a
childish mistake. His criticism is just such as a boy might pique
himself upon, who was educated on mechanical principles, and thought
he had outgrown his Goody Two-shoes. With a wonderful dimness of
discernment in poetic matters, considering his acuteness in others, he
fancies he has settled the question by pronouncing such creations
‘impossible’! To the brazier they are impossible, no doubt; but not to
the poet. Their possibility, if the poet wills it, is to be conceded;
the problem is, the creature being given, how to square its actions
with probability, according to the nature assumed of it. Hobbes did
not see, that the skill and beauty of these fictions lay in bringing
them within those very regions of truth and likelihood in which he
thought they could not exist. Hence the serpent Python of Chaucer,

    _Sleeping against the sun upon a day,_

when Apollo slew him. Hence the chariot-drawing dolphins of Spenser,
softly swimming along the shore lest they should hurt themselves
against the stones and gravel. Hence Shakespeare’s Ariel, living under
blossoms, and riding at evening on the bat; and his domestic namesake
in the _Rape of the Lock_ (the imagination of the drawing-room) saving
a lady’s petticoat from the coffee with his plumes, and directing
atoms of snuff into a coxcomb’s nose. In the _Orlando Furioso_ (Canto
xv, st. 65) is a wild story of a cannibal necromancer, who laughs at
being cut to pieces, coming together again like quicksilver, and
picking up his head when it is cut off, sometimes by the hair,
sometimes by the nose! This, which would be purely childish and
ridiculous in the hands of an inferior poet, becomes interesting, nay
grand, in Ariosto’s, from the beauties of his style, and its
conditional truth to nature. The monster has a fated hair on his
head,--a single hair,--which must be taken from it before he can be
killed. Decapitation itself is of no consequence, without that
proviso. The Paladin Astolfo, who has fought this phenomenon on
horseback, and succeeded in getting the head and galloping off with
it, is therefore still at a loss what to be at. How is he to discover
such a needle in such a bottle of hay? The trunk is spurring after him
to recover it, and he seeks for some evidence of the hair in vain. At
length he bethinks him of scalping the head. He does so; and the
moment the operation arrives at the place of the hair, _the face of
the head becomes pale, the eyes turn in their sockets_, and the
lifeless pursuer tumbles from his horse.

    Then grew the visage pale, and deadly wet;
    The eyes turn’d in their sockets, drearily;
    And all things show’d the villain’s sun was set.
    His trunk that was in chase, fell from its horse,
    And giving the last shudder, was a corse.

It is thus, and thus only, by making Nature his companion wherever he
goes, even in the most supernatural region, that the poet, in the
words of a very instructive phrase, takes the world along with him. It
is true, he must not (as the Platonists would say) humanize weakly or
mistakenly in that region; otherwise he runs the chance of forgetting
to be true to the supernatural itself, and so betraying a want of
imagination from that quarter. His nymphs will have no taste of their
woods and waters; his gods and goddesses be only so many fair or
frowning ladies and gentlemen, such as we see in ordinary paintings;
he will be in no danger of having his angels likened to a sort of
wild-fowl, as Rembrandt has made them in his Jacob’s Dream. His
Bacchuses will never remind us, like Titian’s, of the force and fury,
as well as of the graces, of wine. His Jupiter will reduce no females
to ashes; his fairies be nothing fantastical; his gnomes not ‘of the
earth, earthy’. And this again will be wanting to Nature; for it will
be wanting to the supernatural, as Nature would have made it, working
in a supernatural direction. Nevertheless, the poet, even for
imagination’s sake, must not become a bigot to imaginative truth,
dragging it down into the region of the mechanical and the limited,
and losing sight of its paramount privilege, which is to make beauty,
in a human sense, the lady and queen of the universe. He would gain
nothing by making his ocean-nymphs mere fishy creatures, upon the plea
that such only could live in the water: his wood-nymphs with faces of
knotted oak; his angels without breath and song, because no lungs
could exist between the earth’s atmosphere and the empyrean. The
Grecian tendency in this respect is safer than the Gothic; nay, more
imaginative; for it enables us to imagine _beyond_ imagination, and to
bring all things healthily round to their only present final ground of
sympathy,--the human. When we go to heaven, we may idealize in a
superhuman mode, and have altogether different notions of the
beautiful; but till then we must be content with the loveliest
capabilities of earth. The sea-nymphs of Greece were still beautiful
women, though they lived in the water. The gills and fins of the
ocean’s natural inhabitants were confined to their lowest semi-human
attendants; or if Triton himself was not quite human, it was because
be represented the fiercer part of the vitality of the seas, as they
did the fairer.

To conclude this part of my subject, I will quote from the greatest of
all narrative writers two passages;--one exemplifying the imagination
which brings supernatural things to bear on earthly, without
confounding them; the other, that which paints events and
circumstances after real life. The first is where Achilles, who has
long absented himself from the conflict between his countrymen and the
Trojans, has had a message from heaven bidding him reappear in the
enemy’s sight, standing outside the camp-wall upon the trench, but
doing nothing more; that is to say, taking no part in the fight. He is
simply to be seen. The two armies down by the sea-side are contending
which shall possess the body of Patroclus; and the mere sight of the
dreadful Grecian chief--supernaturally indeed impressed upon them, in
order that nothing may be wanting to the full effect of his courage
and conduct upon courageous men--is to determine the question. We are
to imagine a slope of ground towards the sea, in order to elevate the
trench; the camp is solitary; the battle (‘a dreadful roar of men,’ as
Homer calls it) is raging on the sea-shore; and the goddess Iris has
just delivered her message, and disappeared.

    But up Achilles rose, the lov’d of heaven;
    And Pallas on his mighty shoulders cast
    The shield of Jove; and round about his head
    She put the glory of a golden mist,
    From which there burnt a fiery-flaming light.
    And as, when smoke goes heavenward from a town,
    In some far island which its foes besiege,
    Who all day long with dreadful martialness
    Have pour’d from their own town; soon as the sun
    Has set, thick lifted fires are visible,
    Which, rushing upward, make a light in the sky,
    And let the neighbours know, who may perhaps
    Bring help across the sea; so from the head
    Of great Achilles went up an effulgence.

    Upon the trench he stood, without the wall,
    But mix’d not with the Greeks, for he rever’d
    His mother’s word; and so, thus standing there,
    He shouted; and Minerva, to his shout,
    Added a dreadful cry; and there arose
    Among the Trojans an unspeakable tumult.
    And as the clear voice of a trumpet, blown
    Against a town by spirit-withering foes,
    So sprang the clear voice of Aeacides.
    And when they heard the brazen cry, their hearts
    All leap’d within them; and the proud-maned horses
    Ran with the chariots round, for they foresaw
    Calamity; and the charioteers were smitten,
    When they beheld the ever-active fire
    Upon the dreadful head of the great-minded one
    Burning; for bright-eyed Pallas made it burn.
    Thrice o’er the trench divine Achilles shouted;
    And thrice the Trojans and their great allies
    Roll’d back; and twelve of all their noblest men
    Then perish’d, crush’d by their own arms and chariots.

                                 _Iliad_, xviii. 203.

Of course there is no further question about the body of Patroclus. It
is drawn out of the press, and received by the awful hero with tears.

The other passage is where Priam, kneeling before Achilles, and
imploring him to give up the dead body of Hector, reminds him of his
own father; who, whatever (says the poor old king) may be his troubles
with his enemies, has the blessing of knowing that his son is still
alive, and may daily hope to see him return. Achilles, in accordance
with the strength and noble honesty of the passions in those times,
weeps aloud himself at this appeal, feeling, says Homer, ‘desire’ for
his father in his very ‘limbs’. He joins in grief with the venerable
sufferer, and can no longer withstand the look of ‘his grey head and
his grey _chin_’. Observe the exquisite introduction of this last
word. It paints the touching fact of the chin’s being imploringly
thrown upward by the kneeling old man, and the very motion of his
beard as he speaks.

    So saying, Mercury vanished up to heaven:
    And Priam then alighted from his chariot,
    Leaving Idaeus with it, who remain’d
    Holding the mules and horses; and the old man
    Went straight indoors, where the belov’d of Jove
    Achilles sat, and found him. In the room
    Were others, but apart; and two alone,
    The hero Automedon, and Alcimus,
    A branch of Mars, stood by him. They had been
    At meals, and had not yet remov’d the board.
    Great Priam came, without their seeing him,
    And kneeling down, he clasp’d Achilles’ knees,
    And kiss’d those terrible, homicidal hands,
    Which had deprived him of so many sons.
    And as a man who is press’d heavily
    For having slain another, flies away
    To foreign lands, and comes into the house
    Of some great man, and is beheld with wonder,
    So did Achilles wonder to see Priam;
    And the rest wonder’d, looking at each other.
    But Priam, praying to him, spoke these words:--
    ‘God-like Achilles, think of thine own father!
    To the same age have we both come, the same
    Weak pass; and though the neighbouring chiefs may vex
    Him also, and his borders find no help,
    Yet when he hears that thou art still alive,
    He gladdens inwardly, and daily hopes
    To see his dear son coming back from Troy.
    But I, bereav’d old Priam! I had once
    Brave sons in Troy, and now I cannot say
    That one is left me. Fifty children had I,
    When the Greeks came; nineteen were of one womb;
    The rest my women bore me in my house.
    The knees of many of these fierce Mars has loosen’d;
    And he who had no peer, Troy’s prop and theirs,
    Him hast thou kill’d now, fighting for his country,
    Hector; and for his sake am I come here
    To ransom him, bringing a countless ransom.
    But thou, Achilles, fear the gods, and think
    Of thine own father, and have mercy on me:
    For I am much more wretched, and have borne
    What never mortal bore, I think on earth,
    To lift unto my lips the hand of him
    Who slew my boys.’

                He ceased; and there arose
    Sharp longing in Achilles for his father;
    And taking Priam by the hand, he gently
    Put him away; for both shed tears to think
    Of other times; the one most bitter ones
    For Hector, and with wilful wretchedness
    Lay right before Achilles: and the other,
    For his own father now, and now his friend;
    And the whole house might hear them as they moan’d.
    But when divine Achilles had refresh’d
    His soul with tears, and sharp desire had left
    His heart and limbs, he got up from his throne,
    And rais’d the old man by the hand, and took
    Pity on his grey head and his grey chin.

                                 _Iliad_, xxiv. 468.

O lovely and immortal privilege of genius! that can stretch its hand
out of the wastes of time, thousands of years back, and touch our
eyelids with tears. In these passages there is not a word which a man
of the most matter-of-fact understanding might not have written, _if
he had thought of it_. But in poetry, feeling and imagination are
necessary to the perception and presentation even of matters of fact.
They, and they only, see what is proper to be told, and what to be
kept back; what is pertinent, affecting, and essential. Without
feeling, there is a want of delicacy and distinction; without
imagination, there is no true embodiment. In poets, even good of their
kind, but without a genius for narration, the action would have been
encumbered or diverted with ingenious mistakes. The over-contemplative
would have given us too many remarks; the over-lyrical, a style too
much carried away; the over-fanciful, conceits and too many similes;
the unimaginative, the facts without the feeling, and not even those.
We should have been told nothing of the ‘grey chin’, of the house
hearing them as they moaned, or of Achilles gently putting the old man
aside; much less of that yearning for his father, which made the hero
tremble in every limb. Writers without the greatest passion and power
do not feel in this way, nor are capable of expressing the feeling;
though there is enough sensibility and imagination all over the world
to enable mankind to be moved by it, when the poet strikes his truth
into their hearts.

The reverse of imagination is exhibited in pure absence of ideas, in
commonplaces, and, above all, in conventional metaphor, or such images
and their phraseology as have become the common property of discourse
and writing. Addison’s _Cato_ is full of them.

    Passion unpitied and successless love
    _Plant daggers in my breast._

    I’ve sounded my Numidians, man by man,
    And find them _ripe for a revolt_.

    The virtuous Marcia _towers above her sex_.

Of the same kind is his ‘courting the yoke’--‘distracting my very
heart’--‘calling up all’ one’s ‘father’ in one’s soul--‘working every
nerve’--‘copying a bright example’; in short, the whole play, relieved
now and then with a smart sentence or turn of words. The following is
a pregnant example of plagiarism and weak writing. It is from another
tragedy of Addison’s time--the _Mariamne_ of Fenton:

            Mariamne, _with superior charms_,
    _Triumphs o’er reason_: in her look she _bears_
    A paradise of ever-blooming sweets;
    Fair as the first idea beauty _prints_
    In the young lover’s soul; a winning grace
    Guides every gesture, and obsequious love
    _Attends_ on all her steps.

‘Triumphing o’er reason’ is an old acquaintance of everybody’s.
‘Paradise in her look’ is from the Italian poets through Dryden. ‘Fair
as the first idea’, &c., is from Milton, spoilt;--‘winning grace’ and
‘steps’ from Milton and Tibullus, both spoilt. Whenever beauties are
stolen by such a writer, they are sure to be spoilt: just as when a
great writer borrows, he improves.

To come now to Fancy,--she is a younger sister of Imagination, without
the other’s weight of thought and feeling. Imagination indeed, purely
so called, is all feeling; the feeling of the subtlest and most
affecting analogies; the perception of sympathies in the natures of
things, or in their popular attributes. Fancy is a sporting with their
resemblance, real or supposed, and with airy and fantastical
creations.

    --Rouse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid
    Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold,
    _And, like a dew-drop from the lion’s mane,
    Be shook to air._

                      _Troilus and Cressida_, Act iii, sc. 3.

That is imagination;--the strong mind sympathizing with the strong
beast, and the weak love identified with the weak dew-drop.

                  Oh!--and I forsooth
    In love! I that have been love’s whip I
    _A very beadle to a humorous sigh!--_
    A domineering pedant o’er the boy,--
    This whimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,
    This senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid,
    _Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms,
    The anointed sovereign of sighs and groans_, &c.

                      _Love’s Labour’s Lost_, Act iii, sc. 1.

That is fancy;--a combination of images not in their nature connected,
or brought together by the feeling, but by the will and pleasure; and
having just enough hold of analogy to betray it into the hands of its
smiling subjector.

                        Silent icicles
    _Quietly shining to the quiet moon._

                      Coleridge’s _Frost at Midnight_.

That, again, is imagination;--analogical sympathy; and exquisite of
its kind it is.

     ‘You are now sailed _into the north of my lady’s opinion_;
     where you will hang _like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard_,
     unless you do redeem it by some laudable attempt.’

                       _Twelfth Night_, Act iii, sc. 2.

And that is fancy;--one image capriciously suggested by another, and
but half connected with the subject of discourse; nay, half opposed to
it; for in the gaiety of the speaker’s animal spirits, the ‘Dutchman’s
beard’ is made to represent the lady!

Imagination belongs to Tragedy, or the serious muse; Fancy to the
comic. _Macbeth_, _Lear_, _Paradise Lost_, the poem of Dante, are full
of imagination: the _Midsummer Night’s Dream_ and the _Rape of the
Lock_, of fancy: _Romeo and Juliet_, the _Tempest_, the _Faerie
Queene_, and the _Orlando Furioso_, of both. The terms were formerly
identical, or used as such; and neither is the best that might be
found. The term Imagination is too confined: often too material. It
presents too invariably the idea of a solid body;--of ‘images’ in the
sense of the plaster-cast cry about the streets. Fancy, on the other
hand, while it means nothing but a spiritual image or apparition
(Φαντασμα, appearance, _phantom_), has rarely that freedom from
visibility which is one of the highest privileges of imagination.
Viola, in _Twelfth Night_, speaking of some beautiful music, says:

    It gives a very echo to the seat
    Where Love is throned.

In this charming thought, fancy and imagination are combined; yet the
fancy, the assumption of Love’s sitting on a throne, is the image of a
solid body; while the imagination, the sense of sympathy between the
passion of love and impassioned music, presents us no image at all.
Some new term is wanting to express the more spiritual sympathies of
what is called Imagination.

One of the teachers of Imagination is Melancholy; and like Melancholy,
as Albert Durer has painted her, she looks out among the stars, and is
busied with spiritual affinities and the mysteries of the universe.
Fancy turns her sister’s wizard instruments into toys. She takes a
telescope in her hand, and puts a mimic star on her forehead, and
sallies forth as an emblem of astronomy. Her tendency is to the
child-like and sportive. She chases butterflies, while her sister
takes flight with angels. She is the genius of fairies, of
gallantries, of fashions; of whatever is quaint and light, showy and
capricious; of the poetical part of wit. She adds wings and feelings
to the images of wit; and delights as much to people nature with
smiling ideal sympathies, as wit does to bring antipathies together,
and make them strike light on absurdity. Fancy, however, is not
incapable of sympathy with Imagination. She is often found in her
company; always, in the case of the greatest poets; often in that of
less, though with them she is the greater favourite. Spenser has great
imagination and fancy too, but more of the latter; Milton both also,
the very greatest, but with imagination predominant; Chaucer, the
strongest imagination of real life, beyond any writers but Homer,
Dante, and Shakespeare, and in comic painting inferior to none; Pope
has hardly any imagination, but he has a great deal of fancy;
Coleridge little fancy, but imagination exquisite. Shakespeare alone,
of all poets that ever lived, enjoyed the regard of both in equal
perfection. A whole fairy poem of his writing [the Oberon-Titania
scenes from the _Midsummer-Night’s Dream_] will be found in the
present volume.[29] See also his famous description of Queen Mab and
her equipage, in _Romeo and Juliet_:

    Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs;
    The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers:
    Her traces of the smallest spider’s web;
    Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, &c.

    [29] Leigh Hunt’s _Imagination and Fancy, or Selections from
    the English Poets_, 1844.

That is Fancy, in its playful creativeness. As a small but pretty
rival specimen, less known, take the description of a fairy palace
from Drayton’s _Nymphidia_:

    This palace standeth in the air,
    By necromancy placèd there,
    That it no tempest needs to fear,
      Which way soe’er it blow it:
    And somewhat southward tow’rd the noon,
    Whence lies a way up to the moon,
    And thence the fairy can as soon
      Pass to the earth below it.
    The walls of spiders’ legs are made,
    Well morticèd and finely laid:
    He was the master of his trade
      It curiously that builded:
    _The windows of the eyes of cats:_

(because they see best at night)

    And for the roof instead of slats
    Is cover’d with the skins of bats,
      _With moonshine that are gilded._

Here also is a fairy bed, very delicate, from the same poet’s _Muse’s
Elysium_:

    Of leaves of roses, _white and red_,
    Shall be the covering of the bed;
    The curtains, vallens, tester all,
    Shall be the flower imperial;
    And for the fringe it all along
    _With azure hare-bells shall be hung.
    Of lilies shall the pillows be,
    With down stuft of the butterfly._

Of fancy, so full of gusto as to border on imagination, Sir John
Suckling, in his _Ballad on a Wedding_, has given some of the most
playful and charming specimens in the language. They glance like
twinkles of the eye, or cherries bedewed:

    _Her feet beneath her petticoat,
    Like little mice stole in and out,
      As if they fear’d the light:_
    But oh! she dances such a way!
    _No sun upon an Easter day_
      Is half so fine a sight.

It is very daring, and has a sort of playful grandeur, to compare a
lady’s dancing with the sun. But as the sun has it all to himself in
the heavens, so she, in the blaze of her beauty, on earth. This is
imagination fairly displacing fancy. The following has enchanted
everybody:

    Her lips were red, _and one was thin_
    _Compared with that was next her chin,
      Some bee had stung it newly._

Every reader has stolen a kiss at that lip, gay or grave.

With regard to the principle of Variety in Uniformity by which verse
ought to be modulated, and oneness of impression diversely produced,
it has been contended by some, that Poetry need not be written in
verse at all; that prose is as good a medium, provided poetry be
conveyed through it; and that to think otherwise is to confound letter
with spirit, or form with essence. But the opinion is a prosaical
mistake. Fitness and unfitness for _song_, or metrical excitement,
just make all the difference between a poetical and prosaical subject;
and the reason why verse is necessary to the form of poetry, is, that
the perfection of poetical spirit demands it;--that the circle of its
enthusiasm, beauty and power, is incomplete without it. I do not mean
to say that a poet can never show himself a poet in prose; but that,
being one, his desire and necessity will be to write in verse; and
that, if he were unable to do so, he would not, and could not, deserve
his title. Verse to the true poet is no clog. It is idly called a
trammel and a difficulty. It is a help. It springs from the same
enthusiasm as the rest of his impulses, and is necessary to their
satisfaction and effect. Verse is no more a clog than the condition of
rushing upward is a clog to fire, or than the roundness and order of
the globe we live on is a clog to the freedom and variety that abound
within its sphere. Verse is no dominator over the poet, except
inasmuch as the bond is reciprocal, and the poet dominates over the
verse. They are lovers, playfully challenging each other’s rule, and
delighted equally to rule and to obey. Verse is the final proof to the
poet that his mastery over his art is complete. It is the shutting up
of his powers in ‘_measureful_ content’; the answer of form to his
spirit; of strength and ease to his guidance. It is the willing
action, the proud and fiery happiness, of the winged steed on whose
back he has vaulted,

    To witch the world with wondrous horsemanship.

Verse, in short, is that finishing, and rounding, and ‘tuneful
planetting’ of the poet’s creations, which is produced of necessity by
the smooth tendencies of their energy or inward working, and the
harmonious dance into which they are attracted round the orb of the
beautiful. Poetry, in its complete sympathy with beauty, must, of
necessity, leave no sense of the beautiful, and no power over its
forms, unmanifested; and verse flows as inevitably from this condition
of its integrity, as other laws of proportion do from any other kind
of embodiment of beauty (say that of the human figure), however free
and various the movements may be that play within their limits. What
great poet ever wrote his poems in prose? or where is a good prose
poem, of any length, to be found? The poetry of the Bible is
understood to be in verse, in the original. Mr. Hazlitt has said a
good word for those prose enlargements of some fine old song, which
are known by the name of Ossian; and in passages they deserve what he
said; but he judiciously abstained from saying anything about the
form. Is Gesner’s _Death of Abel_ a poem? or Hervey’s _Meditations_?
The _Pilgrim’s Progress_ has been called one; and, undoubtedly, Bunyan
had a genius which tended to make him a poet, and one of no mean
order: and yet it was of as ungenerous and low a sort as was
compatible with so lofty an affinity; and this is the reason why it
stopped where it did. He had a craving after the beautiful, but not
enough of it in himself to echo to its music. On the other hand, the
possession of the beautiful will not be sufficient without force to
utter it. The author of _Telemachus_ had a soul full of beauty and
tenderness. He was not a man who, if he had had a wife and children,
would have run away from them, as Bunyan’s hero did, to get a place by
himself in heaven. He was ‘a little lower than the angels’, like our
own Bishop Jewells and Berkeleys; and yet he was no poet. He was too
delicately, not to say feebly, absorbed in his devotions, to join in
the energies of the seraphic choir.

Every poet, then, is a versifier; every fine poet an excellent one;
and he is the best whose verse exhibits the greatest amount of
strength, sweetness, straightforwardness, unsuperfluousness,
_variety_, and _oneness_;--oneness, that is to say, consistency, in
the general impression, metrical and moral; and variety, or every
pertinent diversity of tone and rhythm, in the process. _Strength_ is
the muscle of verse, and shows itself in the number and force of the
marked syllables; as,

    Sonòrous mètal blòwing màrtial sòunds.

                                 _Paradise Lost._

    Behèmoth, bìggest born of eàrth, ùphèav’d
    His vàstness.

                                  _Id._

    Blòw wìnds and cràck your chèeks! ràge! blòw!
    You càtărăcts and hurricànoes, spòut,
    Till you have drènch’d our stèeples, dròwn’d the còcks!
    You sùlphurous and thoùght-èxecuting fìres,
    Vaùnt coùriers of òak-clèaving thùnderbòlts,
    Sìnge my whìte hèad! and thòu, àll-shàking thùnder,
    Strìke flàt the thìck rotùndity o’ the wòrld!

                                 _Lear._

Unexpected locations of the accent double this force, and render it
characteristic of passion and abruptness. And here comes into play the
reader’s corresponding fineness of ear, and his retardations and
accelerations in accordance with those of the poet:

                  Then in the keyhole turns
    The ìntrĭcăte wards, and every bolt and bar
    Unfastens.--On ă sŭddĕn òpen fly
    Wĭth ĭmpètuous recoil and jarring sound
    The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
    Harsh thunder.

                                 _Paradise Lost_, Book II.

    Abòmĭnăblĕ--unùttĕrăblĕ--and worse
    Than fables yet have feigned.

                                 _Id._

    Wàllŏwĭng ŭnwìĕldy--ĕnòrmous in their gait.

                                 _Id._

Of unusual passionate accent, there is an exquisite specimen in the
_Faerie Queene_, where Una is lamenting her desertion by the Red-Cross
Knight:

      But he, my lion, and my noble lord,
      How does he find in cruel heart to hate
      Her that him lov’d, and ever most ador’d
    _As the gòd of my lìfe?_[30] Why hath he me abhorr’d?

    [30] Pray let not the reader consent to read this first half
    of the line in any manner less marked and peremptory. It is a
    striking instance of the beauty of that ‘acceleration and
    retardation of true verse’ which Coleridge speaks of. There
    is to be a hurry on the words _as the_, and a passionate
    emphasis and passing stop on the word _god_; and so of the
    next three words.

The abuse of strength is harshness and heaviness; the reverse of it is
weakness. There is a noble sentiment--it appears both in Daniel’s and
Sir John Beaumont’s works, but is most probably the latter’s,--which
is a perfect outrage of strength in the sound of the words:

    Only the firmest and the _constant’st_ hearts
    God sets to act the _stout’st_ and hardest parts.

_Stout’st_ and _constant’st_ for ‘stoutest’ and ‘most constant’! It is
as bad as the intentional crabbedness of the line in _Hudibras_:

    He that hangs or _beats out’s_ brains,
    The devil’s in him if _he_ feigns.

_Beats out’s brains_, for ‘beats out his brains’. Of heaviness,
Davenant’s _Gondibert_ is a formidable specimen, almost throughout:

    With sìlence (òrder’s help, and màrk of càre)
      They chìde thàt nòise which hèedless yòuth affèct;
    Stìll coùrse for ùse, for heàlth thèy clèanness wèar,
      And sàve in wèll-fìx’d àrms, all nìceness chèck’d.
    Thèy thoùght, thòse that, unàrm’d, expòs’d fràil lìfe,
      But nàked nàture vàliantly betrày’d;
    Whò wàs, thoùgh nàked, sàfe, till prìde màde strìfe,
      But màde defènce must ùse, nòw dànger’s màde.

And so he goes digging and lumbering on, like a heavy preacher
thumping the pulpit in italics, and spoiling many ingenious
reflections.

Weakness in versification is want of accent and emphasis. It generally
accompanies prosaicalness, and is the consequence of weak thoughts,
and of the affectation of a certain well-bred enthusiasm. The writings
of the late Mr. Hayley were remarkable for it; and it abounds among
the lyrical imitators of Cowley, and the whole of what is called our
French school of poetry, when it aspired above its wit and ‘sense’. It
sometimes breaks down in a horrible, hopeless manner, as if giving way
at the first step. The following ludicrous passage in Congreve,
intended to be particularly fine, contains an instance:

      And lo! Silence himself is here;
    Methinks I see the midnight god appear.
      In all his downy pomp array’d,
        Behold the reverend shade.
      _An ancient sigh he sits upon!!!_
    Whose memory of sound is long since gone,
    _And purposely annihilated for his throne!!!_

                      _Ode on the singing of Mrs. Arabella Hunt._

See also the would-be enthusiasm of Addison about music:

        For ever consecrate the _day_
        To music and _Cecilia_;
    Music, the greatest good that mortals know,
        And all of heaven we have below,
        Music can noble HINTS _impart!!!_

It is observable that the unpoetic masters of ridicule are apt to make
the most ridiculous mistakes, when they come to affect a strain higher
than the one they are accustomed to. But no wonder. Their habits
neutralize the enthusiasm it requires.

_Sweetness_, though not identical with smoothness, any more than
feeling is with sound, always includes it; and smoothness is a thing
so little to be regarded for its own sake, and indeed so worthless in
poetry but for some taste of sweetness, that I have not thought
necessary to mention it by itself; though such an all-in-all in
versification was it regarded not a hundred years back, that Thomas
Warton himself, an idolater of Spenser, ventured to wish the following
line in the _Faerie Queene_,

    And was admirèd much of fools, _wòmen_, and boys--

altered to

    And was admirèd much of women, fools, and boys--

thus destroying the fine scornful emphasis on the first syllable of
‘women’! (an ungallant intimation, by the way, against the fair sex,
very startling in this no less woman-loving than great poet). Any
poetaster can be smooth. Smoothness abounds in all small poets, as
sweetness does in the greater. Sweetness is the smoothness of grace
and delicacy,--of the sympathy with the pleasing and lovely. Spenser
is full of it,--Shakespeare--Beaumont and Fletcher--Coleridge. Of
Spenser’s and Coleridge’s versification it is the prevailing
characteristic. Its main secrets are a smooth progression between
variety and sameness, and a voluptuous sense of the continuous,--‘linked
sweetness long drawn out’. Observe the first and last lines of the
stanza in the _Faerie Queene_, describing a shepherd brushing away the
gnats;--the open and the close _e’s_ in the one,

    As gèntle shèpherd in swēēt ēventide--

and the repetition of the word _oft_, and the fall from the vowel _a_,
into the two _u’s_ in the other,--

    She brusheth _oft_, and _oft_ doth màr their mūrmŭrings.

So in his description of two substances in the handling, both equally
smooth:

    _Each smoother seems than each, and each than each seems smoother._

An abundance of examples from his poetry will be found in the volume
before us. His beauty revolves on itself with conscious loveliness.
And Coleridge is worthy to be named with him, as the reader will see
also, and has seen already. Let him take a sample meanwhile from the
poem called the _Day Dream_! Observe both the variety and sameness of
the vowels, and the repetition of the soft consonants:

    My eyes make pictures when they’re shut:--
      I see a fountain, large and fair,
    A willow and a ruin’d hut,
      And _thee_ and _me_ and Mary there.
    _O Mary! make thy gentle lap our pillow;
    Bend o’er us, like a bower, my beautiful green willow._

By _Straightforwardness_ is meant the flow of words, in their natural
order, free alike from mere prose, and from those inversions to which
bad poets recur in order to escape the charge of prose, but chiefly to
accommodate their rhymes. In Shadwell’s play of _Psyche_, Venus gives
the sisters of the heroine an answer, of which the following is the
_entire_ substance, literally, in so many words. The author had
nothing better for her to say:

     I receive your prayers with kindness, and will give success
     to your hopes. I have seen, with anger, mankind adore your
     sister’s beauty and deplore her scorn: which they shall do
     no more. For I’ll so resent their idolatry, as shall content
     your wishes to the full.

Now in default of all imagination, fancy, and expression, how was the
writer to turn these words into poetry or rhyme? Simply by diverting
them from their natural order, and twisting the halves of the
sentences each before the other.

      With kindness I your prayers receive,
      And to your hopes success will give.
    I have, with anger, seen mankind adore
    Your sister’s beauty and her scorn deplore;
      Which they shall do no more.
    For their idolatry I’ll so resent,
    As shall your wishes to the full content!!

This is just as if a man were to allow that there was no poetry in the
words, ‘How do you find yourself?’ ‘Very well, I thank you’; but to
hold them inspired, if altered into

    Yourself how do you find?
    Very well, you I thank.

It is true, the best writers in Shadwell’s age were addicted to these
inversions, partly for their own reasons, as far as rhyme was
concerned, and partly because they held it to be writing in the
classical and Virgilian manner. What has since been called Artificial
Poetry was then flourishing, in contradistinction to Natural; or
Poetry seen chiefly through art and books, and not in its first
sources. But when the artificial poet partook of the natural, or, in
other words, was a true poet after his kind, his best was always
written in his most natural and straightforward manner. Hear
Shadwell’s antagonist Dryden. Not a particle of inversion, beyond what
is used for the sake of emphasis in common discourse, and this only in
one line (the last but three), is to be found in his immortal
character of the Duke of Buckingham:

    A man so various, that he seemed to be
    Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
    Stiff in opinions, _always in the wrong_,
    _Was everything by starts, and nothing long;_
    But in the course of one revolving moon
    Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon:
    Then all for women, rhyming, dancing, drinking,
    _Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking._
    _Blest madman!_ who could every hour employ
    _With something new to wish or to enjoy!_
    Railing and praising were his usual themes;
    And both, to show his judgement, in extremes:
    So over violent, or over civil,
    _That every man with him was god or devil._
    In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
    _Nothing went unrewarded, but desert._
    Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late,
    _He had his jest, and they had his estate._

Inversion itself was often turned into a grace in these poets, and may
be in others, by the power of being superior to it; using it only with
a classical air, and as a help lying next to them, instead of a
salvation which they are obliged to seek. In jesting passages also it
sometimes gave the rhyme a turn agreeably wilful, or an appearance of
choosing what lay in its way; as if a man should pick up a stone to
throw at another’s head, where a less confident foot would have
stumbled over it. Such is Dryden’s use of the word _might_--the mere
sign of a tense--in his pretended ridicule of the monkish practice of
rising to sing psalms in the night.

    And much they griev’d to see so nigh their hall
    The bird that warn’d St. Peter of his fall;
    That he should raise his mitred crest on high,
    And clap his wings and call his family
    To sacred rites; and vex th’ ethereal powers
    With midnight matins at uncivil hours;
    Nay more, his quiet neighbours should molest
    _Just in the sweetness of their morning rest._

(What a line full of ‘another doze’ is that!)

    _Beast of a bird!_ supinely, when he _might_
    Lie snug and sleep, to rise before the light!
    What if his dull forefathers used that cry?
    Could he not let a bad example die?

I the more gladly quote instances like those of Dryden, to illustrate
the points in question, because they are specimens of the very highest
kind of writing in the heroic couplet upon subjects not heroical. As
to prosaicalness in general, it is sometimes indulged in by young
writers on the plea of its being natural; but this is a mere
confusion of triviality with propriety, and is usually the result of
indolence.

_Unsuperfluousness_ is rather a matter of style in general, than of
the sound and order of words: and yet versification is so much
strengthened by it, and so much weakened by its opposite, that it
could not but come within the category of its requisites. When
superfluousness of words is not occasioned by overflowing animal
spirits, as in Beaumont and Fletcher, or by the very genius of luxury,
as in Spenser (in which cases it is enrichment as well as overflow),
there is no worse sign for a poet altogether, except pure barrenness.
Every word that could be taken away from a poem, unreferable to either
of the above reasons for it, is a damage; and many such are death; for
there is nothing that posterity seems so determined to resent as this
want of respect for its time and trouble. The world is too rich in
books to endure it. Even true poets have died of this Writer’s Evil.
Trifling ones have survived, with scarcely any pretensions but the
terseness of their trifles. What hope can remain for wordy mediocrity?
Let the discerning reader take up any poem, pen in hand, for the
purpose of discovering how many words he can strike out of it that
give him no requisite ideas, no relevant ones that he cares for, and
no reasons for the rhyme beyond its necessity, and he will see what
blot and havoc he will make in many an admired production of its
day,--what marks of its inevitable fate. Bulky authors in particular,
however safe they may think themselves, would do well to consider what
parts of their cargo they might dispense with in their proposed voyage
down the gulfs of time; for many a gallant vessel, thought
indestructible in its age, has perished;--many a load of words,
expected to be in eternal demand, gone to join the wrecks of
self-love, or rotted in the warehouses of change and vicissitude. I
have said the more on this point, because in an age when the true
inspiration has undoubtedly been reawakened by Coleridge and his
fellows, and we have so many new poets coming forward, it may be as
well to give a general warning against that tendency to an
accumulation and ostentation of _thoughts_, which is meant to be a
refutation in full of the pretensions of all poetry less cogitabund,
whatever may be the requirements of its class. Young writers should
bear in mind, that even some of the very best materials for poetry are
not poetry built; and that the smallest marble shrine, of exquisite
workmanship, outvalues all that architect ever chipped away. Whatever
can be so dispensed with is rubbish.

_Variety_ in versification consists in whatsoever can be done for the
prevention of monotony, by diversity of stops and cadences,
distribution of emphasis, and retardation and acceleration of time;
for the whole real secret of versification is a musical secret, and is
not attainable to any vital effect, save by the ear of genius. All the
mere knowledge of feet and numbers, of accent and quantity, will no
more impart it, than a knowledge of the ‘Guide to Music’ will make a
Beethoven or a Paisiello. It is a matter of sensibility and
imagination; of the beautiful in poetical passion, accompanied by
musical; of the imperative necessity for a pause here, and a cadence
there, and a quicker or slower utterance in this or that place,
created by analogies of sound with sense, by the fluctuations of
feeling, by the demands of the gods and graces that visit the poet’s
harp, as the winds visit that of Aeolus. The same time and quantity
which are occasioned by the spiritual part of this secret, thus become
its formal ones,--not feet and syllables, long and short, iambics or
trochees; which are the reduction of it to its _less_ than dry bones.
You might get, for instance, not only ten and eleven, but thirteen or
fourteen syllables into a rhyming, as well as blank, heroical verse,
if time and the feeling permitted; and in irregular measure this is
often done; just as musicians put twenty notes in a bar instead of
two, quavers instead of minims, according as the feeling they are
expressing impels them to fill up the time with short and hurried
notes, or with long; or as the choristers in a cathedral retard or
precipitate the words of the chant, according as the quantity of its
notes, and the colon which divides the verse of the psalm, conspire to
demand it. Had the moderns borne this principle in mind when they
settled the prevailing systems of verse, instead of learning them, as
they appear to have done, from the first drawling and one-syllabled
notation of the church hymns, we should have retained all the
advantages of the more numerous versification of the ancients, without
being compelled to fancy that there was no alternative for us between
our syllabical uniformity and the hexameters or other special forms
unsuited to our tongues. But to leave this question alone, we will
present the reader with a few sufficing specimens of the difference
between monotony and variety in versification, first from Pope,
Dryden, and Milton, and next from Gay and Coleridge. The following is
the boasted melody of the nevertheless exquisite poet of the _Rape of
the Lock_,--exquisite in his wit and fancy, though not in his numbers.
The reader will observe that it is literally _see-saw_, like the
rising and falling of a plank, with a light person at one end who is
jerked up in the briefer time, and a heavier one who is set down more
leisurely at the other. It is in the otherwise charming description of
the heroine of that poem:

    On her white breast--a sparkling cross she wore,
    Which Jews might kiss--and infidels adore;
    Her lively looks--a sprightly mind disclose,
    Quick as her eyes--and as unfix’d as those;
    Favours to none--to all she smiles extends,
    Oft she rejects--but never once offends;
    Bright as the sun--her eyes the gazers strike,
    And like the sun--they shine on all alike;
    Yet graceful ease--and sweetness void of pride,
    Might hide her faults--if belles had faults to hide;
    If to her share--some female errors fall,
    Look on her face--and you’ll forget them all.

Compare with this the description of Iphigenia in one of Dryden’s
stories from Boccaccio:

    It happen’d--on a summer’s holiday,                        }
    That to the greenwood shade--he took his way,              }
    For Cymon shunn’d the church--and used not much to pray.   }
    His quarter-staff--which he could ne’er forsake,
    Hung half before--and half behind his back;
    He trudg’d along--not knowing what he sought,
    And whistled as he went--for want of thought.

    By chance conducted--or by thirst constrain’d,
    The deep recesses of a grove he gain’d:--
    Where--in a plain defended by a wood,              }
    Crept through the matted grass--a crystal flood,   }
    By which--an alabaster fountain stood;             }
    And on the margent of the fount was laid--
    Attended by her slaves--a sleeping maid;
    Like Dian and her nymphs--when, tir’d with sport,
    To rest by cool Eurotas they resort.--
    The dame herself--the goddess well express’d,
    Not more distinguished by her purple vest--
    Than by the charming features of the face--
    And e’en in slumber--a superior grace:
    Her comely limbs--compos’d with decent care,    }
    Her body shaded--by a light cymar,              }
    Her bosom to the view--was only bare;           }
    Where two beginning paps were scarcely spied--
    For yet their places were but signified.--
    The fanning wind upon her bosom blows--                      }
    To meet the fanning wind--the bosom rose;                    }
    The fanning wind--and purling stream--continue her repose.   }

For a further variety take, from the same author’s _Theodore and
Honoria_, a passage in which the couplets are run one into the other,
and all of it modulated, like the former, according to the feeling
demanded by the occasion:

    Whilst listening to the murmuring leaves he stood--
    More than a mile immers’d within the wood--
    At once the wind was laid.|--The whispering sound
    Was dumb.|--A rising earthquake rock’d the ground.
    With deeper brown the grove was overspread--         }
    A sudden horror seiz’d his giddy head--              }
    And his ears tinkled--and his colour fled.           }

    Nature was in alarm.--Some danger nigh
    Seem’d threaten’d--though unseen to mortal eye.
    Unus’d to fear--he summon’d all his soul,
    And stood collected in himself--and whole:
    Not long.--

But for a crowning specimen of variety of pause and accent, apart from
emotion, nothing can surpass the account, in _Paradise Lost_, of the
Devil’s search for an accomplice:

                             There was a plàce,
    Nòw nòt--though Sìn--not Tìme--fìrst wroùght the chànge,
    Where Tìgris--at the foot of Pàradise,
    Into a gùlf--shòt under ground--till pàrt
    Ròse up a foùntain by the Trèe of Lìfe.
    _In_ with the river sunk--and _wìth_ it _ròse_
    Sàtan--invòlv’d in rìsing mìst--then soùght
    Whère to lie hìd.--Sèa he had search’d--and lànd
    From Eden over Pòntus--and the pòol
    Maeòtis--_ùp_ beyond the river _Ob_;
    Dòwnward as fàr antàrctic;--and in lèngth
    Wèst from Oròntes--to the òcean bàrr’d
    At Dàriën--thènce to the lànd whère flòws
    Gànges and Indus.--Thùs the òrb he ròam’d
    With nàrrow sèarch;--and with inspèction dèep
    Consìder’d èvery crèature--whìch of àll
    Mòst opportùne mìght sèrve his wìles--and foùnd
    The sèrpent--sùbtlest bèast of all the fièld.

If the reader cast his eye again over this passage, he will not find a
verse in it which is not varied and harmonized in the most remarkable
manner. Let him notice in particular that curious balancing of the
lines in the sixth and tenth verses:

    _In_ with the river sunk, &c.

and

    _Up_ beyond the river _Ob_.

It might, indeed, be objected to the versification of Milton, that it
exhibits too constant a perfection of this kind. It sometimes forces
upon us too great a sense of consciousness on the part of the
composer. We miss the first sprightly runnings of verse,--the ease and
sweetness of spontaneity. Milton, I think, also too often condenses
weight into heaviness.

Thus much concerning the chief of our two most popular measures. The
other, called octo-syllabic, or the measure of eight syllables,
offered such facilities for _namby-pamby_, that it had become a jest
as early as the time of Shakespeare, who makes Touchstone call it the
‘butterwoman’s rate to market’, and the ‘very false gallop of verses’.
It has been advocated, in opposition to the heroic measure, upon the
ground that ten syllables lead a man into epithets and other
superfluities, while eight syllables compress him into a sensible and
pithy gentleman. But the heroic measure laughs at it. So far from
compressing, it converts one line into two, and sacrifices everything
to the quick and importunate return of the rhyme. With Dryden, compare
Gay, even in the strength of Gay,--

    The wind was high, the window shakes;
    With sudden start the miser wakes;
    Along the silent room he stalks,

(A miser never ‘stalks’; but a rhyme was desired for ‘walks’)

    Looks back, and trembles as he walks:
    Each lock and every bolt he tries,
    In every creek and corner pries;
    Then opes the chest with treasure stor’d,
    And stands in rapture o’er his hoard;

(‘Hoard’ and ‘treasure stor’d’ are just made for one another)

    But now, with sudden qualms possess’d,
    He wrings his hands, he beats his breast;
    By conscience stung, he wildly stares,
    And thus his guilty soul declares.

And so he denounces his gold, as miser never denounced it; and sighs,
because

    Virtue resides on earth no more!

Coleridge saw the mistake which had been made with regard to this
measure, and restored it to the beautiful freedom of which it was
capable, by calling to mind the liberties allowed its old musical
professors the minstrels, and dividing it by _time_ instead of
_syllables_;--by the _beat of four_ into which you might get as many
syllables as you could, instead of allotting eight syllables to the
poor time, whatever it might have to say. He varied it further with
alternate rhymes and stanzas, with rests and omissions precisely
analogous to those in music, and rendered it altogether worthy to
utter the manifold thoughts and feelings of himself and his lady
Christabel. He even ventures, with an exquisite sense of solemn
strangeness and licence (for there is witchcraft going forward), to
introduce a couplet of blank verse, itself as mystically and
beautifully modulated as anything in the music of Gluck or Weber.

    ’Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
    And the owls have awaken’d the crowing cock;
    Tu-whit!--Tu-whoo!
    And hark, again! the crowing cock,
    _How drowsily he crew._
    Sir Leoline, the baron rich,
    Hath a toothless mastiff bitch;
    From her kennel beneath the rock
    She maketh answer to the clock,
    _Fòur fŏr thĕ qùartĕrs ănd twèlve fŏr thĕ hoùr,_
    Ever and aye, by shine and shower,
    Sixteen short howls, not over loud:
    Some say, she sees my lady’s shroud.

    _Is the nìght chìlly and dàrk?
    The nìght is chìlly, but nòt dàrk._
    The thin grey cloud is spread on high,
    It covers, but not hides, the sky.
    The moon is behind, and at the full,
    And yet she looks both small and dull.
    The night is chilly, the cloud is grey;

(These are not superfluities, but mysterious returns of importunate
feeling)

    _’Tis a month before the month of May,
    And the spring comes slowly up this way._
    The lovely lady, Christabel,
    Whom her father loves so well,
    What makes her in the wood so late,
    A furlong from the castle-gate?

    She had dreams all yesternight
    Of her own betrothèd knight;
    And shè ĭn thĕ midnight wood will pray
    For the wèal ŏf hĕr lover that’s far away.

    She stole along, she nothing spoke,
    The sighs she heav’d were soft and low,
    And nought was green upon the oak,
    But moss and rarest mistletoe;
    She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
    And in silence prayeth she.

    The lady sprang up suddenly,
    The lovely lady, Christabel!
    It moan’d as near as near can be,
    But what it is, she cannot tell.
    On the other side it seems to be
    Of thĕ hùge, broàd-breàsted, òld oàk trèe.

    The night is chill, the forest bare;
    Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?

(This ‘bleak moaning’ is a witch’s)

    There is not wind enough in the air
    To move away the ringlet curl
    From the lovely lady’s cheek--
    There is not wind enough to twirl
    _The òne rèd lèaf, the làst ŏf ĭts clan,
    That dàncĕs ăs òftĕn ăs dànce it càn,
    Hàngĭng sŏ lìght and hàngĭng sŏ hìgh,
    On thĕ tòpmost twìg thăt loŏks ùp ăt thĕ sky._

    Hush, beating heart of Christabel!
    Jesu Maria, shield her well!
    She folded her arms beneath her cloak,
    And stole to the other side of the oak.
          What sees she there?

    There she sees a damsel bright,
    Drest in a robe of silken white,
    That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
    The neck that made that white robe wan,
    Her stately neck and arms were bare:
    Her blue-vein’d feet unsandall’d were;
    And wildly glitter’d, here and there,
    The gems entangled in her hair.
    I guess ’twas _frightful_ there to see
    _A lady so richly clad as she--
    Beautiful exceedingly._

The principle of Variety in Uniformity is here worked out in a style
‘beyond the reach of art’. Everything is diversified according to the
demand of the moment, of the sounds, the sights, the emotions; the
very uniformity of the outline is gently varied; and yet we feel that
_the whole is one and of the same character_, the single and sweet
unconsciousness of the heroine making all the rest seem more
conscious, and ghastly, and expectant. It is thus that _versification
itself becomes part of the sentiment of a poem_, and vindicates the
pains that have been taken to show its importance. I know of no very
fine versification unaccompanied with fine poetry; no poetry of a mean
order accompanied with verse of the highest.

As to Rhyme, which might be thought too insignificant to mention, it
is not at all so. The universal consent of modern Europe, and of the
East in all ages, has made it one of the musical beauties of verse for
all poetry but epic and dramatic, and even for the former with
Southern Europe,--a sustainment for the enthusiasm, and a demand to
enjoy. The mastery of it consists in never writing it for its own
sake, or at least never appearing to do so; in knowing how to vary
it, to give it novelty, to render it more or less strong, to divide
it (when not in couplets) at the proper intervals, to repeat it many
times where luxury or animal spirits demand it (see an instance in
Titania’s speech to the Fairies), to impress an affecting or startling
remark with it, and to make it, in comic poetry, a new and surprising
addition to the jest.

    Large was his bounty and his soul sincere,
      Heav’n did a recompense as largely send;
    He gave to misery all he had, _a tear_;
      He gain’d from heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) _a friend_.

                                 Gray’s _Elegy_.

    The fops are proud of scandal; for they cry
    At every lewd, low character, ‘That’s _I_’.

                                 Dryden’s _Prologue to the Pilgrim_.

    What makes all doctrines plain and clear?
    _About two hundred pounds a-year._
    And that which was proved true before,
    Prove false again? _Two hundred more._

                                 _Hudibras._

    Compound for sins they are _inclin’d to_,
    By damning those they have _no mind to_.

                                 _Id._

    ----Stor’d with deletery _med’cines_,
    Which whosoever took is _dead since_.

                                 _Id._

Sometimes it is a grace in a master like Butler to force his rhyme,
thus showing a laughing wilful power over the most stubborn materials:

                                  Win
    The women, and make them draw in
    The men, as Indians with a _fèmale_
    Tame elephant inveigle _the_ male.

                                 _Hudibras._

    He made an instrument to know
    If the moon shines at full or no;
    That would, as soon as e’er she _shone, straight_
    Whether ’twere day or night _demonstrate_;
    Tell what her diameter to an _inch is_,
    And prove that she’s not made of _green cheese_.

                                 _Id._

Pronounce it, by all means, _grinches_, to make the joke more wilful.
The happiest triple rhyme, perhaps, that ever was written, is in _Don
Juan_:

    But oh! ye lords of ladies _intellectual_,
    Inform us truly,--haven’t they _hen-peck’d you all_?

The sweepingness of the assumption completes the flowing breadth of
effect.

Dryden confessed that a rhyme often gave him a thought. Probably the
happy word ‘sprung’ in the following passage from Ben Jonson was
suggested by it; but then the poet must have had the feeling in him.

      --Let our trumpets sound,
    And cleave both air and ground
      With beating of our drums.
    Let every lyre be strung,
    Harp, lute, theorbo, _sprung_
      _With touch of dainty thumbs_.

Boileau’s trick for appearing to rhyme naturally was to compose the
second line of his couplet first! which gives one the crowning idea of
the ‘artificial school of poetry’. Perhaps the most perfect master of
rhyme, the easiest and most abundant, was the greatest writer of
comedy that the world has seen,--Molière.

If a young reader should ask, after all, What is the quickest way of
knowing bad poets from good, the best poets from the next best, and so
on? the answer is, the only and twofold way: first, the perusal of the
best poets with the greatest attention; and, second, the cultivation
of that love of truth and beauty which made them what they are. Every
true reader of poetry partakes a more than ordinary portion of the
poetic nature; and no one can be completely such, who does not love,
or take an interest in, everything that interests the poet, from the
firmament to the daisy,--from the highest heart of man to the most
pitiable of the low. It is a good practice to read with pen in hand,
marking what is liked or doubted. It rivets the attention, realizes
the greatest amount of enjoyment, and facilitates reference. It
enables the reader also, from time to time, to see what progress he
makes with his own mind, and how it grows up towards the stature of
its exalter.

If the same person should ask, What class of poetry is the highest? I
should say, undoubtedly, the Epic; for it includes the drama, with
narration besides; or the speaking and action of the characters, with
the speaking of the poet himself, whose utmost address is taxed to
relate all well for so long a time, particularly in the passages least
sustained by enthusiasm. Whether this class has included the greatest
poet, is another question still under trial; for Shakespeare perplexes
all such verdicts, even when the claimant is Homer; though, if a
judgement may be drawn from his early narratives (_Venus and Adonis_,
and the _Rape of Lucrece_), it is to be doubted whether even
Shakespeare could have told a story like Homer, owing to that
incessant activity and superfoetation of thought, a little less of
which might be occasionally desired even in his plays;--if it were
possible, once possessing anything of his, to wish it away. Next to
Homer and Shakespeare come such narrators as the less universal, but
still intenser Dante; Milton, with his dignified imagination; the
universal, profoundly simple Chaucer; and luxuriant, remote
Spenser--immortal child in poetry’s most poetic solitudes: then the
great second-rate dramatists; unless those who are better acquainted
with Greek tragedy than I am, demand a place for them before Chaucer:
then the airy yet robust universality of Ariosto; the hearty,
out-of-door nature of Theocritus, also a universalist; the finest
lyrical poets (who only take short flights, compared with the
narrators); the purely contemplative poets who have more thought than
feeling; the descriptive, satirical, didactic, epigrammatic. It is to
be borne in mind, however, that the first poet of an inferior class
may be superior to followers in the train of a higher one, though the
superiority is by no means to be taken for granted; otherwise Pope
would be superior to Fletcher, and Butler to Pope. Imagination,
teeming with action and character, makes the greatest poets; feeling
and thought the next; fancy (by itself) the next; wit the last.
Thought by itself makes no poet at all; for the mere conclusions of
the understanding can at best be only so many intellectual matters of
fact. Feeling, even destitute of conscious thought, stands a far
better poetical chance; feeling being a sort of thought without the
process of thinking,--a grasper of the truth without seeing it. And
what is very remarkable, feeling seldom makes the blunders that
thought does. An idle distinction has been made between taste and
judgement. Taste is the very maker of judgement. Put an artificial
fruit in your mouth, or only handle it, and you will soon perceive the
difference between judging from taste or tact, and judging from the
abstract figment called judgement. The latter does but throw you into
guesses and doubts. Hence the conceits that astonish us in the
gravest, and even subtlest, thinkers, whose taste is not proportionate
to their mental perceptions; men like Donne, for instance; who, apart
from accidental personal impressions, seem to look at nothing as it
really is, but only as to what may be thought of it. Hence, on the
other hand, the delightfulness of those poets who never violate truth
of feeling, whether in things real or imaginary; who are always
consistent with their object and its requirements; and who run the
great round of nature, not to perplex and be perplexed, but to make
themselves and us happy. And luckily, delightfulness is not
incompatible with greatness, willing soever as men may be in their
present imperfect state to set the power to subjugate above the power
to please. Truth, of any great kind whatsoever, makes great writing.
This is the reason why such poets as Ariosto, though not writing with
a constant detail of thought and feeling like Dante, are justly
considered great as well as delightful. Their greatness proves itself
by the same truth of nature, and sustained power, though in a
different way. Their action is not so crowded and weighty; their
sphere has more territories less fertile; but it has enchantments of
its own, which excess of thought would spoil,--luxuries, laughing
graces, animal spirits; and not to recognize the beauty and greatness
of these, treated as they treat them, is simply to be defective in
sympathy. Every planet is not Mars or Saturn. There is also Venus and
Mercury. There is one genius of the south, and another of the north,
and others uniting both. The reader who is too thoughtless or too
sensitive to like intensity of any sort, and he who is too thoughtful
or too dull to like anything but the greatest possible stimulus of
reflection or passion, are equally wanting in complexional fitness
for a thorough enjoyment of books. Ariosto occasionally says as fine
things as Dante, and Spenser as Shakespeare; but the business of both
is to enjoy; and in order to partake their enjoyment to its full
extent, you must feel what poetry is in the general as well as the
particular, must be aware that there are different songs of the
spheres, some fuller of notes, and others of a sustained delight; and
as the former keep you perpetually alive to thought or passion, so
from the latter you receive a constant harmonious sense of truth and
beauty, more agreeable perhaps on the whole, though less exciting.
Ariosto, for instance, does not _tell a story_ with the brevity and
concentrated passion of Dante; every sentence is not so full of
matter, nor the style so removed from the indifference of prose; yet
you are charmed with a truth of another sort, equally characteristic
of the writer, equally drawn from nature and substituting a healthy
sense of enjoyment for intenser emotion. Exclusiveness of liking for
this or that mode of truth, only shows, either that a reader’s
perceptions are limited, or that he would sacrifice truth itself to
his favourite form of it. Sir Walter Raleigh, who was as trenchant
with his pen as his sword, hailed the _Faerie Queene_ of his friend
Spenser in verses in which he said that ‘Petrarch’ was thenceforward
to be no more heard of; and that in all English poetry, there was
nothing he counted ‘of any price’ but the effusions of the new author.
Yet Petrarch is still living; Chaucer was not abolished by Sir Walter;
and Shakespeare is thought somewhat valuable. A botanist might as well
have said, that myrtles and oaks were to disappear, because acacias
had come up. It is with the poet’s creations, as with nature’s, great
or small. Wherever truth and beauty, whatever their amount, can be
worthily shaped into verse, and answer to some demand for it in our
hearts, there poetry is to be found; whether in productions grand and
beautiful as some great event, or some mighty, leafy solitude, or no
bigger and more pretending than a sweet face or a bunch of violets;
whether in Homer’s epic or Gray’s _Elegy_, in the enchanted gardens of
Ariosto and Spenser, or the very pot-herbs of the _Schoolmistress_ of
Shenstone, the balms of the simplicity of a cottage. Not to know and
feel this, is to be deficient in the universality of Nature herself,
who is a poetess on the smallest as well as the largest scale, and who
calls upon us to admire all her productions; not indeed with the same
degree of admiration, but with no refusal of it, except to defect.

I cannot draw this essay towards its conclusion better than with three
memorable words of Milton; who has said, that poetry, in comparison
with science, is ‘simple, sensuous, and passionate’. By simple, he
means unperplexed and self-evident; by sensuous, genial and full of
imagery; by passionate, excited and enthusiastic. I am aware that
different constructions have been put on some of these words; but the
context seems to me to necessitate those before us. I quote, however,
not from the original, but from an extract in the _Remarks on Paradise
Lost_ by Richardson.

What the poet has to cultivate above all things is love and
truth;--what he has to avoid, like poison, is the fleeting and the
false. He will get no good by proposing to be ‘in earnest at the
moment’. His earnestness must be innate and habitual; born with him,
and felt to be his most precious inheritance. ‘I expect neither
profit nor general fame by my writings,’ says Coleridge, in the
Preface to his Poems; ‘and I consider myself as having been amply
repaid without either. Poetry has been to me its “_own exceeding great
reward_”; it has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined
my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude; and it has given me the habit
of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets
and surrounds me.’

‘Poetry’, says Shelley, ‘lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the
world, _and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar_.
It reproduces all that it represents; and the impersonations clothed
in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who
have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted
content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which
it co-exists. The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of
our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful
which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be
greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put
himself in the place of another, and of many others: the pains and
pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of
moral good is imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by
acting upon the cause.’

I would not willingly say anything after perorations like these; but
as treatises on poetry may chance to have auditors who think
themselves called upon to vindicate the superiority of what is termed
useful knowledge, it may be as well to add, that if the poet may be
allowed to pique himself on any one thing more than another, compared
with those who undervalue him, it is on that power of undervaluing
nobody, and no attainments different from his own, which is given him
by the very faculty of imagination they despise. The greater includes
the less. They do not see that their inability to comprehend him
argues the smaller capacity. No man recognizes the worth of utility
more than the poet: he only desires that the meaning of the term may
not come short of its greatness, and exclude the noblest necessities
of his fellow-creatures. He is quite as much pleased, for instance,
with the facilities for rapid conveyance afforded him by the railroad,
as the dullest confiner of its advantages to that single idea, or as
the greatest two-idea’d man who varies that single idea with hugging
himself on his ‘buttons’ or his good dinner. But he sees also the
beauty of the country through which he passes, of the towns, of the
heavens, of the steam-engine itself, thundering and fuming along like
a magic horse, of the affections that are carrying, perhaps, half the
passengers on their journey, nay, of those of the great two-idea’d
man; and, beyond all this, he discerns the incalculable amount of
good, and knowledge, and refinement, and mutual consideration, which
this wonderful invention is fitted to circulate over the globe,
perhaps to the displacement of war itself, and certainly to the
diffusion of millions of enjoyments.

‘And a button-maker, after all, invented it!’ cries our friend.

Pardon me--it was a nobleman. A button-maker may be a very excellent,
and a very poetical man too, and yet not have been the first man
visited by a sense of the gigantic powers of the combination of water
and fire. It was a nobleman who first thought of this most poetical
bit of science. It was a nobleman who first thought of it--a captain
who first tried it--and a button-maker who perfected it. And he who
put the nobleman on such thoughts was the great philosopher, Bacon,
who said that poetry had ‘something divine in it’, and was necessary
to the satisfaction of the human mind.



MATTHEW ARNOLD

1822-1888

THE CHOICE OF SUBJECTS IN POETRY

[Preface to ‘Poems’, 1853]


In two small volumes of Poems, published anonymously, one in 1849, the
other in 1852, many of the Poems which compose the present volume have
already appeared. The rest are now published for the first time.

I have, in the present collection, omitted the Poem from which the
volume published in 1852 took its title. I have done so, not because
the subject of it was a Sicilian Greek born between two and three
thousand years ago, although many persons would think this a
sufficient reason. Neither have I done so because I had, in my own
opinion, failed in the delineation which I intended to effect. I
intended to delineate the feelings of one of the last of the Greek
religious philosophers, one of the family of Orpheus and Musaeus,
having survived his fellows, living on into a time when the habits of
Greek thought and feeling had begun fast to change, character to
dwindle, the influence of the Sophists to prevail. Into the feelings
of a man so situated there entered much that we are accustomed to
consider as exclusively modern; how much, the fragments of Empedocles
himself which remain to us are sufficient at least to indicate. What
those who are familiar only with the great monuments of early Greek
genius suppose to be its exclusive characteristics, have disappeared;
the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have
disappeared: the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced;
modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts,
we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.

The representation of such a man’s feelings must be interesting, if
consistently drawn. We all naturally take pleasure, says Aristotle, in
any imitation or representation whatever: this is the basis of our
love of Poetry: and we take pleasure in them, he adds, because all
knowledge is naturally agreeable to us; not to the philosopher only,
but to mankind at large. Every representation therefore which is
consistently drawn may be supposed to be interesting, inasmuch as it
gratifies this natural interest in knowledge of all kinds. What is
_not_ interesting, is that which does not add to our knowledge of any
kind; that which is vaguely conceived and loosely drawn; a
representation which is general, indeterminate, and faint, instead of
being particular, precise, and firm.

Any accurate representation may therefore be expected to be
interesting; but, if the representation be a poetical one, more than
this is demanded. It is demanded, not only that it shall interest, but
also that it shall inspirit and rejoice the reader: that it shall
convey a charm, and infuse delight. For the Muses, as Hesiod says,
were born that they might be ‘a forgetfulness of evils, and a truce
from cares’; and it is not enough that the Poet should add to the
knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to
their happiness. ‘All Art’, says Schiller, ‘is dedicated to Joy, and
there is no higher and no more serious problem, than how to make men
happy. The right Art is that alone, which creates the highest
enjoyment.’

A poetical work, therefore, is not yet justified when it has been
shown to be an accurate, and therefore interesting, representation; it
has to be shown also that it is a representation from which men can
derive enjoyment. In presence of the most tragic circumstances,
represented in a work of Art, the feeling of enjoyment, as is well
known, may still subsist: the representation of the most utter
calamity, of the liveliest anguish, is not sufficient to destroy it:
the more tragic the situation, the deeper becomes the enjoyment; and
the situation is more tragic in proportion as it becomes more
terrible.

What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though
accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived? They are those in
which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous
state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope,
or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to
be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in
the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in
actual life, they are painful, not tragic; the representation of them
in poetry is painful also.

To this class of situations, poetically faulty as it appears to me,
that of Empedocles, as I have endeavoured to represent him, belongs;
and I have therefore excluded the Poem from the present collection.

And why, it may be asked, have I entered into this explanation
respecting a matter so unimportant as the admission or exclusion of
the Poem in question? I have done so, because I was anxious to avow
that the sole reason for its exclusion was that which has been stated
above; and that it has not been excluded in deference to the opinion
which many critics of the present day appear to entertain against
subjects chosen from distant times and countries: against the choice,
in short, of any subjects but modern ones.

‘The Poet,’ it is said, and by an intelligent critic, ‘the Poet who
would really fix the public attention must leave the exhausted past,
and draw his subjects from matters of present import, and _therefore_
both of interest and novelty.’

Now this view I believe to be completely false. It is worth examining,
inasmuch as it is a fair sample of a class of critical dicta
everywhere current at the present day, having a philosophical form and
air, but no real basis in fact; and which are calculated to vitiate
the judgement of readers of poetry, while they exert, so far as they
are adopted, a misleading influence on the practice of those who write
it.

What are the eternal objects of Poetry, among all nations and at all
times? They are actions; human actions; possessing an inherent
interest in themselves, and which are to be communicated in an
interesting manner by the art of the Poet. Vainly will the latter
imagine that he has everything in his own power; that he can make an
intrinsically inferior action equally delightful with a more excellent
one by his treatment of it: he may indeed compel us to admire his
skill, but his work will possess, within itself, an incurable defect.

The Poet, then, has in the first place to select an excellent action;
and what actions are the most excellent? Those, certainly, which most
powerfully appeal to the great primary human affections: to those
elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which
are independent of time. These feelings are permanent and the same;
that which interests them is permanent and the same also. The
modernness or antiquity of an action, therefore, has nothing to do
with its fitness for poetical representation; this depends upon its
inherent qualities. To the elementary part of our nature, to our
passions, that which is great and passionate is eternally interesting;
and interesting solely in proportion to its greatness and to its
passion. A great human action of a thousand years ago is more
interesting to it than a smaller human action of to-day, even though
upon the representation of this last the most consummate skill may
have been expended, and though it has the advantage of appealing by
its modern language, familiar manners, and contemporary allusions, to
all our transient feelings and interests. These, however, have no
right to demand of a poetical work that it shall satisfy them; their
claims are to be directed elsewhere. Poetical works belong to the
domain of our permanent passions: let them interest these, and the
voice of all subordinate claims upon them is at once silenced.

Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra, Dido--what modern poem presents
personages as interesting, even to us moderns, as these personages of
an ‘exhausted past’? We have the domestic epic dealing with the
details of modern life which pass daily under our eyes; we have poems
representing modern personages in contact with the problems of modern
life, moral, intellectual, and social; these works have been produced
by poets the most distinguished of their nation and time; yet I
fearlessly assert that _Hermann and Dorothea_, _Childe Harold_,
_Jocelyn_, _The Excursion_, leave the reader cold in comparison with
the effect produced upon him by the latter books of the Iliad, by the
_Orestea_, or by the episode of Dido. And why is this? Simply because
in the three latter cases the action is greater, the personages
nobler, the situations more intense: and this is the true basis of the
interest in a poetical work, and this alone.

It may be urged, however, that past actions may be interesting in
themselves, but that they are not to be adopted by the modern Poet,
because it is impossible for him to have them clearly present to his
own mind, and he cannot therefore feel them deeply, nor represent them
forcibly. But this is not necessarily the case. The externals of a
past action, indeed, he cannot know with the precision of a
contemporary; but his business is with its essentials. The outward man
of Oedipus or of Macbeth, the houses in which they lived, the
ceremonies of their courts, he cannot accurately figure to himself;
but neither do they essentially concern him. His business is with
their inward man; with their feelings and behaviour in certain tragic
situations, which engage their passions as men; these have in them
nothing local and casual; they are as accessible to the modern Poet as
to a contemporary.

The date of an action, then, signifies nothing: the action itself, its
selection and construction, this is what is all-important. This the
Greeks understood far more clearly than we do. The radical difference
between their poetical theory and ours consists, as it appears to me,
in this: that, with them, the poetical character of the action in
itself, and the conduct of it, was the first consideration; with us,
attention is fixed mainly on the value of the separate thoughts and
images which occur in the treatment of an action. They regarded the
whole; we regard the parts. With them, the action predominated over
the expression of it; with us, the expression predominates over the
action. Not that they failed in expression, or were inattentive to it;
on the contrary, they are the highest models of expression, the
unapproached masters of the _grand style_: but their expression is so
excellent because it is so admirably kept in its right degree of
prominence; because it is so simple and so well subordinated; because
it draws its force directly from the pregnancy of the matter which it
conveys. For what reason was the Greek tragic poet confined to so
limited a range of subjects? Because there are so few actions which
unite in themselves, in the highest degree, the conditions of
excellence: and it was not thought that on any but an excellent
subject could an excellent Poem be constructed. A few actions,
therefore, eminently adapted for tragedy, maintained almost exclusive
possession of the Greek tragic stage; their significance appeared
inexhaustible; they were as permanent problems, perpetually offered to
the genius of every fresh poet. This too is the reason of what appears
to us moderns a certain baldness of expression in Greek tragedy; of
the triviality with which we often reproach the remarks of the
Chorus, where it takes part in the dialogue: that the action itself,
the situation of Orestes, or Merope, or Alcmaeon, was to stand the
central point of interest, unforgotten, absorbing, principal; that no
accessories were for a moment to distract the spectator’s attention
from this; that the tone of the parts was to be perpetually kept down,
in order not to impair the grandiose effect of the whole. The terrible
old mythic story on which the drama was founded stood, before he
entered the theatre, traced in its bare outlines upon the spectator’s
mind; it stood in his memory, as a group of statuary, faintly seen, at
the end of a long and dark vista: then came the Poet, embodying
outlines, developing situations, not a word wasted, not a sentiment
capriciously thrown in; stroke upon stroke, the drama proceeded: the
light deepened upon the group; more and more it revealed itself to the
riveted gaze of the spectator: until at last, when the final words
were spoken, it stood before him in broad sunlight, a model of
immortal beauty.

This was what a Greek critic demanded; this was what a Greek poet
endeavoured to effect. It signified nothing to what time an action
belonged; we do not find that the _Persae_ occupied a particularly
high rank among the dramas of Aeschylus, because it represented a
matter of contemporary interest: this was not what a cultivated
Athenian required; he required that the permanent elements of his
nature should be moved; and dramas of which the action, though taken
from a long-distant mythic time, yet was calculated to accomplish this
in a higher degree than that of the _Persae_, stood higher in his
estimation accordingly. The Greeks felt, no doubt, with their
exquisite sagacity of taste, that an action of present times was too
near them, too much mixed up with what was accidental and passing, to
form a sufficiently grand, detached, and self-subsistent object for a
tragic poem: such objects belonged to the domain of the comic poet,
and of the lighter kinds of poetry. For the more serious kinds, for
_pragmatic_ poetry, to use an excellent expression of Polybius, they
were more difficult and severe in the range of subjects which they
permitted. Their theory and practice alike, the admirable treatise of
Aristotle, and the unrivalled works of their poets, exclaim with a
thousand tongues--‘All depends upon the subject; choose a fitting
action, penetrate yourself with the feeling of its situations; this
done, everything else will follow.’

But for all kinds of poetry alike there was one point on which they
were rigidly exacting; the adaptability of the subject to the kind of
poetry selected, and the careful construction of the poem.

How different a way of thinking from this is ours! We can hardly at
the present day understand what Menander meant, when he told a man who
inquired as to the progress of his comedy that he had finished it, not
having yet written a single line, because he had constructed the
action of it in his mind. A modern critic would have assured him that
the merit of his piece depended on the brilliant things which arose
under his pen as he went along. We have poems which seem to exist
merely for the sake of single lines and passages; not for the sake of
producing any total impression. We have critics who seem to direct
their attention merely to detached expressions, to the language about
the action, not to the action itself. I verily think that the
majority of them do not in their hearts believe that there is such a
thing as a total-impression to be derived from a poem at all, or to be
demanded from a poet; they think the term a commonplace of
metaphysical criticism. They will permit the Poet to select any action
he pleases, and to suffer that action to go as it will, provided he
gratifies them with occasional bursts of fine writing, and with a
shower of isolated thoughts and images. That is, they permit him to
leave their poetical sense ungratified, provided that he gratifies
their rhetorical sense and their curiosity. Of his neglecting to
gratify these, there is little danger; he needs rather to be warned
against the danger of attempting to gratify these alone; he needs
rather to be perpetually reminded to prefer his action to everything
else; so to treat this, as to permit its inherent excellences to
develop themselves, without interruption from the intrusion of his
personal peculiarities: most fortunate when he most entirely succeeds
in effacing himself, and in enabling a noble action to subsist as it
did in nature.

But the modern critic not only permits a false practice; he absolutely
prescribes false aims.--‘A true allegory of the state of one’s own
mind in a representative history,’ the Poet is told, ‘is perhaps the
highest thing that one can attempt in the way of poetry.’--And
accordingly he attempts it. An allegory of the state of one’s own
mind, the highest problem of an art which imitates actions! No
assuredly, it is not, it never can be so: no great poetical work has
ever been produced with such an aim. _Faust_ itself, in which
something of the kind is attempted, wonderful passages as it contains,
and in spite of the unsurpassed beauty of the scenes which relate to
Margaret, _Faust_ itself, judged as a whole, and judged strictly as a
poetical work, is defective: its illustrious author, the greatest poet
of modern times, the greatest critic of all times, would have been the
first to acknowledge it; he only defended his work, indeed, by
asserting it to be ‘something incommensurable’.

The confusion of the present times is great, the multitude of voices
counselling different things bewildering, the number of existing works
capable of attracting a young writer’s attention and of becoming his
models, immense: what he wants is a hand to guide him through the
confusion, a voice to prescribe to him the aim which he should keep in
view, and to explain to him that the value of the literary works which
offer themselves to his attention is relative to their power of
helping him forward on his road towards this aim. Such a guide the
English writer at the present day will nowhere find. Failing this, all
that can be looked for, all indeed that can be desired, is, that his
attention should be fixed on excellent models; that he may reproduce,
at any rate, something of their excellence, by penetrating himself
with their works and by catching their spirit, if he cannot be taught
to produce what is excellent independently.

Foremost among these models for the English writer stands Shakespeare:
a name the greatest perhaps of all poetical names; a name never to be
mentioned without reverence. I will venture, however, to express a
doubt, whether the influence of his works, excellent and fruitful for
the readers of poetry, for the great majority, has been of unmixed
advantage to the writers of it. Shakespeare indeed chose excellent
subjects; the world could afford no better than Macbeth, or Romeo and
Juliet, or Othello: he had no theory respecting the necessity of
choosing subjects of present import, or the paramount interest
attaching to allegories of the state of one’s own mind; like all great
poets, he knew well what constituted a poetical action; like them,
wherever he found such an action, he took it; like them, too, he found
his best in past times. But to these general characteristics of all
great poets, he added a special one of his own; a gift, namely, of
happy, abundant, and ingenious expression, eminent and unrivalled: so
eminent as irresistibly to strike the attention first in him, and even
to throw into comparative shade his other excellences as a poet. Here
has been the mischief. These other excellences were his fundamental
excellences _as a poet_; what distinguishes the artist from the mere
amateur, says Goethe, is _Architectonicè_ in the highest sense; that
power of execution, which creates, forms, and constitutes: not the
profoundness of single thoughts, not the richness of imagery, not the
abundance of illustration. But these attractive accessories of a
poetical work being more easily seized than the spirit of the whole,
and these accessories being possessed by Shakespeare in an unequalled
degree, a young writer having recourse to Shakespeare as his model
runs great risk of being vanquished and absorbed by them, and, in
consequence, of reproducing, according to the measure of his power,
these, and these alone. Of this preponderating quality of
Shakespeare’s genius, accordingly, almost the whole of modern English
poetry has, it appears to me, felt the influence. To the exclusive
attention on the part of his imitators to this it is in a great degree
owing, that of the majority of modern poetical works the details
alone are valuable, the composition worthless. In reading them one is
perpetually reminded of that terrible sentence on a modern French
poet--_il dit tout ce qu’il veut, mais malheureusement il n’a rien à
dire_.

Let me give an instance of what I mean. I will take it from the works
of the very chief among those who seem to have been formed in the
school of Shakespeare: of one whose exquisite genius and pathetic
death render him for ever interesting. I will take the poem of
_Isabella, or the Pot of Basil_, by Keats. I choose this rather than
the _Endymion_, because the latter work (which a modern critic has
classed with the _Faerie Queene_!), although undoubtedly there blows
through it the breath of genius, is yet as a whole so utterly
incoherent, as not strictly to merit the name of a poem at all. The
poem of _Isabella_, then, is a perfect treasure-house of graceful and
felicitous words and images: almost in every stanza there occurs one
of those vivid and picturesque turns of expression, by which the
object is made to flash upon the eye of the mind, and which thrill the
reader with a sudden delight. This one short poem contains, perhaps, a
greater number of happy single expressions which one could quote than
all the extant tragedies of Sophocles. But the action, the story? The
action in itself is an excellent one; but so feebly is it conceived by
the Poet, so loosely constructed, that the effect produced by it, in
and for itself, is absolutely null. Let the reader, after he has
finished the poem of Keats, turn to the same story in the _Decameron_:
he will then feel how pregnant and interesting the same action has
become in the hands of a great artist, who above all things
delineates his object; who subordinates expression to that which it is
designed to express.

I have said that the imitators of Shakespeare, fixing their attention
on his wonderful gift of expression, have directed their imitation to
this, neglecting his other excellences. These excellences, the
fundamental excellences of poetical art, Shakespeare no doubt
possessed them--possessed many of them in a splendid degree; but it
may perhaps be doubted whether even he himself did not sometimes give
scope to his faculty of expression to the prejudice of a higher
poetical duty. For we must never forget that Shakespeare is the great
poet he is from his skill in discerning and firmly conceiving an
excellent action, from his power of intensely feeling a situation, of
intimately associating himself with a character; not from his gift of
expression, which rather even leads him astray, degenerating sometimes
into a fondness for curiosity of expression, into an irritability of
fancy, which seems to make it impossible for him to say a thing
plainly, even when the press of the action demands the very directest
language, or its level character the very simplest. Mr. Hallam, than
whom it is impossible to find a saner and more judicious critic, has
had the courage (for at the present day it needs courage) to remark,
how extremely and faultily difficult Shakespeare’s language often is.
It is so: you may find main scenes in some of his greatest tragedies,
_King Lear_ for instance, where the language is so artificial, so
curiously tortured, and so difficult, that every speech has to be read
two or three times before its meaning can be comprehended. This
overcuriousness of expression is indeed but the excessive employment
of a wonderful gift--of the power of saying a thing in a happier way
than any other man; nevertheless, it is carried so far that one
understands what M. Guizot meant, when he said that Shakespeare
appears in his language to have tried all styles except that of
simplicity. He has not the severe and scrupulous self-restraint of the
ancients, partly, no doubt, because he had a far less cultivated and
exacting audience: he has indeed a far wider range than they had, a
far richer fertility of thought; in this respect he rises above them:
in his strong conception of his subject, in the genuine way in which
he is penetrated with it, he resembles them, and is unlike the
moderns: but in the accurate limitation of it, the conscientious
rejection of superfluities, the simple and rigorous development of it
from the first line of his work to the last, he falls below them, and
comes nearer to the moderns. In his chief works, besides what he has
of his own, he has the elementary soundness of the ancients; he has
their important action and their large and broad manner: but he has
not their purity of method. He is therefore a less safe model; for
what he has of his own is personal, and inseparable from his own rich
nature; it may be imitated and exaggerated, it cannot be learned or
applied as an art; he is above all suggestive; more valuable,
therefore, to young writers as men than as artists. But clearness of
arrangement, rigour of development, simplicity of style--these may to
a certain extent be learned: and these may, I am convinced, be learned
best from the ancients, who, although infinitely less suggestive than
Shakespeare, are thus, to the artist, more instructive.

What then, it will be asked, are the ancients to be our sole models?
the ancients with their comparatively narrow range of experience, and
their widely different circumstances? Not, certainly, that which is
narrow in the ancients, nor that in which we can no longer sympathize.
An action like the action of the _Antigone_ of Sophocles, which turns
upon the conflict between the heroine’s duty to her brother’s corpse
and that to the laws of her country, is no longer one in which it is
possible that we should feel a deep interest. I am speaking too, it
will be remembered, not of the best sources of intellectual stimulus
for the general reader, but of the best models of instruction for the
individual writer. This last may certainly learn of the ancients,
better than anywhere else, three things which it is vitally important
for him to know:--the all-importance of the choice of a subject; the
necessity of accurate construction; and the subordinate character of
expression. He will learn from them how unspeakably superior is the
effect of the one moral impression left by a great action treated as a
whole, to the effect produced by the most striking single thought or
by the happiest image. As he penetrates into the spirit of the great
classical works, as he becomes gradually aware of their intense
significance, their noble simplicity, and their calm pathos, he will
be convinced that it is this effect, unity and profoundness of moral
impression, at which the ancient Poets aimed; that it is this which
constitutes the grandeur of their works, and which makes them
immortal. He will desire to direct his own efforts towards producing
the same effect. Above all, he will deliver himself from the jargon of
modern criticism, and escape the danger of producing poetical works
conceived in the spirit of the passing time, and which partake of its
transitoriness.

The present age makes great claims upon us: we owe it service, it will
not be satisfied without our admiration. I know not how it is, but
their commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those
who constantly practise it, a steadying and composing effect upon
their judgement, not of literary works only, but of men and events in
general. They are like persons who have had a very weighty and
impressive experience; they are more truly than others under the
empire of facts, and more independent of the language current among
those with whom they live. They wish neither to applaud nor to revile
their age: they wish to know what it is, what it can give them, and
whether this is what they want. What they want, they know very well;
they want to educe and cultivate what is best and noblest in
themselves: they know, too, that this is no easy task--χαλεπὸν, as
Pittacus said, χαλεπὸν ἔσθλὸν ἔμμεναι--and they ask themselves sincerely
whether their age and its literature can assist them in the attempt.
If they are endeavouring to practise any art, they remember the plain
and simple proceedings of the old artists, who attained their grand
results by penetrating themselves with some noble and significant
action, not by inflating themselves with a belief in the pre-eminent
importance and greatness of their own times. They do not talk of their
mission, nor of interpreting their age, nor of the coming Poet; all
this, they know, is the mere delirium of vanity; their business is not
to praise their age, but to afford to the men who live in it the
highest pleasure which they are capable of feeling. If asked to afford
this by means of subjects drawn from the age itself, they ask what
special fitness the present age has for supplying them: they are told
that it is an era of progress, an age commissioned to carry out the
great ideas of industrial development and social amelioration. They
reply that with all this they can do nothing; that the elements they
need for the exercise of their art are great actions, calculated
powerfully and delightfully to affect what is permanent in the human
soul; that so far as the present age can supply such actions, they
will gladly make use of them; but that an age wanting in moral
grandeur can with difficulty supply such, and an age of spiritual
discomfort with difficulty be powerfully and delightfully affected by
them.

A host of voices will indignantly rejoin that the present age is
inferior to the past neither in moral grandeur nor in spiritual
health. He who possesses the discipline I speak of will content
himself with remembering the judgements passed upon the present age,
in this respect, by the two men, the one of strongest head, the other
of widest culture, whom it has produced; by Goethe and by Niebuhr. It
will be sufficient for him that he knows the opinions held by these
two great men respecting the present age and its literature; and that
he feels assured in his own mind that their aims and demands upon life
were such as he would wish, at any rate, his own to be; and their
judgement as to what is impeding and disabling such as he may safely
follow. He will not, however, maintain a hostile attitude towards the
false pretensions of his age; he will content himself with not being
overwhelmed by them. He will esteem himself fortunate if he can
succeed in banishing from his mind all feelings of contradiction, and
irritation, and impatience; in order to delight himself with the
contemplation of some noble action of a heroic time, and to enable
others, through his representation of it, to delight in it also.

I am far indeed from making any claim, for myself, that I possess this
discipline; or for the following Poems, that they breathe its spirit.
But I say, that in the sincere endeavour to learn and practise, amid
the bewildering confusion of our times, what is sound and true in
poetical art, I seemed to myself to find the only sure guidance, the
only solid footing, among the ancients. They, at any rate, knew what
they wanted in Art, and we do not. It is this uncertainty which is
disheartening, and not hostile criticism. How often have I felt this
when reading words of disparagement or of cavil: that it is the
uncertainty as to what is really to be aimed at which makes our
difficulty, not the dissatisfaction of the critic, who himself suffers
from the same uncertainty. _Non me tua fervida terrent Dicta; Dii me
terrent, et Jupiter hostis._

Two kinds of _dilettanti_, says Goethe, there are in poetry: he who
neglects the indispensable mechanical part, and thinks he has done
enough if he shows spirituality and feeling; and he who seeks to
arrive at poetry merely by mechanism, in which he can acquire an
artisan’s readiness, and is without soul and matter. And he adds, that
the first does most harm to Art, and the last to himself. If we must
be _dilettanti_: if it is impossible for us, under the circumstances
amidst which we live, to think clearly, to feel nobly, and to
delineate firmly: if we cannot attain to the mastery of the great
artists--let us, at least, have so much respect for our Art as to
prefer it to ourselves: let us not bewilder our successors: let us
transmit to them the practice of Poetry, with its boundaries and
wholesome regulative laws, under which excellent works may again,
perhaps, at some future time, be produced, not yet fallen into
oblivion through our neglect, not yet condemned and cancelled by the
influence of their eternal enemy, Caprice.


ADVERTISEMENT TO THE SECOND EDITION

(1854)

I have allowed the Preface to the former edition of these Poems to
stand almost without change, because I still believe it to be, in the
main, true. I must not, however, be supposed insensible to the force
of much that has been alleged against portions of it, or unaware that
it contains many things incompletely stated, many things which need
limitation. It leaves, too, untouched the question, how far, and in
what manner, the opinions there expressed respecting the choice of
subjects apply to lyric poetry; that region of the poetical field
which is chiefly cultivated at present. But neither have I time now to
supply these deficiencies, nor is this the proper place for attempting
it: on one or two points alone I wish to offer, in the briefest
possible way, some explanation.

An objection has been ably urged to the classing together, as subjects
equally belonging to a past time, Oedipus and Macbeth. And it is no
doubt true that to Shakespeare, standing on the verge of the Middle
Ages, the epoch of Macbeth was more familiar than that of Oedipus. But
I was speaking of actions as they presented themselves to us moderns:
and it will hardly be said that the European mind, since Voltaire, has
much more affinity with the times of Macbeth than with those of
Oedipus. As moderns, it seems to me, we have no longer any direct
affinity with the circumstances and feelings of either; as
individuals, we are attracted towards this or that personage, we have
a capacity for imagining him, irrespective of his times, solely
according to a law of personal sympathy; and those subjects for which
we feel this personal attraction most strongly, we may hope to treat
successfully. Alcestis or Joan of Arc, Charlemagne or Agamemnon--one
of these is not really nearer to us now than another; each can be made
present only by an act of poetic imagination: but this man’s
imagination has an affinity for one of them, and that man’s for
another.

It has been said that I wish to limit the Poet, in his choice of
subjects to the period of Greek and Roman antiquity: but it is not so:
I only counsel him to choose for his subjects great actions, without
regarding to what time they belong. Nor do I deny that the poetic
faculty can and does manifest itself in treating the most trifling
action, the most hopeless subject. But it is a pity that power should
be wasted; and that the Poet should be compelled to impart interest
and force to his subject, instead of receiving them from it, and
thereby doubling his impressiveness. There is, it has been excellently
said, an immortal strength in the stories of great actions: the most
gifted poet, then, may well be glad to supplement with it that mortal
weakness, which, in presence of the vast spectacle of life and the
world, he must for ever feel to be his individual portion.

Again, with respect to the study of the classical writers of
antiquity: it has been said that we should emulate rather than imitate
them. I make no objection: all I say is, let us study them. They can
help to cure us of what is, it seems to me, the great vice of our
intellect, manifesting itself in our incredible vagaries in
literature, in art, in religion, in morals; namely, that it is
_fantastic_, and wants _sanity_. Sanity--that is the great virtue of
the ancient literature: the want of that is the great defect of the
modern, in spite of all its variety and power. It is impossible to
read carefully the great ancients, without losing something of our
caprice and eccentricity; and to emulate them we must at least read
them.



JOHN RUSKIN

1819-1900

OF THE PATHETIC FALLACY

[_Modern Painters_, vol. iii, pt. 4, 1856]


§ 1. German dulness, and English affectation, have of late much
multiplied among us the use of two of the most objectionable words
that were ever coined by the troublesomeness of metaphysicians--namely,
‘Objective’ and ‘Subjective’.

No words can be more exquisitely, and in all points, useless; and I
merely speak of them that I may, at once and for ever, get them out of
my way, and out of my reader’s. But to get that done, they must be
explained.

The word ‘Blue’, say certain philosophers, means the sensation of
colour which the human eye receives in looking at the open sky, or at
a bell gentian.

Now, say they farther, as this sensation can only be felt when the eye
is turned to the object, and as, therefore, no such sensation is
produced by the object when nobody looks at it, therefore the thing,
when it is not looked at, is not blue; and thus (say they) there are
many qualities of things which depend as much on something else as on
themselves. To be sweet, a thing must have a taster; it is only sweet
while it is being tasted, and if the tongue had not the capacity of
taste, then the sugar would not have the quality of sweetness.

And then they agree that the qualities of things which thus depend
upon our perception of them, and upon our human nature as affected by
them, shall be called Subjective; and the qualities of things which
they always have, irrespective of any other nature, as roundness or
squareness, shall be called Objective.

From these ingenious views the step is very easy to a farther opinion,
that it does not much matter what things are in themselves, but only
what they are to us; and that the only real truth of them is their
appearance to, or effect upon, us. From which position, with a hearty
desire for mystification, and much egotism, selfishness, shallowness,
and impertinence, a philosopher may easily go so far as to believe,
and say, that everything in the world depends upon his seeing or
thinking of it, and that nothing, therefore, exists, but what he sees
or thinks of.

§ 2. Now, to get rid of all these ambiguities and troublesome words at
once, be it observed that the word ‘Blue’ does _not_ mean the
_sensation_ caused by a gentian on the human eye; but it means the
_power_ of producing that sensation; and this power is always there,
in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not, and would
remain there though there were not left a man on the face of the
earth. Precisely in the same way gunpowder has a power of exploding.
It will not explode if you put no match to it. But it has always the
power of so exploding, and is therefore called an explosive compound,
which it very positively and assuredly is, whatever philosophy may say
to the contrary.

In like manner, a gentian does not produce the sensation of blueness
if you don’t look at it. But it has always the power of doing so; its
particles being everlastingly so arranged by its Maker. And,
therefore, the gentian and the sky are always verily blue, whatever
philosophy may say to the contrary; and if you do not see them blue
when you look at them, it is not their fault but yours.

§ 3. Hence I would say to these philosophers: If, instead of using the
sonorous phrase, ‘It is objectively so,’ you will use the plain old
phrase, ‘It _is_ so;’ and if instead of the sonorous phrase, ‘It is
subjectively so,’ you will say, in plain old English, ‘It does so,’ or
‘It seems so to me;’ you will, on the whole, be more intelligible to
your fellow-creatures: and besides, if you find that a thing which
generally ‘does so’ to other people (as a gentian looks blue to most
men), does _not_ so to you, on any particular occasion, you will not
fall into the impertinence of saying, that the thing is not so, or did
not so, but you will say simply (what you will be all the better for
speedily finding out), that something is the matter with you. If you
find that you cannot explode the gunpowder, you will not declare that
all gunpowder is subjective, and all explosion imaginary, but you will
simply suspect and declare yourself to be an ill-made match. Which, on
the whole, though there may be a distant chance of a mistake about it,
is, nevertheless, the wisest conclusion you can come to until farther
experiment.

§ 4. Now, therefore, putting these tiresome and absurd words quite out
of our way, we may go on at our ease to examine the point in
question--namely, the difference between the ordinary, proper, and
true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false
appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or
contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely
unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only
imputed to it by us.

For instance--

    The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mould
    Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold.

This is very beautiful, and yet very untrue. The crocus is not a
spendthrift, but a hardy plant; its yellow is not gold, but saffron.
How is it that we enjoy so much the having it put into our heads that
it is anything else than a plain crocus?

It is an important question. For, throughout our past reasonings about
art, we have always found that nothing could be good, or useful, or
ultimately pleasurable, which was untrue. But here is something
pleasurable in written poetry which is nevertheless _un_true. And what
is more, if we think over our favourite poetry, we shall find it full
of this kind of fallacy, and that we like it all the more for being
so.

§ 5. It will appear also, on consideration of the matter, that this
fallacy is of two principal kinds. Either, as in this case of the
crocus, it is the fallacy of wilful fancy, which involves no real
expectation that it will be believed; or else it is a fallacy caused
by an excited state of the feelings, making us, for the time, more or
less irrational. Of the cheating of the fancy we shall have to speak
presently; but, in this chapter, I want to examine the nature of the
other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by
emotion. Thus, for instance, in Alton Locke--

    They rowed her in across the rolling foam--
    The cruel, crawling foam.

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which
attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which
the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same
effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of
external things, which I would generally characterize as the ‘Pathetic
Fallacy’.

§ 6. Now we are in the habit of considering this fallacy as eminently
a character of poetical description, and the temper of mind in which
we allow it as one eminently poetical, because passionate. But, I
believe, if we look well into the matter, that we shall find the
greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness--that it is
only the second order of poets who much delight in it.[31]

    [31] I admit two orders of poets, but no third; and by these
    two orders I mean the Creative (Shakespeare, Homer, Dante),
    and Reflective or Perceptive (Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson).
    But both of these must be _first_-rate in their range, though
    their range is different; and with poetry second-rate in
    _quality_ no one ought to be allowed to trouble mankind.
    There is quite enough of the best,--much more than we can
    ever read or enjoy in the length of a life; and it is a
    literal wrong or sin in any person to encumber us with
    inferior work. I have no patience with apologies made by
    young pseudo-poets, ‘that they believe there is _some_ good
    in what they have written: that they hope to do better in
    time,’ &c. _Some_ good! If there is not _all_ good, there is
    no good. If they ever hope to do better, why do they trouble
    us now? Let them rather courageously burn all they have done,
    and wait for the better days. There are few men, ordinarily
    educated, who in moments of strong feeling could not strike
    out a poetical thought, and afterwards polish it so as to be
    presentable. But men of sense know better than so to waste
    their time; and those who sincerely love poetry, know the
    touch of the master’s hand on the chords too well to fumble
    among them after him. Nay, more than this; all inferior
    poetry is an injury to the good, inasmuch as it takes away
    the freshness of rhymes, blunders upon and gives a wretched
    commonalty to good thoughts; and, in general, adds to the
    weight of human weariness in a most woful and culpable
    manner. There are few thoughts likely to come across ordinary
    men, which have not already been expressed by greater men in
    the best possible way; and it is a wiser, more generous, more
    noble thing to remember and point out the perfect words, than
    to invent poorer ones, wherewith to encumber temporarily the
    world.

Thus, when Dante describes the spirits falling from the bank of
Acheron ‘as dead leaves flutter from a bough’, he gives the most
perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness,
passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an
instant losing his own clear perception that _these_ are souls, and
_those_ are leaves; he makes no confusion of one with the other. But
when Coleridge speaks of

    The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
    That dances as often as dance it can,

he has a morbid, that is to say, a so far false, idea about the leaf:
he fancies a life in it, and will, which there are not; confuses its
powerlessness with choice, its fading death with merriment, and the
wind that shakes it with music. Here, however, there is some beauty,
even in the morbid passage; but take an instance in Homer and Pope.
Without the knowledge of Ulysses, Elpenor, his youngest follower, has
fallen from an upper chamber in the Circean palace, and has been left
dead, unmissed by his leader, or companions, in the haste of their
departure. They cross the sea to the Cimmerian land; and Ulysses
summons the shades from Tartarus. The first which appears is that of
the lost Elpenor. Ulysses, amazed, and in exactly the spirit of bitter
and terrified lightness which is seen in Hamlet,[32] addresses the
spirit with the simple, startled words:--

     Elpenor! How camest thou under the shadowy darkness? Hast
     thou come faster on foot than I in my black ship?

    [32] ‘Well said, old mole! can’st work i’ the ground so
    fast?’

Which Pope renders thus:--

    O, say, what angry power Elpenor led
    To glide in shades, and wander with the dead?
    How could thy soul, by realms and seas disjoined,
    Outfly the nimble sail, and leave the lagging wind?

I sincerely hope the reader finds no pleasure here, either in the
nimbleness of the sail, or the laziness of the wind! And yet how is it
that these conceits are so painful now, when they have been pleasant
to us in the other instances?

§ 7. For a very simple reason. They are not a _pathetic_ fallacy at
all, for they are put into the mouth of the wrong passion--a passion
which never could possibly have spoken them--agonized curiosity.
Ulysses wants to know the facts of the matter; and the very last thing
his mind could do at the moment would be to pause, or suggest in
anywise what was _not_ a fact. The delay in the first three lines, and
conceit in the last, jar upon us instantly, like the most frightful
discord in music. No poet of true imaginative power could possibly
have written the passage.[33]

    [33] It is worth while comparing the way a similar question
    is put by the exquisite sincerity of Keats:--

              He wept, and his bright tears
        Went trickling down the golden bow he held.
        Thus, with half-shut, suffused eyes, he stood;
        While from beneath some cumb’rous boughs hard by,
        With solemn step, an awful goddess came.
        And there was purport in her looks for him,
        Which he with eager guess began to read:
        Perplexed the while, melodiously he said,
        ‘_How cam’st thou over the unfooted sea?_’

Therefore, we see that the spirit of truth must guide us in some
sort, even in our enjoyment of fallacy. Coleridge’s fallacy has no
discord in it, but Pope’s has set our teeth on edge. Without farther
questioning, I will endeavour to state the main bearings of this
matter.

§ 8. The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is, as I said
above, that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully
with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or overclouded, or
over-dazzled by emotion; and it is a more or less noble state,
according to the force of the emotion which has induced it. For it is
no credit to a man that he is not morbid or inaccurate in his
perceptions, when he has no strength of feeling to warp them; and it
is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of
being, that the emotions should be strong enough to vanquish, partly,
the intellect, and make it believe what they choose. But it is still a
grander condition when the intellect also rises, till it is strong
enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost
efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow,
white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even
if he melts, losing none of his weight.

So, then, we have the three ranks: the man who perceives rightly,
because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately
the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who
perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is
anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield,
or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives
rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for
ever nothing else than itself--a little flower, apprehended in the
very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the
associations and passions may be, that crowd around it. And, in
general, these three classes may be rated in comparative order, as the
men who are not poets at all, and the poets of the second order, and
the poets of the first; only however great a man may be, there are
always some subjects which _ought_ to throw him off his balance; some,
by which his poor human capacity of thought should be conquered, and
brought into the inaccurate and vague state of perception, so that the
language of the highest inspiration becomes broken, obscure, and wild
in metaphor, resembling that of the weaker man, overborne by weaker
things.

§ 9. And thus, in full, there are four classes: the men who feel
nothing, and therefore see truly; the men who feel strongly, think
weakly, and see untruly (second order of poets); the men who feel
strongly, think strongly, and see truly (first order of poets); and
the men who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to
influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what
they see is inconceivably above them. This last is the usual condition
of prophetic inspiration.

§ 10. I separate these classes, in order that their character may be
clearly understood; but of course they are united each to the other by
imperceptible transitions, and the same mind, according to the
influences to which it is subjected, passes at different times into
the various states. Still, the difference between the great and less
man is, on the whole, chiefly in this point of _alterability_. That is
to say, the one knows too much, and perceives and feels too much of
the past and future, and of all things beside and around that which
immediately affects him, to be in anywise shaken by it. His mind is
made up; his thoughts have an accustomed current; his ways are
steadfast; it is not this or that new sight which will at once
unbalance him. He is tender to impression at the surface, like a rock
with deep moss upon it; but there is too much mass of him to be moved.
The smaller man, with the same degree of sensibility, is at once
carried off his feet; he wants to do something he did not want to do
before; he views all the universe in a new light through his tears; he
is gay or enthusiastic, melancholy or passionate, as things come and
go to him. Therefore the high creative poet might even be thought, to
a great extent, impassive (as shallow people think Dante stern),
receiving indeed all feelings to the full, but having a great centre
of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches the
feeling, as it were, from far off.

Dante, in his most intense moods, has entire command of himself, and
can look around calmly, at all moments, for the image or the word that
will best tell what he sees to the upper or lower world. But Keats and
Tennyson, and the poets of the second order, are generally themselves
subdued by the feelings under which they write, or, at least, write as
choosing to be so, and therefore admit certain expressions and modes
of thought which are in some sort diseased or false.

§ 11. Now so long as we see that the _feeling_ is true, we pardon, or
are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces:
we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley’s, above
quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they
faithfully describe sorrow. But the moment the mind of the speaker
becomes cold, that moment every such expression becomes untrue, as
being for ever untrue in the external facts. And there is no greater
baseness in literature than the habit of using these metaphorical
expressions in cold blood. An inspired writer, in full impetuosity of
passion, may speak wisely and truly of ‘raging waves of the sea,
foaming out their own shame’; but it is only the basest writer who
cannot speak of the sea without talking of ‘raging waves’,
‘remorseless floods’, ‘ravenous billows’, &c.; and it is one of the
signs of the highest power in a writer to check all such habits of
thought, and to keep his eyes fixed firmly on the _pure fact_, out of
which if any feeling comes to him or his reader, he knows it must be a
true one.

To keep to the waves, I forget who it is who represents a man in
despair, desiring that his body may be cast into the sea,

    _Whose changing mound, and foam that passed away,_
    Might mock the eye that questioned where I lay.

Observe, there is not a single false, or even overcharged, expression.
‘Mound’ of the sea wave is perfectly simple and true; ‘changing’ is as
familiar as may be; ‘foam that passed away’, strictly literal; and the
whole line descriptive of the reality with a degree of accuracy which
I know not any other verse, in the range of poetry, that altogether
equals. For most people have not a distinct idea of the clumsiness and
massiveness of a large wave. The word ‘wave’ is used too generally of
ripples and breakers, and bendings in light drapery or grass: it does
not by itself convey a perfect image. But the word ‘mound’ is heavy,
large, dark, definite; there is no mistaking the kind of wave meant,
nor missing the sight of it. Then the term ‘changing’ has a peculiar
force also. Most people think of waves as rising and falling. But if
they look at the sea carefully, they will perceive that the waves do
not rise and fall. They change. Change both place and form, but they
do not fall; one wave goes on, and on, and still on; now lower, now
higher, now tossing its mane like a horse, now building itself
together like a wall, now shaking, now steady, but still the same
wave, till at last it seems struck by something, and changes, one
knows not how,--becomes another wave.

The close of the line insists on this image, and paints it still more
perfectly,--‘foam that passed away’. Not merely melting, disappearing,
but passing on, out of sight, on the career of the wave. Then, having
put the absolute ocean fact as far as he may before our eyes, the poet
leaves us to feel about it as we may, and to trace for ourselves the
opposite fact,--the image of the green mounds that do not change, and
the white and written stones that do not pass away; and thence to
follow out also the associated images of the calm life with the quiet
grave, and the despairing life with the fading foam:

    Let no man move his bones.

    As for Samaria, her king is out off like the foam upon the water.

But nothing of this is actually told or pointed out, and the
expressions, as they stand, are perfectly severe and accurate, utterly
uninfluenced by the firmly governed emotion of the writer. Even the
word ‘mock’ is hardly an exception, as it may stand merely for
‘deceive’ or ‘defeat’, without implying any impersonation of the
waves.

§ 12. It may be well, perhaps, to give one or two more instances to
show the peculiar dignity possessed by all passages which thus limit
their expression to the pure fact, and leave the hearer to gather what
he can from it. Here is a notable one from the Iliad. Helen, looking
from the Scaean gate of Troy over the Grecian host, and telling Priam
the names of its captains, says at last:

     I see all the other dark-eyed Greeks; but two I cannot
     see,--Castor and Pollux,--whom one mother bore with me. Have
     they not followed from fair Lacedaemon, or have they indeed
     come in their sea-wandering ships, but now will not enter
     into the battle of men, fearing the shame and the scorn that
     is in Me?

Then Homer:

     So she spoke. But them, already, the life-giving earth
     possessed, there in Lacedaemon, in the dear fatherland.

Note, here, the high poetical truth carried to the extreme. The poet
has to speak of the earth in sadness, but he will not let that sadness
affect or change his thoughts of it. No; though Castor and Pollux be
dead, yet the earth is our mother still, fruitful, life-giving. These
are the facts of the thing. I see nothing else than these. Make what
you will of them.

§ 13. Take another very notable instance from Casimir de la Vigne’s
terrible ballad, _La Toilette de Constance_. I must quote a few lines
out of it here and there, to enable the reader who has not the book by
him, to understand its close.

        Vite, Anna, vite; au miroir
          Plus vite, Anna. L’heure s’avance,
        Et je vais au bal ce soir
          Chez l’ambassadeur de France.

    Y pensez-vous, ils sont fanés, ces nœuds,
      Ils sont d’hier, mon Dieu, comme tout passe!
    Que du réseau qui retient mes cheveux
      Les glands d’azur retombent avec grâce.
    Plus haut! Plus bas! Vous ne comprenez rien!
      Que sur mon front ce saphir étincelle:
    Vous me piquez, maladroite. Ah, c’est bien,
      Bien,--chère Anna! Je t’aime, je suis belle.

    Celui qu’en vain je voudrais oublier
      (Anna, ma robe) il y sera, j’espere.
    (Ah, fi! profane, est-ce là mon collier?
      Quoi! ces grains d’or bénits par le Saint-Père!)
    Il y sera; Dieu, s’il pressait ma main,
      En y pensant, à peine je respire;
    Père Anselmo doit m’entendre demain,
      Comment ferai-je, Anna, pour tout lui dire?

        Vite un coup d’œil au miroir,
          Le dernier. ----J’ai l’assurance
        Qu’on va m’adorer ce soir
          Chez l’ambassadeur de France.

    Près du foyer, Constance s’admirait.
      Dieu! sur sa robe il vole une étincelle!
    Au feu! Courez! Quand l’espoir l’enivrait,
      Tout perdre ainsi! Quoi! Mourir,--et si belle!
    L’horrible feu ronge avec volupté
      Ses bras, son sein, et l’entoure, et s’élève,
    Et sans pitié dévore sa beauté,
      Ses dix-huit ans, hélas, et son doux rêve!

        Adieu, bal, plaisir, amour!
          On disait, Pauvre Constance!
        Et on dansait, jusqu’au jour,
          Chez l’ambassadeur de France.

Yes, that is the fact of it. Right or wrong, the poet does not say.
What you may think about it, he does not know. He has nothing to do
with that. There lie the ashes of the dead girl in her chamber. There
they danced, till the morning, at the Ambassador’s of France. Make
what you will of it.

If the reader will look through the ballad, of which I have quoted
only about the third part, he will find that there is not, from
beginning to end of it, a single poetical (so called) expression,
except in one stanza. The girl speaks as simple prose as may be; there
is not a word she would not have actually used as she was dressing.
The poet stands by, impassive as a statue, recording her words just as
they come. At last the doom seizes her, and in the very presence of
death, for an instant, his own emotions conquer him. He records no
longer the facts only, but the facts as they seem to him. The fire
gnaws with _voluptuousness--without pity_. It is soon past. The fate
is fixed for ever; and he retires into his pale and crystalline
atmosphere of truth. He closes all with the calm veracity,

    They said, ‘Poor Constance!’

§ 14. Now in this there is the exact type of the consummate poetical
temperament. For, be it clearly and constantly remembered, that the
greatness of a poet depends upon the two faculties, acuteness of
feeling, and command of it. A poet is great, first in proportion to
the strength of his passion, and then, that strength being granted, in
proportion to his government of it; there being, however, always a
point beyond which it would be inhuman and monstrous if he pushed this
government, and, therefore, a point at which all feverish and wild
fancy becomes just and true. Thus the destruction of the kingdom of
Assyria cannot be contemplated firmly by a prophet of Israel. The fact
is too great, too wonderful. It overthrows him, dashes him into a
confused element of dreams. All the world is, to his stunned thought,
full of strange voices. ‘Yea, the fir-trees rejoice at thee, and the
cedars of Lebanon, saying, “Since thou art gone down to the grave, no
feller is come up against us.”’ So, still more, the thought of the
presence of Deity cannot be borne without this great astonishment.
‘The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into
singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’

§ 15. But by how much this feeling is noble when it is justified by
the strength of its cause, by so much it is ignoble when there is not
cause enough for it; and beyond all other ignobleness is the mere
affectation of it, in hardness of heart. Simply bad writing may almost
always, as above noticed, be known by its adoption of these fanciful
metaphorical expressions, as a sort of current coin; yet there is even
a worse, at least a more harmful, condition of writing than this, in
which such expressions are not ignorantly and feelinglessly caught up,
but, by some master, skilful in handling, yet insincere, deliberately
wrought out with chill and studied fancy; as if we should try to make
an old lava stream look red-hot again, by covering it with dead
leaves, or white-hot, with hoar-frost.

When Young is lost in veneration, as he dwells on the character of a
truly good and holy man, he permits himself for a moment to be
overborne by the feeling so far as to exclaim:

    Where shall I find him? angels, tell me where.
    You know him; he is near you; point him out.
    Shall I see glories beaming from his brow,
    Or trace his footsteps by the rising flowers?

This emotion has a worthy cause, and is thus true and right. But now
hear the cold-hearted Pope say to a shepherd girl:

    Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade;
    Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade;
    Your praise the birds shall chant in every grove,
    And winds shall waft it to the powers above.
    But would you sing, and rival Orpheus’ strain,
    The wondering forests soon should dance again;
    The moving mountains hear the powerful call,
    And headlong streams hang, listening, in their fall.

This is not, nor could it for a moment be mistaken for, the language
of passion. It is simple falsehood, uttered by hypocrisy; definite
absurdity, rooted in affectation, and coldly asserted in the teeth of
nature and fact. Passion will indeed go far in deceiving itself; but
it must be a strong passion, not the simple wish of a lover to tempt
his mistress to sing. Compare a very closely parallel passage in
Wordsworth, in which the lover has lost his mistress:

    Three years had Barbara in her grave been laid,
    When thus his moan he made:--

    ‘Oh move, thou cottage, from behind yon oak,
      Or let the ancient tree uprooted lie,
    That in some other way yon smoke
      May mount into the sky.
    If still behind yon pine-tree’s ragged bough,
      Headlong, the waterfall must come,
      Oh, let it, then, be dumb--
    Be anything, sweet stream, but that which thou art now.’

Here is a cottage to be moved, if not a mountain, and a waterfall to
be silent, if it is not to hang listening: but with what different
relation to the mind that contemplates them! Here, in the extremity of
its agony, the soul cries out wildly for relief, which at the same
moment it partly knows to be impossible, but partly believes possible,
in a vague impression that a miracle _might_ be wrought to give relief
even to a less sore distress,--that nature is kind, and God is kind,
and that grief is strong: it knows not well what _is_ possible to such
grief. To silence a stream, to move a cottage wall,--one might think
it could do as much as that!

§ 16. I believe these instances are enough to illustrate the main
point I insist upon respecting the pathetic fallacy,--that so far as
it _is_ a fallacy, it is always the sign of a morbid state of mind,
and comparatively of a weak one. Even in the most inspired prophet it
is a sign of the incapacity of his human sight or thought to bear what
has been revealed to it. In ordinary poetry, if it is found in the
thoughts of the poet himself, it is at once a sign of his belonging to
the inferior school; if in the thoughts of the characters imagined by
him, it is right or wrong according to the genuineness of the emotion
from which it springs; always, however, implying necessarily _some_
degree of weakness in the character.

Take two most exquisite instances from master hands. The Jessy of
Shenstone, and the Ellen of Wordsworth, have both been betrayed and
deserted. Jessy, in the course of her most touching complaint, says:

    If through the garden’s flowery tribes I stray,
      Where bloom the jasmines that could once allure,
    ‘Hope not to find delight in us,’ they say,
      ‘For we are spotless, Jessy; we are pure.’

Compare with this some of the words of Ellen:

    ‘Ah, why,’ said Ellen, sighing to herself,
    ‘Why do not words, and kiss, and solemn pledge,
    And nature, that is kind in woman’s breast,
    And reason, that in man is wise and good,
    And fear of Him who is a righteous Judge,--
    Why do not these prevail for human life,
    To keep two hearts together, that began
    Their springtime with one love, and that have need
    Of mutual pity and forgiveness, sweet
    To grant, or be received; while that poor bird--
    O, come and hear him! Thou who hast to me
    Been faithless, hear him;--though a lowly creature,
    One of God’s simple children, that yet know not
    The Universal Parent, _how_ he sings!
    As if he wished the firmament of heaven
    Should listen, and give back to him the voice
    Of his triumphant constancy and love.
    The proclamation that he makes, how far
    His darkness doth transcend our fickle light.’

The perfection of both these passages, as far as regards truth and
tenderness of imagination in the two poets, is quite insuperable. But,
of the two characters imagined, Jessy is weaker than Ellen, exactly in
so far as something appears to her to be in nature which is not. The
flowers do not really reproach her. God meant them to comfort her, not
to taunt her; they would do so if she saw them rightly.

Ellen, on the other hand, is quite above the slightest erring emotion.
There is not the barest film of fallacy in all her thoughts. She
reasons as calmly as if she did not feel. And, although the singing of
the bird suggests to her the idea of its desiring to be heard in
heaven, she does not for an instant admit any veracity in the thought.
‘As if,’ she says,--‘I know he means nothing of the kind; but it does
verily seem as if.’ The reader will find, by examining the rest of the
poem, that Ellen’s character is throughout consistent in this clear
though passionate strength.[34]

    [34] I cannot quit this subject without giving two more
    instances, both exquisite, of the pathetic fallacy, which I
    have just come upon, in _Maud_:

                     For a great speculation had fail’d;
          And ever he mutter’d and madden’d, and ever wann’d with despair;
        And out he walk’d, when the wind like a broken worldling wail’d,
          And the _flying gold of the ruin’d woodlands drove, thro’
              the air_.

          There has fallen a splendid tear
            From the passion-flower at the gate.
          _The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near!’
            And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late.’
          The larkspur listens, ‘I hear, I hear!’
            And the lily whispers, ‘I wait.’_

It is, I hope, now made clear to the reader in all respects that the
pathetic fallacy is powerful only so far as it is pathetic, feeble so
far as it is fallacious, and, therefore, that the dominion of Truth is
entire, over this, as over every other natural and just state of the
human mind.



JOHN STUART MILL

1806-1873

THOUGHTS ON POETRY AND ITS VARIETIES (1859)


I

It has often been asked, What is Poetry? And many and various are the
answers which have been returned. The vulgarest of all--one with which
no person possessed of the faculties to which Poetry addresses itself
can ever have been satisfied--is that which confounds poetry with
metrical composition: yet to this wretched mockery of a definition,
many have been led back, by the failure of all their attempts to find
any other that would distinguish what they have been accustomed to
call poetry, from much which they have known only under other names.

That, however, the word ‘poetry’ imports something quite peculiar in
its nature, something which may exist in what is called prose as well
as in verse, something which does not even require the instrument of
words, but can speak through the other audible symbols called musical
sounds, and even through the visible ones which are the language of
sculpture, painting, and architecture; all this, we believe, is and
must be felt, though perhaps indistinctly, by all upon whom poetry in
any of its shapes produces any impression beyond that of tickling the
ear. The distinction between poetry and what is not poetry, whether
explained or not, is felt to be fundamental: and where every one feels
a difference, a difference there must be. All other appearances may be
fallacious, but the appearance of a difference is a real difference.
Appearances too, like other things, must have a cause, and that which
can cause anything, even an illusion, must be a reality. And hence,
while a half-philosophy disdains the classifications and distinctions
indicated by popular language, philosophy carried to its highest point
frames new ones, but rarely sets aside the old, content with
correcting and regularizing them. It cuts fresh channels for thought,
but does not fill up such as it finds ready-made; it traces, on the
contrary, more deeply, broadly, and distinctly, those into which the
current has spontaneously flowed.

Let us then attempt, in the way of modest inquiry, not to coerce and
confine nature within the bounds of an arbitrary definition, but
rather to find the boundaries which she herself has set, and erect a
barrier round them; not calling mankind to account for having
misapplied the word ‘poetry’, but attempting to clear up the
conception which they already attach to it, and to bring forward as a
distinct principle that which, as a vague feeling, has really guided
them in their employment of the term.

The object of poetry is confessedly to act upon the emotions; and
therein is poetry sufficiently distinguished from what Wordsworth
affirms to be its logical opposite, namely, not prose, but matter of
fact or science. The one addresses itself to the belief, the other to
the feelings. The one does its work by convincing or persuading, the
other by moving. The one acts by presenting a proposition to the
understanding, the other by offering interesting objects of
contemplation to the sensibilities.

This, however, leaves us very far from a definition of poetry. This
distinguishes it from one thing, but we are bound to distinguish it
from everything. To bring thoughts or images before the mind for the
purpose of acting upon the emotions, does not belong to poetry alone.
It is equally the province (for example) of the novelist: and yet the
faculty of the poet and that of the novelist are as distinct as any
other two faculties; as the faculties of the novelist and of the
orator, or of the poet and the metaphysician. The two characters may
be united, as characters the most disparate may; but they have no
natural connexion.

Many of the greatest poems are in the form of fictitious narratives,
and in almost all good serious fictions there is true poetry. But
there is a radical distinction between the interest felt in a story as
such, and the interest excited by poetry; for the one is derived from
incident, the other from the representation of feeling. In one, the
source of the emotion excited is the exhibition of a state or states
of human sensibility; in the other, of a series of states of mere
outward circumstances. Now, all minds are capable of being affected
more or less by representations of the latter kind, and all, or almost
all, by those of the former; yet the two sources of interest
correspond to two distinct, and (as respects their greatest
development) mutually exclusive, characters of mind.

At what age is the passion for a story, for almost any kind of story,
merely as a story, the most intense? In childhood. But that also is
the age at which poetry, even of the simplest description, is least
relished and least understood; because the feelings with which it is
especially conversant are yet undeveloped, and not having been even in
the slightest degree experienced, cannot be sympathized with. In what
stage of the progress of society, again, is story-telling most valued,
and the story-teller in greatest request and honour?--In a rude state
like that of the Tartars and Arabs at this day, and of almost all
nations in the earliest ages. But in this state of society there is
little poetry except ballads, which are mostly narrative, that is,
essentially stories, and derive their principal interest from the
incidents. Considered as poetry, they are of the lowest and most
elementary kind: the feelings depicted, or rather indicated, are the
simplest our nature has; such joys and griefs as the immediate
pressure of some outward event excites in rude minds, which live
wholly immersed in outward things, and have never, either from choice
or a force they could not resist, turned themselves to the
contemplation of the world within. Passing now from childhood, and
from the childhood of society, to the grown-up men and women of this
most grown-up and unchildlike age--the minds and hearts of greatest
depth and elevation are commonly those which take greatest delight in
poetry; the shallowest and emptiest, on the contrary, are, at all
events, not those least addicted to novel-reading. This accords, too,
with all analogous experience of human nature. The sort of persons
whom not merely in books but in their lives, we find perpetually
engaged in hunting for excitement from without, are invariably those
who do not possess, either in the vigour of their intellectual powers
or in the depth of their sensibilities, that which would enable them
to find ample excitement nearer home. The most idle and frivolous
persons take a natural delight in fictitious narrative; the excitement
it affords is of the kind which comes from without. Such persons are
rarely lovers of poetry, though they may fancy themselves so, because
they relish novels in verse. But poetry, which is the delineation of
the deeper and more secret workings of human emotion, is interesting
only to those to whom it recalls what they have felt, or whose
imagination it stirs up to conceive what they could feel, or what they
might have been able to feel, had their outward circumstances been
different.

Poetry, when it is really such, is truth; and fiction also, if it is
good for anything, is truth: but they are different truths. The truth
of poetry is to paint the human soul truly: the truth of fiction is to
give a true picture of life. The two kinds of knowledge are different,
and come by different ways, come mostly to different persons. Great
poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come
by observation of themselves; they have found within them one highly
delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature, on which the laws of
emotion are written in large characters, such as can be read off
without much study. Other knowledge of mankind, such as comes to men
of the world by outward experience, is not indispensable to them as
poets: but to the novelist such knowledge is all in all; he has to
describe outward things, not the inward man; actions and events, not
feelings; and it will not do for him to be numbered among those who,
as Madame Roland said of Brissot, know man but not _men_.

All this is no bar to the possibility of combining both elements,
poetry and narrative or incident, in the same work, and calling it
either a novel or a poem; but so may red and white combine on the same
human features, or on the same canvas. There is one order of
composition which requires the union of poetry and incident, each in
its highest kind--the dramatic. Even there the two elements are
perfectly distinguishable, and may exist of unequal quality, and in
the most various proportion. The incidents of a dramatic poem may be
scanty and ineffective, though the delineation of passion and
character may be of the highest order; as in Goethe’s admirable
_Torquato Tasso_; or again, the story as a mere story may be well got
up for effect, as is the case with some of the most trashy productions
of the Minerva press: it may even be, what those are not, a coherent
and probable series of events, though there be scarcely a feeling
exhibited which is not represented falsely, or in a manner absolutely
commonplace. The combination of the two excellences is what renders
Shakespeare so generally acceptable, each sort of readers finding in
him what is suitable to their faculties. To the many he is great as a
story-teller, to the few as a poet.

In limiting poetry to the delineation of states of feeling, and
denying the name where nothing is delineated but outward objects, we
may be thought to have done what we promised to avoid--to have not
found, but made a definition, in opposition to the usage of language,
since it is established by common consent that there is a poetry
called descriptive. We deny the charge. Description is not poetry
because there is descriptive poetry, no more than science is poetry
because there is such a thing as a didactic poem. But an object which
admits of being described, or a truth which may fill a place in a
scientific treatise, may also furnish an occasion for the generation
of poetry, which we thereupon choose to call descriptive or didactic.
The poetry is not in the object itself, nor in the scientific truth
itself, but in the state of mind in which the one and the other may be
contemplated. The mere delineation of the dimensions and colours of
external objects is not poetry, no more than a geometrical ground-plan
of St. Peter’s or Westminster Abbey is painting. Descriptive poetry
consists, no doubt, in description, but in description of things as
they appear, not as they are; and it paints them not in their bare and
natural lineaments, but seen through the medium and arrayed in the
colours of the imagination set in action by the feelings. If a poet
describes a lion, he does not describe him as a naturalist would, nor
even as a traveller would, who was intent upon stating the truth, the
whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He describes him by imagery,
that is, by suggesting the most striking likenesses and contrasts
which might occur to a mind contemplating the lion, in the state of
awe, wonder, or terror, which the spectacle naturally excites, or is,
on the occasion, supposed to excite. Now this is describing the lion
professedly, but the state of excitement of the spectator really. The
lion may be described falsely or with exaggeration, and the poetry be
all the better; but if the human emotion be not painted with
scrupulous truth, the poetry is bad poetry, i. e. is not poetry at
all, but a failure.

Thus far our progress towards a clear view of the essentials of
poetry has brought us very close to the last two attempts at a
definition of poetry which we happen to have seen in print, both of
them by poets and men of genius. The one is by Ebenezer Elliott, the
author of _Corn-Law Rhymes_, and other poems of still greater merit.
‘Poetry’, says he, ‘is impassioned truth.’ The other is by a writer in
_Blackwood’s Magazine_, and comes, we think, still nearer the mark. He
defines poetry, ‘man’s thoughts tinged by his feelings’. There is in
either definition a near approximation to what we are in search of.
Every truth which a human being can enunciate, every thought, even
every outward impression, which can enter into his consciousness, may
become poetry when shown through any impassioned medium, when invested
with the colouring of joy, or grief, or pity, or affection, or
admiration, or reverence, or awe, or even hatred or terror: and,
unless so coloured, nothing, be it as interesting as it may, is
poetry. But both these definitions fail to discriminate between poetry
and eloquence. Eloquence, as well as poetry, is impassioned truth;
eloquence, as well as poetry, is thoughts coloured by the feelings.
Yet common apprehension and philosophic criticism alike recognize a
distinction between the two: there is much that every one would call
eloquence, which no one would think of classing as poetry. A question
will sometimes arise, whether some particular author is a poet; and
those who maintain the negative commonly allow that, though not a
poet, he is a highly eloquent writer. The distinction between poetry
and eloquence appears to us to be equally fundamental with the
distinction between poetry and narrative, or between poetry and
description, while it is still farther from having been satisfactorily
cleared up than either of the others.

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of
feeling. But if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that
eloquence is _heard_, poetry is _over_heard. Eloquence supposes an
audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s
utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing
itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in
symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling
in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind. Eloquence is
feeling pouring itself out to other minds, courting their sympathy, or
endeavouring to influence their belief or move them to passion or to
action.

All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy. It may be said that poetry
which is printed on hot-pressed paper and sold at a bookseller’s shop,
is a soliloquy in full dress, and on the stage. It is so; but there is
nothing absurd in the idea of such a mode of soliloquizing. What we
have said to ourselves, we may tell to others afterwards; what we have
said or done in solitude, we may voluntarily reproduce when we know
that other eyes are upon us. But no trace of consciousness that any
eyes are upon us must be visible in the work itself. The actor knows
that there is an audience present; but if he act as though he knew it,
he acts ill. A poet may write poetry not only with the intention of
printing it, but for the express purpose of being paid for it; that it
should _be_ poetry, being written under such influences, is less
probable; not, however, impossible; but no otherwise possible than if
he can succeed in excluding from his work every vestige of such
lookings-forth into the outward and every-day world, and can express
his emotions exactly as he has felt them in solitude, or as he is
conscious that he should feel them though they were to remain for ever
unuttered, or (at the lowest) as he knows that others feel them in
similar circumstances of solitude. But when he turns round and
addresses himself to another person; when the act of utterance is not
itself the end, but a means to an end,--viz. by the feelings he
himself expresses, to work upon the feelings, or upon the belief, or
the will, of another,--when the expression of his emotions, or of his
thoughts tinged by his emotions, is tinged also by that purpose, by
that desire of making an impression upon another mind, then it ceases
to be poetry, and becomes eloquence.

Poetry, accordingly, is the natural fruit of solitude and meditation;
eloquence, of intercourse with the world. The persons who have most
feeling of their own, if intellectual culture has given them a
language in which to express it, have the highest faculty of poetry;
those who best understand the feelings of others, are the most
eloquent. The persons, and the nations, who commonly excel in poetry,
are those whose character and tastes render them least dependent upon
the applause, or sympathy, or concurrence of the world in general.
Those to whom that applause, that sympathy, that concurrence are most
necessary, generally excel most in eloquence. And hence, perhaps, the
French, who are the least poetical of all great and intellectual
nations, are among the most eloquent: the French, also, being the most
sociable, the vainest, and the least self-dependent.

If the above be, as we believe, the true theory of the distinction
commonly admitted between eloquence and poetry; or even though it be
not so, yet if, as we cannot doubt, the distinction above stated be a
real bona fide distinction, it will be found to hold, not merely in
the language of words, but in all other language, and to intersect the
whole domain of art.

Take, for example, music: we shall find in that art, so peculiarly the
expression of passion, two perfectly distinct styles; one of which may
be called the poetry, the other the oratory of music. This difference,
being seized, would put an end to much musical sectarianism. There has
been much contention whether the music of the modern Italian school,
that of Rossini and his successors, be impassioned or not. Without
doubt, the passion it expresses is not the musing, meditative
tenderness, or pathos, or grief of Mozart or Beethoven. Yet it is
passion, but garrulous passion--the passion which pours itself into
other ears; and therein the better calculated for dramatic effect,
having a natural adaptation for dialogue. Mozart also is great in
musical oratory; but his most touching compositions are in the
opposite style--that of soliloquy. Who can imagine ‘Dove sono’
_heard_? We imagine it _over_heard.

Purely pathetic music commonly partakes of soliloquy. The soul is
absorbed in its distress, and though there may be bystanders, it is
not thinking of them. When the mind is looking within, and not
without, its state does not often or rapidly vary; and hence the even,
uninterrupted flow, approaching almost to monotony, which a good
reader, or a good singer, will give to words or music of a pensive or
melancholy cast. But grief taking the form of a prayer, or of a
complaint, becomes oratorical; no longer low, and even, and subdued,
it assumes a more emphatic rhythm, a more rapidly returning accent;
instead of a few slow equal notes, following one after another at
regular intervals, it crowds note upon note, and often assumes a hurry
and bustle like joy. Those who are familiar with some of the best of
Rossini’s serious compositions, such as the air ‘Tu che i miseri
conforti’, in the opera of _Tancredi_, or the duet ‘Ebben per mia
memoria’, in _La Gazza Ladra_, will at once understand and feel our
meaning. Both are highly tragic and passionate; the passion of both is
that of oratory, not poetry. The like may be said of that most moving
invocation in Beethoven’s _Fidelio_--

    Komm, Hoffnung, lass das letzte Stern
      Der Müde nicht erbleichen;

in which Madame Schröder Devrient exhibited such consummate powers of
pathetic expression. How different from Winter’s beautiful ‘Paga fui’,
the very soul of melancholy exhaling itself in solitude; fuller of
meaning, and, therefore, more profoundly poetical than the words for
which it was composed--for it seems to express not simple melancholy,
but the melancholy of remorse.

If, from vocal music, we now pass to instrumental, we may have a
specimen of musical oratory in any fine military symphony or march:
while the poetry of music seems to have attained its consummation in
Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, so wonderful in its mixed expression
of grandeur and melancholy.

In the arts which speak to the eye, the same distinctions will be
found to hold, not only between poetry and oratory, but between
poetry, oratory, narrative, and simple imitation or description.

Pure description is exemplified in a mere portrait or a mere
landscape--productions of art, it is true, but of the mechanical
rather than of the fine arts, being works of simple imitation, not
creation. We say, a mere portrait, or a mere landscape, because it is
possible for a portrait or a landscape, without ceasing to be such, to
be also a picture; like Turner’s landscapes, and the great portraits
by Titian or Vandyke.

Whatever in painting or sculpture expresses human feeling--or
character, which is only a certain state of feeling grown
habitual--may be called, according to circumstances, the poetry, or
the eloquence, of the painter’s or the sculptor’s art: the poetry, if
the feeling declares itself by such signs as escape from us when we
are unconscious of being seen; the oratory, if the signs are those we
use for the purpose of voluntary communication.

The narrative style answers to what is called historical painting,
which it is the fashion among connoisseurs to treat as the climax of
the pictorial art. That it is the most difficult branch of the art we
do not doubt, because, in its perfection, it includes the perfection
of all the other branches: as in like manner an epic poem, though in
so far as it is epic (i. e. narrative) it is not poetry at all, is yet
esteemed the greatest effort of poetic genius, because there is no
kind whatever of poetry which may not appropriately find a place in
it. But an historical picture as such, that is, as the representation
of an incident, must necessarily, as it seems to us, be poor and
ineffective. The narrative powers of painting are extremely limited.
Scarcely any picture, scarcely even any series of pictures, tells its
own story without the aid of an interpreter. But it is the single
figures which, to us, are the great charm even of an historical
picture. It is in these that the power of the art is really seen. In
the attempt to narrate, visible and permanent signs are too far behind
the fugitive audible ones, which follow so fast one after another,
while the faces and figures in a narrative picture, even though they
be Titian’s, stand still. Who would not prefer one Virgin and Child of
Raphael, to all the pictures which Rubens, with his fat, frouzy Dutch
Venuses, ever painted? Though Rubens, besides excelling almost every
one in his mastery over the mechanical parts of his art, often shows
real genius in _grouping_ his figures, the peculiar problem of
historical painting. But then, who, except a mere student of drawing
and colouring, ever cared to look twice at any of the figures
themselves? The power of painting lies in poetry, of which Rubens had
not the slightest tincture--not in narrative, wherein he might have
excelled.

The single figures, however, in an historical picture, are rather the
eloquence of painting than the poetry: they mostly (unless they are
quite out of place in the picture) express the feelings of one person
as modified by the presence of others. Accordingly the minds whose
bent leads them rather to eloquence than to poetry, rush to historical
painting. The French painters, for instance, seldom attempt, because
they could make nothing of, single heads, like those glorious ones of
the Italian masters, with which they might feed themselves day after
day in their own Louvre. They must all be historical; and they are,
almost to a man, attitudinizers. If we wished to give any young
artist the most impressive warning our imagination could devise
against that kind of vice in the pictorial, which corresponds to rant
in the histrionic art, we would advise him to walk once up and once
down the gallery of the Luxembourg. Every figure in French painting or
statuary seems to be showing itself off before spectators; they are
not poetical, but in the worst style of corrupted eloquence.


II

_Nascitur Poeta_ is a maxim of classical antiquity, which has passed
to these latter days with less questioning than most of the doctrines
of that early age. When it originated, the human faculties were
occupied, fortunately for posterity, less in examining how the works
of genius are created, than in creating them: and the adage, probably,
had no higher source than the tendency common among mankind to
consider all power which is not visibly the effect of practice, all
skill which is not capable of being reduced to mechanical rules, as
the result of a peculiar gift. Yet this aphorism, born in the infancy
of psychology, will perhaps be found, now when that science is in its
adolescence, to be as true as an epigram ever is, that is, to contain
some truth: truth, however, which has been so compressed and bent out
of shape, in order to tie it up into so small a knot of only two words
that it requires an almost infinite amount of unrolling and laying
straight, before it will resume its just proportions.

We are not now intending to remark upon the grosser misapplications of
this ancient maxim, which have engendered so many races of
poetasters. The days are gone by when every raw youth whose borrowed
phantasies have set themselves to a borrowed tune, mistaking, as
Coleridge says, an ardent desire of poetic reputation for poetic
genius, while unable to disguise from himself that he had taken no
means whereby he might _become_ a poet, could fancy himself a born
one. Those who would reap without sowing, and gain the victory without
fighting the battle, are ambitious now of another sort of distinction,
and are born novelists, or public speakers, not poets. And the wiser
thinkers understand and acknowledge that poetic excellence is subject
to the same necessary conditions with any other mental endowment; and
that to no one of the spiritual benefactors of mankind is a higher or
a more assiduous intellectual culture needful than to the poet. It is
true, he possesses this advantage over others who use the ‘instrument
of words’, that, of the truths which he utters, a larger proportion
are derived from personal consciousness, and a smaller from
philosophic investigation. But the power itself of discriminating
between what really is consciousness, and what is only a process of
inference completed in a single instant--and the capacity of
distinguishing whether that of which the mind is conscious be an
eternal truth, or but a dream--are among the last results of the most
matured and perfect intellect. Not to mention, that the poet, no more
than any other person who writes, confines himself altogether to
intuitive truths, nor has any means of communicating even these but by
words, every one of which derives all its power of conveying a
meaning, from a whole host of acquired notions, and facts learnt by
study and experience.

Nevertheless, it seems undeniable in point of fact, and consistent
with the principles of a sound metaphysics, that there are poetic
_natures_. There is a mental and physical constitution or temperament,
peculiarly fitted for poetry. This temperament will not of itself make
a poet, no more than the soil will the fruit; and as good fruit may be
raised by culture from indifferent soils, so may good poetry from
naturally unpoetical minds. But the poetry of one who is a poet by
nature, will be clearly and broadly distinguishable from the poetry of
mere culture. It may not be truer; it may not be more useful; but it
will be different: fewer will appreciate it, even though many should
affect to do so; but in those few it will find a keener sympathy, and
will yield them a deeper enjoyment.

One may write genuine poetry, and not be a poet; for whosoever writes
out truly any human feeling, writes poetry. All persons, even the most
unimaginative, in moments of strong emotion, speak poetry; and hence
the drama is poetry, which else were always prose, except when a poet
is one of the characters. What _is_ poetry, but the thoughts and words
in which emotion spontaneously embodies itself? As there are few who
are not, at least for some moments and in some situations, capable of
some strong feeling, poetry is natural to most persons at some period
of their lives. And any one whose feelings are genuine, though but of
the average strength,--if he be not diverted by uncongenial thoughts
or occupations from the indulgence of them, and if he acquire by
culture, as all persons may, the faculty of delineating them
correctly,--has it in his power to be a poet, so far as a life passed
in writing unquestionable poetry may be considered to confer that
title. But _ought_ it to do so? Yes, perhaps, in a collection of
‘British Poets’. But ‘poet’ is the name also of a variety of man, not
solely of the author of a particular variety of book: now, to have
written whole volumes of real poetry is possible to almost all kinds
of characters, and implies no greater peculiarity of mental
construction, than to be the author of a history, or a novel.

Whom, then, shall we call poets? Those who are so constituted, that
emotions are the links of association by which their ideas, both
sensuous and spiritual, are connected together. This constitution
belongs (within certain limits) to all in whom poetry is a pervading
principle. In all others, poetry is something extraneous and
superinduced: something out of themselves, foreign to the habitual
course of their every-day lives and characters; a world to which they
may make occasional visits, but where they are sojourners, not
dwellers, and which, when out of it, or even when in it, they think
of, peradventure, but as a phantom-world, a place of _ignes fatui_ and
spectral illusions. Those only who have the peculiarity of association
which we have mentioned, and which is a natural though not a universal
consequence of intense sensibility, instead of seeming not themselves
when they are uttering poetry, scarcely seem themselves when uttering
anything to which poetry is foreign. Whatever be the thing which they
are contemplating, if it be capable of connecting itself with their
emotions, the aspect under which it first and most naturally paints
itself to them, is its poetic aspect. The poet of culture sees his
object in prose, and describes it in poetry; the poet of nature
actually sees it in poetry.

This point is perhaps worth some little illustration; the rather, as
metaphysicians (the ultimate arbiters of all philosophical criticism),
while they have busied themselves for two thousand years, more or
less, about the few _universal_ laws of human nature, have strangely
neglected the analysis of its _diversities_. Of these, none lie deeper
or reach further than the varieties which difference of nature and of
education makes in what may be termed the habitual bond of
association. In a mind entirely uncultivated, which is also without
any strong feelings, objects whether of sense or of intellect arrange
themselves in the mere casual order in which they have been seen,
heard, or otherwise perceived. Persons of this sort may be said to
think chronologically. If they remember a fact, it is by reason of a
fortuitous coincidence with some trifling incident or circumstance
which took place at the very time. If they have a story to tell, or
testimony to deliver in a witness-box, their narrative must follow the
exact order in which the events took place: _dodge_ them, and the
thread of association is broken; they cannot go on. Their
associations, to use the language of philosophers, are chiefly of the
successive, not the synchronous kind, and whether successive or
synchronous, are mostly casual.

To the man of science, again, or of business, objects group themselves
according to the artificial classifications which the understanding
has voluntarily made for the convenience of thought or of practice.
But where any of the impressions are vivid and intense, the
associations into which these enter are the ruling ones: it being a
well-known law of association, that the stronger a feeling is, the
more quickly and strongly it associates itself with any other object
or feeling. Where, therefore, nature has given strong feelings, and
education has not created factitious tendencies stronger than the
natural ones, the prevailing associations will be those which connect
objects and ideas with emotions, and with each other through the
intervention of emotions. Thoughts and images will be linked together,
according to the similarity of the feelings which cling to them. A
thought will introduce a thought by first introducing a feeling which
is allied with it. At the centre of each group of thoughts or images
will be found a feeling; and the thoughts or images will be there only
because the feeling was there. The combinations which the mind puts
together, the pictures which it paints, the wholes which Imagination
constructs out of the materials supplied by Fancy, will be indebted to
some dominant _feeling_, not as in other natures to a dominant
_thought_, for their unity and consistency of character, for what
distinguishes them from incoherencies.

The difference, then, between the poetry of a poet, and the poetry of
a cultivated but not naturally poetic mind, is, that in the latter,
with however bright a halo of feeling the thought may be surrounded
and glorified, the thought itself is always the conspicuous object;
while the poetry of a poet is Feeling itself, employing Thought only
as the medium of its expression. In the one, feeling waits upon
thought; in the other, thought upon feeling. The one writer has a
distinct aim, common to him with any other didactic author; he desires
to convey the thought, and he conveys it clothed in the feelings which
it excites in himself, or which he deems most appropriate to it. The
other merely pours forth the overflowing of his feelings; and all the
thoughts which those feelings suggest are floated promiscuously along
the stream.

It may assist in rendering our meaning intelligible, if we illustrate
it by a parallel between the two English authors of our own day who
have produced the greatest quantity of true and enduring poetry,
Wordsworth and Shelley. Apter instances could not be wished for; the
one might be cited as the type, the _exemplar_, of what the poetry of
culture may accomplish: the other as perhaps the most striking example
ever known of the poetic temperament. How different, accordingly, is
the poetry of these two great writers! In Wordsworth, the poetry is
almost always the mere setting of a thought. The thought may be more
valuable than the setting, or it may be less valuable, but there can
be no question as to which was first in his mind: what he is impressed
with, and what he is anxious to impress, is some proposition, more or
less distinctly conceived; some truth, or something which he deems
such. He lets the thought dwell in his mind, till it excites, as is
the nature of thought, other thoughts, and also such feelings as the
measure of his sensibility is adequate to supply. Among these thoughts
and feelings, had he chosen a different walk of authorship (and there
are many in which he might equally have excelled), he would probably
have made a different selection of media for enforcing the parent
thought: his habits, however, being those of poetic composition, he
selects in preference the strongest feelings, and the thoughts with
which most of feeling is naturally or habitually connected. His
poetry, therefore, may be defined to be, his thoughts, coloured by,
and impressing themselves by means of, emotions. Such poetry,
Wordsworth has occupied a long life in producing. And well and wisely
has he so done. Criticisms, no doubt, may be made occasionally both
upon the thoughts themselves, and upon the skill he has demonstrated
in the choice of his media: for an affair of skill and study, in the
most rigorous sense, it evidently was. But he has not laboured in
vain; he has exercised, and continues to exercise, a powerful, and
mostly a highly beneficial influence over the formation and growth of
not a few of the most cultivated and vigorous of the youthful minds of
our time, over whose heads poetry of the opposite description would
have flown, for want of an original organization, physical or mental,
in sympathy with it.

On the other hand, Wordsworth’s poetry is never bounding, never
ebullient; has little even of the appearance of spontaneousness: the
well is never so full that it overflows. There is an air of calm
deliberateness about all he writes, which is not characteristic of the
poetic temperament: his poetry seems one thing, himself another; he
seems to be poetical because he wills to be so, not because he cannot
help it: did he will to dismiss poetry, he need never again, it might
almost seem, have a poetical thought. He never seems _possessed_ by
any feeling; no emotion seems ever so strong as to have entire sway,
for the time being, over the current of his thoughts. He never, even
for the space of a few stanzas, appears entirely given up to
exultation, or grief, or pity, or love, or admiration, or devotion, or
even animal spirits. He now and then, though seldom, attempts to write
as if he were: and never, we think, without leaving an impression of
poverty: as the brook which on nearly level ground quite fills its
banks, appears but a thread when running rapidly down a precipitous
declivity. He has feeling enough to form a decent, graceful, even
beautiful decoration to a thought which is in itself interesting and
moving; but not so much as suffices to stir up the soul by mere
sympathy with itself in its simplest manifestation, nor enough to
summon up that array of ‘thoughts of power’ which in a richly stored
mind always attends the call of really intense feeling. It is for this
reason, doubtless, that the genius of Wordsworth is essentially
unlyrical. Lyric poetry, as it was the earliest kind, is also, if the
view we are now taking of poetry be correct, more eminently and
peculiarly poetry than any other: it is the poetry most natural to a
really poetic temperament, and least capable of being successfully
imitated by one not so endowed by nature.

Shelley is the very reverse of all this. Where Wordsworth is strong,
he is weak; where Wordsworth is weak, he is strong. Culture, that
culture by which Wordsworth has reared from his own inward nature the
richest harvest ever brought forth by a soil of so little depth, is
precisely what was wanting to Shelley: or let us rather say, he had
not, at the period of his deplorably early death, reached sufficiently
far in that intellectual progression of which he was capable, and
which, if it has done so much for greatly inferior natures, might have
made of him the most perfect, as he was already the most gifted of our
poets. For him, voluntary mental discipline had done little: the
vividness of his emotions and of his sensations had done all. He
seldom follows up an idea; it starts into life, summons from the
fairy-land of his inexhaustible fancy some three or four bold images,
then vanishes, and straight he is off on the wings of some casual
association into quite another sphere. He had scarcely yet acquired
the consecutiveness of thought necessary for a long poem; his more
ambitious compositions too often resemble the scattered fragments of a
mirror; colours brilliant as life, single images without end, but no
picture. It is only when under the overruling influence of some one
state of feeling, either actually experienced, or summoned up in the
vividness of reality by a fervid imagination, that he writes as a
great poet; unity of feeling being to him the harmonizing principle
which a central idea is to minds of another class, and supplying the
coherency and consistency which would else have been wanting. Thus it
is in many of his smaller, and especially his lyrical poems. They are
obviously written to exhale, perhaps to relieve, a state of feeling,
or of conception of feeling, almost oppressive from its vividness. The
thoughts and imagery are suggested by the feeling, and are such as it
finds unsought. The state of feeling may be either of soul or of
sense, or oftener (might we not say invariably?) of both: for the
poetic temperament is usually, perhaps always, accompanied by
exquisite senses. The exciting cause may be either an object or an
idea. But whatever of sensation enters into the feeling, must not be
local, or consciously organic; it is a condition of the whole frame,
not of a part only. Like the state of sensation produced by a fine
climate, or indeed like all strongly pleasurable or painful sensations
in an impassioned nature, it pervades the entire nervous system.
States of feeling, whether sensuous or spiritual, which thus possess
the whole being, are the fountains of that which we have called the
poetry of poets; and which is little else than a pouring forth of the
thoughts and images that pass across the mind while some permanent
state of feeling is occupying it.

To the same original fineness of organization, Shelley was doubtless
indebted for another of his rarest gifts, that exuberance of imagery,
which when unrepressed, as in many of his poems it is, amounts to a
fault. The susceptibility of his nervous system, which made his
emotions intense, made also the impressions of his external senses
deep and clear; and agreeably to the law of association by which, as
already remarked, the strongest impressions are those which associate
themselves the most easily and strongly, these vivid sensations were
readily recalled to mind by all objects or thoughts which had
co-existed with them, and by all feelings which in any degree
resembled them. Never did a fancy so teem with sensuous imagery as
Shelley’s. Wordsworth economizes an image, and detains it until he has
distilled all the poetry out of it, and it will not yield a drop more:
Shelley lavishes his with a profusion which is unconscious because it
is inexhaustible.

If, then, the maxim _Nascitur poeta_ mean, either that the power of
producing poetical compositions is a peculiar faculty which the poet
brings into the world with him, which grows with his growth like any
of his bodily powers, and is as independent of culture as his height,
and his complexion; or that any natural peculiarity whatever is
implied in producing poetry, real poetry, and in any quantity--such
poetry too, as, to the majority of educated and intelligent readers,
shall appear quite as good as, or even better than, any other; in
either sense the doctrine is false. And nevertheless, there _is_
poetry which could not emanate but from a mental and physical
constitution peculiar, not in the kind, but in the degree of its
susceptibility: a constitution which makes its possessor capable of
greater happiness than mankind in general, and also of greater
unhappiness; and because greater, so also more various. And such
poetry, to all who know enough of nature to own it as being in nature,
is much more poetry, is poetry in a far higher sense, than any other;
since the common element of all poetry, that which constitutes poetry,
human feeling, enters far more largely into this than into the poetry
of culture. Not only because the natures which we have called
poetical, really feel more, and consequently have more feeling to
express; but because, the capacity of feeling being so great, feeling,
when excited and not voluntarily resisted, seizes the helm of their
thoughts, and the succession of ideas and images becomes the mere
utterance of an emotion; not, as in other natures, the emotion a mere
ornamental colouring of the thought.

Ordinary education and the ordinary course of life are constantly at
work counteracting this quality of mind, and substituting habits more
suitable to their own ends: if instead of substituting they were
content to superadd, there would be nothing to complain of. But when
will education consist, not in repressing any mental faculty or power,
from the uncontrolled action of which danger is apprehended, but in
training up to its proper strength the corrective and antagonist
power?

In whomsoever the quality which we have described exists, and is not
stifled, that person is a poet. Doubtless he is a greater poet in
proportion as the fineness of his perceptions, whether of sense or of
internal consciousness, furnishes him with an ampler supply of lovely
images--the vigour and richness of his intellect, with a greater
abundance of moving thoughts. For it is through these thoughts and
images that the feeling speaks, and through their impressiveness that
it impresses itself, and finds response in other hearts; and from
these media of transmitting it (contrary to the laws of physical
nature) increase of intensity is reflected back upon the feeling
itself. But all these it is possible to have, and not be a poet; they
are mere materials, which the poet shares in common with other people.
What constitutes the poet is not the imagery nor the thoughts, nor
even the feelings, but the law according to which they are called up.
He is a poet, not because he has ideas of any particular kind, but
because the succession of big ideas is subordinate to the course of
his emotions.

Many who have never acknowledged this in theory, bear testimony to it
in their particular judgements. In listening to an oration, or reading
a written discourse not professedly poetical, when do we begin to feel
that the speaker or author is putting off the character of the orator
or the prose writer, and is passing into the poet? Not when he begins
to show strong feeling; _then_ we merely say, he is in earnest, he
feels what he says; still less when he expresses himself in imagery;
then, unless illustration be manifestly his sole object, we are apt to
say, this is affectation. It is when the feeling (instead of passing
away, or, if it continue, letting the train of thoughts run on
exactly as they would have done if there were no influence at work but
the mere intellect) becomes itself the originator of another train of
association, which expels or blends with the former; when (for
example) either his words, or the mode of their arrangement, are such
as we spontaneously use only when in a state of excitement, proving
that the mind is at least as much occupied by a passive state of its
own feelings, as by the desire of attaining the premeditated end which
the discourse has in view.[35]

    [35] And this, we may remark by the way, seems to point to
    the true theory of poetic diction; and to suggest the true
    answer to as much as is erroneous of Wordsworth’s celebrated
    doctrine on that subject. For on the one hand, _all_ language
    which is the natural expression of feeling, is really
    poetical, and will be felt as such, apart from conventional
    associations; but on the other, whenever intellectual culture
    has afforded a choice between several modes of expressing the
    same emotion, the stronger the feeling is, the more naturally
    and certainly will it prefer the language which is most
    peculiarly appropriated to itself, and kept sacred from the
    contact of more vulgar objects of contemplation.

Our judgements of authors who lay actual claim to the title of poets,
follow the same principle. Whenever, after a writer’s meaning is fully
understood, it is still matter of reasoning and discussion whether he
is a poet or not, he will be found to be wanting in the characteristic
peculiarity of association so often adverted to. When, on the
contrary, after reading or hearing one or two passages, we
instinctively and without hesitation cry out, ‘This is a poet’, the
probability is, that the passages are strongly marked with this
peculiar quality. And we may add that in such case, a critic who, not
having sufficient feeling to respond to the poetry, is also without
sufficient philosophy to understand it though he feel it not, will be
apt to pronounce, not ‘this is prose’, but ‘this is exaggeration’,
‘this is mysticism’, or, ‘this is nonsense’.

Although a philosopher cannot, by culture, make himself, in the
peculiar sense in which we now use the term, a poet, unless at least
he have that peculiarity of nature which would probably have made
poetry his earliest pursuit; a poet may always, by culture, make
himself a philosopher. The poetic laws of association are by no means
incompatible with the more ordinary laws; are by no means such as
_must_ have their course, even though a deliberate purpose require
their suspension. If the peculiarities of the poetic temperament were
uncontrollable in any poet, they might be supposed so in Shelley; yet
how powerfully, in the _Cenci_, does he coerce and restrain all the
characteristic qualities of his genius; what severe simplicity, in
place of his usual barbaric splendour; how rigidly does he keep the
feelings and the imagery in subordination to the thought.

The investigation of nature requires no habits or qualities of mind,
but such as may always be acquired by industry and mental activity.
Because at one time the mind may be so given up to a state of feeling,
that the succession of its ideas is determined by the present
enjoyment or suffering which pervades it, this is no reason but that
in the calm retirement of study, when under no peculiar excitement
either of the outward or of the inward sense, it may form any
combinations, or pursue any trains of ideas, which are most conducive
to the purposes of philosophic inquiry; and may, while in that state,
form deliberate convictions, from which no excitement will afterwards
make it swerve. Might we not go even further than this? We shall not
pause to ask whether it be not a misunderstanding of the nature of
passionate feeling to imagine that it is inconsistent with calmness;
whether they who so deem of it, do not mistake passion in the militant
or antagonistic state, for the type of passion universally; do not
confound passion struggling towards an outward object, with passion
brooding over itself. But without entering into this deeper
investigation; that capacity of strong feeling, which is supposed
necessarily to disturb the judgement, is also the material out of
which all _motives_ are made; the motives, consequently, which lead
human beings to the pursuit of truth. The greater the individual’s
capability of happiness and of misery, the stronger interest has that
individual in arriving at truth; and when once that interest is felt,
an impassioned nature is sure to pursue this, as to pursue any other
object, with greater ardour; for energy of character is commonly the
offspring of strong feeling. If, therefore, the most impassioned
natures do not ripen into the most powerful intellects, it is always
from defect of culture, or something wrong in the circumstances by
which the being has originally or successively been surrounded.
Undoubtedly strong feelings require a strong intellect to carry them,
as more sail requires more ballast: and when, from neglect, or bad
education, that strength is wanting, no wonder if the grandest and
swiftest vessels make the most utter wreck.

Where, as in some of our older poets, a poetic nature has been united
with logical and scientific culture, the peculiarity of association
arising from the finer nature so perpetually alternates with the
associations attainable by commoner natures trained to high
perfection, that its own particular law is not so conspicuously
characteristic of the result produced, as in a poet like Shelley, to
whom systematic intellectual culture, in a measure proportioned to the
intensity of his own nature, has been wanting. Whether the superiority
will naturally be on the side of the philosopher-poet or of the mere
poet--whether the writings of the one ought, as a whole, to be truer,
and their influence more beneficent, than those of the other--is too
obvious in principle to need statement: it would be absurd to doubt
whether two endowments are better than one; whether truth is more
certainly arrived at by two processes, verifying and correcting each
other, than by one alone. Unfortunately, in practice the matter is not
quite so simple; there the question often is, which is least
prejudicial to the intellect, uncultivation or malcultivation. For, as
long as education consists chiefly of the mere inculcation of
traditional opinions, many of which, from the mere fact that the human
intellect has not yet reached perfection, must necessarily be false;
so long as even those who are best taught, are rather taught to know
the thoughts of others than to think, it is not always clear that the
poet of acquired ideas has the advantage over him whose feeling has
been his sole teacher. For the depth and durability of wrong as well
as of right impressions is proportional to the fineness of the
material; and they who have the greatest capacity of natural feeling
are generally those whose artificial feelings are the strongest.
Hence, doubtless, among other reasons, it is, that in an age of
revolutions in opinion, the co-temporary poets, those at least who
deserve the name, those who have any individuality of character, if
they are not before their age, are almost sure to be behind it. An
observation curiously verified all over Europe in the present century.
Nor let it be thought disparaging. However urgent may be the necessity
for a breaking up of old modes of belief, the most strong-minded and
discerning, next to those who head the movement, are generally those
who bring up the rear of it.



WALTER BAGEHOT

1826-1877

WORDSWORTH, TENNYSON, AND BROWNING

OR

PURE, ORNATE, AND GROTESQUE ART IN ENGLISH POETRY (1864)

_Enoch Arden, &c._ By Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet Laureate.

_Dramatis Personae._ By Robert Browning.


We couple these two books together, not because of their likeness, for
they are as dissimilar as books can be, nor on account of the eminence
of their authors, for in general two great authors are too much for
one essay, but because they are the best possible illustration of
something we have to say upon poetical art--because they may give to
it life and freshness. The accident of contemporaneous publication has
here brought together two books, very characteristic of modern art,
and we want to show how they are characteristic.

Neither English poetry nor English criticism have ever recovered the
_eruption_ which they both made at the beginning of this century into
the fashionable world. The poems of Lord Byron were received with an
avidity that resembles our present avidity for sensation novels, and
were read by a class which at present reads little but such novels.
Old men who remember those days may be heard to say, ‘We hear nothing
of poetry nowadays; it seems quite down.’ And ‘down’ it certainly is,
if for poetry it be a descent to be no longer the favourite excitement
of the more frivolous part of the ‘upper’ world. That stimulating
poetry is now little read. A stray schoolboy may still be detected in
a wild admiration for the _Giaour_ or the _Corsair_ (and it is
suitable to his age, and he should not be reproached for it), but the
_real_ posterity--the quiet students of a past literature--never read
them or think of them. A line or two linger in the memory; a few
telling strokes of occasional and felicitous energy are quoted, but
this is all. As wholes, these exaggerated stories were worthless; they
taught nothing, and, therefore, they are forgotten. If nowadays a
dismal poet were, like Byron, to lament the fact of his birth, and to
hint that he was too good for the world, the _Saturday Review_ would
say that ‘they doubted if he _was_ too good; that a sulky poet was a
questionable addition to a tolerable world; that he need not have been
born, as far as they were concerned.’ Doubtless, there is much in
Byron besides his dismal exaggeration, but it was that exaggeration
which made ‘the sensation’, which gave him a wild moment of dangerous
fame. As so often happens, the cause of his momentary fashion is the
cause also of his lasting oblivion. Moore’s former reputation was less
excessive, yet it has not been more permanent. The prettiness of a few
songs preserves the memory of his name, but as a poet to _read_ he is
forgotten. There is nothing to read in him; no exquisite thought, no
sublime feeling, no consummate description of true character. Almost
the sole result of the poetry of that time is the harm which it has
done. It degraded for a time the whole character of the art. It said
by practice, by a most efficient and successful practice, that it was
the aim, the _duty_ of poets, to catch the attention of the passing,
the fashionable, the busy world. If a poem ‘fell dead’, it was
nothing; it was composed to please the ‘London’ of the year, and if
that London did not like it, why, it had failed. It fixed upon the
minds of a whole generation, it engraved in popular memory and
tradition, a vague conviction that poetry is but one of the many
_amusements_ for the light classes, for the lighter hours of all
classes. The mere notion, the bare idea, that poetry is a deep thing,
a teaching thing, the most surely and wisely elevating of human
things, is even now to the coarse public mind nearly unknown.

As was the fate of poetry, so inevitably was that of criticism. The
science that expounds which poetry is good and which is bad is
dependent for its popular reputation on the popular estimate of poetry
itself. The critics of that day had _a_ day, which is more than can be
said for some since; they professed to tell the fashionable world in
what books it would find new pleasure, and therefore they were read by
the fashionable world. Byron counted the critic and poet equal. The
_Edinburgh Review_ penetrated among the young, and into places of
female resort where it does not go now. As people ask, ‘Have you read
_Henry Dunbar_? and what do you think of it?’ so they then asked,
‘Have you read the _Giaour_? and what do you think of it?’ Lord
Jeffrey, a shrewd judge of the world, employed himself in telling it
what to think; not so much what it ought to think, as what at bottom
it did think, and so by dexterous sympathy with current society he
gained contemporary fame and power. Such fame no critic must hope for
now. His articles will not penetrate where the poems themselves do not
penetrate. When poetry was noisy, criticism was loud; now poetry is a
still small voice, and criticism must be smaller and stiller. As the
function of such criticism was limited so was its subject. For the
great and (as time now proves) the _permanent_ part of the poetry of
his time--for Shelley and for Wordsworth--Lord Jeffrey had but one
word. He said[36] ‘It won’t do’. And it will not do to amuse a
drawing-room.

    [36] The first words in Lord Jeffrey’s celebrated review of
    the _Excursion_ were, ‘This will never do.’

The doctrine that poetry is a light amusement for idle hours, a
metrical species of sensational novel, has not indeed been without
gainsayers wildly popular. Thirty years ago, Mr. Carlyle most rudely
contradicted it. But perhaps this is about all that he has done. He
has denied, but he has not disproved. He has contradicted the floating
paganism, but he has not founded the deep religion. All about and
around us a _faith_ in poetry struggles to be extricated, but it is
not extricated. Some day, at the touch of the true word, the whole
confusion will by magic cease; the broken and shapeless notions cohere
and crystallize into a bright and true theory. But this cannot be yet.

But though no complete theory of the poetic art as yet be possible for
us, though perhaps only our children’s children will be able to speak
on this subject with the assured confidence which belongs to accepted
truth, yet something of some certainty may be stated on the easier
elements, and something that will throw light on these two new books.
But it will be necessary to assign reasons, and the assigning of
reasons is a dry task. Years ago, when criticism only tried to show
how poetry could be made a good amusement, it was not impossible that
criticism itself should be amusing. But now it must at least be
serious, for we believe that poetry is a serious and a deep thing.

There should be a word in the language of literary art to express what
the word ‘picturesque’ expresses for the fine arts. _Picturesque_
means fit to be put into a picture; we want a word _literatesque_,
‘fit to be put into a book.’ An artist goes through a hundred
different country scenes, rich with beauties, charms, and merits, but
he does not paint any of them. He leaves them alone; he idles on till
he finds the hundred-and-first--a scene which many observers would not
think much of, but which _he_ knows by virtue of his art will look
well on canvas, and this he paints and preserves. Susceptible
observers, though not artists, feel this quality too; they say of a
scene, ‘How picturesque!’ meaning by this a quality distinct from that
of beauty, or sublimity, or grandeur--meaning to speak not only of the
scene as it is in itself, but also of its fitness for imitation by
art; meaning not only that it is good, but that its goodness is such
as ought to be transferred to paper; meaning not simply that it
fascinates, but also that its fascination is such as ought to be
copied by man. A fine and insensible instinct has put language to this
subtle use; it expresses an idea without which fine art criticism
could not go on, and it is very natural that the language of pictorial
should be better supplied with words than that of literary criticism,
for the eye was used before the mind, and language embodies primitive
sensuous ideas, long ere it expresses, or need express, abstract and
literary ones.

The reason why a landscape is ‘picturesque’ is often said to be that
such landscape represents an ‘idea’. But this explanation, though in
the minds of some who use it it is near akin to the truth, fails to
explain that truth to those who did not know it before; the Word
‘idea,’ is so often used in these subjects when people do not know
anything else to say; it represents so often a kind of intellectual
insolvency, when philosophers are at their wits’ end, that shrewd
people will never readily on any occasion give it credit for meaning
anything. A wise explainer must, therefore, look out for other words
to convey what he has to say. _Landscapes_, like everything else in
nature, divide themselves as we look at them into a sort of rude
classification. We go down a river, for example, and we see a hundred
landscapes on both sides of it, resembling one another in much, yet
differing in something; with trees here, and a farmhouse there, and
shadows on one side, and a deep pool far on; a collection of
circumstances most familiar in themselves, but making a perpetual
novelty by the magic of their various combinations. We travel so for
miles and hours, and then we come to a scene which also has these
various circumstances and adjuncts, but which combines them best,
which makes the best whole of them, which shows them in their best
proportion at a single glance before the eye. Then we say, ‘This is
the place to paint the river; this is the picturesque point!’ Or, if
not artists or critics of art, we feel without analysis or examination
that somehow this bend or sweep of the river, shall, in future, _be
the river to us_: that it is the image of it which we will retain in
our mind’s eye, by which we will remember it, which we will call up
when we want to describe or think of it. Some fine countries, some
beautiful rivers, have not this picturesque quality: they give us
elements of beauty, but they do not combine them together; we go on
for a time delighted, but _after_ a time somehow we get wearied; we
feel that we are taking in nothing and learning nothing; we get no
collected image before our mind; we see the accidents and
circumstances of that sort of scenery, but the summary scene we do not
see; we find _disjecta membra_, but no form; various and many and
faulty approximations are displayed in succession; but the absolute
perfection in that country or river’s scenery--its _type_--is
withheld: We go away from such places in part delighted, but in part
baffled; we have been puzzled by pretty things; we have beheld a
hundred different inconsistent specimens of the same sort of beauty;
but the rememberable idea, the full development, the characteristic
individuality of it, we have not seen.

We find the same sort of quality in all parts of painting. We see a
portrait of a person we know, and we say, ‘It is like--yes, like, of
course, but it is not _the man_;’ we feel it could not be any one
else, but still, somehow it fails to bring home to us the individual
as we know him to be. _He_ is not there. An accumulation of features
like his are painted, but his essence is not painted; an
approximation more or less excellent is given, but the characteristic
expression, the _typical_ form, of the man is withheld.

Literature--the painting of words--has the same quality but wants the
analogous word. The word ‘_literatesque_,’ would mean, if we possessed
it, that perfect combination in the _subject-matter_ of literature,
which suits the _art_ of literature. We often meet people, and say of
them, sometimes meaning well and sometimes ill, ‘How well so-and-so
would do in a book!’ Such people are by no means the best people; but
they are the most effective people--the most rememberable people.
Frequently when we first know them, we like them because they explain
to us so much of our experience; we have known many people ‘like
that,’ in one way or another, but we did not seem to understand them;
they were nothing to us, for their traits were indistinct; we forgot
them, for they _hitched_ on to nothing, and we could not classify
them; but when we see the _type_ of the genus, at once we seem to
comprehend its character; the inferior specimens are explained by the
perfect embodiment; the approximations are definable when we know the
ideal to which they draw near. There are an infinite number of classes
of human beings, but in each of these classes there is a distinctive
type which, if we could expand it out in words, would define the
class. We cannot expand it in formal terms any more than a landscape
or a species of landscapes; but we have an art, an art of words, which
can draw it. Travellers and others often bring home, in addition to
their long journals--which though so living to them, are so dead, so
inanimate, so undescriptive to all else--a pen-and-ink sketch, rudely
done very likely, but which, perhaps, even the more for the blots and
strokes, gives a distinct notion, an emphatic image, to all who see
it. They say at once, ‘_Now_ we know the sort of thing’. The sketch
has _hit_ the mind. True literature does the same. It describes sorts,
varieties, and permutations, by delineating the type of each sort, the
ideal of each variety, the central, the marking trait of each
permutation.

On this account, the greatest artists of the world have ever shown an
enthusiasm for reality. To care for notions and abstractions; to
philosophize; to reason out conclusions; to care for schemes of
thought, are signs in the artistic mind of secondary excellence. A
Schiller, a Euripides, a Ben Jonson, cares for _ideas_--for the
parings of the intellect, and the distillation of the mind; a
Shakespeare, a Homer, a Goethe, finds his mental occupation, the true
home of his natural thoughts, in the real world--‘which is the world
of all of us’--where the face of nature, the moving masses of men and
women, are ever changing, ever multiplying, ever mixing one with the
other. The reason is plain--the business of the poet, of the artist,
is with _types_; and those types are mirrored in reality. As a painter
must not only have a hand to execute, but an eye to distinguish--as he
must go here and then there through the real world to catch the
picturesque man, the picturesque scene, which is to live on his
canvas--so the poet must find in that reality, the _literatesque_ man,
the _literatesque_ scene which nature intends for him, and which will
live in his page. Even in reality he will not find this type complete,
or the characteristics perfect; but there, at least, he will find
_something_, some hint, some intimation, some suggestion; whereas, in
the stagnant home of his own thoughts he will find nothing pure,
nothing _as it is_, nothing which does not bear his own mark, which is
not somehow altered by a mixture with himself.

The first conversation of Goethe and Schiller illustrates this
conception of the poet’s art. Goethe was at that time prejudiced
against Schiller, we must remember, partly from what he considered the
_outrages_ of the _Robbers_, partly because of the philosophy of Kant.
Schiller’s ‘Essay on _Grace and Dignity_’, he tells us, ‘was yet less
of a kind to reconcile me. The philosophy of Kant, which exalts the
dignity of mind so highly, while appearing to restrict it, Schiller
had joyfully embraced: it unfolded the extraordinary qualities which
Nature had implanted in him; and in the lively feeling of freedom and
self-direction, he showed himself unthankful to the Great Mother, who
surely had not acted like a step-dame towards him. Instead of viewing
her as self-subsisting, as producing with a living force, and
according to appointed laws, alike the highest and the lowest of her
works, he took her up under the aspect of some empirical native
qualities of the human mind. Certain harsh passages I could even
directly apply to myself: they exhibited my confession of faith in a
false light; and I felt that if written without particular attention
to me they were still worse; for in that case, the vast chasm which
lay between us, gaped but so much the more distinctly.’ After a casual
meeting at a Society for Natural History, they walked home and Goethe
proceeds:

‘We reached his house; the talk induced me to go in. I then expounded
to him, with as much vivacity as possible, the _Metamorphosis of
Plants_, drawing out on paper, with many characteristic strokes, a
symbolic Plant for him, as I proceeded. He heard and saw all this,
with much interest and distinct comprehension; but when I had done, he
shook his head and said: ‘This is no experiment, this is an idea.’ I
stopped with some degree of irritation; for the point which separated
us was most luminously marked by this expression. The opinions in
_Dignity and Grace_, again occurred to me; the old grudge was just
awakening; but I smothered it, and merely said: “I was happy to find
that I had got ideas without knowing it, nay that I saw them before my
eyes.”

‘Schiller had much more prudence and dexterity of management than I;
he was also thinking of his periodical the _Horen_, about this time,
and of course rather wished to attract than repel me. Accordingly he
answered me like an accomplished Kantite; and as my stiff-necked
Realism gave occasion to many contradictions, much battling took place
between us, and at last a truce, in which neither party would consent
to yield the victory, but each held himself invincible. Positions like
the following grieved me to the very soul: _How can there ever be an
experiment, that shall correspond with an idea? The specific quality
of an idea is, that no experiment can reach it or agree with it._ Yet
if he held as an idea, the same thing which I looked upon as an
experiment; there must certainly, I thought, be some community between
us, some ground whereon both of us might meet!’

With Goethe’s natural history, or with Kant’s philosophy, we have
here no concern, but we can combine the expressions of the two great
poets into a nearly complete description of poetry. The ‘symbolic
plant’ is the _type_ of which we speak, the ideal at which inferior
specimens aim, the class-characteristic in which they all share, but
which none shows forth fully: Goethe was right in searching for this
in reality and nature; Schiller was right in saying that it was an
‘idea’, a transcending notion to which approximations could be found
in experience, but only approximations--which could not be found there
itself. Goethe, as a poet, rightly felt the primary necessity of
outward suggestion and experience; Schiller as a philosopher, rightly
felt its imperfection.

But in these delicate matters, it is easy to misapprehend. There is,
undoubtedly, a sort of poetry which is produced as it were out of the
author’s mind. The description of the poet’s own moods and feelings is
a common sort of poetry--perhaps the commonest sort. But the
peculiarity of such cases is, that the poet does not describe himself
_as_ himself: autobiography is not his object; he takes himself as a
specimen of human nature; he describes, not himself, but a
distillation of himself: he takes such of his moods as are most
characteristic, as most typify certain moods of certain men, or
certain moods of all men; he chooses preponderant feelings of special
sorts of men, or occasional feelings of men of all sorts; but with
whatever other difference and diversity, the essence is that such
self-describing poets describe what is _in_ them, but not _peculiar_
to them,--what is generic, not what is special and individual. Gray’s
_Elegy_ describes a mood which Gray felt more than other men, but
which most others, perhaps all others, feel too. It is more popular,
perhaps, than any English poem, because that sort of feeling is the
most diffused of high feelings, and because Gray added to a singular
nicety of fancy an habitual proneness to a _contemplative_--a
discerning but unbiassed--meditation on death and on life. Other poets
cannot hope for such success: a subject, so popular, so grave, so
wise, and yet so suitable to the writer’s nature is hardly to be
found. But the same ideal, the same unautobiographical character is to
be found in the writings of meaner men. Take sonnets of Hartley
Coleridge, for example:


I

TO A FRIEND

    When we were idlers with the loitering rills,
    The need of human love we little noted:
    Our love was nature; and the peace that floated
    On the white mist, and dwelt upon the hills,
    To sweet accord subdued our wayward wills:
    One soul was ours, one mind, one heart devoted,
    That, wisely doating, ask’d not why it doated,
    And ours the unknown joy, which knowing kills.
    But now I find, how dear thou wert to me;
    That man is more than half of nature’s treasure,
    Of that fair Beauty which no eye can see,
    Of that sweet music which no ear can measure;
    And now the streams may sing for others’ pleasure,
    The hills sleep on in their eternity.


II

TO THE SAME

    In the great city we are met again,
    Where many souls there are, that breathe and die,
    Scarce knowing more of nature’s potency,
    Than what they learn from heat, or cold, or rain;
    The sad vicissitude of weary pain;--
    For busy man is lord of ear and eye,
    And what hath nature, but the vast, void sky,
    And the thronged river toiling to the main?
    Oh! say not so, for she shall have her part
    In every smile, in every tear that falls,
    And she shall hide her in the secret heart,
    Where love persuades, and sterner duty calls:
    But worse it were than death, or sorrow’s smart,
    To live without a friend within these walls.


III

TO THE SAME

    We parted on the mountains, as two streams
    From one clear spring pursue their several ways;
    And thy fleet course hath been through many a maze,
    In foreign lands, where silvery Padus gleams
    To that delicious sky, whose glowing beams
    Brightened the tresses that old Poets praise;
    Where Petrarch’s patient love, and artful lays,
    And Ariosto’s song of many themes,
    Moved the soft air. But I, a lazy brook,
    As close pent up within my native dell,
    Have crept along from nook to shady nook,
    Where flowrets blow, and whispering Naiads dwell.
    Yet now we meet, that parted were so wide,
    O’er rough and smooth to travel side by side.

The contrast of instructive and enviable locomotion with refining but
instructive meditation is not special and peculiar to these two, but
general and universal. It was set down by Hartley Coleridge because he
was the most meditative and refining of men.

What sort of literatesque types are fit to be described in the sort of
literature called poetry, is a matter on which much might be written.
Mr. Arnold, some years since, put forth a theory that the art of
poetry could only delineate _great actions_. But though, rightly
interpreted and understood--using the word action so as to include
high and sound activity in contemplation--this definition may suit the
highest poetry, it certainly cannot be stretched to include many
inferior sorts and even many good sorts. Nobody in their senses would
describe Gray’s _Elegy_ as the delineation of a ‘great action’; some
kinds of mental contemplation may be energetic enough to deserve this
name, but Gray would have been frightened at the very word. He loved
scholar-like calm and quiet inaction; his very greatness depended on
his _not_ acting, on his ‘wise passiveness,’ on his indulging the
grave idleness which so well appreciates so much of human life. But
the best answer--the _reductio ad absurdum_--of Mr. Arnold’s doctrine,
is the mutilation which it has caused him to make of his own writings.
It has forbidden him, he tells us, to reprint _Empedocles_--a poem
undoubtedly containing defects and even excesses, but containing also
these lines:

    And yet what days were those, Parmenides!
    When we were young, when we could number friends
    In all the Italian cities like ourselves,
    When with elated hearts we join’d your train,
    Ye Sun-born virgins! on the road of Truth.
    Then we could still enjoy, then neither thought
    Nor outward things were clos’d and dead to us,
    But we receiv’d the shock of mighty thoughts
    On simple minds with a pure natural joy;
    And if the sacred load oppress’d our brain,
    We had the power to feel the pressure eas’d.
    The brow unbound, the thoughts flow free again,
    In the delightful commerce of the world.
    We had not lost our balance then, nor grown
    Thought’s slaves and dead to every natural joy.
    The smallest thing could give us pleasure then--
    The sports of the country people;
    A flute note from the woods;
    Sunset over the sea:
    Seed-time and harvest;
    The reapers in the corn;
    The vinedresser in his vineyard;
    The village-girl at her wheel.
    Fullness of life and power of feeling, ye
    Are for the happy, for the souls at ease,
    Who dwell on a firm basis of content.
    But he who has outliv’d his prosperous days,
    But he, whose youth fell on a different world
    From that on which his exil’d age is thrown;
    Whose mind was fed on other food, was train’d
    By other rules than are in vogue to-day;
    Whose habit of thought is fix’d, who will not change,
    But in a world he loves not must subsist
    In ceaseless opposition, be the guard
    Of his own breast, fetter’d to what he guards,
    That the world win no mastery over him;
    Who has no friend, no fellow left, not one;
    Who has no minute’s breathing space allow’d
    To nurse his dwindling faculty of joy:--
    Joy and the outward world must die to him
    As they are dead to me.

What freak of criticism can induce a man who has written such poetry
as this, to discard it, and say it is not poetry? Mr. Arnold is
privileged to speak of his own poems, but no other critic could speak
so and not be laughed at.

We are disposed to believe that no very sharp definition can be
given--at least in the present state of the critical art--of the
boundary line between poetry and other sorts of imaginative
delineation. Between the undoubted dominions of the two kinds there is
a debateable land; everybody is agreed that the _Oedipus at Colonus_
_is_ poetry: every one is agreed that the wonderful appearance of Mrs.
Veal is _not_ poetry. But the exact line which separates grave novels
in verse like _Aylmer’s Field_ or _Enoch Arden_, from grave novels not
in verse like _Silas Marner_ or _Adam Bede_, we own we cannot draw
with any confidence. Nor, perhaps, is it very important; whether a
narrative is thrown into verse or not certainly depends in part on the
taste of the age, and in part on its mechanical helps. Verse is the
only mechanical help to the memory in rude times, and there is little
writing till a cheap something is found to write upon, and a cheap
something to write with. Poetry--verse at least--is the literature of
_all work_ in early ages; it is only later ages which write in what
_they_ think a natural and simple prose. There are other casual
influences in the matter too; but they are not material now. We need
only say here that poetry, because it has a more marked rhythm than
prose, must be more intense in meaning and more concise in style than
prose. People expect a ‘marked rhythm’ to imply something worth
marking; if it fails to do so they are disappointed. They are
displeased at the visible waste of a powerful instrument; they call it
‘doggerel,’ and rightly call it, for the metrical expression of full
thought and eager feeling--the burst of metre--incident to high
imagination, should not be wasted on petty matters which prose does as
well,--which it does better--which it suits by its very limpness and
weakness, whose small changes it follows more easily, and to whose
lowest details it can fully and without effort degrade itself. Verse,
too, should be _more concise_, for long-continued rhythm tends to jade
the mind, just as brief rhythm tends to attract the attention. Poetry
should be memorable and emphatic, intense, and _soon over_.

The great divisions of poetry, and of all other literary art, arise
from the different modes in which these _types_--these characteristic
men, these characteristic feelings--may be variously described. There
are three principal modes which we shall attempt to describe--the
_pure_, which is sometimes, but not very wisely, called the classical;
the _ornate_, which is also unwisely called romantic; and the
_grotesque_, which might be called the mediaeval. We will describe the
nature of these a little. Criticism we know must be brief--not, like
poetry, because its charm is too intense to be sustained--but on the
contrary, because its interest is too weak to be prolonged; but
elementary criticism, if an evil, is a necessary evil; a little while
spent among the simple principles of art is the first condition, the
absolute pre-requisite, for surely apprehending and wisely judging the
complete embodiments and miscellaneous forms of actual literature.

The definition of _pure_ literature is that it describes the type in
its simplicity, we mean, with the exact amount of accessory
circumstance which is necessary to bring it before the mind in
finished perfection, and _no more_ than that amount. The _type_ needs
some accessories from its nature--a picturesque landscape does not
consist wholly of picturesque features. There is a setting of
surroundings--as the Americans would say, of _fixings_--without which
the reality is not itself. By a traditional mode of speech, as soon as
we see a picture in which a complete effect is produced by detail so
rare and so harmonized as to escape us, we say ‘how classical’. The
whole which is to be seen appears at once and through the detail, but
the detail itself is not seen: we do not think of that which gives us
the idea; we are absorbed in the idea itself. Just so in literature
the pure art is that which works with the fewest strokes; the fewest,
that is, for its purpose, for its aim is to call up and bring home to
men an idea, a form, a character, and if that idea be twisted, that
form be involved, that character perplexed, many strokes of literary
art will be needful. Pure art does not mutilate its object: it
represents it as fully as is possible with the slightest effort which
is possible: it shrinks from no needful circumstances, as little as it
inserts any which are needless. The precise peculiarity is not merely
that no incidental circumstance is inserted which does not tell on the
main design: no art is fit to be called _art_ which permits a stroke
to be put in without an object; but that only the minimum of such
circumstance is inserted at all. The form is sometimes said to be
bare, the accessories are sometimes said to be invisible, because the
appendages are so choice that the shape only is perceived.

The English literature undoubtedly contains much impure literature;
impure in its style if not in its meaning: but it also contains one
great, one nearly perfect, model of the pure style in the literary
expression of typical _sentiment_; and one not perfect, but gigantic
and close approximation to perfection in the pure delineation of
objective character. Wordsworth, perhaps, comes as near to choice
purity of style in sentiment as is possible; Milton, with exceptions
and conditions to be explained, approaches perfection by the
strenuous purity with which he depicts character.

A wit once said, that ‘_pretty_ women had more features than
_beautiful_ women’, and though the expression may be criticized, the
meaning is correct. Pretty women seem to have a great number of
attractive points, each of which attracts your attention, and each one
of which you remember afterwards; yet these points have not _grown
together_, their features have not linked themselves into a single
inseparable whole. But a beautiful woman is a whole as she is; you no
more take her to pieces than a Greek statue; she is not an aggregate
of divisible charms, she is a charm in herself. Such ever is the
dividing test of pure art; if you catch yourself admiring its details,
it is defective; you ought to think of it as a single whole which you
must remember, which you must admire, which somehow subdues you while
you admire it, which is a ‘possession’ to you ‘for ever’.

Of course no individual poem embodies this ideal perfectly; of course
every human word and phrase has its imperfections, and if we choose an
instance to illustrate that ideal, the instance has scarcely a fair
chance. By contrasting it with the ideal we suggest its imperfections;
by protruding it as an example, we turn on its defectiveness the
microscope of criticism. Yet these two sonnets of Wordsworth may be
fitly read in this place, not because they are quite without faults,
or because they are the very best examples of their kind of style; but
because they are _luminous_ examples; the compactness of the sonnet
and the gravity of the sentiment, hedging in the thoughts,
restraining the fancy, and helping to maintain a singleness of
expression:


THE TROSACHS.

    There’s not a nook within this solemn Pass,
    But were an apt Confessional for one
    Taught by his summer spent; his autumn gone,
    That Life is but a tale of morning grass
    Withered at eve. From scenes of art which chase
    That thought away, turn, and with watchful eyes
    Feed it ’mid Nature’s old felicities,
    Rocks, rivers, and smooth lakes more clear than glass
    Untouched, unbreathed upon. Thrice happy guest,
    If from a golden perch of aspen spray
    (October’s workmanship to rival May)
    The pensive warbler of the ruddy breast
    That moral teaches by a heaven-taught lay,
    Lulling the year, with all its cares, to rest!


COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPT. 3, 1802

    Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty:
    This city now doth, like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields and to the sky;
    All bright and open in the smokeless air.
    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Instances of barer style than this may easily be found, instances of
colder style--few better instances of purer style. Not a single
expression (the invocation in the concluding couplet of the second
sonnet perhaps excepted) can be spared, yet not a single expression
rivets the attention. If, indeed, we take out the phrase--

    The city now doth like a garment wear
    The beauty of the morning,

and the description of the brilliant yellow of autumn--

    October’s workmanship to rival May,

they have independent value, but they are not noticed in the sonnet
when we read it through; they fall into place there, and being in
their place are not seen. The great subjects of the two sonnets, the
religious aspect of beautiful but grave nature--the religious aspect
of a city about to awaken and be alive, are the only ideas left in our
mind. To Wordsworth has been vouchsafed the last grace of the
self-denying artist; you think neither of him nor his style, but you
cannot help thinking of--you _must_ recall--the exact phrase, the
_very_ sentiment he wished.

Milton’s purity is more eager. In the most exciting parts of
Wordsworth--and these sonnets are not very exciting--you always feel,
you never forget, that what you have before you is the excitement of a
recluse. There is nothing of the stir of life; nothing of the _brawl_
of the world. But Milton though always a scholar by trade, though
solitary in old age, was through life intent on great affairs, lived
close to great scenes, watched a revolution, and if not an actor in
it, was at least secretary to the actors. He was familiar--by daily
experience and habitual sympathy--with the earnest debate of arduous
questions, on which the life and death of the speakers certainly
depended, on which the weal or woe of the country perhaps depended.
He knew how profoundly the individual character of the speakers--their
inner and real nature--modifies their opinion on such questions; he
knew how surely that nature will appear in the expression of them.
This great experience, fashioned by a fine imagination, gives to the
debate of Satanic Council in Pandaemonium its reality and its life. It
is a debate in the Long Parliament, and though the _theme_ of
_Paradise Lost_ obliged Milton to side with the monarchical element in
the universe, his old habits are often too much for him; and his real
sympathy--the impetus and energy of his nature--side with the
rebellious element. For the purposes of art this is much better--of a
court, a poet can make but little; of a heaven he can make very
little, but of a courtly heaven, such as Milton conceived, he can make
nothing at all. The idea of a court and the idea of a heaven are so
radically different, that a distinct combination of them is always
grotesque and often ludicrous. _Paradise Lost_, as a whole, is
radically tainted by a vicious principle. It professes to justify the
ways of God to man, to account for sin and death, and it tells you
that the whole originated in a political event; in a court squabble as
to a particular act of patronage and the due or undue promotion of an
eldest son. Satan may have been wrong, but on Milton’s theory he had
an _arguable_ case at least. There was something arbitrary in the
promotion; there were little symptoms of a job; in _Paradise Lost_ it
is always clear that the devils are the weaker, but it is never clear
that the angels are the better. Milton’s sympathy and his imagination
slip back to the Puritan rebels whom he loved, and desert the courtly
angels whom he could not love although he praised. There is no wonder
that Milton’s hell is better than his heaven, for he hated officials
and he loved rebels, for he employs his genius below, and accumulates
his pedantry above. On the great debate in Pandaemonium all his genius
is concentrated. The question is very practical; it is, ‘What are we
devils to do, now we have lost heaven?’ Satan who presides over and
manipulates the assembly; Moloch

                              the fiercest spirit
    That fought in Heaven, now fiercer by despair,

who wants to fight again; Belial, ‘the man of the world’, who does not
want to fight any more; Mammon, who is for commencing an industrial
career; Beelzebub, the official statesman,

                      deep on his front engraven
    Deliberation sat and Public care,

who, at Satan’s instance, proposes the invasion of earth--are as
distinct as so many statues. Even Belial, ‘the man of the world’, the
sort of man with whom Milton had least sympathy, is perfectly painted.
An inferior artist would have made the actor who ‘counselled ignoble
ease and peaceful sloth’, a degraded and ugly creature; but Milton
knew better. He knew that low notions require a better garb than high
notions. Human nature is not a high thing, but at least it has a high
idea of itself; it will not accept mean maxims, unless they are gilded
and made beautiful. A prophet in goatskin may cry, ‘Repent, repent’,
but it takes ‘purple and fine linen’ to be able to say, ‘Continue in
your sins’. The world vanquishes with its speciousness and its show,
and the orator who is to persuade men to worldliness must have a share
in them. Milton well knew this; after the warlike speech of the fierce
Moloch he introduces a brighter and a more graceful spirit:

    He ended frowning, and his look denounced
    Desp’rate revenge, and battle dangerous
    To less than Gods. On th’ other side up rose
    Belial, in act more graceful and humane:
    A fairer person lost not Heaven; he seem’d
    For dignity composed and high exploit:
    But all was false and hollow, though his tongue
    Dropt manna, and could make the worse appear
    The better reason, to perplex and dash
    Maturest counsels: for his thoughts were low;
    To vice industrious, but to nobler deeds
    Tim’rous and slothful: yet he pleased the ear,
    And with persuasive accent thus began:

He does not begin like a man with a strong case, but like a man with a
weak case; he knows that the pride of human nature is irritated by
mean advice, and though he may probably persuade men to _take_ it, he
must carefully apologise for _giving_ it. Here, as elsewhere, though
the formal address is to devils, the real address is to men: to the
human nature which we know, not to the fictitious demonic nature we do
not know:

    I should be much for open war, O Peers!
    As not behind in hate, if what was urged
    Main reason to persuade immediate war,
    Did not dissuade me most, and seem to cast
    Ominous conjecture on the whole success:
    When he who most excels in fact of arms,
    In what he counsels and in what excels
    Mistrustful, grounds his courage on despair,
    And utter dissolution, as the scope
    Of all his aim, after some dire revenge.
    First, what revenge? The tow’rs of Heav’n are fill’d
    With armed watch, that render all access
    Impregnable; oft on the bord’ring deep
    Encamp their legions, or with obscure wing
    Scout far and wide into the realm of night,
    Scorning surprise. Or could we break our way
    By force, and at our heels all hell should rise
    With blackest insurrection, to confound
    Heav’n’s purest light, yet our great Enemy,
    All incorruptible, would on his throne
    Sit unpolluted, and th’ ethereal mould
    Incapable of stain would soon expel
    Her mischief, and purge oft the baser fire
    Victorious. Thus repulsed, our final hope
    Is flat despair. We must exasperate
    Th’ Almighty Victor to spend all his rage,
    And that must end us: that must be our cure,
    To be no more? Sad cure; for who would lose,
    Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
    Those thoughts that wander through eternity,
    To perish rather, swallow’d up and lost
    In the wide womb of uncreated night,
    Devoid of sense and motion? And who knows,
    Let this be good, whether our angry Foe
    Can give it, or will ever? How he can
    Is doubtful; that he never will is sure.
    Will he, so wise, let loose at once his ire
    Belike through impotence, or unaware,
    To give his enemies their wish, and end
    Them in his anger, whom his anger saves
    To punish endless? Wherefore cease we then?
    Say they who counsel war, we are decreed,
    Reserved, and destined, to eternal woe;
    Whatever doing, what can we suffer more,
    What can we suffer worse? Is this then worst,
    Thus sitting, thus consulting, thus in arms?

           *       *       *       *       *

And so on.

Mr. Pitt knew this speech by heart, and Lord Macaulay has called it
incomparable; and these judges of the oratorical art have well
decided. A mean foreign policy cannot be better defended. Its
sensibleness is effectually explained, and its tameness as much as
possible disguised.

But we have not here to do with the excellence of Belial’s policy, but
with the excellence of his speech; and with that speech in a peculiar
manner. This speech, taken with the few lines of description with
which Milton introduces them, embody, in as short a space as possible,
with as much perfection as possible, the delineation of the type of
character common at all times, dangerous in many times, sure to come
to the surface in moments of difficulty, and never more dangerous than
then. As Milton describes, it is one among several _typical_
characters which will ever have their place in great councils, which
will ever be heard at important decisions, which are part of the
characteristic and inalienable whole of this statesmanlike world. The
debate in Pandaemonium is a debate among these typical characters at
the greatest conceivable crisis, and with adjuncts of solemnity which
no other situation could rival. It is the greatest _classical_
triumph, the highest achievement of the pure _style_ in English
literature; it is the greatest description of the highest and most
typical characters with the most choice circumstances and in the
fewest words.

It is not unremarkable that we should find in Milton and in _Paradise
Lost_ the best specimen of pure style. He was schoolmaster in a
pedantic age, and there is nothing so unclassical--nothing so impure
in style--as pedantry. The out-of-door conversational life of Athens
was as opposed to bookish scholasticism as a life can be. The most
perfect books have been written not by those who thought much of
books, but by those who thought little, by those who were under the
restraint of a sensitive talking world, to which books had contributed
something, and a various eager life the rest. Milton is generally
unclassical in spirit where he is learned, and naturally, because the
purest poets do not overlay their conceptions with book knowledge, and
the classical poets, having in comparison no books, were under little
temptation to impair the purity of their style by the accumulation of
their research. Over and above this, there is in Milton, and a little
in Wordsworth also, one defect which is in the highest degree faulty
and unclassical, which mars the effect and impairs the perfection of
the pure style. There is a want of _spontaneity_, and a sense of
effort. It has been happily said that Plato’s words must have _grown_
into their places. No one would say so of Milton or even of
Wordsworth. About both of them there is a taint of duty; a vicious
sense of the good man’s task. Things seem right where they are, but
they seem to be put where they are. _Flexibility_ is essential to the
consummate perfection of the pure style because the sensation of the
poet’s efforts carries away our thoughts from his achievements. We are
admiring his labours when we should be enjoying his words. But this is
a defect in those two writers, not a defect in pure art. Of course it
is more difficult to write in few words than to write in many; to take
the best adjuncts, and those only, for what you have to say, instead
of using all which comes to hand; it _is_ an additional labour if you
write verses in a morning, to spend the rest of the day in _choosing_,
or making those verses fewer. But a perfect artist in the pure style
is as effortless and as natural as in any style, perhaps is more so.
Take the well-known lines:

    There was a little lawny islet
    By anemone and violet,
        Like mosaic, paven:
    And its roof was flowers and leaves
    Which the summer’s breath enweaves,
    Where nor sun, nor showers, nor breeze,
    Pierce the pines and tallest trees,
        Each a gem engraven;--
    Girt by many an azure wave
    With which the clouds and mountains pave
        A lake’s blue chasm.

Shelley had many merits and many defects. This is not the place for a
complete or indeed for _any_ estimate of him. But one excellence is
most evident. His words are as flexible as any words; the rhythm of
some modulating air seems to move them into their place without a
struggle by the poet and almost without his knowledge. This is the
perfection of pure art, to embody typical conceptions in the choicest,
the fewest accidents, to embody them so that each of these accidents
may produce its full effect, and so to embody them without effort.

The extreme opposite to this pure art is what may be called ornate
art. This species of art aims also at giving a delineation of the
typical idea in its perfection and its fullness, but it aims at so
doing in a manner most different. It wishes to surround the type with
the greatest number of circumstances which it will _bear_. It works
not by choice and selection, but by accumulation and aggregation. The
idea is not, as in the pure style, presented with the least clothing
which it will endure, but with the richest and most involved clothing
that it will admit.

We are fortunate in not having to hunt out of past literature an
illustrative specimen of the ornate style. Mr. Tennyson has just given
one admirable in itself, and most characteristic of the defects and
the merits of this style. The story of Enoch Arden, as he has enhanced
and presented it, is a rich and splendid composite of imagery and
illustration. Yet how simple that story is in itself. A sailor who
sells fish, breaks his leg, gets dismal, gives up selling fish, goes
to sea, is wrecked on a desert island, stays there some years, on his
return finds his wife married to a miller, speaks to a landlady on the
subject, and dies. Told in the pure and simple, the unadorned and
classical style, this story would not have taken three pages, but Mr.
Tennyson has been able to make it the principal--the largest tale in
his new volume. He has done so only by giving to every event and
incident in the volume an accompanying commentary. He tells a great
deal about the torrid zone which a rough sailor like Enoch Arden
certainly would not have perceived; and he gives to the fishing
village, to which all the characters belong, a softness and a
fascination which such villages scarcely possess in reality.

The description of the tropical island on which the sailor is thrown,
is an absolute model of adorned art:

    The mountain wooded to the peak, the lawns
    And winding glades high up like ways to Heaven,
    The slender coco’s drooping crown of plumes,
    The lightning flash of insect and of bird,
    The lustre of the long convolvuluses
    That coil’d around the stately stems, and ran
    Ev’n to the limit of the land, the glows
    And glories of the broad belt of the world,
    All these he saw; but what he fain had seen
    He could not see, the kindly human face,
    Nor ever hear a kindly voice, but heard
    The myriad shriek of wheeling ocean-fowl,
    The league-long roller thundering on the reef,
    The moving whisper of huge trees that branch’d
    And blossom’d in the zenith, or the sweep
    Of some precipitous rivulet to the wave,
    As down the shore he ranged, or all day long
    Sat often in the seaward-gazing gorge,
    A shipwreck’d sailor, waiting for a sail:
    No sail from day to day, but every day
    The sunrise broken into scarlet shafts
    Among the palms and ferns and precipices;
    The blaze upon the waters to the east;
    The blaze upon his island overhead;
    The blaze upon the waters to the west;
    Then the great stars that globed themselves in Heaven,
    The hollower-bellowing ocean, and again
    The scarlet shafts of sunrise--but no sail.

No expressive circumstance can be added to this description, no
enhancing detail suggested. A much less happy instance is the
description of Enoch’s life before he sailed:

    While Enoch was abroad on wrathful seas,
    Or often journeying landward; for in truth
    Enoch’s white horse, and Enoch’s ocean spoil
    In ocean-smelling osier, and his face,
    Rough-redden’d with a thousand winter gales,
    Not only to the market-cross were known,
    But in the leafy lanes behind the down,
    Far as the portal-warding lion-whelp,
    And peacock yew-tree of the lonely Hall,
    Whose Friday fare was Enoch’s ministering.

So much has not often been made of selling fish.

The essence of ornate art is in this manner to accumulate round the
typical object, everything which can be said about it, every
associated thought that can be connected with it without impairing the
essence of the delineation.

The first defect which strikes a student of ornate art--the first
which arrests the mere reader of it--is what is called a want of
simplicity. Nothing is described as it is, everything has about it an
atmosphere of _something else_. The combined and associated thoughts,
though they set off and heighten particular ideas and aspects of the
central conception, yet complicate it: a simple thing--‘a daisy by the
river’s brim’--is never left by itself, something else is put with it;
something not more connected with it than ‘lion-whelp’ and the
‘peacock yew-tree’ are with the ‘fresh fish for sale’ that Enoch
carries past them. Even in the highest cases ornate art leaves upon a
cultured and delicate taste, the conviction that it is not the highest
art, that it is somehow excessive and over-rich, that it is not chaste
in itself or chastening to the mind that sees it--that it is in an
unexplained manner unsatisfactory, ‘a thing in which we feel there is
some hidden want!’

That want is a want of ‘definition’. We must all know landscapes,
river landscapes especially, which are in the highest sense beautiful,
which when we first see them give us a delicate pleasure; which in
some--and these the best cases--give even a gentle sense of surprise
that such things should be so beautiful, and yet when we come to live
in them, to spend even a few hours in them, we seem stifled and
oppressed. On the other hand there are people to whom the sea-shore is
a companion, an exhilaration; and not so much for the brawl of the
shore as for the _limited_ vastness, the finite infinite of the ocean
as they see it. Such people often come home braced and nerved, and if
they spoke out the truth, would have only to say, ‘We have seen the
horizon line’; if they were let alone indeed, they would gaze on it
hour after hour, so great to them is the fascination, so full the
sustaining calm, which they gain from that union of form and
greatness. To a very inferior extent, but still, perhaps, to an extent
which most people understand better, a common arch will have the same
effect. A bridge completes a river landscape; if of the old and
many-arched sort it regulates by a long series of defined forms the
vague outline of wood and river which before had nothing to measure
it; if of the new scientific sort it introduces still more strictly a
geometrical element; it stiffens the scenery which was before too
soft, too delicate, too vegetable. Just such is the effect of pure
style in literary art. It calms by conciseness; while the ornate style
leaves on the mind a mist of beauty, an excess of fascination, a
complication of charm, the pure style leaves behind it the simple,
defined, measured idea, as it is, and by itself. That which is chaste
chastens; there is a poised energy--a state half thrill, and half
tranquillity--which pure art gives, which no other can give; a
pleasure justified as well as felt; an ennobled satisfaction at what
ought to satisfy us, and must ennoble us.

Ornate art is to pure art what a painted statue is to an unpainted. It
is impossible to deny that a touch of colour _does_ bring out certain
parts, does convey certain expressions, does heighten certain
features, but it leaves on the work as a whole, a want, as we say,
‘of something’; a want of that inseparable chasteness which clings to
simple sculpture, an impairing predominance of alluring details which
impairs our satisfaction with our own satisfaction; which makes us
doubt whether a higher being than ourselves will be satisfied even
though we are so. In the very same manner, though the _rouge_ of
ornate literature excites our eye, it also impairs our confidence.

Mr. Arnold has justly observed that this self-justifying,
self-_proving_ purity of style, is commoner in ancient literature than
in modern literature, and also that Shakespeare is not a great or an
unmixed example of it. No one can say that he is. His works are full
of undergrowth, are full of complexity, are not models of style;
except by a miracle nothing in the Elizabethan age could be a model of
style; the restraining taste of that age was feebler and more mistaken
than that of any other equally great age. Shakespeare’s mind so teemed
with creation that he required the most just, most forcible, most
constant restraint from without. He most needed to be guided of poets,
and he was the least and worst guided. As a whole no one can call his
works finished models of the pure style, or of any style. But he has
many passages of the most pure style, passages which could be easily
cited if space served. And we must remember that the task which
Shakespeare undertook was the most difficult which any poet has ever
attempted, and that it is a task in which after a million efforts
every other poet has failed. The Elizabethan drama--as Shakespeare has
immortalized it--undertakes to delineate in five acts, under stage
restrictions, and in mere dialogue, a whole list of dramatis
personae, a set of characters enough for a modern novel, and with the
distinctness of a modern novel. Shakespeare is not content to give two
or three great characters in solitude and in dignity, like the
classical dramatists; he wishes to give a whole _party_ of characters
in the play of life, and according to the nature of each. He would
‘hold the mirror up to nature’, not to catch a monarch in a tragic
posture, but a whole group of characters engaged in many actions,
intent on many purposes, thinking many thoughts. There is life enough,
there is action enough, in single plays of Shakespeare to set up an
ancient dramatist for a long career. And Shakespeare succeeded. His
characters, taken _en masse_, and as a whole, are as well-known as any
novelist’s characters; cultivated men know all about them, as young
ladies know all about Mr. Trollope’s novels. But no other dramatist
has succeeded in such an aim. No one else’s characters are staple
people in English literature, hereditary people whom every one knows
all about in every generation. The contemporary dramatists, Beaumont
and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Marlowe, &c., had many merits, some of them
were great men. But a critic must say of them the worst thing he has
to say; ‘they were men who failed in their characteristic aim;’ they
attempted to describe numerous sets of complicated characters, and
they failed. No one of such characters, or hardly one, lives in common
memory; the Faustus of Marlowe, a really great idea, is not
remembered. They undertook to write what they could not write, five
acts full of real characters, and in consequence, the fine individual
things they conceived are forgotten by the mixed multitude, and known
only to a few of the few. Of the Spanish theatre we cannot speak; but
there are no such characters in any French tragedy: the whole aim of
that tragedy forbade it. Goethe has added to literature a few great
characters; he may be said almost to have added to literature the idea
of ‘intellectual creation’,--the idea of describing great characters
through the intellect; but he has not added to the common stock what
Shakespeare added, a new _multitude_ of men and women; and these not
in simple attitudes, but amid the most complex parts of life, with all
their various natures roused, mixed, and strained. The severest art
must have allowed many details, much overflowing circumstance to a
poet who undertook to describe what almost defies description. Pure
art would have _commanded_ him to use details lavishly, for only by a
multiplicity of such could the required effect have been at all
produced. Shakespeare could accomplish it, for his mind was a
_spring_, an inexhaustible fountain of human nature, and it is no
wonder that being compelled by the task of his time to let the
fullness of his nature overflow, he sometimes let it overflow too
much, and covered with erroneous conceits and superfluous images
characters and conceptions which would have been far more justly, far
more effectually, delineated with conciseness and simplicity. But
there is an infinity of pure art _in_ Shakespeare, although there is a
great deal else also.

It will be said, if ornate art be as you say, an inferior species or
art, why should it ever be used? If pure art be the best sort of art,
why should it not always be used?

The reason is this: literary art, as we just now explained, is
concerned with literatesque characters in literatesque situations; and
the _best_ art is concerned with the _most_ literatesque characters in
the _most_ literatesque situations. Such are the subjects of pure art;
it embodies with the fewest touches, and under the most select and
choice circumstances, the highest conceptions; but it does not follow
that only the best subjects are to be treated by art, and then only in
the very best way. Human nature could not endure such a critical
commandment as that, and it would be an erroneous criticism which gave
it. _Any_ literatesque character may be described in literature under
_any_ circumstances which exhibit its literatesqueness.

The essence of pure art consists in its describing what is as it is,
and this is very well for what can bear it, but there are many
inferior things which will not bear it, and which nevertheless ought
to be described in books. A certain kind of literature deals with
illusions, and this kind of literature has given a colouring to the
name romantic. A man of rare genius, and even of poetical genius, has
gone so far as to make these illusions the true subject of
poetry--almost the sole subject. ‘Without,’ says Father Newman, of one
of his characters, ‘being himself a poet, he was in the season of
poetry, in the sweet spring-time, when the year is most beautiful
because it is new. Novelty was beauty to a heart so open and cheerful
as his; not only because it was novelty, and had its proper charm as
such, but because when we first see things, we see them in a gay
confusion, which is a principal element of the poetical. As time goes
on, and we number and sort and measure things,--as we gain views,--we
advance towards philosophy and truth, but we recede from poetry.

‘When we ourselves were young, we once on a time walked on a hot
summer-day from Oxford to Newington--a dull road, as any one who has
gone it knows; yet it was new to us; and we protest to you, reader,
believe it or not, laugh or not, as you will, to us it seemed on that
occasion quite touchingly beautiful; and a soft melancholy came over
us, of which the shadows fall even now, when we look back upon that
dusty, weary journey. And why? because every object which met us was
unknown and full of mystery. A tree or two in the distance seemed the
beginning of a great wood, or park, stretching endlessly; a hill
implied a vale beyond, with that vale’s history; the bye-lanes, with
their green hedges, wound on and vanished, yet were not lost to the
imagination. Such was our first journey; but when we had gone it
several times, the mind refused to act, the scene ceased to enchant,
stern reality alone remained; and we thought it one of the most
tiresome, odious roads we ever had occasion to traverse.’

That is to say, that the function of the poet is to introduce a ‘gay
confusion’, a rich medley which does not exist in the actual
world--which perhaps could not exist in any world--but which would
seem pretty if it did exist. Everyone who reads _Enoch Arden_ will
perceive that this notion of all poetry is exactly applicable to this
one poem. Whatever be made of Enoch’s ‘Ocean spoil in ocean-smelling
osier,’ of the ‘portal-warding lion-whelp, and peacock yew-tree’,
every one knows that in himself Enoch could not have been charming.
People who sell fish about the country (and that is what he did,
though Mr. Tennyson won’t speak out, and wraps it up) never are
beautiful. As Enoch was and must be coarse, in itself the poem must
depend for its charm on a ‘gay confusion’--on a splendid accumulation
of impossible accessories.

Mr. Tennyson knows this better than many of us--he knows the country
world; he has proved it that no one living knows it better; he has
painted with pure art--with art which describes what is a race perhaps
more refined, more delicate, more conscientious, than the sailor--the
‘Northern Farmer’, and we all know what a splendid, what a living
thing, he has made of it. He could, if he only would, have given us
the ideal sailor in like manner--the ideal of the natural sailor we
mean--the characteristic present man as he lives and is. But this he
has not chosen. He has endeavoured to describe an exceptional sailor,
at an exceptionally refined port, performing a graceful act, an act of
relinquishment. And with this task before him, his profound taste
taught him that ornate art was a necessary medium--was the sole
effectual instrument--for his purpose. It was necessary for him if
possible to abstract the mind from reality, to induce us _not_ to
conceive or think of sailors as they are while we are reading of his
sailors, but to think of what a person who did not know might fancy
sailors to be. A casual traveller on the sea-shore, with the sensitive
mood and the romantic imagination Mr. Newman has described, might
fancy, would fancy, a seafaring village to be like that. Accordingly,
Mr. Tennyson has made it his aim to call off the stress of fancy from
real life, to occupy it otherwise, to bury it with pretty accessories;
to engage it on the ‘peacock yew-tree’, and the ‘portal-warding
lion-whelp’. Nothing, too, can be more splendid than the description
of the tropics as Mr. Tennyson delineates them, but a sailor would not
have felt the tropics in that manner. The beauties of nature would not
have so much occupied him. He would have known little of the scarlet
shafts of sunrise and nothing of the long convolvuluses. As in
_Robinson Crusoe_, his own petty contrivances and his small ailments
would have been the principal subject to him. ‘For three years’, he
might have said, ‘my back was bad, and then I put two pegs into a
piece of drift wood and so made a chair, and after that it pleased God
to send me a chill.’ In real life his piety would scarcely have gone
beyond that.

It will indeed be said, that though the sailor had no words for, and
even no explicit consciousness of the splendid details of the torrid
zone, yet that he had, notwithstanding, a dim latent inexpressible
conception of them: though he could not speak of them or describe
them, yet they were much to him. And doubtless such is the case. Rude
people are impressed by what is beautiful--deeply impressed--though
they could not describe what they see, or what they feel. But what is
absurd in Mr. Tennyson’s description--absurd when we abstract it from
the gorgeous additions and ornaments with which Mr. Tennyson distracts
us--is, that his hero feels nothing else but these great splendours.
We hear nothing of the physical ailments, the rough devices, the low
superstitions, which really would have been the _first_ things, the
favourite and principal occupations of his mind. Just so when he gets
home he _may_ have had such fine sentiments, though it is odd, and he
_may_ have spoken of them to his landlady, though that is odder
still--but it is incredible that his whole mind should be made up of
fine sentiments. Beside those sweet feelings, if he had them, there
must have been many more obvious, more prosaic, and some perhaps more
healthy. Mr. Tennyson has shown a profound judgement in distracting us
as he does. He has given us a classic delineation of the ‘Northern
Farmer’ with no ornament at all--as bare a thing as can be--because he
then wanted to describe a true type of real men: he has given us a
sailor crowded all over with ornament and illustration, because he
then wanted to describe an unreal type of fancied men, not sailors as
they are, but sailors as they might be wished.

Another prominent element in _Enoch Arden_ is yet more suitable to,
yet more requires the aid of, ornate art. Mr. Tennyson undertook to
deal with _half belief_. The presentiments which Annie feels are
exactly of that sort which everybody has felt, and which every one has
half believed--which hardly any one has more than half believed.
Almost every one, it has been said, would be angry if any one else
reported that he believed in ghosts; yet hardly any one, when thinking
by himself, wholly disbelieves them. Just so such presentiments as Mr.
Tennyson depicts, impress the inner mind so much that the outer
mind--the rational understanding--hardly likes to consider them nicely
or to discuss them sceptically. For these dubious themes an ornate or
complex style is needful. Classical art speaks out what it has to say
plainly and simply. Pure style cannot hesitate; it describes in
concisest outline what is, as it is. If a poet really believes in
presentiments he can speak out in pure style. One who could have been
a poet--one of the few in any age of whom one can say certainly that
they could have been, and have not been--has spoken thus:

    When Heaven sends sorrow,
      Warnings go first,
      Lest it should burst
      With stunning might
      On souls too bright
        To fear the morrow.

    Can science bear us
      To the hid springs
      Of human things?
      Why may not dream,
      Or thought’s day-gleam,
        Startle, yet cheer us?

    Are such thoughts fetters,
      While faith disowns
      Dread of earth’s tones,
      Recks but Heaven’s call,
      And on the wall,
        Reads but Heaven’s letters?

But if a poet is not sure whether presentiments are true or not true;
if he wishes to leave his readers in doubt; if he wishes an atmosphere
of indistinct illusion and of moving shadow, he must use the romantic
style, the style of miscellaneous adjunct, the style ‘which shirks,
not meets’ your intellect, the style which as you are scrutinizing
disappears.

Nor is this all, or even the principal lesson, which _Enoch Arden_ may
suggest to us, of the use of ornate art. That art is the appropriate
art for an _unpleasing type_. Many of the characters of real life, if
brought distinctly, prominently, and plainly before the mind, as they
really are, if shown in their inner nature, their actual essence, are
doubtless very unpleasant. They would be horrid to meet and horrid to
think of. We fear it must be owned that Enoch Arden is this kind of
person. A dirty sailor who did _not_ go home to his wife is not an
agreeable being: a varnish must be put on him to make him shine. It is
true that he acts rightly; that he is very good. But such is human
nature that it finds a little tameness in mere morality. Mere virtue
belongs to a charity school-girl, and has a taint of the catechism.
All of us feel this, though most of us are too timid, too scrupulous,
too anxious about the virtue of others, to speak out. We are ashamed
of our nature in this respect, but it is not the less our nature. And
if we look deeper into the matter there are many reasons why we should
not be ashamed of it. The soul of man, and as we necessarily believe
of beings greater than man, has many parts beside its moral part. It
has an intellectual part, an artistic part, even a religious part, in
which mere morals have no share. In Shakespeare or Goethe, even in
Newton or Archimedes, there is much which will not be cut down to the
shape of the commandments. They have thoughts, feelings,
hopes--immortal thoughts and hopes--which have influenced the life of
men, and the souls of men, ever since their age, but which the ‘whole
duty of man’, the ethical compendium, does not recognize. Nothing is
more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind. A highly
developed moral nature joined to an undeveloped intellectual nature,
an undeveloped artistic nature, and a very limited religious nature,
is of necessity repulsive. It represents a bit of human nature--a good
bit, of course, but a bit only--in disproportionate, unnatural, and
revolting prominence; and, therefore, unless an artist use delicate
care, we are offended. The dismal act of a squalid man needed many
condiments to make it pleasant, and therefore Mr. Tennyson was right
to mix them subtly and to use them freely.

A mere act of self-denial can indeed scarcely be pleasant upon paper.
An heroic struggle with an external adversary, even though it end in a
defeat, may easily be made attractive. Human nature likes to see
itself look grand, and it looks grand when it is making a brave
struggle with foreign foes. But it does not look grand when it is
divided against itself. An excellent person striving with temptation
is a very admirable being in reality, but he is not a pleasant being
in description. We hope he will win and overcome his temptation, but
we feel that he would be a more interesting being, a higher being, if
he had not felt that temptation so much. The poet must make the
struggle great in order to make the self-denial virtuous, and if the
struggle be too great, we are apt to feel some mixture of contempt.
The internal metaphysics of a divided nature are but an inferior
subject for art, and if they are to be made attractive, much else must
be combined with them. If the excellence of _Hamlet_ had depended on
the ethical qualities of Hamlet, it would not have been the
masterpiece of our literature. He acts virtuously of course, and kills
the people he ought to kill, but Shakespeare knew that such goodness
would not much interest the pit. He made him a handsome prince, and a
puzzling meditative character; these secular qualities relieve his
moral excellence, and so he becomes ‘nice’. In proportion as an artist
has to deal with types essentially imperfect, he must disguise their
imperfections; he must accumulate around them as many first-rate
accessories as may make his readers forget that they are themselves
second-rate. The sudden _millionaires_ of the present day hope to
disguise their social defects by buying old places, and hiding among
aristocratic furniture; just so a great artist who has to deal with
characters artistically imperfect will use an ornate style, will fit
them into a scene where there is much else to look at.

For these reasons ornate art is within the limits as legitimate as
pure art. It does what pure art could not do. The very excellence of
pure art confines its employment. Precisely because it gives the best
things by themselves and exactly as they are, it fails when it is
necessary to describe inferior things among other things, with a list
of enhancements and a crowd of accompaniments that in reality do not
belong to it. Illusion, half belief, unpleasant types, imperfect
types, are as much the proper sphere of ornate art, as an inferior
landscape is the proper sphere for the true efficacy of moonlight. A
really great landscape needs sunlight and bears sunlight; but
moonlight is an equalizer of beauties; it gives a romantic unreality
to what will not stand the bare truth. And just so does romantic art.

There is, however, a third kind of art which differs from these on the
point in which they most resemble one another. Ornate art and pure art
have this in common, that they paint the types of literature in as
good perfection as they can. Ornate art, indeed, uses undue disguises
and unreal enhancements; it does not confine itself to the best types;
on the contrary it is its office to make the best of imperfect types
and lame approximations; but ornate art, as much as pure art, catches
its subject in the best light it can, takes the most developed aspect
of it which it can find, and throws upon it the most congruous colours
it can use. But grotesque art does just the contrary. It takes the
type, so to say, _in difficulties_. It gives a representation of it in
its minimum development, amid the circumstances least favourable to
it, just while it is struggling with obstacles, just where it is
encumbered with incongruities. It deals, to use the language of
science, not with normal types but with abnormal specimens; to use the
language of old philosophy, not with what nature is striving to be,
but with what by some lapse she has happened to become.

This art works by contrast. It enables you to see, it makes you see,
the perfect type by painting the opposite deviation. It shows you what
ought to be by what ought not to be, when complete it reminds you of
the perfect image, by showing you the distorted and imperfect image.
Of this art we possess in the present generation one prolific master.
Mr. Browning is an artist working by incongruity. Possibly hardly one
of his most considerable efforts can be found which is not great
because of its odd mixture. He puts together things which no one else
would have put together, and produces on our minds a result which no
one else would have produced, or tried to produce. His admirers may
not like all we may have to say of him. But in our way we too are
among his admirers. No one ever read him without seeing not only his
great ability but his great _mind_. He not only possesses superficial
useable talents, but the strong something, the inner secret something
which uses them and controls them; he is great, not in mere
accomplishments, but in himself. He has applied a hard strong
intellect to real life; he has applied the same intellect to the
problems of his age. He has striven to know what _is_: he has
endeavoured not to be cheated by counterfeits, not to be infatuated
with illusions. His heart is in what he says. He has battered his
brain against his creed till he believes it. He has accomplishments
too, the more effective because they are mixed. He is at once a
student of mysticism, and a citizen of the world. He brings to the
club sofa distinct visions of old creeds, intense images of strange
thoughts: he takes to the bookish student tidings of wild Bohemia, and
little traces of the _demi-monde_. He puts down what is good for the
naughty and what is naughty for the good. Over women his easier
writings exercise that imperious power which belongs to the writings
of a great man of the world upon such matters. He knows women, and
therefore they wish to know him. If we blame many of Browning’s
efforts, it is in the interest of art, and not from a wish to hurt or
degrade him.

If we wanted to illustrate the nature of grotesque art by an
exaggerated instance we should have selected a poem which the chance
of late publication brings us in this new volume. Mr. Browning has
undertaken to describe what may be called _mind in difficulties_--mind
set to make out the universe under the worst and hardest
circumstances. He takes ‘Caliban’, not perhaps exactly Shakespeare’s
Caliban, but an analogous and worse creature; a strong thinking power,
but a nasty creature--a gross animal, uncontrolled and unelevated by
any feeling of religion or duty. The delineation of him will show that
Mr. Browning does not wish to take undue advantage of his readers by a
choice of nice subjects.

    ’Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
    Flat on his belly in the pit’s much mire,
    With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin;
    And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
    And feels about his spine small eft-things course,
    Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh;
    And while above his head a pompion-plant,
    Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
    Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard,
    And now a flower drops with a bee inside,
    And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch:

This pleasant creature proceeds to give his idea of the origin of the
Universe, and it is as follows. Caliban speaks in the third person,
and is of opinion that the maker of the Universe took to making it on
account of his personal discomfort:

    Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
    ‘Thinketh, He dwelleth i’ the cold o’ the moon.

    ‘Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,
    But not the stars: the stars came otherwise;
    Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:
    Also this isle, what lives, and grows thereon,
    And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same.

    ‘Thinketh, it came of being ill at ease:
    He hated that He cannot change His cold,
    Nor cure its ache. ’Hath spied an icy fish
    That longed to ’scape the rock-stream where she lived,
    And thaw herself within the lukewarm brine
    O’ the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid,
    A crystal spike ’twixt two warm walls of wave;
    Only she ever sickened, found repulse
    At the other kind of water, not her life,
    (Green-dense and dim-delicious, bred o’ the sun)
    Flounced back from bliss she was not born to breathe,
    And in her old bounds buried her despair,
    Hating and loving warmth alike: so He.

    ‘Thinketh, He made thereat the sun, this isle,
    Trees and the fowls here, beast and creeping thing.
    Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech;
    Yon auk, one fire-eye, in a ball of foam,
    That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown
    He hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eye
    By moonlight; and the pie with the long tongue
    That pricks deep into oakwarts for a worm,
    And says a plain word when she finds her prize,
    But will not eat the ants; the ants themselves
    That build a wall of seeds and settled stalks
    About their hole--He made all these and more,
    Made all we see, and us, in spite: how else?

It may seem perhaps to most readers that these lines are very
difficult, and that they are unpleasant. And so they are. We quote
them to illustrate, not the _success_ of grotesque art, but the
_nature_ of grotesque art. It shows the end at which this species of
art aims, and if it fails, it is from over-boldness in the choice of a
subject by the artist, or from the defects of its execution. A
thinking faculty more in difficulties--a great type,--an inquisitive,
searching intellect under more disagreeable conditions, with worse
helps, more likely to find falsehood, less likely to find truth, can
scarcely be imagined. Nor is the mere description of the thought at
all bad: on the contrary, if we closely examine it, it is very clever.
Hardly any one could have amassed so many ideas at once nasty and
suitable. But scarcely any readers--any casual readers--who are not of
the sect of Mr. Browning’s admirers will be able to examine it enough
to appreciate it. From a defect, partly of subject, and partly of
style, many of Mr. Browning’s works make a demand upon the reader’s
zeal and sense of duty to which the nature of most readers is unequal.
They have on the turf the convenient expression ‘staying power’: some
horses can hold on and others cannot. But hardly any reader not of
especial and peculiar nature can hold on through such composition.
There is not enough of ‘staying power’ in human nature. One of his
greatest admirers once owned to us that he seldom or never began a new
poem without looking on in advance, and foreseeing with caution what
length of intellectual adventure he was about to commence. Whoever
will work hard at such poems will find much mind in them: they are a
sort of quarry of ideas, but whoever goes there will find these ideas
in such a jagged, ugly, useless shape that he can hardly bear them.

We are not judging Mr. Browning simply from a hasty recent production.
All poets are liable to misconceptions, and if such a piece as
_Caliban upon Setebos_ were an isolated error, a venial and particular
exception, we should have given it no prominence. We have put it
forward because it just elucidates both our subject and the
characteristics of Mr. Browning. But many other of his best known
pieces do so almost equally; what several of his devotees think his
best piece is quite enough illustrative for anything we want. It
appears that on Holy Cross day at Rome the Jews were obliged to listen
to a Christian sermon in the hope of their conversion, though this is,
according to Mr. Browning, what they really said when they came away:

    Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!
    Blessedest Thursday’s the fat of the week,
    Rumble and tumble, sleek and rough,
    Stinking and savoury, smug and gruff,
    Take the church-road, for the bell’s due chime
    Gives us the summons--’t is sermon-time.

    Boh, here’s Barnabas! Job, that’s you?
    Up stumps Solomon--bustling too?
    Shame, man! greedy beyond your years
    To handsel the bishop’s shaving-shears?
    Fair play’s a jewel! leave friends in the lurch?
    Stand on a line ere you start for the church.

    Higgledy, piggledy, packed we lie,
    Rats in a hamper, swine in a stye,
    Wasps in a bottle, frogs in a sieve,
    Worms in a carcase, fleas in a sleeve.
    Hist! square shoulders, settle your thumbs
    And buzz for the bishop--here he comes.

And after similar nice remarks for a church, the edified congregation
concludes:

    But now, while the scapegoats leave our flock,
    And the rest sit silent and count the clock,
    Since forced to muse the appointed time
    On these precious facts and truths sublime,--
    Let us fitly employ it, under our breath,
    In saying Ben Ezra’s Song of Death.

    For Rabbi Ben Ezra, the night he died,
    Called sons and sons’ sons to his side,
    And spoke, ‘This world has been harsh and strange;
    Something is wrong: there needeth a change.
    But what, or where? at the last, or first?
    In one point only we sinned, at worst.

    ‘The Lord will have mercy on Jacob yet,
    And again in his border see Israel set.
    When Judah beholds Jerusalem,
    The stranger-seed shall be joined to them:
    To Jacob’s House shall the Gentiles cleave,
    So the Prophet saith and his sons believe.

    ‘Ay, the children of the chosen race
    Shall carry and bring them to their place:
    In the land of the Lord shall lead the same,
    Bondsmen and handmaids. Who shall blame
    When the slaves enslave, the oppressed ones o’er
    The oppressor triumph for evermore?

    ‘God spoke, and gave us the word to keep,
    Bade never fold the hands nor sleep
    ’Mid a faithless world,--at watch and ward,
    Till Christ at the end relieve our guard.
    By His servant Moses the watch was set:
    Though near upon cock-crow, we keep it yet.

    ‘Thou! if Thou wast He, who at mid-watch came,
    By the starlight, naming a dubious Name!
    And if, too heavy with sleep--too rash
    With fear--O Thou, if that martyr-gash
    Fell on Thee coming to take Thine own,
    And we gave the Cross, when we owed the Throne--

    ‘Thou art the Judge. We are bruised thus.
    But, the judgement over, join sides with us!
    Thine too is the cause! and not more Thine
    Than ours, is the work of these dogs and swine,
    Whose life laughs through and spits at their creed,
    Who maintain Thee in word, and defy Thee in deed!

    ‘We withstood Christ then? be mindful how
    At least we withstand Barabbas now!
    Was our outrage sore? But the worst we spared,
    To have called these--Christians, had we dared!
    Let defiance to them pay mistrust of Thee,
    And Rome make amends for Calvary!

    ‘By the torture, prolonged from age to age,
    By the infamy, Israel’s heritage,
    By the Ghetto’s plague, by the garb’s disgrace,
    By the badge of shame, by the felon’s place,
    By the branding-tool, the bloody whip,
    And the summons to Christian fellowship,--

    ‘We boast our proof that at least the Jew
    Would wrest Christ’s name from the Devil’s crew.
    Thy face took never so deep a shade
    But we fought them in it, God our aid!
    A trophy to bear, as we march, Thy band,
    South, East, and on to the Pleasant Land!’

It is very natural that a poet whose wishes incline, or whose genius
conducts him to a grotesque art, should be attracted towards mediaeval
subjects. There is no age whose legends are so full of grotesque
subjects, and no age where real life was so fit to suggest them. Then,
more than at any other time, good principles have been under great
hardships. The vestiges of ancient civilization, the germs of modern
civilization, the little remains of what had been, the small
beginnings of what is, were buried under a cumbrous mass of barbarism
and cruelty. Good elements hidden in horrid accompaniments are the
special theme of grotesque art, and these mediaeval life and legends
afford more copiously than could have been furnished before
Christianity gave its new elements of good, or since modern
civilization has removed some few at least of the old elements of
destruction. A _buried_ life like the spiritual mediaeval was Mr.
Browning’s natural element, and he was right to be attracted by it.
His mistake has been, that he has not made it pleasant; that he has
forced his art to topics on which no one could charm, or on which he,
at any rate, could not; that on these occasions and in these poems he
has failed in fascinating men and women of sane taste.

We say ‘sane’ because there is a most formidable and estimable
_insane_ taste. The will has great though indirect power over the
taste, just as it has over the belief. There are some horrid beliefs
from which human nature revolts, from which at first it shrinks, to
which, at first, no effort can force it. But if we fix the mind upon
them they have a power over us just because of their natural
offensiveness. They are like the sight of human blood: experienced
soldiers tell us that at first men are sickened by the smell and
newness of blood almost to death and fainting, but that as soon as
they harden their hearts and stiffen their minds, as soon as they
_will_ bear it, then comes an appetite for slaughter, a tendency to
gloat on carnage, to love blood, at least for the moment, with a deep
eager love. It is a principle that if we put down a healthy
instinctive aversion, nature avenges herself by creating an unhealthy
insane attraction. For this reason the most earnest truth-seeking men
fall into the worst delusions; they will not let their mind alone;
they force it towards some ugly thing, which a crotchet of argument, a
conceit of intellect recommends, and nature punishes their disregard
of her warning by subjection to the ugly one, by belief in it. Just so
the most industrious critics get the most admiration. They think it
unjust to rest in their instinctive natural horror: they overcome it,
and angry nature gives them over to ugly poems and marries them to
detestable stanzas.

Mr. Browning possibly, and some of the worst of Mr. Browning’s
admirers certainly, will say that these grotesque objects exist in
real life, and therefore they ought to be, at least may be, described
in art. But though pleasure is not the end of poetry, pleasing is a
condition of poetry. An exceptional monstrosity of horrid ugliness
cannot be made pleasing, except it be made to suggest--to recall--the
perfection, the beauty, from which it is a deviation. Perhaps in
extreme cases no art is equal to this; but then such self-imposed
problems should not be worked by the artist; these out-of-the-way and
detestable subjects should be let alone by him. It is rather
characteristic of Mr. Browning to neglect this rule. He is the most of
a realist, and the least of an idealist of any poet we know. He
evidently sympathizes with some part at least of Bishop Blougram’s
apology. Anyhow this world exists. ‘There _is_ good wine--there _are_
pretty women--there _are_ comfortable benefices--there _is_ money, and
it is pleasant to spend it. Accept the creed of your age and you get
these, reject that creed and you lose them. And for what do you lose
them? For a fancy creed of your own, which no one else will accept,
which hardly any one will call a “creed”, which most people will
consider a sort of unbelief.’ Again, Mr. Browning evidently loves what
we may call the realism, the grotesque realism, of orthodox
christianity. Many parts of it in which great divines have felt keen
difficulties are quite pleasant to him. He must _see_ his religion, he
must nave an ‘object-lesson’ in believing. He must have a creed that
will _take_, which wins and holds the miscellaneous world, which stout
men will heed, which nice women will adore. The spare moments of
solitary religion--the ‘obdurate questionings’, the high ‘instincts’,
the ‘first affections’, the ‘shadowy recollections’,

          Which, do they what they may,
    Are yet the fountain-light of all our day--
    Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;

the great but vague faith--the unutterable tenets seem to him
worthless, visionary; they are not enough immersed in matter; they
move about ‘in worlds not realized’. We wish he could be tried like
the prophet once; he would have found God in the earthquake and the
storm; he could have deciphered from them a bracing and a rough
religion: he would have known that crude men and ignorant women felt
them too, and he would accordingly have trusted them; but he would
have distrusted and disregarded the ‘still small voice’; he would have
said it was ‘fancy’--a thing you thought you heard to-day, but were
not sure you had heard to-morrow: he would call it a nice illusion, an
immaterial prettiness; he would ask triumphantly ‘How are you to get
the mass of men to heed this little thing?’ he would have persevered
and insisted ‘_My wife_ does not hear it’.

But although a suspicion of beauty, and a taste for ugly reality, have
led Mr. Browning to exaggerate the functions, and to caricature the
nature of grotesque art, we own or rather we maintain that he has
given many excellent specimens of that art within its proper
boundaries and limits. Take an example, his picture of what we may
call the _bourgeois_ nature in _difficulties_; in the utmost
difficulty, in contact with magic and the supernatural. He has made of
it something homely, comic, true; reminding us of what _bourgeois_
nature really is. By showing us the type under abnormal conditions,
he reminds us of the type under its best and most satisfactory
conditions--

    Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick,
      By famous Hanover city;
    The river Weser, deep and wide,
    Washes its walls on the southern side;
    A pleasanter spot you never spied;
      But, when begins my ditty,
    Almost five hundred years ago,
    To see the townsfolk suffer so
      From vermin was a pity.

      Rats!
    They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
    And bit the babies in the cradles,
    And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
      And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,
    Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
    Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
    And even spoiled the women’s chats
      By drowning their speaking
      With shrieking and squeaking
    In fifty different sharps and flats.

    At last the people in a body
      To the Town Hall came flocking:
    ‘’Tis clear’, cried they, ‘our Mayor’s a noddy;
      And as for our Corporation--shocking
    To think we buy gowns lined with ermine
    For dolts that can’t or won’t determine
    What’s best to rid us of our vermin!
    You hope, because you’re old and obese,
    To find in the furry civic robe ease?
    Rouse up, Sirs! Give your brains a racking
    To find the remedy we’re lacking,
    Or, sure as fate, we’ll send you packing!’
    At this the Mayor and Corporation
    Quaked with a mighty consternation.

A person of musical abilities proposes to extricate the civic
dignitaries from the difficulty, and they promise him a thousand
guilders if he does.

    Into the street the Piper stept,
      Smiling first a little smile,
    As if he knew what magic slept
      In his quiet pipe the while;
    Then, like a musical adept,
    To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled,
    And green and blue his sharp eye twinkled
    Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled;
    And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered
    You heard as if an army muttered;
    And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
    And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
    And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
    Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
    Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,
    Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
      Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
    Cooking tails and pricking whiskers,
      Families by tens and dozens,
    Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives--
    Followed the Piper for their lives.
    From street to street he piped advancing,
    And step for step they followed dancing,
    Until they came to the river Weser,
    Wherein all plunged and perished!
    --Save one who, stout as Julius Cæsar,
    Swam across and lived to carry
    (As he, the manuscript he cherished)
    To Rat-land home his commentary:
    Which was, ‘At the first shrill notes of the pipe,
    I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
    And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
    Into a cider-press’s gripe:
    And a moving away of pickle-tub boards,
    And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards,
    And a drawing the corks of train-oil flasks,
    And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks:
    And it seemed as if a voice
    (Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery
    Is breathed) called out, “Oh rats, rejoice!
    The world is grown to one vast drysaltery!
    So, munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
    Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!”
    And just as a bulky sugar-puncheon,
    All ready staved, like a great sun shone
    Glorious scarce an inch before me,
    Just as methought it said, “Come, bore me!”
    --I found the Weser rolling o’er me.’
    You should have heard the Hamelin people
    Ringing the bells till they rocked the steeple.
    ‘Go’, cried the Mayor, ‘and get long poles,
    Poke out the nests and block up the holes!
    Consult with carpenters and builders,
    And leave in our town not even a trace
    Of the rats!’--when suddenly, up the face
    Of the Piper perked in the market-place,
    With a ‘First, if you please, my thousand guilders!’
    A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue;
    So did the Corporation too.
    For council dinners made rare havoc
    With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock;
    And half the money would replenish
    Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish.
    To pay this sum to a wandering fellow
    With a gipsy coat of red and yellow!
    ‘Beside,’ quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink,
    ‘Our business was done at the river’s brink;
    We saw with our eyes the vermin sink,
    And what’s dead can’t come to life, I think.
    So, friend, we’re not the folks to shrink
    From the duty of giving you something for drink,
    And a matter of money to put in your poke;
    But as for the guilders, what we spoke
    Of them, as you very well know, was in joke.
    Besides, our losses have made us thrifty.
    A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!’

    The piper’s face fell, and he cried,
    ‘No trifling! I can’t wait, beside!
    I’ve promised to visit by dinner time
    Bagdat, and accept the prime
    Of the Head-Cook’s pottage, all he’s rich in,
    For having left, in the Caliph’s kitchen,
    Of a nest of scorpions no survivor--
    With him I proved no bargain-driver,
    With you, don’t think I’ll bate a stiver!
    And folks who put me in a passion
    May find me pipe to another fashion.’

    ‘How?’ cried the Mayor, ‘d’ye think I’ll brook
    Being worse treated than a Cook?
    Insulted by a lazy ribald
    With idle pipe and vesture piebald?
    You threaten us, fellow? Do your worst,
    Blow your pipe there till you burst!’

    Once more he stept into the street
      And to his lips again
    Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane;
      And ere he blew three notes (such sweet
    Soft notes as yet musician’s cunning
      Never gave the enraptured air)
    There was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling
    Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling.
    Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
    Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
    And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
    Out came the children running.

    All the little boys and girls,
    With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
    And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls.
    Tripping and skipping ran merrily after
    The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.

           *       *       *       *       *

    And I must not omit to say
    That in Transylvania there’s a tribe
    Of alien people that ascribe
    The outlandish ways and dress
    On which their neighbours lay such stress,
    To their fathers and mothers having risen
    Out of some subterraneous prison
    Into which they were trepanned
    Long time ago in a mighty band
    Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
    But how or why, they don’t understand.

Something more we had to say of Mr. Browning, but we must stop. It is
singularly characteristic of this age that the poems which rise to the
surface should be examples of ornate art, and grotesque art, not of
pure art. We live in the realm of the _half_ educated. The number of
readers grows daily, but the quality of readers does not improve
rapidly. The middle class is scattered, headless; it is well-meaning
but aimless; wishing to be wise, but ignorant how to be wise. The
aristocracy of England never was a literary aristocracy, never even in
the days of its full power, of its unquestioned predominance, did it
guide--did it even seriously try to guide--the taste of England.
Without guidance young men and tired men are thrown amongst a mass of
books; they have to choose which they like; many of them would much
like to improve their culture, to chasten their taste, if they knew
how. But left to themselves they take, not pure art, but showy art;
not that which permanently relieves the eye and makes it happy
whenever it looks, and as long as it looks, but _glaring_ art which
catches and arrests the eye for a moment, but which in the end
fatigues it. But before the wholesome remedy of nature--the
fatigue--arrives, the hasty reader has passed on to some new
excitement, which in its turn stimulates for an instant, and then is
passed by for ever. These conditions are not favourable to the due
appreciation of pure art--of that art which must be known before it is
admired--which must have fastened irrevocably on the brain before you
appreciate it--which you must love ere it will seem worthy of your
love. Women too, whose voice in literature counts as well as that of
men--and in a light literature counts for more than that of
men--women, such as we know them, such as they are likely to be, ever
prefer a delicate unreality to a true or firm art. A dressy
literature, an exaggerated literature seem to be fated to us. These
are our curses, as other times had theirs.

                                   And yet
    Think not the living times forget,
    Ages of heroes fought and fell,
    That Homer in the end might tell;
    O’er grovelling generations past
    Upstood the Gothic fane at last;
    And countless hearts in countless years
    Had wasted thoughts, and hopes, and fears,
    Rude laughter and unmeaning tears;
    Ere England Shakespeare saw, or Rome
    The pure perfection of her dome.
    Others I doubt not, if not we,
    The issue of our toils shall see;
    And (they forgotten and unknown)
    Young children gather as their own
    The harvest that the dead had sown.



WALTER HORATIO PATER

1839-1894

COLERIDGE’S WRITINGS (1866)

_Conversations, Letters, and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge._ Edited
by THOMAS ALLSOP. London. 1864.


Forms of intellectual and spiritual culture often exercise their
subtlest and most artful charm when life is already passing from them.
Searching and irresistible as are the changes of the human spirit on
its way to perfection, there is yet so much elasticity of temper that
what must pass away sooner or later is not disengaged all at once even
from the highest order of minds. Nature, which by one law of
development evolves ideas, moralities, modes of inward life, and
represses them in turn, has in this way provided that the earlier
growth should propel its fibres into the later, and so transmit the
whole of its forces in an unbroken continuity of life. Then comes the
spectacle of the reserve of the elder generation exquisitely refined
by the antagonism of the new. That current of new life chastens them
as they contend against it. Weaker minds do not perceive the change;
clearer minds abandon themselves to it. To feel the change everywhere,
yet not to abandon oneself to it, is a situation of difficulty and
contention. Communicating in this way to the passing stage of culture
the charm of what is chastened, high-strung, athletic, they yet
detach the highest minds from the past by pressing home its
difficulties and finally proving it impossible. Such is the charm of
Julian, of St. Louis, perhaps of Luther; in the narrower compass of
modern times, of Dr. Newman and Lacordaire; it is also the peculiar
charm of Coleridge.

Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the
‘relative’ spirit in place of the ‘absolute’. Ancient philosophy
sought to arrest every object in an eternal outline, to fix thought in
a necessary formula, and types of life in a classification by ‘kinds’
or _genera_. To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known
except relatively under conditions. An ancient philosopher indeed
started a philosophy of the relative, but only as an enigma. So the
germs of almost all philosophical ideas were enfolded in the mind of
antiquity, and fecundated one by one in after ages by the external
influences of art, religion, culture in the natural sciences,
belonging to a particular generation, which suddenly becomes
preoccupied by a formula or theory, not so much new as penetrated by a
new meaning and expressiveness. So the idea of ‘the relative’ has been
fecundated in modern times by the influence of the sciences of
observation. These sciences reveal types of life evanescing into each
other by inexpressible refinements of change. Things pass into their
opposites by accumulation of undefinable quantities. The growth of
those sciences consists in a continual analysis of facts of rough and
general observation into groups of facts more precise and minute. A
faculty for truth is a power of distinguishing and fixing delicate and
fugitive details. The moral world is ever in contact with the
physical; the relative spirit has invaded moral philosophy from the
ground of the inductive science. There it has started a new analysis
of the relations of body and mind, good and evil, freedom and
necessity. Hard and abstract moralities are yielding to a more exact
estimate of the subtlety and complexity of our life. Always, as an
organism increases in perfection the conditions of its life become
more complex. Man is the most complex of the products of nature.
Character merges into temperament; the nervous system refines itself
into intellect. His physical organism is played upon not only by the
physical conditions about it, but by remote laws of inheritance, the
vibrations of long past acts reaching him in the midst of the new
order of things in which he lives. When we have estimated these
conditions he is not yet simple and isolated; for the mind of the
race, the character of the age, sway him this way or that through the
medium of language and ideas. It seems as if the most opposite
statements about him were alike true; he is so receptive, all the
influences of the world and of society ceaselessly playing upon him,
so that every hour in his life is unique, changed altogether by a
stray word, or glance, or touch. The truth of these relations
experience gives us; not the truth of eternal outlines effected once
for all, but a world of fine gradations and subtly linked conditions,
shifting intricately as we ourselves change; and bids us by constant
clearing of the organs of observation and perfecting of analysis to
make what we can of these. To the intellect, to the critical spirit,
these subtleties of effect are more precious than anything else. What
is lost in precision of form is gained in intricacy of expression. To
suppose that what is called ‘ontology’ is what the speculative instinct
seeks, is the misconception of a backward school of logicians. Who would
change the colour or curve of a roseleaf for that οὐσία ἀχρώματος,
ἀσχημάτιστος, ἀναφής. A transcendentalism that makes what is abstract
more excellent than what is concrete has nothing akin to the leading
philosophies of the world. The true illustration of the speculative
temper is not the Hindoo, lost to sense, understanding, individuality;
but such an one as Goethe, to whom every moment of life brought its
share of experimental, individual knowledge, by whom no touch of the
world of form, colour, and passion was disregarded.

The literary life of Coleridge was a disinterested struggle against
the application of the relative spirit to moral and religious
questions. Everywhere he is restlessly scheming to apprehend the
absolute; to affirm it effectively; to get it acknowledged. Coleridge
failed in that attempt, happily even for him, for it was a struggle
against the increasing life of the mind itself. The real loss was,
that this controversial interest betrayed him into a direction which
was not for him the path of the highest intellectual success; a
direction in which his artistic talent could never find the conditions
of its perfection. Still, there is so much witchery about his poems,
that it is as a poet that he will most probably be permanently
remembered. How did his choice of a controversial interest, his
determination to affirm the absolute, weaken or modify his poetical
gift?

In 1798 he joined Wordsworth in the composition of a volume of
poems--the _Lyrical Ballads_. What Wordsworth then wrote is already
vibrant with that blithe _élan_ which carried him to final happiness
and self-possession. In Coleridge we feel already that faintness and
obscure dejection which cling like some contagious damp to all his
writings. Wordsworth was to be distinguished by a joyful and
penetrative conviction of the existence of certain latent affinities
between nature and the human mind, which reciprocally gild the mind
and nature with a kind of ‘heavenly alchemy’:

                 ... My voice proclaims
    How exquisitely the individual mind
    (And the progressive powers perhaps no less
    Of the whole species) to the external world
    Is fitted:--and how exquisitely, too,
    The external world is fitted to the mind:
    And the creation, by no lower name
    Can it be called, which they with blended might
    Accomplish.[37]

    [37] Preface to the _Excursion_.

In Wordsworth this took the form of an unbroken dreaming over the
aspects and transitions of nature, a reflective, but altogether
unformulated, analysis of them.

There are in Coleridge’s poems expressions of this conviction as deep
as Wordsworth’s. But Coleridge could never have abandoned himself to
the dream as Wordsworth did, because the first condition of such
abandonment is an unvexed quietness of heart. No one can read the
_Lines composed above Tintern_ without feeling how potent the physical
element was among the conditions of Wordsworth’s genius:--‘felt in the
blood and felt along the heart,’--‘My whole life I have lived in
quiet thought.’ The stimulus which most artists require from nature he
can renounce. He leaves the ready-made glory of the Swiss mountains to
reflect a glory on a mouldering leaf. He loves best to watch the
floating thistledown, because of its hint at an unseen life in the
air. Coleridge’s temperament, ἀεὶ ἐν σφοδρᾷ ὀρέξει, with its faintness,
its grieved dejection, could never have been like that.

          My genial spirits fail
          And what can these avail
    To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
          It were a vain endeavour,
          Though I should gaze for ever
    On that green light that lingers in the west:
    I may not hope from outward forms to win
    The passion and the life whose fountains are within.

It is that flawless temperament in Wordsworth which keeps his
conviction of a latent intelligence in nature within the limits of
sentiment or instinct, and confines it, to those delicate and subdued
shades of expression which perfect art allows. In sadder dispositions,
that is in the majority of cases, where such a conviction has existed,
it has stiffened into a formula, it has frozen into a scientific or
pseudo-scientific theory. For the perception of those affinities
brings one so near the absorbing speculative problems of
life--optimism, the proportion of man to his place in nature, his
prospects in relation to it--that it ever tends to become theory
through their contagion. Even in Goethe, who has brilliantly handled
the subject in his lyrics entitled _Gott und Welt_, it becomes
something stiffer than poetry; it is tempered by the ‘pale cast’ of
his technical knowledge of the nature of colours, of anatomy, of the
metamorphosis of plants.

That, however, which had only a limited power over Coleridge as
sentiment, entirely possessed him as a philosophical idea. We shall
see in what follows how deep its power was, how it pursued him
everywhere, and seemed to him to interpret every question.
Wordsworth’s poetry is an optimism; it says man’s relation to the
world is, and may be seen by man to be, a perfect relation; but it is
an optimism that begins and ends in an abiding instinct. Coleridge
accepts the same optimism as a philosophical idea, but an idea is
relative to an intellectual assent; sometimes it seems a better
expression of facts, sometimes a worse, as the understanding weighs it
in the logical balances. And so it is not a permanent consolation. It
is only in the rarer moments of intellectual warmth and sunlight that
it is entirely credible. In less exhilarating moments that perfect
relation of man and nature seems to shift and fail; that is, the
philosophical idea ceases to be realizable; and with Coleridge its
place is not supplied, as with Wordsworth, by the corresponding
sentiment or instinct.

What in Wordsworth is a sentiment or instinct, is in Coleridge a
philosophical idea. In other words, Coleridge’s talent is a more
intellectual one than Wordsworth’s, more dramatic, more
self-conscious. Wordsworth’s talent, deeply reflective as it is,
because its base is an instinct, is deficient in self-knowledge.
Possessed by the rumours and voices of the haunted country, the
borders of which he has passed alone, he never thinks of withdrawing
from it to look down upon it from one of the central heights of human
life. His power absorbs him, not he it; he cannot turn it round or get
without it; he does not estimate its general relation to life. But
Coleridge, just because the essence of his talent is the intuition of
an idea, commands his talent. He not only feels with Wordsworth the
expression of mind in nature, but he can project that feeling outside
him, reduce it to a psychological law, define its relation to other
elements of culture, place it in a complete view of life.

And in some such activity as that, varied as his wide learning, in a
many-sided dramatic kind of poetry, assigning its place and value to
every mode of the inward life, seems to have been for Coleridge the
original path of artistic success. But in order to follow that path
one must hold ideas loosely in the relative spirit, not seek to
stereotype any one of the many modes of that life; one must acknowledge
that the mind is ever greater than its own products, devote ideas to
the service of art rather than of γνῶσις, not disquiet oneself about
the absolute. Perhaps Coleridge is more interesting because he did not
follow this path. Repressing his artistic interest and voluntarily
discolouring his own work, he turned to console and strengthen the
human mind, vulgarized or dejected, as he believed, by the acquisition
of new knowledge about itself in the _éclaircissement_ of the
eighteenth century.

What the reader of our own generation will least find in Coleridge’s
prose writings is the excitement of the literary sense. And yet in
those grey volumes we have the production of one who made way ever by
a charm, the charm of voice, of aspect, of language, above all, by
the intellectual charm of new, moving, luminous ideas. Perhaps the
chief offence in Coleridge is an excess of seriousness, a seriousness
that arises not from any moral principle, but from a misconception of
the perfect manner. There is a certain shade of levity and unconcern,
the perfect manner of the eighteenth century, which marks complete
culture in the handling of abstract questions. The humanist, he who
possesses that complete culture, does not ‘weep’ over the failure of
‘a theory of the quantification of the predicate’, nor ‘shriek’ over
the fall of a philosophical formula. A kind of humour is one of the
conditions of the true mental attitude in the criticism of past stages
of thought. Humanity cannot afford to be too serious about them, any
more than a man of good sense can afford to be too serious in looking
back upon his own childhood. Plato, whom Coleridge claims as the first
of his spiritual ancestors, Plato, as we remember him, a true
humanist, with Petrarch and Goethe and M. Renan, holds his theories
lightly, glances with a blithe and naïve inconsequence from one view
to another, not anticipating the burden of meaning ‘views’ will one
day have for humanity. In reading him one feels how lately it was that
Croesus thought it a paradox to say that external prosperity was not
necessarily happiness. But on Coleridge lies the whole weight of the
sad reflection that has since come into the world, with which for us
the air is full, which the children in the market-place repeat to each
other. Even his language is forced and broken, lest some saving
formula should be lost--‘distinctities’, ‘enucleation’, ‘pentad of
operative Christianity’--he has a whole vocabulary of such phrases,
and expects to turn the tide of human thought by fixing the sense of
such expressions as ‘reason’, ‘understanding’, ‘idea’.

Again, he has not the jealousy of the true artist in excluding all
associations that have no charm or colour or gladness in them;
everywhere he allows the impress of an inferior theological
literature; he is often prolix and importunate about most indifferent
heroes--Sir Alexander Ball, Dr. Bell, even Dr. Bowyer, the coarse
pedant of the Blue-coat School. And the source of all this is closely
connected with the source of his literary activity. For Coleridge had
chosen as the mark of his literary egotism a kind of intellectual
_tour de force_--to found a religious philosophy, to do something with
the ‘idea’ in spite of the essential nature of the ‘idea’. And
therefore all is fictitious from the beginning. He had determined,
that which is humdrum, insipid, which the human spirit has done with,
shall yet stimulate and inspire. What he produced symbolizes this
purpose--the mass of it _ennuyant_, depressing: the _Aids to
Reflection_, for instance, with Archbishop Leighton’s vague pieties
all twisted into the jargon of a spiritualistic philosophy. But
sometimes ‘the pulse of the God’s blood’ does transmute it, kindling
here and there a spot that begins to live; as in that beautiful
fragment at the end of the _Church and State_, or in the distilled and
concentrated beauty of such a passage as this:

     The first range of hills, that encircles the scanty vale of
     human life, is the horizon for the majority of its
     inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and
     departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they
     vanish. By the many, even this range, the natural limit and
     bulwark of the vale, is but imperfectly known. Its higher
     ascents are too often hidden by mists and clouds from
     uncultivated swamps, which few have courage or curiosity to
     penetrate. To the multitude below these vapours appear now
     as the dark haunts of terrific agents, on which none may
     intrude with impunity; and now all a-glow, with colours not
     their own, they are gazed at as the splendid palaces of
     happiness and power. But in all ages there have been a few
     who, measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the
     feet of their furthest inaccessible falls, have learned that
     the sources must be far higher and far inward; a few who,
     even in the level streams, have detected elements which
     neither the vale itself nor the surrounding mountains
     contained or could supply.

                                 _Biographia Literaria._

‘I was driven from life in motion to life in thought and sensation.’
So Coleridge sums up his childhood with its delicacy, its
sensitiveness, and passion. From his tenth to his eighteenth year he
was at a rough school in London. Speaking of this time, he says:

     When I was first plucked up and transplanted from my
     birthplace and family, Providence, it has often occurred to
     me, gave me the first intimation that it was my lot, and
     that it was best for me, to make or find my way of life a
     detached individual, a _terrae filius_, who was to ask love
     or service of no one on any more specific relation than that
     of being a man, and as such to take my chance for the free
     charities of humanity.[38]

    [38] Biographical Supplement to _Biographia Literaria_, chap.
    ii.

Even his fine external nature was for years repressed, wronged, driven
inward--‘at fourteen I was in a continual state of low fever.’ He
becomes a dreamer, an eager student, but without ambition.

This depressed boy is nevertheless, on the spiritual side, the child
of a noble house. At twenty-five he is exercising a wonderful charm,
and has defined for himself a peculiar line of intellectual activity.
He had left Cambridge without a degree, a Unitarian. Unable to take
orders, he determined through Southey’s influence to devote himself to
literature. When he left Cambridge there was a prejudice against him
which has given occasion to certain suspicions. Those who knew him
best discredit these suspicions. What is certain is that he was
subject to fits of violent, sometimes fantastic, despondency. He
retired to Stowey, in Somersetshire, to study poetry and philosophy.
In 1797 his poetical gift was in full flower; he wrote _Kubla Khan_,
the first part of _Christabel_, and _The Ancient Mariner_. His
literary success grew in spite of opposition. He had a strange
attractive gift of conversation, or rather of monologue, as De Stael
said, full of _bizarrerie_, with the rapid alternations of a dream,
and here and there a sudden summons into a world strange to the
hearer, abounding with images drawn from a sort of divided, imperfect
life, as of one to whom the external world penetrated only in part,
and, blended with all this, passages of the deepest obscurity,
precious only for their musical cadence, the echo in Coleridge of the
eloquence of the older English writers, of whom he was so ardent a
lover. All through this brilliant course we may discern the power of
the Asiatic temperament, of that voluptuousness which is perhaps
connected with his appreciation of the intimacy, the almost mystical
_rapport_, between man and nature. ‘I am much better’, he writes, ‘and
my new and tender health is all over me like a voluptuous feeling.’

And whatever fame, or charm, or life-inspiring gift he has had is the
vibration of the interest he excited then, the propulsion into years
that clouded his early promise of that first buoyant, irresistible
self-assertion: so great is even the indirect power of a sincere
effort towards the ideal life, of even a temporary escape of the
spirit from routine. Perhaps the surest sign of his election--that he
was indeed, on the spiritual side, the child of a noble house--is that
story of the Pantisocratic scheme, which at this distance looks so
grotesque. In his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, the old
communistic dream with its appeal to nature (perhaps a little
theatrical), touched him, as it had touched Rousseau, Saint-Pierre,
and Chateaubriand. He had married one, his affection for whom seems to
have been only a passing feeling; with her and a few friends he was to
found a communistic settlement on the banks of the Susquehannah--‘the
name was pretty and metrical.’ It was one of Coleridge’s lightest
dreams; but also one which could only have passed through the liberal
air of his earlier life. The later years of the French Revolution,
which for us have discredited all such dreams, deprived him of that
youthfulness which is the preservative element in a literary talent.

In 1798, he visited Germany. A beautiful fragment of this period
remains, describing a spring excursion to the Brocken. His excitement
still vibrates in it. Love, all joyful states of mind, are
self-expressive; they loosen the tongue, they fill the thoughts with
sensuous images, they harmonize one with the world of sight. We hear
of the ‘rich graciousness and courtesy’ of Coleridge’s manner, of the
white and delicate skin, the abundant black hair, the full, almost
animal lips, that whole physiognomy of the dreamer already touched
with fanaticism. One says of the text of one of his Unitarian sermons,
‘his voice rose like a stream of rich distilled perfumes’; another,
‘he talks like an angel, and does--nothing.’

Meantime, he had designed an intellectual novelty in the shape of a
religious philosophy. Socinian theology and the philosophy of Hartley
had become distasteful. ‘Whatever is against right reason, that no
faith can oblige us to believe.’ Coleridge quotes these words from
Jeremy Taylor. And yet ever since the dawn of the Renaissance, had
subsisted a conflict between reason and faith. From the first, indeed,
the Christian religion had affirmed the existence of such a conflict,
and had even based its plea upon its own weakness in it. In face of
the classical culture, with its deep wide-struck roots in the world as
it permanently exists, St. Paul asserted the claims of that which
could not appeal with success to any genuinely human principle.
Paradox as it was, that was the strength of the new spirit; for how
much is there at all times in humanity which cannot appeal with
success for encouragement or tolerance to any genuinely human
principle. In the Middle Ages it might seem that faith had reconciled
itself to philosophy; the Catholic church was the leader of the
world’s life as well as of the spirit’s. Looking closer we see that
the conflict is still latent there; the supremacy of faith is only a
part of the worship of sorrow and weakness which marks the age. The
weak are no longer merely a majority, they are all Europe. It is not
that faith has become one with reason; but a strange winter, a strange
suspension of life, has passed over the classical culture which is
only the human reason in its most trenchant form. Glimpse after
glimpse, as that pagan culture awoke to life, the conflict was felt
once more. It is at the court of Frederick II that the Renaissance
first becomes discernible as an actual power in European society. How
definite and unmistakable is the attitude of faith towards that! Ever
since the Reformation all phases of theology had been imperfect
philosophies--that is, in which there was a religious _arrière
pensée_; philosophies which could never be in the ascendant in a
sincerely scientific sphere. The two elements had never really mixed.
Writers so different as Locke and Taylor have each his liberal
philosophy, and each has his defence of the orthodox belief; but,
also, each has a divided mind; we wonder how the two elements could
have existed side by side; brought together in a single mind, but
unable to fuse in it, they reveal their radical contrariety. The
Catholic church and humanity are two powers that divide the intellect
and spirit of man. On the Catholic side is faith, rigidly logical as
Ultramontanism, with a proportion of the facts of life, that is, all
that is despairing in life coming naturally under its formula. On the
side of humanity is all that is desirable in the world, all that is
sympathetic with its laws, and succeeds through that sympathy.
Doubtless, for the individual, there are a thousand intermediate
shades of opinion, a thousand resting-places for the religious spirit;
still, τὸ διορίζειν οὐκ ἔστι τῶν πολλῶν, fine distinctions are not for
the majority; and this makes time eventually a dogmatist, working out
the opposition in its most trenchant form, and fixing the horns of the
dilemma; until, in the present day, we have on one side Pius IX, the
true descendant of the fisherman, issuing the Encyclical, pleading the
old promise against the world with a special kind of justice; and on
the other side, the irresistible modern culture, which, as religious
men often remind us, is only Christian accidentally.

The peculiar temper of Coleridge’s intellect made the idea of
reconciling this conflict very seductive. With a true speculative
talent he united a false kind of subtlety and the full share of
vanity. A dexterous intellectual _tour de force_ has always an
independent charm; and therefore it is well for the cause of truth
that the directness, sincerity, and naturalness of things are beyond a
certain limit sacrificed in vain to a factitious interest. A method so
forced as that of Coleridge’s religious philosophy is from the first
doomed to be insipid, so soon as the temporary interest or taste or
curiosity it was designed to meet has passed away. Then, as to the
manner of such books as the _Aids to Reflection_, or _The
Friend_:--These books came from one whose vocation was in the world of
art; and yet, perhaps, of all books that have been influential in
modern times, they are farthest from the classical form--bundles of
notes--the original matter inseparably mixed up with that borrowed
from others--the whole, just that mere preparation for an artistic
effect which the finished artist would be careful one day to destroy.
Here, again, we have a trait profoundly characteristic of Coleridge.
He often attempts to reduce a phase of thought, subtle and exquisite,
to conditions too rough for it. He uses a purely speculative gift in
direct moral edification. Scientific truth is something fugitive,
relative, full of fine gradations; he tries to fix it in absolute
formulas. The _Aids to Reflection_, or _The Friend_, is an effort to
propagate the volatile spirit of conversation into the less ethereal
fabric of a written book; and it is only here and there that the
poorer matter becomes vibrant, is really lifted by the spirit.

At forty-two, we find Coleridge saying in a letter:

     I feel with an intensity unfathomable by words my utter
     nothingness, impotence, and worthlessness in and for myself.
     I have learned what a sin is against an infinite,
     imperishable being such as is the soul of man. The
     consolations, at least the sensible sweetness of hope, I do
     not possess. On the contrary, the temptation which I have
     constantly to fight up against is a fear that, if
     annihilation and the possibility of heaven were offered to
     my choice, I should choose the former.

What was the cause of this change? That is precisely the point on
which, after all the gossip there has been, we are still ignorant. At
times Coleridge’s opium excesses were great; but what led to those
excesses must not be left out of account. From boyhood he had a
tendency to low fever, betrayed by his constant appetite for bathing
and swimming, which he indulged even when a physician had opposed it.
In 1803, he went to Malta as secretary to the English Governor. His
daughter suspects that the source of the evil was there, that for one
of his constitution the climate of Malta was deadly. At all events,
when he returned, the charm of those five wonderful years had failed
at the source.

De Quincey said of him, ‘he wanted better bread than can be made with
wheat.’ Lamb said of him that from boyhood he had ‘hungered for
eternity’. Henceforth those are the two notes of his life. From this
time we must look for no more true literary talent in him. His style
becomes greyer and greyer, his thoughts _outré_, exaggerated, a kind
of credulity or superstition exercised upon abstract words. Like
Clifford, in Hawthorne’s beautiful romance--the born Epicurean, who by
some strange wrong has passed the best of his days in a prison--he is
the victim of a division of the will, often showing itself in trivial
things: he could never choose on which side of the garden path he
would walk. In 1803, he wrote a poem on ‘The Pains of Sleep’. That
unrest increased. Mr. Gillman tells us ‘he had long been greatly
afflicted with nightmare, and when residing with us was frequently
aroused from this painful sleep by any one of the family who might
hear him’.

That faintness and continual dissolution had its own consumptive
refinements, and even brought, as to the ‘Beautiful Soul’ in _Wilhelm
Meister_, a faint religious ecstasy--that ‘singing in the sails’ which
is not of the breeze. Here, again, is a note of Coleridge’s:

     ‘In looking at objects of nature while I am thinking, as at
     yonder moon, dim-glimmering through the window-pane, I seem
     rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical
     language for something within me that already and for ever
     exists, than observing anything new. Even when that latter
     is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling, as
     if that new phenomenon were the dim awaking of a forgotten
     or hidden truth of my inner nature.’ Then, ‘while I was
     preparing the pen to write this remark, I lost the train of
     thought which had led me to it.’

What a distemper of the eye of the mind! What an almost bodily
distemper there is in that!

Coleridge’s intellectual sorrows were many; but he had one singular
intellectual happiness. With an inborn taste for transcendental
philosophy he lived just at the time when that philosophy took an
immense spring in Germany, and connected itself with a brilliant
literary movement. He had the luck to light upon it in its freshness,
and introduce it to his countrymen. What an opportunity for one reared
on the colourless English philosophies, but who feels an irresistible
attraction towards metaphysical synthesis! How rare are such occasions
of intellectual contentment! This transcendental philosophy, chiefly
as systematized by Schelling, Coleridge applies, with an eager,
unwearied subtlety, to the questions of theology and art-criticism. It
is in his theory of art-criticism that he comes nearest to true and
important principles; that is the least fugitive part of his work. Let
us take this first; here we shall most clearly apprehend his main
principle.

What, then, is the essence of this criticism? On the whole it may be
described as an attempt to reclaim the world of art as a world of
fixed laws--to show that the creative activity of genius and the
simplest act of thought are but higher and lower products of the laws
of a universal logic. Criticism, feeling its own unsuccess in dealing
with the greater works of art, has sometimes made too much of those
dark and capricious suggestions of genius which even the intellect
possessed by them is unable to track or recall. It has seemed due to
their half-sacred character to look for no link between the process by
which they were produced and the slighter processes of the mind.
Coleridge assumes that the highest phases of thought must be more, not
less, than the lower, subjects of law.

With this interest, in the _Biographia Literaria_, he refines
Schelling’s ‘Philosophy of Nature’ into a theory of art. ‘Es giebt
kein Plagiat in der Philosophie’ says Heine, alluding to the charge
brought against Schelling of unacknowledged borrowing from Bruno, and
certainly that which is common to Coleridge and Schelling is of far
earlier origin than the Renaissance. Schellingism, the ‘Philosophy of
Nature’, is indeed a constant tradition in the history of thought; it
embodies a permanent type of the speculative temper. That mode of
conceiving nature as a mirror or reflex of the intelligence of man may
be traced up to the first beginnings of Greek speculation. There are
two ways of envisaging those aspects of nature which appear to bear
the impress of reason or intelligence. There is the deist’s way, which
regards them merely as marks of design, which separates the informing
mind from nature, as the mechanist from the machine; and there is the
pantheistic way, which identifies the two, which regards nature itself
as the living energy of an intelligence of the same kind as, but
vaster than, the human. Greek philosophy, finding indications of mind
everywhere, dwelling exclusively in its observations on that which is
general or formal, on that which modern criticism regards as the
modification of things by the mind of the observer, adopts the latter,
or pantheistic way, through the influence of the previous mythological
period. Mythology begins in the early necessities of language, of
which it is a kind of accident. But at a later period its essence
changes; it becomes what it was not at its birth, the servant of a
genuine poetic interest, a kind of _vivification_ of nature. Played
upon by those accidents of language, the Greek mind becomes possessed
by the conception of nature as living, thinking, almost speaking to
the mind of man. This unfixed poetical prepossession, reduced to an
abstract form, petrified into an idea, is the conception which gives a
unity of aim to Greek philosophy. Step by step it works out the
substance of the Hegelian formula: ‘Was ist, das ist vernünftig; was
vernünftig ist, das ist’--‘Whatever is, is according to reason;
whatever is according to reason, that is.’ A science of which that
could be the formula is still but an intellectual aspiration; the
formula of true science is different. Experience, which has gradually
saddened the earth’s colour, stiffened its motions, withdrawn from it
some blithe and debonair presence, has moderated our demands upon
science. The positive method makes very little account of marks of
intelligence in nature; in its wider view of phenomena it sees that
those incidents are a minority, and may rank as happy coincidences; it
absorbs them in the simpler conception of law. But the suspicion of a
mind latent in nature, struggling for release and intercourse with the
intellect of man through true ideas, has never ceased to haunt a
certain class of minds. Started again and again in successive periods
by enthusiasts on the antique pattern, in each case the thought has
seemed paler and more evanescent amidst the growing consistency and
sharpness of outline of other and more positive forms of knowledge.
Still, wherever a speculative instinct has been united with extreme
inwardness of temperament, as in Jakob Böhme, there the old Greek
conception, like some seed floating in the air, has taken root and
sprung up anew. Coleridge, thrust inward upon himself, driven from
‘life in thought and sensation’ to life in thought only, feels in that
dark London school a thread of the Greek mind vibrating strangely in
him. At fifteen he is discoursing on Plotinus, and has translated the
hymns of Synesius. So in later years he reflects from Schelling the
flitting tradition. He conceives a subtle co-ordination between the
ideas of the mind and the laws of the natural world. Science is to be
attained, not by observation, analysis, generalization, but by the
evolution or recovery of those ideas from within, by a sort of
ἀνάμνησις, every group of observed facts remaining an enigma until the
appropriate idea is struck upon them from the mind of Newton or
Cuvier, the genius in whom sympathy with the universal reason is
entire. Next he supposes that this reason or intelligence in nature
gradually becomes reflective--self-conscious. He fancies he can track
through all the simpler orders of life fragments of an eloquent
prophecy about the human mind. He regards the whole of nature as a
development of higher forms out of the lower, through shade after
shade of systematic change. The dim stir of chemical atoms towards the
axes of a crystal form, the trance-like life of plants, the animal
troubled by strange irritabilities, are stages which anticipate
consciousness. All through that increasing stir of life this was
forming itself; each stage in its unsatisfied susceptibilities seeming
to be drawn out of its own limits by the more pronounced current of
life on its confines, the ‘shadow of approaching humanity’ gradually
deepening, the latent intelligence working to the surface. At this
point the law of development does not lose itself in caprice; rather
it becomes more constraining and incisive. From the lowest to the
highest acts of intelligence, there is another range of refining
shades. Gradually the mind concentrates itself, frees itself from the
limits of the particular, the individual, attains a strange power of
modifying and centralizing what it receives from without according to
an inward ideal. At last, in imaginative genius, ideas become
effective; the intelligence of nature, with all its elements connected
and justified, is clearly reflected; and the interpretation of its
latent purposes is fixed in works of art.

In this fanciful and bizarre attempt to rationalize art, to range it
under the dominion of law, there is still a gap to be filled up. What
is that common law of the mind, of which a work of art and the
slighter acts of thought are alike products? Here Coleridge weaves in
Kant’s fine-spun theory of the transformation of sense into
perception. What every theory of perception has to explain is that
associative power which gathers isolated sensible qualities into the
objects of the world about us. Sense, without an associative power,
would be only a threadlike stream of colours, sounds, odours--each
struck upon one for a moment, and then withdrawn. The basis of this
association may be represented as a material one, a kind of
many-coloured ‘etching’ on the brain. Hartley has dexterously handled
this hypothesis. The charm of his ‘theory of vibrations’ is the vivid
image it presents to the fancy. How large an element in a speculative
talent is the command of these happy images! Coleridge, by a finer
effort of the same kind, a greater delicacy of fancy, detects all
sorts of slips, transitions, breaks of continuity in Hartley’s
glancing cobweb. Coleridge, with Kant, regards all association as
effected by a power within, to which he gives a fanciful Greek
name.[39] In an act of perception there is the matter which sense
presents, colour, tone, feeling; but also a form or mould, such as
space, unity, causation, suggested from within. In these forms we
arrest and frame the many attributes of sense. It is like that simple
chemical phenomenon where two colourless fluids uniting reflect a full
colour. Neither matter nor form can be perceived asunder; they unite
into the many-coloured image of life. This theory has not been able to
bear a loyal induction. Even if it were true, how little it would tell
us; how it attenuates fact! There, again, the charm is all in the
clear image; the image of the artist combining a few elementary
colours, curves, sounds into a new whole. Well, this power of
association, of concentrating many elements of sense in an object of
perception, is refined and deepened into the creative acts of
imagination.

    [39] Esemplastic.

We of the modern ages have become so familiarized with the greater
works of art that we are little sensitive of the act of creation in
them; they do not impress us as a new presence in the world. Only
sometimes in productions which realize immediately a profound emotion
and enforce a change in taste, such as _Werther_ or _Emile_, we are
actual witnesses of the moulding of an unforeseen type by some new
principle of association. By imagination, the distinction between
which and fancy is so thrust upon his readers, Coleridge means a
vigorous act of association, which, by simplifying and restraining
their natural expression to an artificial order, refines and perfects
the types of human passion. It represents the excitements of the
human kind, but reflected in a new manner, ‘excitement itself
imitating order.’ ‘Originally the offspring of passion,’ he somewhere
says, ‘but now the adopted children of power.’ So far there is nothing
new or distinctive; every one who can receive from a poem or picture a
total impression will admit so much. What makes the view distinctive
in Coleridge are the Schellingistic associations with which he colours
it, that faint glamour of the philosophy of nature which was ever
influencing his thoughts. That suggested the idea of a subtly winding
parallel, a ‘rapport’ in every detail, between the human mind and the
world without it, laws of nature being so many transformed ideas.
Conversely, the ideas of the human mind would be only transformed
laws. Genius would be in a literal sense an exquisitely purged
sympathy with nature. Those associative conceptions of the
imagination, those unforeseen types of passion, would come, not so
much of the artifice and invention of the understanding, as from
self-surrender to the suggestions of nature; they would be evolved by
the stir of nature itself realizing the highest reach of its latent
intelligence; they would have a kind of antecedent necessity to rise
at some time to the surface of the human mind.

It is natural that Shakespeare should be the idol of all such
criticism, whether in England or Germany. The first effect in
Shakespeare is that of capricious detail, of the waywardness that
plays with the parts careless of the impression of the whole. But
beyond there is the constraining unity of effect, the uneffaceable
impression, of _Hamlet_ or _Macbeth_. His hand moving freely is
curved round by some law of gravitation from within; that is, there is
the most constraining unity in the most abundant variety. Coleridge
exaggerates this unity into something like the unity of a natural
organism, the associative act that effected it into something closely
akin to the primitive power of nature itself. ‘In the Shakespearian
drama’, he says, ‘there is a vitality which grows and evolves itself
from within.’ Again:

     He, too, worked in the spirit of nature, by evolving the
     germ from within by the imaginative power according to the
     idea. For as the power of seeing is to light, so is an idea
     in mind to a law in nature. They are correlatives which
     suppose each other.

Again:

     The organic form is innate; it shapes, as it develops,
     itself from within, and the fulness of its development is
     one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.
     Such as the life is, such is the form. Nature, the prime
     genial artist, inexhaustible in diverse powers, is equally
     inexhaustible in forms; each exterior is the physiognomy of
     the being within, and even such is the appropriate
     excellence of Shakespeare, himself a nature humanized, a
     genial understanding, directing self-consciously a power and
     an implicit wisdom deeper even than our consciousness.

There ‘the absolute’ has been affirmed in the sphere of art; and
thought begins to congeal. Coleridge has not only overstrained the
elasticity of his hypothesis, but has also obscured the true interest
of art. For, after all, the artist has become something almost
mechanical; instead of being the most luminous and self-possessed
phase of consciousness, the associative act itself looks like some
organic process of assimilation. The work of art is sometimes likened
to the living organism. That expresses the impression of a
self-delighting, independent life which a finished work of art gives
us; it does not express the process by which that work was produced.
Here there is no blind ferment of lifeless elements to realize a type.
By exquisite analysis the artist attains clearness of idea, then, by
many stages of refining, clearness of expression. He moves slowly over
his work, calculating the tenderest tone, and restraining the subtlest
curve, never letting his hand or fancy move at large, gradually
refining flaccid spaces to the higher degree of expressiveness.
Culture, at least, values even in transcendent works of art the power
of the understanding in them, their logical process of construction,
the spectacle of supreme intellectual dexterity which they afford.

Coleridge’s criticism may well be remembered as part of the long
pleading of German culture for the things ‘behind the veil’. It
recalls us from the work of art to the mind of the artist; and, after
all, this is what is infinitely precious, and the work of art only as
the index of it. Still, that is only the narrower side of a complete
criticism. Perhaps it is true, as some one says in Lessing’s _Emilie
Galotti_, that, if Michael Angelo had been born without hands, he
would still have been the greatest of artists. But we must admit the
truth also of an opposite view: ‘In morals as in art’, says M. Renan,
‘the word is nothing--the fact is everything. The idea which lurks
under a picture of Raphael is a slight matter; it is the picture
itself only that counts.’

What constitutes an artistic gift is, first of all, a natural
susceptibility to moments of strange excitement, in which the colours
freshen upon our thread bare world, and the routine of things about
us is broken by a novel and happier synthesis. These are moments into
which other minds may be made to enter, but which they cannot
originate. This susceptibility is the element of genius in an artistic
gift. Secondly, there is what may be called the talent of projection,
of throwing these happy moments into an external concrete form--a
statue, or play, or picture. That projection is of all degrees of
completeness; its facility and transparence are modified by the
circumstances of the individual, his culture, and his age. When it is
perfectly transparent, the work is classical. Compare the power of
projection in Mr. Browning’s _Sordello_, with that power in the
_Sorrows of Werther_. These two elements determine the two chief aims
of criticism. First, it has to classify those initiative moments
according to the amount of interest excited in them, to estimate their
comparative acceptability, their comparative power of giving joy to
those who undergo them. Secondly, it has to test, by a study of the
artistic product itself, in connexion with the intellectual and
spiritual condition of its age, the completeness of the projection.
These two aims form the positive, or concrete, side of criticism;
their direction is not towards a metaphysical definition of the
universal element in an artistic effort, but towards a subtle
gradation of the shades of difference between one artistic gift and
another. This side of criticism is infinitely varied; and it is what
French culture more often achieves than the German.

Coleridge has not achieved this side in an equal degree with the
other; and this want is not supplied by the _Literary Remains_, which
contain his studies on Shakespeare. There we have a repetition, not
an application, of the absolute formula. Coleridge is like one who
sees in a picture only the rules of perspective, and is always trying
to simplify even those. Thus: ‘Where there is no humour, but only wit,
or the like, there is no growth from within.’ ‘What is beauty’? he
asks. ‘It is the unity of the manifold, the coalescence of the
diverse.’ So of Dante: ‘There is a total impression of infinity; the
wholeness is not in vision or conception, but in an inner feeling of
totality and absolute being.’ Again, of the _Paradise Lost_: ‘It has
the totality of the poem as distinguished from the _ab ovo_ birth and
parentage or straight line of history.’

That exaggerated inwardness is barren. Here, too, Coleridge’s thoughts
require to be thawed, to be set in motion. He is admirable in the
detection, the analysis, and statement of a few of the highest general
laws of art-production. But he withdraws us too far from what we can
see, hear, and feel. Doubtless, the idea, the intellectual element, is
the spirit and life of art. Still, art is the triumph of the senses
and the emotions; and the senses and the emotions must not be cheated
of their triumph after all. That strange and beautiful psychology
which he employs, with its evanescent delicacies, has not sufficient
corporeity. Again, one feels that the discussion about Hartley,
meeting us in the way, throws a tone of insecurity over the critical
theory which it introduces. Its only effect is to win for the terms in
which that criticism is expressed, the associations of one side in a
metaphysical controversy.

The vagueness and fluidity of Coleridge’s theological opinions have
been exaggerated through an illusion, which has arisen from the
occasional form in which they have reached us. Criticism, then, has to
methodize and focus them. They may be arranged under three heads; the
general principles of supernaturalism, orthodox dogmas, the
interpretation of Scripture. With regard to the first and second,
Coleridge ranks as a Conservative thinker; but his principles of
Scriptural interpretation resemble Lessing’s; they entitle him to be
regarded as the founder of the modern liberal school of English
theology. By supernaturalism is meant the theory of a divine person in
immediate communication with the human mind, dealing with it out of
that order of nature which includes man’s body and his ordinary trains
of thought, according to fixed laws, which the theologian sums up in
the doctrines of ‘grace’ and ‘sin’. Of this supernaturalism, the _Aids
to Reflection_ attempts to give a metaphysical proof. The first
necessity of the argument is to prove that religion, with its supposed
experiences of grace and sin, and the realities of a world above the
world of sense, is the fulfilment of the constitution of every man,
or, in the language of the ‘philosophy of nature’, is part of the
‘idea’ of man; so that, when those experiences are absent, all the
rest of his nature is unexplained, like some enigmatical fragment, the
construction and working of which we cannot surmise. According to
Schelling’s principle, the explanation of every phase of life is to be
sought in that next above it. This axiom is applied to three supposed
stages of man’s reflective life: Prudence, Morality, Religion.
Prudence, by which Coleridge means something like Bentham’s
‘enlightened principle of self-preservation’, is, he says, an
inexplicable instinct, a blind motion in the dark, until it is
expanded into morality. Morality, again, is but a groundless
prepossession until transformed into a religious recognition of a
spiritual world, until, as Coleridge says in his rich figurative
language, ‘like the main feeder into some majestic lake, rich with
hidden springs of its own, it flows into, and becomes one with, the
spiritual life.’ A spiritual life, then, being the fulfilment of human
nature, implied, if we see clearly, in those instincts which enable
one to live on from day to day, is part of the ‘idea’ of man.

The second necessity of the argument is to prove that ‘the idea’,
according to the principle of the ‘philosophy of nature’, is an
infallible index of the actual condition of the world without us. Here
Coleridge introduces an analogy:

     In the world, we see everywhere evidences of a unity, which
     the component parts are so far from explaining, that they
     necessarily presuppose it as the cause and condition of
     their existing as those parts, or even of their existing at
     all. This antecedent unity, or cause and principle of each
     union, it has, since the time of Bacon and Kepler, been
     customary to call a law. This crocus for instance; or any
     other flower the reader may have before his sight, or choose
     to bring before his fancy; that the root, stem, leaves,
     petals, &c., cohere to one plant is owing to an antecedent
     power or principle in the seed which existed before a single
     particle of the matters that constitute the size and
     visibility of the crocus had been attracted from the
     surrounding soil, air, and moisture. Shall we turn to the
     seed? there, too, the same necessity meets us: an antecedent
     unity must here, too, be supposed. Analyse the seeds with
     the finest tools, and let the solar microscope come in aid
     of your senses, what do you find?--means and instruments; a
     wondrous fairy tale of nature, magazines of food, stores of
     various sorts, pipes, spiracles, defences; a house of many
     chambers, and the owner and inhabitant invisible.

                                 _Aids to Reflection._

Nature, that is, works by what we may call ‘intact ideas’. It
co-ordinates every part of the crocus to all the other parts; one
stage of its growth to the whole process; and having framed its
organism to assimilate certain external elements, it does not cheat it
of those elements, soil, air, moisture. Well, if the ‘idea’ of man is
to be intact, he must be enveloped in a supernatural world; and nature
always works by intact ideas. The spiritual life is the highest
development of the idea of man; there must be a supernatural world
corresponding to it.

One finds, it is hard to say how many, difficulties in drawing
Coleridge’s conclusion. To mention only one of them--the argument
looks too like the exploded doctrine of final causes. Of course the
crocus would not live unless the conditions of its life were supplied.
The flower is made for soil, air, moisture, and it has them; just as
man’s senses are made for a sensible world, and we have the sensible
world. But give the flower the power of dreaming, nourish it on its
own reveries, put man’s wild hunger of heart and susceptibility to
_ennui_ in it, and what indication of the laws of the world without
it, would be afforded by its longing to break its bonds?

In theology people are content with analogies, probabilities, with the
empty schemes of arguments for which the data are still lacking;
arguments, the rejection of which Coleridge tells us implies ‘an evil
heart of unbelief’, but of which we might as truly say that they
derive all their consistency from the peculiar atmosphere of the mind
which receives them. Such arguments are received in theology because
what chains men to a religion is not its claim on their reason, their
hopes or fears, but the glow it affords to the world, its ‘beau
ideal’. Coleridge thinks that if we reject the supernatural, the
spiritual element in life will evaporate also, that we shall have to
accept a life with narrow horizons, without disinterestedness, harshly
cut off from the springs of life in the past. But what is this
spiritual element? It is the passion for inward perfection, with its
sorrows, its aspirations, its joy. These mental states are the
delicacies of the higher morality of the few, of Augustine, of the
author of the ‘Imitation’, of Francis de Sales; in their essence they
are only the permanent characteristics of the higher life. Augustine,
or the author of the ‘Imitation’, agreeably to the culture of their
age, had expressed them in the terms of a metaphysical theory, and
expanded them into what theologians call the doctrines of grace and
sin, the fluctuations of the union of the soul with its unseen friend.
The life of those who are capable of a passion for perfection still
produces the same mental states; but that religious expression of them
is no longer congruous with the culture of the age. Still, all inward
life works itself out in a few simple forms, and culture cannot go
very far before the religious graces reappear in it in a subtilized
intellectual shape. There are aspects of the religious character which
have an artistic worth distinct from their religious import. Longing,
a chastened temper, spiritual joy, are precious states of mind, not
because they are part of man’s duty or because God has commanded them,
still less because they are means of obtaining a reward, but because
like culture itself they are remote, refined, intense, existing only
by the triumph of a few over a dead world of routine in which there
is no lifting of the soul at all. If there is no other world, art in
its own interest must cherish such characteristics as beautiful
spectacles. Stephen’s face, ‘like the face of an angel,’ has a worth
of its own, even if the opened heaven is but a dream.

Our culture, then, is not supreme, our intellectual life is
incomplete, we fail of the intellectual throne, if we have no inward
longing, inward chastening, inward joy. Religious belief, the craving
for objects of belief, may be refined out of our hearts, but they must
leave their sacred perfume, their spiritual sweetness behind. This law
of the highest intellectual life has sometimes seemed hard to
understand. Those who maintain the claims of the older and narrower
forms of religious life against the claims of culture are often
embarrassed at finding the intellectual life heated through with the
very graces to which they would sacrifice it. How often in the higher
class of theological writings--writings which really spring from an
original religious genius, such as those of Dr. Newman--does the
modern aspirant to perfect culture seem to find the expression of the
inmost delicacies of his own life, the same yet different! The
spiritualities of the Christian life have often drawn men on, little
by little, into the broader spiritualities of systems opposed to
it--pantheism, or positivism, or a philosophy of indifference. Many in
our own generation, through religion, have become dead to religion.
How often do we have to look for some feature of the ancient religious
life, not in a modern saint, but in a modern artist or philosopher!
For those who have passed out of Christianity, perhaps its most
precious souvenir is the ideal of a transcendental disinterestedness.
Where shall we look for this ideal? In Spinoza; or perhaps in Bentham
or in Austin.

Some of those who have wished to save supernaturalism--as, for
instance, Theodore Parker--have rejected more or less entirely the
dogmas of the Church. Coleridge’s instinct is truer than theirs; the
two classes of principles are logically connected. It was in defence
of the dogmas of the Church that Coleridge elaborated his unhappy
crotchet of the diversity of the reason from the understanding. The
weakness of these dogmas had ever been, not so much a failure of the
authority of Scripture or tradition in their favour, as their conflict
with the reason that they were words rather than conceptions. That
analysis of words and conceptions which in modern philosophy has been
a principle of continual rejuvenescence with Descartes and Berkeley,
as well as with Bacon and Locke, had desolated the field of scholastic
theology. It is the rationality of the dogmas of that theology that
Coleridge had a taste for proving.

Of course they conflicted with the understanding, with the common
daylight of the mind, but then might there not be some mental faculty
higher than the understanding? The history of philosophy supplied many
authorities for this opinion. Then, according to the ‘philosophy of
nature’, science and art are both grounded upon the ‘ideas’ of genius,
which are a kind of intuition, which are their own evidence. Again,
this philosophy was always saying the ideas of the mind must be true,
must correspond to reality; and what an aid to faith is that, if one
is not too nice in distinguishing between ideas and mere convictions,
or prejudices, or habitual views, or safe opinions! Kant also had
made a distinction between the reason and the understanding. True,
this harsh division of mental faculties is exactly what is most
sterile in Kant, the essential tendency of the German school of
thought being to show that the mind always acts _en masse_. Kant had
defined two senses of reason as opposed to the understanding. First,
there was the ‘speculative reason’, with its ‘three categories of
totality’, God, the soul, and the universe--three mental forms which
might give a sort of unity to science, but to which no actual
intuition corresponded. The tendency of this part of Kant’s critique
is to destroy the rational groundwork of theism. Then there was the
‘practical reason’, on the relation of which to the ‘speculative’, we
may listen to Heinrich Heine:

     ‘After the tragedy comes the farce. [The tragedy is Kant’s
     destructive criticism of the speculative reason.] So far
     Immanuel Kant has been playing the relentless philosopher;
     he has laid siege to heaven.’ Heine goes on with some
     violence to describe the havoc Kant has made of the orthodox
     belief: ‘Old Lampe,[40] with the umbrella under his arm,
     stands looking on much disturbed, perspiration and tears of
     sorrow running down his cheeks. Then Immanuel Kant grows
     pitiful, and shows that he is not only a great philosopher
     but also a good man. He considers a little; and then, half
     in good nature, half in irony, he says, “Old Lampe must have
     a god, otherwise the poor man will not be happy; but man
     ought to be happy in this life, the practical reason says
     that; let the practical reason stand surety for the
     existence of a god; it is all the same to me.” Following
     this argument, Kant distinguishes between the theoretical
     and the practical reason, and, with the practical reason for
     a magic wand, he brings to life the dead body of deism,
     which the theoretical reason had slain.’

    [40] The servant who attended Kant in his walks.

Coleridge first confused the speculative reason with the practical,
and then exaggerated the variety and the sphere of their combined
functions. Then he has given no consistent definition of the reason.
It is ‘the power of universal and necessary convictions’; it is ‘the
knowledge of the laws of the whole considered as one’; it is ‘the
science of all as a whole’. Again, the understanding is ‘the faculty
judging according to sense’, or ‘the faculty of means to mediate
ends’; and so on. The conception floating in his mind seems to have
been a really valuable one; that, namely, of a distinction between an
organ of adequate and an organ of inadequate ideas. But when we find
him casting about for a definition, not precisely determining the
functions of the reason, making long preparations for the ‘deduction’
of the faculty, as in the third column of _The Friend_, but never
actually starting, we suspect that the reason is a discovery in
psychology which Coleridge has a good will to make, and that is all;
that he has got no farther than the old vague desire to escape from
the limitations of thought by some extraordinary mystical faculty.
Some of the clergy eagerly welcomed the supposed discovery. In their
difficulties they had often appealed in the old simple way to
sentiment and emotion as of higher authority than the understanding,
and on the whole had had to get on with very little philosophy. Like
M. Jourdain, they were amazed to find that they had been all the time
appealing to the reason; now they might actually go out to meet the
enemy. Orthodoxy might be cured by a hair of the dog that had bitten
it.

Theology is a great house, scored all over with hieroglyphics by
perished hands. When we decipher one of these hieroglyphics, we find
in it the statement of a mistaken opinion; but knowledge has crept
onward since the hand dropped from the wall; we no longer entertain
the opinion, and we can trace the origin of the mistake. Dogmas are
precious as memorials of a class of sincere and beautiful spirits, who
in a past age of humanity struggled with many tears, if not for true
knowledge, yet for a noble and elevated happiness. That struggle is
the substance, the dogma only its shadowy expression; received
traditionally in an altered age, it is the shadow of a shadow, a mere
τρίτον εἴδωλον, twice removed from substance and reality. The true
method then in the treatment of dogmatic theology must be historical.
Englishmen are gradually finding out how much that method has done
since the beginning of modern criticism by the hands of such writers
as Baur. Coleridge had many of the elements of this method: learning,
inwardness, a subtle psychology, a dramatic power of sympathy with
modes of thought other than his own. Often in carrying out his own
method he gives the true historical origin of a dogma, but, with a
strange dullness of the historical sense, he regards this as a reason
for the existence of the dogma now, not merely as reason for its
having existed in the past. Those historical elements he could not
envisage in the historical method, because this method is only one of
the applications, the most fruitful of them all, of the relative
spirit.

After Coleridge’s death, seven letters of his on the inspiration of
Scripture were published, under the title of _Confessions of an
Inquiring Spirit_. This little book has done more than any other of
Coleridge’s writings to discredit his name with the orthodox. The
frequent occurrence in it of the word ‘bibliolatry’, borrowed from
Lessing, would sufficiently account for this pious hatred. From
bibliolatry Coleridge was saved by the spiritualism, which, in
questions less simple than that of the infallibility of Scripture, was
so retarding to his culture. Bibliolators may remember that one who
committed a kind of intellectual suicide by catching at any appearance
of a fixed and absolute authority, never dreamed of resting on the
authority of a book. His Schellingistic notion of the possibility of
absolute knowledge, of knowing God, of a light within every man which
might discover to him the doctrines of Christianity, tended to
depreciate historical testimony, perhaps historical realism
altogether. Scripture is a legitimate sphere for the understanding. He
says, indeed, that there is more in the Bible that ‘finds’ him than he
has experienced in all other books put together. But still, ‘There is
a Light higher than all, even the Word that was in the beginning. If
between this Word and the written letter I shall anywhere seem to
myself to find a discrepance, I will not conclude that such there
actually is; nor on the other hand will I fall under the condemnation
of them that would lie for God, but seek as I may, be thankful for
what I have--and wait.’ Coleridge is the inaugurator of that _via
media_ of Scriptural criticism which makes much of saving the word
‘inspiration’, while it attenuates its meaning; which supposes a sort
of modified inspiration residing in the whole, not in the several
parts. ‘The Scriptures were not dictated by an infallible
intelligence;’ nor ‘the writers each and all divinely informed as
well as inspired’. ‘They refer to other documents, and in all points
express themselves as sober-minded and veracious writers under
ordinary circumstances are known to do.’ To make the Bible itself ‘the
subject of a special article of faith, is an unnecessary and useless
abstraction’.

His judgement on the popular view of inspiration is severe. It is
borrowed from the Cabbalists; it ‘petrifies at once the whole body of
Holy Writ, with all its harmonies and symmetrical gradations;--turns
it at once into a colossal Memnon’s head, a hollow passage for a
voice, a voice that mocks the voices of many men, and speaks in their
names, and yet is but one voice and the same;--and no man uttered it
and never in a human heart was it conceived’. He presses very hard on
the tricks of the ‘routiniers of desk and pulpit’; forced and
fantastic interpretations; ‘the strange--in all other writings
unexampled--practice of bringing together into logical dependency
detached sentences from books composed at the distance of centuries,
nay, sometimes a millennium, from each other, under different
dispensations, and for different objects.’

Certainly he is much farther from bibliolatry than from the perfect
freedom of the humanist interpreters. Still he has not freed himself
from the notion of a sacred canon; he cannot regard the books of
Scripture simply as fruits of the human spirit; his criticism is not
entirely disinterested. The difficulties he finds are chiefly the
supposed immoralities of Scripture; just those difficulties which fade
away before the modern or relative spirit, which in the moral world,
as in the physical traces everywhere change, growth, development. Of
historical difficulties, of those deeper moral difficulties which
arise, for instance, from a consideration of the constitutional
unveracity of the Oriental mind, he has no suspicion. He thinks that
no book of the New Testament was composed so late as A.D. 120.

Coleridge’s undeveloped opinions would be hardly worth stating except
for the warning they afford against retarding compromises. In reading
these letters one never doubts what Coleridge tells us of himself:
‘that he loved truth with an indescribable awe,’ or, as he beautifully
says, ‘that he would creep towards the light, even if the light had
made its way through a rent in the wall of the temple.’ And yet there
is something sad in reading them by the light which twenty-five years
have thrown back upon them. Taken as a whole, they contain a fallacy
which a very ardent lover of truth might have detected.

The Bible is not to judge the spirit, but the spirit the Bible. The
Bible is to be treated as a literary product. Well, but that is a
conditional, not an absolute principle--that is not, if we regard it
sincerely, a delivery of judgement, but only a suspension of it. If we
are true to the spirit of that, we must wait patiently the complete
result of modern criticism. Coleridge states that the authority of
Scripture is on its trial--that at present it is not known to be an
absolute resting-place; and then, instead of leaving that to aid in
the formation of a fearless spirit, the spirit which, for instance,
would accept the results of M. Renan’s investigations, he turns it
into a false security by anticipating the judgement of an undeveloped
criticism. Twenty-five years of that criticism have gone by, and have
hardly verified the anticipation.

The man of science asks, Are absolute principles attainable? What are
the limits of knowledge? The answer he receives from science itself is
not ambiguous. What the moralist asks is, Shall we gain or lose by
surrendering human life to the relative spirit? Experience answers,
that the dominant tendency of life is to turn ascertained truth into a
dead letter--to make us all the phlegmatic servants of routine. The
relative spirit, by dwelling constantly on the more fugitive
conditions or circumstances of things, breaking through a thousand
rough and brutal classifications, and giving elasticity to inflexible
principles, begets an intellectual finesse, of which the ethical
result is a delicate and tender justness in the criticism of human
life. Who would gain more than Coleridge by criticism in such a
spirit? We know how his life has appeared when judged by absolute
standards. We see him trying to apprehend the absolute, to stereotype
one form of faith, to attain, as he says, ‘fixed principles’ in
politics, morals, and religion; to fix one mode of life as the essence
of life, refusing to see the parts as parts only; and all the time his
own pathetic history pleads for a more elastic moral philosophy than
his, and cries out against every formula less living and flexible than
life itself.

‘From his childhood he hungered for eternity.’ After all, that is the
incontestable claim of Coleridge. The perfect flower of any elementary
type of life must always be precious to humanity, and Coleridge is the
perfect flower of the romantic type. More than Childe Harold, more
than Werther, more than René, Coleridge, by what he did, what he was,
and what he failed to do, represents that inexhaustible discontent,
languor, and home-sickness, the chords of which ring all through our
modern literature. Criticism may still discuss the claims of classical
and romantic art, or literature, or sentiment; and perhaps one day we
may come to forget the horizon, with full knowledge to be content with
what is here and now; and that is the essence of classical feeling.
But by us of the present moment, by us for whom the Greek spirit, with
its engaging naturalness, simple, chastened, debonair, τρυφῆς, ἁβρότητος,
χλιδῆς, χαρίτων, ἱμέρου πόθου πατήρ, is itself the Sangraal of an endless
pilgrimage, Coleridge, with his passion for the absolute, for
something fixed where all is moving, his faintness, his broken memory,
his intellectual disquiet, may still be ranked among the interpreters
of one of the constituent elements of our life.



RALPH WALDO EMERSON

1803-1882

SHAKESPEARE; OR, THE POET. 1850.


Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by
originality. If we require the originality which consists in weaving,
like a spider, their web from their own bowels; in finding clay, and
making bricks, and building the house; no great men are original. Nor
does valuable originality consist in unlikeness to other men. The hero
is in the press of knights, and the thick of events; and, seeing what
men want, and sharing their desire, he adds the needful length of
sight and of arm, to come at the desired point. The greatest genius is
the most indebted man. A poet is no rattlebrain, saying what comes
uppermost, and, because he says everything, saying, at last, something
good; but a heart in unison with his time and country. There is
nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production, but sweet and sad
earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions, and pointed with
the most determined aim which any man or class knows of in his times.

The Genius of our life is jealous of individuals, and will not have
any individual great, except through the general. There is no choice
to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say,
‘I am full of life, I will go to sea, and find an Antarctic continent:
to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany, and find a
new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a
new mechanic power:’ no, but he finds himself in the river of the
thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his
contemporaries. He stands where all the eyes of men look one way, and
their hands all point in the direction in which he should go. The
church has reared him amidst rites and pomps, and he carries out the
advice which her music gave him, and builds a cathedral needed by her
chants and processions. He finds a war raging: it educates him, by
trumpet, in barracks, and he betters the instruction. He finds two
counties groping to bring coal, or flour, or fish, from the place of
production to the place of consumption, and he hits on a railroad.
Every master has found his material collected, and his power lay in
his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he
wrought in. What an economy of power! and what a compensation for the
shortness of life! All is done to his hand. The world has brought him
thus far on his way. The human race has gone out before him, sunk the
hills, filled the hollows, and bridged the rivers. Men, nations,
poets, artisans, women, all have worked for him, and he enters into
their labours. Choose any other thing, out of the line of tendency,
out of the national feeling and history, and he would have all to do
for himself; his powers would be expended in the first preparations.
Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being
original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world
do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed
through the mind.

Shakespeare’s youth fell in a time when the English people were
importunate for dramatic entertainments. The court took offence easily
at political allusions, and attempted to suppress them. The Puritans,
a growing and energetic party, and the religious among the Anglican
church, would suppress them. But the people wanted them. Inn-yards,
houses without roofs, and extemporaneous enclosures at country fairs,
were the ready theatres of strolling players. The people had tasted
this new joy; and, as we could not hope to suppress newspapers
now,--no, not by the strongest party,--neither then could king,
prelate, or puritan, alone or united, suppress an organ, which was
ballad, epic, newspaper, caucus, lecture, punch, and library, at the
same time. Probably king, prelate, and puritan, all found their own
account in it. It had become, by all causes, a national interest,--by
no means conspicuous, so that some great scholar would have thought of
treating it in an English history,--but not a whit less considerable,
because it was cheap, and of no account, like a baker’s shop. The best
proof of its vitality is the crowd of writers which suddenly broke
into this field: Kyd, Marlowe, Greene, Jonson, Chapman, Dekker,
Webster, Heywood, Middleton, Peele, Ford, Massinger, Beaumont, and
Fletcher.

The secure possession, by the stage, of the public mind, is of the
first importance to the poet who works for it. He loses no time in
idle experiments. Here is audience and expectation prepared. In the
case of Shakespeare, there is much more. At the time when he left
Stratford, and went up to London, a great body of stage-plays, of all
dates and writers, existed in manuscript, and were in turn produced
on the boards. Here is the Tale of Troy, which the audience will bear
hearing some part of every week; the Death of Julius Cæsar, and other
stories out of Plutarch, which they never tire of; a shelf full of
English history, from the chronicles of Brut and Arthur, down to the
royal Henries, which men hear eagerly; and a string of doleful
tragedies, merry Italian tales, and Spanish voyages, which all the
London prentices know. All the mass has been treated, with more or
less skill, by every playwright, and the prompter has the soiled and
tattered manuscripts. It is now no longer possible to say who wrote
them first. They have been the property of the Theatre so long, and so
many rising geniuses have enlarged or altered them, inserting a
speech, or a whole Scene, or adding a song, that no man can any longer
claim copyright in this work of numbers. Happily, no man wishes to.
They are not yet desired in that way. We have few readers, many
spectators and hearers. They had best lie where they are.

Shakespeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old
plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had
the _prestige_ which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing
could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England
circulated in the play, as in street-ballads, and gave body which he
wanted to his airy and majestic fancy. The poet needs a ground in
popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain
his art within the due temperance. It holds him to the people,
supplies a foundation for his edifice; and, in furnishing so much
work done to his hand, leaves him at leisure, and in full strength for
the audacities of his imagination. In short, the poet owes to his
legend what sculpture owed to the temple. Sculpture in Egypt, and in
Greece, grew up in subordination to architecture. It was the ornament
of the temple wall: at first, a rude relief carved on pediments, then
the relief became bolder, and a head or arm was projected from the
wall, the groups being still arranged with reference to the building,
which serves also as a frame to hold the figures; and when, at last,
the greatest freedom of style and treatment was reached, the
prevailing genius of architecture still enforced a certain calmness
and continence in the statue. As soon as the statue was begun for
itself, and with no reference to the temple or palace, the art began
to decline; freak, extravagance, and exhibition, took the place of the
old temperance. This balance-wheel, which the sculptor found in
architecture, the perilous irritability of poetic talent found in the
accumulated dramatic materials to which the people were already
wonted, and which had a certain excellence which no single genius,
however extraordinary, could hope to create.

In point of fact, it appears that Shakespeare did owe debts in all
directions, and was able to use whatever he found; and the amount of
indebtedness may be inferred from Malone’s laborious computations in
regard to the First, Second, and Third parts of _Henry VI_, in which,
‘out of 6043 lines, 1771 were written by some author preceding
Shakespeare; 2373 by him, on the foundation laid by his predecessors;
and 1899 were entirely his own.’ And the proceeding investigation
hardly leaves a single drama of his absolute invention. Malone’s
sentence is an important piece of external history. In _Henry VIII_, I
think I see plainly the cropping out of the original rock on which his
own finer stratum was laid. The first play was written by a superior,
thoughtful man, with a vicious ear. I can mark his lines, and know
well their cadence. See Wolsey’s soliloquy, and the following scene
with Cromwell, where,--instead of the metre of Shakespeare, whose
secret is, that the thought constructs the tune, so that reading for
the sense will best bring out the rhythm,--here the lines are
constructed on a given tune, and the verse has even a trace of pulpit
eloquence. But the play contains, through all its length, unmistakable
traits of Shakespeare’s hand, and some passages, as the account of the
coronation, are like autographs. What is odd, the compliment to Queen
Elizabeth is in the bad rhythm.

Shakespeare knew that tradition supplies a better fable than any
invention can. If he lost any credit of design, he augmented his
resources; and, at that day, our petulant demand for originality was
not so much pressed. There was no literature for the million. The
universal reading, the cheap press, were unknown. A great poet, who
appears in illiterate times, absorbs into his sphere all the light
which is anywhere radiating. Every intellectual jewel, every flower of
sentiment, it is his fine office to bring to his people; and he comes
to value his memory equally with his invention. He is therefore little
solicitous whence his thoughts have been derived; whether through
translation, whether through tradition, whether by travel in distant
countries, whether by inspiration; from whatever source, they are
equally welcome to his uncritical audience. Nay, he borrows very near
home. Other men say wise things as well as he; only they say a good
many foolish things, and do not know when they have spoken wisely. He
knows the sparkle of the true stone, and puts it in high place,
wherever he finds it. Such is the happy position of Homer, perhaps; of
Chaucer, of Saadi. They felt that all wit was their wit. And they are
librarians and historiographers, as well as poets. Each romancer was
heir and dispenser of all the hundred tales of the world,--

    Presenting Thebes’ and Pelops’ line,
    And the tale of Troy divine.

The influence of Chaucer is conspicuous in all our early literature;
and, more recently, not only Pope and Dryden have been beholden to
him, but, in the whole society of English writers, a large
unacknowledged debt is easily traced. One is charmed with the opulence
which feeds so many pensioners. But Chaucer is a huge borrower.
Chaucer, it seems, drew continually, through Lydgate and Caxton, from
Guido di Colonna, whose Latin romance of the Trojan war was in turn a
compilation from Dares Phrygius, Ovid, and Statius. Then Petrarch,
Boccaccio, and the Provençal poets are his benefactors: the _Romaunt
of the Rose_ is only judicious translation from William of Lorris and
John of Meun: _Troilus and Creseide_, from Lollius of Urbino: _The
Cock and the Fox_, from the _Lais_ of Marie: _The House of Fame_, from
the French or Italian: and poor Gower he uses as if he were only a
brick-kiln or stone-quarry, out of which to build his house. He
steals by this apology; that what he takes has no worth where he finds
it, and the greatest where he leaves it. It has come to be practically
a sort of rule in literature, that a man, having once shown himself
capable of original writing, is entitled thenceforth to steal from the
writings of others at discretion. Thought is the property of him who
can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it. A certain
awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we
have learned what to do with them, they become our own.

Thus, all originality is relative. Every thinker is retrospective. The
learned member of the legislature at Westminster or at Washington,
speaks and votes for thousands. Show us the constituency, and the now
invisible channels by which the senator is made aware of their wishes,
the crowd of practical and knowing men, who, by correspondence or
conversation, are feeding him with evidence, anecdotes, and estimates,
and it will bereave his fine attitude and resistance of something of
their impressiveness. As Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Webster vote, so
Locke and Rousseau think for thousands; and so there were fountains
all around Homer, Menu, Saadi, or Milton, from which they drew;
friends, lovers, books, traditions, proverbs,--all perished,--which,
if seen, would go to reduce the wonder. Did the bard speak with
authority? Did he feel himself overmatched by any companion? The
appeal is to the consciousness of the writer. Is there at last in his
breast a Delphi whereof to ask concerning any thought or thing,
whether it be verily so, yea or nay? and to have answer, and to rely
on that? All the debts which such a man could contract to other wit,
would never disturb his consciousness of originality: for the
ministrations of books, and of other minds, are a whiff of smoke to
that most private reality with which he has conversed.

It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the
world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labour, when a
thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse. Our English Bible
is a wonderful specimen of the strength and music of the English
language. But it was not made by one man, or at one time; but
centuries and churches brought it to perfection; There never was a
time when there was not some translation existing. The Liturgy,
admired for its energy and pathos, is an anthology of the piety of
ages and nations, a translation of the prayers and forms of the
Catholic church,--these collected, too, in long periods, from the
prayers and meditations of every saint and sacred writer, all over the
world. Grotius makes the like remark in respect to the Lord’s Prayer,
that the single clauses of which it is composed were already in use,
in the time of Christ, in the rabbinical forms. He picked out the
grains of gold. The nervous language of the Common Law, the impressive
forms of our courts, and the precision and substantial truth of the
legal distinctions, are the contribution of all the sharp-sighted,
strong-minded men who have lived in the countries where these laws
govern. The translation of Plutarch gets its excellence by being
translation on translation. There never was a time when there was
none. All the truly idiomatic and national phrases are kept, and all
others successively picked out, and thrown away. Something like the
same process had gone on, long before, with the originals of these
books. The world takes liberties with world-books. Vedas, Æsop’s
Fables, Pilpay, Arabian Nights, Cid, Iliad, Robin Hood, Scottish
Minstrelsy, are not the work of single men. In the composition of such
works, the time thinks, the market thinks, the mason, the carpenter,
the merchant, the farmer, the fop, all think for us. Every book
supplies its time with one good word; every municipal law, every
trade, every folly of the day, and the generic catholic genius who is
not afraid or ashamed to owe his originality to the originality of
all, stands with the next age as the recorder and embodiment of his
own.

We have to thank the researches of antiquaries, and the Shakespeare
Society, for ascertaining the steps of the English drama, from the
Mysteries celebrated in churches and by churchmen, and the final
detachment from the church, and the completion of secular plays, from
_Ferrex and Porrex_, and _Gammer Gurton’s Needle_, down to the
possession of the stage by the very pieces which Shakespeare altered,
remodelled, and finally made his own. Elated with success, and piqued
by the growing interest of the problem, they have left no bookstall
unsearched, no chest in a garret unopened, no file of old yellow
accounts to decompose in damp and worms, so keen was the hope to
discover whether the boy Shakespeare poached or not, whether he held
horses at the theatre door, whether he kept school, and why he left in
his will only his second-best bed to Ann Hathaway, his wife.

There is somewhat touching in the madness with which the passing age
mischooses the object on which all candles shine, and all eyes are
turned; the care with which it registers every trifle touching Queen
Elizabeth, and King James, and the Essexes, Leicesters, Burleighs, and
Buckinghams; and lets pass without a single valuable note the founder
of another dynasty, which alone will cause the Tudor dynasty to be
remembered,--the man who carries the Saxon race in him by the
inspiration which feeds him, and on whose thoughts the foremost people
of the world are now for some ages to be nourished, and minds to
receive this and not another bias. A popular player,--nobody suspected
he was the poet of the human race; and the secret was kept as
faithfully from poets and intellectual men, as from courtiers and
frivolous people. Bacon, who took the inventory of the human
understanding for his times, never mentioned his name. Ben Jonson,
though we have strained his few words of regard and panegyric, had no
suspicion of the elastic fame whose first vibrations he was
attempting. He no doubt thought the praise he has conceded to him
generous, and esteemed himself, out of all question, the better poet
of the two.

If it need wit to know wit, according to the proverb, Shakespeare’s
time should be capable of recognizing it. Sir Henry Wotton was born
four years after Shakespeare, and died twenty-three years after him;
and I find, among his correspondents and acquaintances, the following
persons: Theodore Beza, Isaac Casaubon, Sir Philip Sidney, Earl of
Essex, Lord Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Milton, Sir Henry Vane,
Izaac Walton, Dr. Donne, Abraham Cowley, Bellarmine, Charles Cotton,
John Pym, John Hales, Kepler, Vieta, Albericus Gentilis, Paul Sarpi,
Arminius; with all of whom exists some token of his having
communicated, without enumerating many others, whom doubtless he
saw,--Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, Beaumont, Massinger, two Herberts,
Marlowe, Chapman, and the rest. Since the constellation of great men
who appeared in Greece in the time of Pericles, there was never any
such society; yet their genius failed them to find out the best head
in the universe. Our poet’s mask was impenetrable. You cannot see the
mountain near. It took a century to make it suspected; and not until
two centuries had passed, after his death, did any criticism which we
think adequate begin to appear. It was not possible to write the
history of Shakespeare till now; for he is the father of German
literature: it was on the introduction of Shakespeare into German, by
Lessing, and the translation of his works by Wieland and Schlegel,
that the rapid burst of German literature was most intimately
connected. It was not until the nineteenth century, whose speculative
genius is a sort of living Hamlet, that the tragedy of Hamlet could
find such wondering readers. Now, literature, philosophy, and thought
are Shakespearized. His mind is the horizon beyond which, at present,
we do not see. Our ears are educated to music by his rhythm. Coleridge
and Goethe are the only critics who have expressed our convictions
with any adequate fidelity; but there is in all cultivated minds a
silent appreciation of his superlative power and beauty, which, like
Christianity, qualifies the period.

The Shakespeare Society have inquired in all directions, advertised
the missing facts, offered money for any information that will lead
to proof; and with what result? Beside some important illustration of
the history of the English stage, to which I have adverted, they have
gleaned a few facts touching the property, and dealings in regard to
property, of the poet. It appears that, from year to year, he owned a
larger share in the Blackfriars Theatre: its wardrobe and other
appurtenances were his; that he bought an estate in his native
village, with his earnings, as writer and shareholder; that he lived
in the best house in Stratford; was intrusted by his neighbours with
their commissions in London, as of borrowing money, and the like; that
he was a veritable farmer. About the time when he was writing
_Macbeth_, he sues Philip Rogers, in the borough-court of Stratford,
for thirty-five shillings, ten pence, for corn delivered to him at
different times; and, in all respects, appears as a good husband, with
no reputation for eccentricity or excess. He was a good-natured sort
of man, an actor and shareholder in the theatre, not in any striking
manner distinguished from other actors and managers. I admit the
importance of this information. It was well worth the pains that have
been taken to procure it.

But whatever scraps of information concerning his condition these
researches may have rescued, they can shed no light upon that infinite
invention which is the concealed magnet of his attraction for us. We
are very clumsy writers of history. We tell the chronicle of
parentage, birth, birthplace, schooling, schoolmates, earning of
money, marriage, publication of books, celebrity, death; and when we
have come to an end of this gossip, no ray of relation appears
between it and the goddess-born; and it seems as if, had we dipped at
random into the _Modern Plutarch_ and read any other life there, it
would have fitted the poems as well. It is the essence of poetry to
spring, like the rainbow daughter of Wonder, from the invisible, to
abolish the past, and refuse all history. Malone, Warburton, Dyce, and
Collier have wasted their oil. The famed theatres, Covent Garden,
Drury Lane, the Park, and Tremont, have vainly assisted. Betterton,
Garrick, Kemble, Kean, and Macready dedicate their lives to this
genius; him they crown, elucidate, obey, and express. The genius knows
them not. The recitation begins; one golden word leaps out immortal
from all this painted pedantry, and sweetly torments us with
invitations to its own inaccessible homes. I remember, I went once to
see the Hamlet of a famed performer, the pride of the English stage;
and all I then heard, and all I now remember, of the tragedian, was
that in which the tragedian had no part; simply, Hamlet’s question to
the ghost:

                    What may this mean,
    That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
    Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon?

That imagination which dilates the closet he writes in to the world’s
dimension, crowds it with agents in rank and order, as quickly reduces
the big reality to be the glimpses of the moon. These tricks of his
magic spoil for us the illusions of the green-room. Can any biography
shed light on the localities into which the _Midsummer Night’s Dream_
admits me? Did Shakespeare confide to any notary or parish recorder,
sacristan, or surrogate, in Stratford, the genesis of that delicate
creation? The forest of Arden, the nimble air of Scone Castle, the
moonlight of Portia’s villa, ‘the antres vast and desarts idle’ of
Othello’s captivity,--where is the third cousin, or grand-nephew, the
chancellor’s file of accounts, or private letter, that has kept one
word of those transcendent secrets? In fine, in this drama, as in all
great works of art,--in the Cyclopean architecture of Egypt and India;
in the Phidian sculpture; the Gothic minsters; the Italian painting;
the Ballads of Spain and Scotland;--the Genius draws up the ladder
after him, when the creative age goes up to heaven, and gives way to a
new age, which sees the works, and asks in vain for a history.

Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can
tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us; that is, to our most
apprehensive and sympathetic hour. He cannot step from off his tripod,
and give us anecdotes of his inspirations. Read the antique documents
extricated, analysed, and compared by the assiduous Dyce and Collier;
and now read one of those skyey sentences,--aerolites,--which seem to
have fallen out of heaven, and which, not your experience, but the man
within the breast, has accepted as words of fate; and tell me if they
match; if the former account in any manner for the latter; or which
gives the most historical insight into the man.

Hence, though our external history is so meagre, yet with Shakespeare
for biographer, instead of Aubrey and Rowe, we have really the
information which is material, that which describes character and
fortune, that which, if we were about to meet the man and deal with
him, would most import us to know. We have his recorded convictions on
those questions which knock for answer at every heart,--on life and
death, on love, on wealth and poverty, on the prizes of life, and the
ways whereby we come at them; on the characters of men, and the
influences, occult and open, which affect their fortunes; and on those
mysterious and demoniacal powers which defy our science, and which yet
interweave their malice and their gift in our brightest hours. Who
ever read the volume of the Sonnets, without finding that the poet had
there revealed, under masks that are no masks to the intelligent, the
lore of friendship and of love; the confusion of sentiments in the
most susceptible, and, at the same time, the most intellectual of men?
What trait of his private mind has he hidden in his dramas? One can
discern, in his ample pictures of the gentleman and the king, what
forms and humanities pleased him; his delight in troops of friends, in
large hospitality, in cheerful giving. Let Timon, let Warwick, let
Antonio the merchant, answer for his great heart. So far from
Shakespeare’s being the least known, he is the one person, in all
modern history, known to us. What point of morals, of manners, of
economy, of philosophy, of religion, of taste, of the conduct of life,
has he not settled? What mystery has he not signified his knowledge
of? What office, or function, or district of man’s work, has he not
remembered? What king has he not taught state, as Talma taught
Napoleon? What maiden has not found him finer than her delicacy? What
lover has he not outloved? What sage has he not outseen? What
gentleman has he not instructed in the rudeness of his behaviour?

Some able and appreciating critics think no criticism on Shakespeare
valuable, that does not rest purely on the dramatic merit; that he is
falsely judged as poet and philosopher. I think as highly as these
critics of his dramatic merit, but still think it secondary. He was a
full man, who liked to talk; a brain exhaling thoughts and images,
which, seeking vent, found the drama next at hand. Had he been less,
we should have had to consider how well he filled his place, how good
a dramatist he was, and he is the best in the world. But it turns out,
that what he has to say is of that weight as to withdraw some
attention from the vehicle; and he is like some saint whose history is
to be rendered into all languages, into verse and prose, into songs
and pictures, and cut up into proverbs; so that the occasion which
gave the saint’s meaning the form of a conversation, or of a prayer,
or of a code of laws, is immaterial, compared with the universality of
its application. So it fares with the wise Shakespeare and his book of
life. He wrote the airs for all our modern music: he wrote the text of
modern life; the text of manners: he drew the man of England and
Europe; the father of the man in America: he drew the man, and
described the day, and what is done in it; he read the hearts of men
and women, their probity, and their second thought, and wiles; the
wiles of innocence, and the transitions by which virtues and vices
slide into their contraries: he could divide the mother’s part from
the father’s part in the face of the child, or draw the fine
demarcations of freedom and of fate: he knew the laws of repression
which make the police of nature; and all the sweets and all the
terrors of human lot lay in his mind as truly but as softly as the
landscape lies on the eye. And the importance of this wisdom of life
sinks the form, as of Drama or Epic, out of notice. ’Tis like making a
question concerning the paper on which a king’s message is written.

Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he
is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others,
conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain,
and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare’s. We are still out of
doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No
man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety
compatible with an individual self,--the subtilest of authors, and
only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of
life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He
clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if
they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have
left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in
language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him
into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent
humanity co-ordinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story
to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain
observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence,
and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves
that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his
fitness and strength. But Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no
importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities:
no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no
discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small,
subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong,
as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without
effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and
likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of
power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so
incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other
readers.

This power of expression, or of transferring the inmost truth of
things into music and verse, makes him the type of the poet, and has
added a new problem to metaphysics. This is that which throws him into
natural history, as a main production of the globe, and as announcing
new eras and ameliorations. Things were mirrored in his poetry without
loss or blur; he could paint the fine with precision, the great with
compass; the tragic and the comic indifferently, and without any
distortion or favour. He carried his powerful execution into minute
details, to a hair point; finishes an eyelash or a dimple as firmly as
he draws a mountain; and yet these, like nature’s, will bear the
scrutiny of the solar microscope.

In short, he is the chief example to prove that more or less of
production, more or fewer pictures, is a thing indifferent. He had the
power to make one picture. Daguerre learned how to let one flower etch
its image on his plate of iodine; and then proceeds at leisure to etch
a million. There are always objects; but there was never
representation. Here is perfect representation, at last; and now let
the world of figures sit for their portraits. No recipe can be given
for the making of a Shakespeare; but the possibility of the
translation of things into song is demonstrated.

His lyric power lies in the genius of the piece. The sonnets, though
their excellence is lost in the splendour of the dramas, are as
inimitable as they; and it is not a merit of lines, but a total merit
of the piece; like the tone of voice of some incomparable person, so
is this a speech of poetic beings, and any clause as unproducible now
as a whole poem.

Though the speeches in the plays, and single lines, have a beauty
which tempts the ear to pause on them for their euphuism, yet the
sentence is so loaded with meaning, and so linked with its foregoers
and followers, that the logician is satisfied. His means are as
admirable as his ends; every subordinate invention, by which he helps
himself to connect some irreconcilable opposites, is a poem too. He is
not reduced to dismount and walk, because his horses are running off
with him in some distant direction: he always rides.

The finest poetry was first experience: but the thought has suffered a
transformation since it was an experience. Cultivated men often attain
a good degree of skill in writing verses; but it is easy to read,
through their poems, their personal history: any one acquainted with
parties can name every figure: this is Andrew, and that is Rachel. The
sense thus remains prosaic. It is a caterpillar with wings, and not
yet a butterfly. In the poet’s mind, the fact has gone quite over into
the new element of thought, and has lost all that is exuvial. This
generosity abides with Shakespeare. We say, from the truth and
closeness of his pictures, that he knows the lesson by heart. Yet
there is not a trace of egotism.

One more royal trait properly belongs to the poet. I mean his
cheerfulness, without which no man can be a poet,--for beauty is his
aim. He loves virtue, not for its obligation, but for its grace: he
delights in the world, in man, in woman, for the lovely light that
sparkles from them. Beauty, the spirit of joy and hilarity, he sheds
over the universe. Epicurus relates that poetry hath such charms that
a lover might forsake his mistress to partake of them. And the true
bards have been noted for their firm and cheerful temper. Homer lies
in sunshine; Chaucer is glad and erect; and Saadi says, ‘It was
rumoured abroad that I was penitent; but what had I to do with
repentance?’ Not less sovereign and cheerful,--much more sovereign and
cheerful, is the tone of Shakespeare. His name suggests joy and
emancipation to the heart of men. If he should appear in any company
of human souls, who would not march in his troop? He touches nothing
that does not borrow health and longevity from his festal style.

       *       *       *       *       *

And now, how stands the account of man with this bard and benefactor,
when in solitude, shutting our ears to the reverberations of his fame,
we seek to strike the balance? Solitude has austere lessons; it can
teach us to spare both heroes and poets; and it weighs Shakespeare
also, and finds him to share the halfness and imperfection of
humanity.

Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, saw the splendour of meaning that
plays over the visible world; knew that a tree had another use than
for apples, and corn another than for meal, and the ball of the
earth, than for tillage and roads: that these things bore a second and
finer harvest to the mind, being emblems of its thoughts, and
conveying in all their natural history a certain mute commentary on
human life. Shakespeare employed them as colours to compose his
picture. He rested in their beauty; and never took the step which
seemed inevitable to such genius, namely, to explore the virtue which
resides in these symbols, and imparts this power,--What is that which
they themselves say? He converted the elements, which waited on his
command, into entertainments. He was master of the revels to mankind.
Is it not as if one should have, through majestic powers of science,
the comets given into his hand, or the planets and their moons, and
should draw them from their orbits to glare with the municipal
fireworks on a holiday night, and advertise in all towns, ‘very
superior pyrotechny this evening!’ Are the agents of nature, and the
power to understand them, worth no more than a street serenade, or the
breath of a cigar? One remembers again the trumpet-text in the
Koran,--‘The heavens and the earth, and all that is between them,
think ye we have created them in jest?’ As long as the question is of
talent and mental power, the world of men has not his equal to show.
But when the question is to life, and its materials, and its
auxiliaries, how does he profit me? What does it signify? It is but a
Twelfth Night, or Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a Winter Evening’s Tale:
what signifies another picture more or less? The Egyptian verdict of
the Shakespeare Societies comes to mind, that he was a jovial actor
and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse. Other admirable
men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought; but
this man, in wide contrast. Had he been less, had he reached only the
common measure of great authors, of Bacon, Milton, Tasso, Cervantes,
we might leave the fact in the twilight of human fate: but, that this
man of men, he who gave to the science of mind a new and larger
subject than had ever existed, and planted the standard of humanity
some furlongs forward into Chaos,--that he should not be wise for
himself,--it must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet
led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public
amusement.

Well, other men, priest and prophet, Israelite, German, and Swede,
beheld the same objects: they also saw through them that which was
contained. And to what purpose? The beauty straightway vanished; they
read commandments, all-excluding mountainous duty; an obligation, a
sadness, as of piled mountains, fell on them, and life became ghastly,
joyless, a pilgrim’s progress, a probation, beleaguered round with
doleful histories of Adam’s fall and curse, behind us; with doomsdays
and purgatorial and penal fires before us; and the heart of the seer
and the heart of the listener sank in them.

It must be conceded that these are half-views of half-men. The world
still wants its poet-priest, a reconciler, who shall not trifle with
Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg the
mourner; but who shall see, speak, and act, with equal inspiration.
For knowledge will brighten the sunshine; right is more beautiful than
private affection; and love is compatible with universal wisdom.



JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL

1819-1891

WORDSWORTH (1875)


A generation has now passed away since Wordsworth was laid with the
family in the churchyard at Grasmere. Perhaps it is hardly yet time to
take a perfectly impartial measure of his value as a poet. To do this
is especially hard for those who are old enough to remember the last
shot which the foe was sullenly firing in that long war of critics
which began when he published his manifesto as Pretender, and which
came to a pause rather than end when they flung up their caps with the
rest at his final coronation. Something of the intensity of the _odium
theologicum_ (if indeed the _aestheticum_ be not in these days the
more bitter of the two) entered into the conflict. The Wordsworthians
were a sect, who, if they had the enthusiasm, had also not a little of
the exclusiveness and partiality to which sects are liable. The verses
of the master had for them the virtue of religious canticles stimulant
of zeal and not amenable to the ordinary tests of cold-blooded
criticism. Like the hymns of the Huguenots and Covenanters, they were
songs of battle no less than of worship, and the combined ardours of
conviction and conflict lent them a fire that was not naturally their
own. As we read them now, that virtue of the moment is gone out of
them, and whatever of Dr. Wattsiness there is gives us a slight shock
of disenchantment. It is something like the difference between the
_Marseillaise_ sung by armed propagandists on the edge of battle, or
by Brissotins in the tumbrel, and the words of it read coolly in the
closet, or recited with the factitious frenzy of Thérèse. It was
natural in the early days of Wordsworth’s career to dwell most fondly
on those profounder qualities to appreciate which settled in some sort
the measure of a man’s right to judge of poetry at all. But now we
must admit the shortcomings, the failures, the defects, as no less
essential elements in forming a sound judgement as to whether the seer
and artist were so united in him as to justify the claim first put in
by himself and afterwards maintained by his sect to a place beside the
few great poets who exalt men’s minds, and give a right direction and
safe outlet to their passions through the imagination, while
insensibly helping them toward balance of character and serenity of
judgement by stimulating their sense of proportion, form, and the nice
adjustment of means to ends. In none of our poets has the constant
propulsion of an unbending will, and the concentration of exclusive,
if I must not say somewhat narrow, sympathies done so much to make the
original endowment of nature effective, and in none accordingly does
the biography throw so much light on the works, or enter so largely
into their composition as an element whether of power or of weakness.
Wordsworth never saw, and I think never wished to see, beyond the
limits of his own consciousness and experience. He early conceived
himself to be, and through life was confirmed by circumstances in the
faith that he was, a ‘dedicated spirit’,[41] a state of mind likely
to further an intense but at the same time one-sided development of
the intellectual powers. The solitude in which the greater part of his
mature life was passed, while it doubtless ministered to the
passionate intensity of his musings upon man and nature, was, it may
be suspected, harmful to him as an artist, by depriving him of any
standard of proportion outside himself by which to test the
comparative value of his thoughts, and by rendering him more and more
incapable of that urbanity of mind which could be gained only by
commerce with men more nearly on his own level, and which gives tone
without lessening individuality. Wordsworth never quite saw the
distinction between the eccentric and the original. For what we call
originality seems not so much anything peculiar, much less anything
odd, but that quality in a man which touches human nature at most
points of its circumference, which reinvigorates the consciousness of
our own powers by recalling and confirming our own unvalued sensations
and perceptions, gives classic shape to our own amorphous imaginings,
and adequate utterance to our own stammering conceptions or emotions.
The poet’s office is to be a Voice, not of one crying in the
wilderness to a knot of already magnetized acolytes, but singing amid
the throng of men, and lifting their common aspirations and
sympathies (so first clearly revealed to themselves) on the wings of
his song to a purer ether and a wider reach of view. We cannot, if we
would, read the poetry of Wordsworth as mere poetry; at every other
page we find ourselves entangled in a problem of aesthetics. The
world-old question of matter and form, of whether nectar _is_ of
precisely the same flavour when served to us from a Grecian chalice or
from any jug of ruder pottery, comes up for decision anew. The
Teutonic nature has always shown a sturdy preference of the solid bone
with a marrow of nutritious moral to any shadow of the same on the
flowing mirror of sense. Wordsworth never lets us long forget the
deeply rooted stock from which he sprang,--_vien ben dà lui_.

    [41] In the _Prelude_ he attributes this consecration to a
    sunrise seen (during a college vacation) as he walked
    homeward from some village festival where he had danced all
    night:

        My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
        Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
        Was given that I should be, else sinning greatly.
        A dedicated Spirit.--Book IV.

       *       *       *       *       *

William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland on the 7th of
April, 1770, the second of five children. His father was John
Wordsworth, an attorney-at-law, and agent of Sir James Lowther,
afterwards first Earl of Lonsdale. His mother was Anne Cookson, the
daughter of a mercer in Penrith. His paternal ancestors had been
settled immemorially at Penistone in Yorkshire, whence his grandfather
had emigrated to Westmorland. His mother, a woman of piety and wisdom,
died in March 1778, being then in her thirty-second year. His father,
who never entirely cast off the depression occasioned by her death,
survived her but five years, dying in December 1783, when William was
not quite fourteen years old.

The poet’s early childhood was passed partly at Cockermouth, and
partly with his maternal grandfather at Penrith. His first teacher
appears to have been Mrs. Anne Birkett, a kind of Shenstone’s
Schoolmistress, who practised the memory of her pupils, teaching them
chiefly by rote, and not endeavouring to cultivate their reasoning
faculties, a process by which children are apt to be converted from
natural logicians into impertinent sophists. Among his schoolmates
here was Mary Hutchinson, who afterwards became his wife.

In 1778 he was sent to a school founded by Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of
York, in the year 1585, at Hawkshead in Lancashire. Hawkshead is a
small market-town in the vale of Esthwaite, about a third of a mile
north-west of the lake. Here Wordsworth passed nine years, among a
people of simple habits and scenery of a sweet and pastoral dignity.
His earliest intimacies were with the mountains, lakes, and streams of
his native district, and the associations with which his mind was
stored during its most impressible period were noble and pure. The
boys were boarded among the dames of the village, thus enjoying a
freedom from scholastic restraints, which could be nothing but
beneficial in a place where the temptations were only to sports that
hardened the body, while they fostered a love of nature in the spirit
and habits of observation in the mind. Wordsworth’s ordinary
amusements here were hunting and fishing, rowing, skating, and long
walks around the lake and among the hills, with an occasional scamper
on horseback.[42] His life as a schoolboy was favourable also to his
poetic development, in being identified with that of the people among
whom he lived. Among men of simple habits, and where there are small
diversities of condition, the feelings and passions are displayed with
less restraint, and the young poet grew acquainted with that primal
human basis of character where the Muse finds firm foothold, and to
which he ever afterward cleared his way through all the overlying
drift of conventionalism. The dalesmen were a primitive and hardy race
who kept alive the traditions and often the habits of a more
picturesque time. A common level of interests and social standing
fostered unconventional ways of thought and speech, and friendly human
sympathies. Solitude induced reflection, a reliance of the mind on its
own resources, and individuality of character. Where everybody knew
everybody, and everybody’s father had known everybody’s father, the
interest of man in man was not likely to become a matter of cold
hearsay and distant report. When death knocked at any door in the
hamlet, there was an echo from every fireside, and a wedding dropped
its white flowers at every threshold. There was not a grave in the
churchyard but had its story; not a crag or glen or aged tree
untouched with some ideal hue of legend. It was here that Wordsworth
learned that homely humanity which gives such depth and sincerity to
his poems. Travel, society, culture, nothing could obliterate the deep
trace of that early training which enables him to speak directly to
the primitive instincts of man. He was apprenticed early to the
difficult art of being himself.

    [42] _Prelude_, Book II.

At school he wrote some task-verses on subjects imposed by the master,
and also some voluntaries of his own, equally undistinguished by any
peculiar merit. But he seems to have made up his mind as early as in
his fourteenth year to become a poet.[43] ‘It is recorded’, says his
biographer vaguely, ‘that the poet’s father set him very early to
learn portions of the best English poets by heart, so that at an early
age he could repeat large portions of Shakespeare, Milton, and
Spenser.’

    [43]

        I to the muses have been bound,
        These fourteen years, by strong indentures.

                                 _Idiot Boy_ (1798).]

The great event of Wordsworth’s schooldays was the death of his
father, who left what may be called a hypothetical estate, consisting
chiefly of claims upon the first Earl of Lonsdale, the payment of
which, though their justice was acknowledged, that nobleman contrived
in some unexplained way to elude so long as he lived. In October 1787
he left school for St. John’s College, Cambridge. He was already, we
are told, a fair Latin scholar, and had made some progress in
mathematics. The earliest books we hear of his reading were _Don
Quixote_, _Gil Blas_, _Gulliver’s Travels_, and the _Tale of a Tub_;
but at school he had also become familiar with the works of some
English poets, particularly Goldsmith and Gray, of whose poems he had
learned many by heart. What is more to the purpose, he had become,
without knowing it, a lover of Nature in all her moods, and the same
mental necessities of a solitary life which compel men to an interest
in the transitory phenomena of scenery, had made him also studious of
the movements of his own mind, and the mutual interaction and
dependence of the external and internal universe.

Doubtless his early orphanage was not without its effect in confirming
a character naturally impatient of control, and his mind, left to
itself, clothed itself with an indigenous growth, which grew fairly
and freely, unstinted by the shadow of exotic plantations. It has
become a truism, that remarkable persons have remarkable mothers; but
perhaps this is chiefly true of such as have made themselves
distinguished by their industry, and by the assiduous cultivation of
faculties in themselves of only an average quality. It is rather to be
noted how little is known of the parentage of men of the first
magnitude, how often they seem in some sort foundlings, and how early
an apparently adverse destiny begins the culture of those who are to
encounter and master great intellectual or spiritual experiences.

Of his disposition as a child little is known, but that little is
characteristic. He himself tells us that he was ‘stiff, moody, and of
violent temper’. His mother said of him that he was the only one of
her children about whom she felt any anxiety,--for she was sure that
he would be remarkable for good or evil. Once, in resentment at some
fancied injury, he resolved to kill himself, but his heart failed him.
I suspect that few boys of passionate temperament have escaped these
momentary suggestions of despairing helplessness. ‘On another
occasion,’ he says, ‘while I was at my grandfather’s house at Penrith,
along with my eldest brother Richard, we were whipping tops together
in the long drawing-room, on which the carpet was only laid down on
particular occasions. The walls were hung round with family pictures,
and I said to my brother, “Dare you strike your whip through that old
lady’s petticoat?” He replied, “No, I won’t.” “Then,” said I, “here
goes,” and I struck my lash through her hooped petticoat, for which,
no doubt, though I have forgotten it, I was properly punished. But,
possibly from some want of judgement in punishments inflicted, I had
become perverse and obstinate in defying chastisement, and rather
proud of it than otherwise.’ This last anecdote is as happily typical
as a bit of Greek mythology which always prefigured the lives of
heroes in the stories of their childhood. Just so do we find him
afterward striking his defiant lash through the hooped petticoat of
the artificial style of poetry, and proudly unsubdued by the
punishment of the Reviewers.

Of his college life the chief record is to be found in _The Prelude_.
He did not distinguish himself as a scholar, and if his life had any
incidents, they were of that interior kind which rarely appear in
biography, though they may be of controlling influence upon the life.
He speaks of reading Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton while at
Cambridge,[44] but no reflection from them is visible in his earliest
published poems. The greater part of his vacations was spent in his
native Lake-country, where his only sister, Dorothy, was the companion
of his rambles. She was a woman of large natural endowments, chiefly
of the receptive kind, and had much to do with the formation and
tendency of the poet’s mind. It was she who called forth the shyer
sensibilities of his nature, and taught an originally harsh and
austere imagination to surround itself with fancy and feeling, as the
rock fringes itself with a sun-spray of ferns. She was his first
public, and belonged to that class of prophetically appreciative
temperaments whose apparent office it is to cheer the early solitude
of original minds with messages from the future. Through the greater
part of his life she continued to be a kind of poetical conscience to
him.

    [44] _Prelude_, Book III.

Wordsworth’s last college vacation was spent in a foot journey upon
the Continent (1790). In January 1791 he took his degree of B.A., and
left Cambridge. During the summer of this year he visited Wales, and,
after declining to enter upon holy orders under the plea that he was
not of age for ordination, went over to France in November, and
remained during the winter at Orleans. Here he became intimate with
the republican General Beaupuis, with whose hopes and aspirations he
ardently sympathized. In the spring of 1792 he was at Blois, and
returned thence to Orleans, which he finally quitted in October for
Paris. He remained here as long as he could with safety, and at the
close of the year went back to England, thus, perhaps, escaping the
fate which soon after overtook his friends the Brissotins.

As hitherto the life of Wordsworth may be called a fortunate one, not
less so in the training and expansion of his faculties was this period
of his stay in France. Born and reared in a country where the homely
and familiar nestles confidingly amid the most savage and sublime
forms of nature, he had experienced whatever impulses the creative
faculty can receive from mountain and cloud and the voices of winds
and waters, but he had known man only as an actor in fireside
histories and tragedies, for which the hamlet supplied an ample stage.
In France he first felt the authentic beat of a nation’s heart; he was
a spectator at one of those dramas where the terrible footfall of the
Eumenides is heard nearer and nearer in the pauses of the action; and
he saw man such as he can only be when he is vibrated by the orgasm of
a national emotion. He sympathized with the hopes of France and of
mankind deeply, as was fitting in a young man and a poet; and if his
faith in the gregarious advancement of men was afterward shaken, he
only held the more firmly by his belief in the individual, and his
reverence for the human as something quite apart from the popular and
above it. Wordsworth has been unwisely blamed, as if he had been
recreant to the liberal instincts of his youth. But it was inevitable
that a genius so regulated and metrical as his, a mind which always
compensated itself for its artistic radicalism by an involuntary
leaning toward external respectability, should recoil from whatever
was convulsionary and destructive in politics, and above all in
religion. He reads the poems of Wordsworth without understanding, who
does not find in them the noblest incentives to faith in man and the
grandeur of his destiny, founded always upon that personal dignity and
virtue, the capacity for whose attainment alone makes universal
liberty possible and assures its permanence. He was to make men better
by opening to them the sources of an inalterable well-being; to make
them free, in a sense higher than political, by showing them that
these sources are within them, and that no contrivance of man can
permanently emancipate narrow natures and depraved minds. His politics
were always those of a poet, circling in the larger orbit of causes
and principles, careless of the transitory oscillation of events.

The change in his point of view (if change there was) certainly was
complete soon after his return from France, and was perhaps due in
part to the influence of Burke.

    While he [Burke] forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
    Against all systems built on abstract rights,
    Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
    Of institutes and laws hallowed by time;
    Declares the vital power of social ties
    Endeared by custom; and with high disdain,
    Exploding upstart theory, insists
    Upon the allegiance to which men are born.
              ... Could a youth, and one
    In ancient story versed, whose breast had heaved
    Under the weight of classic eloquence,
    Sit, see, and hear, unthankful, uninspired?[45]

    [45] _Prelude_, Book VII. Written before 1805, and referring
    to a still earlier date.

He had seen the French for a dozen years eagerly busy in tearing up
whatever had roots in the past, replacing the venerable trunks of
tradition and orderly growth with liberty-poles, then striving vainly
to piece together the fibres they had broken, and to reproduce
artificially that sense of permanence and continuity which is the main
safeguard of vigorous self-consciousness in a nation. He became a Tory
through intellectual conviction, retaining, I suspect, to the last, a
certain radicalism of temperament and instinct. Haydon tells us that
in 1809 Sir George Beaumont said to him and Wilkie, ‘Wordsworth may
perhaps walk in; if he do, I caution you both against his terrific
democratic notions’; and it must have been many years later that
Wordsworth himself told Crabb Robinson, ‘I have no respect whatever
for Whigs, but I have a great deal of the Chartist in me’. In 1802,
during his tour in Scotland, he travelled on Sundays as on the other
days of the week. He afterwards became a theoretical churchgoer.
‘Wordsworth defended earnestly the Church establishment. He even said
he would shed his blood for it. Nor was he disconcerted by a laugh
raised against him on account of his having confessed that he knew not
when he had been in a church in his own country. “All our ministers
are so vile,” said he. The mischief of allowing the clergy to depend
on the caprice of the multitude he thought more than outweighed all
the evils of an establishment.’

In December 1792 Wordsworth had returned to England, and in the
following year published _Descriptive Sketches_ and the _Evening
Walk_. He did this, as he says in one of his letters, to show that,
although he had gained no honours at the University, he _could_ do
something. They met with no great success, and he afterward corrected
them so much as to destroy all their interest as juvenile productions,
without communicating to them any of the merits of maturity. In
commenting, sixty years afterward, on a couplet in one of these
poems,--

    And, fronting the bright west, the oak entwines
    Its darkening boughs and leaves in stronger lines,--

he says: ‘This is feebly and imperfectly expressed, but I recollect
distinctly the very spot where this first struck me.... The moment was
important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness
of the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been
unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was
acquainted with them, and I made a resolution to supply in some degree
the deficiency.’

It is plain that Wordsworth’s memory was playing him a trick here,
misled by that instinct (it may almost be called) of consistency which
leads men first to desire that their lives should have been without
break or seam, and then to believe that they have been such. The more
distant ranges of perspective are apt to run together in
retrospection. How far could Wordsworth at fourteen have been
acquainted with the poets of all ages and countries,--he who to his
dying day could not endure to read Goethe and knew nothing of
Calderon? It seems to me rather that the earliest influence traceable
in him is that of Goldsmith, and later of Cowper, and it is, perhaps,
some slight indication of its having already begun that his first
volume of _Descriptive Sketches_ (1793) was put forth by Johnson, who
was Cowper’s publisher. By and by the powerful impress of Burns is
seen both in the topics of his verse and the form of his expression.
But whatever their ultimate effect upon his style, certain it is that
his juvenile poems were clothed in the conventional habit of the
eighteenth century. ‘The first verses from which he remembered to have
received great pleasure were Miss Carter’s _Poem on Spring_, a poem in
the six-line stanza which he was particularly fond of and had composed
much in,--for example, _Ruth_.’ This is noteworthy, for Wordsworth’s
lyric range, especially so far as tune is concerned, was always
narrow. His sense of melody was painfully dull, and some of his
lighter effusions, as he would have called them, are almost
ludicrously wanting in grace of movement. We cannot expect in a modern
poet the thrush-like improvisation, the impulsively bewitching
cadences, that charm us in our Elizabethan drama and whose last
warble died with Herrick; but Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning have
shown that the simple pathos of their music was not irrecoverable,
even if the artless poignancy of their phrase be gone beyond recall.
We feel this lack in Wordsworth all the more keenly if we compare such
verses as

    Like an army defeated
    The snow hath retreated
    And now doth fare ill
    On the top of the bare hill,

with Goethe’s exquisite _Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh_, in which the
lines (as if shaken down by a momentary breeze of emotion) drop
lingeringly one after another like blossoms upon turf.

_The Evening Walk_ and _Descriptive Sketches_ show plainly the
prevailing influence of Goldsmith, both in the turn of thought and the
mechanism of the verse. They lack altogether the temperance of tone
and judgement in selection which have made the _Traveller_ and the
_Deserted Village_ perhaps the most truly classical poems in the
language. They bear here and there, however, the unmistakable stamp of
the maturer Wordsworth, not only in a certain blunt realism, but in
the intensity and truth of picturesque epithet. Of this realism, from
which Wordsworth never wholly freed himself, the following verses may
suffice as a specimen. After describing the fate of a chamois-hunter
killed by falling from a crag, his fancy goes back to the bereaved
wife and son:

    Haply that child in fearful doubt may gaze,
    Passing his father’s bones in future days,
    Start at the reliques of that very thigh
    On which so oft he prattled when a boy.

In these poems there is plenty of that ‘poetic diction’ against which
Wordsworth was to lead the revolt nine years later.

    To wet the peak’s impracticable sides
    He opens of his feet the sanguine tides,
    Weak and more weak the issuing current eyes
    Lapped by the panting tongue of thirsty skies.

Both of these passages have disappeared from the revised edition, as
well as some curious outbursts of that motiveless despair which Byron
made fashionable not long after. Nor are there wanting touches of
fleshliness which strike us oddly as coming from Wordsworth.

    Farewell! those forms that in thy noontide shade
    Rest near their little plots of oaten glade,
    Those steadfast eyes that beating breasts inspire
    To throw the ‘sultry ray’ of young Desire;
    Those lips whose tides of fragrance come and go
    Accordant to the cheek’s unquiet glow;
    Those shadowy breasts in love’s soft light arrayed,
    And rising by the moon of passion swayed.

The political tone is also mildened in the revision, as where he
changes ‘despotcourts’ into ‘tyranny’. One of the alterations is
interesting. In the _Evening Walk_ he had originally written

    And bids her soldier come her wars to share
    Asleep on Minden’s charnel hill afar.

An erratum at the end directs us to correct the second verse, thus:

    Asleep on Bunker’s charnel hill afar.

Wordsworth somewhere rebukes the poets for making the owl a bodeful
bird. He had himself done so in the _Evening Walk_, and corrects his
epithets to suit his later judgement, putting ‘gladsome’ for ‘boding’,
and replacing

    The tremulous sob of the complaining owl

by

    The sportive outcry of the mocking owl.

Indeed, the character of the two poems is so much changed in the
revision as to make the dates appended to them a misleading
anachronism. But there is one truly Wordsworthian passage which
already gives us a glimpse of that passion with which he was the first
to irradiate descriptive poetry and which sets him on a level with
Turner.

    ’Tis storm; and hid in mist from hour to hour
    All day the floods a deepening murmur pour:
    The sky is veiled and every cheerful sight;
    Dark is the region as with coming night;
    But what a sudden burst of overpowering light!
    Triumphant on the bosom of the storm,
    Glances the fire-clad eagle’s wheeling form;
    Eastward, in long prospective glittering shine
    The wood-crowned cliffs that o’er the lake recline;
    Those eastern cliffs a hundred streams unfold,
    At once to pillars turned that flame with gold;
    Behind his sail the peasant tries to shun
    The West that burns like one dilated sun,
    Where in a mighty crucible expire
    The mountains, glowing hot like coals of fire.

Wordsworth has made only one change in these verses, and that for the
worse, by substituting ‘glorious’ (which was already implied in
‘glances’ and ‘fire-clad’) for ‘wheeling’. In later life he would have
found it hard to forgive the man who should have made cliffs recline
over a lake. On the whole, what strikes us as most prophetic in these
poems is their want of continuity, and the purple patches of true
poetry on a texture of unmistakable prose; perhaps we might add the
incongruous clothing of prose thoughts in the ceremonial robes of
poesy.

During the same year (1793) he wrote, but did not publish, a political
tract, in which he avowed himself opposed to monarchy and to the
hereditary principle, and desirous of a republic, if it could be had
without a revolution. He probably continued to be all his life in
favour of that ideal republic ‘which never was on land or sea’, but
fortunately he gave up politics that he might devote himself to his
own nobler calling, to which politics are subordinate, and for which
he found freedom enough in England as it was. Dr. Wordsworth admits
that his uncle’s opinions were democratical so late as 1802. I suspect
that they remained so in an esoteric way to the end of his days. He
had himself suffered by the arbitrary selfishness of a great
landholder, and he was born and bred in a part of England where there
is a greater social equality than elsewhere. The look and manner of
the Cumberland people especially are such as recall very vividly to a
New-Englander the associations of fifty years ago, ere the change from
New England to New Ireland had begun. But meanwhile, Want, which makes
no distinctions of Monarchist or Republican, was pressing upon him.
The debt due to his father’s estate had not been paid, and Wordsworth
was one of those rare idealists who esteem it the first duty of a
friend of humanity to live for, and not on, his neighbour. He at first
proposed establishing a periodical journal to be called _The
Philanthropist_, but luckily went no further with it, for the receipts
from an organ of opinion which professed republicanism, and at the
same time discountenanced the plans of all existing or defunct
republicans, would have been necessarily scanty. There being no
appearance of any demand, present or prospective, for philanthropists,
he tried to get employment as correspondent of a newspaper. Here also
it was impossible that he should succeed; he was too great to be
merged in the editorial We, and had too well defined a private opinion
on all subjects to be able to express that average of public opinion
which constitutes able editorials. But so it is that to the prophet in
the wilderness the birds of ill omen are already on the wing with food
from heaven; and while Wordsworth’s relatives were getting impatient
at what they considered his waste of time, while one thought he had
gifts enough to make a good parson, and another lamented the rare
attorney that was lost in him, the prescient muse guided the hand of
Raisley Calvert while he wrote the poet’s name in his will for a
legacy of £900. By the death of Calvert, in 1795, this timely help
came to Wordsworth at the turning-point of his life, and made it
honest for him to write poems that will never die, instead of
theatrical critiques as ephemeral as play-bills, or leaders that led
only to oblivion.

In the autumn of 1795 Wordsworth and his sister took up their abode at
Racedown Lodge, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire. Here nearly two years
were passed, chiefly in the study of poetry, and Wordsworth to some
extent recovered from the fierce disappointment of his political
dreams, and regained that equable tenor of mind which alone is
consistent with a healthy productiveness. Here Coleridge, who had
contrived to see something more in the _Descriptive Sketches_ than
the public had discovered there, first made his acquaintance. The
sympathy and appreciation of an intellect like Coleridge’s supplied
him with that external motive to activity which is the chief use of
popularity, and justified to him his opinion of his own powers. It was
now that the tragedy of _The Borderers_ was for the most part written,
and that plan of the _Lyrical Ballads_ suggested which gave Wordsworth
a clue to lead him out of the metaphysical labyrinth in which he was
entangled. It was agreed between the two young friends, that
Wordsworth was to be a philosophic poet, and, by a good fortune
uncommon to such conspiracies, Nature had already consented to the
arrangement. In July 1797, the two Wordsworths removed to Allfoxden in
Somersetshire, that they might be near Coleridge, who in the meanwhile
had married and settled himself at Nether Stowey. In November _The
Borderers_ was finished, and Wordsworth went up to London with his
sister to offer it for the stage. The good Genius of the poet again
interposing, the play was decisively rejected, and Wordsworth went
back to Allfoxden, himself the hero of that first tragi-comedy so
common to young authors.

The play has fine passages, but is as unreal as _Jane Eyre_. It shares
with many of Wordsworth’s narrative poems the defect of being written
to illustrate an abstract moral theory, so that the overbearing thesis
is continually thrusting the poetry to the wall. Applied to the drama,
such predestination makes all the personages puppets and disenables
them for being characters. Wordsworth seems to have felt this when he
published _The Borderers_ in 1842, and says in a note that it was ‘at
first written ... without any view to its exhibition upon the stage’.
But he was mistaken. The contemporaneous letters of Coleridge to
Cottle show that he was long in giving up the hope of getting it
accepted by some theatrical manager.

He now applied himself to the preparation of the first volume of the
_Lyrical Ballads_ for the press, and it was published toward the close
of 1798. The book, which contained also _The Ancient Mariner_ of
Coleridge, attracted little notice, and that in great part
contemptuous. When Mr. Cottle, the publisher, shortly after sold his
copyrights to Mr. Longman, that of the _Lyrical Ballads_ was reckoned
at _zero_, and it was at last given up to the authors. A few persons
were not wanting, however, who discovered the dawn-streaks of a new
day in that light which the critical fire-brigade thought to
extinguish with a few contemptuous spurts of cold water.

Lord Byron describes himself as waking one morning and finding himself
famous, and it is quite an ordinary fact, that a blaze may be made
with a little saltpetre that will be stared at by thousands who would
have thought the sunrise tedious. If we may believe his biographer,
Wordsworth might have said that he awoke and found himself infamous,
for the publication of the _Lyrical Ballads_ undoubtedly raised him to
the distinction of being the least popular poet in England. Parnassus
has two peaks; the one where improvising poets cluster; the other
where the singer of deep secrets sits alone,--a peak veiled sometimes
from the whole morning of a generation by earth-born mists and smoke
of kitchen fires, only to glow the more consciously at sunset, and
after nightfall to crown itself with imperishable stars. Wordsworth
had that self-trust which in the man of genius is sublime, and in the
man of talent insufferable. It mattered not to him though all the
reviewers had been in a chorus of laughter or conspiracy of silence
behind him. He went quietly over to Germany to write more Lyrical
Ballads, and to begin a poem on the growth of his own mind, at a time
when there were only two men in the world (himself and Coleridge) who
were aware that he had one, or at least one anywise differing from
those mechanically uniform ones which are stuck drearily, side by
side, in the great pin-paper of society.

In Germany Wordsworth dined in company with Klopstock, and after
dinner they had a conversation, of which Wordsworth took notes. The
respectable old poet, who was passing the evening of his days by the
chimney-corner, Darby and Joan like, with his respectable Muse, seems
to have been rather bewildered by the apparition of a living genius.
The record is of value now chiefly for the insight it gives us into
Wordsworth’s mind. Among other things he said, ‘that it was the
province of a great poet to raise people up to his own level, not to
descend to theirs’,--memorable words, the more memorable that a
literary life of sixty years was in keeping with them.

It would be instructive to know what were Wordsworth’s studies during
his winter in Goslar. De Quincey’s statement is mere conjecture. It
may be guessed fairly enough that he would seek an entrance to the
German language by the easy path of the ballad, a course likely to
confirm him in his theories as to the language of poetry. The
Spinozism with which he has been not unjustly charged was certainly
not due to any German influence, for it appears unmistakably in the
_Lines composed at Tintern Abbey_ in July 1798. It is more likely to
have been derived from his talks with Coleridge in 1797. When Emerson
visited him in 1833, he spoke with loathing of _Wilhelm Meister_, a
part of which he had read in Carlyle’s translation apparently. There
was some affectation in this, it should seem, for he had read
Smollett. On the whole, it may be fairly concluded that the help of
Germany in the development of his genius may be reckoned as very
small, though there is certainly a marked resemblance both in form and
sentiment between some of his earlier lyrics and those of Goethe. His
poem of the _Thorn_, though vastly more imaginative, may have been
suggested by Bürger’s _Pfarrer’s Tochter von Taubenhain_. The little
grave _drei Spannen lang_, in its conscientious measurement, certainly
recalls a famous couplet in the English poem.

After spending the winter at Goslar, Wordsworth and his sister
returned to England in the spring of 1799, and settled at Grasmere in
Westmorland. In 1800, the first edition of the _Lyrical Ballads_ being
exhausted, it was republished with the addition of another volume, Mr.
Longman paying £100 for the copyright of two editions. The book passed
to a second edition in 1802, and to a third in 1805. Wordsworth sent a
copy of it, with a manly letter, to Mr. Fox, particularly recommending
to his attention the poems _Michael_ and _The Brothers_, as displaying
the strength and permanence among a simple and rural population of
those domestic affections which were certain to decay gradually under
the influence of manufactories and poor-houses. Mr. Fox wrote a civil
acknowledgement, saying that his favourites among the poems were
_Harry Gill_, _We are Seven_, _The Mad Mother_, and _The Idiot_, but
that he was prepossessed against the use of blank verse for simple
subjects. Any political significance in the poems he was apparently
unable to see. To this second edition Wordsworth prefixed an
argumentative Preface, in which he nailed to the door of the cathedral
of English song the critical theses which he was to maintain against
all comers in his poetry and his life. It was a new thing for an
author to undertake to show the goodness of his verses by the logic
and learning of his prose; but Wordsworth carried to the reform of
poetry all that fervour and faith which had lost their political
object, and it is another proof of the sincerity and greatness of his
mind, and of that heroic simplicity which is their concomitant, that
he could do so calmly what was sure to seem ludicrous to the greater
number of his readers. Fifty years have since demonstrated that the
true judgement of one man outweighs any counterpoise of false
judgement, and that the faith of mankind is guided to a man only by a
well-founded faith in himself. To this _Defensio_ Wordsworth afterward
added a supplement, and the two form a treatise of permanent value for
philosophic statement and decorous English. Their only ill effect has
been, that they have encouraged many otherwise deserving young men to
set a Sibylline value on their verses in proportion as they were
unsaleable. The strength of an argument for self-reliance drawn from
the example of a great man depends wholly on the greatness of him who
uses it; such arguments being like coats of mail, which, though they
serve the strong against arrow-flights and lance-thrusts, may only
suffocate the weak or sink him the sooner in the waters of oblivion.

An advertisement prefixed to the _Lyrical Ballads_, as originally
published in one volume, warned the reader that ‘they were written
chiefly with a view to ascertain how far _the language of conversation
in the middle and lower classes_ of society is adapted to the purposes
of poetic pleasure’. In his preface to the second edition, in two
volumes, Wordsworth already found himself forced to shift his ground a
little (perhaps in deference to the wider view and finer sense of
Coleridge), and now says of the former volume that ‘it was published
as an experiment which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain how
far, by fitting to metrical arrangement, _a selection of the real
language of men in a state of vivid sensation_, that sort of pleasure
and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted which a poet may
_rationally endeavour_ to impart’. Here is evidence of a retreat
towards a safer position, though Wordsworth seems to have remained
unconvinced at heart, and for many years longer clung obstinately to
the passages of bald prose into which his original theory had betrayed
him. In 1815 his opinions had undergone a still further change, and an
assiduous study of the qualities of his own mind and of his own poetic
method (the two subjects in which alone he was ever a thorough
scholar) had convinced him that poetry was in no sense that appeal to
the understanding which is implied by the words ‘rationally endeavour
to impart’. In the preface of that year he says, ‘The observations
prefixed to that portion of these volumes which was published many
years ago under the title of _Lyrical Ballads_ have so little of
special application to the greater part of the present enlarged and
diversified collection, that they could not with propriety stand as an
introduction to it.’ It is a pity that he could not have become an
earlier convert to Coleridge’s pithy definition, that ‘prose was words
in their best order, and poetry the _best_ words in the best order’.
But idealization was something that Wordsworth was obliged to learn
painfully. It did not come to him naturally as to Spenser and Shelley
and to Coleridge in his higher moods. Moreover, it was in the too
frequent choice of subjects incapable of being idealized without a
manifest jar between theme and treatment that Wordsworth’s great
mistake lay. For example, in _The Blind Highland Boy_ he had
originally the following stanzas:

    Strong is the current, but be mild,
    Ye waves, and spare the helpless child!
    If ye in anger fret or chafe,
    A bee-hive would be ship as safe
      As that in which he sails.

    But say, what was it? Thought of fear!
    Well may ye tremble when ye hear!
    --A household tub like one of those
    Which women use to wash their clothes,
      This carried the blind boy.

In endeavouring to get rid of the downright vulgarity of phrase in the
last stanza, Wordsworth invents an impossible tortoise-shell, and thus
robs his story of the reality which alone gave it a living interest.
Any extemporized raft would have floated the boy down to immortality.
But Wordsworth never quite learned the distinction between Fact, which
suffocates the Muse, and Truth, which is the very breath of her
nostrils. Study and self-culture did much for him, but they never
quite satisfied him that he was capable of making a mistake. He
yielded silently to friendly remonstrance on certain points, and gave
up, for example, the ludicrous exactness of

    I’ve measured it from side to side,
    ’Tis three feet long and two feet wide.

But I doubt if he was ever really convinced, and to his dying day he
could never quite shake off that habit of over-minute detail which
renders the narratives of uncultivated people so tedious, and
sometimes so distasteful. _Simon Lee_, after his latest revision,
still contains verses like these:

    And he is lean and he is sick;
    His body, dwindled and awry,
    Rests upon ankles swollen and thick;
    His legs are thin and dry;

           *       *       *       *       *

    Few months of life he has in store,
    As he to you will tell,
    For still, the more he works, the more
    Do his weak ankles swell,--

which are not only prose, but _bad_ prose, and moreover guilty of the
same fault for which Wordsworth condemned Dr. Johnson’s famous parody
on the ballad-style,--that their ‘_matter_ is contemptible’. The
sonorousness of conviction with which Wordsworth sometimes gives
utterance to commonplaces of thought and trivialities of sentiment has
a ludicrous effect on the profane and even on the faithful in
unguarded moments. We are reminded of a passage in _The Excursion_:

             List! I heard
    From yon huge breast of rock _a solemn bleat_,
    _Sent forth as if it were the mountain’s voice_.

In 1800 the friendship of Wordsworth with Lamb began, and was
thenceforward never interrupted. He continued to live at Grasmere,
conscientiously diligent in the composition of poems, secure of
finding the materials of glory within and around him; for his genius
taught him that inspiration is no product of a foreign shore, and that
no adventurer ever found it, though he wandered as long as Ulysses.
Meanwhile the appreciation of the best minds and the gratitude of the
purest hearts gradually centred more and more towards him. In 1802 he
made a short visit to France, in company with Miss Wordsworth, and
soon after his return to England was married to Mary Hutchinson, on
the 4th of October of the same year. Of the good fortune of this
marriage no other proof is needed than the purity and serenity of his
poems, and its record is to be sought nowhere else.

On the 18th of June, 1803, his first child, John, was born, and on the
14th of August of the same year he set out with his sister on a foot
journey into Scotland. Coleridge was their companion during a part of
this excursion, of which Miss Wordsworth kept a full diary. In
Scotland he made the acquaintance of Scott, who recited to him a part
of the _Lay of the Last Minstrel_, then in manuscript. The travellers
returned to Grasmere on the 25th of September. It was during this
year that Wordsworth’s intimacy with the excellent Sir George
Beaumont began. Sir George was an amateur painter of considerable
merit, and his friendship was undoubtedly of service to Wordsworth in
making him familiar with the laws of a sister art and thus
contributing to enlarge the sympathies of his criticism, the tendency
of which was toward too great exclusiveness. Sir George Beaumont,
dying in 1827, did not forgo his regard for the poet, but contrived to
hold his affection in mortmain by the legacy of an annuity of £100, to
defray the charges of a yearly journey.

In March 1805, the poet’s brother, John, lost his life by the
shipwreck of the _Abergavenny_ East-Indiaman, of which he was captain.
He was a man of great purity and integrity, and sacrificed himself to
his sense of duty by refusing to leave the ship till it was impossible
to save him. Wordsworth was deeply attached to him, and felt such
grief at his death as only solitary natures like his are capable of,
though mitigated by a sense of the heroism which was the cause of it.
The need of mental activity as affording an outlet to intense emotion
may account for the great productiveness of this and the following
year. He now completed _The Prelude_, wrote _The Waggoner_, and
increased the number of his smaller poems enough to fill two volumes,
which were published in 1807.

This collection, which contained some of the most beautiful of his
shorter pieces, and among others the incomparable _Odes_ to Duty and
on Immortality, did not reach a second edition till 1815. The
reviewers had another laugh, and rival poets pillaged while they
scoffed, particularly Byron, among whose verses a bit of Wordsworth
showed as incongruously as a sacred vestment on the back of some
buccaneering plunderer of an abbey. There was a general combination to
put him down, but on the other hand there was a powerful party in his
favour, consisting of William Wordsworth. He not only continued in
good heart himself, but, reversing the order usual on such occasions,
kept up the spirits of his friends.

Wordsworth passed the winter of 1806-7 in a house of Sir George
Beaumont’s, at Coleorton in Leicestershire, the cottage at Grasmere
having become too small for his increased family. On his return to the
Vale of Grasmere he rented the house at Allan Bank, where he lived
three years. During this period he appears to have written very little
poetry, for which his biographer assigns as a primary reason the
smokiness of the Allan Bank chimneys. This will hardly account for the
failure of the summer crop, especially as Wordsworth composed chiefly
in the open air. It did not prevent him from writing a pamphlet upon
the Convention of Cintra, which was published too late to attract much
attention, though Lamb says that its effect upon him was like that
which one of Milton’s tracts might have had upon a contemporary. It
was at Allan Bank that Coleridge dictated _The Friend_, and Wordsworth
contributed to it two essays, one in answer to a letter of Mathetes
(Professor Wilson), and the other on Epitaphs, republished in the
Notes to _The Excursion_. Here also he wrote his _Description of the
Scenery of the Lakes_. Perhaps a truer explanation of the comparative
silence of Wordsworth’s Muse during these years is to be found in the
intense interest which he took in current events, whose variety,
picturesqueness, and historical significance were enough to absorb all
the energies of his imagination.

In the spring of 1811 Wordsworth removed to the Parsonage at Grasmere.
Here he remained two years, and here he had his second intimate
experience of sorrow in the loss of two of his children, Catharine and
Thomas, one of whom died 4th June, and the other 1st December, 1812.
Early in 1813 he bought Rydal Mount, and, having removed thither,
changed his abode no more during the rest of his life. In March of
this year he was appointed Distributor of Stamps for the county of
Westmorland, an office whose receipts rendered him independent, and
whose business he was able to do by deputy, thus leaving him ample
leisure for nobler duties. De Quincey speaks of this appointment as an
instance of the remarkable good luck which waited upon Wordsworth
through his whole life. In our view it is only another illustration of
that scripture which describes the righteous as never forsaken. Good
luck is the willing handmaid of upright, energetic character, and
conscientious observance of duty. Wordsworth owed his nomination to
the friendly exertions of the Earl of Lonsdale, who desired to atone
as far as might be for the injustice of the first Earl, and who
respected the honesty of the man more than he appreciated the
originality of the poet. The Collectorship at Whitehaven (a more
lucrative office) was afterwards offered to Wordsworth, and declined.
He had enough for independence, and wished nothing more. Still later,
on the death of the Stamp-Distributor for Cumberland, a part of that
district was annexed to Westmorland, and Wordsworth’s income was
raised to something more than £1,000 a year.

In 1814 he made his second tour in Scotland, visiting Yarrow in
company with the Ettrick Shepherd. During this year _The Excursion_
was published, in an edition of five hundred copies, which supplied
the demand for six years. Another edition of the same number of copies
was published in 1827, and not exhausted till 1834. In 1815 _The White
Doe of Rylstone_ appeared, and in 1816 _A Letter to a Friend of
Burns_, in which Wordsworth gives his opinion upon the limits to be
observed by the biographers of literary men. It contains many valuable
suggestions, but allows hardly scope enough for personal details, to
which he was constitutionally indifferent. Nearly the same date may be
ascribed to a rhymed translation of the first three books of the
_Aeneid_, a specimen of which was printed in the Cambridge
_Philological Museum_ (1832). In 1819 _Peter Bell_, written twenty
years before, was published, and, perhaps in consequence of the
ridicule of the reviewers, found a more rapid sale than any of his
previous volumes. _The Waggoner_, printed in the same year, was less
successful. His next publication was the volume of _Sonnets on the
river Duddon_, with some miscellaneous poems, 1820. A tour on the
Continent in 1820 furnished the subjects for another collection,
published in 1822. This was followed in the same year by the volume of
_Ecclesiastical Sketches_. His subsequent publications were _Yarrow
Revisited_, 1835, and the tragedy of _The Borderers_, 1842.

During all these years his fame was increasing slowly but steadily,
and his age gathered to itself the reverence and the troops of
friends which his poems and the nobly simple life reflected in them
deserved. Public honours followed private appreciation. In 1838 the
University of Dublin conferred upon him the degree of D.C.L. In 1839
Oxford did the same, and the reception of the poet (now in his
seventieth year) at the University was enthusiastic. In 1842 he
resigned his office of Stamp-Distributor, and Sir Robert Peel had the
honour of putting him upon the civil list for a pension of £300. In
1843 he was appointed Laureate, with the express understanding that it
was a tribute of respect, involving no duties except such as might be
self-imposed. His only official production was an Ode for the
installation of Prince Albert as Chancellor of the University of
Cambridge. His life was prolonged yet seven years, almost, it should
seem, that he might receive that honour which he had truly conquered
for himself by the unflinching bravery of a literary life of half a
century, unparalleled for the scorn with which its labours were
received, and the victorious acknowledgement which at last crowned
them. Surviving nearly all his contemporaries, he had, if ever any man
had, a foretaste of immortality, enjoying in a sort his own posthumous
renown, for the hardy slowness of its growth gave a safe pledge of its
durability. He died on the 23rd of April, 1850, the anniversary of the
death of Shakespeare.

We have thus briefly sketched the life of Wordsworth,--a life
uneventful even for a man of letters; a life like that of an oak, of
quiet self-development, throwing out stronger roots toward the side
whence the prevailing storm-blasts blow, and of tougher fibre in
proportion to the rocky nature of the soil in which it grows. The
life and growth of his mind, and the influences which shaped it, are
to be looked for, even more than is the case with most poets, in his
works, for he deliberately recorded them there.

Of his personal characteristics little is related. He was somewhat
above the middle height, but, according to De Quincey, of indifferent
figure, the shoulders being narrow and drooping. His finest feature
was the eye, which was grey and full of spiritual light. Leigh Hunt
says: ‘I never beheld eyes that looked so inspired, so supernatural.
They were like fires, half burning, half smouldering, with a sort of
acrid fixture of regard. One might imagine Ezekiel or Isaiah to have
had such eyes.’ Southey tells us that he had no sense of smell, and
Haydon that he had none of form. The best likeness of him, in De
Quincey’s judgement, is the portrait of Milton prefixed to
Richardson’s notes on _Paradise Lost_. He was active in his habits,
composing in the open air, and generally dictating his poems. His
daily life was regular, simple, and frugal; his manners were dignified
and kindly; and in his letters and recorded conversations it is
remarkable how little that was personal entered into his judgement of
contemporaries.

The true rank of Wordsworth among poets is, perhaps, not even yet to
be fairly estimated, so hard is it to escape into the quiet hall of
judgement uninflamed by the tumult of partisanship which besets the
doors.

Coming to manhood, predetermined to be a great poet, at a time when
the artificial school of poetry was enthroned with all the authority
of long succession and undisputed legitimacy, it was almost
inevitable that Wordsworth, who, both by nature and judgement was a
rebel against the existing order, should become a partisan.
Unfortunately, he became not only the partisan of a system, but of
William Wordsworth as its representative. Right in general principle,
he thus necessarily became wrong in particulars. Justly convinced that
greatness only achieves its ends by implicitly obeying its own
instincts, he perhaps reduced the following his instincts too much to
a system, mistook his own resentments for the promptings of his
natural genius, and, compelling principle to the measure of his own
temperament or even of the controversial exigency of the moment, fell
sometimes into the error of making naturalness itself artificial. If a
poet resolve to be original, it will end commonly in his being merely
peculiar.

Wordsworth himself departed more and more in practice, as he grew
older, from the theories which he had laid down in his prefaces;[46]
but those theories undoubtedly had a great effect in retarding the
growth of his fame. He had carefully constructed a pair of spectacles
through which his earlier poems were to be studied, and the public
insisted on looking through them at his mature works, and were
consequently unable to see fairly what required a different focus. He
forced his readers to come to his poetry with a certain amount of
conscious preparation, and thus gave them beforehand the impression of
something like mechanical artifice, and deprived them of the contented
repose of implicit faith. To the child a watch seems to be a living
creature; but Wordsworth would not let his readers be children, and
did injustice to himself by giving them an uneasy doubt whether
creations which really throbbed with the very heart’s-blood of genius,
and were alive with nature’s life of life, were not contrivances of
wheels and springs. A naturalness which we are told to expect has lost
the crowning grace of nature. The men who walked in Cornelius
Agrippa’s visionary gardens had probably no more pleasurable emotion
than that of a shallow wonder, or an equally shallow self-satisfaction
in thinking they had hit upon the secret of the thaumaturgy; but to a
tree that has grown as God willed we come without a theory and with
no botanical predilections, enjoying it simply and thankfully; or the
Imagination recreates for us its past summers and winters, the birds
that have nested and sung in it, the sheep that have clustered in its
shade, the winds that have visited it, the cloud-bergs that have
drifted over it, and the snows that have ermined it in winter. The
Imagination is a faculty that flouts at foreordination, and Wordsworth
seemed to do all he could to cheat his readers of her company by
laying out paths with a peremptory _Do not step off the gravel!_ at
the opening of each, and preparing pitfalls for every conceivable
emotion, with guide-boards to tell each when and where it must be
caught.

    [46] How far he swung backward toward the school under whose
    influence he grew up, and toward the style against which he
    had protested so vigorously, a few examples will show. The
    advocate of the language of common life has a verse in his
    _Thanksgiving Ode_ which, if one met with it by itself, he
    would think the achievement of some later copyist of Pope:

        While the _tubed engine_ [the organ] feels the inspiring blast.

    And in _The Italian Itinerant_ and _The Swiss Goatherd_ we
    find a thermometer or barometer called

                      The well-wrought scale
        Whose sentient tube instructs to time
        A purpose to a fickle clime.

    Still worse in the _Eclipse of the Sun_, 1821:

        High on her speculative tower
        Stood Science, waiting for the hour
        When Sol was destined to endure
          That darkening.

    So in _The Excursion_,

        The cold March wind raised in her tender throat
        Viewless obstructions.

But if these things stood in the way of immediate appreciation, he had
another theory which interferes more seriously with the total and
permanent effect of his poems. He was theoretically determined not
only to be a philosophic poet, but to be a _great_ philosophic poet,
and to this end he must produce an epic. Leaving aside the question
whether the epic be obsolete or not, it may be doubted whether the
history of a single man’s mind is universal enough in its interest to
furnish all the requirements of the epic machinery, and it may be more
than doubted whether a poet’s philosophy be ordinary metaphysics,
divisible into chapter and section. It is rather something which is
more energetic in a word than in a whole treatise, and our hearts
unclose themselves instinctively at its simple _Open sesame!_ while
they would stand firm against the reading of the whole body of
philosophy. In point of fact, the one element of greatness which _The
Excursion_ possesses indisputably is heaviness. It is only the
episodes that are universally read, and the effect of these is diluted
by the connecting and accompanying lectures on metaphysics. Wordsworth
had his epic mould to fill, and, like Benvenuto Cellini in casting his
Perseus, was forced to throw in everything, debasing the metal, lest
it should run short. Separated from the rest, the episodes are perfect
poems in their kind, and without example in the language.

Wordsworth, like most solitary men of strong minds, was a good critic
of the substance of poetry, but somewhat niggardly in the allowance he
made for those subsidiary qualities which make it the charmer of
leisure and the employment of minds without definite object. It may be
doubted, indeed, whether he set much store by any contemporary writing
but his own, and whether he did not look upon poetry too exclusively
as an exercise rather of the intellect than as a nepenthe of the
imagination. He says of himself, speaking of his youth:

                                     In fine,
    I was a better judge of thoughts than words,
    Misled in estimating words, not only
    By common inexperience of youth,
    But by the trade in classic niceties,
    The dangerous craft of culling term and phrase
    From languages that want the living voice
    To carry meaning to the natural heart;
    To tell us what is passion, what is truth,
    What reason, what simplicity and sense.[47]

    [47] _Prelude_, Book VI.

Though he here speaks in the preterite tense, this was always true of
him, and his thought seems often to lean upon a word too weak to bear
its weight. No reader of adequate insight can help regretting that he
did not earlier give himself to ‘the trade of classic niceties’. It
was precisely this which gives to the blank-verse of Landor the severe
dignity and reserved force which alone among later poets recall the
tune of Milton, and to which Wordsworth never attained. Indeed,
Wordsworth’s blank-verse (though the passion be profounder) is always
essentially that of Cowper. They were alike also in their love of
outward nature and of simple things. The main difference between them
is one of scenery rather than of sentiment, between the lifelong
familiar of the mountains and the dweller on the plain.

It cannot be denied that in Wordsworth the very highest powers of the
poetic mind were associated with a certain tendency to the diffuse and
commonplace. It is in the understanding (always prosaic) that the
great golden veins of his imagination are imbedded. He wrote too much
to write always well; for it is not a great Xerxes-army of words, but
a compact Greek ten thousand, that march safely down to posterity. He
set tasks to his divine faculty, which is much the same as trying to
make Jove’s eagle do the service of a clucking hen. Throughout _The
Prelude_ and _The Excursion_ he seems striving to bind the wizard
Imagination with the sand-ropes of dry disquisition, and to have
forgotten the potent spell-word which would make the particles cohere.
There is an arenaceous quality in the style which makes progress
wearisome. Yet with what splendours as of mountain-sunsets are we
rewarded! what golden rounds of verse do we not see stretching
heavenward with angels ascending and descending! what haunting
harmonies hover around us deep and eternal like the undying baritone
of the sea! and if we are compelled to fare through sands and desert
wildernesses, how often do we not hear airy shapes that syllable our
names with a startling personal appeal to our highest consciousness
and our noblest aspiration, such as we wait for in vain in any other
poet!

Take from Wordsworth all which an honest criticism cannot but allow,
and what is left will show how truly great he was. He had no humour,
no dramatic power, and his temperament was of that dry and juiceless
quality, that in all his published correspondence you shall not find a
letter, but only essays. If we consider carefully where he was most
successful, we shall find that it was not so much in description of
natural scenery, or delineation of character, as in vivid expression
of the effect produced by external objects and events upon his own
mind, and of the shape and hue (perhaps momentary) which they in turn
took from his mood or temperament. His finest passages are always
monologues. He had a fondness for particulars, and there are parts of
his poems which remind us of local histories in the undue relative
importance given to trivial matters. He was the historian of
Wordsworthshire. This power of particularization (for it is as truly a
power as generalization) is what gives such vigour and greatness to
single lines and sentiments of Wordsworth, and to poems developing a
single thought or sentiment. It was this that made him so fond of the
sonnet. That sequestered nook forced upon him the limits which his
fecundity (if I may not say his garrulity) was never self-denying
enough to impose on itself. It suits his solitary and meditative
temper, and it was there that Lamb (an admirable judge of what was
permanent in literature) liked him best. Its narrow bounds, but
fourteen paces from end to end, turn into a virtue his too common
fault of giving undue prominence to every passing emotion. He excels
in monologue, and the law of the sonnet tempers monologue with mercy.
In _The Excursion_ we are driven to the subterfuge of a French verdict
of extenuating circumstances. His mind had not that reach and
elemental movement of Milton’s, which, like the trade-wind, gathered
to itself thoughts and images like stately fleets from every quarter;
some deep with silks and spicery, some brooding over the silent
thunders of their battailous armaments, but all swept forward in their
destined track, over the long billows of his verse, every inch of
canvas strained by the unifying breath of their common epic impulse.
It was an organ that Milton mastered, mighty in compass, capable
equally of the trumpet’s ardours or the slim delicacy of the flute,
and sometimes it bursts forth in great crashes through his prose, as
if he touched it for solace in the intervals of his toil. If
Wordsworth sometimes puts the trumpet to his lips, yet he lays it
aside soon and willingly for his appropriate instrument, the pastoral
reed. And it is not one that grew by any vulgar stream, but that which
Apollo breathed through, tending the flocks of Admetus,--that which
Pan endowed with every melody of the visible universe,--the same in
which the soul of the despairing nymph took refuge and gifted with her
dual nature,--so that ever and anon, amid the notes of human joy or
sorrow, there comes suddenly a deeper and almost awful tone,
thrilling us into dim consciousness of a forgotten divinity.

Wordsworth’s absolute want of humour, while it no doubt confirmed his
self-confidence by making him insensible both to the comical
incongruity into which he was often led by his earlier theory
concerning the language of poetry and to the not unnatural ridicule
called forth by it, seems to have been indicative of a certain
dullness of perception in other directions.[48] We cannot help
feeling that the material of his nature was essentially prose, which,
in his inspired moments, he had the power of transmuting, but which,
whenever the inspiration failed or was factitious, remained
obstinately leaden. The normal condition of many poets would seem to
approach that temperature to which Wordsworth’s mind could be raised
only by the white heat of profoundly inward passion. And in proportion
to the intensity needful to make his nature thoroughly aglow is the
very high quality of his best verses. They seem rather the productions
of nature than of man, and have the lastingness of such, delighting
our age with the same startle of newness and beauty that pleased our
youth. Is it his thought? It has the shifting inward lustre of
diamond. Is it his feeling? It is as delicate as the impressions of
fossil ferns. He seems to have caught and fixed for ever in immutable
grace the most evanescent and intangible of our intuitions, the very
ripple-marks on the remotest shores of being. But this intensity of
mood which insures high quality is by its very nature incapable of
prolongation, and Wordsworth, in endeavouring it, falls more below
himself, and is, more even than many poets his inferiors in
imaginative quality, a poet of passages. Indeed, one cannot help
having the feeling sometimes that the poem is there for the sake of
these passages, rather than that these are the natural jets and
elations of a mind energized by the rapidity of its own motion. In
other words, the happy couplet or gracious image seems not to spring
from the inspiration of the poem conceived as a whole, but rather to
have dropped of itself into the mind of the poet in one of his
rambles, who then, in a less rapt mood, has patiently built up around
it a setting of verse too often ungraceful in form and of a material
whose cheapness may cast a doubt on the priceless quality of the gem
it encumbers.[49] During the most happily productive period of his
life, Wordsworth was impatient of what may be called the mechanical
portion of his art. His wife and sister seem from the first to have
been his scribes. In later years, he had learned and often insisted
on the truth that poetry was an art no less than a gift, and corrected
his poems in cold blood, sometimes to their detriment. But he
certainly had more of the vision than of the faculty divine, and was
always a little numb on the side of form and proportion. Perhaps his
best poem in these respects is the _Laodamia_, and it is not
uninstructive to learn from his own lips that ‘it cost him more
trouble than almost anything of equal length he had ever written’. His
longer poems (miscalled epical) have no more intimate bond of union
than their more or less immediate relation to his own personality. Of
character other than his own he had but a faint conception, and all
the personages of _The Excursion_ that are not Wordsworth are the
merest shadows of himself upon mist, for his self-concentrated nature
was incapable of projecting itself into the consciousness of other men
and seeing the springs of action at their source in the recesses of
individual character. The best parts of these longer poems are bursts
of impassioned soliloquy, and his fingers were always clumsy at the
_callida junctura_. The stream of narration is sluggish, if varied by
times with pleasing reflections (_viridesque placido aequore sylvas_);
we are forced to do our own rowing, and only when the current is
hemmed in by some narrow gorge of the poet’s personal consciousness do
we feel ourselves snatched along on the smooth but impetuous rush of
unmistakable inspiration. The fact that what is precious in
Wordsworth’s poetry was (more truly even than with some greater poets
than he) a gift rather than an achievement should always be borne in
mind in taking the measure of his power. I know not whether to call
it height or depth, this peculiarity of his, but it certainly endows
those parts of his work which we should distinguish as Wordsworthian
with an unexpectedness and impressiveness of originality such as we
feel in the presence of Nature herself. He seems to have been half
conscious of this, and recited his own poems to all comers with an
enthusiasm of wondering admiration that would have been profoundly
comic but for its simple sincerity and for the fact that William
Wordsworth, Esquire, of Rydal Mount, was one person, and the William
Wordsworth whom he so heartily reverenced quite another. We recognize
two voices in him, as Stephano did in Caliban. There are Jeremiah and
his scribe Baruch. If the prophet cease from dictating, the
amanuensis, rather than be idle, employs his pen in jotting down some
anecdotes of his master, how he one day went out and saw an old woman,
and the next day did _not_, and so came home and dictated some verses
on this ominous phenomenon, and how another day he saw a cow. These
marginal annotations have been carelessly taken up into the text, have
been religiously held by the pious to be orthodox scripture, and by
dexterous exegesis have been made to yield deeply oracular meanings.
Presently the real prophet takes up the word again and speaks as one
divinely inspired, the Voice of a higher and invisible power.
Wordsworth’s better utterances have the bare sincerity, the absolute
abstraction from time and place, the immunity from decay, that belong
to the grand simplicities of the Bible. They seem not more his own
than ours and every man’s, the word of the inalterable Mind. This gift
of his was naturally very much a matter of temperament, and
accordingly by far the greater part of his finer product belongs to
the period of his prime, ere Time had set his lumpish foot on the
pedal that deadens the nerves of animal sensibility.[50] He did not
grow as those poets do in whom the artistic sense is predominant. One
of the most delightful fancies of the Genevese humorist, Toepffer, is
the poet Albert, who, having had his portrait drawn by a highly
idealizing hand, does his best afterwards to look like it. Many of
Wordsworth’s later poems seem like rather unsuccessful efforts to
resemble his former self. They would never, as Sir John Harington says
of poetry, ‘keep a child from play and an old man from the
chimney-corner’.[51]

    [48] Nowhere is this displayed with more comic
    self-complacency than when he thought it needful to rewrite
    the ballad of Helen of Kirconnel,--a poem hardly to be
    matched in any language for swiftness of movement and savage
    sincerity of feeling. Its shuddering compression is masterly.
    Compare:

        Curst be the heart that thought the thought,
        And curst the hand that fired the shot,
        When in my arms burd Helen dropt,
          That died to succour me!
        O, think ye not my heart was sair
        When my love dropt down and spake na mair?

    Compare this with,--

        Proud Gordon cannot bear the thoughts
          That through his brain are travelling,
        And, starting up, to Bruce’s heart
          He launched a deadly javelin:
        Fair Ellen saw it when it came,
        And, _stepping forth to meet the same_,
        Did with her body cover
        The Youth, her chosen lover.

           *       *       *       *       *

        And Bruce (_as soon as he had slain_
        _The Gordon_) sailed away to Spain,
        And fought with rage incessant
        Against the Moorish Crescent.

    These are surely the versos of an attorney’s clerk ‘penning a
    stanza when he should engross’. It will be noticed that
    Wordsworth here also departs from his earlier theory of the
    language of poetry by substituting a javelin for a bullet as
    less modern and familiar. Had he written

        And Gordon never gave a hint,
        But, having somewhat picked his flint,
        Let fly the fatal bullet
        That killed that lovely pullet,

    it would hardly have seemed more like a parody than the rest.
    He shows the same insensibility in a note upon the _Ancient
    Mariner_ in the second edition of the _Lyrical Ballads_: ‘The
    poem of my friend has indeed great defects; first, that the
    principal person has no distinct character, either in his
    profession of mariner, or as a human being who, having been
    long under the control of supernatural impressions, might be
    supposed himself to partake of something supernatural;
    secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted
    upon; thirdly, that the events, having no necessary
    connexion, do not produce each other; and lastly, that the
    imagery is somewhat laboriously accumulated.’ Here is an
    indictment, to be sure, and drawn, plainly enough, by the
    attorney’s clerk aforenamed. One would think that the strange
    charm of Coleridge’s most truly original poems lay in this
    very emancipation from the laws of cause and effect.

    [49]

        A hundred times when, roving high and low,
        I have been harassed with the toil of verse,
        Much pains and little progress, and at once
        Some lovely Image in the song rose up,
        Full-formed, like Venus rising from the sea.

                                 _Prelude_, Book IV.

    [50] His best poetry was written when he was under the
    immediate influence of Coleridge. Coleridge seems to have
    felt this, for it is evidently to Wordsworth that he alludes
    when he speaks of ‘those who have been so well pleased that I
    should, year after year, flow with a hundred nameless rills
    into _their_ main stream’ (_Letters, Conversations, and
    Recollections of S. T. C._, vol. i, pp. 5-6). Wordsworth
    found fault with the repetition of the concluding sound of
    the participles in Shakespeare’s line about bees:

        The singing masons building roofs of gold.

    This, he said, was a line that Milton never would have
    written. Keats thought, on the other hand, that the
    repetition was in harmony with the continued note of the
    singers’ (Leigh Hunt’s _Autobiography_). Wordsworth writes to
    Crabb Robinson in 1837, ‘My ear is susceptible to the
    clashing of sounds almost to disease.’ One cannot help
    thinking that his training in these niceties was begun by
    Coleridge.

    [51] In the Preface to his translation of the _Orlando
    Furioso_.

Chief Justice Marshall once blandly interrupted a junior counsel who
was arguing certain obvious points of law at needless length, by
saying, ‘Brother Jones, there are _some_ things which a Supreme Court
of the United States sitting in equity may be presumed to know.’
Wordsworth has this fault of enforcing and restating obvious points
till the reader feels as if his own intelligence were somewhat
underrated. He is over-conscientious in giving us full measure, and
once profoundly absorbed in the sound of his own voice, he knows not
when to stop. If he feel himself flagging, he has a droll way of
keeping the floor, as it were, by asking himself a series of questions
sometimes not needing, and often incapable of answer. There are three
stanzas of such near the close of the First Part of _Peter Bell_,
where Peter first catches a glimpse of the dead body in the water, all
happily incongruous, and ending with one which reaches the height of
comicality:

    Is it a fiend that to a stake
    Of fire his desperate self is tethering?
    Or stubborn spirit doomed to yell,
    In solitary ward or cell,
    Ten thousand miles from all his brethren?

The same want of humour which made him insensible to incongruity may
perhaps account also for the singular unconsciousness of disproportion
which so often strikes us in his poetry. For example, a little farther
on in _Peter Bell_ we find:

    _Now_--like a tempest-shattered bark
    That overwhelmed and prostrate lies,
    And in a moment to the verge
    Is lifted of a foaming surge--
    Full suddenly the Ass doth rise!

And one cannot help thinking that the similes of the huge stone, the
sea-beast, and the cloud, noble as they are in themselves, are
somewhat too lofty for the service to which they are put.[52]

    [52] In _Resolution and Independence_.

The movement of Wordsworth’s mind was too slow and his mood too
meditative for narrative poetry. He values his own thoughts and
reflections too much to sacrifice the least of them to the interests
of his story. Moreover, it is never action that interests him, but the
subtle motives that lead to or hinder it. _The Waggoner_ involuntarily
suggests a comparison with _Tam O’Shanter_, infinitely to its own
disadvantage. _Peter Bell_, full though it be of profound touches and
subtle analysis, is lumbering and disjointed. Even Lamb was forced to
confess that he did not like it. _The White Doe_, the most
Wordsworthian of them all in the best meaning of the epithet, is also
only the more truly so for being diffuse and reluctant. What charms in
Wordsworth and will charm for ever is the

                    Happy tone
    Of meditation slipping in between
    The beauty coming and the beauty gone.

A few poets, in the exquisite adaptation of their words to the tune of
our own feelings and fancies, in the charm of their manner,
indefinable as the sympathetic grace of woman, _are_ everything to us
without our being able to say that they are much in themselves. They
rather narcotize than fortify. Wordsworth must subject our mood to his
own before he admits us to his intimacy; but, once admitted, it is for
life, and we find ourselves in his debt, not for what he has been to
us in our hours of relaxation, but for what he has done for us as a
reinforcement of faltering purpose and personal independence of
character. His system of a Nature-cure, first professed by Dr. Jean
Jacques and continued by Cowper, certainly breaks down as a whole. The
Solitary of _The Excursion_, who has not been cured of his scepticism
by living among the medicinal mountains, is, so far as we can see,
equally proof against the lectures of Pedlar and Parson. Wordsworth
apparently felt that this would be so, and accordingly never saw his
way clear to finishing the poem. But the treatment, whether a panacea
or not, is certainly wholesome inasmuch as it inculcates abstinence,
exercise, and uncontaminate air. I am not sure, indeed, that the
Nature-cure theory does not tend to foster in constitutions less
vigorous than Wordsworth’s what Milton would call a fugitive and
cloistered virtue at a dear expense of manlier qualities. The ancients
and our own Elizabethans, ere spiritual megrims had become
fashionable, perhaps made more out of life by taking a frank delight
in its action and passion and by grappling with the facts of this
world, rather than muddling themselves over the insoluble problems of
another. If they had not discovered the picturesque, as we understand
it, they found surprisingly fine scenery in man and his destiny, and
would have seen something ludicrous, it may be suspected, in the
spectacle of a grown man running to hide his head in the apron of the
Mighty Mother whenever he had an ache in his finger or got a bruise in
the tussle for existence.

But when, as I have said, our impartiality has made all those
qualifications and deductions against which even the greatest poet may
not plead his privilege, what is left to Wordsworth is enough to
justify his fame. Even where his genius is wrapped in clouds, the
unconquerable lightning of imagination struggles through, flashing out
unexpected vistas, and illuminating the humdrum pathway of our daily
thought with a radiance of momentary consciousness that seems like a
revelation. If it be the most delightful function of the poet to set
our lives to music, yet perhaps he will be even more sure of our
maturer gratitude if he do his part also