To clothe whate’er the soul admires and loves,
With language and with numbers.”
NINE muses were enough for one Greece, and nine poets are enough for one country, even in the nineteenth century. And these nine are “a sacred nine,” who, if not quite equal to Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton, are fairly initiated masters of the wand and spell; and whose least moving incantation should have silenced that blasphemer, who dared to say, in the pages of Blackwood, that “all men, women, and children, are poets, saving only—those who write verses.”
First—There is CAMPBELL—a poet; simply a poet—no philosopher. His forte is strong conception, a style free and bold; occasionally a passage is ill-finished, but the lights and shades are so happily distributed, the touch so masterly and vigorous, with such tact at knowing where to stop, that we must look for the faults in order to see them. There is little, if any, originality of thought; no profound meaning; no esoteric charm, which you cannot make your own on a first reading; yet we have all probably read Campbell many times. It is his manner which we admire; and in him we enjoy what most minds enjoy most, not new thoughts, new feelings, but recognition of
Thus, in Campbell’s best productions we are satisfied, not stimulated. “The Mariners of England” is just what it should be;—for we find free, deep tones, from the seaman’s breast, chorded into harmony by an artist happy enough to feel nature—wise enough to follow nature. “Lochiel” is what it should be, a wild, breezy symphony, from the romantic Highlands. There are, in fact, flat lines and tame passages in “Lochiel;” but I should never have discovered them, if I had not chanced to hear that noble composition recited by a dull schoolboy. The idealizing tendency in the reader, stimulated by the poet’s real magnetic power, would prevent their being perceived in a solitary perusal, and a bright schoolboy would have been sufficiently inspired by the general grandeur of the piece; to have known how to sink such lines as
Let him dash his proud foam like a wave on the rock;”
and a few other imperfections in favour of
and other striking passages.
As for the sweet tale of “Wyoming” the expression of the dying Gertrude’s lips is not more “bland, more beautiful,” than the music of the lay in which she is embalmed. It were difficult to read this poem, so holy in its purity and tenderness, so deliciously soft and soothing in its coloring, without feeling better and happier.
The feeling of Campbell towards women is refined and deep. To him they are not angels—not, in the common sense, heroines; but of a “perfect woman nobly planned,” he has a better idea than most men, or even poets. Witness one of his poems, which has never received its meed of fame; I allude to Theodric. Who can be insensible to the charms of Constance, the matron counterpart to Gertrude’s girlhood?
Prolonged, exalted, bound enchantment’s spell;
For with affections warm, intense, refined,
She mixed such calm and holy strength of mind,
That, like a Heaven’s image in the smiling brook,
Celestial peace was pictured in her look;
Her’s was the brow in trials unperplexed,
That cheered the sad and tranquillized the vexed;
She studied not the meanest to eclipse,
And yet the wisest listened to her lips;
She sang not, knew not Music’s magic skill,
But yet her voice had tones that swayed the will.”
* * * * * *
“To paint that being to a grovelling mind
Were like portraying pictures to the blind.
‘Twas needful even infectiously to feel
Her temper’s fond, and firm, and gladsome zeal,
To share existence with her, and to gain
Sparks from her love’s electrifying chain,
Of that pure pride, which, lessening to her breast
Life’s ills, gave all its joys a treble zest,
Before the mind completely understood
That mighty truth—how happy are the good!
Even when her light forsook him, it bequeathed
Ennobling sorrow; and her memory breathed
A sweetness that survived her living days,
As odorous scenes outlast the censer’s blaze.
Or if a trouble dimmed their golden joy,
‘Twas outward dross and not infused alloy;
Their home knew but affection’s look and speech,
A little Heaven beyond dimension’s reach.
But midst her kindred there was strife and gall;
Save one congenial sister, they were all
Such foils to her bright intellect and grace,
As if she had engrossed the virtue of her race;
Her nature strove th’ unnatural feuds to heal,
Her wisdom made the weak to her appeal;
And though the wounds she cured were soon unclosed,
Unwearied still her kindness interposed.”
The stanzas addressed to John Kemble I have never heard admired to the fulness of my feeling. Can any thing be finer than this?
His transport’s most impetuous tone;
And to each passion of his breast
The graces gave their zone.”
Those bursts of reason’s half-extinguished glare,
Those tears upon Cordelia’s bosom shed
In doubt more touching than despair,
If ‘twas reality he felt?”
Robust and richly graced,
Your Kemble’s spirit was the home
Of genius and of taste.—
Taste like the silent dial’s power,
That, when supernatural light is given,
Can measure inspiration’s hour
And tell its height in Heaven.
At once ennobled and correct,
His mind surveyed the tragic page;
And what the actor could effect,
The scholar could presage.”
These stanzas are in Campbell’s beat style. Had he possessed as much lyric flow as force, his odes might have vied with those of Collins. But, though soaring upward on a strong pinion, his flights are never prolonged, and in this province, which earnestness and justness of sentiment, simplicity of imagery, and a picturesque turn in expression, seem to have marked out as his own, he is surpassed by Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, from their greater power of continuous self-impulse.
I do not know where to class Campbell as a poet. What he has done seems to be by snatches, and his poems might have been published under the title of “Leisure Hours, or Recreations of a Great Man.” They seem like fragments, not very heedfully stricken off from the bed of a rich quarry; for, with all their individual finish, there is no trace of a fixed purpose to be discerned in them. They appear to be merely occasional effusions; like natural popular poetry; but, as they are written by an accomplished man in these modern days of design and system, we are prompted to look for an aim, a prevading purpose. We shall not find it. Campbell has given us much delight; if he has not directly stimulated our thoughts, he has done so much to refine our tastes, that we must respectfully tender the poetic garland.
And thou, ANACREON MOORE, sweet warbler of Erin! What an ecstasy of sensation must thy poetic life have been! Certainly the dancing of the blood never before inspired so many verses. Moore’s poetry is to literature, what the compositions of Rossini are to music. It is the hey-day of animal existence, embellished by a brilliant fancy, and ardent though superficial affections. The giddy flush of youthful impulse empurples the most pensive strains of his patriotism, throbs in his most delicate touches of pathos, and is felt as much in Tara’s Halls as in the description of the Harem. His muse is light of step and free of air, yet not vulgarly free; she is not a little excited, but it is with quaffing the purest and most sparkling champagne. There is no temperance, no chastened harmony in her grief or in her joy. His melodies are metrically perfect; they absolutely set themselves to music, and talk of spring, and the most voluptuous breath of the blossom-laden western breeze, and the wildest notes of the just returning birds. For his poetic embodying of a particular stage of human existence, and his scintillating wit, will Moore chiefly be remembered. He has been boon-companion and toast-master to the youth of his day. This could not last. When he ceased to be young, and to warble his own verses, their fascination in a great measure disappeared. Many are now not more attractive than dead flower’s in a close room. Anacreon cannot really charm when his hair si gray; there is a time for all things, and the gayest youth loves not the Epicurean old man. Yet he, too, is a poet; and his works will not be suffered to go out of print, though they are, even now, little read. Of course his reputation as a prose writer is another matter, and apart from our present purpose.
The poetry of WALTER SCOTT has been superceded by his prose, yet it fills no unimportant niche in the literary history of the last half century, and may be read, at least once in life, with great pleasure. “Marmion,” “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” &c., cannot, indeed, be companions of those Sabbath hours of which the weariest, dreariest life need not be destitute, for their bearing is not upon the true life of man, his immortal life. Coleridge felt this so deeply, that in a lately published work: (Letter’s, Conversations, &c., of S. T. Coleridge) he is recorded to have said, “not twenty lines of Scott’s poetry will ever reach posterity; it has relation to nothing.” This is altogether too harsh, and proves that the philosopher is subject to narrowness and partial views, from his peculiar mode of looking at an object, equally with the mere man of taste. These poems are chiefly remarkable for presenting pictures of particular epochs, and, considered in that light, truly admirable. Much poetry has come down to us, thus far, whose interest is almost exclusively of the same nature; in which, at least, moral conflict does not constitute the prominent interest.
To one who has read Scott’s novels first, and looks in his poems for the same dramatic interest, the rich humor, the tragic force, the highly wrought yet flowing dialogue, and the countless minutiæ in the finish of character, they must bring disappointment. For their excellence consists in graphic descriptions of architecture and natural scenery, a happy choice of subject and effective grouping of slightly sketched characters, combined with steady march and great simplicity of narrative. Here and there sentiments are introduced, always just and gracefully worded, but without that delicacy of shading, fine and harmonious as Nature’s workmanship in the rose-leaf, which delights us in his prose works. It is, indeed, astonishing that he should lose so much by a constraint so lightly worn; for his facility of versification is wonderful, his numbers seem almost to have coined themselves, and you cannot detect any thing like searching for a word to tag a verse withal. Yet certain it is, we receive no adequate idea of the exuberance and versatility of his genius, or his great knowledge of the human heart, from his poetry. His lore is there as profusely displayed, his good sense and tact as admirable, as in his prose work; and, if only on account of their fidelity of description, these poems are invaluable, and must always hold a place in English literature. They are interesting too, as giving a more complete idea of the character and habits of one of our greatest and best men, than his remarkable modesty would permit the public to obtain more directly. His modes of life, his personal feelings, are no where so detailed, as in the epistles perfixed to the cantos of Marmion. These bring us close to his aide, and leading us with him through the rural and romantic scenes he loved, talk with us by the way of all the rich associations of which he was master. His dogs are with him; be surveys these dumb friends with the eye of a sportsman and a philosopher, and omits nothing in the description of them which could interest either. An old castle frowns upon the road; be bids its story live before you with all the animation of a drama and the fidelity of a chronicle. Are topics of the day introduced? He states his opinion, with firmness and composure, expresses his admiration with energy, and, where he dissents from those he addresses does so with unaffected candor and cordial benignity. Good and great man! More and more imposing as nearer seen; thou art like that product of a superhuman intellect, that stately temple, which rears its head in the clouds, yet must be studied through and through, for months and years, to be appreciated in all its grandeur.
Nothing surprises me more in Scott’s poetry, than that a person of so strong imagination should see every thing so in detail as he does. Nothing interferes with his faculty of observation. No minor part is sacrificed to give effect to the whole; no peculiar light cast on the picture: you only see through a wonderfully far-seeing and accurately observing pair of eyes, and all this when he has so decided a taste for the picturesque. Take, as a specimen, the opening description in Marmion.
“Day set on Norham’s castled steep,
And Tweed’s fair river, broad and deep,
And Cheviot’s mountains lone;
The battled towers, the donjon keep,
The loophole grates, where captives weep,
The flanking walls that round it sweep,
In yellow lustre shone;—
The warriors on the turrets high,
Moving athwart.the evening sky,
Seemed forms of giant height;
Their armor, as it caught the rays,
Flashed back again the western blue,
In lines of dazzling light
St. George’s banner, broad and gay,
Now faded, as the fading ray
Less bright, and less, was flung;
The evening gale had scarce the power
To wave it on the donjon tower,
So heavily it hung.
The scouts had parted on their search,
The castle gates were barred,
Above the gloomy portal arch,
Timing his footsteps to a march,
The warden kept his guard,
Low humming, as he passed along,
Some ancient border gathering song.”
How picturesque, yet how minute! Not even Wordsworth, devoted as he is to nature, and to visible as well as invisible truth, can compare with Scott in fidelity of description. Not even Crabbe, that least imaginative of poets, can compare with him for accuracy of touch and truth of colouring. Scott’s faculties being nicely balanced, never disturbed one another; we perceive this even more distinctly in his poetry than in his prose, perhaps because less excited while reading it.
I have said that CRABBE was the least imaginative of poets. He has no imagination in the commonly received sense of the term; there is nothing of creation in his works; nay, I dare affirm, in opposition to that refined critic, Sir James Mackintosh, that there was no touch of an idealizing tendency in his mind; yet he is a poet; he is so through his calm but deep and steady sympathy with all that is human; he is so by his distinguished power of observation; he is so by his graphic skill. No literature boasts an author more individual than Crabbe. He is unique. Moore described him well.
The unshrinking truth that lets her light
Through life’s low, dark, interior fall,
Opening the whole, severely bright.
Yet softening, as she frowns along,
O’er scenes which angels weep to see,
Where truth herself half veils the wrong
In pity of the misery.”
I could never enter into the state of a mind which could support viewing life and human nature as Crabbe’s did, softened by no cool shadow, gladdened by no rose-light. I wish Sir Walter Scott, when expressing his admiration for the poetry of Crabbe, had told us more distinctly the nature of the impressions he received from it. Sir Walter, while he observes with equal accuracy, is sure to detect something comic or something lovely, some pretty dalliance of light and shade in the “low, dark interior” of the most outwardly desolate hovel. Cowper saw the follies and vices of mankind as clearly, but his Christian love is an ever softly-murmuring under-current, which relieves the rude sounds of the upper world. Crabbe in his view of the human mind may be compared with Cowper or Scott, as the anatomist, in his view of the human form, may be compared with the painter or sculptor. Unshrinking, he tears apart that glorious fabric which has been called “the crown of creation;” he sees its beauty and its strength with calm approval, its weaknesses, its liability to disease, with stern pity or cold indignation. His nicely dissected or undraped virtues are scarcely more attractive than vices, and, with profound knowledge of the passions, not one ray of passionate enthusiasm casts a glow over the dramatic recitative of his poems.
Crabbe has the true spirit of the man of science; he seeks truth alone, content to take all parts of God’s creations as they are, if he may but get a distinct idea of the Jaws which govern them. He sees human nature as only a human being could see it, but be describes it like a spirit which has never known human longings; yet in no unfriendly temper—far from it; but with a strange bleak fidelity, unbiased either by impatience or tenderness.
The poor and humble owe him much, for he has made them known to the upper classes, not as they ought to be, but as they really are; and in so doing, in distinctly portraying the evils of their condition, he has opened the way to amelioration. He is the poet of the lower classes, though probably rather valuable to them as an interpreter than agreeable as a household friend. They like something more stimulating, they would prefer gin or rum to lemonade. Indeed, that class of readers rarely like to find themselves, in print; they want something romantic, something which takes them out of their sphere; and high abounding words, such as they are not in the habit of using, have peculiar charms for them. That is a high stage of culture in which simplicity is appreciated.
The same cold tints pervade Crabbe’s descriptions of natural scenery. We can conceive that his eye was educated at the sea-side. An east-wind blows, his colours are sharp and decided, and the glitter which falls upon land and wave has no warmth.
It is difficult to do Crabbe justice, both because the subject is so large a one, and because tempted to discuss it rather in admiration than in love.
I turn to one whom I love still more than I admire; the gentle, the gifted, the ill-fated Shelley.
Let not prejudice deny him a place among the great ones of the day. The youth of Shelley was unfortunate. He committed many errors; what else could be expected from one so, precocious? No one begins life so early who is not at some period forced to retrace his steps, and those precepts which are learned so happily from a mother’s lips, must be paid for by the heart’s best blood when bought from the stern teacher, Experience. Poor Shelley! Thou wert the warmest of philanthropists, yet doomed to live at variance with thy country and thy time. Full of the spirit of genuine Christianity, yet ranking thyself among unbelievers, because in early life thou hadst been bewildered by seeing it perverted, sinking beneath those precious gifts which should have made a world thine own, intoxicated with thy lyric enthusiasm and thick-coming fancies, adoring Nature as a goddess, yet misinterpreting her oracles, cut off from life just as thou wert beginning to read it aright; O, most musical, most melancholy singer; who that has a soul to feel genius, a heart to grieve over misguided nobleness, can forbear watering the profuse blossoms of thy too early closed spring with tears of sympathy, of love, and (if we may dare it for one so superior in intellect) of pity?
Although the struggles of Shelley’s mind destroyed that serenity of tone which is essential to the finest poetry, and his tenderness has not always that elevation of hope which should hallow it; although in no one of his productions is there sufficient unity of purpose and regulation of parts to entitle it to unlimited admiration, yet they all abound with passages of infinite beauty, and in two particulars, he surpasses any poet of the day.
First, in fertility of Fancy. Here his riches, from want of arrangement, sometimes fail to give pleasure, yet we cannot but perceive that they are priceless riches. In this respect parts of his “Adonais,” “Marianne’s Dream;” and “Medusa,” are not to be excelled, except in Shakspeare.
Second, in sympathy with Nature. To her lightest tones his being gave an echo; truly she spoke to him, and it is this which gives unequalled melody to his versification; I say unequalled, for I do not think either Moore or Coleridge can here vie with him, though each is in his way a master of the lyre. The rush, the flow, the delicacy of vibrations in Shelley’s verse, can only be paralleled by the waterfall, the rivulet, the notes of the bird and of the insect world. This is a sort of excellence not frequently to be expected now, when men listen less zealously than of old to the mystic whispers of Nature; when little is understood that is not told in set phrases, and when even poets write more frequently in curtained and Carpeted rooms, than “among thickets of odoriferous blossoming trees and flowery glades,” as Shelley did.
If it were “a curious piece of work enough,” to run a parallel between the Skylark of Shelley and that of Wordsworth, and thus illustrate mental processes so similar in dissimilitude. The mood of mind, the ideas, are not unlike in the two. Hear Wordsworth.
“Lift me, guide me, till I find
The spot which seems so to thy mind,
I have walked through wildernesses dreary,
And to-day my heart is wary,
Had I now thewings of a Fairy
Up to thee would I fly;
There ill madness about thee, and joy divine
In that song of thine:
Joyous as morning, thou art laughing and scorning;
And though little troubled with sloth,
Drunken Lark, thou would’st be loth
To be such a traveller as I!
Happy, happy liver,
With a soul as strong as a mountain river,
Pouring out praise to the Almighty Giver,
Joy and jollity be with us both.”
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher,
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run
Like an unbodied joy, whose race is just begun.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of heaven,
In the broad daylight,
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy thrill delight.
Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear,
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.
All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed.
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see,
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.
Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour,
With music sweet as love which oveflows her bower.
Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew
Its serial hue
Among the flowers and grass which screen it from the view.
Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet, those heavy-winged thieves.
Sound of vernal showers,
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.
Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
Or triumphant chaunt,
Matched with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt—
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fielsa, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be;
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest; but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.”
I do not like to omit a word of it: but it is taking too much room. Should we not say from the samples before us that Shelley, in melody and exuberance of fancy, was incalculably superior to Wordsworth? But mark their inferences.
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen, then, as I am listening now.”
To prickly moors and dusty ways confined,
Yet, bearing thee and others of thy kind
As full of gladness and as free of heaven,
I o’er the earth will go plodding on
By myself, cheerfully, till the day is done.”
If Wordsworth have superiority then, it consists in greater maturity and dignity of sentiment.
While reading Shelley, we must surrender ourselves without reserve to the magnetic power of genius; we must not expect to be satisfied, but rest content with being stimulated. He alone who can resign his soul in unquestioning simplicity to the descant of the nightingale or the absorption of the sea-side, may hope to receive from the mind of a Shelley the suggestions which, to those who know how to receive, he can so liberally impart.
I cannot leave Shelley without quoting two or three stanzas, in which he speaks of himself and which are full of his peculiar beauties and peculiar faults.
A phantom among men, companionless,
As the last cloud of an expiring storm,
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature’s naked loveliness
Acteon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued like raging hounds their father and their prey.
A pard-like Spirit, beautiful and swift—
A love in desolation masked; a power
Girt round with weakness; it can scarce uplift
The weight of the superincumbent hour;
It is a dying lamp, a falling shower,
A breaking billow; even whilst we speak
Is it not broken? On the withering flower
The killing sun smiles brightly; on a cheek
The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break.
His head was bound with pansies overblown,
And faded violets, white, and pied, and blue;
And a light spear, topped with a cypress cone,
Round whose rude shaft dark ivy-tresses grew
Yet dripping with the forest’s noon-day dew,
Vibrated as the ever-beating heart
Shook the weak hand that grasped it; of that crew
He came the last, neglected and apart;
A herd-abandoned deer, struck by the hunter’s dart.”
Shelley is no longer “neglected,” but I believe his works have never been republished in this country, and therefore these extracts may be new to most readers.
Byron naturally in our hall of imagery takes place next his friend. Both are noble poetic shapes, both mournful in their beauty. The radiant gentleness of Shelley’s brow and eye delight us, but there are marks of suffering on that delicate cheek and about that sweet mouth; while a sorrowful indignation curls too strongly the lip, lightens too fiercely in the eye, of Byron.
The unfortunate Byron, (unfortunate I call him, because “mind and destiny are but two names for one idea,”) has long been at rest; the adoration and the hatred of which he was the object, are both dying out. His poems have done their work; a strong personal interest no longer gives them a factitious charm, and they are beginning to find their proper level. Their value is two-fold—immortal and eternal, as records of thoughts and feelings which must be immortally and eternally interesting to the mind of individual man; historical, because they are the most complete chronicle of a particular set of impulses in the public mind.
How much of the first sort of value the poems of Byron possess, posterity must decide, and the verdict can only be ascertained by degrees; I, for one, should say not much. There are many beautiful pictures; infinite wit, but too local and temporary in its range to be greatly prized beyond his own time; little originality; but much vigor, both of thought and expression; with a deep, even a passionate love of the beautiful and grand. I have often thought, in relation to him, of Wordsworth’s description of
So much of Earth, so much of Heaven,
And such impetuous blood.”..
* * * * *
“Whatever in those climes he found,
Irregular in sight or sound,
Did lo his mind impart
A kindred impulse, seemed allied
To his own powers, and justified
The workings of his heart.
Nor less to feed voluptuous thought,
The beauteous forms of nature wrought,
Fair trees and lovely flowers;
The breezes their own languor lent,
The stars had feelings which they lent,
Into those gorgeous bowers.
And in his worst pursuits, I ween,
That sometimes there did intervene
Pure hopes of high intent;
For passions linked to forms so fair
And stately, needs must have their share
Of noble sentiment.”
It is worthy of remark that Byron’s moral perversion never paralyzed or obscured his intellectual powers, though it might lower their aims. With regard to the plan and style of his works, he showed strong good sense and clear judgment. The man who indulged such narrowing egotism, such irrational scorn, would prune and polish without mercy the stanzas in which he uttered them; and this bewildered Idealist was a very bigot in behoof of the commonsensical satirist, the almost peevish Realist—Pope.
Historically these poems are valuable as records of that strange malady, that sickness of the soul, which has, in our day, cankered so visibly the rose of youth. It is common to speak of the Byronic mood as morbid, false, and foolish; it is the two former, and, if it could be avoided, would most assuredly be the latter also. But how can it always be avoided? Like as a fever rages in the blood before we are aware, even so creeps upon the soul this disease, offspring of a moral malaria, an influence impalpable till we feel its results within ourselves. Since skillful physicians are not always at hand, would it not be better to purify the atmosphere than to rail at the patient? Those who have passed through this process seem to have wondrous little pity for those who are still struggling with its horrors, and very little care to aid them. Yet if it be disease, does it not claim pity, and would it not be well to try some other remedy than hard knocks for its cure? What though these sick youths do mourn and lament somewhat wearisomely, and we feel vexed, on bright May mornings, to have them try to persuade us that this beautiful green earth, with all its flowers and bird-notes, is no better than a vast hospital? Consider, it is a relief to the delirious to rave audibly, and few, like Professor Teufelsdrock, have strength to keep a whole Satanic school in the soul from spouting aloud. What says the benign Uhland?
And you have feared our tears would never cease,
If we too gloomily life’s prose have seen,
Nor suffered Man nor Mouse to dwell in peace,
Yet pardon us for our youth’s take. The vine
Must weep from her crushed grapes the generous wine;
Not without pain the precious beverage flows;
Thus joy and power may yet spring from the woes
Which have so wearied every long-tasked ear;” &c.
There is no getting rid of the epidemic of the season, however annoying and useless it may seem. You cannot cough down an influenza; it will cough you down.
Why young people will just now profess themselves so very miserable, for no better reason than that assigned by the poet to some “inquiring friends,”
I grieve that I cannot be blessed;”
I have here no room to explain. Enough that there has for some time prevailed a sickliness of feeling, whose highest water-mark may be found in the writings of Byron. He is the “power man” (as the Germans call him, meaning perhaps the power-loom!) who has woven into one tissue all those myriad threads, tear-stained and dull-gray, with which the malignant spiders of speculation had filled the machine shop of society, and by so doing has, though I admit, unintentionally, conferred benefits upon us incalculable for a long time to come. He has lived through this experience for us, and shown us that the natural fruits of indulgence in such a temper are dissonance, cynicism, irritability, and all uncharitableness. Accordingly, since his time the evil has lessened. With this warning before them, let the young examine that world, which seems at times so deformed by evils and endless contradictions,
Of their bad influence, and the good receive.”
Grief loses half its charm when we find that others have endured the same to a higher degree, and lived through it. Nor do I believe that the misanthropy of Byron ever made a single misanthrope; that his scepticism, so uneasy and sorrowful beneath its thin mask of levity, ever made a single sceptic. I know those whom it has cured of their yet half-developed errors. I believe it has cured thousands.
As supplying materials for the history of opinion, then, Byron’s poems will be valuable. And as a poet, I believe posterity will assign him no obscure place, though he will probably be classed far beneath some who have exercised a less obvious or immediate influence on their own times; beneath the noble Three of whom I am yet to speak, whose merits are immortal, because their tendencies are towards immortality, and all whose influence must be a growing influence; beneath Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.
Before proceeding to discuss these last, for which there is hardly room in the present paper, l would be allowed to conclude this division of my subject with a fine passage in which Shelley speaks of Byron. I wish to quote it, because it is of kindred strain with what Walter Scott and Rogers (in his “Italy”) have written about their much abused compeer. It is well for us to see great men judging so gently, and excusing so generously, faults from which they themselves are entirely free; faults at which men of less genius, and less purity too, found it so easy and pleasant to rail. I quote it in preference to any thing from Scott and Rogers, because I presume it to be less generally known.
In apostrophizing Venice, Shelley says,
Floating o’er thy hearthless sea,
As the garment of thy sky
Clothes the world immortally.
One remembrance more sublime
Than the tattered pall of Time,
Which scarce hides thy visage wan;
That a tempest-cleaving swan
Of the songs of Albion,
Driven from his ancestral streams
By the might of evil dreams,
Found a nest in thee; and Ocean
Welcomed him with such emotion
That its joy grew his, and sprung
From his lips like music flung
O’er a mighty thunder-fit
Chastening terror;—What though yet
Poesy’s unfailing river,
Which through Albion winds for ever
Lashing with melodious wave
Many a sacred poet’s grave,
Mourn its latest nursling fled!
What though thou, with all thy dead,
Scarce can for this fame repay
Aught thine own;—oh, rather say
Though thy sins and slaveries foul
Overcloud a sun-like soul!
As the ghost of Homer clings
Round Scamander’s wasting springs;
As divinest Shakspeare’s might
Fills Avon and the world with light;
Like omniscient power, which he
Imaged ‘mid mortality:
As the love from Petrarch’s urn
Yet amid yon hills doth bum,
A quenchless lamp by which the heart
Sees things unearthly; ao thou art,
Mighty spirit; so shall be
The city that did refuge thee.”
IN earlier days the greatest poets addressed themselves more to the passions or heart-emotions or their fellow-men than to their thoughts or mind-emotions. The passions were then in their natural state, and held their natural places in the character. They were not made sickly by a false refinement, or stimulated to a diseased and incessantly craving state. Men loved and hated to excess, perhaps; but there was nothing factitious in their love or hatred. The tone of poetry, even when employed on the most tragic subjects, might waken in the hearer’s heart a chord of joy; for in such natural sorrow there was a healthful life, an energy which told of healing yet to come and the endless riches of love and hope.
How different is its tone in Faust and Manfred; how false to simple nature, yet how true to the time! As the mechanism of society has become more complex, and must be regulated more by combined efforts, desire after individuality brings him who manifests it into a state of conflict with society. This is felt from a passion, whether it be love or ambition, which seeks to make its own world independent of trivial daily circumstances, and struggles long against the lessons of experience, which tell it that such singleness of effort and of possession cannot be, consistently with that grand maxim of the day, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Not until equally enlightened and humble, can the human being learn that individuality of character is not necessarily combined with individuality of possession, but depends alone on the zealous observance of truth. Few can be wise enough to realize with Schiller, that “to be truly immortal one must live in the whole.” The mind struggles long, before it can resolve on sacrificing any thing of its impulsive nature to the requisitions of the time. And while it struggles it mourns, and these lamentations compose the popular poetry. Men do not now look in poetry for a serene world, amid whose vocal groves and green meads they may refresh themselves after the heat of action, and in paradisaical quiet listen to the tales of other days. No! dissatisfied and represt, they want to be made to weep, because, in so doing, they feel themselves in some sense free.
All this conflict and apparently bootless fretting and wailing mark a transition-state—a state of gradual revolution, in which men try all things, seeking what they hold fast, and feel that it is good. But there are some, the pilot-minds of the age, who cannot submit to pass all their lives in experimentalizing. They cannot consent to drift across the waves in the hope of finding somewhere a haven and a home; but, seeing the blue sky over them and believing that God’s love is every where, try to make the best of that spot on which they have been placed, and, not unfrequently, by the aid of spiritual assistance, more benign than that of Faust’s Lemures, win from the raging billows large territories, whose sands they can convert into Eden bowers, tenanted by lovely and majestic shapes.
Such are Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. They could not be satisfied, like Byron, with embodying the peculiar wit or peculiar sufferings of the times; nor like Scott, with depicting an era which has said its say and produced its fruit; nor like Campbell, with occasionally giving a voice and a permanent being to some brilliant moment or fair scene. Not of nobler nature, not more richly endowed than Shelley, they were not doomed to misguided efforts and baffled strivings; much less could they, like Moore, consider poetry merely as the harmonious expression of transient sensations. To them Poetry was, must be, the expression of what is eternal in man’s nature, through illustrations drawn from his temporal state; a representation in letters of fire, on life’s dark curtain, of that which lies beyond; philosophy dressed in the robes of Taste and Imagination; the voice of Nature and of God, humanized by being echoed back from the undemanding hearts of Priests and Seers! Of course this could not be the popular poetry of the day. Being eminently the product of reflection and experience, it could only be appreciated by those who had thought and felt to some depth. I confess that it is not the best possible poetry, since so exclusively adapted to the meditative few. In Shakspeare, or Homer, there is for minds of every grade as much as they are competent to receive, the shallow or careless find there amusement; minds of a higher order, meaning which enlightens and beauty which enchants them.
This fault which I have admitted, this want of universality is not surprising, since it was necessary for these three poets to stand apart from the tide of opinion, and disregard the popular tastes, in order to attain firmness, depth, or permanent beauty. And they being, as I have said, the pilot-minds of their time, their works enjoy a growing, though not a rapidly growing, popularity.
Coleridge, in particular, is now very much read, nor, notwithstanding his was but occasional homage to the shrine of poesy, was he the least valuable votary of the three, since, if he has done least, if his works form a less perfect whole, and are therefore less satisfactory than those of the other two, he is far more suggestive, more filled with the divine magnetism of intuition, than they.
The muse of Southey is a beautiful statue of crystal, in whose bosom bums an immortal flame. We hardly admire, as they deserve, the perfection of the finish, and the elegance of the contours, because our attention is so fixed on the radiance which glows through them.
Thus Southey is remarkable for the fidelity, and still more for the grace, of his descriptions; for his elegant manner of expressing sentiments noble, delicate, and consistent in their tone; for his imagination, but, more than all, for his expansive and fervent piety.
In his fidelity of description there is nothing of the minute accuracy of Scott. Southey takes no pleasure in making little dots and marks; his style is free and bold, yet always true, sometimes elaborately true, to nature. Indeed, if he has a fault, it is that he elaborates too much. He himself has said that poesy should be “thoroughly erudite, thoroughly animated, and thoroughly natural.” His poetry cannot always boast of the two last essentials. Even in his most brilliant passages there is nothing of the heat of inspiration, nothing of that celestial fire which makes us feel that the author has, by intensifying the action of his mind, raised himself to communion with superior intelligences. It is where he is most calm that he is most beautiful; and, accordingly, he, is more excellent in the expression of sentiment than in narration. Scarce any writer presents to us a sentiment with such a tearful depth of expression; but though it is a tearful depth, those tears were shed long since, and Faith and. Love have hallowed them, You nowhere are made to feel the bitterness, the vehemence of present emotion; but the phœnix born from passion is seen hovering over the ashes of what was once combined with it. Southey is particularly exquisite in painting those sentiments which arise from the parental and filial relation: whether the daughter looks back from her heavenly lover, and the opening bowers of bliss, still tenderly solicitous for her father, whom she, in the true language of woman’s heart, recommends to favour, as
or the father, as in “Thalaba,” shows a faith in the benignity and holiness of his lost daughter, which the lover, who had given up for her so high a destiny, wanted;—or, as in “Roderick,” the miserable, sinful child wanders back to relieve himself from the load of pollution at the feet of a sainted mother; always—always he speaks from a full, a sanctified soul, in tones of thrilling melody.
The imagination of Southey is marked by similar traits; there is no flash, no scintillation about it, but a steady light as of day itself. As specimens of his best manner, I would mention the last stage of Thalaba’s journey to the Domdaniel Caves, and, in the “Curse of Kehama,” the sea-palace of Baly, “The Glendoveer,” and “The Ship of Heaven.” As Southey’s poems are not very generally read, I will extract the two latter:
“The ship of heaven, instinct with thought displayed
Its living sail and glides along the sky,
On either side, in wavy tide,
The clouds of morn along its path divide;
The winds that swept in wild career on high,
Before its presence check their charmed force;
The winds that, loitering, lagged along their course
Around the living bark enamored play,
Swell underneath the sail, and sing before its way.
“That bark in shape was like the furrowed shell
Wherein the sea-nymphs to their parent king,
On festal days their duteous offerings bring;
Its hue? go watch the last green light
Ere evening yields the western sky to night,
Or fix upon the sun thy strenuous sight
Till thou hast reached its orb of chrysolite.
The sail, from end to end displayed,
Bent, like a rainbow, o’er the maid,
All angel’s head with visual eye,
Through trackless space directs its chosen way;
Nor aid of wing, nor foot nor fin,
Requires to voyage o’er the obedient sky.
Smooth as the swan when not a breeze at even
Disturbs the surface of the silver stream,
Through air and sunshine sails the ship of heaven.”
Southey professes to have borrowed the description of the Glendoveer from an old and forgotten book. He has given the prose extract in a note to the “Curse of Kehama,” and I think no one can compare the two without feeling that the true alchymy has been at work there. His poetry is a new and life-giving element to the very striking thoughts he borrowed. Charcoal and diamonds are not more unlike in their effect upon the observer.
“Of human form divine was he,
The immortal youth of heaven who floated by,
Even such as that divinest form shall be
In these blest stages of our mortal race,
When no infirmity,
Low thought, nor base desire, nor wasting care
Deface the semblance of our heavenly sire—
The wings of eagle or of cherubim
Had seemed unworthy him;
Angelic power and dignity and grace
Were in his glorious pennons; from the neck
Down to the ankle reached their swelling web
Richer than robes of Tyrian dye, that deck
Their color, like the winter’s moonless sky
When all the stars of midnight’s canopy
Shine forth; or like the azure deep at noon,
Reflecting back to heaven a brighter blue,
Such was their tint when closed, but when outspread,
The permeating light
Shed through their substance thin a varying hue;
Now bright as when the rose,
Beauteous as fragrant, gives to scent and sight
A like delight, now like the juice that flows
From Douro’s generous vine,
Or ruby when with deepest red it glows;
Or as the morning clouds refulgent shine
When at forthcoming of the lord of day,
The orient, like a shrine,
Kindles as it receives the rising ray,
And heralding his way,
Proclaims the presence of the power divine—
Thus glorious were the wings
Of that celestial spirit, as he went
Disporting through his native element—
Nor these alone
The gorgeous beauties that they gave to view;
Through the broad membrane branched a pliant bone,
Spreading like fibres from their parent stem;
Its vines like interwoven silver shone;
Or as the chaster hue
Of pearls that grace some sultan’s diadem.
Now with slow stroke and strong, behold him smite
The buoyant air, and now in gentler flight
On motionless wing expanded, shoot along.”
All Southey’s works are instinct, and replete with the experiences of piety, from that fine picture of natural religion, Joan of Arc’s confession of faith, to that as noble sermon as ever was preached upon Christianity, the penitence of Roderic the Goth. This last is the most original and elevated in its design of all Southey’s poems. In “Thalaba” and “Joan of Arc,” he had illustrated the power of faith; in “Madoc” contrasted religion under a pure and simple form with the hydra ugliness of superstition. In “Kehema” he has exhibited virtue struggling against the most dreadful inflictions with heavenly fortitude, and made manifest to us the angel-guards who love to wait on innocence and goodness. But in Roderic the design has even a higher scope, is more difficult of execution; and, so far as I know, unique. The temptations which beset a single soul have been a frequent subject, and one sure of sympathy if treated with any power. Breathlessly we watch the conflict, with heartfelt anguish mourn defeat, or with heart-expanding triumph hail a conquest. But, where there has been defeat, to lead us back with the fallen one through the thorny and desolate paths of repentance to purification, to win not only our pity, but our sympathy, for one crushed and degraded by his own sin; and finally, through his faithful though secret efforts to redeem the past, secure to him, justly blighted and world-forsaken as he is, not only our sorrowing love, but our respect;—this Southey alone has done, perhaps alone could do. As a scene of unrivalled excellence, both for its meaning and its manner, I would mention that of Florinda’s return with “Roderic,” (who is disguised as a monk, and whom she does not know,) to her father; when after such a strife of heart-rending words and heart-broken tears, they, exhausted, seat themselves on the bank of the little stream, and watch together the quiet moon. Never has Christianity spoken in accents of more penetrating tenderness since the promise was given to them that be weary and heavy-laden.
Of Coleridge I shall say little. Few minds are capable of fathoming his by their own sympathies, and he has left us no adequate manifestation of himself as a poet by which to judge him. For his dramas, I consider them complete failures, and more like visions than dramas. For a metaphysical mind like his to attempt that walk, was scarcely more judicious than it would be for a blind man to essay painting the bay of Naples. Many of his smaller pieces are perfect in their way, indeed no writer could excel him in depicting a single mood of mind, as Dejection, for instance. Could Shakspeare have surpassed these lines?
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear.
O Lady, in this wan md heartless mood,
To other thoughts by yonder throstle wooed,
All true long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky
And its peculiar tint of yellow green:
And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
Those stars that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen;
Yon crescent moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;
I see them all, so excellently fair,
I see, not. feel, how beautiful they are!
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.”
Give Coleridge a canvass, and he will paint a single mood as if his colors were made of the mind’s own atoms. Here he is very unlike Southey. There is nothing of the spectator about Coleridge; he is all life; not impassioned; not vehement, but searching, intellectual life, which seems “listening through the frame” to its own pulses.
I have little more to say at present except to express a great, though not fanatical veneration for Coleridge, and a conviction that the benefits conferred by him on this and future ages are as yet incalculable. Every mind will praise him for what it can best receive from him. He can suggest to an infinite degree; he can inform, but he cannot reform and renovate. To the unprepared he is nothing, to the prepared, every thing. Of him may be said what he said of Nature,
In kind though not in measure.”
I was once requested, by a very sensible and excellent personage to explain what is meant by “Christabel” and “The Ancient Mariner.” I declined the task. I had not then seen Coleridge’s answer to a question of similar tenor from Mrs. Barbauld, or I should have referred to that as an expression, not altogether unintelligible, of the discrepancy which must ever exist between those minds which are commonly styled rational, (as the received definition of common sense is insensibility to uncommon sense,) and that of Coleridge. As to myself, if l understand nothing beyond the execution of those “singularly wild and original poems,” I could not tell my gratitude for the degree of refinement which Taste has received from them. To those who cannot understand the voice of Nature or Poetry, unless it speak in apothegms, and tag each story with a moral, I have nothing to say. My own greatest obligation to Coleridge I have already mentioned. It is for his suggestive power that I thank him.
Wordsworth! beloved friend and venerated teacher; it is more easy and perhaps as profitable to speak of thee, It is less difficult to interpret thee, since no acquired nature, but merely a theory, severs thee from my mind.
Classification on such a subject is rarely satisfactory, yet I will attempt to define in that way the impressions produced by Wordsworth on myself. I esteem his characteristics to be—of Spirit,
Of mind or talent,
Power of Analysis.
Mild, persuasive eloquence.
The time has gone by when groundlings could laugh with impunity at “Peter Bell” and the “Idiot Mother.” Almost every line of Wordsworth has been quoted and requoted; every feeling echoed back, and every drop of that “cup of still and serious thought” drunk up by some “spirit profound;” enough to satisfy the giver.
Wordsworth is emphatically the friend and teacher of mature years. Youth, in whose bosom “the stately passions burn,” is little disposed to drink with him from the
of lowly pleasure.”
He has not an idealizing tendency, if by this be meant the desire of creating from materials supplied by our minds, and by the world in which they abide for a season, a new and more beautiful world. It is the aspiration of a noble nature animated by genius, it is allied with the resolve for self-perfection; and few, without some of its influence, can bring to blossom the bud of any virtue. It is fruitful in illusions, but those illusions have heavenly truth interwoven with their temporary errors. But the mind of Wordsworth, like that of the man of science, finds enough of beauty in the real present world. He delights in penetrating the designs of God, rather than in sketching designs of his own. Generally speaking, minds in which the faculty of observation is so prominent, have little enthusiasm, little dignity of sentiment. That is, indeed, an intellect of the first order, which can see the great in the little, and dignify the petty operations of Nature, by tracing through them her most sublime principles. Wordsworth scrutinizes man and nature with the exact and searching eye of a Cervantes, a Fielding, or a Richter, but without any love for that humorous wit which cannot obtain its needful food unaided by such scrutiny; while dissection merely for curiosity’s sake is his horror. He has the delicacy of perception, the universality of feeling which distinguish Shakspeare and the three or four other poets of the first class, and might have taken rank with them had he been equally gifted with versatility of talent. Many might reply, “in wanting this last he wants the better half.” To this I cannot agree. Talent, or facility in making use of thought, is dependent, in a great measure, on education and circumstance; while thought itself is immortal as the soul from which it radiates. Wherever we perceive a profound thought, however imperfectly expressed, we offer a higher homage than we can to commonplace thoughts, however beautiful, or if expressed with all that grace of art which it is often most easy for ordinary minds to acquire. There is a suggestive and stimulating power in original thought which cannot be gauged by the first sensation or temporary effect it produces. The circles grow wider and wider as the impulse is propagated through the deep waters of eternity. An exhibition of talent causes immediate delight; almost all of us can enjoy seeing a thing well done; not all of us can enjoy being roused to do and dare for ourselves, Yet when the mind if roused to penetrate the secret meaning of each human effort, a higher pleasure and a greater benefit may be derived from the rude but masterly sketch, than from the elaborately finished miniature. In the former case our creative powers are taxed to supply what is wanting, while in the latter our tastes are refined by admiring what another has created. Now, since I esteem Wordsworth as superior in originality and philosophic unity of thought, to the other poets I have been discussing, I give him the highest place, though they may be superior to him either in melody, brilliancy of fancy, dramatic power, or general versatility of talent. Yet I do not place him on a par with those who combine those minor excellencies with originality and philosophic unity of thought. He is not a Shakspeare, but he is the greatest poet of the day; and this is more remarkable, as he is, par excellence, a didactic poet.
I have paid him the most flattering tribute in saying that there is not a line of his which has not been quoted and requoted. Men have found such a response to their lightest as well as their deepest feelings, such beautiful morality with such lucid philosophy, that every thinking mind has, consciously or unconsciously, appropriated something from Wordsworth. Those who have never read his poems have imbibed some part of their spirit from the public or private discourse of his happy pupils; and it is, as yet, impossible to estimate duly the effect which the balm of his meditations has had in allaying the fever of the public heart, as exhibited in the writings of Byron and Shelley.
But, as I said before, he is not for youth, he is too tranquil. His early years were passed in listening to, his mature years in interpreting, the oracles of Nature; and though in pity and in love he sympathizes with the conflicts of life, it is not by mingling his tears with the sufferer’s, but by the consolations of patient faith, that he would heal their griefs.
The sonnet on Tranquillity, to be found in the present little volume, exhibits him true to his old love and natural religion.
In heathen schools of philosophic lore;
Heart-stricken by stern destiny of yore,
The tragic muse thee served with thoughtful vow;
And what of hope Elysium could allow
Was fondly seized by Sculpture, to restore
Peace to the mourner’s soul; but he who wore
The crown of thorns around his bleeding brow,
Warmed our sad being with his glorious light;
Then arts which still had drawn a softening grace
From shadowy fountains of the Infinite,
Communed with that idea face to face;
And move around it now as planets run,
Each in its orbit round the central sun.”
The doctrine of tranquillity does not suit the impetuous blood of the young, yet some there are, who, with pulses of temperate and even though warm and lively beat, are able to prize such poetry from their earliest days. One young person in particular I knew, very like his own description of
But never yet did go astray;”
who had read nothing but Wordsworth, and had by him been plentifully fed. I do not mean that she never skimmed novel, nor dipped into periodicals; but she never, properly speaking, read, i.e. comprehended and reflected on any other book. But as all knowledge has been taught by Professor Jacotot from the Telemaehus of Fenelon, so was she taught the secrets of the universe from Wordsworth’s poems. He pointed out to her how
The charities that soothe, and heal, and bless,
Are scattered at the feet of Man—like flowers.”
He read her lectures about the daisy, the robin red-breast, and the waterfall. He taught her to study Nature and feel God’s presence; to enjoy and prize human sympathies without needing the stimulus of human passions; to love beauty with a faith which enabled her to perceive it amid seeming ugliness, to hope goodness so as to create it. And she was a very pretty specimen of Wordsworthianism; so sincere, so simple, so animated and so equable, so hopeful and so calm. She was confiding as an infant, and so may remain till her latest day, for she has no touch of idolatry; and her trustfulness is not in any chosen person or persons, but in the goodness of God, who will always protect those who are true to themselves and sincere towards others.
But the young, in general, are idolaters. They will have their private chapels of ease in the great temple of nature; they will ornament, according to fancy, their favorite shrines; and ah! too frequently look with aversion or contempt upon all others. Till this ceases to be so, till they can feel the general beauty of design, and live content to be immortal in the grand whole, they cannot really love Wordsworth; nor can to them “the simplest flower” bring “thoughts that lie too deep for tears.” Happy his pupils; they are gentle, they are calm, and they must always be progressing in our knowledge; for, to a mind which can sympathize with his, no hour, no scene can possibly be barren.
The contents of the lately published little volume* accord perfectly, in essentials, with those of the preceding four. The sonnets are like those he has previously written—equally unfinished as sonnets, equally full of meaning as poems. If it be the case with all his poems, that scarcely one forms a perfect whole by itself, but is valuable as a leaf out of his mind, it is peculiarly so with his sonnets. I presume he only makes use of this difficult mode of writing because it is a concise one for the expression of a single thought or a single mood. I know not that one of his sonnets is polished and wrought to a point, as this most artistical of all poems should be; but neither do I know one which does not contain something we would not willingly lose. As the beautiful sonnet which I shall give presently, whose import is so wide and yet so easily understood, contains in the motto, what Messer Petrarca would have said in the two concluding lines.
That subtle power, the never-halting time,
Lest a mere moment’s putting off should make
Mischance almost as heavy as a crime)—
“Wait, prithee, wait! this answer Lesbia threw
Forth to her dove, and took no further heed;
Her eyes were busy, while her fingers flew
Across the harp, with soul-engrossing speed;
Bat from that bondage when her thoughts were freed,
She rose, and toward the shut casement drew,
Whence the poor, unregarded favourite, true
To old affections, had been heard to plead
With flapping wing for entrance—What a shriek
Forced from that voice so lately tuned to a strain
Of harmony!—a shriek of terror, pain,
And self-reproach!—for from aloft a kite
Pounced, and the dove, which from its ruthless beak
She could not rescue, perished in her sight!”
Even the Sonnet upon Sonnets, so perfect in the details, is not perfect as a whole.
However, I am not so fastidious as some persons about the dress of a thought. These sonnets are so replete with sweetness and spirit, that we can excuse their want of symmetry; and probably should not feel it, except from comparison with more highly-finished works of the same kind. One more let me extract, which should be laid to heart:
So beautiful of late, with sunshine warmed,
Or moist with dews; what more unsightly now,
Its blossom shrivelled, and its fruit, if formed,
Invisible! yet Spring her gonial brow
Knits not o’er that discolouring and decay
As false to expectation. Nor fret thou
At like unlovely process in the May
Of human life; a stripling’s graces blow,
Fade and are shed, that from their timely full
(Misdeem it not a cankerous change) may grow
Rich mellow bearings that for thanks shall call;
In all men sinful is it to be slow
To hope—in parents sinful above all.”
“Yarrow Revisited” is a beautiful reverie. It ought to be read as such, for it has no determined aim. These are fine verses.
That mortals do or suffer,
Did no responsive harp, no pen,
Memorial tribute offer?
Yea, what were mighty Nature’s self?
Her features, could they win us,
Unhelped by the poetic voice
That hourly speaks within us?
Nor deem that localized romance
Plays false with our affections;
Unsanctifies our tears—made sport
For fanciful dejections;
Ah, no! the visions of the past
Sustain the heart in feeling
Life as she is—our changeful life,
With friends and kindred dealing.”
and this stanza,
And her divine employment!
The blameless Muse, who trains her sons
For hope and calm enjoyment;
Albeit sickness, lingering yet,
Has o’er their pillow brooded;
And care waylay their steps—a sprite
Not easily eluded.”
reminds us of what Scott says in his farewell to the Harp of the North:
Through secret woes the world has never known,
When on the weary night dawned wearier day,
And bitter was the grief devoured alone,
That I o’erlive such woes, Enchantress is thine own.”
“The Egyptian Maid” is distinguished by a soft visionary style of painting, and a stealthy alluring movement, like the rippling or advancing waters, which, I do not remember elsewhere in Wordsworth’s writings.
“The Armenian Lady’s love” is a fine balled. The following verses are admirable for delicacy of sentiment and musical sweetness.
In those old romantic days
Mighty were the soul’s commandments
To support, restrain, or raise.
Foes might hang upon their path, snakes rustle near,
But nothing from their inward selves had they to fear.
“Thought infirm ne’er came between them,
Whether printing desert sands
With accordant steps, or gathering
Forest fruit with social hands;
Or whispering like two reeds that in the cold moonbeam
Bend with tile breeze their heads beside a crystal stream.”
The Evening Voluntaries are very beautiful in manner, and full of suggestions. The second is worth extracting as a forcible exhibition of one of Wordsworth’s leading opinions.
That come but as & curse to party strife;
Not in some hour when pleasure with a sigh
Of languor, puts his rosy garland by;
Not in the breathing times of that poor slave
Who daily piles up wealth in Mammon’s cave,
In nature felt, or can be; nor do words
Which practised talent readily affords
Prove that her hands have touched responsive chords.
Nor has her gentle beauty power to move
With genuine rapture and with fervent love
The soul of genius, if he dares to take
Life’s rule from passion craved for passion’s sake;
Untaught that meekness is the cherished bent
Of all the truly great and all the innocent;
But who is innocent? By grace divine,
Not otherwise, O Nature! we are thine,
Through good and evil thine, or just degree
Of rational and manly sympathy,
To all that earth from pensive hearts is stealing,
And heaven is now to gladdened eyes revealing,
Add every charm the universe can show
Through every change its aspects undergo,
Care may be respited, but not repealed;
No perfect cute grows on that bounded field,
Vain is the pleasure, a false calm the peace,
If he through whom alone our conflicts cease,
Our virtuous hopes without relapse advance,
Come not to speed the soul’s deliverance;
To the distempered intellect refuse
His gracious help, or give what we abuse.”
But nothing in this volume better deserves attention than “Lines suggested by a Portrait from the pencil of F. Stone,” and “Stanzas on the Power of Sound.” The first for a refinement and justness of thought rarely surpassed, and the second for a lyric flow, a swelling inspiration, and a width of range, which Wordsworth has never equalled, except in the “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality,” and the noble ode, or rather hymn, to Duty. It should be read entire, and I shall not quote a line. By a singular naiveté the poet has prefixed to these stanzas a table of contents. This distrust of his reader seems to prove that he had risen above his usual level.
What more to the purpose can we say about Wordsworth, except—read him. Like his beloved Nature, to be known he must be loved. His thoughts may be transfused, but never adequately interpreted. Verily,
Were like describing pictures to the blind.
But no one, in whose bosom there yet lives a spark of nature or feeling, need despair of some time sympathizing with him; since one of the most brilliantly factitious writers of the day, one I should have singled out as seven-fold shielded against his gentle influence, has paid him so feeling a tribute:
Exulting on its way, beyond the loud
Self-taunting mockery of the scoffers grown
Tethered and dulled to Nature, in the crowd!
Earth has no nobler, no more moral sight
Than a Great Poet, whom the world disowns,
But stills not, neither angers; from his height
As from a star, float forth his sphere-like tones;
He wits not whether the vexed herd may hear
The music wafted lo the reverent ear;
And far man’s wrath, or scorn, or heed above,
Smile, down the calm disdain of his majestic love!”
[From Stanzas addressed by Bulwer to Wordsworth.]
Read him, then, in your leisure hours, and when you walk into the summer fields you shall find the sky more blue, the flowers more fair, the birds more musical, your minds more awake, and your hearts more tender, for having held communion with him.
I have not troubled myself to point out the occasional affectations of Southey, the frequent obscurity of Coleridge, or the diffuseness of Wordsworth. I should fear to be treated like the critic mentioned in the story Addison quotes from Boccalini, whom Apollo rewarded for his labours by presenting him with a bushel of chaff from which all the wheat bad been winnowed. For myself I think that where there is such beauty and strength, we can afford to be silent about slight defects; and that we refine our tastes more effectually by venerating the grand and lovely, than by detecting the little and mean.
* Yarrow Revisited, and other poems.
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