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Dryden's verse form to its nth degree of refinement. In the polish and nice balance of his lines he satisfied his age, but, it must be admitted, sacrificed the natural force and strength inherent in English expression. Although many of his lines and phrases give such an impression of finality of form that they have become axiomatic, his poetry when read as a whole paralyzes our attention by its monotonous swing and balance. We must not, however, condemn Pope too harshly. He was striving for the excellencies which were esteemed by his contemporary poets and he succeeded beyond them all; Blackmore, Garth, Granville, Walsh, Pomfret, Parnell are forgotten names to-day, yet they were all continuing the Dryden verse tradition with Pope. Pope never transcended his own time, never by divine insight and inspiration saw and revealed bidden beauties of form, character, thought, and ideals in his world, but he pictured in his work more perfectly than any of his contemporaries the artificial and superficial qualities of the world in which he moved.
The principles of the classical or pseudo-classical school were those of Goldsmith, but, in curious agreement with the inconsistency of this poet's character, a tenderness and sincerity of sentiment which belong to a new and different order of poetry are embodied within the classical forms in his best poems. By instinct Goldsmith was a romanticist; by training and by association he was a classicist. His Deserted Village is a rhymed essay comparable in style to Pope's Essay on Man. It has been redeemed from the oblivion that has been the lot of so many similar poems by its direct and sincere human sympathy, its simplicity of language and vividness of characterization. We may regret the monotony of the rhymed couplets, but we treasure the picture of Auburn, and the village parson, and the village schoolmaster, and the spirit of ideality in which the whole scene is conceived.
VIII. EARLY ROMANTICISM The excess of polish and formality in the poetry of Pope and his school induced its own reaction, a reaction not sudden, violent, or universal, but none the less significant. Even within the lifetime of Pope this reaction began and it continued with increasing vigor after his death. The vague dissatisfaction with current poetical standards and models expressed itself at first in the revival of the study of old authors. The love for Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton had never died away entirely, even in the vagaries of literary fashions, and the new lyrists drew inspiration from the works of these poets. Allan Ramsay with his Scotch dialect poems and his pastorals, and James Thomson with his Castle of Indolence and Seasons, hark directly back to Spenser; Collins and Gray are infused with the spirit of Milton, not the Milton of Paradise Lost, but the lyric Milton of the Nativity Ode, of L'Allegro and Il Penser oso, of Lycidas; and William Cowper shakes himself at the end entirely free from bondage to the contemporary fashions.
Of these forerunners of the new movement in poetry, Collins and Gray were greatest, – greatest not because of clearer consciousness of the novelty of their work, but because of a truer and finer poetic inspiration. These two poets are always linked together in literary history. They both wrote exquisite odes, they both were followers of Milton, they both are now considered as belonging spiritually and emotionally to the romanticists. Gray has left a larger body of completed work than Collins and his Elegy has achieved a popularity that no poem of Collins has ever approached, yet many critics discern in the work of Collins a finer music, a more vivid imagination, and a truer sense of the ideal form and expression than in that of his contemporary. As lyrists in an age when the lyric was submerged beneath a flood of ethic and didactic couplets, they together carry their poetic tradition from the later Elizabethans to within a generation of Wordsworth.
Very different from the work of Collins and Gray is that of Cowper, and yet the latter is equally opposed to the artistic standards of the school of Pope. Cowper's few famous lyrics (as On Receipt of My Mother's Picture, and The Poplar Field) are marked by a sincerity of feeling and a truth of expression not found among the poets of the pseudo-classical group, and bis greatest poem, The Task, is written in an easy, flowing blank verse directly contrary in move ment to the poised and monotonous heroic couplets. But Cowper's fame rests upon the loving care with which he drew in The Task, a succession of pictures of the scenes, sounds, and incidents in lowly country life. His is what may be called familiar verse. It is nearest the type and tone of conversation. Nothing in the sights about him is too trivial for passing comment, nothing too lowly for his affectionate interest. As we read his verse, we are present with him in his walk, listening to his gentle and sympathetic descriptions of plowman or postman, or of woods or brooks. Though he had not, it is true, the philosophic fervor and passionate force of Wordsworth at his best, he anticipated the latter poet in the kindly descriptions of humble country life.
Shortly after the half-century mark was passed, new influences of the first importance determined the course of the growing literary movement. The attention of the world of letters was drawn to the great wealth of folklore poetry extant in out-of-the-way corners of the world. Collections, discoveries, translations set literary men afire with a new enthusiasm. Brilliant charlatans took advantage of the excitement to forge rude poems purporting to have been found in old churches, abbeys, and the like. It was the time when Ossian was published, and when the “marvelous boy" Chatterton brought to London his Rowley forgeries. Macpherson in 1760 published his Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands; two years later he followed this with the epic Fingal, purporting to be a prose translation from the Gaelic of the poet Ossian; three years later the scholarly Percy, later bishop of the Irish Church, contributed a systematic collection of folk-songs and ballads in three volumes, Reliques of Ancient Poetry; containing among many the wonderful Chery Chase, Nut Brown Mayde, and Battle of Otterburn, and in 1770 Percy widened the interest by introducing to the contemporary English world the fascinating rugged mythology of the old Danish, Norse, and Icelandic peoples.
What the work of this unusual decade from 1760 to 1770 did for the romantic movement was to give it definite models and, in a way, recognized standards for a revolt against the accepted formality of contemporary verse. The ballads were simple and rude compared with the faultless style of Pope, but Pope's influence was waning fast. Men turned from the monotonous perfection of his verse to thrill at the direct view of nature and the deep emotion in the old ballads. Sincerity of feeling again became vital to good poetry. The classicists fought to the last, scoffed at the rude verses of a primitive time, but in the end the romanticists carried the day.
With the revival of interest in the ancient ballad poetry came also a general revival of interest in things of ancient time. Gothic architecture, once despised, began to be admired; a glamour was cast by the imagination over the past ages obscuring the elements of rudeness, brutality, and vice, and stressing the supposed chivalry, honor, and courage of earlier ages; the element of mystery in the unknown and unknowable excited abnormal interest; Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto was the forerunner of the romances of terror of Mrs. Radcliffe and “Monk" Lewis.
And then toward the latter part of the century came the throes of the revolution across the channel, exciting among many in England the keenest interest and sympathy. No cause could be nearer and dearer to the English heart than the cause of liberty for which the French people claimed to be fighting. Coleridge was on fire for the cause, and Wordsworth, who was traveling in France, was only restrained from taking personal leadership in the Girondist party by the
stoppage of his allowances from home. Naturally intelligent people thought and talked of little else for years after 1789.
Thus, then, the romantic movement grew. Begun in the age of Pope by a reaction against his polished form and a reversion to the variety and sincerity of feeling of the Elizabethans, it was deeply influenced by the growth of interest in the folk-songs and ballads, by the revival of a love for the mediæval, and by the struggle across the Channel for liberty. It was a movement of rich variety, dominated by no one school of thought or method. The work of one is a return to simplicity of style, with depth of thought and sincerity of emotion, of another is marked by emphar sis upon the fantastic, imaginative elements of medievalism, of another is a modern rendition of ancient folklore, of another is a fanatical adherence to the principles of freedom. Each in his own way feels and interprets the new life in English poetry. The romantic movement is, indeed, as Hugo called it, “liberalism in literature."
During this period, in the north arose a poet who, although by birth and education out of touch with the direct course of the romantic revival, exemplified in his lyrics prominent ele ments in that movement. It is difficult to account for Robert Burns. Born into a life and environment similar to those of thousands of other Scotch peasant boys, he rose by his native genius to be the foremost literary figure of his time. That his irregular life brought its inevitable result in ostracism and early death cannot affect the beauty and melopy of his songs. In these songs, Burns is without peer. Love, humor, satire, pathos, intimate sympathy with nature and with man, all find a place in them. He wrote poetry not by rule, but by instinct. “Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing poetry by rule,” he said in his first preface, “he sings the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him in his and their native language.” He is distinctly the poet of nature, expressing in simple familiar language the emotions common to all men.
The conscious recognition of the new movement in poetry came with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated to produce this thin volume of poems written in accordance with new and original — so far as classical rules went — principles of poetry. Later each of the poets explained in prose, Wordsworth in his Prefaces and Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, what these new principles were, dwelling upon simplicity of diction, truth to nature, power of the imagination, and universality of subject-matter. Wordsworth's insistence upon universality of subject matter and simplicity of diction clashed with the beliefs of the fast-vanishing classical school, for it had long been the belief that certain subjects and situations were in themselves peculiarly adapted to poetic treatment in contrast to other subjects, and that the poet's task was merely to give to such subjects and situations their perfect embodiment in expression. Hence came the classical finish and polish, hence the conscious artificiality of much of the work of the classical school.
But after all, important as the new principles were, the romantic movement is not now known by its principles so much as by its product. Wordsworth and Coleridge were true poets, gifted with the divine insight and faculty of expression that reveals to men the unknown beauties of the world in which they live. Wordsworth was from his youth peculiarly sensitive to natural influences; he came to believe all nature to be directly infused with the presence of a living God; and he realized that the truth that lay behind the universal experiences of men, the common passions and labors, hopes and fears, was the only subject of poetic interest. Nature, and man in nature, were, therefore, his poetic material. A poet, he writes, “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.”
Coleridge's greatest single work was the Ancient Mariner, in which he created by imaginative suggestion an illusion of reality about a supernatural subject. Coleridge represents a different phase of the revival from that represented by Wordsworth, namely, the love of the mysterious and unfathomable in nature. We see it again in Christabel, we feel it in the wonderful verses to Genevieve. His speculative mind was naturally drawn to mystery and his poetic genius gave to the mysterious apt expression. His vivid imagination, his perfect use of suggestion, his inspired melody of verse stamp him naturally as the greater poet of the two, but unhappily the promise of his young manhood was drowned in laudanum. His later critical writings, great as they are, cannot compensate us for the loss to creative poetry.
The Lyrical Ballads were not immediately popular. No one could make head or tail out of the Ancient Mariner, and but very few appreciated Tintern Abbey. The poetry was too new; the principles enunciated (1800) in the preface were too startling. The literary world could more easily appreciate the first poetry of Walter Scott, which followed more directly the natural development of the revival of interest in the folk-poetry. Scott in 1802-03 published a collection of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and followed this two years later with his first original poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. This narrative poetry, vigorous, heroic, rapid, was at once understood and widely read. Continuing in this vein, Scott poured forth tale after tale in verse, awakening England and Scotland to a high pitch of enthusiasm, then suddenly, with the rise of a new star and the relative decline in popularity of his own poems, stopped, turned to prose, and with his romantic fiction achieved an even greater popularity than before.
Scott's poetry was both romantic and immediately popular. To-day we read it for its absorbing narrative interest rather than for its high imaginative quality. Occasional songs and ballads, interspersed in the action of his poems, show great lyrical genius. Scott was not, however, a careful artist: his scenes and characters are hastily limned and then the succession of incidents occupies all our attention.
X. Height of ROMANTIC MOVEMENT As the romantic movement was characteristically a movement for freedom in literature, it was natural that in its manifestations it should reflect, more than the literature of Pope's influence ever had, the differing individualities of its writers. Thus, as we have already seen, Wordsworth was a romanticist by virtue of his return to nature and to simplicity of expression, Coleridge by his strangeness and mystery cloaked by an illusion of reality, and Scott by his direct continuance of the tradition of the old narrative ballad story. All of these were for a time eclipsed by a new genius who won unprecedented popular success by the imaginative selfrevelation of an individual mind endowed with great energy and openly rebellious against the social and political constraints of the time. The spirit of the French Revolutionists, which appealed to a very large section of the English people, found nowhere a more brilliant exponent than George Gordon, Lord Byron.
The first two cantos of Childe Harold appeared in March of 1812, and, as Byron expressed it, “I awoke in the morning to find myself famous.” The poet-peer had caught to a nicety the
romantic sensibility of his contemporary world. Within the next few years he astonished and delighted the fashionable London world with a succession of poetic romances, wildly extravagant in plot, intensely individual in style, and imaginatively representative of the tacit unrest in the social order of his day. His social ostracism consequent upon his separation from his wife drove him abroad, whence he could indulge himself even more freely in satire against the bondage of English conventions and, indeed, of all conventions. His later works are all infused with this cynical disparagement of social bonds, this cry of the individual for freedom. His death when aiding the Greeks in their struggle for independence crowned the work of his life with the spirit of self-sacrifice and did much to efface the memory of his past misdeeds.
As a poet Byron was supremely gifted. Through his own intense individuality he caught a universal spirit of his time, the spirit of dissatisfaction and revolt, and embodied it in imaginative forms. Byron was a romanticist, but a romanticist representative of his own age rather than of an interest in and love for the past.
With Bryon we may associate another poet of revolt, Shelley. Shelley, too, was of noble lineage, and suffered social ostracism because he chose to break with the conventions of English society. Shelley, too, found his happiness abroad, there composing many of his greatest poems. Shelley, too, was an individualist, but where Byron's individualistic revolt carried him into practical immorality and bitter and contemptuous satire as a protest against the hypocrisy of the smug London world, Shelley's led him into the realm of the ideal where he endeavored to create a life free from the constraints imposed by what he believed to be ignorance and tyranny. Few people have been so unworldly as Shelley. He lived continually amid visions created by his own vivid imagination. His poetry reflects the passionate fervor of his mental life: he was forever trying to cast in the mould of language the insubstantial images that crowded upon him, to fix indelibly the spirit of wind, or of the bird, or of man. His task was foredoomed to failure, but in the very failure lay success, for his ideals are the ideals of all men and the pain he expresses is the common agony we all suffer.
John Keats, almost unnoticed during his life, has risen in time to a place beside Shelley among the poets of the early part of the century. His poetry, however, and his life were both widely different from the poetry and life of Shelley: there is scarcely more to link their names together than the fact that they were contemporary lyric poets. Keats was not a poet of revolt, for during the whole of his short life he kept aloof from human interests to lose himself in his love for beauty. He did not condemn social customs because in his poetical life he took no interest in them. Poetry was to him a passion, the very essence of life, and the truth of poetry was beauty. He sought this beauty especially in the myths and legends of the past, not alone in Grecian literature but in English. He enriched the romantic movement by recapturing the spirit of the Elizabethan poets. He was drawn to the Elizabethans by their splendid imagery, their easy flowing verse, their fiery enthusiasm and force. He attempted to treat the classical myths with the Elizabethan freedom. He sought for subjects in which he might embody the forms of beauty that flitted before his imagination. His best work is in poems like Lamia and The Eve of St. Agnes, where the interest of the narrative is to him secondary to the picturesque situations and environment. He excelled in gorgeous word-painting, visualizing and expressing his scenes with rare imagination.
XI. THE VICTORIAN AGE
A literary revival cannot be maintained continuously at its height of emotional inspiration. Roughly speaking, we may locate the romantic revival between 1780 and 1830; after the latter