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OBJECT OF THE COURSE-POETRY THE EMINENCE OF LITERATURE-THE HISTORY
OF LITERATURE ILLUSTRATED BY GENERAL HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY-THE LIVES OF SPENSER AND MILTON-A CATHOLIC TASTE IN POETRY-VARIETY OF POETRY-INTOLERANCE OF LITERARY JUDGMENT-RYMER AND VOLTAIRE ON
-JOHNSON ON MILTON-JEFFREY ON WORDSWORTH-QUALIFICA
ENLIGHTENED CRITIC-UTILITARIAN CRITICISM-THE TRUE USE OF POETRY-ITS DEPRECIATION AND ABUSE-ALBUMS AND SCRAP-BOOKS-BEN JONSON'S PANEGYRIC ON HIS ART-WORDSWORTH-OBJECT OF THESE LECTURES NOT TO ENCOURAGE POETICAL COMPOSITION-SYDNEY'S DEFENCECONNECTION OF POETRY AND SCIENCE-THE SPIRIT OF OUR TIMES-MATERIAL ISM AND INFIDELITY-INFLUENCE ON IMAGINATIVE POWER-VINDICATION OF POETRY..
M HE course of Lectures I am about attempting is the first of a
I contemplated series upon English Poetry, undertaken as well from an uncalculating impulse, as from a conviction that, in our systems of education, it is a department more than any neglected. The treasures of the English tongue are sacrificed to the attainment of those which are more recondite in the dead or foreign languages. As, year after year, I have wandered through the forsaken region (if I may be indulged in so far speaking of myself) and contemplated the mighty achievements of our English mind, a glowing admiration has kindled, higher and higher, the hope that it might not be beyond my strength to be the humble guide of others to the same unfailing springs of intellectual happiness.
The portion of literature to be treated of is that which may be regarded as its eminence,-its Poetry. I have ventured to speak of it as the noblest portion of our noble literature; and, if I shall succeed in awakening a thoughtful admiration of that which has been given to the world by the souls of mighty poets finding utterance in the music of English words, that opinion will not be condemned for its extravagance. It is a large field to travel over; and, therefore, among the introduc
piy topics at present to be noticed, it is necessary to advert to the general plan, which will, however, more satisfactorily appear when practically illustrated in the succeeding lectures. It will be my aim to convey such information on the history of English poetry as the circumstances under which we meet will allow. To penetrate the obscurity of an early age, and thence to trace the progress of poetry from its rude beginnings down to modern years,—to show it in its successive eras,—to discover the connection between the poetry and the spirit of the age acting and reacting on each other,—to see how at one time the · muse has soared and at another crept,-are topics which the idea of these lectures comprehends, how far soever the execution may fall short of it. And here let me beg your reflection on the remark that there are few higher functions of criticism than to reveal the connection between illustrious literary production and the contemporaneous state of opinion and feeling, and to show especially the poet's inspirations in their relation to dominant thoughts and passions. For it is not to be questioned that, in God's providence over the destinies of the human race, men are called into being with powers to cheer or rebuke the spirit of their times with voices prophetic of weal or woe. This consideration with regard to literary history will, therefore, involve, to a certain extent, allusion to what is usually and eminently entitled history; I mean the narrative of national events. Further than this, comprehensive criticism embraces considerations of a biographical character; for, in studying the works of genius, it is a matter of no slight interest to examine the gradual structure, or rather growth, of the individual powers that have produced them. I should, for instance, deem that but an imperfect comment on the Faery Queen which took no heed of the age in which its author lived,-a time animated by a high, adventurous spirit, when the sentiment of chivalry was still for a season outliving its institutions and usages, and which the poet sought imaginatively to perpetuate in his matchless allegory. It would also be a faulty negligence to turn away from the personal history which portrays Spenser embodying his high imaginings while dwelling in a barbarous island, and, at length, heart-stricken with neglect and domestic sorrow. It comes within the range of an enlarged criticism to tell of the young instincts ard presages of Milton's genius, such as break forth in the exquisite inspiration of Comus, and thence to trace his sombre-coloured life till, after having consorted with the stern Republicans, defending their sternest deed, and eulogizing their mightiest chieftain, he retired, in danger and the darkness of a hopeless blindness, to build up the immortal epic of the Paradise Lost.
A CATHOLIC TASTE IN POETRY..
- 3 But a course of literary lectures must comprehend more than the communication of historical and biographical facts, the details of which, orally addressed, are apt to be unsatisfactory and often wearisome. The mind may be oppressed by the accumulation of isolated facts, which are never more troublesome than when unprovided with some principle by means of which they may be marshalled into order. A paramount object, therefore, which I have proposed, is the cultivation of a theory of criticism to be familiarized by application to the most worthy effusions of the English muse, from the first great outbreak in the happy freshness of Chaucer and the early nameless minstrels, down to the majestic and meditative imagination of Wordsworth. When I speak of a theory of criticism, let me not be understood as having in my thoughts any notes which issue from the temple. Genius has its multitude of voices, like nature with its scale of sounds, from the thunder rolling along the heavens and echoed by Alps or Andes, down to the whisper (to borrow one of Shakspeare's sweet sentences)
hypothesis fashioned from the study of some particular form of poetic • invention and narrowed to it, but an ample groundwork built in the
philosophy of the human spirit, and fitted, therefore, to sustain a catholic taste in the estimate of literary productions. The mind is too apt to become capricious and contracted, bigoted in its literary creed, and cramped and enfeebled by a species of favouritism; so that nothing has been more common than attempts to strip the laurel from the brow of a poet like Pope, or to refuse it to that great living master of the art who has passed, through the obloquy of a scornful ignorance, to his same. In all this there is grievous error. And, let me say, this narrowness of taste and judgment must carry with it its own penalty; for greatly does it diminish the occasions of literary enjoyment. The intellect, like the heart, has its hundred avenues of happiness, and it is not wise to close or abandon any of them. The true aim of every student should be to acquire a taste, which, while it can discriminate between the different endowments of different minds, can also feed on all that genius sets before it, no matter how various it may be. A squeamish and fastidious taste in reading is a disease which grows more and more inveterate with indulgence, and, like a hypochondriac's appetite, makes its victim alike more helpless and more unhealthy. A taste strong in health is not more ready to reject what is unwholesome than to draw its nourishment from variety. The food of the mind, like that of the body, is various, and the function of health is to assimilate to itself the variety which nature proffers. It is the invalid whose delicate digestion needs to be pampered with dainties. So is it with the weak and uncultivated in intellect. Genius pours out its abundance for them in vain. In this way arises exclusive devotion to some one author, as if wisdom had been his monopoly. While the oracle of poetry is uttering its inspirations in a thousand tones, there are ears which are deaf to all but one of the
“ As gentle
Of this dulness consequent on contracted taste it would not be difficult to find instances to verify the observation. But it is more than individual malady, for it spreads into an epidemic; and I shall hereafter have occasion to advert to revolutions in literary opinion, and to show that the feeblest voice had gained the public ear which was almost closed to that of Milton, when he craved “ fit audience, though few,” while Cowley was earning his speedy popularity; and, again, the glory of the older poets fading before the admiration of the high-wrought verse of Pope. An illustration within our own memory was that declamatory, undisciplined, indiscriminate enthusiasm, which, knowing no other inspiration, was in truth the poorest tribute that could be paid to genius such as Lord Byron unquestionably possessed. The domain of Parnassus is not so narrow as to be susceptible of any such appropriation. The sovereignty of even Homer or Shakspeare could hold no exclusive usurpation. The sacred mount is covered with the homesteads of the poets; some, in modest humility, where its first declivity rises from the level of the plain ; others, midway up the mount; and a few seated, where others durst not soar, high as the summit in the upper air. The great endowment of poetry has been bestowed in almost infinite degrees and forms; and it is the office of philosophic criticism to trace it in its truth wherever it may exist :--in the homely ballad chanted in the nursery; in the traditionary songs of a peasantry; in strains that have kindled the spirit of a people in the hour of battle; in the softer melody of love ; in the mournful elegy; in the bitterness of satire ; in devotional hymns, the measured utterance of thanksgiving, prayer, and praise : in the lofty aspirations of the meditative ode; in the lifelike creation of the drama, “gorgeous tragedy in sceptred pall;” and in the elaborate structures of the rarely-attempted epic. The taste thus cultivated and strengthened will be safe from that narrow-spirited habit which pros. trates the intellect in its solitary idolatry. The voice of the muse come whence it may, if it come in truth, will not come in vain : for the open heart will give it entrance. So important do I consider the pos. session of a catholic spirit in literature as the means of enlarged intel.