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THE PRESENT AGE NOT AN UNPOETICAL ONE-FIVE NAMES WORTHY OF DISTINC
TION-SAMUEL ROGERS-THE "PLEASURES OF MEMORY"-ROGERS'S “ ITALY”-
THIS course of lectures, so kindly and patiently followed by you,
has now brought us to the limit of the poets of a past generation. The lives of those two true poets who were last considered reached the closing years of the last century,—the death of Burns having taken place in the year 1796, and that of Cowper in 1800. The mind naturally draws a boundary-line which separates them from the poets of the present century and our own times. The remaining lectures will be appropriated to some of our contemporaries who have devoted their genius to the cultivation of that vast and noble field of English literature we have been travelling over.
It is quite an habitual opinion to characterize the generation of the nineteenth century as unpoetical; and in many respects, it must be confessed, the censure is well directed. But when the philosophic critic of some future age shall seek to judge us, the judgment will be a different one.
We are apt to form our estimate with minds diverted to the countless agencies visibly at work around us,—to the various manifestations of the busy, bustling, superficial temper of the times, which leads men to seek the unsure and brief support of mere expedients, instead of the constancy and security of abiding principles. There are perpetually obtruded on our notice some traits of the times, showing the race occupied rather with the world of sense than with strenuous efforts of thought or high aspirations of imagination. But these—the more obvious characteristics—are temporary; they pass away, and in their place remain those which are more durable. When some future literary historian shall come to write the character of his ancestry in the early portion of the nineteenth century, he will seek for evidences of that character, not in such things as from time to time flash upon us, awakening some admiration or amazement, but in the surviving literature of the generation, and especially in the imaginative department of it, which, gaining a wider and more permanent command of the sympathies, has therefore a most lasting life. It endures from age
and to it men of other times are apt to look as the mirror of the generation to which that literature belonged. It is a somewhat vain and perhaps presumptuous thing to attempt to gain futurity for a point of imaginative vision, and thus anticipate the judgment of posterity. As far as we may indulge in such speculation, we may fancy some eye as yet unborn, conning what is now the fair page of some fresh book, but then turned into the “sere and yellow leaf;" and if it should chance to be a page on which is inscribed some shallow piece of pride in the superiority of the age, --some ostentation of the incomparable advancement of physical science or the mechanic arts, or of universal education and the march of mind, or some loud boasting of political regeneration, it might prompt the compassionate smile at such ebullitions of inordinate and short-sighted vanity; short-sighted, because these are matters in which, great as may be the achievements of one generation, they are usually outstripped and set aside by those of a succeeding generation. From such manifestations of our character we might be pronounced a sensuous, unimaginative generation. Self-centred, self-seeking, selfsatisfied, prone to divorce the present from both past and future, breaking covenant with the mighty dead by irreverent violation of time-honoured institutions and usages, as being, according to the phrase, behind the times, and not looking with prophetic eye to days that are to come. But the chief evidence of the character of an age is sought in its literature ; and, contemplating that of our times, the writer of some distant day will find that there flourished during the early period of the nineteenth century a numerous company of poets, and among thein not a few truly inspired, who would do honour to any age. Indeed, unimaginative and unpoetic as we are, too often, in the habit of considering the generation of our own times, if we measure both the amount and merit and variety of the poetry which has been produced within the last thirty or forty years, this age, in the annals of English poetry, is surpassed only by the golden age of Queen Elizabeth, with which, indeed, it may not inappropriately be compared.
FIVE NAMES WORTHY OF DISTINCTION.
The list of successful poets in our times is, in truth, a registry which contrasts finely with the poverty of several former periods; and, on approaching what may be called our contemporaries' poetry, I have found a necessity of making some selection from a numerous company of poets who would all be entitled to consideration in a more extended
I have, therefore, chosen five names as worthy of chief distinction, hoping to be able occasionally to present some incidental notices of those to whom more space would, under other circumstances, be due. The choice names- chosen not without reflection, and with regard to their eminence and their influence—are the names of Scott, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, and Wordsworth. The ranks of the poets of the nineteenth century have been already thinned by death. Of the five names just repeated but two survive, and only one in the unimpaired possession of his genius. That one has witnessed the passing away of his brother bards, in quick succession too, within the last few years, speedy action of death, not lost upon the thoughtful imagination of the survivor :
" Like clouds which rake the mountain summit,
Or waves that own no curbing hand,
From sunshine to the sunless land !
Were earlier raised, remain to hear
Who next will drop and disappear ?" Byron, and Scott, and Coleridge, and Crabbe, and the Ettrick Shepherd, -as he is called, to escape the unpoetic name of James Hogg,—and Mrs. Hemans, each having filled a space in the literature of this century, are in their
graves. The survivors, not a few in number, are for the most part mute in song as the dead; but, to appreciate the extent of living poetic power, it is only necessary to recall the names of Rogers, and Campbell, and Moore, and Milman, and Southey, and Wordsworth, to say nothing of some others of good repute.
It is a noticeable fact, that among the poets of our days the one who first gained an honourable award of reputation, the first and oldest of them all, is still among the living, “ a worthy and a prosperous gentleman,”—the poet Samuel Rogers. He came into public notice as the author of the “ Pleasures of Memory,” which appeared during the last century; and he is now living in cheerful and esteemed old
age, life of purity and affluent elegance, on the verge of eighty years. He stands truly the patriarch of the poets of the nineteenth century; and,
as such, honour should first be done to him before I pass on to the chief subjects of this and the succeeding lectures.
Rogers's first poem was produced at a time niost propitious to the acquisition of a general popularity. It was a period of poetical dearth. The career of Burns as well as of Cowper were well nigh over when this poem upon the pleasurable emotions of memory was cordially and widely welcomed to supply a void in the public mind.
It was on a theme of universal interest and of ready comprehension, and abounding in a succession of pleasing pictures, rather than presenting any lofty efforts of imagination; and, therefore, it is not surprising that it should have won, under such circumstances, a wide-spread favour. At the present day, or even somewhat later than the publication of the “Pleasures of Memory," I do not think it could have secured so favourable a reception. There has since been so much of the stronger inspiration, that the avenue to a poetic reputation is by no means so open to entrance. Indeed, this is shown by the state of popular opinion respecting some of Rogers’s later poems. His “Italy," for example, seems to me to show a far more vigorous and cultivated imagination,--to be, in a word, a greatly superior poem to his first poem; but Rogers’s name became first known as the poet of Memory, and as such will it be preserved. Passages of genuine poetry are scattered through his “ Italy,” giving it a higher value than is perhaps recognised. It is a descriptive poem, finely enriched, as descriptive poetry should be, with moral associations, in the present case arising chiefly from historical and biographical allusions. The interesting visit of the young Milton, a traveller in Italy, to the aged Galileo, is thus introduced and fitly touched :
“ Nearer we hail
His eyes upturn'd as to the golden sun,
[There is a break in the manuscript here, which I have found it impossible to repair. Diligent search has been made for the missing matter, but without success.- Ed.]
In the last lecture I had occasion to make some remarks on the subject of lyrical poetry, and its demand for a highly-musical versification and a variety of rhythm. The remarks were connected with the higher department of lyrical composition,—the Oden-but now lead me to mention slightly the numerous contributions of a living poet of another department of lyrical poetry. No English writer, that I am aware of, has produced so many songs as Moore. Familiar, too, by musical accompaniments, they have gained a wide popularity by the alliance of many a sweet voice that has sung them. But, as a matter of poetry and not of music, a good song is an exceedingly rare production. In the whole extent of English poetry the number is quite small. Moore, prolific song-writer as he has been, has written much fewer of decided merit than would be supposed, considering the success they have had. When you come, for instance, to read over his “ Irish Melodies,” you find too much elaboration, too much of art,-strains of overwrought and artificially-stimulated fancy. They want the simplicity, the natural impulse and emotion, the bird-like utterance, which characterize the song of the true lyrical poet. The musical accompaniments of Moore's songs have served not only to give them their due effect, but also to conceal their faults. This is perceived when they are simply read. But at the same time, the poet's merit is considerable in the variety of his versification, and many of his songs display his skill in developing the compass of English metres. The following stanzas are much simpler in style than Moore's usual strain, and a more peculiar measure than he often uses. With something of his bright fancy, they are not devoid of a pleasing plaintiveness :
Bright be thy dreams! May all thy weeping