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A CATHOLIC TASTE IN POETRY.
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 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
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)
“ As gentle As zephyrs, blowing below the violet,
Not wagging his sweet head.”—Cymbeline. 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 pooreşt tribute that could be paid to genius such as Lord Byron unquestionably possessed. The domain of Parnassus is not so nárrow 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 prostrates the intellect in its solitary idolatry. The voice of the muse, come whence it
if it come in truth, will not come in vain ; for the open heart will give it entrance. So important do I consider the possession of a catholic spirit in literature as the means of enlarged intel
VARIETY OF POETRY.
lectual enjoyment, that I shall sedulously shun the adoption of any contracted poetical system, directing my efforts rather, in the examination of English poetry, so to discuss the subject as to assist not only in discriminating, but in appreciating, the varieties of merit.
The catalogue of English poets is voluminous. The mere enumeration of them and of their writings—if it were in my power to givewould consume the time which will be at my command. In a course, therefore, of lectures limited in number as well as length, some method must be adopted in treating a subject which, of course, transcends the necessary bounds. The annals of English poetry offer a series of names known much more familiarly than their productions, because fame has given them an elevation in the midst of what Milton styles the laureate fraternity of poets.” To such names the student of literature first turns his thoughts, seeking to justify their fame. I propose, therefore, in travelling through this wide and populous region of literature, to select for especial examination the most illustrious poets who in regular succession have enriched the language from the period of its formation down to the present time. Besides, criticism on the productions of the masters in an art possesses greater interest and value than on those which bear a fainter impression of the stamp of genius. It is in the school of mighty artists that criticism itself is taught. The critic acquires skill by the modest contemplation-the affectionate study-of the works of genius. The great English poets, arrayed as they may be in an almost unbroken chronological series, stand as ther types and emblems of the literary spirit of their times; and thus the progress of literature may be illustrated by the examination of those who are most prominent in its successive eras. This method will therefore be pursued, with occasional notices of others less celebrated.
This method will, I trust, unless grievously deficient in the execution, conduce to the attainment of the best purposes of criticism, on which I desire to say a few words before passing to other introductory topics. The main design of poetry being to communicate, through the medium of the imagination, pleasures of a highly intellectual and moral nature, the criticism which best subserves the cause is that which illustrates and developes qualities in poetical composition adapted to effect such results. Fault-finding—so far from constituting, as is sometimes supposed, criticism—is but a subordinate function, necessary, indeed, occasionally to the formation of a discriminating judgment. But, whenever the detection of poetical irregularities and error is made the chief purpose, we suffer ourselves to be cheated of the enjoyment which attends that better habit of seeking for what gives pleasure in
preference to that which gives pain. The best criticism ever produced has been that which had its birth in a genial admiration--a love-of that on which it passes judgment. The worst criticism is that which is engendered in apathy, spleen, or malice. There is no more healthy mental exercise than the study of a great work of art, if directed to the discovery of the elements of its glory, to cause its sublimity or its beauty to be felt more and more deeply, and not only felt, but understood, that the understanding may have cognizance of that which the heart has loved. It is to criticism thus conducted in the spirit of faith and hope that genius vouchsafes to make the most ample revelation of its glories.
It is important, too, to shun the habit of dogmatic criticism. It is a singular but familiar fact, that men are never more apt to be intolerant of difference of opinion than in what concerns the mingled powers of judgment and feeling denominated taste. I need suggest no other illustration than the striking contrariety of judgment on the merits of the most distinguished poets who have flourished in our own times, the discussion of which I shall not now anticipate by the expression of any opinion. To what is this owing? Partly, no doubt, to variety of character, intellectual and moral; to diversity of temperament and education; and whatsoever else makes one man in some respects a different being from his neighbour. Each reader, as well as each writer, has his peculiar bent of mind, his own way of thinking and feeling ; so that the passionate strains of poetry will find an adaptation in the heart of one, while its thoughtful, meditative inspirations will come home to the heart of another. This consideration must not be lost sight of, because it goes far toward allaying this literary intolerance, which, like political or theological intolerance, is doubly disastrous, for it at the same time narrows a man's sympathies and heightens his pride. But the variety of mind or of general disposition will not wholly explain the variety of literary opinions. After making all due allowance in this respect, it is not to be questioned that there is right judgment and wrong judgment,--a sound taste and a sickly taste. There are opinions which we may hold with a most entire conviction of their truth, an absolute and imperious self-confidence, and a judicial assurance that the contradictory tenets are errors. There is a poetry, for instance, of which a man may both know and feel not only that it gives poetic gratification to himself, but that it cannot fail to produce a like effect on every well-constituted and well-educated mind. When an English critic, Rymer, some hundred and fifty years ago, disloyal in his folly, pronounced the tragical part of Othello to be plainly none other than a bloody farce, without salt or savour,-when Voltaire scoffed at the
QUALIFICATIONS OF A CRITIC.
tragedy of Hamlet as a gross and barbarous piece, which would not be tolerated by the vilest rabble of France or Italy, likening it (I give you his own words) to the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage, when Steevens, an editor of Shakspeare, said that an Act of Parliament would not be strong enough to compel the perusal of the sonnets and other minor poems of the bard,—when Dr. Johnson remarked that Paradise Lost might be read as a duty, but could not be as a pleasure, and pronounced a sweeping condemnation on Milton's incomparable Lycidas,-when, in our own day, a Scotch critic, Lord Jeffrey, declared of Wordsworth's majestic poem, The Excursion, that “it would never do,”—in each of these opinions I know, as anybody may, with a confidence not short of demonstration, I know that there was gross and grievous falsehood. Now, if these opinions are defenceless on the score of variety of mind, and safely to be stigmatized as rash and irrational judgments, it follows that there must exist principles to guide to wise conclusions. And how is a theory of criticism to be formed ? How, in a matter in which men are apt to think and feel so differently, to have such various fancies, prejudices, and prepossessions,—how are we to get at the truth? The process of criticism is a process of induction; and, happily, we have the pages of Spenser and Shakspeare and Milton to gather instruction from ;-happily, I say, for no one is so bold or so stupid in paradox as to question the sufficiency of such authorities. But induction is something more than the gathering of examples, more than what is often thought to be all-sufficient, -mere observation and experiment. The pages of the mighty poets cannot of themselves bestow the power to recognise and to feel what they contain.
7 All their utterance may be unheeded; and it is only when the human spirit has studied its own nature that the sounds which before passed over it as idly and as noiselessly as a floating cloud make the spiritual music which is poetry. It is not enough to know the voice and the tones of poetry, but to discover the avenues of the human heart which lie open to them, and which send back the music echoed from its depths. These are the sources of that wisdom which enables us to distinguish the truth of poetic inspiration from that which is counterfeit and delusive. I know not where else to search for the elements of criticism than in the minstrelsy of the mighty dead, and the life which is the pulse of every living heart.
It would not be inappropriate for me here to examine what is the union of qualifications essential to the character of an enlightened critic of poetry. There is needed a mind at once poetical and philosophical, with powers imaginative and analytical, and not merely the passive