Abbildungen der Seite
[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

The spirit of English poetry, with a few bright exceptions, presents a singularly faded and exhausted appearance during the greater part of the eighteenth century. Poetry, indeed, had almost dwindled into a mere mechanical process of versification. If the lines were of a certain specified length; if the rhymes accorded; if the pause of each line rested upon a certain foot, and if each idea was comprised within a couplet—the poem was complete. Variety there was little or none--all was reduced to a monotonous sing-song, with which the ear of society had been luiled into sluggish acquiescence. It is no wonder that, in such an age, the versification of Pope was reckoned immeasurably superior to that of Dryden and Milton; and that the rhythm of Addison's Cato, or Home's Douglas, was preferred to that of Shakspeare. It is no wonder, also, that blank verse in general had ceased to possess its wonted attractiveness. The majesty, the harmony, the variety, of which it is susceptible, were no longer attained, because they were no longer appreciated; and instead of the spirit of versification, the mechanism of rhyme was substituted, to indicate to the eye, or the ear, that the composition in question was actual poetry, and not prose.

The same frigid and artificial character, which regulated the frame-work of poetry, pervaded also its spirit. It was no longer a glowing delineation, a vivid picture, of either external or internal nature. If woods and lawns, hills and dales, trrron

and rivers, were introduced, it was merely as objects possessing certain forms and colours; apart from these obvious qualities, they had no language or symbol of a deeper meaning with which to address the affections of humanity. If passions were delineated, it was merely by their external effects: their springs and their inward workings, their origin, progress, and development, independently of outward exhibitions, seemed to be matters undreamt of. Of all the objects of creation, indeed, it may be said, as of the moon and stars, that there is “ no speech nor language where their voice is not heard;" but poets were deaf to that all-pervading appeal of which they should have been the legitimate organs and interpreters. How then could it be otherwise, than that before them the human heart lay cold and pulseless, and that the universe itself was musicless and without speech, when they had reduced the principles of the heavenkindled science to such a narrow and artificial system? Still less is it to be wondered at, that they did not dare to exert the legitimate rights of poetry, by creating new worlds of thought and imagery, when that real and tangible world which lay before their eyes was approached so coldly, or shunned so carefully.

As might have been expected from such a mechanical state of poetry, a set of conventional phrases was formed by which the process of verse-making was rendered still more easy and unintellectual. Thus, if the poet wished to write a pastoral, the “snowy fleeces,” the “verdant lawns,” and “purling streams,” were all at hand, and might be arranged without an effort. Like the canvas scenes of a panorama, they might be made to revolve before the on-lookers by the turning of a winch. If he commenced a production of some length, it was necessary, in the first place, to invoke his Muse, without which the poem would have looked like a sermon without a text; and after he had done this, to talk of his harp or his lyre, at decent intervals, to remind his reader that he was singing in tuneful numbers. The figments of the classical mythology, which had no meaning but in the classical ages, were also as sedulously pressed into the service of the poet as if they were still matters of public faith; and passions were attempted to be excited, and sympathies moved, by continual appeals to Jove, Mars, Apollo, the Fates, and the Furies, Venus, Cupid, and Minerva A mere noun

substantive made a pitiful figure by itself in orthodox verse, and required to be propped by an adjective, and therefore the rhymer was supplied with some epithet for every object in nature: a mead was invariably a “flowery mead;" the rose must always be “ blushing,” and the zephyr“ sighing.” There were also certain every-day objects, the names of which it was thought necessary to aggrandise, before they could be fitted for the purposes of poetry. Thus, the sun could not shine in verse but under the name of Phæbus, nor the evening star arise unless it twinkled as Hesperus : even the sweet nightingale required to become Philomel, before she could be musical. Such was the manner in which sound was substituted for sense, and poetry itself was stifled, and buried under a mass of verbiage. So strong, also, was the enthralment of this established language, that the talented, as well as the inane, were obliged to succumb to it; and thus the finest poetry of this century, equally with the trash of Magazines and Miscellaneous Poems, is composed upon these established models. But what strength however great could have moved easily under such restrictions ? What genius however brilliant could have shone through such a cloud? The most accomplished scholars, and even the poets of Nature's own creation, were born and nurtured in one common perversity; and, therefore, they were obliged to

weave the web and weave the woof,” according to the scale of manufacture that had been decreed in the poetical market.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century, however, there were several powerful causes under which the prosaic spirit of the classical poetry was fated to expire. And first of these, we may mention the popular feeling which, after having been lulled so long by those monotonous narcotic strains, began to arouse itself, and crave for something more exciting. This demand would of itself have been sufficient for the destruction of the old system, and the creation of something new. Two poets, each a powerful master in his respective path, responded to the call; and Cowper and Burns evinced in their writings the superiority of truth, nature, and feeling, over the mere poetry of art, while the popularity they acquired demonstrated the ripeness of the public mind for so desirable a restoration. How otherwise, indeed, could the humble ploughman of Ayrshire have been recognised as one of the greatest of our na

[ocr errors]

tional poets? He wrote in a dialect which the people of England little understood, and cared still less to understand; and had he confined himself to the style and models of the period, his reputation would probably have never travelled beyond the limits of his native country. But his impassioned lays were the truthful utterances of nature; they were the outpourings of a heart giving vent to its genuine emotions, untrammelled by rules, and undeterred by the fear of censure, and therefore they found an echo, and created a responsive vibration, in every bosom that could feel in like manner, without possessing the power or the hardihood to give those feelings a voice. Thus it was that even his Doric dialect, which had always grated so harshly in the ears of England, suddenly acquired in popular estimation a richness and melody hitherto unthought of; and it was cherished and revered, because it had conveyed to them, however partially, that voice of true poetry which had been so long unheard. What the English loved they naturally endeavoured to imitate, and therefore a school of poetry arose—a school, not indeed influential either from talent or numbers, but important as the indication of a change in poetical taste; in which not only the spirit, but even the dialect, of Burns was endeavoured to be imitated. Still, however, the influence of such minds as Cowper and Burns would have been insufficient to produce a general change, had it not been for that great political event by which the intellectual as well as political world was shaken to its centre. This was the French Revolution, which, like an earthquake, was destined to shake and throw down both tower and temple, and create a new surface, for the erection of new systems and principles. While Europe was looking on in fearful expectation upon events of such tremendous interest, with every feeling wound to the utmost stretch, who, at such a crisis, could have expressed his emotions coldly and calmly, and by a tame mechanical process ? Love and hatred, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, all and each alternately raised to a species of madness, required a correspondent utterance for such a mighty inspiration, and hence the poetry of Europe at large assumed a wildness, a fervour, and a strength, commensurate with the grandeur of those political events by which every community was agitated.

Of all those countries which were so influenced, Germany was the chief. It was fortunate, in this case, that she had no previous national literature, and therefore she had little to unlearn. When the naturally strong and fervent spirit of her people was aroused to thought and inquiry, she advanced in consequence, with all the freshness and buoyancy of a first existence, to the creation of a national poetry; and instead of taking their models from the writers of the eighteenth century, the German poets went to a more congenial source-to Shakspeare, and the great English poets of the early ages. These they studied, until they had caught their spirit and inspiration; and thus when they sang, it often seemed as if our illustrious dead of England had awoke to life, under the shock and stir of the mighty passing events, and had added, to their own native grandeur of intellect, the treasures of modern science and philosophy. And how natural it was that England, when she had become weary of the effete poetry which she had endured so patiently, should turn and listen to those rich echoes of tones that had been flung abroad from her own lyre? The new race of English poets, who were to enlighten and adorn the nineteenth century, betook themselves to those streams of inspiration that had flowed from the fountain-head of England; and while they imbued their own minds with the impassioned spirit of the new-born Teutonic Muse, they prepared their countrymen, in many instances, for the change, by translations from the most distinguished of their German contemporaries. In this manner, Germany, our mother-land, reciprocated the benefits which she had previously derived from her illustrious child. And no national jealousy could intervene between such endeared relationships, to mar the mutual harmony, and interrupt the projected renovation. German and English poets laboured with united hand and heart, as the children of one race, in the production of a common good.

And now, the period of the literary revolution in England had arrived; a revolution as complete as that political change which had convulsed France, and agitated the whole of Europe. Like that of France, too, it was to be in the first instance a work of violence and havoc, in which the necessary task oi destruction was to precede that of renovation. And with what fearful zeal the innovation commenced! The doors of the

« ZurückWeiter »