Obrázky na stránke
PDF
ePub
[ocr errors]

broke through the restraint, and hazarded a new style, in which simplicity, homeliness, common names, every-day objects, and ordinary events were made the themes and the ornaments of poetry. These naturally assimilate themselves with what is em phatically called "the country"-" each rural sight, each rural sound;" the loves and graces of domestic life, the comforts of our own fireside; the flowery array of meadows, the green gayety of hedge-rows, the sparkling vivacity of rivulets; kind intercourse with neighbours, the generous ardour of patriotism, and the gentler emotions of benevolence. Such furnished the "perpetual feast of nectared sweets" set before their readers by those innovators on the courtly formality of the old school; but the charm of their song was too often interrupted by the coarseness of vulgar manners and the squalidness of poverty-too nearly associated with physical disgusts to be the unpolluted source of ideal delights.

This, therefore, could not last long; the subjects which might be rendered interesting were soon exhausted. Hence this ramble after Nature in her humblest forms and her obscurest haunts was only a holyday frolic; and these wayward sons of genius, by their high endowments, were destined to give a more heroic tone, a more magnificent character, to the literature of their country. Southey, by his marvellous excursions in the regions both of history and romance-Coleridge, by his wild fictions of a class entirely his own, in which there is an indescribable witchery of phrase and conceit, that affects the imagination as if one had eaten of "the insane root that takes the reason prisoner"-and Wordsworth, by his mysticism, his Platonic love of the supreme good and the supreme beauty, which he seeks everywhere, and finds wherever he seeks, in the dancing of daffodils, the splendour of the setting sun, the note of a cuckoo flitting like a spirit from hill to hill, which neither the eye nor ear can follow,

and in the everlasting silence of the universe to the man born deaf and dumb-these were the three pioneers, if not the absolute founders, of the existing style of English literature; which has become so diversified, artificial, and exquisite-so gorgeously embellished, and adapted to every taste, as well as so abundant in its resources by importations from the wealth of every other land, that it may challenge similitude to the great metropolis of our empire, where the brain of a stranger, like myself, is bewildered amid the infinite forms of human beings, human dwellings, human pursuits, human enjoyments, and human sufferings; perpetual motion, perpetual excitement, perpetual novelty; city manners, city edifices, city luxuries: all these being not less strikingly characteristic of the literature of this age than the fairy-land of adventure, and the landscape gardening of "Capability Brown" were characteristic of the two periods from Spenser to Milton, and from Dryden to Cowper.

If the literature of the middle ages (as was shown in a former paper*) were principally composed of crude, enormous, indigestible masses, fitted only to monkish appetites, that could gorge iron like ostriches, when iron was cast into the shape of thought, or thought assumed the nature of iron; the literature of the present day is entirely the reverse, and so are all the circumstances connected with it. Then there were few readers, and fewer writers; now there are many of both; and among those that really deserve the name of the former, it would be difficult to ascertain the relative proportion of the latter, for most of them in one way or another might be classed with writers. The vehicles, opportunities, and temptations of publishing are so frequent, so easy and unexpensive, that a man can scarcely be connected with intelligent society, without being

* See the Third Part of "A Retrospect of Literature," &c.

seduced, in some frail moment, to try how his thoughts will look in print: then, for a second or two or least, he feels as the greatest genius in the world feels on the same occasion," laudum immensa cupido," a longing after immortality that mounts into a hope-a hope that becomes a conviction of the power of realizing itself in all the glory of ideal reality; than which no actual reality ever afterward is half so enchantingly enjoyed.

Hence the literature of our time is commensurate with the universality of education; nor is it less various than universal to meet capacities of all sizes, minds of all acquirements, and tastes of every degree. Books are multiplied on every subject on which any thing or nothing can be said, from the most abstruse and recondite to the most simple and puerile and while the passion of book-jobbers is to make the former as familiar as the latter by royal ways to all the sciences, there is an equally perverse rage among genuine authors to make the latter as august and imposing as the former, by disguising commonplace topics with the colouring of imagination, and adorning the most insignificant themes with all the pomp of verse. This degradation of the high, and exaltation of the low-this dislocation, in fact, of every thing, is one of the most striking proofs of the extraordinary diffusion of knowledge -and of its corruption, too-if not a symptom of its declension by being so heterogeneously blended, till all shall be neutralized. Indeed, when millions of intellects, of as many different dimensions and as many different degrees of culture, are perpetually at work, and it is almost as easy to speak as to think, and to write as to speak, there must be a proportionate quantity of thought put into circulation.

Meanwhile, public taste, pampered with delicacies even to loathing, and stimulated to stupidity with excessive excitement, is at once ravenous and mawkish-gratified with nothing but novelty, nor

with novelty itself for more than an hour. To meet this diseased appetite, in prose not less than in verse, a factitious kind of the marvellous has been invented, consisting, not in the exhibition of supernatural incidents or heroes, but in such distortion, high colouring, and exaggeration of natural incidents and ordinary personages, by artifices of style, and the audacity of sentiment employed upon them, as shall produce that sensation of wonder in which halfinstructed minds delight. This preposterous effort at display may be traced through every walk of polite literature, and in every channel of publićation; nay, it would hardly be venturing too far to say that every popular author is occasionally a juggler, rope-dancer, or posture-maker, in this way, to propitiate those of his readers who will be pleased with nothing less than feats of legerdemain in the exercises of the pen.

No. II.

Contemporary Poets.

Ir must be conceded that there never was a time when so great a number of men of extraordinary genius flourished together in this island; as many may have existed, and perhaps there may be always an equal quantity of latent capacity; but since the circumstances of no previous period of human history have been altogether so calculated to awaken, inspirit, and perfect every species of intellectual energy, it is no arrogant assumption in favour of the living, no disparagement of the merits of the dead, to assert the manifest superiority of the former in developed powers-powers of the rarest and most

elevated kind in poetry-the noblest of the arts, and that which is brought earliest to the consummation of excellence, as it depends not upon the progress of science, but on sensibility to that which is at all times in itself equally striking in the grandeur, beauty, and splendour of external nature, with corresponding intensity of feeling towards whatsoever things are pure, lovely, and of good report in the mind of man, or in the scenes and circumstances of domestic life.

In poetry, late as it is in the age of the world, and after all the anticipations in every field that could furnish subjects for verse within the last three thousand years, the present generation can boast of at least six names that may be ranked with any other six (averaging the measure of genius on both sides) not only of our own country, but of any other that were contemporaries, independent of a far greater number of highly accomplished writers, such as in every refined and lettered period must abound -men who are rather poets by choice than by destiny, and who, if they had been either kings or beggars, would not have been poets at all; because in the one case they would have been above, and in the other below, the temptation and pleasure of courting the Muses. Southey, Campbell, Wordsworth, Scott, Moore, and Byron-these, under any circumstances, from the original bias of their minds, must have been poets: had they been born to thrones, they would have woven for themselves chaplets of bays more glorious than the crowns which they inherited; had they been cast in the meanest stations of civilized society, they would have been distinguished among their peers, and above them, by some emanation of that "light from heaven" which no darkness of ignorance in untutored minds could utterly extinguish or always hide.

It must be further acknowledged by all who have justly appreciated the works of these authors (which

« PredošláPokračovať »