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Ill-fated Poesy! as human worth,
Many critics more querulous than just, have lately employed themselves in depreciating the efforts of the modern muses, and several of our literary and periodical publications have teemed with reflections on the sterility, and want of genius apparent in the present cultivators of this enchanting art.' They insist with rapture on the beauties of our ancient poets, and are willing to believe that the invention and imagery of their contemporaries are puerile and absurd. Should a single poem make its appearance whose style is tumid and glittering with meretricious ornament, not satisfied with reprobating the individual attempt, they launch forth into extravagant encomia on the simplicity of a former age, and pass undiscriminate and unqualified censure on what they term the prevailing taste. Even some men of acknowledged genius from an undue bias to antiquity, have inadvertently given into this sweeping mode of criticism, than which nothing can be more futile and absurd. These laudatores temporis acti, who dwell so much upon the general and superior merit of our poetry in the
ages of Elizabeth and the Charles's, would do well to reflect that in those periods the language was extremely incorrect; that beauty of arrangement, propriety of selection, and delicacy of sentiment were, for the most part, unknown, and it may, without any hazard of con- , tradiction, be asserted, that from these boasted eras no one production can be drawn possessing an uniform chastity of style and thought. Even our three great poets, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton, are clogged with materials that press heavy on the patience of the critical
reader, and certainly abound in quaintnesses, puerilities and conceits which would blast the reputation of any poet of the present day. Not to mention many cantos of Spenser which, I am afraid, must be pronounced both tedious and disgusting, the Paradise Lost would be greatly diminished were its metaphysic and abstruse theology, surely no proper ornaments of an epic poem, entirely expunged. The third book, its exquisite invocation, and a few other passages excepted, is more worthy the genius of Thomas Aquinas than of Milton, and of Shakspeare it may justly be affirmed that many of his plays are barely tolerated out of deference to the excellencies of his happier productions. The beauties of these writers are, however, above all praise, and I am accustomed to approach their works with an admiration almost bordering upon idolatry. But let not their faults, the faults, in a great measure, of the age in which they existed, be thrown into the shade for the purpose of enhancing the lustre of their genius when placed in competition with that of their disciples. They want no such injudicious aid, nor does the negative praise of avoiding their blemishes constitute the sole merit of our present race of poets; it will be found perhaps ere the subject be concluded, that an emulation of their inventive powers, as well as a solicitude to escape their errors, is the proper foundation of their fame. As to the various poets who were coexistent with our three immortalbards, though they occasionally exhibit very
brilliant passages, yet are they mingled with such a mass of obscurity, vulgarity, obscenity and colloquial barbarism, that he must be a very hardy critic indeed, who can venture to station' them on a level with the modern votaries of
Simplicity of language in a rude age, or in one approximating towards civilization, is merely casual, for as Dr. Aikin has justly observed, “ a simple age is never sensible of the merit of its own simplicity, but on the contrary, is fond of laying on with profusion all the ornament it possesses.
That 'exquisite selection of style and thought, which' stamps such attraction on many of the firstrate productions of our own period, is the result of systematic refinement, and of the pro
* Letters from a father to his Son, p. 21.
gress of language toward perfection. It would be no difficult task to prove, that in the art of composition, with regard to purity of diction and felicitous structure of sentence, the present reign is greatly superior to any former era, and as to poetry, I believe we can produce no truly correct poet before the lyric Gray, for even Pope has illegitimate rhymes, and gross grammatical inaccuracies. Nor will it be an arduous attempt to convince the unprejudiced, that in vigour of conception, in warmth and boldness of imagery, our chief poets for the last forty or fifty years have little reason to shrink from competition with their prede
In the very ingenious introduction by Mr. Headley, to the Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry, and which contains many very elegant and acute remarks, I have ever been astonished at the following unqualified assertion, "That Key," says the author, "which is most beautifully feigned by the poet* to have been given by Nature to Shakspeare, and which was likewise in the hands of some few
* Gray, Ode v. The Progress of Poesy.