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religious poetry with exquisite refinement of thought. So much piety was never married to so much wit. Herbert identifies himself with Jewish genius, as Michael Angelo did when carving or painting prophets and patriarchs, not merely old men in robes and beards, but with the sanctity and the character of the Pentateuch and the prophecy conspicuous in them. His wit and his piety are genuine, and are sure to make a lifelong friend of a good reader.
Herrick is the lyric poet, ostentatiously choosing petty subjects, petty names for each piece, and disposing of his theme in a few lines, or in a couplet ; is never dull, and is the master of miniature painting. On graver themes, in his “ Sacred Numbers,” he is equally successful.
Milton's “ Paradise Lost ” goes so surely with the Bible on to every book-shelf, that I have not cited a line; but I could not resist the insertion of the “Comus," and the “Lycidas," which are made of pure poetry, and have contented myself with extracts from the grander scenes of " Samson Agonistes.”
The public sentiment of the reading world was long divided on the merits of Wordsworth. His early poems were written on a false theory of poetry; and the crities denounced them as childish. He persisted long to write after his own whim; and, though he arrived at unexpected power, his readers were never safe from a childish return upon himself and an unskilful putting-forward of it. How different from the absolute concealment of Shakspeare in all his miraculous dramas, and even in his love-poems, in which, of course, the lover must be perpetually present, but always by thought, and never by his buttons or pitifulness! Montaigne is delightful in his egotism. Byron is always egotistic, but interesting thereby, through the taste and genius of his confession or his defiance.
Wordsworth has the merit of just moral perception, but not that
of deft poetic execution. How would Milton curl his lip at suck slipshod newspaper style! Many of his poems, as, for example, " The Rylstone Doe,” might be all improvised: nothing of Mil. ton, nothing of Marvell, of Herbert, of Dryden, could be. These are verses such as many country gentlemen could write; but few would think of claiming the poet's laurel on their merit. Pindar, Dante, Shakspeare, whilst they have the just and open soul, have also the eye to see the dimmest star, the serratures of every leaf, the test objects of the microscope, and then the tongue to utter the same things in words that engrave them on the ears of all mankind.
The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only. Like the electric rod, he must reach from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures : his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth. In the debates on the Copyright Bill, in the English parliament, Mr. Sergeant Wakley, the coroner, quoted Wordsworth's poetry in derision, and asked the roaring House of Commons, “ what that meant, and whether a man should have a public reward for writing such stuff?” – Homer, Horace, Milton, and Chaucer would defy the coroner. Whilst they have wisdom to the wise, he would see that to the external they have external meaning. Coleridge rightly said that “poetry must first be good sense, as a palace might well be magnificent, but first it must be a house.” Wordsworth is open to ridicule of this kind; and yet, though satisfied if he can suggest to a sympathetic mind his own mood, and though setting a private and exaggerated value on his compositions, and taking the public to task for not admiring his poetry, he is really a master of the English language; and his
best poems evince a power of diction that is no more rivalled by his contemporaries than is his poetic insight. But his capital merit is, that he has done more for the sanity of his generation than any other writer.
“ Laodamia” is almost entitled to that eminence in his literary performance which Landor gave it when he said, that “Wordsworth had now written a poem which might be fitly read in Elysium, and the gods and heroes might gather round to listen.” I count that and the “ Ode on Immortality” as the best.
Wordsworth has a religious value for his thoughts; but his inspirations are casual and insufficient, and he persists in writing after they are gone. No great poet needs so much a severely critical selection of the noble numbers from the puerile into which he often falls. Leigh Hunt said of him, that “he was a fine lettuce with too many outer leaves.”
Byron's rare talent is conspicuously partial. He has not sweetness, nor solid knowledge, nor lofty aim. He had a rare skill for rhythm, unmatched facility of expression, a firm, ductile thread of gold. His rhymes do not suggest any restraint, but the utmost freedom, as the rules of the dance do not fetter the good dancer, but exhibit his natural grace. In his isolation he is starved for a purpose ; and finding no material except of romance, first, of corsairs, and Oriental robbers and harems, and, lastly, of satire, he revenges himself on society for its supposed distrust of him, by cursing it, and throwing himself on the side of its destroyers. His life was wasted ; and its only result was this brilliant gift of song with which he soothed his chosen exile. I do not know that it can retain for another generation the charm it had for his contemporaries ; but the security with which he pours these perfectly modulated verses to any extent, without any sacrifice of sense for the sake of metre, surprises the reader.
Tennyson has incomparable felicity in all poetic forms, surpass. ing in melody also, and is a brave, thoughtful Englishman, unmatched in rhythmic power and variety. The thoroughness with which the fable has been thought out, as in the account of the supreme influence of Arthur on his knights, is only one of his triumphs. The passion of love in his “ Maud” found a new celebration, which woke delight wherever the English language is known; the “Dirge of Wellington” was a more magnificent monument than any or all of the histories that record that commander's life. Then the variety of his poems discloses the wealth and the health of his mind. Nay, some of his words are poems.
The selections from American writers are necessarily confined to the present century; but some of them have secured a wide fame. Some of them are recent, and have yet to earn their laurels. I have inserted only one of the remarkable poems of Forceythe Willson, a young Wisconsin poet of extraordinary promise, who died very soon after this was written. The poems of a lady who contents herself with the initials H. H. in her book published in Boston (1874) have rare merit of thought and expression, and will reward the reader for the careful attention which they require. The poem of “Sir Pavon and Saint Pavon,” by another hand, has a dangerous freedom of style, but carries in it rare power and pathos.
The imagination wakened brings its own language, and that is always musical. It may or may not have rhyme or a fixed metre; but it will always have its special music or tone. Whatever language the bard uses, the secret of tone is at the heart of the poem. Every great master is such by this power, Chaucer and Shakspeare and Raleigh and Milton and Collins and Burns and Byron and Tennyson and Wolfe. The true inspiration always brings it. Perhaps it cannot be analyzed ; but we all yield to it. It is the life of the good ballads ; it is in the German hymns
which Wesley translated; it is in the “ Marseillaise ” of Rouget de Lisle ; it gave their value to the chants of the old Romish and of the English Church ; and it is the only account we can give of their wonderful power on the people, Poems may please by their talent and ingenuity ; but, when they charm us, it is because they have this quality, for this is the union of nature with thought.
R. W. E.