Early Nineteenth Century English Literature
[This is taken from William J. Long’s Outlines of English and American Literature.]
Two voices are there; one is of the sea,
One of the mountains; each a mighty voice:
In both from age to age thou didst rejoice,
They were thy chosen music, Liberty!
Wordsworth, “Sonnet to Switzerland”
The many changes recorded in the political and literary history of nineteenth-century England may be grouped under two heads: the progress of democracy in government, and the triumph of romanticism in literature. By democracy we mean the assumption by common men of the responsibilities of government, with a consequent enlargement of human liberty. Romanticism, as we use the term here, means simply that literature, like politics, has become liberalized; that it is concerned with the common life of men, and that the delights of literature, like the powers of government, are no longer the possession of the few but of the many.
HISTORICAL OUTLINE. To study either democracy or romanticism, the Whig party or the poetry of Wordsworth, is to discover how greatly England was influenced by matters that appeared beyond her borders. The famous Reform Bill (1832) which established manhood suffrage, the emancipation of the slaves in all British colonies, the hard-won freedom of the press, the plan of popular education,–these and numberless other reforms of the age may be regarded as part of a general movement, as the attempt to fulfill in England a promise made to the world by two events which occurred earlier and on foreign soil. These two events, which profoundly influenced English politics and literature, were the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution.
In the Declaration we read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Glorious words! But they were not new; they were old and familiar when Jefferson wrote them. The American Revolution, which led up to the Declaration, is especially significant in this: that it began as a struggle not for new privileges but for old rights. So the constructive character of that Revolution, which ended with a democracy and a noble constitution, was due largely to the fact that brave men stood ready to defend the old freedom, the old manhood, the old charters, “the good old cause” for which other brave men had lived or died through a thousand years.
A little later, and influenced by the American triumph, came another uprising of a different kind. In France the unalienable rights of man had been forgotten during ages of tyranny and class privilege; so the French Revolution, shouting its watchwords of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, had no conception of that liberty and equality which were as ancient as the hills. Leaders and followers of the Revolution were clamoring for new privileges, new rights, new morals, new creeds. They acclaimed an “Age of Reason” as a modern and marvelous discovery; they dreamed not simply of a new society, but of a new man. A multitude of clubs or parties, some political, some literary or educational, some with a pretense of philosophy, sprang up as if by magic, all believing that they must soon enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but nearly all forgetful of the fact that to enter the Kingdom one must accept the old conditions, and pay the same old price. Partly because of this strange conception of liberty, as a new thing to be established by fiat, the terrible struggle in France ended in the ignoble military despotism of Napoleon.
These two revolutions, one establishing and the other clamoring for the dignity of manhood, created a mighty stir throughout the civilized world. Following the French Revolution, most European nations were thrown into political ferment, and the object of all their agitation, rebellion, upheaval, was to obtain a greater measure of democracy by overturning every form of class or caste government. Thrones seemed to be tottering, and in terror of their houses Continental sovereigns entered into their Holy Alliance (1815) with the unholy object of joining forces to crush democracy wherever it appeared.
THE REVOLUTION AND LITERATURE. The young writers of liberty-loving England felt the stir, the sursum of the age. Wordsworth, most sedate of men, saw in the French Revolution a glorious prophecy, and wrote with unwonted enthusiasm:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven.
Coleridge and Southey formed their grand scheme of a Pantisocracy, a government of perfect equality, on the banks of the Susquehanna. Scott (always a Tory, and therefore distrustful of change) reflected the democratic enthusiasm in a score of romances, the chief point of which was this: that almost every character was at heart a king, and spake right kingly fashion. Byron won his popularity largely because he was an uncompromising rebel, and appealed to young rebels who were proclaiming the necessity of a new human society. And Shelley, after himself rebelling at almost every social law of his day, wrote his Prometheus Unbound, which is a vague but beautiful vision of humanity redeemed in some magical way from all oppression and sorrow.
All these and other writers of the age give the impression, as we read them now, that they were gloriously expectant of a new day of liberty that was about to dawn on the world. Their romantic enthusiasm, so different from the cold formality of the age preceding, is a reflection, like a rosy sunset glow, of the stirring scenes of revolution through which the world had just passed.
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WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (1770-1850)
There is but one way to know Wordsworth, and that way leads to his nature poems. Though he lived in a revolutionary age, his life was singularly uneventful. His letters are terribly prosaic; and his Excursion, in which he attempted an autobiography, has so many dull lines that few have patience to read it. Though he asserted, finely, that there is but one great society on earth, “the noble living and the noble dead,” he held no communion with the great minds of the past or of the present. He lived in his own solitary world, and his only real companion was nature. To know nature at first hand, and to reflect human thought or feeling in nature’s pure presence,–this was his chief object. His field, therefore, is a small one, but in that field he is the greatest master that England has thus far produced.
LIFE. Wordsworth is as inseparably connected with the English Lake District as Burns with the Lowlands or Scott with the Border. A large part of the formative period of his life was spent out of doors amid beautiful scenery, where he felt the abounding life of nature streaming upon him in the sunshine, or booming in his ears with the steady roar of the March winds. He felt also (what sensitive spirits still feel) a living presence that met him in the loneliest wood, or spoke to him in the flowers, or preceded him over the wind-swept hills. He was one of those favored mortals who are surest of the Unseen. From school he would hurry away to his skating or bird-nesting or aimless roaming, and every new day afield was to him “One of those heavenly days that cannot die.”
From the Lake Region he went to Cambridge, but found little in college life to attract or hold him. Then, stirred by the promise of the Revolution, he went to France, where his help was eagerly sought by rival parties; for in that day every traveler from America or England, whether an astute Jefferson or a lamblike Wordsworth, was supposed to be, by virtue of his country, a master politician. Wordsworth threw himself rather blindly into the Revolution, joined the Girondists (the ruling faction in 1792) and might have gone to the guillotine with the leaders of that party had not his friends brought him home by the simple expedient of cutting off his supply of money. Thus ended ingloriously the only adventure that ever quickened his placid life.
For a time Wordsworth mourned over the failure of his plans, but his grief turned to bitterness when the Revolution passed over into the Reign of Terror and ended in the despotism of Napoleon. His country was now at war with France, and he followed his country, giving mild support to Burke and the Tory party. After a few uncertain years, during which he debated his calling in life, he resolved on two things: to be a poet, and to bring back to English poetry the romantic spirit and the naturalness of expression which had been displaced by the formal elegance of the age of Pope and Johnson.
For that resolution we are indebted partly to Coleridge, who had been attracted by some of Wordsworth’s early poems, and who encouraged him to write more. From the association of these two men came the famous Lyrical Ballads (1798), a book which marks the beginning of a new era in English poetry.
To Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy we are even more indebted. It was she who soothed Wordsworth’s disappointment, reminded him of the world of nature in which alone he was at home, and quietly showed him where his power lay. As he says, in The Prelude
She whispered still that brightness would return,
She, in the midst of all preserved me still
A poet, made me seek beneath that name,
And that alone, my office upon earth.
The latter half of Wordsworth’s life was passed in the Lake Region, at Grasmere and Rydal Mount for the most part, the continuity being broken by walking trips in Britain or on the Continent. A very quiet, uneventful life it was, but it revealed two qualities which are of interest to Wordsworth’s readers. The first was his devotion to his art; the second was his granite steadfastness. His work was at first neglected, while the poems of Scott, Byron and Tennyson in succession attained immense popularity. The critics were nearly all against him; misunderstanding his best work and ridiculing the rest. The ground of their opposition was, that his theory of the utmost simplicity in poetry was wrong; their ridicule was made easier by the fact that Wordsworth produced as much bad work as good. Moreover, he took himself very seriously, had no humor, and, as visitors like Emerson found to their disappointment, was interested chiefly in himself and his own work. For was he not engaged in the greatest of all projects, an immense poem (The Recluse) which should reflect the universe in the life of one man, and that man William Wordsworth? Such self-satisfaction invited attack; even Lamb, the gentlest of critics, could hardly refrain from poking fun at it:
“Wordsworth, the great poet, is coming to town; he is to have apartments in the Mansion House. He says he does not see much difficulty in writing like Shakespeare, if he had a mind to try it. It is clear that nothing is wanting but the mind.”
Slowly but surely Wordsworth won recognition, not simply in being made Laureate, but in having his ideal of poetry vindicated. Poets in England and America began to follow him; the critics were silenced, if not convinced. While the popularity of Scott and Byron waned, the readers of Wordsworth increased steadily, finding him a poet not of the hour but of all time. “If a single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide,” says Emerson, “the huge world will come around to him.” If the reading world has not yet come around to Wordsworth, that is perhaps not the poet’s fault.
WORDSWORTH: HIS THEME AND THEORY. The theory which Wordsworth and Coleridge formulated was simply this: that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful human feeling. Its only subjects are nature and human nature; its only object is to reflect the emotions awakened by our contemplation of the world or of humanity; its language must be as direct and simple as possible, such language as rises unbidden to the lips whenever the heart is touched. Though some of the world’s best poets have taken a different view, Wordsworth maintained steadily that poetry must deal with common subjects in the plainest language; that it must not attempt to describe, in elegant phrases, what a poet is supposed to feel about art or some other subject selected for its poetic possibilities.
In the last contention Wordsworth was aiming at the formal school of poetry, and we may better understand him by a comparison. Read, for example, his exquisite “Early Spring” (“I heard a thousand blended notes”). Here in twenty-four lines are more naturalness, more real feeling finely expressed, than you can find in the poems of Dryden, Johnson and Addison combined. Or take the best part of “The Campaign,” which made Addison’s fortune, and which was acclaimed the finest thing ever written:
So when an angel by divine command
With rising tempests shakes a guilty land,
(Such as of late o’er pale Britannia past)
Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleased th’ Almighty’s orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm.
To know how artificial that famous simile is, read a few lines from Wordsworth’s “On the Sea-Shore,” which lingers in our mind like a strain of Handel’s music:
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
If such comparisons interest the student, let him read Addison’s “Letter to Lord Halifax,” with its Apostrophe to Liberty, which was considered sublime in its day:
O Liberty, thou goddess heavenly bright,
Profuse of bliss, and pregnant with delight!
Eternal pleasures in thy presence reign,
And smiling Plenty leads thy wanton train;
Eased of her load, Subjection grows more light,
And Poverty looks cheerful in thy sight;
Thou mak’st the gloomy face of nature gay,
Giv’st beauty to the sun, and pleasure to the day.
Place beside that the first four lines of Wordsworth’s sonnet “To Switzerland” (quoted at the head of this chapter), or a stanza from his “Ode to Duty”:
Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The Godhead’s most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face:
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
And fragrance in thy footing treads;
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong,
And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.
To follow such a comparison is to understand Wordsworth by sympathy; it is to understand also the difference between poetry and formal verse.
THE POEMS OF WORDSWORTH. As the reading of literature is the main thing, the only word of criticism which remains is to direct the beginner; and direction is especially necessary in dealing with Wordsworth, who wrote voluminously, and who lacked both the critical judgment and the sense of humor to tell him what parts of his work were inferior or ridiculous:
There’s something in a flying horse,
There’s something in a huge balloon!
To be sure; springs in the one, gas in the other; but if there were anything more poetic in horse or balloon, Wordsworth did not discover it.
There is something also in a cuckoo clock, or even in
A household tub, one such as those
Which women use to wash their clothes.
Such banalities are to be found in the work of a poet who could produce the exquisite sonnet “On Westminster Bridge,” the finely simple “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the stirring “Ode to Duty,” the tenderly reflective “Tintern Abbey,” and the magnificent “Intimations of Immortality,” which Emerson (who was not a very safe judge) called “the high water mark of poetry in the nineteenth century.” These five poems may serve as the first measure of Wordsworth’s genius.
A few of Wordsworth’s best nature poems are: “Early Spring,” “Three Years She Grew,” “The Fountain,” “My Heart Leaps Up,” “The Tables Turned,” “To a Cuckoo,” “To a Skylark” (the second poem, beginning, “Ethereal minstrel”) and “Yarrow Revisited.” The spirit of all his nature poems is reflected in “Tintern Abbey,” which gives us two complementary views of nature, corresponding to Wordsworth’s earlier and later experience. The first is that of the boy, roaming foot-loose over the face of nature, finding, as Coleridge said, “Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere.” The second is that of the man who returns to the scenes of his boyhood, finds them as beautiful as ever, but pervaded now by a spiritual quality,–“something which defies analysis, undefined and ineffable, which must be felt and perceived by the soul.”
It was this spiritual view of nature, as a reflection of the Divine, which profoundly influenced Bryant, Emerson and other American writers. The essence of Wordsworth’s teaching, in his nature poems, appears in the last two lines of his “Skylark,” a bird that soars the more gladly to heaven because he must soon return with joy to his own nest:
Type of the wise, who soar but never roam:
True to the kindred points of heaven and home.
Of the poems more closely associated with human life, a few the best are: “Michael,” “The Highland Reaper,” “The Leech Gatherers,” “Margaret” (in The Excursion), “Brougham Castle,” “The Happy Warrior,” “Peel Castle in a Storm,” “Three Years She Grew,” “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways” and “She was a Phantom of Delight.” In such poems we note two significant characteristics: that Wordsworth does not seek extraordinary characters, but is content to show the hidden beauty in the lives of plain men and women; and that his heroes and heroines dwell, as he said, where “labor still preserves his rosy face.” They are natural men and women, and are therefore simple and strong; the quiet light in their faces is reflected from the face of the fields. In his emphasis on natural simplicity, virtue, beauty, Wordsworth has again been, as he desired, a teacher of multitudes. His moral teaching may be summed up in three lines from The Excursion:
The primal duties shine aloft like stars;
The charities that soothe and heal and bless
Are scattered at the feet of man like flowers.
In the number and fine quality of his sonnets Wordsworth has no superior in English poetry. Simplicity, strength, deep thought, fine feeling, careful workmanship,–these qualities are present in measure more abundant than can be found elsewhere in the poet’s work:
Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells.
In these three lines from “On the Sonnet” (which should be read entire) is the explanation why Wordsworth, who was often diffuse, found joy in compressing his whole poem into fourteen lines. A few other sonnets which can be heartily recommended are: “Westminster Bridge,” “The Seashore,” “The World,” “Venetian Republic,” “To Sleep,” “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” “Afterthoughts,” “To Milton” (sometimes called “London, 1802”) and the farewell to Scott when he sailed in search of health, beginning, “A trouble not of clouds or weeping rain.”
Not until one has learned to appreciate Wordsworth at his best will it be safe to attempt The Prelude, or the Growth of a Poet’s Mind. Most people grow weary of this poem, which is too long; but a few read it with pleasure for its portrayal of Wordsworth’s education at the hand of Nature, or for occasional good lines which lure us on like miners in search of gold. The Prelude, though written at thirty-five, was not published till after Wordsworth’s death, and for this reason: he had planned an immense poem, dealing with Nature, Man and Society, which he called The Recluse, and which he likened to a Gothic cathedral. His Prelude was the “ante-chapel” of this work; his miscellaneous odes, sonnets and narrative poems were to be as so many “cells and oratories”; other parts of the structure were The Home at Grasmere and The Excursion, which he may have intended as transepts, or as chapels.
This great work was left unfinished, and one may say of it, as of Spenser’s Faery Queen, that it is better so. Like other poets of venerable years Wordsworth wrote many verses that were better left in the inkpot; and it is a pity, in dealing with so beautiful and necessary a thing as poetry, that one should ever reach the point of saying, sadly but truthfully, “Enough is too much.”
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COLERIDGE AND SOUTHEY
The story of these two men is a commentary on the uncertainties of literary fortune. Both won greater reward and reputation than fell to the lot of Wordsworth; but while the fame of the latter poet mounts steadily with the years, the former have become, as it were, footnotes to the great contemporary with whom they were associated, under the name of “Lake Poets,” for half a glorious century.
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772-1834). The tragedy Remorse, which Coleridge wrote, is as nothing compared with the tragedy of his own life. He was a man of superb natural gifts, of vast literary culture, to whose genius the writers of that age—Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Lamb, De Quincey, Shelley, Landor, Southey—nearly all bear witness. He might well have been a great poet, or critic, or philosopher, or teacher; but he lacked the will power to direct his gifts to any definite end. His irresolution became pitiful weakness when he began to indulge in the drug habit, which soon made a slave of him. Thereafter he impressed all who met him with a sense of loss and inexpressible sorrow.
Coleridge began to read at three years of age; at five he had gone through the Bible and the Arabian Nights; at thirty he was perhaps the most widely read man of his generation in the fields of literature and philosophy. He was a student in a famous charity school in London when he met Charles Lamb, who records his memories of the boy and the place in his charming essay of “Christ’s Hospital.” At college he was one of a band of enthusiasts inspired by the French Revolution, and with Southey he formed a plan to establish in America a world-reforming Pantisocracy, or communistic settlement, where all should be brothers and equals, and where a little manual work was to be tempered by much play, poetry and culture. Europeans had queer ideas of America in those days. This beautiful plan failed, because the reformers did not have money enough to cross the ocean and stake out their Paradise.
The next important association of Coleridge was with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, in Somerset, where the three friends planned and published the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. In this work Wordsworth attempted to portray the charm of common things, and Coleridge to give reality to a world of dreams and fantasies. Witness the two most original poems in the book, “Tintern Abbey” and “The Ancient Mariner.”
During the latter part of his life Coleridge won fame by his lectures on English poetry and German philosophy, and still greater fame by his conversations,–brilliant, heaven-scaling monologues, which brought together a company of young enthusiasts. And presently these disciples of Coleridge were spreading abroad a new idealistic philosophy, which crossed the ocean, was welcomed by Emerson and a host of young writers or reformers, and appeared in American literature as Transcendentalism.
Others who heard the conversations were impressed in a somewhat different way. Keats met Coleridge on the road, one day, and listened dumbfounded to an ecstatic discourse on poetry, nightingales, the origin of sensation, dreams (four kinds), consciousness, creeds, ghost stories,–“he broached a thousand matters” while the poets were walking a space of two miles.
Walter Scott, meeting Coleridge at a dinner, listened with his head in a whirl to a monologue on fairies, the classics, ancient mysteries, visions, ecstasies, the psychology of poetry, the poetry of metaphysics. “Zounds!” says Scott, “I was never so bethumped with words.”
Charles Lamb, hurrying to his work, encountered Coleridge and was drawn aside to a quiet garden. There the poet took Lamb by a button of his coat, closed his eyes, and began to discourse, his right hand waving to the rhythm of the flowing words. No sooner was Coleridge well started than Lamb slyly took out his penknife, cut off the button, and escaped unobserved. Some hours later, as he passed the garden on his return, Lamb heard a voice speaking most musically; he turned aside in wonder, and there stood Coleridge, his eyes closed, his left hand holding the button, his right hand waving, “still talking like an angel.”
Such are the stories, true or apocryphal, of Coleridge’s conversations. Their bewildering quality appears, somewhat dimmed, in his prose works, which have been finely compared with the flight of an eagle on set wings, sweeping in wide circles, balancing, soaring, mounting on the winds. But we must note this difference: that the eagle keeps his keen eye on the distant earth, and always knows just where he is; while Coleridge sees only the wonders of Cloudland, and appears to be hopelessly lost.
The chief prose works of Coleridge are his Biographia Literaria (a brilliant patchwork of poetry and metaphysics), Aids to Reflection, Letters and Table Talk (the most readable of his works), and Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare. These all contain fine gold, but the treasure is for those doughty miners the critics rather than for readers who go to literature for recreation. Among the best of his miscellaneous poems (and Coleridge at his best has few superiors) are “Youth and Age,” “Love Poems,” “Hymn before Sunrise,” “Ode to the Departing Year,” and the pathetic “Ode to Dejection,” which is a reflection of the poet’s saddened but ever hopeful life.
Two other poems, highly recommended by most critics, are the fragments “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel”; but in dealing with these the reader may do well to form his own judgment. Both fragments contain beautiful lines, but as a whole they are wandering, disjointed, inconsequent,–mere sketches, they seem, of some weird dream of mystery or terror which Coleridge is trying in vain to remember.
The most popular of Coleridge’s works is his imperishable “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a wildly improbable poem of icebound or tropic seas, of thirst-killed sailors, of a phantom ship sailed by a crew of ghosts,–all portrayed in the vivid, picturesque style of the old ballad. When the “Mariner” first appeared it was dismissed as a cock-and-bull story; yet somehow readers went back to it, again and again, as if fascinated. It was passed on to the next generation; and still we read it, and pass it on. For this grotesque tale differs from all others of its kind in that its lines have been quoted for over a hundred years as a reflection of some profound human experience. That is the genius of the work: it takes the most fantastic illusions and makes them appear as real as any sober journey recorded in a sailor’s log book. [Footnote: In connection with the “Ancient Mariner” one should read the legends of “The Flying Dutchman” and “The Wandering Jew.” Poe’s story “A Manuscript Found in a Bottle” is based on these legends and on Coleridge’s poem.]
At the present time our enjoyment of the “Mariner” is somewhat hampered by the critical commentaries which have fastened upon the poem, like barnacles on an old ship. It has been studied as a type of the romantic ballad, as a moral lesson, as a tract against cruelty to animals, as a model of college English. But that is no way to abuse a poet’s fancy! To appreciate the “Mariner” as the author intended, one should carry it off to the hammock or orchard; there to have freedom of soul to enjoy a well-spun yarn, a gorgeous flight of imagination, a poem which illustrates Coleridge’s definition of poetry as “the bloom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, thoughts, emotions, language.” It broadens one’s sympathy, as well as one’s horizon, to accompany this ancient sailor through scenes of terror and desolation:
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide, wide sea:
So lonely ‘t was, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
In the midst of such scenes come blessed memories of a real world, of the beauty of unappreciated things, such as the “sweet jargoning” of birds:
And now ‘twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Whoever is not satisfied with that for its own sake, without moral or analysis, has missed the chief interest of all good poetry.
ROBERT SOUTHEY. In contrast with the irresolution of Coleridge is the steadfastness of Southey (1774-1843), a man of strong character, of enormous industry. For fifty years he worked steadily, day and half the night, turning out lyrics, ballads, epics, histories, biographies, translations, reviews,–an immense amount of stuff, filling endless volumes. Kind nature made up for Southey’s small talent by giving him a great opinion of it, and he believed firmly that his work was as immortal as the Iliad.
With the exception of a few short poems, such as the “Battle of Blenheim,” “Lodore,” “The Inchcape Rock” and “Father William” (parodied in the nonsense of Alice in Wonderland), the mass of Southey’s work is already forgotten. Deserving of mention, however, are his Peninsular War and his Life of Nelson, both written in a straightforward style, portraying patriotism without the usual sham, and a first-class fighting man without brag or bluster. Curious readers may also be attracted by the epics of Southey (such as Madoc, the story of a Welsh prince who anticipated Columbus), which contain plenty of the marvelous adventures that give interest to the romances of Jules Verne and the yarns of Rider Haggard.
It as Southey’s habit to work by the clock, turning out chapters as another man might dig potatoes. One day, as he plodded along, a fairy must have whispered in his car; for he suddenly produced a little story, a gem, a treasure of a story, and hid it away in a jungle of chapters in a book called The Doctor. Somebody soon discovered the treasure; indeed, one might as well try to conceal a lighted candle as to hide a good story; and now it is the most famous work to be found in Southey’s hundred volumes of prose and verse. Few professors could give you any information concerning The Doctor, but almost any child will tell you all about “The Three Bears.” The happy fate of this little nursery tale might indicate that the final judges of literature are not always or often the learned critics.
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THE REVOLUTIONARY POETS
The above title is often applied to Byron and Shelley, and for two reasons, because they were themselves rebellious of heart, and because they voiced the rebellion of numerous other young enthusiasts who, disappointed by the failure of the French Revolution to bring in the promised age of happiness, were ready to cry out against the existing humdrum order of society. Both poets were sadly lacking in mental or moral balance, and finding no chance in England to wage heroic Warfare against political tyranny, as the French had done, they proceeded in rather head long fashion to an attack on well established customs in society, and especially did they strike out wildly against “the monster Public Opinion.” Because the “monster” was stronger than they were, and more nearly right, their rebellion ended in tragedy.
LIFE OF BYRON. In the life of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), is so much that call for apology or silence that one is glad to review his career in briefest outline.
Of his family, noble in name but in nothing else, the least said the better. He was born in London, but spent his childhood in Aberdeen, under the alternate care or negligence of his erratic mother. At ten he fell heir to a title, to the family seat of Newstead Abbey, and to estates yielding an income of some £1400 per year,–a large income for a poet, but as nothing to a lord accustomed to make ducks and drakes of his money. In school and college his conduct was rather wild, and his taste fantastic For example, he kept a bulldog and a bear in his rooms, and read romances instead of books recommended by the faculty. He tells us that he detested poetry; yet he wrote numerous poems which show plainly that he not only read but copied some of the poets.
At twenty-one Byron entered the House of Lords, and almost immediately thereafter set sail for Lisbon and the Levant. On his return he published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which made him famous. Though he affected to despise his triumph, he followed it up shrewdly by publishing The Giaour, The Corsair and Lara, in which the same mysterious hero of his first work reappears, under different disguises, amid romantic surroundings. The vigor of these poems attracted many readers, and when it was whispered about that the author was recounting his own adventures, Byron became the center of literary interest. At home he was a social lion; abroad he was acclaimed the greatest of British poets. But his life tended more and more to shock the English sense of decency; and when his wife (whom he had married for her money) abruptly left him, public opinion made its power felt. Byron’s popularity waned; his vanity was wounded; he left his country, vowing never to return. Also he railed against what he called British hypocrisy.
In Geneva he first met Shelley, admired him, was greatly helped by him, and then grossly abused his hospitality. After a scandalous career in Italy he went to help the Greeks in their fight for independence, but died of fever before he reached the battle line.
THE POETRY OF BYRON. There is one little song of Byron which serves well as the measure of his poetic talent. It is found in Don Juan, and it begins as follows:
‘T is sweet to hear
At midnight on the blue and moonlit deep
The song and oar of Adria’s gondolier,
By distance mellow’d, o’er the waters sweep;
‘T is sweet to see the evening star appear;
‘T is sweet to listen, as the night-winds creep
From leaf to leaf; ‘t is sweet to view on high
The rainbow, based on ocean, span the sky.
‘T is sweet to hear the watch-dog’s honest bark
Bay deep-mouthed welcome as we draw near home;
‘T is sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming, and look brighter when we come;
‘T is sweet to be awaken’d by the lark,
Or lulled by falling waters; sweet the hum
Of bees, the voice of girls, the song of birds,
The lisp of children, and their earliest words.
That is not great poetry, and may not be compared with a sonnet of Wordsworth; but it is good, honest sentiment expressed in such a melodious way that we like to read it, and feel better after the reading. In the next stanza, however, Byron grows commonplace and ends with:
Sweet is revenge, especially to women,
Pillage to soldiers, prize-money to seamen.
And that is bad sentiment and worse rime, without any resemblance to poetry. The remaining stanzas are mere drivel, unworthy of the poet’s talent or of the reader’s patience.
It is so with a large part of Byron’s work; it often begins well, and usually has some vivid description of nature, or some gallant passage in swinging verse, which stirs us like martial music; then the poem falls to earth like a stone, and presently appears some wretched pun or jest or scurrility. Our present remedy lies in a book of selections, in which we can enjoy the poetry without being unpleasantly reminded of the author’s besetting sins of flippancy and bad taste.
Of the longer poems of Byron, which took all Europe by storm, only three or four are memorable. Manfred (1817) is a dramatic poem, in which the author’s pride, his theatric posing, his talent for rhythmic expression, are all seen at their worst or best. The mysterious hero of the poem lives in a gloomy castle under the high Alps, but he is seldom found under roof. Instead he wanders amidst storms and glaciers, holding communion with powers of darkness, forever voicing his rebellion, his boundless pride, his bottomless remorse. Nobody knows what the rebellion and the remorse are all about. Some readers may tire of the shadowy hero’s egoism, but few will fail to be impressed by the vigor of the verse, or by the splendid reflection of picturesque scenes. And here and there is a lyric that seems to set itself to music.
Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains,
They crowned him long ago
On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds,
With a diadem of snow
Cain (1821) is another dramatic poem, reflecting the rebellion of another hero, or rather the same hero, who appears this time as the elder son of Adam. After murdering his brother, the hero takes guidance of Lucifer and explores hell; where, instead of repentance, he finds occasion to hate almost everything that is dear to God or man. The drama is a kind of gloomy parody of Milton’s Paradise Lost, as Manfred is a parody of Goethe’s Faust. Both dramas are interesting, aside from their poetic passages, as examples of the so-called Titan literature, to which we shall presently refer in our study of Shelley’s Prometheus.
The most readable work of Byron is Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a brilliant narrative poem, which reflects the impressions of another misanthropic hero in presence of the romantic scenery of the Continent. It was the publication of the first two cantos of this poem in 1812, that made Byron the leading figure in English poetry, and these cantos are still widely read as a kind of poetic guidebook. To many readers, however, the third and fourth cantos are more sincere and more pleasurable. The most memorable parts of Childe Harold are the “Farewell” in the first canto, “Waterloo” in the third, and “Lake Leman,” “Venice,” “Rome,” “The Coliseum”, “The Dying Gladiator” and “The Ocean” in the fourth. When one has read these magnificent passages he has the best of which Byron was capable. We have called Childe Harold the most readable of Byron’s works, but those who like a story will probably be more interested in Mazeppa and The Prisoner of Chillon.
One significant quality of these long poems is that they are intensely personal, voicing one man’s remorse or rebellion, and perpetually repeating his “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” They are concerned with the same hero (who is Byron under various disguises) and they picture him as a proud, mysterious stranger, carelessly generous, fiendishly wicked, profoundly melancholy, irresistibly fascinating to women. Byron is credited with the invention of this hero, ever since called Byronic; but in truth the melodramatic outcast was a popular character in fiction long before Byron adopted him, gave him a new dress and called him Manfred or Don Juan. A score of romances (such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Italian in England, and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland in America) had used the same hero to add horror to a grotesque tale; Scott modified him somewhat, as the Templar in Ivanhoe, for example; and Byron made him more real by giving him the revolutionary spirit, by employing him to voice the rebellion against social customs which many young enthusiasts felt so strongly in the early part of the nineteenth century.
The vigor of this stage hero, his rebellious spirit, his picturesque adventures, the gaudy tinsel (mistaken for gold) in which he was dressed,–all this made a tremendous impression in that romantic age. Goethe called Byron “the prince of modern poetry, the most talented and impressive figure which the literary world has ever produced”; and this unbalanced judgment was shared by other critics on the Continent, where Byron is still regarded as one of the greatest of English poets.
Swinburne, on the other hand, can hardly find words strong enough to express his contempt for the “blare and brassiness” of Byron; but that also is an exaggeration. Though Byron is no longer a popular hero, and though his work is more rhetorical than poetical, we may still gladly acknowledge the swinging rhythm, the martial dash and vigor of his best verse. Also, remembering the Revolution, we may understand the dazzling impression which he made upon the poets of his day. When the news came from Greece that his meteoric career was ended, the young Tennyson wept passionately and went out to carve on a stone, “Byron is dead,” as if poetry had perished with him. Even the coldly critical Matthew Arnold was deeply moved to write:
When Byron’s eyes were closed in death
We bowed our head, and held our breath.
He taught us little, but our soul
Had felt him like the thunder roll.
LIFE OF SHELLEY. The career of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is, in comparison with that of Byron, as a will-o’-the-wisp to a meteor. Byron was of the earth earthy; he fed upon coarse food, shady adventures, scandal, the limelight; but Shelley
Seemed nourished upon starbeams, and the stuff
Of rainbows and the tempest and the foam.
He was a delicate child, shy, sensitive, elflike, who wandered through the woods near his home, in Sussex, on the lookout for sprites and hobgoblins. His reading was of the wildest kind; and when he began the study of chemistry he was forever putting together things that made horrible smells or explosions, in expectation that the genii of the Arabian Nights would rise from the smoke of his test tube.
At Eton the boy promptly rebelled against the brutal fagging system, then tolerated in all English schools. He was presently in hot water, and the name “Mad Shelley,” which the boys gave him, followed him through life. He had been in the university (Oxford) hardly two years when his head was turned by some book of shallow philosophy, and he printed a rattle-brained tract called “The Necessity of Atheism.” This got him into such trouble with the Dons that he was expelled for insubordination.
Forthwith Shelley published more tracts of a more rebellious kind. His sister Helen put them into the hands of her girl friend, Harriet Westbrook, who showed her belief in revolutionary theories by running away from school and parental discipline and coming to Shelley for “protection.” These two social rebels, both in the green-apple stage (their combined age was thirty-five), were presently married; not that either of them believed in marriage, but because they were compelled by “Anarch Custom.”
After some two years of a wandering, will-o’-the-wisp life, Shelley and his wife were estranged and separated. The young poet then met a certain William Godwin, known at that time as a novelist and evolutionary philosopher, and showed his appreciation of Godwin’s radical teaching by running away with his daughter Mary, aged seventeen. The first wife, tired of liberalism, drowned herself, and Shelley was plunged into remorse at the tragedy. The right to care for his children was denied him, as an improper person, and he was practically driven out of England by force of that public opinion which he had so frequently outraged or defied.
Life is a good teacher, though stern in its reckoning, and in Italy life taught Shelley that the rights and beliefs of other men were no less sacred than his own. He was a strange combination of hot head and kind heart, the one filled with wild social theories, the other with compassion for humanity. He was immensely generous with his friends, and tender to the point of tears at the thought of suffering men,–not real men, such as he met in the streets (even the beggars in Italy are cheerful), but idealized men, with mysterious sorrows, whom he met in the clouds. While in England his weak head had its foolish way, and his early poems, such as Queen Mab, are violent declamations. In Italy his heart had its day, and his later poems, such as Adonais and Prometheus Unbound, are rhapsodies ennobled by Shelley’s love of beauty and by his unquenchable hope that a bright day of justice must soon dawn upon the world. He was drowned (1822) while sailing his boat off the Italian coast, before he had reached the age of thirty years.
THE POETRY OF SHELLEY. In the longer poems of Shelley there are two prominent elements, and two others less conspicuous but more important. The first element is revolt. The poet was violently opposed to the existing order of society, and lost no opportunity to express his hatred of Tyranny, which was Shelley’s name for what sober men called law and order. Feeding his spirit of revolution were numerous anarchistic theories, called the new philosophy, which had this curious quality: that they hotly denied the old faith, law, morality, as other men formulated such matters, and fervently believed any quack who appeared with a new nostrum warranted to cure all social disorders.
The second obvious element in Shelley’s poetry is his love of beauty, not the common beauty of nature or humanity which Wordsworth celebrated, but a strange “supernal” beauty with no “earthly” quality or reality. His best lines leave a vague impression of something beautiful and lovely, but we know not what it is.
Less conspicuous in Shelley’s poems are the sense of personal loss or grief which pervades them, and the exquisite melody of certain words which he used for their emotional effect rather than to convey any definite meaning. Like Byron he sang chiefly of his own feelings, his rage or despair, his sorrow or loneliness. He reflected his idea of the origin and motive of lyric poesy in the lines:
Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song,–
an idea which Poe adopted in its entirety, and which Heine expressed in a sentimental lyric, telling how from his great grief he made his little songs:
Aus meinen groszen Schmerzen
Mach’ ich die kleinen Lieder.
Hardly another English poet uses words so musically as Shelley (witness “The Cloud” and “The Skylark”), and here again his idea of verbal melody was carried to an extreme by Poe, in whose poetry words are used not so much to express ideas as to awaken vague emotions.
All the above-named qualities appear in Alastor (the Spirit of Solitude), which is less interesting as a poem than as a study of Shelley. In this poem we may skip the revolt, which is of no consequence, and follow the poet in his search for a supernally lovely maiden who shall satisfy his love for ideal beauty. To find her he goes, not among human habitations, but to gloomy forests, dizzy cliffs, raging torrents, tempest-blown seashore,–to every place where a maiden in her senses would not be. Such places, terrible or picturesque, are but symbols of the poet’s soul in its suffering and loneliness. He does not find his maiden (and herein we read the poet’s first confession that he has failed in life, that the world is too strong for him); but he sees the setting moon, and somehow that pale comforter brings him peace with death.
In Prometheus Unbound Shelley uses the old myth of the Titan who rebelled against the tyranny of the gods, and who was punished by being chained to a rock. In this poem Prometheus (man) is represented as being tortured by Jove (law or custom) until he is released by Demogorgon (progress or necessity); whereupon he marries Asia (love or goodness), and stars and moon break out into a happy song of redemption.
Obviously there is no reality or human interest in such a fantasy. The only pleasurable parts of the poem are its detached passages of great melody or beauty; and the chief value of the work is as a modern example of Titan literature. Many poets have at various times represented mankind in the person of a Titan, that is, a man written large, colossal in his courage or power or suffering: Æschylus in Prometheus, Marlowe in Tamburlaine, Milton in Lucifer, of Paradise Lost, Goethe in Faust, Byron in Manfred, Shelley in Prometheus Unbound. The Greek Titan is resigned, uncomplaining, knowing himself to be a victim of Fate, which may not be opposed; Marlowe’s Titan is bombastic and violent; Milton’s is ambitious, proud, revengeful; Goethe’s is cultured and philosophical; Byron’s is gloomy, rebellious, theatrical. So all these poets portray each his own bent of mind, and something also of the temper of the age, in the character of his Titan. The significance of Shelley’s poem is in this: that his Titan is patient and hopeful, trusting in the spirit of Love to redeem mankind from all evil. Herein Shelley is far removed from the caviling temper of his fellow rebel Byron. He celebrates a golden age not of the past but of the future, when the dream of justice inspired by the French Revolution shall have become a glorious reality.
These longer poems of Shelley are read by the few; they are too vague, with too little meaning or message, for ordinary readers who like to understand as well as to enjoy poetry. To such readers the only interesting works of Shelley are a few shorter poems: “The Cloud,” “To a Skylark,” “Ode to the West Wind,” “Indian Serenade,” “A Lament,” “When the Lamp is Lighted” and some parts of Adonais (a beautiful elegy in memory of Keats), such as the passage beginning, “Go thou to Rome.” For splendor of imagination and for melody of expression these poems have few peers and no superiors in English literature. To read them is to discover that Shelley was at times so sensitive, so responsive to every harmony of nature, that he seemed like the poet of Alastor,
A fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings
The breath of Heaven did wander.
The breath of heaven is constant, but lutes and strings are variable matters of human arrangement. When Shelley’s lute was tuned to nature it brought forth aerial melody; when he strained its strings to voice some social rebellion or anarchistic theory it produced wild discord.
* * * * *
JOHN KEATS (1795-1821)
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing.
The above lines, from Endymion, reflect the ideal of the young singer whom we rank with the best poets of the nineteenth century. Unlike other romanticists of that day, he seems to have lived for poetry alone and to have loved it for its own sake, as we love the first spring flowers. His work was shamefully treated by reviewers; it was neglected by the public; but still he wrote, trying to make each line perfect, in the spirit of those medieval workmen who put their hearts into a carving that would rest on some lofty spire far above the eyes of men. To reverence beauty wherever he found it, and then in gratitude to produce a new work of beauty which should live forever,–that was Keats’s only aim. It is the more wonderful in view of his humble origin, his painful experience, his tragic end.
LIFE. Only twenty-five years of life, which included seven years of uncongenial tasks, and three of writing, and three of wandering in search of health,–that sums up the story of Keats. He was born in London; he was the son of a hostler; his home was over the stable; his playground was the dirty street. The family prospered, moved to a better locality, and the children were sent to a good school. Then the parents died, and at fifteen Keats was bound out to a surgeon and apothecary. For four years he worked as an apprentice, and for three years more in a hospital; then, for his heart was never in the work, he laid aside his surgeon’s kit, resolving never to touch it again.
Since childhood he had been a reader, a dreamer, but not till a volume of Spenser’s Faery Queen was put into his hands did he turn with intense eagerness to poetry. The influence of that volume is seen in the somewhat monotonous sweetness of his early work. Next he explored the classics (he had read Virgil in the original, but he knew no Greek), and the joy he found in Chapman’s translation of Homer is reflected in a noble sonnet. From that time on he was influenced by two ideals which he found in Greek and medieval literature, the one with its emphasis on form, the other with its rich and varied coloring.
During the next three years Keats published three small volumes, his entire life’s work. These were brutally criticized by literary magazines; they met with ridicule at the hands of Byron, with indifference on the part of Scott and Wordsworth. The pathetic legend that the poet’s life was shortened by this abuse is still repeated, but there is little truth in it. Keats held manfully to his course, having more weighty things than criticism to think about. He was conscious that his time was short; he was in love with his Fannie Brawne, but separated from her by illness and poverty; and, like the American poet Lanier, he faced death across the table as he wrote. To throw off the consumption which had fastened upon him he tried to live in the open, making walking trips in the Lake Region; but he met with rough fare and returned from each trip weaker than before. He turned at last to Italy, dreading the voyage and what lay beyond. Night fell as the ship put to sea; the evening star shone clear through the storm clouds, and Keats sent his farewell to life and love and poetry in the sonnet beginning:
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.
He died soon after his arrival in Rome, in 1821. Shelley, who had hailed Keats as a genius, and who had sent a generous invitation to come and share his home, commemorated the poet’s death and the world’s loss in Adonais, which ranks with Milton’s Lycidas, Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Emerson’s Threnody among the great elegiac poems of our literature.
THE WORK OF KEATS. The first small volume of Keats (Poems, 1817) seems now like an experiment. The part of that experiment which we cherish above all others is the sonnet “On Chapman’s Homer,” which should be read entire for its note of joy and for its fine expression of the influence of classic poetry. The second volume, Endymion, may be regarded as a promise. There is little reality in the rambling poem which gives title to the volume (the story of a shepherd beloved of a moon-goddess), but the bold imagery of the work, its Spenserian melody, its passages of rare beauty,–all these speak of a true poet who has not yet quite found himself or his subject. A third volume, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems (1820), is in every sense a fulfillment, for it contains a large proportion of excellent poetry, fresh, vital, melodious, which improves with years, and which carries on its face the stamp of permanency.
The contents of this little volume may be arranged, not very accurately, in three classes, In the first are certain poems that by their perfection of form show the Greek or classic spirit. Best known of these poems are the fragment “Hyperion,” with its Milton-like nobility of style, and “Lamia,” which is the story of an enchantress whom love transforms into a beautiful woman, but who quickly vanishes because of her lover’s too great curiosity,–a parable, perhaps, of the futility of science and philosophy, as Keats regarded them.
Of the poems of the second class, which reflect old medieval legends, “The Pot of Basil,” “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” are praised by poets and critics alike. “St. Agnes,” which reflects a vague longing rather than a story, is the best known; but “La Belle Dame” may appeal to some readers as the most moving of Keats’s poems. The essence of all old metrical romances is preserved in a few lines, which have an added personal interest from the fact that they may reveal something of the poet’s sad love story.
In the third class are a few sonnets and miscellaneous poems, all permeated by the sense of beauty, showing in every line the genius of Keats and his exquisite workmanship. The sonnets “On the Sea,” “When I have Fears,” “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” and “To Sleep”; the fragment beginning “In a drear-nighted December”; the marvelous odes “On a Grecian Urn,” “To a Nightingale” and “To Autumn,” in which he combines the simplicity of the old classics with the romance and magic of medieval writers,–there are no works in English of a similar kind that make stronger appeal to our ideal of poetry and of verbal melody. Into the three stanzas of “Autumn,” for example, Keats has compressed the vague feelings of beauty, of melancholy, of immortal aspiration, which come to sensitive souls in the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” It may be compared, or rather contrasted, with another poem on the same subject which voices the despair in the heart of the French poet Verlaine, who hears “the sobbing of the violins of autumn”:
Les sanglots longs
Blessent mon coeur
KEATS: AN ESSAY OF CRITICISM. Beyond recommending a few of his poems for their beauty, there is really so little to be said of Keats that critics are at their wit’s end to express their appreciation. So we read of Keats’s “pure aestheticism,” his “copious perfection,” his “idyllic visualization,” his “haunting poignancy of feeling,” his “subtle felicities of diction,” his “tone color,” and more to the same effect. Such criticisms are doubtless well meant, but they are harder to follow than Keats’s “Endymion”; and that is no short or easy road of poesy. Perhaps by trying more familiar ways we may better understand Keats, why he appeals so strongly to poets, and why he is so seldom read by other people.
The first characteristic of the man was his love for every beautiful thing he saw or heard. Sometimes the object which fascinated him was the widespread sea or a solitary star; sometimes it was the work of man, the product of his heart and brain attuned, such as a passage from Homer, a legend of the Middle Ages, a vase of pure lines amid the rubbish of a museum, like a bird call or the scent of violets in a city street. Whatever the object that aroused his sense of beauty, he turned aside to stay with it a while, as on the byways of Europe you will sometimes see a man lay down his burden and bare his head before a shrine that beckons him to pray. With this reverence for beauty Keats had other and rarer qualities: the power to express what he felt, the imagination which gave him beautiful figures, and the taste which enabled him to choose the finest words, the most melodious phrases, wherewith to reflect his thought or mood or emotion.
Such was the power of Keats, to be simple and reverent in the presence of beauty, and to give his feeling poetic or imaginative expression. In respect of such power he probably had no peer in English literature. His limitations were twofold: he looked too exclusively on the physical side of beauty, and he lived too far removed from the common, wholesome life of men.
To illustrate our criticism: that man whom we saw by the wayside shrine acknowledged the presence of some spiritual beauty and truth, the beauty of holiness, the ineffable loveliness of God. So the man who trains a child, or gives thanks for a friend, or remembers his mother, is always at heart a lover of beauty,–the moral beauty of character, of comradeship, of self-sacrifice. But the poetry of Keats deals largely with outward matters, with form, color, melody, odors, with what is called “sensuous” beauty because it delights our human senses. Such beauty is good, but it is not supreme. Moreover, the artist who would appeal widely to men must by sympathy understand their whole life, their mirth as well as their sorrow, their days of labor, their hours of play, their moments of worship. But Keats, living apart with his ideal of beauty, like a hermit in his cell, was able to understand and to voice only one of the profound interests of humanity. For this reason, and because of the deep note of sadness which sounds through all his work like the monotone of the sea, his exquisite poems have never had any general appreciation. Like Spenser, who was his first master, he is a poet’s poet.
* * * * *
MINOR POETS OF ROMANTICISM
In the early nineteenth century the Literary Annuals appeared, took root and flourished mightily in England and America. These annuals (such a vigorous crop should have been called hardy annuals) were collections of contemporary prose or verse that appeared once a year under such sentimental names as “Friendship’s Offering,” “The Token” and “The Garland.” That they were sold in large numbers on both sides of the Atlantic speaks of the growing popular interest in literature. Moreover, they served an excellent purpose at a time when books and libraries were less accessible than they are now. They satisfied the need of ordinary readers for poetry and romance; they often made known to the world a talented author, who found in public approval that sweet encouragement which critics denied him; they made it unlikely that henceforth “some mute, inglorious Milton” should remain either mute or inglorious; and they not only preserved the best work of minor poets but, what is much better, they gave it a wide reading.
Thanks to such collections, from which every newspaper filled its Poet’s Corner, good poems which else might have hid their little light under a bushel—Campbell’s “Hohenlinden,” Mrs. Hemans’ “Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers,” Hunt’s “Abou ben Adhem,” Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt,” and many others—are now as widely known as are the best works of Wordsworth or Byron.
We can name only a few poets of the age, leaving the reader to form acquaintance with their songs in an anthology. Especially worthy of remembrance are: Thomas Campbell, who greatly influenced the American poets Halleck and Drake; Thomas Moore, whose Irish Melodies have an attractive singing quality; James Hogg (The Ettrick Shepherd); John Keble, author of The Christian Year; Thomas Hood; Felicia Hemans; and Leigh Hunt, whose encouragement of Keats is as memorable as his “Abou ben Adhem” or “The Glove and the Lions.” There are other poets of equal rank with those we have ventured to name, and their melodious quality is such that a modern critic has spoken of them, in terms commonly applied to the Elizabethans, as “a nest of singing birds”; which would be an excellent figure if we could forget the fact that birds in a nest never sing. Their work is perhaps less imaginative (and certainly less fantastic) than that of Elizabethan singers, but it comes nearer to present life and reality.
One of the least known of these minor poets, Thomas Beddoes, was gifted in a way to remind us of the strange genius of Blake. He wrote not much, his life being too broken and disappointed; but running through his scanty verse is a thread of the pure gold of poetry. In a single stanza of his “Dream Pedlary” he has reflected the spirit of the whole romantic movement:
If there were dreams to sell,
What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell,
Some a light sigh
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
Only a rose leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?
* * * * *
THE WORK OF WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832)
To read Scott is to read Scotland. Of no other modern author can it so freely be said that he gave to literature a whole country, its scenery, its people, its history and traditions, its ideals of faith and courage and loyalty.
That is a large achievement, but that is not all. It was Scott, more than any other author, who brought poetry and romance home to ordinary readers; and with romance came pleasure, wholesome and refreshing as a drink from a living spring. When he began to write, the novel was in a sad state,–sentimental, sensational, fantastic, devoted to what Charles Lamb described as wildly improbable events and to characters that belong neither to this world nor to any other conceivable one. When his work was done, the novel had been raised to its present position as the most powerful literary influence that bears upon the human mind. Among novelists, therefore, Scott deserves his title of “the first of the modern race of giants.”
LIFE. To his family, descendants of the old Borderers, Scott owed that intensely patriotic quality which glows in all his work. He is said to have borne strong resemblance to his grandfather, “Old Bardie Scott,” an unbending clansman who vowed never to cut his beard till a Stuart prince came back to the throne. The clansmen were now citizens of the Empire, but their loyalty to hereditary chiefs is reflected in Scott’s reverence for everything pertaining to rank or royalty.
He was born (1771) in Edinburgh, but his early associations were all of the open country. Some illness had left him lame of foot, and with the hope of a cure he was sent to relatives at Sandy Knowe. There in the heart of the Border he spent his days on the hills with the shepherds, listening to Scottish legends. At bedtime his grandmother told him tales of the clans; and when he could read for himself he learned by heart Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry. So the scenes which he loved because of their wild beauty became sacred because of their historical association. Even in that early day his heart had framed the sentiment which found expression in his Lay of the Last Minstrel:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said:
This is my own, my native land?
At school, and at college at Edinburgh, the boy’s heart was never in his books, unless perchance they contained something of the tradition of Scotland. After college he worked in his father’s law office, became an advocate, and for twenty years followed the law. His vacations were spent “making raids,” as he said, into the Highlands, adding to his enormous store of old tales and ballads. A companion on one of these trips gives us a picture of the man:
“Eh me, sic an endless fund o’ humour and drollery as he had wi’ him! Never ten yards but we were either laughing or roaring and singing. Whenever we stopped, how brawlie he suited himsel’ to everybody! He aye did as the lave did; never made himsel’ the great man, or took ony airs in the company.”
This boyish delight in roaming, in new scenes, in new people met frankly under the open sky, is characteristic of Scott’s poems and novels, which never move freely until they are out of doors. The vigor of these works may be partially accounted for by the fact that Scott was a hard worker and a hearty player,–a capital combination.
He was past thirty when he began to write. [Footnote: This refers to original composition. In 1796 Scott published some translations of German romantic ballads, and in 1802 his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. The latter was a collection of old ballads, to some of which Scott gave a more modern form.] By that time he had been appointed Clerk of Sessions, and also Sheriff of Selkirkshire (he took that hangman’s job, and kept it even after he had won fame, just for the money there was in it); and these offices, together with his wife’s dowry, provided a comfortable income. When his first poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), met with immense success he gladly gave up the law, and wrote Marmion (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810). These increased his good fortune; but his later poems were of inferior quality, and met with a cool reception. Meanwhile Byron had appeared to dazzle the reading public. Scott recognized the greater poetic genius of the author of Childe Harold, and sought another field where he was safe from all rivals.
Rummaging in a cabinet one day after some fishing tackle, he found a manuscript long neglected and forgotten. Instead of going fishing Scott read his manuscript, was fascinated by it, and presently began to write in headlong fashion. In three weeks he added sixty-five chapters to his old romance, and published it as Waverley (1814) without signing his name. Then he went away on another “raid” to the Highlands. When he returned, at the end of the summer, he learned that his book had made a tremendous sensation, and that Fame, hat in hand, had been waiting at his door for some weeks.
In the next ten years Scott won his name of “the Wizard of the North,” for it seemed that only magic could produce stories of such quality in such numbers: Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, Old Mortality, Redgauntlet, Heart of Midlothian, portraying the deathless romance of Scotland; and Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, The Talisman and other novels which changed dull history to a drama of fascinating characters. Not only England but the Continent hailed this magnificent work with delight. Money and fame poured in upon the author. Fortune appeared for once “with both hands full.” Then the crash came.
To understand the calamity one must remember that Scott regarded literature not as an art but as a profitable business; that he aimed to be not a great writer but a lord of high degree. He had been made a baronet, and was childishly proud of the title; his work and his vast earnings were devoted to the dream of a feudal house which should endure through the centuries and look back to Sir Walter as its noble founder. While living modestly on his income at Ashestiel he had used the earnings of his poems to buy a rough farm at Clarty Hole, on the Tweed, and had changed its unromantic name to Abbotsford. More land was rapidly added and “improved” to make a lordly estate; then came the building of a castle, where Scott entertained lavishly, as lavishly as any laird or chieftain of the olden time, offering to all visitors “the honors of Scotland.”
Enormous sums were spent on this bubble, and still more money was needed. To increase his income Scott went into secret partnership with his publishers, indulged in speculative ventures, ran the firm upon the shoals, drew large sums in advance of his earnings. Suddenly came a business panic; the publishing firm failed miserably, and at fifty five Scott, having too much honest pride to take advantage of the bankruptcy laws, found himself facing a debt of more than a hundred thousand pounds.
His last years were spent in an heroic struggle to retrieve his lost fortunes. He wrote more novels, but without much zest or inspiration; he undertook other works, such as the voluminous Life of Napoleon, for which he was hardly fitted, but which brought him money in large measure. In four years he had repaid the greater part of his debt, but mind and body were breaking under the strain. When the end came, in 1832, he had literally worked himself to death. The murmur of the Tweed over its shallows, music that he had loved since childhood, was the last earthly sound of which he was conscious. The house of Abbotsford, for which he had planned and toiled, went into strange hands, and the noble family which he had hoped to found died out within a few years. Only his work remains, and that endures the wear of time and the tooth of criticism.
THE POEMS OF SCOTT. Three good poems of Scott are Marmion, The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Lady of the Lake; three others, not so good, are Rokeby, Vision of Don Roderick and Lord of the Isles. Among these The Lady of the Lake is such a favorite that, if one were to question the tourists who annually visit the Trossachs, a surprisingly large number of them would probably confess that they were led not so much by love of natural beauty as by desire to visit “Fair Ellen’s Isle” and other scenes which Scott has immortalized in verse.
We may as well admit frankly that even the best of these poems is not first-class; that it shows careless workmanship, and is lacking in the finer elements of beauty and imagination. But Scott did not aim to create a work of beauty; his purpose was to tell a good story, and in that he succeeded. His Lady of the Lake, for example, has at least two virtues: it holds the reader’s attention; and it fulfills the first law of poetry, which is to give pleasure.
Another charm of the poems, for young readers especially, is that they are simple, vigorous, easily understood. Their rapid action and flying verse show hardly a trace of conscious effort. Reading them is like sweeping downstream with a good current, no labor required save for steering, and attention free for what awaits us around the next bend. When the bend is passed, Scott has always something new and interesting: charming scenery, heroic adventure, picturesque incidents (such as the flight of the Fiery Cross to summon the clans), interesting fragments of folklore, and occasionally a ballad like “Lochinvar,” or a song like “Bonnie Dundee,” which stays with us as a happy memory long after the poem is forgotten.
A secondary reason for the success of these poems was that they satisfied a fashion, very popular in Scott’s day, which we have not yet outgrown. That fashion was to attribute chivalrous virtues to outlaws and other merry men, who in their own day and generation were imprisoned or hanged, and who deserved their fate. Robin Hood’s gang, for example, or the Raiders of the Border, were in fact a tough lot of thieves and cutthroats; but when they appeared in romantic literature they must of course appeal to ladies; so Scott made them fine, dashing, manly fellows, sacrificing to the fashion of the hour the truth of history and humanity. As Andrew Lang says:
“In their own days the Border Riders were regarded as public nuisances by statesmen, who attempted to educate them by means of the gibbet. But now they were the delight of fine ladies, contending who should be most extravagant in encomium. A blessing on such fine ladies, who know what is good when they see it!”
SCOTT’S NOVELS. To appreciate the value of Scott’s work one should read some of the novels that were fashionable in his day,–silly, sentimental novels, portraying the “sensibilities” of imaginary ladies. [Footnote: In America, Cooper’s first romance, Precaution (1820), was of this artificial type. After Scott’s outdoor romances appeared, Cooper discovered his talent, and wrote The Spy and the Leather-Stocking tales. Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen began to improve or naturalize the English novel before Scott attempted it.] That Scott was influenced by this inane fashion appears plainly in some of his characters, his fine ladies especially, who pose and sentimentalize till we are mortally weary of them; but this influence passed when he discovered his real power, which was to portray men and women in vigorous action. Waverley, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Redgauntlet,–such stories of brave adventure were like the winds of the North, bringing to novel-readers the tang of the sea and the earth and the heather. They braced their readers for life, made them feel their kinship with nature and humanity. Incidentally, they announced that two new types of fiction, the outdoor romance and the historical novel, had appeared with power to influence the work of Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens and a host of minor novelists.
The most convenient way of dealing with Scott’s works is to arrange them in three groups. In the first are the novels of Scotland: Waverley, dealing with the loyalty of the clans to the Pretender; Old Mortality, with the faith and struggles of the Covenanters; Redgauntlet, with the plots of the Jacobites; The Abbot and The Monastery, with the traditions concerning Mary Queen of Scots; Guy Mannering, The Antiquary and The Heart of Midlothian, with private life and humble Scottish characters.
In the second group are the novels which reveal the romance of English history: Ivanhoe, dealing with Saxon and Norman in the stormy days when Richard Lionheart returned to his kingdom; Kenilworth, with the intrigues of Elizabeth’s Court; The Fortunes of Nigel, with London life in the days of Charles First; Woodstock, with Cromwell’s iron age; Peveril of the Peak, with the conflict between Puritan and Cavalier during the Restoration period.
In the third group are the novels which take us to foreign lands: Quentin Durward, showing us the French court as dominated by the cunning of Louis Eleventh, and The Talisman, dealing with the Third Crusade.
In the above list we have named not all but only the best of Scott’s novels. They differ superficially, in scenes or incidents; they are all alike in motive, which is to tell a tale of adventure that shall be true to human nature, no matter what liberties it may take with the facts of history.
In all these novels the faults are almost as numerous as the virtues; but while the faults appear small, having little influence on the final result, the virtues are big, manly, wholesome,–such virtues as only the greatest writers of fiction possess. Probably all Scott’s faults spring from one fundamental weakness: he never had a high ideal of his own art. He wrote to make money, and was inclined to regard his day’s labor as “so much scribbling.” Hence his style is frequently slovenly, lacking vigor and concentration; his characters talk too much, apparently to fill space; he caters to the romantic fashion (and at the same time indulges his Tory prejudice) by enlarging on the somewhat imaginary virtues of knights, nobles, feudal or royal institutions, and so presents a one-sided view of history.
On the other hand, Scott strove to be true to the great movements of history, and to the moral forces which, in the end, prevail in all human activity. His sympathies were broad; he mingled in comradeship with all classes of society, saw the best in each; and from his observation and sympathy came an enormous number of characters, high or low, good or bad, grave or ridiculous, but nearly all natural and human, because drawn from life and experience.
Another of Scott’s literary virtues is his love of wild nature, which led him to depict many grand or gloomy scenes, partly for their own sake, but largely because they formed a fitting background for human action. Thus, The Talisman opens with a pen picture of a solitary Crusader moving across a sun-scorched desert towards a distant island of green. Every line in that description points to action, to the rush of a horseman from the oasis, to the fierce trial of arms before the enemies speak truce and drink together from the same spring. Many another of Scott’s descriptions of wild nature is followed by some gallant adventure, which we enjoy the more because we imagine that adventures ought to occur (though they seldom do) amid romantic surroundings.
WHAT TO READ. At least one novel in each group should be read; but if it be asked, Which one? the answer is as much a matter of taste as of judgment. Of the novels dealing with Scottish life, Waverley, which was Scott’s first attempt, is still an excellent measure of his story-telling genius; but there is more adventurous interest in Old Mortality or Rob Roy; and in The Heart of Midlothian (regarded by many as the finest of Scott’s works) one feels closer to nature and human nature, and especially to the heart of Scotland. Ivanhoe is perhaps the best of the romances of English history; and of stories dealing with adventure in strange lands, The Talisman will probably appeal strongest to young readers, and Quentin Durward to their elders. To these may be added The Antiquary, which is a good story, and which has an element of personal interest in that it gives us glimpses of Scott himself, surrounded by old armor, old legends, old costumes,–mute testimonies to the dreams and deeds of yesterday’s men and women.
Such novels should be read once for the story, as Scott intended; and then, if one should grow weary of modern-problem novels, they may be read again for their wholesome, bracing atmosphere, for their tenderness and wisdom, for their wide horizons, for their joy of climbing to heights where we look out upon a glorious Present, and a yet more glorious Past that is not dead but living.
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OTHER FICTION WRITERS
Of the work of Walter Scott we have already spoken. When such a genius appears, dominating his age, we think of him as a great inventor, and so he was; but like most other inventors his trail had been blazed, his way prepared by others who had gone before him. His first romance, Waverley, shows the influence of earlier historical romances, such as Jane Porter’s Thaddeus of Warsaw and Scottish Chiefs; in his later work he acknowledged his indebtedness to Maria Edgeworth, whose Castle Rackrent had aroused enthusiasm at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In brief, the romantic movement greatly encouraged fiction writing, and Scott did excellently what many others were doing well.
Two things are noticeable as we review the fiction of this period: the first, that nearly all the successful writers were women; the second, that of these writers only one, the most neglected by her own generation, holds a secure place in the hearts of present-day readers. If it be asked why Jane Austen’s works endure while others are forgotten, the answer is that almost any trained writer can produce a modern romance, but it takes a genius to write a novel.
JANE AUSTEN. The rare genius of Miss Austen (1775-1817) was as a forest flower during her lifetime. While Fanny Burney, Jane Porter and Maria Edgeworth were widely acclaimed, this little woman remained almost unknown, following no school of fiction, writing for her own pleasure, and destroying whatever did not satisfy her own sense of fitness. If she had any theory of fiction, it was simply this: to use no incident but such as had occurred before her eyes, to describe no scene that was not familiar, and to portray only such characters as she knew intimately, their speech, dress, manner, and the motives that governed their action. If unconsciously she followed any rule of expression, it was that of Cowper, who said that to touch and retouch is the secret of almost all good writing. To her theory and rule she added personal charm, intelligence, wit, genius of a high order. Neglected by her own generation, she has now an ever-widening circle of readers, and is ranked by critics among the five or six greatest writers of English fiction.
Jane Austen’s life was short and extremely placid. She was born (1775) in a little Hampshire village; she spent her entire life in one country parish or another, varying the scene by an occasional summer at the watering-place of Bath, which was not very exciting. Her father was an easy-going clergyman who read Pope, avoided politics, and left preaching to his curate. She was one of a large family of children, who were brought up to regard elegance of manner as a cardinal virtue, and vulgarity of any kind as the epitome of the seven deadly sins. Her two brothers entered the navy; hence the flutter in her books whenever a naval officer comes on a furlough to his native village. She spent her life in homely, pleasant duties, and did her writing while the chatter of family life went on around her. Her only characters were visitors who came to the rectory, or who gathered around the tea-table in a neighbor’s house. They were absolutely unconscious of the keen scrutiny to which they were subjected; no one whispered to them, “A chiel’s amang ye, takin’ notes”; and so they had no suspicion that they were being transferred into books.
The first three of Miss Austen’s novels were written at Steventon, among her innocent subjects, but her precious manuscripts went begging in vain for a publisher. [Footnote: Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were written between 1796 and 1799, when Jane Austen had just passed her twenty-first year. Her first novel was bought by a publisher who neglected to print it. The second could not be sold till after the third was published, in 1811.] The last three, reflecting as in a glass the manners of another parish, were written at Chawton, near Winchester. Then the good work suddenly began to flag. The same disease that, a little later, was to call halt to Keats’s poetry of beauty now made an end of Miss Austen’s portrayal of everyday life. When she died (1817) she was only forty-two years old, and her heart was still that of a young girl. A stained-glass window in beautiful old Winchester Cathedral speaks eloquently of her life and work.
If we must recommend one of Miss Austen’s novels, perhaps Pride and Prejudice is the most typical; but there is very little to justify this choice when the alternative is Northanger Abbey, or Emma, or Sense and Sensibility, or Persuasion, or Mansfield Park. All are good; the most definite stricture that one can safely make is that Mansfield Park is not so good as the others. Four of the novels are confined to country parishes; but in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion the horizon is broadened to include a watering place, whither genteel folk went “to take the air.”
The characters of all these novels are: first, the members of five or six families, with their relatives, who try to escape individual boredom by gregariousness; and second, more of the same kind assembled at a local fair or sociable. Here you meet a dull country squire or two, a feeble-minded baronet, a curate laboriously upholding the burden of his dignity, a doctor trying to hide his emptiness of mind by looking occupied, an uncomfortable male person in tow of his wife, maiden aunts, fond mammas with their awkward daughters, chatterboxes, poor relations, spoiled children,–a characteristic gathering. All these, except the spoiled children, talk with perfect propriety about the weather. If in the course of a long day anything witty is said, it is an accident, a phenomenon; conversation halts, and everybody looks at the speaker as if he must have had “a rush of brains to the head.”
Such is Jane Austen’s little field, an eddy of life revolving endlessly around small parish interests. Her subjects are not even the whole parish, but only “the quality,” whom the favored ones may meet at Mrs. B’s afternoon at home. They read proper novels, knit wristlets, discuss fevers and their remedies, raise their eyebrows at gossip, connive at matrimony, and take tea. The workers of the world enter not here; neither do men of ideas, nor social rebels, nor the wicked, nor the happily unworthy poor; and the parish is blessed in having no reformers.
In this barren field, hopeless to romancers like Scott, there never was such another explorer as Jane Austen. Her demure observation is marvelously keen; sometimes it is mischievous, or even a bit malicious, but always sparkling with wit or running over with good humor. Almost alone in that romantic age she had no story to tell, and needed none. She had never met any heroes or heroines. Plots, adventures, villains, persecuted innocence, skeletons in closets,–all the ordinary machinery of fiction seemed to her absurd and unnecessary. She was content to portray the life that she knew best, and found it so interesting that, a century later, we share her enthusiasm. And that is the genius of Miss Austen, to interest us not by a romantic story but by the truth of her observation and by the fidelity of her portrayal of human nature, especially of feminine nature.
There is one more thing to note in connection with Miss Austen’s work; namely, her wholesome influence on the English novel. In Northanger Abbey and in Sense and Sensibility she satirizes the popular romances of the period, with their Byronic heroes, melodramatic horrors and perpetual harping on some pale heroine’s sensibilities. Her satire is perhaps the best that has been written on the subject, so delicate, so flashing, so keen, that a critic compares it to the exploit of Saladin (in The Talisman) who could not with his sword hack through an iron mace, as Richard did, but who accomplished the more difficult feat of slicing a gossamer veil as it floated in the air.
Such satire was not lost; yet it was Miss Austen’s example rather than her precept which put to shame the sentimental romances of her day, and which influenced subsequent English fiction in the direction of truth and naturalness. Young people still prefer romance and adventure as portrayed by Scott and his followers, and that is as it should be; but an increasingly large number of mature readers (especially those who are interested in human nature) find a greater charm in the novel of characters and manners, as exemplified by Jane Austen.
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THE CRITICS AND ESSAYISTS
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century (or from Shakespeare to Wordsworth) England was preparing a great literature; and then appeared writers whose business or pleasure it was to appreciate that literature, to point out its virtues or its defects, to explain by what principle this or that work was permanent, and to share their enjoyment of good prose and poetry with others,–in a word, the critics.
In the list of such writers, who give us literature at second hand, the names of Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, Walter Savage Landor, Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey are written large. The two last-named are selected for special study, not because of their superior critical ability (for Hazlitt was probably a better critic than either), but because of a few essays in which these men left us an appreciation of life, as they saw it for themselves at first hand.
CHARLES LAMB (1775-1834). There is a little book called Essays of Elia which stands out from all other prose works of the age. If we examine this book to discover the source of its charm, we find it pervaded by a winsome “human” quality which makes us want to know the man who wrote it. In this respect Charles Lamb differs from certain of his contemporaries. Wordsworth was too solitary, Coleridge and De Quincey too unbalanced, Shelley too visionary and Keats too aloof to awaken a feeling of personal allegiance; but the essays of Lamb reveal two qualities which, like fine gold, are current among readers of all ages. These are sympathy and humor. By the one we enter understandingly into life, while the other keeps us from taking life too tragically.
Lamb was born (1775) in the midst of London, and never felt at home anywhere else. London is a world in itself, and of all its corners there were only three that Lamb found comfortable. The first was the modest little home where he lived with his gifted sister Mary, reading with her through the long evenings, or tenderly caring for her during a period of insanity; the second was the commercial house where he toiled as a clerk; the third was the busy street which lay between home and work,–a street forever ebbing and flowing with a great tide of human life that affected Lamb profoundly, mysteriously, as Wordsworth was affected by the hills or the sea.
The boy’s education began at Christ’s Hospital, where he met Coleridge and entered with him into a lifelong friendship. At fifteen he left school to help support his family; and for the next thirty-three years he was a clerk, first in the South Sea House, then in the East India Company. Rather late in life he began to write, his prime object being to earn a little extra money, which he sadly needed. Then the Company, influenced partly by his faithful service and partly by his growing reputation, retired him on a pension. Most eagerly, like a boy out of school, he welcomed his release, intending to do great things with his pen; but curiously enough he wrote less, and less excellently, than before. His decline began with his hour of liberty. For a time, in order that his invalid sister might have quiet, he lived outside the city, at Islington and Enfield; but he missed the work, the street, the crowd, and especially did he miss his old habits. He had no feeling for nature, nor for any art except that which he found in old books. “I hate the country,” he wrote; and the cause of his dislike was that, not knowing what to do with himself, he grew weary of a day that was “all day long.”
The earlier works of Lamb (some poems, a romance and a drama) are of little interest except to critics. The first book that brought him any considerable recognition was the Tales from Shakespeare. This was a summary of the stories used by Shakespeare in his plays, and was largely the work of Mary Lamb, who had a talent for writing children’s books. The charm of the Tales lies in the fact that the Lambs were so familiar with old literature that they reproduced the stories in a style which might have done credit to a writer in the days of Elizabeth. The book is still widely read, and is as good as any other if one wants that kind of book. But the chief thing in Macbeth or The Tempest is the poetry, not the tale or the plot; and even if one wants only the story, why not get it from Shakespeare himself? Another and better book by Lamb of the same general kind is Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Contemporary with Shakespeare. In this book he saves us a deal of unprofitable reading by gathering together the best of the Elizabethan dramas, to which he adds some admirable notes of criticism or interpretation.
Most memorable of Lamb’s works are the essays which he contributed for many years to the London magazines, and which he collected under the titles Essays of Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1830). [Footnote: The name “Elia” (pronounced ee’-li-ä) was a pseudonym, taken from an old Italian clerk (Ellia) in the South Sea House. When “Elia” appears in the Essays he is Charles Lamb himself; “Cousin Bridget” is sister Mary, and “John Elia” is a brother. The last-named was a selfish kind of person, who seems to have lived for himself, letting Charles take all the care of the family.] To the question, Which of these essays should be read? the answer given must depend largely upon personal taste. They are all good; they all contain both a reflection and a criticism of life, as Lamb viewed it by light of his personal experience. A good way to read the essays, therefore, is to consider them as somewhat autobiographical, and to use them for making acquaintance with the author at various periods of his life.
For example, “My Relations” and “Mackery End” acquaint us with Lamb’s family and descent; “Old Benchers of the Inner Temple” with his early surroundings; “Witches and Other Night-fears” with his sensitive childhood;
“Recollections of Christ’s Hospital” and “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-thirty Years Ago” with his school days and comradeship with Coleridge; “The South Sea House” with his daily work; “Old China” with his home life; “The Superannuated Man” with his feelings when he was retired on a pension; and finally, “Character of the Late Elia,” in which Lamb whimsically writes his own obituary.
If these call for too much reading at first, then one may select three or four typical essays: “Dream Children,” notable for its exquisite pathos;
“Dissertation on Roast Pig,” famous for its peculiar humor; and “Praise of Chimney Sweepers,” of which it is enough to say that it is just like Charles Lamb. To these one other should be added, “Imperfect Sympathies,” or “A Chapter on Ears,” or “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist,” in order to appreciate how pleasantly Lamb could write on small matters of no consequence. Still another good way of reading (which need not be emphasized, since everybody favors it) is to open the Essays here or there till we find something that interests us,–a method which allows every reader the explorer’s joy of discovery.
To read such essays is to understand the spell they have cast on successive generations of readers. They are, first of all, very personal; they begin, as a rule, with some pleasant trifle that interests the author; then, almost before we are aware, they broaden into an essay of life itself, an essay illuminated by the steady light of Lamb’s sympathy or by the flashes of his whimsical humor. Next, we note in the Essays their air of literary culture, which is due to Lamb’s wide reading, and to the excellent taste with which he selected his old authors,–Sidney, Brown, Burton, Fuller, Walton and Jeremy Taylor. Often it was the quaintness of these authors, their conceits or oddities, that charmed him. These oddities reappear in his own style to such an extent that even when he speaks a large truth, as he often does, he is apt to give the impression of being a little harebrained. Yet if you examine his queer idea or his merry jest, you may find that it contains more cardinal virtue than many a sober moral treatise.
On the whole Elia is the quintessence of modern essay-writing from Addison to Stevenson. There are probably no better works of the same kind in our literature. Some critics aver that there are none others so good.
THOMAS DE QUINCEY (1785-1859). It used to be said in a college classroom that what De Quincey wrote was seldom important and always doubtful, but that we ought to read him for his style; which means, as you might say, that caviar is a stomach-upsetting food, but we ought to eat a little of it because it comes in a pretty box.
To this criticism, which reflects a prevalent opinion, we may take some exceptions. For example, what De Quincey has to say of Style, though it were written in style-defying German, is of value to everyone who would teach that impossible subject. What he says or implies in “Levana” (the goddess who performed “the earliest office of ennobling kindness” for a newborn child, lifting him from the ground, where he was first laid, and presenting his forehead to the stars of heaven) has potency to awaken two of the great faculties of humanity, the power to think and the power to imagine. Again, many people are fascinated by dreams, those mysterious fantasies which carry us away on swift wings to meet strange experiences; and what De Quincey has to say of dreams, though doubtful as a dream itself, has never been rivaled. To a few mature minds, therefore, De Quincey is interesting entirely apart from his dazzling style and inimitable rhetoric.
To do justice to De Quincey’s erratic, storm-tossed life; to record his precocious youth, his marvelous achievements in school or college, his wanderings amid lonely mountains or more lonely city streets, his drug habits with their gorgeous dreams and terrible depressions, his timidity, his courtesy, his soul-solitude, his uncanny genius,–all that is impossible in a brief summary. Let it suffice, then, to record: that he resembled his friend Coleridge, both in his character and in his vast learning; that he studied in profound seclusion for twenty years; then for forty years more, during which time his brain was more or less beclouded by opium, he poured out a flood of magazine articles, which he collected later in fourteen chaotic volumes. These deal with an astonishing variety of subjects, and cover almost every phase of mental activity from portraying a nightmare to building a philosophical system. If he had any dominating interest in his strange life, it was the study of literature.
The historian can but name a few characteristic works of De Quincey, without recommending any of them to readers. To those interested in De Quincey’s personality his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater will be illuminating. This book astonished Londoners in 1821, and may well astonish a Bushman in the year 2000. It records his wandering life, and the alternate transport or suffering which resulted from his drug habits. This may be followed by his Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), which describes, as well as such a thing could be done, the phantoms born of opium dreams. There are too many of the latter, and the reader may well be satisfied with the wonderful “Dream Fugue” in The English Mail Coach.
As an illustration of De Quincey’s review of history, one should try Joan of Arc or The Revolt of the Tartars, which are not historical studies but romantic dreams inspired by reading history. In the critical field, “The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” “Wordsworth’s Poetry” and the “Essay on Style” are immensely suggestive. As an example of ingenious humor “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” is often recommended; but it has this serious fault, that it is not humorous. For a concrete example of De Quincey’s matter and manner there is nothing better than “Levana or Our Ladies of Sorrow” (from the Suspiria), with its mater lachrymarum Our Lady of Tears, mater suspiriorum Our Lady of Sighs, and that strange phantom, forbidding and terrible, mater tenebrarum Our Lady of Darkness.
The style of all these works is indescribable. One may exhaust the whole list of adjectives—chanting, rhythmic, cadenced, harmonious, impassioned—that have been applied to it, and yet leave much to say. Therefore we note only these prosaic elements: that the style reflects De Quincey’s powers of logical analysis and of brilliant imagination; that it is pervaded by a tremendous mental excitement, though one does not know what the stir is all about; and that the impression produced by this nervous, impassioned style is usually spoiled by digressions, by hairsplitting, and by something elusive, intangible, to which we can give no name, but which blurs the author’s vision as a drifting fog obscures a familiar landscape.
Notwithstanding such strictures, De Quincey’s style is still, as when it first appeared, a thing to marvel at, revealing as it does the grace, the harmony, the wide range and the minute precision of our English speech.
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SUMMARY. The early nineteenth century is notable for the rapid progress of democracy in English government, and for the triumph of romanticism in English literature. The most influential factor of the age was the French Revolution, with its watchwords of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. English writers felt the stir of the times, and were inspired by the dream of a new human society ruled by justice and love. In their writing they revolted from the formal standards of the age of Pope, followed their own genius rather than set rules, and wrote with feeling and imagination of the two great subjects of nature and humanity. Such was the contrast in politics and literature with the preceding century that the whole period is sometimes called the age of revolution.
Our study of the literature of the period includes: (1) The poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, who did not so much originate as give direction to the romantic revival. (2) Byron and Shelley, often called revolutionary poets. (3) The poet Keats, whose works are famous for their sense of beauty and for their almost perfect workmanship. (4) A review of the minor poets of romanticism, Campbell, Moore, Hood, Beddoes, Hunt, and Felicia Hemans. (5) The life and works of Walter Scott, romantic poet and novelist. (6) A glance at the fiction writers of the period, and a study of the works of Jane Austen. (7) The critics and essayists, of whom we selected these two as the most typical: Charles Lamb, famous for his Essays of Elia; and De Quincey, notable for his brilliant style, his analysis of dreams, and his endeavor to make a science of literary criticism.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. For general reference such anthologies as Manly’s English Poetry and English Prose are useful. The works of major authors are available in various school editions, prepared especially for class use. A few of these handy editions are named below; others are listed in the General Bibliography.
Best poems of Wordsworth and of Coleridge in Athenæum Press Series. Briefer selections from Wordsworth in Golden Treasury, Cassell’s National Library, Maynard’s English Classics. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner in Standard English Classics, Pocket Classics. Selections from Coleridge and Campbell in one volume of Riverside Literature.
Scott’s Lady of the Lake and Ivanhoe in Standard English Classics; Marmion and The Talisman in Pocket Classics; Lay of the Last Minstrel and Quentin Durward in Lake English Classics; the same and other works of Scott in various other school editions.
Selected poems of Byron in Standard English Classics, English Readings. Best poems of Shelley in Athenæum Press; briefer selections in Belles Lettres, Golden Treasury, English Classics.
Selections from Keats in Athenæum Press, Muses Library, Riverside Literature.
Lamb’s Essays of Elia in Lake English Classics; selected essays in Standard English Classics, Temple Classics, Camelot Series. Tales from Shakespeare in Ginn and Company’s Classics for Children.
Selections from De Quincey, a representative collection, in Athenæum Press; English Mail Coach and Joan of Arc in Standard English Classics, English Readings; Confessions of an Opium Eater in Temple Classics, Everyman’s Library; Revolt of the Tartars in Lake Classics, Silver Classics.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in Pocket Classics; the same and other novels in Everyman’s Library.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Extended works in English history and literature are listed in the General Bibliography. The following works are valuable in a study of the early nineteenth century and the romantic movement.
HISTORY. Morris, Age of Queen Anne and the Early Hanoverians; McCarthy, The Epoch of Reform (Epochs of Modern History Series); Cheyne, Industrial and Social History of England; Hassall, Making of the British Empire; Trevelyan, Early Life of Charles James Fox.
LITERATURE. Saintsbury, History of Nineteenth Century Literature, Beers, English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century; Symons, The Romantic Movement in English Poetry; Dowden, French Revolution and English Literature; Hancock, French Revolution and The English Poets; Masson, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Other Essays; De Quincey, Literary Reminiscences.
Wordsworth. Life, by Myers (English Men of Letters Series), by Raleigh. Herford, The Age of Wordsworth; Rannie, Wordsworth and his Circle; Sneath, Wordsworth, Poet of Nature and Poet of Man. Essays, by Lowell, in Among My Books; by M. Arnold, in Essays in Criticism; by Pater, in Appreciations; by L. Stephen, in Hours in a Library; by Hutton, in Literary Essays; by Bagehot, in Literary Studies.
Coleridge. Life, by Traill (E. M. of L.), by Hall Caine (Great Writers Series). Brandl, Coleridge and the English Romantic Movement. Essays, by Woodberry, in Makers of Literature; by Shairp, in Studies in Poetry and Philosophy; by Forster, in Great Teachers; by Dowden, in New Studies.
Scott. Life, by Hutton (E. M. of L.), by Lockhart (5 vols.), by Yonge (Great Writers), by Saintsbury, by Hudson, by Andrew Lang. Jack, Essay on the Novel as Illustrated by Scott and Miss Austen. Essays, by Stevenson, in Memories and Portraits; by Swinburne, in Studies in Prose and Poetry; by Hazlitt, in The Spirit of the Age; by Saintsbury, in Essays in English Literature.
Byron. Life, by Noel (Great Writers), by Nicol (E. M. of L.). Hunt, Lord Byron and his Contemporaries. Essays by Macaulay, M. Arnold, Hazlitt, Swinburne.
Shelley. Life, by Symonds (E. M. of L.), by Shairp, by Dowden, by W. M. Rossetti. Salt, A Shelley Primer. Essays by Dowden, Woodberry, M. Arnold, Bagehot, Forster, Hutton, L. Stephen.
Keats. Life, by Colvin (E. M. of L.), by Rossetti, by Hancock. H. C. Shelley, Keats and his Circle; Masson, Wordsworth and Other Essays. Essays by De Quincey, Lowell, M. Arnold, Swinburne.
Charles Lamb. Life, by Ainger (E. M. of L.), by Lucas. Fitzgerald, Charles Lamb; Talfourd, Memoirs of Charles Lamb. Essays by Woodberry, Pater, De Quincey.
De Quincey. Life, by Masson (E. M. of L.), by Page. Hogg, De Quincey and his Friends; Findlay, Personal Recollections of De Quincey. Essays by Saintsbury, Masson, L. Stephens.
Jane Austen. Life, by Malden, by Goldwin Smith, by Adams. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen; Mitton, Jane Austen and her Times; Hill, Jane Austen, her Home and her Friends; Jack, Essay on the Novel as Illustrated by Scott and Miss Austen. Essay by Howells, in Heroines of Fiction.