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the seventeenth century, from the reign of Charles I. to that of William and Mary, and was a transition from the creative to the critical, as seen in the writings of Dryden and Pope.
The third extends from the reign of Anne far into the reign of George III., and was a transition from the critical to the impassioned, as seen in the poetry of Cowper, Thomson, and Burns.
It is to this last transition, from Pope to Burns, or from the earlier to the more modern age of British verse that we propose to give special attention, noticing in order its character, its historical causes, and some suggestions of interest to which the discussion gives rise.
THE CHARACTER OF THE TRANSITION
This may be briefly expressed in the fact that it was a change from form to feeling, from the artificial to the natural. Professor Conington, in his scholarly essay upon the Poetry of Pope, remarks: "It is a curious circumstance that the advice which was given by Walsh to Pope-'to be correct in his writing-was precisely the advice which Horace gave to his countrymen." The thought is, that the Horatian idea of poetry was different from that which had preceded it in laying
more decided emphasis upon the external form of literature. The Roman satirist cautions his countrymen against what might be called a wild profusion of ideas at the expense of literary finish, and holds it to be the mark of a genuine poet to express himself with elegance. He rebukes the pride of Lucilius in boasting that he had produced two hundred verses in an hour. In this particular, the analogy between the Age of Horace in Latin letters, and that of Pope in English, is somewhat suggestive; while the title - Augustan applied to the latter, is thus far appropriate in that special reference is made to the outer structure of verse. It was the Age of the English Academy, as that of Richelieu was of the French. For this corrective work Dryden prepared the way. To it Pope was born and bred. Never were the historical tendencies of an age and the natural tendencies of a poet more accordant. Pope knew his one best talent, and interpreted aright the meaning of the time, so that he was the one undisputed master, in his day, of poetic form. "We had some great poets," said Walsh to Pope, "but we never had one great poet that was correct." The critical versifier at once accepted the suggestion, and devoted himself to verse as an art to the study and
practice of versification.
He showed the timeli
ness of his newly accepted mission by noting the
absence of this element in former poets.
"For Otway failed to polish or refine,
And fluent Shakespeare scarce effaced a line;
E'en copious Dryden wanted or forgot
That last and greatest art the art to blot."
Pope insisted that in every literature there is the need of a critical era. If such an era cannot coexist with the creative, and authors of high inventive power cannot sit in judgment upon their own writings, then, as he argued, other minds must appear, less gifted in genius, but more gifted in critical judgment, and do the work of literary censors. He held that there was such a thing as genius in poetic art, and could not indorse the remark so often made by literary historians, that a critical age is a necessary prelude to the decay of literature. If the critical era be subordinate to the original era of which it is the judge, if the criticism itself gathers its principles from nature and aims at the highest ends, then, he argued, the results could not but be beneficent. Such formal ages as these, he added, would seem to have their place in literature as restraints upon the excesses of more imaginative periods. A purely original
age altogether devoid of the restraints of art may be said to have within it, according to Pope, some of the elements of its own destruction. Though in themselves they are epochs of inferiority, they still have a function to perform in the general development of letters.
Critical periods, however, we submit, as all others, come to the limit of their usefulness in due time, and must give place to better things. If Pope was doing a safe and necessary work in litérature, scores of second- and third-rate imitators were bringing the very name of criticism into disrepute, and awakening the just indignation of all. true minds. Diction was magnified above thought, and method took the place of inspiration. Much of the poetry lost its distinctive character as such, and descended to an inferior quality of prose. Verses were trimmed and fashioned to order in accordance with the latest dicta of the schools. There was a drama extensive enough to absorb the attention of pleasure-seekers, and yet nothing to remind one of Marlowe or of Jonson. There was an abundance of descriptive poetry, but nothing above the commonplace. All was correct enough, too correct. Dryden well expresses the vice of the time, as he calls it the age
"When critics weigh
Each line and every word throughout a play,
But what we gained in skill we lost in strength,
In the nature of the case, such a literature could not be permanent. If passion were at all evinced it was on the basis of some prescribed formula, so that the heart of the passion was taken out of it. In fact, the Augustan Age was not an age for poetry in its best form, but for political and periodical prose, so that when poetry was attempted it was didactic rather than lyric, and vigor departed as correctness entered. Hence, the few ambitious poets of the time were in eager search for poetic freedom. They felt that the strictly critical period, even at its best, had done its appointed work, and that the call for a different order of things could not pass unheeded. Light descriptive sketching must take the place of studied monotony in verse, as expressed in satire. There must be the yielding of precedent to prog