« AnteriorContinuar »
would not be true. It was not a creative period like the age of Elizabeth, for though its most famous. hands cultivated the art of writing tragedies, and produced their Catos, Jane Shores, Distrest Mothers, Mariamnes, Sophonisbas, Irenes, and what not besides, they added nothing to the English Drama. The creative energy of the eighteenth century exhausted itself in The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. Pope carried the satire of manners and of character as far as it could go: he was a wit, but not a poet. Thomson tried to open the eyes of his contemporaries to Nature, and succeeded in a measure, though not nearly so well as Collins in his unrhymed Ode to Evening, or Gray in the opening stanzas of his immortal Elegy. The Elegy is more read to-day than any poem of its time, partly because it is the most perfect specimen of its poetic art, and partly because the train of thought which runs through it can never be dismissed from the human mind. It will live as long as men live and die. It was surpassed, perhaps, by certain poetic qualities in the Odes of Collins, which fell dead from the press about four years before it was published, but it was not surpassed or equalled by anything else. Looking back upon it now we can see what Gray's contemporaries could not see-that it was a great landmark in the monotonous waste of their verse. The dead level of prose to which Pope had reduced all metrical writing surrounded it like a desert. While he lived the springs of his genius watered the roots of stately palms, but when he died only stunted reeds remained to show where the watercourses had been. Ethics had dwindled into didacticism, and the heroic measure into jing
ling couplets which school-boys wrote for pastime. If we had lived in the first half of the eighteenth century, and had shared the poetic taste of our contemporaries, what would we have had to read? We would have had to read The Splendid Shilling and the Cyder of Philips, the Pastorals of Pope and his Essay on Criticism, Gay's Rural Sports and Shepherd's Week, Glover's Leonidas, and Shenstone's Pastoral Ballad. A little later we would have had to read Young's Night Thoughts, Armstrong's Art of Preserving Health, Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination, Dyer's Fleece, and Grainger's Sugar Cane. If the saccharine production of good Dr. Grainger had not been to our liking, and it is possible that we might have found its sweetness a little cloying, we could have taken the prescription of another physician-an uncouth, pockmarked Irishman, who had studied at Edinburgh and Leyden, and, after travelling about the Continent on foot, occasionally playing upon the flute for his victuals when his funds ran low, had settled down in London as a bookseller's hack.
We could have read Dr. Goldsmith's Traveller, or a Prospect of Society, and if we had done so we could not but have felt the spell of his frank and manly genius. We might have been prompted to make his acquaintance, if we had chanced to be in London at the time, and perhaps the acquaintance of his bullying friend and patron, the great Dr. Johnson, who, if he had taken a fancy to us, after a good dinner at the Mitre Tavern, might have asked us to visit him at his lodgings in Bolt Court, where we would have seen his strange menagerie of pensioners-Robert Levett, prac
titioner of physic, poor, stuttering Miss Jane Williams, the blind poetess, Miss Carmichael, Mrs. Dumoulin, the widow of a writing-master, the negro, Francis Barber, and that pert young coxcomb (cowed there), Mr. James Boswell, advocate, of Auchinleck, Scotland. Goldsmith would no doubt have told us of Johnson's kindness to him, particularly in selling the manuscript of his Vicar of Wakefield, and releasing him from the clutches of his landlady, who insisted upon his marrying her or settling his score, and have asked us to subscribe to Johnson's Shakespeare, which we would have done gladly, having already upon our shelves the editions of Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hanmer, and Warburton, to say nothing of the Folios, which we had inherited with the old manor-house in Surrey. Six years later we would have had another poem from the pen of the ingenious Dr. Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, and the public journals would have informed us of the death of Dr. Akenside. They might also have informed us of the death of one Thomas Chatterton, a Bristol boy of eighteen, who was supposed to have poisoned himself; but the paragraph, if we had seen it, would have had no significance to us, for little was talked about then in the coffee-houses except the letters of Junius in the Public Advertiser. The dearth of good contemporary poetry in the seventh decade of the eighteenth century drove us back to the earlier poets, of whom we could not well help knowing something by that time, since the Reverend Dr. Thomas Percy, a Northumberland vicar, whom we remember to have met one day in the chambers of Dr. Goldsmith (the very day, by the way, in
which the little daughter of a fellow-lodger borrowed the coals in her eccentric scuttle), had published in the year after The Traveller three solid volumes of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, the materials for which he obtained from an old manuscript collection, and which, of course, he polished and modernized lest they should offend the polite taste of his contemporaries. We differed with Johnson in our estimate of this work, for he ridiculed it as a useless resurrection of obsolete rubbish, while we thought it a rude but interesting monument of poetic antiquity. There were many things which Johnson could not comprehend— which the coarseness of his mind would not allow him to apprehend and one of these things was poetry. If the tenor of his writings had not indicated this fact, if it was not apparent in his edition of Shakespeare, it would have been forced upon us-it would have been driven into us-by his Lives of the Poets. They could not have been written in any period that had not forfeited every claim to poetic criticism as well as poetic creation. No poet would have consented to begin a collection of English Poets with Cowley, or would have admitted into a collection of English Poets such dreary versifiers as Roscommon, and Sheffield, and Congreve, and Sprat, and Walsh, and no critic could have stultified himself as Johnson did when he penned his animadversions upon the sonnets of Milton. Criticism and poetry were fallen on evil days and evil tongues in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Poetry indeed-at any rate poetry of a high orderwas no longer written. Nor was there any reason why it ever should be again. There was nothing that ap
pealed to it-nothing heroic that demanded it-no movement in the life of the time that did not find the fullest expression in prose-no seed of light in the darkness, no prophecy and promise of Morning, however remote, that might smite the silent lips of Memnon into Song.
But the darkest hour is just before day. It is so in nature, we are told, and it is sometimes so in art and letters. It was certainly so in poetry, for while Johnson was writing the last of his Lives of the Poets a new poet was writing the first of his grave and thoughtful strains. The son of a chaplain of George the Second, a Westminster scholar, and a solicitor of the Middle Temple, he had been crossed in love, had attempted his own life, and had been placed in the mad-house of a brother poet. Released from durance before he was quite sane (if he ever was quite sane), he retired to lodgings in the country, and became the inmate of a clergyman's family, first at Huntingdon, and afterward at Olney, where he had the misfortune to fall into the spiritual hands of a curate who had once been master of a slave-vessel, and who pressed him into religion and the writing of lugubrious hymns. Another attack of lunacy led to another attempt upon his life. He recovered, however, and, watched over by the clergyman's widow, was induced to divert his mind with gardening and the gambols of tame hares. To these rational amusements he was at last persuaded to add the composition of verse, and having up to this time. learned nothing that was of value to himself, he naturally proceeded to instruct mankind. Such was William Cowper, when, at the age of forty-eight, he began to