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LITERARY ESSAYS

POPE

1871

In 1675 Edward Phillips, the elder of Milton's nephews, published his Theatrum Poetarum. In his Preface and elsewhere there can be little doubt that he reflected the æsthetic principles and literary judgments of his now illustrious uncle, who had died in obscurity the year before. The great poet who gave to English blank verse the grandeur and compass of organ-music, and who in his minor poems kept alive the traditions of Fletcher and Shakespeare, died with no foretaste, and yet we may believe as confident as ever, of that "immortality of fame” which he tells his friend Diodati he was “ meditating with the help of Heaven” in his youth. He who may have seen Shakespeare, who doubtless had seen Fletcher, and who perhaps personally knew Jonson, lived to see that false school of writers whom he qualified as “good rhymists, but no poets," at once the idols and the victims of the taste they had corrupted. As he saw, not with

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1 This was Thomas Warton's opinion.

2 Milton, a London boy, was in his eighth, seventeenth, and twenty-ninth years, respectively, when Shakespeare (1616), Fletcher (1625), and B. Jonson (1637) died.

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out scorn, how they found universal hearing, while he slowly won his audience fit though few, did he ever think of the hero of his own epic at the ear of Eve? It is not impossible ; but however that may be, he sowed in his nephew's book the dragon's teeth of that long war which, after the lapse of a century and a half, was to end in the expulsion of the usurping dynasty and the restoration of the ancient and legitimate race whose claim rested on the grace of God. In the following passage surely the voice is Milton's, though the hand be that of Phillips: “ Wit, ingenuity, and learning in verse, even elegancy itself, though that comes nearest, are one thing ; true native poetry is another, in which there is a certain air and spirit, which, perhaps, the most learned and judicious in other arts do not perfectly apprehend; much less is it attainable by any art or study.” The man who speaks of elegancy as coming nearest, certainly shared, if he was not repeating, the opinions of him who thirty years before had said that “decorum” (meaning a higher or organic unity) was “ the grand masterpiece to observe" in poetry.

It is upon this text of Phillips (as Chalmers has remarked) that Joseph Warton bases his classification of poets in the dedication to Young of the first volume of his essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, published in 1756. That was the earliest public and official declaration of war against the reigning mode, though private hostilities and reprisals had been going on for some time. Addison's panegyric of Milton in the Spectator was a criticism, not the less damaging because indirect, of the superficial poetry then in vogue. His praise of the old ballads condemned by innuendo the artificial elaboration of the drawing-room pastoral by contrasting it with the simple sincerity of nature. Himself incapable of being natural except in prose, he had an instinct for the genuine virtues of poetry as sure as that of Gray. Thomson's “ Winter” (1726) was a direct protest against the literature of Good Society, going as it did to prove that the noblest society was that of one's own mind heightened by the contemplation of outward nature. What Thomson's poetical creed was may be surely inferred from his having modelled his two principal poems on Milton and Spenser, ignoring rhyme altogether in the “ Seasons," and in the “Castle of Indolence” rejecting the stiff mould of the couplet. In 1744 came Akenside's “ Pleasures of Imagination,” whose very title, like a guide-post, points away from the level highway of commonplace to mountain-paths and less domestic prospects. The poem was stiff and unwilling, but in its loins lay the seed of nobler births, and without it the "Lines written at Tintern Abbey” might never have been. Three years later Collins printed his little volume of Odes, advocating in theory and exemplifying in practice the natural supremacy of the imagination (though he called it by its older name of fancy) as a test to distinguish poetry from verse-making. The whole Romantic School, in its germ, no doubt, but yet unmistakably foreshadowed, lies already in the “ Ode on the Superstitions of the Highlands.” He was the first to bring back into poetry something of the antique fervor, and found again the long-lost secret of being classically elegant without being pedantically cold. A skilled lover of music, he rose from the general sing-song of his generation to a harmony that had been silent since Milton, and in him, to use his own words,

1 In his Tractate on Education.

“ The force of energy is found, And the sense rises on the wings of sound.” But beside his own direct services in the reformation of our poetry, we owe him a still greater debt as the inspirer of Gray, whose“ Progress of Poesy," in reach, variety, and loftiness of poise, overflies all other English lyrics like an eagle. In spite of the dulness of contemporary ears, preoccupied with the continuous hum of the popular hurdy-gurdy, it was the prevailing blast of Gray's trumpet that more than anything else called men back to the legitimate standard. Another poet, Dyer, whose

1 Milton, Collins, and Gray, our three great masters of harmony, were all musicians.

2 Wordsworth, who recognized forerunners in Thomson, Collins, Dyer, and Burns, and who chimes in with the popular superstition about Chatterton, is always somewhat niggardly in his appreciation of Gray. Yet he owed him not a little. Without Gray's tune in his ears, his own noblest Ode would have missed the varied modulation which is one of its main charms. Where he forgets Gray, his verse sinks to something like the measure of a jig. Perhaps the suggestion of one of his own finest lines,

(“ The light that never was on land or sea,'') was due to Gray's

“ Orient hues unborrowed of the sun." I believe it has not been noticed that among the verses in Gray's

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