« VorigeDoorgaan »
critics, to make assertions which, though true in a sense, and under special circumstances, are not true when viewed apart from those qualifications. Cowper does, indeed, want power when compared with Shakspeare; but when looked at from a less lofty stand-point he has an ample share of " divine energy."
HARTLEY. Was it customary in Cowper's days to wear a nightcap in polite society; for Romney, in his insane portrait of the bard, has crowned his head with something very like one ?
STANLEY. Be sure that Cowper would not have worn anything misbecoming to him in the character of poet or gentleman. The head-dress you speak of is no ornament, any more than hoops are now-a-days; but it was fashionable in Cowper's time, and before his time. The poet, strange as it may seem, was somewhat of a fast man in the matter of dress. When he writes for a hat, he says, “Let it not be a round slouch, which I abhor, but a smart, well-cocked, fashionable affair ; when he wants an under-waistcoat, he requires that it should be fronted with green satin, and in giving other commissions to his friend Unwin he is equally particular ; but wherefore, Hartley, did you so suddenly and abruptly allude to the pileolus nocturnus as suggested by Cowper's head gear?
HARTLEY. For the best of reasons, since drowsiness, as well as the clock, warn me that it is time to woo os tired nature's sweet restorer ;” and though I never wore a nightcap in my life, I shall be glad, figuratively at least, to put my head into one as soon as possible.
TALBOT. When Dr. Young reaches the end of his
fatiguing poem, he intimates that his “Night Thoughts have at length made him sleepy-a consummation for which all his readers must be thankful. I do not think, however, although night is summoning us away from Olney, we have had a heavy time there with the poet.
HARTLEY. Considering the sage and serious nature of Cowper's poetry, and the sober character of his critics, perhaps not. But now, good-night. I commend you to the sweeter companionship of sleep
soft closer of our eyes, Low murmurer of tender lullabies."
STANLEY. Good-night, then, to you and to William Cowper, who, although not one of the greatest, is assuredly one of the best beloved of English poets.
In the case of most men it is neither acuteness of the reason nor breadth of humanity which shields them from the impressions of natural scenery, but rather low anxieties, vain discontents, and mean pleasures ; and for one who is blinded to the works of God by profound abstraction or lofty purpose, tens of thousands have their eyes sealed by vulgar selfishness, and their intelligence crushed by impious care.-RUSKIN.
I know not how it came to pass, but I took fewer notes of our evening conversation, as that conversation became prolonged, and, on the whole, perhaps, more interesting. As I read over my jottings, I am able to remember that in one place there is an important omission, and an unconscionable abridgment in another; that here a poet's name is barely mentioned, whose works were freely discussed, and that there a single thought is suggested which proved to us at the time the germ of other thoughts, and of much interesting converse. Perhaps, however, on the whole, this lack of material may prove an advantage. The simple fare provided in this volume is, I fear, unsuited to the taste of readers who are accustomed to a highly seasoned and sensational literature. But, whatever faults it may possess in their eyes should they chance to turn over its pages, they shall not be able, with any justice, to add prolixity to the number.
The main topic of discussion this evening was the poetry of Wordsworth. STANLEY opened the debate, if such it may be termed, by remarking that if we attempted to draw from Wordsworth's volumes every rural beauty they contained, Summer would disappear and Autumn lay “his fiery finger on the leaves" before the task could be accomplished. But I must attend to dramatic propriety, and allow him to speak in his own person.
STANLEY. If it be true, as the Oxford Professor of Poetry asserts, that the first duty of the Poet is to select an excellent action, it is obvious that this high aim of his calling has by Wordsworth been systematically neglected. His great power as a poet appears to lie in the exquisite beauty of detached thoughts, of single lines or couplets ; but there is no poem of his remarkable for a great action, not one, unless it be " Laodamia," the construction of which shows the hand of a consummate artist. read you an extract from the preface to the first series of Mr. Arnold's poems :
“We can hardly at the present day understand what Menander meant when he told a man who inquired as to the progress of his comedy that he had finished it, not having yet written a single line, because he had constructed the action of it in his mind. A modern critic would have assured him that the merit of his piece depended on the brilliant things which arose under his pen as he went along. We have poems
which seem to exist merely for the sake of single lines and passages ; not for the sake of producing any total impression. We have critics who seem to direct their attention merely to detached expressions--to the language about the action, not to the action itself. I verily think that the majority of them do not in their hearts believe that there is such a thing as a total impression to be derived from a poem at all, or to be demanded from a
poet; they think the term a commonplace of metaphysical criticism. They will permit the poet to select any action he pleases, and to suffer that action to go as it will, provided he gratifies them with occasional bursts of fine writing, and with a shower of isolated thoughts and images. That is, they permit him to leave their poetic sense ungratified, provided that he gratifies their rhetorical sense and their curiosity. Of his neglecting to gratify these there is little danger; he needs rather to be warned against the danger of attempting to gratify these alone ; he needs rather to be perpetually reminded to prefer his action to everything else ; so to treat this as to permit its inherent excellencies to develop themselves without interruption from the intrusion of his personal peculiarities : most fortunate when he most entirely succeeds in effacing himself, and in enabling a noble action to subsist as it did in
This criticism, and indeed the whole of Mr. Arnold's preface, contains a justly merited protest against all mere prettinesses in verse; but if preferred against the great poets of modern days, whose path in poetry lies widely apart from that of their Hellenic forefathers, I feel that the reasoning of the Professor is unsound, although I cannot quite discern where the fallacy lies. True it is that our poets care more for expression than for action; but is this in itself a fault? and may not the change be traced to the mighty revolution which overthrew the gods of heathendom and the deification of this present life,—to the profound sense of discomfort and sadness which damps all felicity that has not its harvest time in the future ?
HARTLEY. The ancient mind was in many respects freer and more joyous than the modern. The har
* Poem by Matthew Arnold. Preface to first edition, p. xxi.