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In the preface to his great play, “All for Love,” Dryden asserts that “poets themselves are the most proper, though not the only critics of poetry," and thinks it“reasonable that the judgment of an artificer in his art should be preferable to the opinion of another man; at least, where he is not bribed by interest or prejudiced by malice.” English poets from Jonson to Swinburne have not been backward in exercising the function of critics on their fellows ; but it is specially remarkable that almost every memorable poet throughout the illustrious bead-roll has expressed an opinion in verse on the poetical qualities of some or other of his predecessors or contemporaries. The circumstance that the poetic succession has been carried on by a series of groups or clusters, has given us, in addition to individual appreciations, a body of criticism revealing the artistic point of view in each successive period with remarkable clearness. To present this body of expert criticism in a continuous form is the object of the present volume. It is a collection of those passages in our literature where poets, themselves of distinction, have cast into a poetic form their judgment on others worthy of the title. This last limitation necessarily excludes a large quantity of verse excellent as satire and criticism, but dealing with
poor little rhymesters whose pillories may well be left in an outer court : so, too, whatever is concerned with the man alone and not the writer has been omitted, such as Pope's portrait of Addison as Atticus, and Churchill's of Johnson as Pomposo. I have not thought it necessary to include bad verse by good poets, nor to reject the occasional instances where a versifier has risen to a higher level ; in these cases, as in the anonymous lines signed “I. M. S.," the poem itself vouches for the right of the author to sit among the judges.
I have said that almost every great poet has a place in this collection; the most noteworthy exceptions are Marlowe and Shakespeare. This is nothing surprising in the case of Marlowe, who died quite at the beginning of the great outburst of poetical activity which his genius directed and inspired. But it is certainly curious that Shakespeare neither wrote, nor received during his life-time, any of those commendatory verses which it was the universal custom of his contemporaries to address to one another ; a custom which, though often a mere form of perfunctory congratulation of no value either as poetry or criticism, gave occasion for much of high merit in both. The only known publication in which the author's work is followed by verses signed W. Shakespeare, in company with others by Chapman, Ben Jonson, and Marston, is an allegorical poem by Robert Chester,' the inner meaning of which is unintelligible to us; Shakespeare's lines contain no reference to the author, but are an equally obscure poem on the same subject as his. There was, however, one occasion on which Shakespeare broke a silence, which we cannot avoid concluding was deliberate, and gave us in a few incisive strokes his judgment on one of the master poets of the age-an “able spirit” who wrote “above a mortal pitch”; he notes “his polish'd form of well-refinèd pen," his “pre
1 "Love's Martyrdom, or Rosalin's Complaint," 1601. Shakespeare's lines are headed "The Phoenix and the Turtle."
cious phrase by all the Muses filed,” and records in one splendid line "the proud full sail of his great verse.” But though the wreath is there, we know not on whose brow to place it ; the mystery which surrounds the whole subject of the sonnets enwraps the rival poet too ; whether it were Spenser, Chapman, Daniel, or another, we know only that he has been mocked by Fate, who withheld, whilst she seemed to bestow, the proudest title ever poet earned-He whom Shakespeare praised.
It is evident that, on the whole, the judgment of the poets in session agrees altogether with the popular verdict; this would naturally be the case as regards the greatest of those brought before the bar; the heart of man. kind and the conscience of the artist must alike acknowledge their supremacy. From the voice of Spenser, ushering in the heroic age of English song, to that of Tennyson, hushed but yesterday, Chaucer is hailed as Master ;
the great singers of every age salute as they pass the mighty shades of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton. But what is perhaps noteworthy is that the poets have so few favourites apart from the general; I can name only two whose popularity having died with the public has survived with suc
cessive generations of poets—Sidney and Cowley. The preferences of individual poets are of interest; we find something agreeably incongruous in the devotion of Herrick the dainty to Ben Jonson, in the gentle Cowper's admiration of Churchill, and the ardour of Byron for Pope, and Southey's solemn adora. tion of Spenser; but it is when we study the collective attitude of criticism, characterizing successive periods of poetic energy, that we find most to attract and impress us. Nothing, for instance, is more startling to a reader than to step out of the world of Elizabethans into that of their successors after the Restoration ; there is hardly a deeper stroke of irony in the drama of human existence. Of all that earlier throng, brimful of vehement vitality, whom we have seen jostling one another with cries of applause and derision, who had so superb a consciousness of power, such full assurance of high endeavour and noble achievement and immortal worth, four names only are found on the lips of the men who next fill their places as Masters of English song: Spenser, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Fletcher—these alone, for nearly two hundred years, lived with the living, while of the rest not even the poor ghosts remained to haunt the realms of imagination. It is not that