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THE FIRST HALF OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
1. New Ideas.—The end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century are alike remarkable for the new powers, new ideas, and new life thrown into society. The coming up of a high flood-tide of new forces seems to coincide with the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, when the overthrow of the Bastille marked the downfall of the old ways of thinking and acting, and announced to the world of Europe and America that the old régime—the ancient mode of governing—was over. Wordsworth, then a lad of nineteen, was excited by the event almost beyond the bounds of selfcontrol. He says in his “Excursion ".
“ Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven !”
It was, indeed, the dawn of a new day for the peoples of Europe. The ideas of freedom and equality-of respect for man as man—were thrown into popular form by France; they became living powers in Europe ; and in England they animated and inspired the best minds of the time-Burns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron. Along with this high tide of hope and emotion, there was such an outburst of talent and genius in every kind of human endeavour in England, as was never seen before except in the Elizabethan period. Great events produced great powers; and great powers in their turn
brought about great events. The war with America, the long struggle with Napoleon, the new political ideas, great victories by sea and land,-all these were to be found in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The English race produced great men in numbers-almost, it might be said, in groups. We had great leaders, like Nelson and Wellington; brilliant generals, like Sir Charles Napier and Sir John Moore ; great statesmen, like Fox and Pitt, like Washington and Franklin ; great engineers, like Stephenson and Brunel ; and great poets, like Wordsworth and Byron. And as regards literature, an able critic remarks: “We have recovered in this century the Elizabethan magic and passion, a more than Elizabethan sense of the beauty and complexity of nature, the Elizabethan music of language.”
2. Great Poets. —The greatest poets of the first half of the nineteenth century may be best arranged in groups.
There were Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey—commonly, but unnecessarily, described as the Lake Poets.
In their poetic thought and expression they had little in common; and the fact that two of them lived most of their lives in the Lake country, is not a sufficient justification for the use of the term. There were Scott and Campbell—both of them Scotchmen. There were Byron and Shelley—both Englishmen, both brought up at the great public schools and the universities, but both carried away by the influence of the new revolutionary ideas. Lastly, there were Moore, an Irishman, and young Keats, the splendid promise of whose youth went out in an early death. Let us learn a little more about each, and in the order of the dates of their birth.
3. WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (1770-1850) was born at Cockermouth, a town in Cumberland, which stands at the confluence of the Cocker and the Derwent. His father, John Wordsworth, was law agent to Sir James Lowther, who afterwards became Earl of Lonsdale. William was a boy of a stiff, moody, and violent temper; and as his mother died when he was a very little boy, and his father when he was fourteen, he grew up with very little care from his
parents and guardians. He was sent to school at Hawkshead, in the Vale of Esthwaite, in Lancashire ; and, at the age of seventeen, proceeded to St John's College, Cambridge. After taking his degree of B.A. in 1791, he resided for a year in France. He took sides with one of the parties in the Reign of Terror, and left the country only in time to save his head. He was designed by his uncles for the Church ; but a friend, Raisley Calvert, dying, left him £900; and he now resolved to live a plain and frugal life, to join no profession, but to give himself wholly up to the writing of poetry. In 1798, he published, along with his friend, S. T. Coleridge, the Lyrical Ballads. The only work of Coleridge's in this volume was the “ Ancient Mariner.” In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson, of whom he speaks in the well-known lines
“ Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair,
Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair ;
He obtained the post of Distributor of Stamps for the county of Westmoreland; and, after the death of Southey, he was created Poet-Laureate by the Queen.—He settled with his wife in the Lake country ; and, in 1813, took up his abode at Rydal Mount, where he lived till his death in 1850. He died on the 23d of April -the death-day of Shakespeare.
4. His longest works are the Excursion and the Prelude—both being parts of a longer and greater work which he intended to write on the growth of his own mind. His best poems are his shorter pieces, such as the poems on Lucy, The Cuckoo, the Ode to Duty, the Intimations of Immortality, and several of his Sonnets. He says of his own poetry that his purpose in writing it was “to console the afflicted; to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous.” His poetical work is the noble landmark of a great transition—both in thought and in style. He drew aside poetry from questions and interests of mere society and the town to the scenes of Nature and the deepest feelings of man as man. In style, he refused to employ the old artificial vocabulary which Pope and his followers revelled in; he used the simplest words he could find; and, when he hits the mark in his simplest form of expression, his style is as forcible as it is true. He says of his own
“ The moving accident is not my trade,
To freeze the blood I have no ready arts;
To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts.” If one were asked what four lines of his poetry best convey the feeling of the whole, the reply must be that these are to be found in his
Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle,”—lines written about “ the good Lord Clifford.”
“ Love had he found in huts where poor men lie,
His daily teachers had been woods and rills,-
5. WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832), poet and novelist, the son of a Scotch attorney (called in Edinburgh a W.S. or Writer to H.M.'s Signet), was born there in the year 1771. He was educated at the High School, and then at the College—now called the University -of Edinburgh. In 1792 he was called to the Scottish Bar, or became an “advocate.” During his boyhood, he had had several illnesses, one of which left him lame for life. Through those long periods of sickness and of convalescence, he read Percy’s ‘Reliques of Ancient Poetry,' and almost all the romances, old plays, and epic poems that have been published in the English language. This gave his mind and imagination a set which they never lost all through life.
6. His first publications were translations of German poems. In the year 1805, however, an original poem, the Lay of the Last Minstrel, appeared ; and Scott became at one bound the foremost poet of the day. Marmion, the Lady of the Lake, and other poems, followed with great rapidity. But, in 1814, Scott took it into his head that his poetical vein was worked out; the star of Byron was rising upon the literary horizon; and he now gave himself up to novel-writing. His first novel, Waverley, appeared anonymously in 1814. Guy Mannering, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, and others, quickly followed; and, though the secret of the authorship was well kept both by printer and publisher, Walter Scott was generally believed to be the writer of these works, and he was frequently spoken of as “the Great Unknown.” He was made a baronet by George IV. in 1820.
7. His expenses in building Abbotsford, and his desire to acquire land, induced him to go into partnership with Ballantyne, his printer, and with Constable, his publisher. Both firms failed in the dark
year of 1826 ; and Scott found himself unexpectedly liable for the large sum of £147,000. Such a load of debt would have utterly crushed most men ; but Scott stood clear and undaunted in front of it. “ Gentlemen,” he said to his creditors, “time and I against any two. Let me take this good ally into my company, and I believe I shall be able to pay you every farthing." He left his beautiful country house at Abbotsford; he gave up all his country pleasures ; he surrendered all his property to his creditors; he took a small house in Edinburgh; and, in the short space of five years, he had paid off £130,000. But the task was too terrible; the pace had been too hard ; and he was struck down by paralysis. But even this disaster did not daunt him. Again he went to work, and again he had a paralytic stroke. At last, however, he was obliged to give up; the Government of the day placed a royal frigate at his disposal; he went to Italy; but his health had utterly broken down, he felt he could get no good from the air of the south, and he turned his face towards home to die. He breathed his last breath at Abbotsford, in sight of his beloved Tweed, with his family around him, on the 21st of September 1832.
8. His poetry is the poetry of action. In imaginative power he ranks below no other poet, except Homer and Shakespeare. He delighted in war, in its movement, its pageantry, and its events ; and, though lame, he was quartermaster of a volunteer corps of cavalry. On one occasion he rode to muster one hundred miles in twenty-four hours, composing verses by the way. Much of“ Marmion” was composed on horseback. “I had many a grand gallop,” he says, “when I was thinking of Marmion.'” His two chief powers in verse are his narrative and his pictorial power. His boyhood was passed in the Borderland of Scotland—“a district in which every field has its battle and every rivulet its song ;” and he was at home in every part of the Highlands and the Lowlands, the Islands and the Borders, of his native country. But, both in his novels and his poems, he was a painter of action rather than of character.
9. His prose works are now much more read than his poems; but both are full of life, power, literary skill, knowledge of men and women, and strong sympathy with all past ages. He wrote so fast that his sentences are often loose and ungrammatical; but they are never unidiomatic or stiff. The rush of a strong and large life goes through them, and carries the reader along, forgetful of all minor blemishes. His best novels are Old Mortality and Kenilworth ; his greatest romance is Ivanhoe.
10. SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772-1834), a true poet, and