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There was a time when a single poem, nay, a decent epigram, procured a niche for its writer in the temple of our poetry; but these times are gone by, inundated as we now are with verses of one particular level of merit, as flat as the waste of Cumberland, and equally unprofitable; so that the poet, ambitious of a high reputation in our letters, must make it upon something that is completely novel; and there, as Scott remarked, will rest the only chance for an extended reputation.
Poetry has become an easy art, and people have been taught to pump for poetry without a Gildon or a Bysshe to aid their labors. Wakley can laugh in the House of Commons at the poetry of Wordsworth, and treat the senators who surround him with a happy imitation of the great poet of his time. Verse has become an extempore kind of art, a thing to be assumed when wanted; and O'Connell can throw off at a heat a clever parody upon Dryden's famous epigram; as is, like Theodore Hook, he had served an apprenticeship to the art of happy imitation. That the bulk of the socalled poetry of the present day—“nonsense, well tuned and sweet stupidity”—is injurious to a proper estimation of the trueborn poets who still exist, there cannot be a doubt; that it is injurious, moreover, to the advancement of poetry among us, is, I think, equally the case. Poetry in the highest sense of the word, was never better understood, though never, perhaps, less cultivated than it is now. Criticism has taken a high stand; and when the rage for rhyme has fairly exhausted itself, nature will revive among us, and we shall have a new race of poets to uphold, if not to eclipse, the glories of the old. There are many still among us to repeat without any kind of braggart in their blood :—
“O is my temples were distain'd with wine, And girt in girlonds of wilde y vie twine, How could I reare the Muse on stately stage, And teach her tread aloft in buskin fine, With queint Bellona in her equipage.” Sprinser.
When poetry was all but extinct among us, Cowper and Burns came forward to revive the drooping Muse, and show us, unmistakeably enough, that men and studies may decay, but Nature never dies. There is little reason to suppose that the great poet of the Excursion is likely to remain more than a few years among us; for though, thank God, in health and vigor, and as fond of poetry as ever, he has outlived by the period of an apprenticeship, the threescore years and ten, the Scriptural limitation of the life of man. When Wordsworth dies, there will be a new Session of the poets for the office of poet-laureate. To whom will the lord-chamberlain assign the laurel, honored and disgraced by a variety of wearers To whom will the unshorn deity assign it ! There may be a difference of opinion between the poet's God and the court lord-chamberlain ; there have been differences heretofore, or else Shadwell and Tate, Eusden and Cibber, Whitehead and Pye, had never succeeded to the laurels of famous Ben Jonson and glorious John Dryden. Who are your young and our rising poets likely to become claimants, and to have their case considered by Phoebus Apollo in the new session he must summon before very long 2
“A session was held the other day,
“Therefore, the wits of the town came thither, 'Twas strange to see how they flock'd together ; Each strongly confident of his own way, Thought to carry the laurel away that day.”
How Suckling would put them forward, we must leave to the fancy of the reader. We can do very little more than enumerate the names of candidates likely to be present on the occasion. We can conceive their entry somewhat after the following manner. A herald, followed by an attendant with a tray of epics from Nineveh at twelve shillings to Orion at a farthing, and the authors arranged pretty nearly as follows:—Atherstone first (as the favorite poet of Lord Jeffrey's later lubrications); Robert Montgomery, 2; Heraud, 3; Read, 4; Horne, 5; and Ben Disraeli, 6. To the epic portion of the candidates the dramatists will succeed, fresh from Sadler's Wells and the Surrey, and led by Talfourd and Bulwer, and followed by Mr. Marston, Mr. Trowton, Mr. Henry Taylor, Sir Coutts Lindsay, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Spicer; Jerrold representing comedy, without a fellow to rival or support him. Then will follow the ballad-writers; Macaulay by himself, and Smythe and Lord John Manners walking like the Babes in the Wood together. To the trio will succeed Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, Monckton Milnes, Charles Mackay, and Coventry Patmore, followed by a galaxy of ladies for the gallery, led by Mrs. Norton and Miss Barret; with Camilla Toulmin, with a bunch of flowers; Frances Brown, with a number of the Athenaeum; Eliza Cook, with Mr. Cayley's commendation; Miss Costello, with a Persian rose ; and Mrs. Ogilvy, with her quarto volume of minstrelsy from the North. We can fancy Apollo's confusion at the number; and should in some measure be inclined to abide by his opinion, should he give the laurel at the end, as Suckling has made him, to an alderman of London:
“He openly declared that 't was the best sign
At this all the wits were in such a maze,
“Only,” and how admirable the wit is:—
“Only the small poets clear'd up again,
“O rare Sir John Suckling !”
Is Alfred Tennyson a poet ! His merits divide the critics. With some people he is every thing, with others he is little or nothing. Betwixt the extremes of admiration and malice, it is hard to judge uprightly of the living. The zeal of his friends is too excessive to be prudent, the indifference of his enemies too studied to be sincere. He is unquestionably a poet, in thought, language, and in numbers. But the New Timon tells us he is not a poet; Peel tells us that he is, and gives him a pension of 200l. a-year to raise him above the exigencies of the world. But the satirist has dropped his condemnation from the third edition of his poem, and the pension still continues to be paid. Is it, therefore, deserved 7 We think it is, not from what Mr. Tennyson has as yet performed, but what he has shown himself capable of perform
ing. His poems are, in some respects, an accession to our literature. He has the right stuff in him, and he may yet do more; but unless it is better than what he has already done, he had better withhold it. His admirers—and he will never be without “the few”—will always augur well of afterperformances (though never realized) from what has gone before, and attribute to indolence and a pension what from fear and inability he was unable to accomplish. His detractors, on the other hand, will have little to lay hold of; they may flatter themselves with having frightened him into silence, but their liking for his verses will warm as they grow older. He has nothing, however, to fear, if he writes nobly from himself, and the Muse is willing and consenting. Great works—
“A work t'outwear Seth's pillars, brick and stone, And (Holy Writ excepted) made to yield to none.”—Dr. DoNN E.
appear too rarely to raise expectation that this or that person is likely to produce one. It is near 200 years since Milton began to prune his wings for the great epic of his age and nation ; and what has our poetry produced since then in any way approaching what Milton accomplished 2 Much that is admirable, and much that will live as long as Milton himself, but nothing of the same stamp, for though Scott may affect to speak of Manfred as a poem wherein Byron “matched Milton upon his own ground,” yet we all of us pretty well know otherwise; and that the Muse of Byron is as inferior to Paradise Lost, as the Farmer's Boy to The Seasons; or any of the great dramatists of the age of Shakspeare to Shakspeare himself. Before Mr. Tennyson tries the temper of the public for a third time (which we hope he will do, and before very many years go by), it behoves him to consider the structure of his verse and the pauses of his numbers a little more maturely than he has hitherto done. It behoves him, moreover, to rub off a few affectations of style, the besetting sin of too many of his verses, and too often mistaken, by the young especially, for one of the marks of originality, and not for what it is—one of its peculiarities; and what is more, a very bad peculiarity both in matter and in manner. Coleridge understood the deficiencies of Mr. Tennyson's Muse when he uttered the following capital criticism upon him :—
“I have not read through all Mr. Tennyson's poems, which have been sent to me; but I think there are some things of a good deal o beauty in that I have seen. The misfortune is, that he has begun to write verses without very well understanding what metre is. Even if you write in a known and approved metre, the odds are, if you are not a metrist yourself
that you will not write harmonious verses;
but to deal in new metres without considering what metre means and requires is preposterous. What I would, with many wishes of success, prescribe to Tennyson—indeed without it he can never be a poet in art—is to write for the next two or three years in none but one or two well-known and strictly-defined metres; such as the heroic couplet, the octave stanza, or the octo-syllabic measure of the Allegro and Penseroso. He would probably thus get imbued with a sensation, ". a sense, of metre without knowing it, just as Eton boys get to write such good Latin verses by conning Ovid and Tibullus. As it is, I can scarcely scan some of his verses.”
This is something more than a clever criticism on the Muse of Mr. Tennyson; it is a most admirable piece of advice, and deserves to be remembered. Tennyson, and Browning, and Miss Barrett, should act upon it forth with ; they would improve their numbers very materially by such an exercise of their ears. Coleridge's own poetry is a lasting exemplification of the rhythmical charms of English verse. He never offends you—he always pleases:—
“His musical finesse was such, So nice his ear, so delicate his touch,”
that every verse he wrote will satisfy the ear and satisfy the fingers. A second critic of distinction who has passed judgment on Mr. Tennyson is Mr. Leigh Hunt, always an agreeable and not unfrequently a safe critic to abide by :
“Alfred Tennyson,” writes Mr. Hunt, “is of the school of Keats; that is to say, it is difficult not to see that Keats has been a great deal in his thoughts; and that he delights in the same brooding over his sensations, and the same melodious enjoyment of their expression. In his desire to communicate this music he goes so far as to accent the final syllables in his participles passive, as pleachéd, crownéd, purple-spiked, &c., with visible printer's marks, which subjects him but erroneously to a charge of pedantry; though it is a o not complimentary to the reader, and of which he may as well get rid. Much, however, as he reminds us of Keats, his genius is his own. He would have written poetry, had his precursor written none; and he has also a vein of
* Table-Talk, p. 222.
metaphysical o in which the other did not indulge, as may be seen by his verses entitled ‘A Character,’ those ‘On the Confessions of a Sensitive Mind,” and numerous others. He is also a great lover of a certain home kind of landscape, which he delights to paint with a minuteness that in ‘The Moated Grange’ becomes affecting ; and, in ‘The Miller's Daughter,” would remind us of the Dutch school, if it were not mixed up with the same deep feeling, varied with a pleasant joviality. Mr. Tennyson has yet given no such evidence of sustained and broad power as that of Hyperion,’ nor even of such gentler narrative as the ‘Eve of St. Agnes,’ and the poem of “Lamia, and ‘Isabella,” but the materials of the noblest poetry are abundant in him.”
This is criticism in full accordance with the kindlier sympathies of our own nature; but much of the weight and value of it must depend on the rank the reader is willing to assign to Mr. Keats. It is, however, intended as a very high encomium : Mr. Hunt appropriating a place in our poetry to Keats which I am afraid he will find very few willing to concede to him.
Our poetry is in a very sorry kind of plight if it has to depend upon Tennyson and Browning for the hereditary honors of its existence. The Eraminer will tell us “No !” The Athenaeum will do the same ; papers remarkable for the vigor of their articles, the excellence of their occasional criticism, and the general asperity of their manner. A page out of every ten in Herrick’s “Hesperides’’ is more certain of an hereafter than any one dramatic romance or lyric in all the “Bells and Pomegranates” of Mr. Browning. Not but what Mr. Browning is a poet. He is unquestionably a poet; but his subject has not unfrequently to bear the weight of sentiments which spring not naturally from it, and his numbers at times are overlaid with affectation, the common conceit of men who affect to tell common things in an uncommon manner. He clogs his verses, moreover, with too many consonants and too many monosyllables, and carries the sense too frequently in a very ungraceful manner from one line to the other. Here is a passage from the seventh number of his “Bells and Pomegranates,” which it really is a torture to read :
“But to-day not a boat reached Salerno,
* Book of Gems, p. 274.
In the vat half-way up in our house-side, Like blood the juice spins, While your brother all bare-legged is dancing Till breathless he grins, Dead-beaten, in effort on effort To keep the grapes under: For still when he seems all but master, In pours the fresh plunder From girls who keep coming and going With basket on shoulder, And eyes shut against the rain's driving, Your girls that are older, For under the hedges of aloe, And where, on its bed Of the orchard's black mould, the love-apple Lies pulpy and red, All the young ones are kneeling and filling Their laps with the snails Tempted out by the first rainy weather,Your best of regales, As to-night will be proved to my sorrow, When, supping in state, We shall feast our grape-gleaners—two dozen, Three over one plate,_ Macaroni so tempting to swallow In slippery strings, And gourds fried in great purple slices, That color of kings, Meantime, see the grape-bunch they've brought you : The rain-water slips O'er the heavy blue bloom on each globe Which the wasp to your lips Still follows with fretful persistence— Nay, taste while awake, This half of a curd-white smooth cheese-ball, That peels, flake by flake, Like an onion's each smoother and whiter Next sip this weak wine From the thin green glass flask, with its stopper, A leaf of the vine,— And end with the prickly-pear's red flesh, That leaves through its juice The stony black seeds on your pearl teeth . . . Scirocco is loose : Hark! the quick pelt of the olives Which, thick in one's track, Topt the stranger to pick up and bite them, Though not yet hio. ! And how their old twisted trunks shudder The medlars let fall Their hard fruit; the brittle great fig-trees Snap off, figs and all; For here comes the whole of the tempest No refuge but creep Back again to my side or my shoulder, And listen or sleep.”
This may be poetry, but it is poetry in the raw material; for the numbers are those of a scrannel pipe, and such as Cadmus alone could pronounce when in the state of a serpent. This which follows is the mere twaddle of a Cockney at Calais or Cologne :—
“Home-Thoughts from Abroad.
“Oh, to be in England, Now that April's there, And who wakes in England
Rest on your woodland banks and wither there,
Than live misused to fill the grasp of care,
Ye are no longer Nature's gracious gift,
But a most bitter irony to lift
Si sic omnia dirisset ! This is poetry in all languages; it is like mercury, never to be lost or killed.
There is a passage in one of Lady Mary Wortley Montague's letters to her daughter which still continues to excite a smile on the lips of every reader,
“The study of English poetry is a more important part of a woman's education than it is generally supposed. Many a young damsel has been ruined by a fine copy of verses, which she would have laughed at if she had known it had been stolen from Mr. Waller. I remember, when I was a girl. I saved one of my companions from destruction, who communicated to me an epistle she was quite charmed with. As she had naturally a good taste, she observed the lines were not so smooth as Prior's or Pope's, but had more thought and spirit than any of theirs. She was wonderfully delighted with such a demonstration of her lover's sense and passion, and not a little pleased with her own charms that had force enough to inspire such elegan. cies. In this triumph 1 showed her that they were taken from Randolph's poems, and the unfortunate transcriber was dismissed with the scorn he deserved.”
The reason assigned for the study of English poetry by English ladies, is truly characteristic of Lady Mary and of the female mind. A lady is to read through every volume of verse, and remember what she reads, to see that her lover writes his own valentine. Ye gods, should one swear to the truth of a song! If a woman will marry a poet, she had better go through the course of study Lady Mary recommends. Not that she is safe to secure a poet to herself after a very long life of study. How few read Randolph, and yet he is a very fine poet. Lady Mary might have taken a copy of verses from Randolph to every female writer of the day, and passed them off for the production of a young, a handsome, and a rising writer, and no one would have set her right, or detected the imposition that was passed upon her. We are afraid we must recom
* Letters by Lord Wharncliffe, 2d edit. iii. 44.
mend the study of our early English poets