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Central Literary Nagariye.
It must be borne in mind that this Magazine is neutral in Politics and Religion; its pages are open to a free expression of all shades of opinion without leaning to any.
MODERN ENGLISH POETS.*
DISREGARDING, for once, the course taken by my immediate predecessors, I have decided to escape from the region of politics and devote the brief space of time at my disposal to a consideration of the work of our modern English poets, with a view to estimating in some sort the general position held by poetry in the literature of our time.
I hope that in the course of my remarks I shall not fall foul of any member's favourite poet, although I must confess that I would far rather do that than fall foul of his favourite politician. But I am about to maintain that there has been a well-marked declension in the verse portion of our literature, and that it exhibits a considerable falling off as compared both with that of the age immediately preceding, and with several other epochs in the literature of this country. Indeed, the fact, that in the preceding era, the Georgian era, there shone contemporaneously a constellation of poetic stars such as have seldom appeared together, makes the comparative darkness of these latter times more noticeable and less tolerable. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Scott, Moore, Campbell, Crabbe, form indeed a brilliant
Being the Presidential Address delivered to the members of the Association, on October 3rd, 1879.
array, that collectively defies competition with any names that the present age has produced. And it should be specially borne in mind, too, that the great names I have mentioned were great names in their own day; they are sufficiently near our own time to enable us to gauge the esteem in which they were then held, and there is no need to strip them of any of the posthumous fame and veneration which generally so quickly attaches to the great dead. A new poem of Scott's or Byron's created an excitement which we should seek in vain in connection with the work of any modern poet, although the number of cultured readers cannot fail to have been immensely increased. A new poem, say by the Laureate, certainly does at the present day make a stir. Mr. Mudie subscribes for a very large number of copies, and he does so because for a time a very brisk demand will be made at his establishments for the work; an early copy of the poem is "gutted," and sent, at considerable expense of telegraphing, to the principal daily newspapers in the country. A great many people get the poem from Mudie's; some of them no doubt read it; a great many more read the long newspaper extract, but it is far from evoking anything like national enthusiasm. It may be that we have lost, or are losing, our faculty of becoming enthusiastic, but I do not think this is so. On occasions we can be as enthusiastic as ever, but these do not appear to be poetic occasions. If we want to find a closer parallel to the strong interest formerly manifested, not by the æsthetic few, but by the bulk of the moderately educated portion of the nation, we should find it at the present day rather, I imagine, in connection with new works from the pen of George Eliot, William Black, or some other of our modern masters of fiction.
Now, although I have advanced the proposition that there is a marked falling-off in the number of our great poets, and in the quality of their productions as compared with the age immediately preceding, I am by no means inclined to admit that at the present day we are without great poets. Although it is evident that Tennyson and the Brownings, Swinburne and Morris, are by no means sufficient to turn the balance as against Coleridge and Wordsworth, Byron, Scott, Shelley, Southey, Keats, and the other great poets contemporary with them, it by no means follows that the first named are not great poets. At the same time it is difficult to believe that, with the exception of Mrs. Browning's “ Aurora Leigh," any poem of the writers named has achieved on its production anything like considerable popularity. Had Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived to this day it is possible that she would have continued to preserve the traditions of the Georgian era, and that her other poems would have been looked for as eagerly, and would have been read at least as widely, as those of Byron, or Coleridge, or Scott
. I am inclined to believe that the fragmentary publication of the “ Idylls of the King,” perhaps the widest read of Tennyson's works, has detracted considerably from the public interest that would have greeted their appearance in a complete and collected form at the first; and the fact that the “Idylls” are so many short poems relating to the same subject, that “In Memoriam ” possesses the same characteristics, and that both are consequently shorn of some of the attractions of a magnum opus, has, coupled with the disproportionate production of quite brief lyrical pieces, caused the mark made by the Laureate on the poetical literature of the age to be considerably less than might have been reasonably expected from his undoubted genius. After all it is the great poems, and not the collections of short poems, however brilliant these may be, that make a great literature; and a great poet even may, by the method he pursues, fail to some extent alike in getting a strong hold on the public of his day, and in leaving the mark he might otherwise leave on the literature of his time. The very special circumstance that called “In Memoriam” into existence constitutes a very valid reason for the form taken by that work, but no reason at all for Tennyson's abstention from a work which, in its scope and construction, might have challenged comparison with the greatest poems of the language. That he would not have failed by reason of want of harmony and ingenuity in construction is proved by the undoubted success which attended the Laureate's efforts in a field where both are indispensable—that is, in dramatic literature.
“Queen Mary” is most assuredly a fine poem, but it is none the less a really admirable play; excellent in construction and harmonious in design; revealing powers in its author with which, up to the date of its appearance, he was not generally credited. Report says that “ Thomas à Becket,” Tennyson's latest essay in this field of poetry, is even a grander work; so it may yet be that as a writer of blank verse plays Tennyson will gain much of his fame. As it is there are few of the many great poets of the age immediately preceding him that have not left us as much that posterity is likely to prize. Some of them who have written far less-as, for example, Coleridge-have been lacking in quantity alone, and have greatly excelled most living poets in what a critic has very aptly designated the perfection of execution," the exquisite art with which in their poetry the divine spirit is endowed with formal expression.
To Tennyson it must at least be conceded that, despite the absence of any one really great and noble poem, his many brief lyrical pieces, and indeed all his poetry, have been intelligible to the reader of ordinary comprehension, and have furnished pleasant and charming reading to many thousands of his countrymen and countrywomen. Without the furore that was wont to accompany the production of new poems in the last age, there has been a wide-spread interest in the successive works of the Laureate, and, considering the revolution caused in the book trade by the establishment of Mudie's and similar libraries, there can be no doubt that they have met with a sale that years ago would have been considered enormous. Tennyson is eminently a readable poet, more especially when contrasted with other modern poets; in this respect he gains nothing, however, in comparison with the Georgian poets, who are all characterised by the same highly necessary qualification. Like them he needs no interpreter, there is nothing mystic or mysterious to baffle and perplex one in his writings. But when we come to the next great name of modern times, Robert Browning, we are entitled to cry out and complain that we do
really need someone to make clear and interpret to us much that he has written. If we take up almost any of the great poems of our language, we find no very great difficulty in seeing almost eye to eye with the poet, and if we are possessed of any sympathy and sensibility at all
, we can easily follow and enjoy his work. But to me, I must confess, it seems that a long expatriation is necessary to anything like a complete mastery of Browning, and life is too short, and opportunities too rare, to admit of many of us indulging in this. We cannot all, nor, indeed, many of us, be Englishmen abroad; the charms of Italy and Italian life are great no doubt, but even in an age of Cook's tours they are not for everybody, and we feel somehow that our poet breathes another air, is far away, oftentime up in the skies, and that it is a hard matter to get thoroughly en rapport with him, or to enjoy his writing as we can and do enjoy the writings of the great poets of the past. That Browning is verily a great poet few would venture to deny, but that he is a popular poet, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, at the present time, or that he is at all a widely read poet, few I believe would venture to assert. certain degree a great deal of the mysterious and incomprehensible has become the fashion in the domain of literature as in the domain of art, and poetry has not been altogether exempt from the infection. Browning has not been content with being a poet in his poetry. Metaphysics, logic, satire, philosophy, and a proneness to play at hide-and-seek with words, all injure to some extent his poetry, and materially interfere with the number of his readers. If we add to these a deficient sense of the beautiful, an arbitrary selection of abnormal types of character and mental conditions, and an inexplicable but overwhelming preference of the Police News of all time as the répertoire whence to derive his subjects, we can hardly be astonished that Browning has never been a popular poet, in the sense that the poets of the last generation were popular. I should like, if time had admitted of it, to have dwelt at somewhat greater length on Swinburne and Morris, partly because they are the exponents of a different school from our other poets, and partly because of the undoubted genius their writings display. That Swinburne possesses the true poetic fire is not to be disputed, but it is just as certain that the depravity, the grossness, and the viciousness of his imagination, more than counterbalance the melody of his expression and the wonderfully felicitous character of his language. In a certain sense I may say that Swinburne has been done into prose by certain of our lady novelists, and I do not think the process has had any very beneficial result, either on the literature or the morals of this generation. The "Earthly Paradise" of William Morris is a work that after times will not willingly let die is equally true. It is, however, I am afraid, almost too true that the wall papers of the last-named poet are more widely and favourably known in this material nineteeth century to the bulk of fairly intelligent and decently educated men and women, than are his “Earthiy Paradise," and “Life and Death of Jason;" and it may be, perhaps, that to the cry of "Wanted poets,” he and others might retort with truth “Wanted a public who will read our poetry ?”
In spite of the fact that poems of great beauty and great merit have been added to our literature by the writers we have named, we are forced to come back to the proposition that, as compared with the last age and, speaking broadly, as compared with the whole preceding history of our literature, the growth of the poetical element has in these latter days been very inadequately sustained. And in seeking the causes we should endeavour to analyse the various conditions which affect the literary life of the nation at the present day, and not blame the poets we have, because greater poets than they, and greater poems than theirs have not been produced. At other periods of the world's history the temporary eclipse of the poetical element in literature has been signalised both by a declension in literature generally and by a decay in civilisation. In our age I do not think it can for a moment be conceded that our prose literature has in any way declined. In most departments, if not, indeed, in all-in fiction, history, biography, scientific literature, theology, travel, criticism—it is very difficult indeed to perceive any falling off ; nay, it is not difficult to mark a decided advance. I shall endeavour to show by-and-by that the very encouragement the age extends to some of these forms of literature has had no little to do, in all probability, with the comparative decline of poetry. As for civilisation-well, it all depends upon what is understood by the term; it depends upon what people call civilization. Who, in these days of board schools, half-penny post cards, " deputations," and society journals, can say we have retrograded in the matter of civilization? The decline of poetry would seem then to be a decline per se, and not a portion or a concomitant of any general declension of literature and of civilisation. It has been asserted that, as a rule, the verse ages have been ages of higher glow than the prose ones. If we turn to the history of our literature we shall find this amply borne out. In the Elizabethan era there can be no more doubt that the national heart beat with vigour, than there can be of the preponderance of poetry over prose in the wonderful enrichment of our literature at that period ; and, to take more recent times, it is, I was going to say, almost within the recollection of some of us; it certainly is or was within the memory of some of our immediate progenitors that the time that produced Coleridge and Wordsworth, Byron and Scott, Southey, Shelley, Keats, Campbell, Crabbe, and Moore, was the time when this country had been engaged for nearly a quarter-of-a-century in a gigantic conflict
, in which its very existence as a nation was involved. The desperate struggle with Napoleon, and sometimes it was waged single-handed with Napoleon and almost all Europe combined, was sufficient to thrill the nation through and through with national life, and a touch, at any rate, of national heroics. An intense glow must have pervaded the people from end to end of the realm, and, if it be true that verse ages are the ages of higher glow than prose ages, there is little wonder that that was emphatically a verse age. Wordsworth was a Cambridge undergraduate, on a tour in France in the year that the French Revolution broke out. His first volume appeared in the same year that witnessed the decapital