CHAPTER XXXII. POETRY OF THE TRANSITION SCHOOL.
The Transition Period. James Thomson. The Seasons. The Castle of
Indolence. Mark Akenside. Pleasures of the Imagination. Thomas Gray.
The Elegy. The Bard. William Cowper. The Task. Translation of Homer.
THE TRANSITION PERIOD.
The poetical standards of Dryden and Pope, as poetic examples and arbiters, exercised tyrannical sway to the middle of the eighteenth century, and continued to be felt, with relaxing influence, however, to a much later period. Poetry became impatient of too close a captivity to technical rules in rhythm and in subjects, and began once again to seek its inspiration from the worlds of nature and of feeling. While seeking this change, it passed through what has been properly called the period of transition,—a period the writers of which are distinctly marked as belonging neither to the artificial classicism of Pope, nor to the simple naturalism of Wordsworth and the Lake school; partaking, indeed, in some degree of the former, and preparing the way for the latter.
The excited condition of public feeling during the earlier period, incident to the accession of the house of Hanover and the last struggles of the Jacobites, had given a political character to every author, and a political significance to almost every literary work. At the close of this abnormal condition of things, the poets of the transition school began their labors; untrammelled by the court and the town, they invoked the muse in green fields and by babbling brooks; from materialistic philosophy in verse they appealed through the senses to the hearts of men; and appreciation and popularity rewarded and encouraged them.
JAMES THOMSON.—The first distinguished writer of this school was Thomson, the son of a Scottish minister. He was born on the 11th of September, 1700, at Ednam in Roxburghshire. While a boy at school in Jedburgh, he displayed poetical talent: at the University of Edinburgh he completed his scholastic course, and studied divinity; which, however, he did not pursue as a profession. Being left, by his father's death, without means, he resolved to go to the great metropolis to try his fortunes. He arrived in London in sorry plight, without money, and with ragged shoes; but through the assistance of some persons of station, he procured occupation as tutor to a lord's son, and thus earned a livelihood until the publication of his first poem in 1726. That poem was Winter, the first of the series called The Seasons: it was received with unusual favor. The first edition was speedily exhausted, and with the publication of the second, his position as a poet was assured. In 1727 he produced the second poem of the series,Summer, and, with it, a proposal for issuing the Four Seasons, with a Hymn on their succession. In 1728 his Spring appeared, and in the next year an unsuccessful tragedy called Sophonisba, which owed its immediate failure to the laughter occasioned by the line,
O Sophonisba, Sophonisba O!
This was parodied by some wag in these words:
O Jemmie Thomson, Jemmie Thomson O!
and the ridicule was so potent that the play was ruined.
The last of the seasons, Autumn, and the Hymn, were first printed in a complete edition of The Seasons, in 1730. It was at once conceded that he had gratified the cravings of the day, In producing a real and beautiful English pastoral. The reputation which he thus gained caused him to be selected as the mentor and companion of the son of Sir Charles Talbot in a tour through France and Italy in 1730 and 1731.
In 1734 he published the first part of a poem called Liberty, the conclusion of which appeared in 1736. It is designed to trace the progress of Liberty through Italy, Greece, and Rome, down to her excellent establishment in Great Britain, and was dedicated to Frederick, Prince of Wales.
His tragedies Agamemnon and Edward and Eleanora are in the then prevailing taste. They were issued in 1738-39. The latter is of political significance, in that Edward was like Frederick the Prince of Wales—heir apparent to the crown; and some of the passages are designed to strengthen the prince in the favor of the people.
The personal life of Thomson is not of much interest. From his first residence in London, he supported, with his slender means, a brother, who died young of consumption, and aided two maiden sisters, who kept a small milliner-shop in Edinburgh. This is greatly to his praise, as he was at one time so poor that he was arrested for debt and committed to prison. As his reputation increased, his fortunes were ameliorated. In 1745 his play Tancred and Sigismunda was performed. It was founded upon a story universally popular,—the same which appears in the episode of The Fatal Marriage in Gil Bias, and in one of the stories of Boccaccio. He enjoyed for a short time a pension from the Prince of Wales, of which, however, he was deprived without apparent cause; but he received the office of Surveyor-General of the Leeward Islands, the duties of which he could perform by deputy; after that he lived a lazy life at his cottage near Richmond, which, if otherwise reprehensible, at least gave him the power to write his most beautiful poem, The Castle of Indolence. It appeared in 1748, and was universally admired; it has a rhetorical harmony similar and quite equal to that of the Lotos Eaters of Tennyson. The poet, who had become quite plethoric, was heated by a walk from London, and, from a check of perspiration, was thrown into a high fever, a relapse of which caused his death on the 27th of August, 1748. His friend Lord Lyttleton wrote the prologue to his play of Coriolanus, which was acted after the poet's death, in which he says:
”—His chaste Muse employed her heaven-taught lyre
None but the noblest missions to inspire,
Not one immoral, one corrupted thought,
One line which, dying, he could wish to blot.”
The praise accorded him in this much-quoted line is justly his due: it is greater praise that he was opening a new pathway in English Literature, and supplying better food than the preceding age had given. HisSeasons supplied a want of the age: it was a series of beautiful pastorals. The descriptions of nature will always be read and quoted with pleasure; the little episodes, if they affect the unity, relieve the monotony of the subject, and, like figures introduced by the painter into his landscape, take away the sense of loneliness, and give us a standard at once of judgment, of measurement, and of sympathetic enjoyment; they display, too, at once the workings of his own mind in his production, and the manners and sentiments of the age in which he wrote. It was fitting that he who had portrayed for us such beautiful gardens of English nature, should people them instead of leaving them solitary.
THE CASTLE OF INDOLENCE.—This is an allegory, written after the manner of Spenser, and in the Spenserian stanza. He also employs archaic words, as Spenser did, to give it greater resemblance to Spenser's poem. The allegorical characters are well described, and the sumptuous adornings and lazy luxuries of the castle are set forth con amore. The spell that enchants the castle is broken by the stalwart knight Industry; but the glamour of the poem remains, and makes the reader in love with Indolence.
MARK AKENSIDE.—Thomson had restored or reproduced the pastoral from Nature's self; Akenside followed in his steps. Thomson had invested blank verse with a new power and beauty; Akenside produced it quite as excellent. But Thomson was the original, and Akenside the copy. The one is natural, the other artificial.
Akenside was the son of a butcher, and was born at New Castle, in 1721. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, he studied medicine, and received, at different periods, lucrative and honorable professional appointments. His great work, and the only one to which we need refer, is his Pleasures of the Imagination. Whether his view of the imagination is always correct or not, his sentiments are always elevated; his language high sounding but frequently redundant, and his versification correct and pleasing. His descriptions of nature are cold but correct; his standard of humanity is high but mortal. Grand and sonorous, he constructs his periods with the manner of a declaimer; his ascriptions and apostrophes are like those of a high-priest. The title of his poem, if nothing more, suggested The Pleasures-of Hope to Campbell, and The Pleasures of Memory to Rogers. As a man, Akenside was overbearing and dictatorial; as a hospital surgeon, harsh in his treatment of poor patients. His hymn to the Naiads has been considered the most thoroughly and correctly classical of anything in English. He died on the 23rd of June, 1770.
THOMAS GRAY.—Among those who form a link between the school of Pope and that of the modern poets, Gray occupies a distinguished place, both from the excellence of his writings, and from the fact that, while he unconsciously conduced to the modern, he instinctively resisted its progress. He was in taste and intention an extreme classicist. Thomas Gray was born in London on the 26th December, 1716. His father was a money scrivener, and, to his family at least, a bad man; his mother, forced to support herself, kept a linen-draper shop; and to her the poet owed his entire education. He was entered at Eton College, and afterwards at Cambridge, and found in early life such friendships as were of great importance to him later in his career. Among his college friends were Horace Walpole, West, the son of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and William Mason, who afterwards wrote the poet's life. After completing his college course, he travelled on the continent with Walpole; but, on account of incompatibility of temper, they quarrelled and parted, and Gray returned home. Although Walpole took the blame upon himself, it would appear that Gray was a somewhat captious person, whose serious tastes interfered with the gayer pleasures of his friend. On his return, Gray went to Cambridge, where he led the life of a retired student, devoting himself to the ancient authors, to poetry, botany, architecture, and heraldry. He was fastidious as to his own productions, which were very few, and which he kept by him, pruning, altering, and polishing, for a long time before he would let them see the light. His lines entitled A Distant Prospect of Eton College appeared in 1742, and were received with great applause.
It was at this time that he also began his Elegy in a Country Churchyard; which, however, did not appear until seven or eight years later, and which has made him immortal. The grandeur of its language, the elevation of its sentiments, and the sympathy of its pathos, commend it to all classes and all hearts; and of its kind of composition it stands alone in English literature.
The ode on the progress of poetry appeared in 1755. Like the Elegy, his poem of The Bard was for several years on the literary easel, and he was accidentally led to finish it by hearing a blind harper performing on a Welsh harp.
On the death of Cibber, Gray was offered the laureate's crown, which he declined, to avoid its conspicuousness and the envy of his brother poets. In 1762, he applied for the professorship of modern history at Cambridge, but failed to obtain the position. He was more fortunate in 1768, when it again became vacant; but he held it as a sinecure, doing none of its duties. He died in 1770, on the 3d of July, of gout in the stomach. His habits were those of a recluse; and whether we agree or not, with Adam Smith, in saying that nothing is wanting to render him perhaps the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more, it is astonishing that so great and permanent a reputation should have been founded on so very little as he wrote. Gray has been properly called the finest lyric poet in the language; and his lyric power strikes us as intuitive and original; yet he himself, adhering strongly to the artificial school, declared, if there was any excellence in his own numbers, he had learned it wholly from Dryden. His archaeological tastes are further shown by his enthusiastic study of heraldry, and by his surrounding himself with old armor and other curious relics of the past. Mr. Mitford, in a curious dissection of the Elegy, has found numerous errors of rhetoric, and even of grammar.
His Bard is founded on a tradition that Edward I., when he conquered Wales, ordered all the bards to be put to death, that they might not, by their songs, excite the Welsh people to revolt. The last one who figures in his story, sings a lament for his brethren, prophesies the downfall of the usurper, and then throws himself over the cliff:
“Be thine despair and sceptered care,
To triumph and to die are mine!”
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain's height,
Deep in the roaring tide, he plunged to endless night.
WILLIAM COWPER.—Next in the catalogue of the transition school occurs the name of one who, like Gray, was a recluse, but with a better reason and a sadder one. He was a gentle hypochondriac, and, at intervals, a maniac, who literally turned to poetry, like Saul to the harper, for relief from his sufferings. William Cowper, the eldest son of the Rector of Berkhampsted in Hertfordshire, was born on the 15th of November, 1731. He was a delicate and sensitive child, and was seriously affected by the loss of his mother when he was six years old. At school, he was cruelly treated by an older boy, which led to his decided views against public schools, expressed in his poem called Tirocinium. His morbid sensitiveness increased upon him as he grew older, and interfered with his legal studies and advancement. His depression of spirits took a religious turn; and we are glad to think that religion itself brought the balm which gave him twelve years of unclouded mind, devoted to friendship and to poetry. He was offered, by powerful friends, eligible positions connected with the House of Lords, in 1762; but as the one of these which he accepted was threatened with a public examination, he abandoned it in horror; not, however, before the fearful suspense had unsettled his brain, so that he was obliged to be placed, for a short time, in an asylum for the insane. When he left this asylum, he went to Huntingdon, where he became acquainted with the Rev. William Unwin, who, with his wife and son, seem to have been congenial companions to his desolate heart. On the death of Mr. Unwin, in 1767, he removed with the widow to Olney, and there formed an intimate acquaintance with another clergyman, the Rev. William Newton. Here, and in this society, the remainder of the poet's life was passed in writing letters, which have been considered the best ever written in England; in making hymns, in conjunction with Mr. Newton, which have ever since been universal favorites; and in varied poetic attempts, which give him high rank in the literature of the day. The first of his larger pieces was a poem entitled, The Progress of Error, which appeared in 1783, when the author had reached the advanced age of 52. Then followed Truth and Expostulation, which, according to the poet himself, did much towards diverting his melancholy thoughts. These poems would not have fixed his fame; but Lady Austen, an accomplished woman with whom he became acquainted in 1781, deserves our gratitude for having proposed to him the subjects of those poems which have really made him famous, namely, The Task, John Gilpin, and the translation of Homer. Before, however, undertaking these, he wrote poems on Hope, Charity, Conversation and Retirement. The story of John Gilpin—a real one as told him by Lady Austen—made such an impression upon him, that he dashed off the ballad at a sitting.
THE TASK.—The origin of The Task is well known. In 1783, Lady Austen suggested to him to write a poem in blank verse: he said he would, if she would suggest the subject. Her answer was, “Write onthis sofa.” The poem thus begun was speedily expanded into those beautiful delineations of varied nature, domestic life, and religious sentiment which rivalled the best efforts of Thomson. The title that connects them is The Task. Tirocinium or the Review of Schools, appeared soon after, and excited considerable attention in a country where public education has been the rule of the higher social life. Cowper began the translation of Homer in 1785, from a feeling of the necessity of employment for his mind. His translations of both Iliad and Odyssey, which occupied him for five years, and which did not entirely keep off his old enemy, were published in 1791. They are correct in scholarship and idiom, but lack the nature and the fire of the old Grecian bard.
The rest of his life was busy, but sad—a constant effort to drive away madness by incessant labor. The loss of his friend, Mrs. Unwin, in 1796, affected him deeply, and the clouds settled thicker and thicker upon his soul. In the year before his death, he published that painfully touching poem, The Castaway, which gives an epitome of his own sufferings in the similitude of a wretch clinging to a spar in a stormy night upon the Atlantic.
His minor and fugitive poems are very numerous; and as they were generally inspired by persons and scenes around him, they are truly literary types of the age in which he lived. In his Task, he resembles Thomson and Akenside; in his didactic poems, he reminds us of the essays of Pope; in his hymns he catered successfully to the returning piety of the age; in his translations of Homer and of Ovid, he presented the ancients to moderns in a new and acceptable dress; and in his Letters he sets up an epistolary model, which may be profitably studied by all who desire to express themselves with energy, simplicity, and delicate taste.
OTHER WRITERS OF THE TRANSITION SCHOOL.
James Beattie, 1735-1803: he was the son of a farmer, and was educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he was afterwards professor of natural philosophy. For four years he taught a village school. His first poem, Retirement, was not much esteemed; but in 1771 appeared the first part of The Minstrel, a poem at once descriptive, didactic, and romantic. This was enthusiastically received, and gained for him the favor of the king, a pension of L200 per annum, and a degree from Oxford. The second part was published in 1774. The Minstrel is written in the Spenserian stanza, and abounds in beautiful descriptions of nature, marking a very decided progress from the artificial to the natural school. The character of Edwin, the young minstrel, ardent in search for the beautiful and the true, is admirably portrayed; as is also that of the hermit who instructs the youth. The opening lines are very familiar:
Ah, who can tell how hard it is to climb
The steep where Fame's proud temple shines afar;
and the description of the morning landscape has no superior in the language:
But who the melodies of morn can tell?
The wild brook babbling down the mountain side;
The lowing herd; the sheepfold's simple bell;
The pipe of early shepherd dim descried
In the lone valley.
Beattie wrote numerous prose dissertations and essays, one of which was in answer to the infidel views of Hume—Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism. Beattie was of an excitable and sensitive nature, and his polemical papers are valued rather for the beauty of their language, than for acuteness of logic.
William Falconer, 1730-1769: first a sailor in the merchant service, he afterwards entered the navy. He is chiefly known by his poem The Shipwreck, and for its astonishing connection with his own fortunes and fate. He was wrecked off Cape Colonna, on the coast of Greece, before he was eighteen; and this misfortune is the subject of his poem. Again, in 1760, he was cast away in the Channel. In 1769, the Aurora frigate, of which he was the purser, foundered in Mozambique Channels, and he, with all others on board, went down with her. The excellence of his nautical directions and the vigor of his descriptions establish the claims of his poem; but it has the additional interest attaching to his curious experience—it is his autobiography and his enduring monument. The picture of the storm is very fine; but in the handling of his verse there is more of the artificial than of the romantic school.
William Shenstone, 1714-1763: his principal work is The Schoolmistress, a poem in the stanza of Spenser, which is pleasing from its simple and sympathizing description of the village school, kept by a dame; with the tricks and punishment of the children, and many little traits of rural life and character. It is pitched in so low a key that it commends itself to the world at large. Shenstone is equally known for his mania in landscape gardening, upon which he spent all his means. His place, The Leasowes in Shropshire, has gained the greater notoriety through the descriptions of Dodsley and Goldsmith. The natural simplicity of The Schoolmistress allies it strongly to the romantic school, which was now about to appear.
William Collins, 1720-1756: this unfortunate poet, who died at the early age of thirty-six, deserves particular mention for the delicacy of his fancy and the beauty of his diction. His Ode on the Passions is universally esteemed for its sudden and effective changes from the bewilderment of Fear, the violence of Anger, and the wildness of Despair to the rapt visions of Hope, the gentle dejection of Pity, and the sprightliness of Mirth and Cheerfulness. His Ode on the Death of Thomson is an exquisite bit of pathos, as is also the Dirge on Cymbeline. Everybody knows and admires the short ode beginning
How sleep the brave who sink to rest
By all their country's wishes blest!
His Oriental Eclogues please by the simplicity of the colloquies, the choice figures of speech, and the fine descriptions of nature. But of all his poems, the most finished and charming is the Ode to Evening. It contains thirteen four-lined stanzas of varied metre, and in blank verse so full of harmony that rhyme would spoil it. It presents a series of soft, dissolving views, and stands alone in English poetry, with claims sufficient to immortalize the poet, had he written nothing else. The latter part of his life was clouded by mental disorders, not unsuggested to the reader by the pathos of many of his poems. Like Gray, he wrote little, but every line is of great merit.
Henry Kirke White, 1785-1806: the son of a butcher, this gifted youth displayed, in his brief life, such devotion to study, and such powers of mind, that his friends could not but predict a brilliant future for him, had he lived. Nothing that he produced is of the highest order of poetic merit, but everything was full of promise. Of a weak constitution, he could not bear the rigorous study which he prescribed to himself, and which hastened his death. With the kind assistance of Mr. Capel Lofft and the poet Southey, he was enabled to leave the trade to which he had been apprenticed and go to Cambridge. His poems have most of them a strongly devotional cast. Among them are Gondoline, Clifton Grove, and the Christiad, in the last of which, like the swan, he chants his own death-song. His memory has been kept green by Southey's edition of his Remains, and by the beautiful allusion of Byron to his genius and his fate in The English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. His sacred piece called The Star of Bethlehem has been a special favorite:
When marshalled on the nightly plain
The glittering host bestud the sky,
One star alone of all the train
Can fix the sinner's wandering eye.
Bishop Percy, 1728-1811: Dr. Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore, deserves particular notice in a sketch of English Literature not so much for his own works,—although he was a poet,—as for his collection of ballads, made with great research and care, and published in 1765. By bringing before the world these remains of English songs and idyls, which lay scattered through the ages from the birth of the language, he showed England the true wealth of her romantic history, and influenced the writers of the day to abandon the artificial and reproduce the natural, the simple, and the romantic. He gave the impulse which produced the minstrelsy of Scott and the simple stories of Wordsworth. Many of these ballads are descriptive of the border wars between England and Scotland; among the greatest favorites are Chevy Chase, The Battle of Otterburne, The Death of Douglas, and the story of Sir Patrick Spens.
Anne Letitia Barbauld, 1743-1825: the hymns and poems of Mrs. Barbauld are marked by an adherence to the artificial school in form and manner; but something of feminine tenderness redeems them from the charge of being purely mechanical. Her Hymns in Prose for Children have been of value in an educational point of view; and the tales comprised in Evenings at Home are entertaining and instructive. HerOde to Spring, which is an imitation of Collins's Ode to Evening, in the same measure and comprising the same number of stanzas, is her best poetic effort, and compares with Collins's piece as an excellent copy compares with the picture of a great master.