CHAPTER VI. DR. JOHNSON AND HIS TIME
By 1730 the authors whose work made the “classic” school in England were dead or had ceased writing; by the same date Samuel Johnson had begun his career as a man of letters. The difference between the period of his maturity and the period we have been examining is not perhaps easy to define; but it exists and it can be felt unmistakably in reading. For one thing “Classicism” had become completely naturalized; it had ceased to regard the French as arbiters of elegance and literary taste; indeed Johnson himself never spoke of them without disdain and hated them as much as he hated Scotsmen. Writing, like dress and the common way of life, became plainer and graver and thought stronger and deeper. In manners and speech something of the brutalism which was at the root of the English character at the time began to colour the refinement of the preceding age. Dilettantism gave way to learning and speculation; in the place of Bolingbroke came Adam Smith; in the place of Addison, Johnson. In a way it is the solidest and sanest time in English letters. Yet in the midst of its urbanity and order forces were gathering for its destruction. The ballad-mongers were busy; Blake was drawing and rhyming; Burns was giving songs and lays to his country-side. In the distance—Johnson could not hear them—sounded, like the horns of elf-land faintly blowing, the trumpet calls of romance.
If the whole story of Dr. Johnson's life were the story of his published books it would be very difficult to understand his pre-eminent and symbolic position in literary history. His best known work—it still remains so—was his dictionary, and dictionaries, for all the licence they give and Johnson took for the expression of a personality, are the business of purely mechanical talents. A lesser man than he might have cheated us of such delights as the definitions of “oats,” or “net” or “pension,” but his book would certainly have been no worse as a book. In his early years he wrote two satires in verse in imitation of Juvenal; they were followed later by two series of periodical essays on the model of the Spectator; neither of them—the Rambler nor the Idler—were at all successful. Rasselas, a tale with a purpose, is melancholy reading; the Journey to the Western Hebrides has been utterly eclipsed by Boswell's livelier and more human chronicle of the same events. The Lives of the Poets, his greatest work, was composed with pain and difficulty when he was seventy years old; even it is but a quarry from which a reader may dig the ore of a sound critical judgment summing up a life's reflection, out of the grit and dust of perfunctory biographical compilations. There was hardly one of the literary coterie over which he presided that was not doing better and more lasting work. Nothing that Johnson wrote is to be compared, for excellence in its own manner, with Tom Jones or the Vicar of Wakefield or the Citizen of the World. He produced nothing in writing approaching the magnitude of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or the profundity of Burke's philosophy of politics. Even Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose main business was painting and not the pen, was almost as good an author as he; his Discourses have little to fear when they are set beside Johnson's essays. Yet all these men recognised him as their guide and leader; the spontaneous selection of such a democratic assembly as men of genius in a tavern fixed upon him as chairman, and we in these later days, who are safe from the overpowering force of personality and presence—or at least can only know of it reflected in books—instinctively recognize him as the greatest man of his age. What is the reason?
Johnson's pre-eminence is the pre-eminence of character. He was a great moralist; he summed up in himself the tendencies of thought and literature of his time and excelled all others in his grasp of them; and he was perhaps more completely than any one else in the whole history of English literature, the typical Englishman. He was one of those to whom is applicable the commonplace that he was greater than his books. It is the fashion nowadays among some critics to speak of his biographer Boswell as if he were a novelist or a playwright and to classify the Johnson we know with Hamlet and Don Quixote as the product of creative or imaginative art, working on a “lost original.” No exercise of critical ingenuity could be more futile or impertinent. The impression of the solidity and magnitude of Johnson's character which is to be gathered from Boswell is enforced from other sources; from his essays and his prayers and meditations, from the half-dozen or so lives and reminiscences which were published in the years following his death (their very number establishing the reverence with which he was regarded), from the homage of other men whose genius their books leave indisputable. Indeed the Johnson we know from Boswell, though it is the broadest and most masterly portrait in the whole range of biography, gives less than the whole magnitude of the man. When Boswell first met him at the age of twenty-two, Johnson was fifty-four. His long period of poverty and struggle was past. His Dictionary and all his works except the Lives of the Poets were behind him; a pension from the Crown had established him in security for his remaining years; his position was universally acknowledged. So that though the portrait in the Life is a full-length study of Johnson the conversationalist and literary dictator, the proportion it preserves is faulty and its study of the early years—the years of poverty, of the Vanity of Human Wishes and London, of Rasselas, which he wrote to pay the expenses of his mother's funeral, is slight.
It was, however, out of the bitterness and struggle of these early years that the strength and sincerity of character which carried Johnson surely and tranquilly through the time of his triumph were derived. From the beginning he made no compromise with the world and no concession to fashion. The world had to take him at his own valuation or not at all. He never deviated one hair's breadth from the way he had chosen. Judged by the standards of journalistic success, the Rambler could not well be worse than he made it. Compared with the lightness and gaiety and the mere lip-service to morality of Addison its edification is ponderous. Both authors state the commonplaces of conduct, but Addison achieves lightness in the doing of it, and his manner by means of which platitudes are stated lightly and pointedly and with an air of novelty, is the classic manner of journalism. Johnson goes heavily and directly to the point, handling well worn moral themes in general and dogmatic language without any attempt to enliven them with an air of discovery or surprise. Yet they were, in a sense, discoveries to him; not one of them but was deeply and sincerely felt; not one but is not a direct and to us a pathetically dispassionate statement of the reflection of thirty years of grinding poverty and a soul's anguish. Viewed in the light of his life, the Rambler is one of the most moving of books. If its literary value is slight it is a document in character.
So that when he came to his own, when gradually the public whom he despised and neglected raised him into a pontifical position matched by none before him in England and none since save Carlyle, he was sure of himself; success did not spoil him. His judgment was unwarped by flattery. The almost passionate tenderness and humanity which lay beneath his gruffness was undimmed. His personality triumphed in all the fullness and richness which had carried it in integrity through his years of struggle. For over twenty years from his chair in taverns in the Strand and Fleet Street he ruled literary London, imposed his critical principles on the great body of English letters, and by his talk and his friendships became the embodiment of the literary temperament of his age.
His talk as it is set down by Boswell is his best monument. It was the happiest possible fate that threw those two men together, for Boswell besides being an admirer and reporter sedulously chronicling all his master said and did, fortunately influenced both the saying and the doing. Most of us have some one in whose company we best shine, who puts our wits on their mettle and spurs us to our greatest readiness and vivacity. There is no doubt that Boswell, for all his assumed humility and for all Johnson's affected disdain, was just such a companion for Johnson. Johnson was at his best when Boswell was present, and Boswell not only drew Johnson out on subjects in which his robust common sense and readiness of judgment were fitted to shine but actually suggested and conducted that tour in Scotland which gave Johnson an opportunity for displaying himself at his best. The recorded talk is extraordinarily varied and entertaining. It is a mistake to conceive Johnson as a monster of bear-like rudeness, shouting down opposition, hectoring his companions, and habitually a blustering verbal bully. We are too easily hypnotized by Macaulay's flashy caricature. He could be merciless in argument and often wrongheaded and he was always acute, uncomfortably acute, in his perception of a fallacy, and a little disconcerting in his unmasking of pretence. But he could be gay and tender too and in his heart he was a shrinking and sensitive man.
As a critic (his criticism is the only side of his literary work that need be considered), Johnson must be allowed a high place. His natural indolence in production had prevented him from exhausting his faculties in the more exacting labours of creative work, and it had left him time for omnivorous if desultory reading, the fruits of which he stored in a wonderfully retentive memory against an occasion for their use. To a very fully equipped mind he brought the service of a robust and acute judgment. Moreover when he applied his mind to a subject he had a faculty of intense, if fitful concentration; he could seize with great force on the heart of a matter; he had the power in a wonderfully short time of extracting the kernel and leaving the husk. His judgments in writing are like those recorded by Boswell from his conversation; that is to say he does not, as a critic whose medium was normally the pen rather than the tongue would tend to do, search for fine shades of distinction, subdivide subtleties, or be careful to admit caveats or exceptions; he passes, on the contrary, rapid and forcible verdicts, not seldom in their assertions untenably sweeping, and always decided and dogmatic. He never affects diffidence or defers to the judgments of others. His power of concentration, of seizing on essentials, has given us his best critical work—nothing could be better, for instance, than his characterisation of the poets whom he calls the metaphysical school (Donne, Crashaw, and the rest) which is the most valuable part of his life of Cowley. Even where he is most prejudiced—for instance in his attack on Milton's Lycidas —there is usually something to be said for his point of view. And after this concentration, his excellence depends on his basic common sense. His classicism is always tempered, like Dryden's, by a humane and sensible dislike of pedantry; he sets no store by the unities; in his preface to Shakespeare he allows more than a “classic” could have been expected to admit, writing in it, in truth, some of the manliest and wisest things in Shakespearean literature. Of course, he had his failings—the greatest of them what Lamb called imperfect sympathy. He could see no good in republicans or agnostics, and none in Scotland or France. Not that the phrase “imperfect sympathy,” which expresses by implication the romantic critic's point of view, would have appealed to him. When Dr. Johnson did not like people the fault was in them, not in him; a ruthless objectivity is part of the classic equipment. He failed, too, because he could neither understand nor appreciate poetry which concerned itself with the sensations that come from external nature. Nature was to him a closed book, very likely for a purely physical reason. He was short-sighted to the point of myopia, and a landscape meant nothing to him; when he tried to describe one as he did in the chapter on the “happy valley” in Rasselas he failed. What he did not see he could not appreciate; perhaps it is too much to ask of his self-contained and unbending intellect that he should appreciate the report of it by other men.
As we have seen, Johnson was not only great in himself, he was great in his friends. Round him, meeting him as an equal, gathered the greatest and most prolific writers of the time. There is no better way to study the central and accepted men of letters of the period than to take some full evening at the club from Boswell, read a page or two, watch what the talkers said, and then trace each back to his own works for a complete picture of his personality. The lie of the literary landscape in this wonderful time will become apparent to you as you read. You will find Johnson enthroned, Boswell at his ear, round him men like Reynolds and Burke, Richardson and Fielding and Goldsmith, Robertson and Gibbon, and occasionally drawn to the circle minnows like Beattie and a genius like Adam Smith. Gray, studious in his college at Cambridge, is exercising his fastidious talent; Collins' sequestered, carefully nurtured muse is silent; a host of minor poets are riding Pope's poetic diction, and heroic couplet to death. Outside scattered about is the van of Romance—Percy collecting his ballads; Burns making songs and verses in Scotland; the “mad” people, Smart and Chatterton, and above all Blake, obscurely beginning the work that was to finish in Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats.
Of Johnson's set the most remarkable figure was Edmund Burke—“the supreme writer,” as De Quincey called him, “of his century.” His writings belong more to the history of politics than to that of literature, and a close examination of them would be out of place here. His political theory strikes a middle course which offends—and in his own day offended—both parties in the common strife of political thinking. He believed the best government to consist in a patriotic aristocracy, ruling for the good of the people. By birth an Irishman, he had the innate practicality which commonly lies beneath the flash and colour of Irish forcefulness and rhetoric. That, and his historical training, which influenced him in the direction of conceiving every institution as the culmination of an evolutionary development, sent him directly counter to the newest and most enthusiastically urged political philosophy of his day—the philosophy stated by Rousseau, and put in action by the French Revolution. He disliked and distrusted “metaphysical theories,” when they left the field of speculation for that of practice, had no patience with “natural rights” (which as an Irishman he conceived as the product of sentimentalism) and applied what would nowadays be called a “pragmatic” test to political affairs. Practice was the touchstone; a theory was useless unless you could prove that it had worked. It followed that he was not a democrat, opposed parliamentary reform, and held that the true remedy for corruption and venality was not to increase the size of the electorate, but to reduce it so as to obtain electors of greater weight and independence. For him a member of Parliament was a representative and not a delegate, and must act not on his elector's wishes but on his own judgment. These opinions are little in fashion in our own day, but it is well to remember that in Burke's case they were the outcome not of prejudice but of thought, and that even democracy may admit they present a case that must be met and answered.
Burke's reputation as a thinker has suffered somewhat unjustly as a result of his refusal to square his tenets either with democracy or with its opposite. It has been said that ideas were only of use to him so far as they were of polemical service, that the amazing fertility and acuteness of his mind worked only in a not too scrupulous determination to overwhelm his antagonists in the several arguments—on India, or America, on Ireland or on France—which made up his political career. He was, said Carlyle, “vehement rather than earnest; a resplendent far-sighted rhetorician, rather than a deep and earnest thinker.” The words as they stand would be a good description of a certain type of politician; they would fit, for instance, very well on Mr. Gladstone; but they do Burke less than justice. He was an innovator in modern political thought, and his application of the historical method to the study of institutions is in its way a not less epoch-making achievement than Bacon's application of the inductive method to science. At a time when current political thought, led by Rousseau, was drawing its theories from the abstract conception of “natural rights” Burke was laying down that sounder and deeper notion of politics which has governed thinking in that department of knowledge since. Besides this, he had face to face with the affairs of his own day, a far-sightedness and sagacity which kept him right where other men went wrong. In a nation of the blind he saw the truth about the American colonies; he predicted with exactitude the culmination of the revolution in Napoleon. Mere rhetorical vehemence cannot explain the earnestness with which in a day of diplomatic cynicism he preached the doctrine of an international morality as strict and as binding as the morality which exists between man and man. Surest of all, we have the testimony, uninfluenced by the magic of language, of the men he met. You could not, said Dr. Johnson, shelter with him in a shed for a few moments from the rain without saying, “This is an extraordinary man.”
His literary position depends chiefly on his amazing gift of expression, on a command of language unapproached by any writer of his time. His eloquence (in writing not in speaking; he is said to have had a monotonous delivery) was no doubt at bottom a matter of race, but to his Irish readiness and flash and colour he added the strength of a full mind, fortified by a wonderful store of reading which a retentive and exact memory enabled him to bring instantly to bear on the subject in hand. No writer before him, except Defoe, had such a wide knowledge of the technicalities of different men's occupations, and of all sorts of the processes of daily business, nor could enlighten an abstract matter with such a wealth of luminous analogy. It is this characteristic of his style which has led to the common comparison of his writing with Shakespeare's; both seem to be preternaturally endowed with more information, to have a wider sweep of interest than ordinary men. Both were not only, as Matthew Arnold said of Burke, “saturated with ideas,” but saturated too in the details of the business and desire of ordinary men's lives; nothing human was alien from them. Burke's language is, therefore, always interesting and always appropriate to his thought; it is also on occasion very beautiful. He had a wonderful command of clear and ringing utterance and could appeal when he liked very powerfully to the sensibilities of his readers. Rhetoricians are seldom free from occasional extravagance, and Burke fell under the common danger of his kind. He had his moments of falsity, could heap coarse and outrageous abuse on Warren Hastings, illustrate the horrors of the Revolution by casting a dagger on the floor of the House of Commons, and nourish hatred beyond the bounds of justice or measure. But these things do not affect his position, nor take from the solid greatness of his work.
Boswell we have seen; after Burke and Boswell, Goldsmith was the most brilliant member of the Johnson circle. If part of Burke's genius is referable to his nationality, Goldsmith's is wholly so. The beginning and the end of him was Irish; every quality he possessed as a man and as a writer belongs to his race. He had the Irish carelessness, the Irish generosity, the Irish quick temper, the Irish humour. This latter gift, displayed constantly in a company which had little knowledge of the peculiar quality of Irish wit and no faculty of sympathy or imagination, is at the bottom of the constant depreciation of him on the part of Boswell and others of his set. His mock self-importance they thought ill-breeding; his humorous self-depreciation and keen sense of his own ridiculousness, mere lack of dignity and folly. It is curious to read Boswell and watch how often Goldsmith, without Boswell's knowing it, got the best of the joke. In writing he had what we can now recognise as peculiarly Irish gifts. All our modern writers of light half-farcical comedy are Irish. Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, is only the first of a series which includes The School for Scandal, The Importance of being Earnest, and You Never can Tell. And his essays—particularly those of the Citizen of the World with its Chinese vision of England and English life—are the first fruit of that Irish detachment, that ability to see “normally” English habits and institutions and foibles which in our own day has given us the prefaces of Mr. Shaw. As a writer Goldsmith has a lightness and delicate ease which belongs rather to the school of the earlier eighteenth century than to his own day; the enthusiasm of Addison for French literature which he retained gave him a more graceful model than the “Johnsonian” school, to which he professed himself to belong, could afford.
The eighteenth century novel demands separate treatment, and of the other prose authors the most eminent, Edward Gibbon, belongs to historical rather than to literary studies. It is time to turn to poetry.
There orthodox classicism still held sway; the manner and metre of Pope or Thomson ruled the roost of singing fowl. In the main it had done its work, and the bulk of fresh things conceived in it were dull and imitative, even though occasionally, as in the poems of Johnson himself and of Goldsmith, an author arose who was able to infuse sincerity and emotion into a now moribund convention. The classic manner—now more that of Thomson than of Pope—persisted till it overlapped romanticism; Cowper and Crabbe each owe a doubtful allegiance, leaning by their formal metre and level monotony of thought to the one and by their realism to the other. In the meantime its popularity and its assured position were beginning to be assailed in the coteries by the work of two new poets.
The output of Thomas Gray and William Collins is small; you might almost read the complete poetical works of either in an evening. But for all that they mark a period; they are the first definite break with the classic convention which had been triumphant for upwards of seventy years when their prime came. It is a break, however, in style rather than in essentials, and a reader who seeks in them the inspiriting freshness which came later with Wordsworth and Coleridge will be disappointed. Their carefully drawn still wine tastes insipidly after the “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” of romance. They are fastidious and academic; they lack the authentic fire; their poetry is “made” poetry like Tennyson's and Matthew Arnold's. On their comparative merits a deal of critical ink has been spilt, Arnold's characterisation of Gray is well known—“he never spoke out.” Sterility fell upon him because he lived in an age of prose just as it fell upon Arnold himself because he lived too much immersed in business and routine. But in what he wrote he had the genuine poetic gift—the gift of insight and feeling. Against this, Swinburne with characteristic vehemence raised the standard of Collins, the latchet of whose shoe Gray, as a lyric poet, was not worthy to unloose. “The muse gave birth to Collins, she did but give suck to Gray.” It is more to our point to observe that neither, though their work abounds in felicities and in touches of a genuine poetic sense, was fitted to raise the standard of revolt. Revolution is for another and braver kind of genius than theirs. Romanticism had to wait for Burns and Blake.
In every country at any one time there are in all probability not one but several literatures flourishing. The main stream flowing through the publishers and booksellers, conned by critics and coteries, recognized as the national literature, is commonly only the largest of several channels of thought. There are besides the national literature local literatures—books, that is, are published which enjoy popularity and critical esteem in their own county or parish and are utterly unknown outside; there may even be (indeed, there are in several parts of the country) distinct local schools of writing and dynasties of local authors. These localized literatures rarely become known to the outside world; the national literature takes little account of them, though their existence and probably some special knowledge of one or other of them is within the experience of most of us. But every now and again some one of their authors transcends his local importance, gives evidence of a genius which is not to be denied even by those who normally have not the knowledge to appreciate the particular flavour of locality which his writings impart, and becomes a national figure. While he lives and works the national and his local stream turn and flow together.
This was the case of Robert Burns. All his life long he was the singer of a parish—the last of a long line of “forbears” who had used the Scottish lowland vernacular to rhyme in about their neighbours and their scandals, their loves and their church. Himself at the confluence of the two streams, the national and the local, he pays his tribute to two sets of originals, talks with equal reverence of names known to us like Pope and Gray and Shenstone and names unknown which belonged to local “bards,” as he would have called them, who wrote their poems for an Ayrshire public. If he came upon England as an innovator it was simply because he brought with him the highly individualized style of Scottish local vernacular verse; to his own people he was no innovator but a fulfilment; as his best critic says he brought nothing to the literature he became a part of but himself. His daring and splendid genius made the local universal, raised out of rough and cynical satirizing a style as rich and humorous and astringent as that of Rabelais, lent inevitableness and pathos and romance to lyric and song. But he was content to better the work of other men. He made hardly anything new.
[Footnote 5: W.E. Henley, “Essay on Burns.” Works, David Nutt.]
Stevenson in his essay on Burns remarks his readiness to use up the work of others or take a large hint from it “as if he had some difficulty in commencing.” He omits to observe that the very same trait applies to other great artists. There seem to be two orders of creative writers. On the one hand are the innovators, the new men like Blake, Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley, and later Browning. These men owe little to their predecessors; they work on their own devices and construct their medium afresh for themselves. Commonly their fame and acceptance is slow, for they speak in an unfamiliar tongue and they have to educate a generation to understand their work. The other order of artists have to be shown the way. They have little fertility in construction or invention. You have to say to them “Here is something that you could do too; go and do it better,” or “Here is a story to work on, or a refrain of a song; take it and give it your subtlety, your music.” The villainy you teach them they will use and it will go hard with them if they do not better the invention; but they do not invent for themselves. To this order of artists Burns like Shakespeare, and among the lesser men Tennyson, belongs. In all his plays Shakespeare is known to have invented only one plot; in many he is using not only the structure but in many places the words devised by an older author; his mode of treatment depends on the conventions common in his day, on the tragedy of blood, and madness and revenge, on the comedy of intrigue and disguises, on the romance with its strange happenings and its reuniting of long parted friends. Burns goes the same way to work; scarcely a page of his but shows traces of some original in the Scottish vernacular school. The elegy, the verse epistle, the satirical form of Holy Willie's Prayer, the song and recitative of The Jolly Beggars, are all to be found in his predecessors, in Fergusson, Ramsay, and the local poets of the south-west of Scotland. In the songs often whole verses, nearly always the refrains, are from older folk poetry. What he did was to pour into these forms the incomparable richness of a personality whose fire and brilliance and humour transcended all locality and all tradition, a personality which strode like a colossus over the formalism and correctness of his time. His use of familiar forms explains, more than anything else, his immediate fame. His countrymen were ready for him; they could hail him on the instant (just as an Elizabethan audience could hail Shakespeare) as something familiar and at the same time more splendid than anything they knew. He spoke in a tongue they could understand.
It is impossible to judge Burns from his purely English verse; though he did it as well as any of the minor followers of the school of Pope he did it no better. Only the weakest side of his character—his sentimentalism—finds expression in it; he had not the sense of tradition nor the intimate knowledge necessary to use English to the highest poetic effect; it was indeed a foreign tongue to him. In the vernacular he wrote the language he spoke, a language whose natural force and colour had become enriched by three centuries of literary use, which was capable, too, of effects of humour and realism impossible in any tongue spoken out of reach of the soil. It held within it an unmatched faculty for pathos, a capacity for expressing a lambent and kindly humour, a power of pungency in satire and a descriptive vividness that English could not give. How express in the language of Pope or even of Wordsworth an effect like this:—
“They reeled, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark.”
“Yestreen when to the trembling string,
The dance gaed thro' the lighted ha'
To thee my fancy took its wing—
I sat but neither heard nor saw:
Tho' this was fair, and that was braw,
And yon the toast of a' the toun,
I sigh'd and said amang them a',
You are na Mary Morison.”
It may be objected that in all this there is only one word, and but two or three forms of words that are not English. But the accent, the rhythm, the air of it are all Scots, and it was a Burns thinking in his native tongue who wrote it, not the Burns of
“Anticipation forward points the view ”;
“Pleasures are like poppies spread,
You grasp the flower, the bloom is shed.”
or any other of the exercises in the school of Thomson and Pope.
It is easy to see that though Burns admired unaffectedly the “classic” writers, his native realism and his melody made him a potent agent in the cause of naturalism and romance. In his ideas, even more than in his style, he belongs to the oncoming school. The French Revolution, which broke upon Europe when he was at the height of his career, found him already converted to its principles. As a peasant, particularly a Scotch peasant, he believed passionately in the native worth of man as man and gave ringing expression to it in his verse. In his youth his liberal-mindedness made him a Jacobite out of mere antagonism to the existing regime; the Revolution only discovered for him the more logical Republican creed. As the leader of a loose-living, hard drinking set, such as was to be found in every parish, he was a determined and free-spoken enemy of the kirk, whose tyranny he several times encountered. In his writing he is as vehement an anti-clerical as Shelley and much more practical. The political side of romanticism, in fact, which in England had to wait for Byron and Shelley, is already full-grown in his work. He anticipates and gives complete expression to one half of the Romantic movement.
What Burns did for the idea of liberty, Blake did for that and every other idea current among Wordsworth and his successors. There is nothing stranger in the history of English literature than the miracle by which this poet and artist, working in obscurity, utterly unknown to the literary world that existed outside him, summed up in himself all the thoughts and tendencies which were the fruit of anxious discussion and propaganda on the part of the authors—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb—who believed themselves to be the discoverers of fresh truth unknown to their generation. The contemporary and independent discovery by Wallace and Darwin of the principle of natural selection furnishes, perhaps, a rough parallel, but the fact serves to show how impalpable and universal is the spread of ideas, how impossible it is to settle literary indebtedness or construct literary genealogy with any hope of accuracy. Blake, by himself, held and expressed quite calmly that condemnation of the “classic” school that Wordsworth and Coleridge proclaimed against the opposition of a deriding world. As was his habit he compressed it into a rude epigram,
“Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street.”
The case for nature against urbanity could not be more tersely nor better put. The German metaphysical doctrine which was the deepest part of the teaching of Wordsworth and Coleridge and their main discovery, he expresses as curtly and off-handedly,
“The sun's light when he unfolds it,
Depends on the organ that beholds it.”
In the realm of childhood and innocence, which Wordsworth entered fearfully and pathetically as an alien traveller, he moves with the simple and assured ease of one native. He knows the mystical wonder and horror that Coleridge set forth in The Ancient Mariner. As for the beliefs of Shelley, they are already fully developed in his poems. “The king and the priest are types of the oppressor; humanity is crippled by “mind-forg'd manacles”; love is enslaved to the moral law, which is broken by the Saviour of mankind; and, even more subtly than by Shelley, life is pictured by Blake as a deceit and a disguise veiling from us the beams of the Eternal.”
[Footnote 6: Prof. Raleigh.]
In truth, Blake, despite the imputation of insanity which was his contemporaries' and has later been his commentators' refuge from assenting to his conclusions, is as bold a thinker in his own way as Neitzsche and as consistent. An absolute unity of belief inspires all his utterances, cryptic and plain. That he never succeeded in founding a school nor gathering followers must be put down in the first place to the form in which his work was issued (it never reached the public of his own day) and the dark and mysterious mythology in which the prophetic books which are the full and extended statement of his philosophy, are couched, and in the second place to the inherent difficulty of the philosophy itself. As he himself says, where we read black, he reads white. For the common distinction between good and evil, Blake substitutes the distinction between imagination and reason; and reason, the rationalizing, measuring, comparing faculty by which we come to impute praise or blame is the only evil in his eyes. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so;” to rid the world of thinking, to substitute for reason, imagination, and for thought, vision, was the object of all that he wrote or drew. The implications of this philosophy carry far, and Blake was not afraid to follow where they led him. Fortunately for those who hesitate to embark on that dark and adventurous journey, his work contains delightful and simpler things. He wrote lyrics of extraordinary freshness and delicacy and spontaneity; he could speak in a child's voice of innocent joys and sorrows and the simple elemental things. His odes to “Spring” and “Autumn” are the harbingers of Keats. Not since Shakespeare and Campion died could English show songs like his
“My silks and fine array.”
and the others which carry the Elizabethan accent. He could write these things as well as the Elizabethans. In others he was unique.
“Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry.”
In all the English lyric there is no voice so clear, so separate or distinctive as his.