CHAPTER VII. THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL
There are two ways of approaching the periods of change and new birth in literature. The commonest and, for all the study which it entails, the easiest, is that summed up in the phrase, literature begets literature. Following it, you discover and weigh literary influences, the influence of poet on poet, and book on book. You find one man harking back to earlier models in his own tongue, which an intervening age misunderstood or despised; another, turning to the contemporary literatures of neighbouring countries; another, perhaps, to the splendour and exoticism of the east. In the matter of form and style, such a study carries you far. You can trace types of poetry and metres back to curious and unsuspected originals, find the well-known verse of Burns' epistles turning up in Provencal; Tennyson's In Memoriamstanza in use by Ben Jonson; the metre of Christabel in minor Elizabethan poetry; the peculiar form of Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam followed by so many imitators since, itself to be the actual reflection of the rough metrical scheme of his Persian original. But such a study, though it is profitable and interesting, can never lead to the whole truth. As we saw in the beginning of this book, in the matter of the Renaissance, every age of discovery and re-birth has its double aspect. It is a revolution in style and language, an age of literary experiment and achievement, but its experiments are dictated by the excitement of a new subject-matter, and that subject-matter is so much in the air, so impalpable and universal that it eludes analysis. Only you can be sure that it is this weltering contagion of new ideas, and new thought—the “Zeitgeist,” the spirit of the age, or whatever you may call it—that is the essential and controlling force. Literary loans and imports give the forms into which it can be moulded, but without them it would still exist, and they are only the means by which a spirit which is in life itself, and which expresses itself in action, and in concrete human achievement, gets itself into the written word. The romantic revival numbers Napoleon amongst its leaders as well as Byron, Wellington, Pitt and Wilberforce, as well as Keats and Wordsworth. Only the literary manifestations of the time concern us here, but it is important to remember that the passion for simplification and for a return to nature as a refuge from the artificial complexities of society, which inspired the Lyrical Ballads, inspired no less the course of the Revolution in France, and later, the destruction by Napoleon of the smaller feudal states of Germany, which made possible German nationality and a national spirit.
In this romantic revival, however, the revolution in form and style matters more than in most. The classicism of the previous age had been so fixed and immutable; it had been enthroned in high places, enjoyed the esteem of society, arrogated to itself the acceptance which good breeding and good manners demanded. Dryden had been a Court poet, careful to change his allegiance with the changing monarchy. Pope had been the equal and intimate of the great people of his day, and his followers, if they did not enjoy the equality, enjoyed at any rate the patronage of many noble lords. The effect of this was to give the prestige of social usage to the verse in which they wrote and the language they used. “There was,” said Dr. Johnson, “before the time of Dryden no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use, and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar or too remote to defeat the purpose of a poet.” This poetic diction, refined from the grossness of domestic use, was the standard poetic speech of the eighteenth century. The heroic couplet in which it was cast was the standard metre. So that the first object of the revolt of the romantics was the purely literary object of getting rid of the vice of an unreal and artificial manner of writing. They desired simplicity of style.
When the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge were published in 1798, the preface which Wordsworth wrote as their manifesto hardly touched at all on the poetic imagination or the attitude of the poet to life and nature. The only question is that of diction. “The majority of the following poems,” he writes, “are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” And in the longer preface to the second edition, in which the theories of the new school on the nature and methods of the poetic imagination are set forth at length, he returns to the same point. “The language too, of these men (that is those in humble and rustic life) has been adopted ... because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived, and because from their rank in society, and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple unelaborated expressions.” Social vanity—the armour which we wear to conceal our deepest thoughts and feelings—that was what Wordsworth wished to be rid of, and he chose the language of the common people, not because it fitted, as an earlier school of poets who used the common speech had asserted, the utterance of habitual feeling and common sense, but because it is the most sincere expression of the deepest and rarest passion. His object was the object attained by Shakespeare in some of his supremest moments; the bare intolerable force of the speeches after the murder of Macbeth, or of King Lear's
“Do not laugh at me, For as I am a man, I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.”
Here, then, was one avenue of revolt from the tyranny of artificiality, the getting back of common speech into poetry. But there was another, earlier and more potent in its effect. The eighteenth century, weary of its own good sense and sanity, turned to the Middle Ages for picturesqueness and relief. Romance of course, had not been dead in all these years, when Pope and Addison made wit and good sense the fashionable temper for writing. There was a strong romantic tradition in the eighteenth century, though it does not give its character to the writing of the time. Dr. Johnson was fond of old romances. When he was in Skye he amused himself by thinking of his Scottish tour as the journey of a knight-errant. “These fictions of the Gothic romances,” he said, “are not so remote from credibility as is commonly supposed.” It is a mistake to suppose that the passion for mediaevalism began with either Coleridge or Scott. Horace Walpole was as enthusiastic as either of them; good eighteenth century prelates like Hurd and Percy, found in what they called the Gothic an inexhaustible source of delight. As was natural, what attracted them in the Middle Ages was not their resemblances to the time they lived in, but the points in which the two differed. None of them had knowledge enough, or insight enough, to conceive or sympathize with the humanity of the thirteenth century, to shudder at its cruelties and hardnesses and persecutions, or to comprehend the spiritual elevation and insight of its rarest minds. “It was art,” said William Morris, “art in which all men shared, that made life romantic as people called it in those days. That and not robber barons, and inaccessible kings, with their hierarchy of serving nobles, and other rubbish.” Morris belonged to a time which knew its middle ages better. To the eighteenth century the robber barons and the “other rubbish” were the essence of romance. For Percy and his followers, medievalism was a collection of what actors call “properties” gargoyles, and odds and ends of armour and castle keeps with secret passages, banners and gay colours, and gay shimmering obsolete words. Mistaking what was on its surface at any rate a subtle and complex civilization, for rudeness and quaintness, they seemed to themselves to pass back into a freer air, where any extravagance was possible, and good breeding and mere circumspection and restraint vanished like the wind.
A similar longing to be rid of the precision and order of everyday life drove them to the mountains, and to the literature of Wales and the Highlands, to Celtic, or pseudo-Celtic romance. To the fashion of the time mountains were still frowning and horrid steeps; in Gray's Journal of his tour in the Lakes, a new understanding and appreciation of nature is only struggling through; and when mountains became fashionable, it was at first and remained in part at least, till the time of Byron, for those very theatrical qualities which had hitherto put them in abhorrence. Wordsworth, in his Lines written above Tintern Abbey, in which he sets forth the succeeding stages of his mental development, refers to this love of the mountains for their spectacular qualities, as the first step in the progress of his mind to poetic maturity:
“The sounding cataract Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock, The mountain and the deep and gloomy wood, Their colours and their forms were then to me An appetite.”
This same passion for the “sounding cataract” and the “tall rock,” this appetite for the deep and gloomy wood, gave its vogue in Wordsworth's boyhood to Macpherson's Ossian, a book which whether it be completely fraudulent or not, was of capital importance in the beginnings of the romantic movement.
The love of mediaeval quaintness and obsolete words, however, led to a more important literary event—the publication of Bishop Percy's edition of the ballads in the Percy folio—the Reliques of Ancient Poetry. Percy to his own mind knew the Middle Ages better than they knew themselves, and he took care to dress to advantage the rudeness and plainness of his originals. Perhaps we should not blame him. Sir Walter Scott did the same with better tact and skill in his Border minstrelsy, and how many distinguished editors are there, who have tamed and smoothed down the natural wildness and irregularity of Blake? But it is more important to observe that when Percy's reliques came to have their influence on writing his additions were imitated as much as the poems on which he grafted them. Chatterton's Rowley Poems, which in many places seem almost inconceivably banal and artificial to us to-day, caught their accent from the episcopal editor as much as from the ballads themselves. None the less, whatever its fault, Percy's collection gave its impetus to one half of the romantic movement; it was eagerly read in Germany, and when it came to influence Scott and Coleridge it did so not only directly, but through Burger's imitation of it; it began the modern study and love of the ballad which has given us Sister Helen, the White Ship and the Lady of Shalott.
But the romantic revival goes deeper than any change, however momentous of fashion or style. It meant certain fundamental changes in human outlook. In the first place, one notices in the authors of the time an extraordinary development of imaginative sensibility; the mind at its countless points of contact with the sensuous world and the world of thought, seems to become more alive and alert. It is more sensitive to fine impressions, to finely graded shades of difference. Outward objects and philosophical ideas seem to increase in their content and their meaning, and acquire a new power to enrich the intensest life of the human spirit. Mountains and lakes, the dignity of the peasant, the terror of the supernatural, scenes of history, mediaeval architecture and armour, and mediaeval thought and poetry, the arts and mythology of Greece—all became springs of poetic inspiration and poetic joy. The impressions of all these things were unfamiliar and ministered to a sense of wonder, and by that very fact they were classed as romantic, as modes of escape from a settled way of life. But they were also in a sense familiar too. The mountains made their appeal to a deep implanted feeling in man, to his native sense of his own worth and dignity and splendour as a part of nature, and his recognition of natural scenery as necessary, and in its fullest meaning as sufficient for his spiritual needs. They called him back from the artificiality and complexity of the cities he had built for himself, and the society he had weaved round him, to the natural world in which Providence had planted him of old, and which was full of significance for his soul. The greatest poets of the romantic revival strove to capture and convey the influence of nature on the mind, and of the mind on nature interpenetrating one another. They were none the less artists because they approached nature in a state of passive receptivity. They believed in the autocracy of the individual imagination none the less because their mission was to divine nature and to understand her, rather than to correct her profusions in the name of art.
In the second place the romantic revival meant a development of the historical sense. Thinkers like Burke and Montesquieu helped students of politics to acquire perspective; to conceive modern institutions not as things separate, and separately created, but as conditioned by, and evolved from, the institutions of an earlier day. Even the revolutionary spirit of the time looked both before and after, and took history as well as the human perfectibility imagined by philosophers into its purview. In France the reformers appealed in the first instance for a States General—a mediaeval institution—as the corrective of their wrongs, and later when they could not, like their neighbours in Belgium, demand reform by way of the restoration of their historical rights, they were driven to go a step further back still, beyond history to what they conceived to be primitive society, and demand the rights of man. This development of the historical sense, which had such a widespread influence on politics, got itself into literature in the creation of the historical novel. Scott and Chateaubriand revived the old romance in which by a peculiar ingenuity of form, the adventures of a typical hero of fiction are cast in a historical setting and set about with portraits of real personages. The historical sense affected, too, novels dealing with contemporary life. Scott's best work, his novels of Scottish character, catch more than half their excellence from the richness of colour and proportion which the portraiture of the living people acquires when it is aided by historical knowledge and imagination.
Lastly, besides this awakened historical sense, and this quickening of imaginative sensibility to the message of nature, the Romantic revival brought to literature a revival of the sense of the connection between the visible world and another world which is unseen. The supernatural which in all but the crudest of mechanisms had been out of English literature since Macbeth, took hold on the imaginations of authors, and brought with it a new subtlety and a new and nameless horror and fascination. There is nothing in earlier English literature to set beside the strange and terrible indefiniteness of the Ancient Mariner, and though much in this kind has been written since, we have not got far beyond the skill and imagination with which Coleridge and Scott worked on the instinctive fears that lie buried in the human mind.
Of all these aspects of the revival, however, the new sensitiveness and accessibility to the influences of external nature was the most pervasive and the most important. Wordsworth speaks for the love that is in homes where poor men lie, the daily teaching that is in
“Woods and rills; The silence that is in the starry sky, The peace that is among the lonely hills.”
Shelley for the wildness of the west wind, and the ubiquitous spiritual emotion which speaks equally in the song of a skylark or a political revolution. Byron for the swing and roar of the sea. Keats for verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. Scott and Coleridge, though like Byron they are less with nature than with romance, share the same communion.
This imaginative sensibility of the romantics not only deepened their communion with nature, it brought them into a truer relation with what had before been created in literature and art. The romantic revival is the Golden Age of English criticism; all the poets were critics of one sort or another—either formally in essays and prefaces, or in passing and desultory flashes of illumination in their correspondence. Wordsworth, in his prefaces, in his letter to a friend of Burns which contains such a breadth and clarity of wisdom on things that seem alien to his sympathies, even in some of his poems; Coleridge, in hisBiographia Literaria, in his notes on Shakespeare, in those rhapsodies at Highgate which were the basis for his recorded table talk; Keats in his letters; Shelley in his Defence of Poetry; Byron in his satires and journals; Scott in those lives of the novelists which contain so much truth and insight into the works of fellow craftsmen—they are all to be found turning the new acuteness of impression which was in the air they breathed, to the study of literature, as well as to the study of nature. Alongside of them were two authors, Lamb and Hazlitt, whose bent was rather critical than creative, and the best part of whose intelligence and sympathy was spent on the sensitive and loving divination of our earlier literature. With these two men began the criticism of acting and of pictorial art that have developed since into two of the main kinds of modern critical writing.
Romantic criticism, both in its end and its method, differs widely from that of Dr. Johnson and his school. Wordsworth and Coleridge were concerned with deep-seated qualities and temperamental differences. Their critical work revolved round their conception of the fancy and the imagination, the one dealing with nature on the surface and decorating it with imagery, the other penetrating to its deeper significances. Hazlitt and Lamb applied their analogous conception of wit as a lower quality than humour, in the same fashion. Dr. Johnson looked on the other hand for correctness of form, for the subordination of the parts to the whole, for the self-restraint and good sense which common manners would demand in society, and wisdom in practical life. His school cared more for large general outlines than for truth in detail. They would not permit the idiosyncrasy of a personal or individual point of view: hence they were incapable of understanding lyricism, and they preferred those forms of writing which set themselves to express the ideas and feelings that most men may be supposed to have in common. Dr. Johnson thought a bombastic and rhetorical passage in Congreve's Mourning Bride better than the famous description of Dover cliff in King Lear. “The crows, sir,” he said of the latter, “impede your fall.” Their town breeding, and possibly, as we saw in the case of Dr. Johnson, an actual physical disability, made them distrust any clear and sympathetic rendering of the sense impressions which nature creates. One cannot imagine Dr. Johnson caring much for the minute observations of Tennyson's nature poems, or delighting in the verdurous and mossy alleys of Keats. His test in such a case would be simple; he would not have liked to have been in such places, nor reluctantly compelled to go there would he in all likelihood have had much to say about them beyond that they were damp. For the poetry—such as Shelley's—which worked by means of impalpable and indefinite suggestion, he would, one may conceive, have cared even less. New modes of poetry asked of critics new sympathies and a new way of approach. But it is time to turn to the authors themselves.
The case of Wordsworth is peculiar. In his own day he was vilified and misunderstood; poets like Byron, whom most of us would now regard simply as depending from the school he created, sneered at him. Shelley and Keats failed to understand him or his motives; he was suspected of apostasy, and when he became poet laureate he was written off as a turn-coat who had played false to the ideals of his youth. Now common opinion regards him as a poet above all the others of his age, and amongst all the English poets standing beside Milton, but a step below Shakespeare himself—and we know more about him, more about the processes by which his soul moved from doubts to certainties, from troubles to triumph, than we do about any other author we have. This knowledge we have from the poem called, The Prelude, which was published after his death. It was designed to be only the opening and explanatory section of a philosophical poem, which was never completed. Had it been published earlier it would have saved Wordsworth from the coldness and neglect he suffered at the hands of younger men like Shelley; it might even have made their work different from what it is. It has made Wordsworth very clear to us now.
Wordsworth is that rarest thing amongst poets, a complete innovator. He looked at things in a new way. He found his subjects in new places; and he put them into a new poetic form. At the turning point of his life, in his early manhood, he made one great discovery, had one great vision. By the light of that vision and to communicate that discovery he wrote his greatest work. By and by the vision faded, the world fell back into the light of common day, his philosophy passed from discovery to acceptance, and all unknown to him his pen fell into a common way of writing. The faculty of reading which has added fuel to the fire of so many waning inspirations was denied him. He was much too self-centred to lose himself in the works of others. Only the shock of a change of environment—a tour in Scotland, or abroad—shook him into his old thrill of imagination, so that a few fine things fitfully illumine the enormous and dreary bulk of his later work. If we lost all but the Lyrical Ballads, the poems of 1804, and the Prelude, and theExcursion, Wordsworth's position as a poet would be no lower than it is now, and he would be more readily accepted by those who still find themselves uncertain about him.
The determining factor in his career was the French Revolution—that great movement which besides re-making France and Europe, made our very modes of thinking anew. While an undergraduate in Cambridge Wordsworth made several vacation visits to France. The first peaceful phase of the Revolution was at its height; France and the assembly were dominated by the little group of revolutionary orators who took their name from the south-western province from which most of them came, and with this group—the Girondists—Wordsworth threw in his lot. Had he remained he would probably have gone with them to the guillotine. As it was, the commands of his guardian brought him back to England, and he was forced to contemplate from a distance the struggle in which he burned to take an active part. One is accustomed to think of Wordsworth as a mild old man, but such a picture if it is thrown back as a presentment of the Wordsworth of the nineties is a far way from the truth. This darkly passionate man tortured himself with his longings and his horror. War came and the prayers for victory in churches found him in his heart praying for defeat; then came the execution of the king; then the plot which slew the Gironde. Before all this Wordsworth trembled as Hamlet did when he learned the ghost's story. His faith in the world was shaken. First his own country had taken up arms against what he believed to be the cause of liberty. Then faction had destroyed his friends whom he believed to be its standard bearers. What was in the world, in religion, in morality that such things could be? In the face of this tremendous problem, Wordsworth, unlike Hamlet, was resolute and determined. It was, perhaps, characteristic of him that in his desire to get his feet on firm rock again he fled for a time to the exactest of sciences—to mathematics. But though he got certainties there, they must have been, one judges, certainties too arid for his thirsting mind. Then he made his great discovery—helped to it, perhaps, by his sister Dorothy and his friend Coleridge—he found nature, and in nature, peace.
Not a very wonderful discovery, you will say, but though the cleansing and healing force of natural surroundings on the mind is a familiar enough idea in our own day, that is only because Wordsworth found it. When he gave his message to the world it was a new message. It is worth while remembering that it is still an unaccepted one. Most of his critics still consider it only Wordsworth's fun when he wrote:
“One impulse from the vernal wood
Can teach us more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.”
Yet Wordsworth really believed that moral lessons and ideas were to be gathered from trees and stones. It was the main part of his teaching. He claimed that his own morality had been so furnished him, and he wrote his poetry to convince other people that what had been true for him could be true for them too.
For him life was a series of impressions, and the poet's duty was to recapture those impressions, to isolate them and brood over them, till gradually as a result of his contemplation emotion stirred again—an emotion akin to the authentic thrill that had excited him when the impression was first born in experience. Then poetry is made; this emotion “recollected” as Wordsworth said (we may add, recreated) “in tranquillity” passes into enduring verse. He treasured numberless experiences of this kind in his own life. Some of them are set forth in the Prelude, that for instance on which the poem The Thorn in theLyrical Ballads is based; they were one or other of them the occasion of most of his poems; the best of them produced his finest work—such a poem for instance as Resolution and Independence orGipsies, where some chance sight met with in one of the poet's walks is brooded over till it becomes charged with a tremendous significance for him and for all the world. If we ask how he differentiated his experiences, which had most value for him, we shall find something deficient. That is to say, things which were unique and precious to him do not always appear so to his readers. He counted as gold much that we regard as dross. But though we may differ from his judgments, the test which he applied to his recollected impressions is clear. He attached most value to those which brought with them the sense of an indwelling spirit, transfusing and interpenetrating all nature, transfiguring with its radiance, rocks and fields and trees and the men and women who lived close enough to them to partake of their strength—the sense, as he calls it in his Lines above Tintern Abbey of something “more deeply interfused” by which all nature is made one. Sometimes, as in the hymn to Duty, it is conceived as law. Duty before whom the flowers laugh, is the daughter of the voice of God, through whom the most ancient heavens are fresh and strong. But in most of his poems its ends do not trouble; it is omnipresent; it penetrates everything and transfigures everything; it is God. It was Wordsworth's belief that the perception of this indwelling spirit weakened as age grew. For a few precious and glorious years he had the vision
“When meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.”
Then as childhood, when “these intimations of immortality,” this perception of the infinite are most strong, passed further and further away, the vision faded and he was left gazing in the light of common day. He had his memories and that was all.
There is, of course, more in the matter than this, and Wordsworth's beliefs were inextricably entangled with the conception which Coleridge borrowed from German philosophy.
“We receive but what we give”
wrote Coleridge to his friend,
“And in our life alone doth Nature live.”
And Wordsworth came to know that the light he had imagined to be bestowed, was a light reflected from his own mind. It is easy to pass from criticism to metaphysics where Coleridge leads, and wise not to follow.
If Wordsworth represents that side of the Romantic Revival which is best described as the return to Nature, Coleridge has justification for the phrase “Renascence of Wonder.” He revived the supernatural as a literary force, emancipated it from the crude mechanism which had been applied to it by dilettantes like Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe, and invested it instead with that air of suggestion and indefiniteness which gives the highest potency to it in its effect on the imagination. But Coleridge is more noteworthy for what he suggested to others than for what he did in himself. His poetry is, even more than Wordsworth's, unequal; he is capable of large tracts of dreariness and flatness; he seldom finished what he began. The Ancient Mariner, indeed, which was the fruit of his close companionship with Wordsworth, is the only completed thing of the highest quality in the whole of his work. Christabel is a splendid fragment; for years the first part lay uncompleted and when the odd accident of an evening's intoxication led him to commence the second, the inspiration had fled. For the second part, by giving to the fairy atmosphere of the first a local habitation and a name, robbed it of its most precious quality; what it gave in exchange was something the public could get better from Scott. Kubla Khan went unfinished because the call of a friend broke the thread of the reverie in which it was composed. In the end came opium and oceans of talk at Highgate and fouled the springs of poetry. Coleridge never fulfilled the promise of his early days with Wordsworth. “He never spoke out.” But it is on the lines laid down by his share in the pioneer work rather than on the lines of Wordsworth's that the second generation of Romantic poets—that of Shelley and Keats—developed.
The work of Wordsworth was conditioned by the French Revolution but it hardly embodied the revolutionary spirit. What he conceived to be its excesses revolted him, and though he sought and sang freedom, he found it rather in the later revolt of the nationalities against the Revolution as manifested in Napoleon himself. The spirit of the revolution, as it was understood in France and in Europe, had to wait for Shelley for its complete expression. Freedom is the breath of his work—freedom not only from the tyranny of earthly powers, but from the tyranny of religion, expressing itself in republicanism, in atheism, and in complete emancipation from the current moral code both in conduct and in writing. The reaction which had followed the overthrow of Napoleon at Waterloo, sent a wave of absolutism and repression all over Europe, Italy returned under the heel of Austria; the Bourbons were restored in France; in England came the days of Castlereagh and Peterloo. The poetry of Shelley is the expression of what the children of the revolution—men and women who were brought up in and believed the revolutionary gospel—thought about these things.
But it is more than that. Of no poet in English, nor perhaps in any other tongue, could it be said with more surety, that the pursuit of the spirit of beauty dominates all his work. For Shelley it interfused all nature and to possess it was the goal of all endeavour. The visible world and the world of thought mingle themselves inextricably in his contemplation of it. For him there is no boundary-line between the two, the one is as real and actual as the other. In his hands that old trick of the poets, the simile, takes on a new and surprising form. He does not enforce the creations of his imagination by the analogy of natural appearances; his instinct is just the opposite—to describe and illumine nature by a reference to the creatures of thought. Other poets, Keats for instance, or Tennyson, or the older poets like Dante and Homer, might compare ghosts flying from an enchanter like leaves flying before the wind. They might describe a poet wrapped up in his dreams as being like a bird singing invisible in the brightness of the sky. But Shelley can write of the west wind as
“Before whose unseen presence the leaves, dead,
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,”
and he can describe a skylark in the heavens as
“Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought.”
Of all English poets he is the most completely lyrical. Nothing that he wrote but is wrought out of the anguish or joy of his own heart.
“Most wretched souls,”
“Are cradled into poetry by wrong
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.”
Perhaps his work is too impalpable and moves in an air too rarefied. It sometimes lacks strength. It fails to take grip enough of life. Had he lived he might have given it these things; there are signs in his last poems that he would have given it. But he could hardly have bettered the sheer and triumphant lyricism of The Skylark, of some of his choruses, and of the Ode to Dejection, and of the Lines written on the Eugenoen hills.
If the Romantic sense of the one-ness of nature found its highest exponent in Shelley, the Romantic sensibility to outward impressions reached its climax in Keats. For him life is a series of sensations, felt with almost febrile acuteness. Records of sight and touch and smell crowd every line of his work; the scenery of a garden in Hampstead becomes like a landscape in the tropics, so extraordinary vivid and detailed is his apprehension and enjoyment of what it has to give him. The luxuriance of his sensations is matched by the luxuriance of his powers of expression. Adjectives heavily charged with messages for the senses, crowd every line of his work, and in his earlier poems overlay so heavily the thought they are meant to convey that all sense of sequence and structure is apt to be smothered under their weight. Not that consecutive thought claims a place in his conception of his poetry. His ideal was passive contemplation rather than active mental exertion. “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts,” he exclaims in one of his letters; and in another, “It is more noble to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury.” His work has one message and one only, the lastingness of beauty and its supreme truth. It is stated in Endymion in lines that are worn bare with quotation. It is stated again, at the height of his work in his greatest ode,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty: that is all We know on earth and all we need to know.”
His work has its defects; he died at twenty-six so it would be a miracle if it were not so. He lacks taste and measure; he offends by an over-luxuriousness and sensuousness; he fails when he is concerned with flesh and blood; he is apt, as Mr. Robert Bridges has said, “to class women with roses and sweetmeats.” But in his short life he attained with surprising rapidity and completeness to poetic maturity, and perhaps from no other poet could we find things to match his greatest— Hyperion, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes and the Odes.
There remains a poet over whom opinion is more sharply divided than it is about any other writer in English. In his day Lord Byron was the idol, not only of his countrymen, but of Europe. Of all the poets of the time he was, if we except Scott, whose vogue he eclipsed, the only one whose work was universally known and popular. Everybody read him; he was admired not only by the multitude and by his equals, but by at least one who was his superior, the German poet Goethe, who did not hesitate to say of him that he was the greatest talent of the century Though this exalted opinion still persists on the Continent, hardly anyone could be found in England to subscribe to it now. Without insularity, we may claim to be better judges of authors in our own tongue than foreign critics, however distinguished and comprehending. How then shall be explained Lord Byron's instant popularity and the position he won? What were the qualities which gave him the power he enjoyed?
In the first place he appealed by virtue of his subject-matter—the desultory wanderings of Childe Harold traversed ground every mile of which was memorable to men who had watched the struggle which had been going on in Europe with scarcely a pause for twenty years. Descriptive journalism was then and for nearly half a century afterwards unknown, and the poem by its descriptiveness, by its appeal to the curiosity of its readers, made the same kind of success that vividly written special correspondence would to-day, the charm of metre super-added. Lord Byron gave his readers something more, too, than mere description. He added to it the charm of a personality, and when that personality was enforced by a title, when it proclaimed its sorrows as the age's sorrows, endowed itself with an air of symbolism and set itself up as a kind of scapegoat for the nation's sins, its triumph was complete. Most men have from time to time to resist the temptation to pose to themselves; many do not even resist it. For all those who chose to believe themselves blighted by pessimism, and for all the others who would have loved to believe it, Byron and his poetry came as an echo of themselves. Shallow called to shallow. Men found in him, as their sons found more reputably in Tennyson, a picture of what they conceived to be the state of their own minds.
But he was not altogether a man of pretence. He really and passionately loved freedom; no one can question his sincerity in that. He could be a fine and scathing satirist; and though he was careless, he had great poetic gifts.
The age of the Romantic Revival was one of poetry rather than of prose; it was in poetry that the best minds of the time found their means of expression. But it produced prose of rare quality too, and there is delightful reading in the works of its essayists and occasional writers. In its form the periodical essay had changed little since it was first made popular by Addison and Steele. It remained, primarily, a vehicle for the expression of a personality, and it continued to seek the interests of its readers by creating or suggesting an individuality strong enough to carry off any desultory adventure by the mere force of its own attractiveness. Yet there is all the difference in the world between Hazlitt and Addison, or Lamb and Steele. The Tatler and the Spectator leave you with a sense of artifice; Hazlitt and Lamb leave you with a grip of a real personality—in the one case very vigorous and combative, in the other set about with a rare plaintiveness and gentleness, but in both absolutely sincere. Addison is gay and witty and delightful but he only plays at being human; Lamb's essays—the translation into print of a heap of idiosyncrasies and oddities, and likes and dislikes, and strange humours—come straight and lovably from a human soul.
The prose writers of the romantic movement brought back two things into writing which had been out of it since the seventeenth century. They brought back egotism and they brought back enthusiasm. They had the confidence that their own tastes and experiences were enough to interest their readers; they mastered the gift of putting themselves on paper. But there is one wide difference between them and their predecessors. Robert Burton was an egotist but he was an unconscious one; the same is, perhaps, true though much less certainly of Sir Thomas Browne. In Lamb and Hazlitt and De Quincey egotism was deliberate, consciously assumed, the result of a compelling and shaping art. If one reads Lamb's earlier essays and prose pieces one can see the process at work—watch him consciously imitating Fuller, or Burton, or Browne, mirroring their idiosyncrasies, making their quaintnesses and graces his own. By the time he came to write the Essays of Elia, he had mastered the personal style so completely that his essays seem simply the overflow of talk. They are so desultory; they move from one subject to another so waywardly—such an essay as a Chapter on Ears, for instance, passing with the easy inconsequence of conversation from anatomy through organ music to beer—when they quote, as they do constantly, it is incorrectly, as in the random reminiscences of talk. Here one would say is the cream risen to the surface of a full mind and skimmed at one taking. How far all this is from the truth we know—know, too, how for months he polished and rewrote these magazine articles, rubbing away roughnesses and corners, taking off the traces of logical sequences and argument, till in the finished work of art he mimicked inconsequence so perfectly that his friends might have been deceived. And the personality he put on paper was partly an artistic creation, too. In life Lamb was a nervous, easily excitable and emotional man; his years were worn with the memory of a great tragedy and the constantly impending fear of a repetition of it. One must assume him in his way to have been a good man of business—he was a clerk in the India House, then a throbbing centre of trade, and the largest commercial concern in England, and when he retired his employers gave him a very handsome pension. In the early portrait by Hazlitt there is a dark and gleaming look of fire and decision. But you would never guess it from his books. There he is the gentle recluse, dreaming over old books, old furniture, old prints, old plays and play-bills; living always in the past, loving in the town secluded byways like the Temple, or the libraries of Oxford Colleges, and in the country quiet and shaded lanes, none of the age's enthusiasm for mountains in his soul. When he turned critic it was not to discern and praise the power and beauty in the works of his contemporaries but to rediscover and interpret the Elizabethan and Jacobean romantic plays.
This quality of egotism Lamb shares with other writers of the time, with De Quincey, for instance, who left buried in work which is extensive and unequal, much that lives by virtue of the singular elaborateness and loftiness of the style which he could on occasion command. For the revival of enthusiasm one must turn to Hazlitt, who brought his passionate and combative disposition to the service of criticism, and produced a series of studies remarkable for their earnestness and their vigour, and for the essential justness which they display despite the prejudice on which each of them was confessedly based.