CHAPTER VIII: THE AGE OF ROMANTICISM, 1780-1837
History of the Period.—Much of the English history of this period was affected directly or indirectly by the French Revolution (1789). The object of this movement was to free men from oppression by the aristocracy and to restore to them their natural rights. The new watchwords were “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” The professed principles of the French revolutionists were in many respects similar to those embodied in the American Declaration of Independence.
At first the movement was applauded by the liberal-minded Englishmen; but the confiscation of property, executions, and ensuing reign of terror soon made England recoil from this Revolution. When France executed her king and declared her intention of using force to make republics out of European powers, England sent the French minister home, and war immediately resulted. With only a short intermission, this lasted from 1793 until 1815, the contest caused by the French Revolution having become merged in the Napoleonic war. The battle of Waterloo (1815) ended the struggle with the defeat of Napoleon by the English general, Wellington.
The War of 1812 with the United States was for England only an incident of the war with France. England had become so powerful on the sea, as a result of the victories of Nelson, that she not only forbade vessels of a neutral power to trade with France, but she actually searched American vessels and sometimes removed their seamen, claiming that they were British deserters. The Americans won astonishing naval victories; but the war was concluded without any very definite decision on the points involved.
The last part of the eighteenth century saw the invention of spinning and weaving machines, the introduction of steam engines to furnish power, the wider use of coal, the substitution of the factory system for the home production of cloth, and the impairment of the home by the employment of women and children for unrestricted hours in the factories.
The long reign of George III., interrupted by periods of insanity, ended in 1820. The next two kings were his sons, George IV. (1820-1830) and William IV. (1830-1837). During these two reigns the spirit of reform was in the air. The most important reforms were (1) the revision of the criminal laws, which had prescribed death for some two hundred offenses, including stealing as much as five shillings; (2) the removal of political disabilities from Catholics, so that for the first time since 1673 they could hold municipal office and sit in Parliament; (3) the Reform Bill of 1832, which (a) extended the franchise to the well-to-do middle classes but not to those dependent on day labor, ( b) gave a fairer apportionment of representatives in Parliament and abolished the so-called “rotten boroughs,” i.e. those districts which with few or no inhabitants had been sending members to Parliament, while the large manufacturing cities in the north were without representatives; (4) the final bill in 1833 for the abolition of slavery; (5) child labor laws, which ordered the textile factories to cease employing children under nine years of age, prescribed a legal working day of eight hours for children between nine and thirteen, and of twelve hours for those between thirteen and eighteen; (6) the improvement of the poor laws.
The increased interest in human rights and welfare is the most important characteristic of this entire period, but most especially of the reigns of George IV. and William IV. Sir Robert Peel, the elder, although an employer of nearly a thousand children, felt the spirit of the time enough to call the attention of Parliament to the abuses of child labor. As we shall see, this new spirit exerted a strong influence on literature.
Influence of the New Spirit on Poetry.—The French Revolution stirred the young English poets profoundly. They proclaimed the birth of a new humanity of boundless promise. The possibilities of life again seemed almost as great as in Elizabethan days. The usually sober-minded Wordsworth exclaimed:—
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!”
In the age of Pope, the only type of man considered worthy a place in the best literature was the aristocrat. The ordinary laborer was an object too contemptible even for satire. Burns placed a halo around the head of the honest toiler. In 1786 he could find readers for his The Cotter's Saturday Night; and ten years later he proclaimed thoughts which would have been laughed to scorn early in the century:—
“Is there, for honest poverty,
That hangs his head and a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
* * * * *
The rank is but the guinea stamp;
The man's the gowd for a' that.”
Wordsworth strikes almost the same chord:—
“Love had he found in huts where poor men lie.”
The tenderness and sympathy induced by this new interest in human beings resulted in the annexation to English literature of an almost unexplored continent,—the continent of childhood. William Blake and William Wordsworth set the child in the midst of the poetry of this romantic age.
More sympathy for animals naturally followed the increased interest in humanity. The poems of Cowper, Burns, Wordsworth, and Coleridge show this quickened feeling for a starved bird, a wounded hare, a hart cruelly slain, or an albatross wantonly shot. The social disorder of the Revolution might make Wordsworth pause, but he continued with unabated vigor to teach us—
“Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.”
New humanitarian interests affected all the great poets of this age. Although Keats was cut off while he was making an Aeolian response to the beauty of the world, yet even he, in his brief life, heard something of the new message.
Growth of Appreciation of Nature.—More appreciation of nature followed the development of broader sympathy, Burns wrote a lyric full of feeling for a mountain daisy which his plow had turned beneath the furrow. Wordsworth exclaimed:—
“To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
For more than a century after Milton, the majority of references to nature were made in general terms and were borrowed from the stock illustrations of older poets, like Vergil. We find the conventional lark, nightingale, and turtledove. Nothing new or definite is said of them.
Increasing comforts and safety in travel now took more people where they could see for themselves the beauty of nature. In the new poetry we consequently find more definiteness. We can hear the whir of the partridge, the chatter of magpies, the whistle of the quail. Poets speak of a tree not only in general terms, but they note also the differences in the shade of the green of the leaves and the peculiarities of the bark. Previous to this time, poets borrowed from Theocritus and Vergil piping shepherds reclining in the shade, whom no Englishman had ever seen. In Michael Wordsworth pictures a genuine English shepherd.
The love for mountains and wild nature is of recent growth. One writer in the seventeenth century considered the Alps as so much rubbish swept together by the broom of nature to clear the plains of Italy. A seventeenth century traveler thought the Welsh mountains better than the Alps because the former would pasture goats. Dr. Johnson asked, “Who can like the Highlands?” The influence of the romantic movement developed the love for wild scenery, which is so conspicuous in Wordsworth and Byron.
This age surpasses even the Elizabethan in endowing Nature with a conscious soul, capable of bringing a message of solace and companionship. The greatest romantic poet of nature thus expresses his creed:—
”...Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy.”
The Victory of Romanticism.—We have traced in the preceding age the beginnings of the romantic movement. Its ascendancy over classical rules was complete in the period between 1780 and the Victorian age. The romantic victory brought to literature more imagination, greater individuality, deeper feeling, a less artificial form of expression, and an added sense for the appreciation of the beauties of nature and their spiritual significance.
Swinburne says that the new poetic school, “usually registered as Wordsworthian,” was “actually founded at midnight by William Blake (1757-1827) and fortified at sunrise by William Wordsworth.” These lines from Blake's To the Evening Star (1783) may be given to support this statement:—
“Thou fair-haired Angel of the Evening,
* * * * *
Smile on our loves; and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy West Wind sleep on
We may note in these lines the absence of the classical couplet, the fact that the end of the lines necessitates no halt in thought, and a unique sympathetic touch in the lines referring to the flower and the wind.
Blake's Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793) show not only the new feeling toward nature, but also a broader sympathy with children and with all suffering creatures. The chimney sweeper, the lost child, and even the sick rose are remembered in his verse. In his poem, The Schoolboy, he enters as sympathetically as Shakespeare into the heart of the boy on his way to school, when he hears the call of the uncaged birds and the fields.
These two lines express an oft-recurring idea in Blake's mystical romantic verse:—
“The land of dreams is better far,
Above the light of the morning star.”
The volume of Lyrical Ballads (1798), the joint work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, marks the complete victory of the romantic movement.
The Position of Prose.—The eighteenth century, until near its end, was, broadly speaking, an age of prose. In excellence and variety the prose surpassed the poetry; but in this age (1780-1837) their position was reversed and poetry regained almost an Elizabethan ascendancy. Much good prose was written, but it ranks decidedly below the enchanting romantic poetry.
Prose writers were laying the foundations for the new science of political economy and endeavoring to ascertain how the condition of the masses could be improved. While investigating this subject, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), an Episcopal clergyman, announced his famous proposition, since known as the Malthusian theorem, that population tends to increase faster than the means of subsistence. Political economists and philosophers like Adam Smith (1723-1790), professor in the University of Glasgow, agreed on the “let-alone" doctrine of government. They held that individuals could succeed best when least interfered with by government, that a government could not set aside natural law, but could only impede it and cause harm, as for instance, in framing laws to tempt capital into forms of industry less productive than others and away from the employment that it would naturally seek. Many did not even believe in legislation affecting the hours of labor or the work of children. This “let-alone” theory was widely held until the close of the nineteenth century.
In moral philosophy, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), lawyer and philosopher, laid down the principle that happiness is the prime object of existence, and that the basis of legislation should be the greatest happiness to the greatest number, instead of to the privileged few. He measured the morality of actions by their efficiency in producing this happiness, and he said that pushpin is as good as poetry, if it gives as much pleasure. He was followed by James Mill (1773-1836), who maintained that the morality of actions is measured by their utility. The fault with many of the prevalent theories of government and morals lay in their narrow standards of immediate utility, their failure to measure remote spiritual effects.
The taste of the age encouraged poetry. Scott, although a natural born writer of prose romance, made his early reputation by such poems as Marmion and The Lady of the Lake. Robert Southey (1774-1843) usually classed with Wordsworth and Coleridge as one of the three so-called Lake Poets, wrote much better prose than poetry. His prose Life of Nelson outranks the poetry in his Curse of Kehama. It is probable that, had he lived in an age of prose ascendancy, he would have written little poetry, for he distinctly says that the desire of making money “has already led me to write sometimes in poetry what would perhaps otherwise have been better written in prose.” This statement shows in a striking way the spirit of those times. If Coleridge had not written such good poetry, his excellent critical prose would probably be more read to-day; but he doubtless continues to have a thousand readers for The Ancient Mariner to one for his prose.
Among the prose writers of this age, the fiction of Scott and Jane Austen seems destined to the longest lease of life and the widest circle of readers. De Quincey's work, especially his artistic presentation of his thrilling dreams, has many admirers.
The Essays of Elia of Charles Lamb (1775-1834) still charms many readers. For over thirty years he was by day a clerk in the India House and by night a student of the Elizabethan drama and a writer of periodical essays, suggestive of the work of Addison and Steele. Lamb's pervasive humor in discussing trivial subjects makes him very delightful reading. His well-known Essays of Elia first appeared in theLondon Magazine between 1820 and 1833. The peculiar flavor of his style and humor is shown in his A Dissertation upon Roast-Pig, as one of the most popular of these Essays is called. Lamb relates how a Chinese boy, Bo-bo, having accidentally set his house an fire and roasted a litter of pigs, happened to acquire a liking for roast pig when he sucked his fingers to cool them after touching a crackling pig. It was considered a crime to eat meat that was not raw; but the jury fortunately had their fingers burned in the same way and tried Bo-bo's method of cooling them. The boy was promptly acquitted. Lamb gravely proceeds:—
“The judge, who was a shrewd fellow, winked at the manifest iniquity
of the decision, and when the court was dismissed, went privily
and bought up all the pigs that could be had for love or money. In a
few days his lordship's town house was observed to be on fire. The
thing took wing, and now there was nothing to be seen but fires in
every direction. Fuel and pigs grew enormously dear all over the
district. The insurance offices one and all shut up shop. People
built slighter and slighter every day, until it was feared that the
very science of architecture would in no long time be lost to the
world. Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process
of time, says my manuscript, a sage arose, like our Locke, who made
a discovery that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal,
might be cooked (burnt as they called it) without the necessity of
consuming a whole house to dress it. Then began the rude form of a
Other enjoyable essays are Old China, a lovable picture of his home life with his sister, Dream Children, New Year's Eve, and Poor Relations.
The results of Lamb's Elizabethan studies appeared in the excellent Tales from Shakespeare, which he wrote with his sister, and in his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who wrote about the Time of Shakespeare.
This age produced much prose criticism. Coleridge remains one of England's greatest critics, and Lamb and De Quincey are yet two of her most enjoyable ones. Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830) also deserve mention in the history of English prose criticism. Both men were unusually combative. Landor was sent away from Oxford “for criticizing a noisy party with a shot gun,” which he discharged against the closed shutters of the room where the roisterers were holding their festivities. He went to Italy, where most of his literary work was done. He avoided people, and even boasted that he took more pleasure with his own thoughts than with those of others. For companionship, he imagined himself conversing with other people. The titles of his best two works are Imaginary Conversations (1824-1848) and Pericles and Aspasia (1836), the latter a series of imaginary letters. His writings are notable for their style, for an unusual combination of dignity with simplicity and directness. A statement like the following shows how vigorous and sweeping his criticisms sometimes are: “A rib of Shakespeare would have made a Milton; the same portion of Milton, all poets born ever since.” In spite of many splendid passages and of a style that suggests sculpture in marble, twentieth-century readers often feel that he is under full sail, either bound for nowhere, or voyaging to some port where they do not care to land.
Hazlitt is less polished, but more suggestive, and in closer touch with life than Landor. In seizing the important qualities of an author's works and summarizing them in brief space, Hazlitt shows the skill of a trained journalist. His three volumes, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), Lectures on the English Poets (1818), and Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819) contain criticism that remains stimulating and suggestive. He loves to arrive somewhere, to settle his points definitely. His discussion of the frequently debated question,—whether Pope is a poet, shows this characteristic:—
“The question,—whether Pope was a poet, has hardly yet been
settled, and is hardly worth settling; for if he was not a great
poet, he must have been a great prose writer, that is, he was a
great writer of some sort.”
His two volumes of essays, The Round Table (1817) and Table Talk (1821-1822), caused him to be called a “lesser Dr. Samuel Johnson.”
While the combative dispositions of Landor and Hazlitt did not make them ideal critics of their contemporaries, the taste of the age liked criticism of the slashing type. The newly established periodicals and reviews, such as The Edinburgh Review (started in 1802), furnished a new market for critical essays. Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), editor of The Edinburgh Review, accused Wordsworth of “silliness” in hisLyrical Ballads; and said vehemently of a later volume of the same poet's verse: “This will never do.” The Quarterly Review in 1818 spoke of the “insanity” of the poetry of Keats. In 1819 Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine gave a fatherly warning to Shelley that Keats as a poet was “worthy of sheer and instant contempt,” advised him to select better companions than “Johnny Keats,” and promised that compliance with this advice would secure him “abundance of better praise.”
Even the more genial Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), the friend of Shelley and Keats, and the writer of many pleasant essays, called Carlyle's style “a jargon got up to confound pretension with performance.” We like Hunt best when he is writing in the vein of the Spectator or as a “miniature Lamb.” In such papers as An Earth upon Heaven, Hunt tells us that in heaven “there can be no clergymen if there are no official duties for them”; that we shall there enjoy the choicest books, for “Shakespeare and Spenser should write us new ones.” He closes this entertaining paper with the novel assurance: “If we choose, now and then we shall even have inconveniences.”
WILLIAM COWPER, 1731-1800
Life.—Cowper's life is a tale of almost continual sadness, caused by his morbid timidity. He was born at Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, in 1731. At the age of six, he lost his mother and was placed in a boarding school. Here his sufferings began. The child was so especially terrified by one rough boy that he could never raise his eyes to the bully's face, but knew him unmistakably by his shoe buckles.
There was some happiness for Cowper at his next school, the Westminster School, and also during the twelve succeeding years, when he studied law; but the short respite was followed by the gloom of madness. Owing to his ungovernable fear of a public examination, which was necessary to secure the position offered by an uncle, Cowper underwent days and nights of agony, during which he tried in many ways to end his miserable life. The frightful ordeal unsettled his reason, and he spent eighteen months in an insane asylum.
Upon his recovery, he was taken into the house of a Rev. Mr. Unwin, whose wife tended Cowper as a son during the rest of her life. He was never supremely happy, and he was sometimes again thrown into madness by the terrible thought of God's wrath; but his life was passed in a quiet manner in the villages of Weston and Olney, where he was loved by every one. The simple pursuits of gardening, carpentering, visiting the sick, caring for his numerous pets, rambling through the lanes, studying nature, and writing verse, occupied his sane moments when he was not at prayer.
Works.—Cowper's first works were the Olney Hymns. His religious nature is manifest again in the volume which consists of didactic poems upon such subjects as The Progress of Error, Truth, Charity, Table Talk, and Conversation. These are in the spirit of the formal classical poets, and contain sententious couplets such as
“An idler is a watch that wants both hands,
As useless if it goes as when it stands.”
“Vociferated logic kills me quite;
A noisy man is always in the right.”
The bare didacticism of these poems is softened and sweetened by the gentle, devout nature of the poet, and is enlivened by a vein of pure humor.
He is one of England's most delightful letter writers because of his humor, which ripples occasionally over the stream of his constitutional melancholy. The Diverting History of John Gilpin is extremely humorous. The poet seems to have forgotten himself in this ballad and to have given full expression to his sense of the ludicrous.
The work that has made his name famous is The Task. He gave it this title half humorously because his friend, Lady Austen, had bidden him write a poem in blank verse upon some subject or other, the sofa, for instance; and he called the first book of the poem The Sofa. The Task is chiefly remarkable because it turns from the artificial and conventional subjects which had been popular, and describes simple beauties of nature and the joys of country life. Cowper says:—
“God made the country, and man made the town.”
To a public acquainted with the nature poetry of Burns, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, Cowper's poem does not seem a wonderful production. Appearing as it did, however, during the ascendancy of Pope's influence, when aristocratic city life was the only theme for verse, The Task is a strikingly original work. It marks a change from the artificial style of eighteenth century poetry and proclaims the dawn of the natural style of the new school. He who could write of—
”...rills that slip
Through the cleft rock, and chiming as they fall
Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length
In matted grass, that with a livelier green
Betrays the secret of their silent course,”
was a worthy forerunner of Shelley and Keats.
General Characteristics.—Cowper's religious fervor was the strongest element in both his life and his writings. Perhaps that which next appealed to his nature was the pathetic. He had considerable mastery of pathos, as may be seen in the drawing of “crazed Kate” in The Task, in the lines To Mary, and in the touchingly beautiful poem On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture out of Norfolk, beginning with that well-known line:—
“Oh that those lips had language!”
The two most attractive characteristics of his works are refined, gentle humor and a simple and true manner of picturing rural scenes and incidents. He says that he described no spot which he had not seen, and expressed no emotion which he had not felt. In this way, he restricted the range of his subjects and displayed a somewhat literal mind; but what he had seen and felt he touched with a light fancy and with considerable imaginative power.
ROBERT BURNS, 1759-1796
Life.—The greatest of Scottish poets was born in a peasant's clay-built cottage, a mile and a half south of Ayr. His father was a man whose morality, industry, and zeal for education made him an admirable parent. For a picture of his father and the home influences under which the boy was reared, The Cotter's Saturday Night should be read. The poet had little formal schooling, but under paternal influence he learned how to teach himself.
Until his twenty-eighth year, Robert Burns was an ordinary laborer on one or another of the Ayrshire tenant farms which his father or brothers leased. At the age of fifteen, he was worked beyond his strength in doing a man's full labor. He called his life on the Ayrshire farms “the unceasing toil of a galley slave.” All his life he fought a hand-to-hand fight with poverty.
In 1786, when he was twenty-seven years old, he resolved to abandon the struggle and seek a position in the far-off island of Jamaica. In order to secure money for his passage, he published some poems which he had thought out while following the plow or resting after the day's toil. Six hundred copies were printed at three shillings each. All were sold in a little over a month. A copy of this Kilmarnock edition has since sold in Edinburgh for L572. His fame from that little volume has grown as much as its monetary value.
Some Edinburgh critics praised the poems very highly and suggested a second edition. Burns therefore abandoned the idea of going to Jamaica and went to Edinburgh to arrange for a new edition. Here he was entertained by the foremost men, some of whom wished to see how a plowman would behave in polite society, while others desired to gaze on what they regarded as a freak of nature.
The new volume appeared in 1787, and contained but few poems which had not been published the previous year. The following winter he again went to Edinburgh; but having shocked society by his intemperate habits, he was almost totally neglected by the leaders of literature and fashion.
In 1788 Burns married Jean Armour and took her to a farm which he leased in Dumfriesshire. The first part of this new period was the happiest in his life. She has been immortalized in his songs:—
“I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu' birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There's not a bonie flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green
There's not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o' my Jean.”
As this farm proved unprofitable, Burns appealed to influential persons for some position that would enable him to support his family and write poetry. This was an age of pensions, but not a farthing of pension did he ever get. He was made an exciseman or gauger, at a salary of L50 a year, and he followed that occupation for the few remaining years of his life.
Robert Burns wrote and did some things unworthy of a great poet; but when Scotland thinks of him, she quotes the lines which he wrote for Tam Samson's Elegy:—
“Heav'n rest his saul, whare'er he be!
Is th' wish o' mony mae than me:
He had twa faults, or maybe three,
Yet what remead?
Ae social, honest man want we.”
Burns's Poetic Creed.—We can understand and enjoy Burns much better if we know his object in writing poetry and the point of view from which he regarded life. It would be hard to fancy the intensity of the shock which the school of Pope would have felt on reading this statement of the poor plowman's poetic creed:—
“Gie me ae spark o' Nature's fire,
That's a' the learning I desire;
Then tho' I drudge thro' dub an' mire
At pleugh or cart,
My Muse, though hamely in attire,
May touch the heart.”
Burns's heart had been touched with the loves and sorrows of life, and it was his ambition to sing so naturally of these as to touch the hearts of others.
With such an object in view, he did not disdain to use in his best productions much of the Scottish dialect, the vernacular of the plowman and the shepherd. The literary men of Edinburgh, who would rather have been convicted of a breach of etiquette than of a Scotticism, tried to induce him to write pure English; but the Scotch words which he first heard from his mother's lips seemed to possess more “o' Nature's fire.” He ended by touching the heart of Scotland and making her feel more proud of this dialect, of him, and of herself.
Union of the Elizabethan with the Revolutionary Spirit.—In no respect does the poetry of Burns more completely part company with the productions of the classical school than in the expression of feeling. The emotional fire of Elizabethan times was restored to literature. No poet except Shakespeare has ever written more nobly impassioned love songs. Burns's song beginning:—
“Ae fond kiss and then
seemed to both Byron and Scott to contain the essence of a thousand love tales. This unaffected, passionate treatment of love had long been absent from our literature; but intensity of genuine feeling reappeared in Burns's Highland Mary, I Love My Jean, Farewell to Nancy, To Mary in Heaven, O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast, which last Mendelssohn thought exquisite enough to set to music. The poetry of Burns throbs with varying emotions. It has been well said that the essence of the lyric is to describe the passion of the moment. Burns is a master in this field.
The spirit of revolution against the bondage and cold formalism of the past made the poor man feel that his place in the world was as dignified, his happiness as important, as that of the rich. A feeling of sympathy for the oppressed and the helpless also reached beyond man to animals. Burns wrote touching lines about a mouse whose nest was, one cold November day, destroyed by his plow. When the wild eddying swirl of the snow beat around his cot, his heart went out to the poor sheep, cattle, and birds.
Burns can, therefore, claim kinship with the Elizabethans because of his love songs, which in depth of feeling and beauty of natural utterance show something of Shakespeare's magic. In addition to this, the poetry of Burns voices the democratic spirit of the Revolution.
Treatment of Nature.—In his verses, the autumn winds blow over yellow corn; the fogs melt in limpid air; the birches extend their fragrant arms dressed in woodbine; the lovers are coming through the rye; the daisy spreads her snowy bosom to the sun; the “westlin” winds blow fragrant with dewy flowers and musical with the melody of birds; the brook flows past the lover's Eden, where summer first unfolds her robes and tarries longest, because of the rarest bewitching enchantment of the poet's tale told there.
In his poetry those conventional birds,—the lark and the nightingale,—do not hold the chief place. His verses show that the source of his knowledge of birds is not to be sought in books. We catch glimpses of grouse cropping heather buds, of whirring flocks of partridges, of the sooty coot and the speckled teal, of the fisher herons, of the green-crested lapwing, of clamoring craiks among fields of flowering clover, of robins cheering the pensive autumn, of lintwhites chanting among the buds, of the mavis singing drowsy day to rest.
It is true that on the poetic stage of Burns, man always stands in the foreground. Nature is employed in order to give human emotion a proper background. Burns chose those aspects of nature which harmonized with his present mood, but the natural objects in his pages are none the less enjoyable for that reason. Sometimes his songs complain if nature seems gay when he is sad, but this contrast is employed to throw a stronger light on his woes.
General Characteristics.—More people often visit the birthplace of Burns near Ayr than of Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon. What qualities in Burns account for such popularity? The fact that the Scotch are an unusually patriotic people and make many pilgrimages to the land of Burns is only a partial answer to this question. The complete answer is to be found in a study of Burns's characteristics. In the first place, with his “spark o' Nature's fire,” he has touched the hearts of more of the rank and file of humanity than even Shakespeare himself. The songs of Burns minister in the simplest and most direct way to every one of the common feelings of the human heart. Shakespeare surpasses all others in painting universal human nature, but he is not always simple. Sometimes his audience consists of only the cultured few.
Especially enjoyable is the humor of Burns, which usually displays a kindly and intuitive sympathy with human weakness. Tam o' Shanter, his greatest poem, keeps the reader smiling or laughing from beginning to end. When the Scottish Muse proudly placed on his brow the holly wreath, she happily emphasized two of his conspicuous qualities,—his love and mirth, when she said:—
“I saw thee eye the gen'ral mirth
With boundless love.”
Burns is one of the great masters of lyrical verse. He preferred that form. He wrote neither epic nor dramatic poetry. He excels in “short swallow flights of song.”
There are not many ways in which a poet can keep larger audiences or come nearer to them than by writing verses that naturally lend themselves to daily song. There are few persons, from the peasant to the lord, who have not sung some of Burns's songs such as Auld Lang Syne, Coming through the Rye, John Anderson my Jo, or Scots Wha hae wi' Wallace Bled. Since the day of his death, the audiences of Robert Burns have for these reasons continually grown larger.
WALTER SCOTT, 1771-1832
Life.—Walter Scott, the son of a solicitor, was born in Edinburgh in 1771. In childhood he was such an invalid that he was allowed to follow his own bent without much attempt at formal education. He was taken to the country, where he acquired a lasting fondness for animals and wild scenery. With his first few shillings he bought the collection of early ballads and songs known as Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Of this he says, “I do not believe I ever read a book half so frequently, or with half the enthusiasm.” His grandmother used to delight him with the tales of adventure on the Scottish border.
Later, Scott went to the Edinburgh High School and to the University. At the High School he showed wonderful genius for telling stories to the boys. “I made a brighter figure in the yards than in the class,” he says of himself at this time. This early practice of relating tales and noting what held the attention of his classmates was excellent training for the future Wizard of the North.
After the apprenticeship to his father, the son was called to the bar and began the practice of law. He often left his office to travel over the Scottish counties in search of legendary ballads, songs, and traditions, a collection of which he published under the title of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. In 1797 he married Miss Charlotte Carpenter, who had an income of L500 a year. In 1799, having obtained the office of sheriff of Selkirkshire at an annual salary of L300, with very light duties, he found himself able to neglect law for literature. His early freedom from poverty is in striking contrast to the condition of his fellow Scotsman, Robert Burns.
During the period between thirty and forty years of age, he wrote his best poems. Not until he was nearly forty-three did he discover where his greatest powers lay. He then published Waverley, the first of a series of novels known by that general name. During the remaining eighteen years of his life he wrote twenty-nine novels, besides many other works, such as the Life of Napoleon in nine volumes, and an entertaining work on Scottish history under the title of Tales of a Grandfather.
The crisis that showed Scott's sterling character came in the winter of 1825-1826, when an Edinburgh publishing firm in which he was interested failed and left an his shoulders a debt of L117,000. Had he been a man of less honor, he might have taken advantage of the bankrupt law, which would have left his future earnings free from past claims; but he refused to take any step that would remove his obligation to pay the debt. At the age of fifty four, he abandoned his happy dream of founding the house of Scott of Abbotsford and sat down to pay off the debt with his pen. The example of such a life is better than the finest sermon on honor. He wrote with almost inconceivable rapidity. His novel Woodstock, the product of three months' work, brought him L8228. In four years he paid L70,000 to his creditors. One day the tears rolled down his cheeks because he could no longer force his fingers to grasp the pen. The king offered him a man-of-war in which to make a voyage to the Mediterranean. Hoping to regain his health, Scott made the trip, but the rest came too late. He returned to Abbotsford in a sinking condition, and died in 1832, at the age of sixty-one.
Poetry.—Scott's three greatest poems are The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810). They belong to the distinct class of story-telling poetry. Like many of the ballads in Percy's collection, these poems are stories of old feuds between the Highlander and the Lowlander, and between the border lords of England and Scotland. These romantic tales of heroic battles, thrilling incidents, and love adventures, are told in fresh, vigorous verse, which breathes the free air of wild nature and moves with the prance of a war horse. Outside of Homer, we can nowhere find a better description of a battle than in the sixth canto of Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field:—
“They close, in clouds of smoke and dust,
With sword sway and with lance's thrust;
And such a yell was there,
Of sudden and portentous birth,
As if men fought upon the earth,
And fiends in upper air;
* * * * *
And in the smoke the pennons flew,
As in the storm the white sea mew.”
The Lady of the Lake, an extremely interesting story of romantic love and adventure, has been the most popular of Scott's poems. Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, where the scene of the opening cantos is laid, have since Scott's day been thronged with tourists.
The most prominent characteristic of Scott's poetry is its energetic movement. Many schoolboys know by heart those dramatic lines which express Marmion's defiance of Douglas, and the ballad ofLochinvar, which is alive with the movements of tireless youth. These poems have an interesting story to tell, not of the thoughts, but of the deeds, of the characters. Scott is strangely free from nineteenth century introspection.
Historical Fiction.—Seeing that Byron could surpass him as a poet, and finding that his own genius was best adapted to writing prose tales, Scott turned to the composition of his great romances. In 1814 he published Waverly, a story of the attempt of the Jacobite Pretender to recover the English throne in 1745. Seventeen of Scott's works of fiction are historical.
When we wish a vivid picture of the time of Richard Coeur de Lion, of the knight and the castle, of the Saxon swineherd Gurth and of the Norman master who ate the pork, we may read Ivanhoe. If we desire some reading that will make the Crusaders live again, we find it in the pages of The Talisman. When we wish an entertaining story of the brilliant days of Elizabeth, we turn to Kenilworth. If we are moved by admiration for the Scotch Covenanters to seek a story of their times, we have Scott's truest historical tale, Old Mortality. Shortly after this story appeared, Lord Holland was asked his opinion of it. “Opinion!” he exclaimed; “we did not one of us go to bed last night—nothing slept but my gout.” The man who could thus charm his readers was called “the Wizard of the North.”
Scott is the creator of the historical novel, which has advanced on the general lines marked out by him. Carlyle tersely says: “These historical novels have taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others till so taught: that the by-gone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies, and abstractions of men.”
The history in Scott's novels is not always absolutely accurate. To meet the exigencies of his plot, he sometimes takes liberties with the events of history, and there are occasional anachronisms in his work. Readers may rest assured, however, that the most prominent strokes of his brush will convey a sufficiently accurate idea of certain phases of history. Although the hair lines in his pictures may be neglected, most persons can learn more truth from studying his gallery of historic scenes than from poring over volumes of documents and state papers. Scott does not look at life from every point of view. The reader ofIvanhoe, for instance, should be cautioned against thinking that it presents a complete picture of the Middle Ages. It shows the bright, the noble side of chivalry, but not all the brutality, ignorance, and misery of the times.
Novels that are not Historical.—Twelve of Scott's novels contain but few attempts to represent historic events. The greatest of these novels are Guy Mannering, The Heart of Midlothian, The Antiquary, and The Bride of Lammermoor.
Scott said that his most rapid work was his best. Guy Mannering, an admirable picture of Scottish life and manners, was written in six weeks. Some of its characters, like Dominie Sampson, the pedagogue, Meg Merrilies, the gypsy, and Dick Hatteraick, the smuggler, have more life than many of the people we meet.
A century before, Pope said that most women had no characters at all. His writings tend to show that this was his real conviction, as it was that of many others during the time when Shakespeare was little read. The Heart of Midlothian presents in Jeanie Deans a woman whose character and feminine qualities have won the admiration of the world. Scott could not paint women in the higher walks of life. He was so chivalrous that he was prone to make such women too perfect, but his humble Scotch lass Jeanie Deans is one of his greatest creations.
When we note the vast number of characters drawn by his pen, we are astonished to find that he repeats so little. Many novelists write only one original novel. Their succeeding works are merely repetitions of the first. The hero may have put on a new suit of clothes and the heroine may have different colored hair, or each may be given a new mannerism, but there is nothing really new in character, and very little in incident. Year after year, however, Scott wrote with wonderful rapidity, without repeating his characters or his plots.
General Characteristics.—All critics are impressed with the healthiness of Scott's work, with its freedom from what is morbid or debasing. His stories display marked energy and movement, and but little subtle analysis of feelings and motives. He aimed at broad and striking effects. We do not find much development of character in his pages. “His characters have the brilliance and the fixity of portraits.”
Scott does not particularly care to delineate the intense passion of love. Only one of his novels, The Bride of Lammermoor, is aflame with this overmastering emotion. He delights in adventure. He places his characters in unusual and dangerous situations, and he has succeeded in making us feel his own interest in the outcome. He has on a larger scale many of the qualities that we may note in the American novelist Cooper, whose best stories are tales of adventure in the forest or on the sea. Like him, Scott shows lack of care in the construction of sentences. Few of the most cultured people of to-day could, however, write at Scott's breakneck speed and make as few slips. Scott has far more humor and variety than Cooper.
Scott's romanticism is seen in his love for supernatural agencies, which figure in many of his stories. His fondness for adventure, for mystery, for the rush of battle, for color and sharp contrast, and his love for the past are also romantic traits. Sometimes, however, he falls into the classical fault of overdescription and of leaving too little to the imagination.
In the variety of his creations, he is equaled by no one. He did more than any other pioneer to aid fiction in dethroning the drama. His influence can be seen in the historical novels of almost every nation.
JANE AUSTEN, 1775-1817
Life and Works.—While Sir Walter Scott was laying the foundations of his large family estates and recounting the story of battles, chivalry, and brigandage, a quiet little woman, almost unmindful of the great world, was enlivening her father's parsonage and writing about the clergy, the old maids, the short-sighted mothers, the marriageable daughters, and other people that figure in village life.
This cheery, sprightly young woman was Jane Austen, who was born in Steventon, Hampshire, in 1775.
She spent nearly all her life in Hampshire, which furnished her with the chief material for her novels. She loved the quiet life of small country villages and interpreted it with rare sympathy and a keen sense of humor, as is shown in the following lines from Pride and Prejudice:—
“'Oh, Mr. Bennet, you are wanted immediately; we are all in an
uproar! You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins, for she
vows she will not have him; and if you do not make haste he will
change his mind and not have her!'
“'Come here, child,' cried her father ... 'I understand that Mr.
Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it true?' Elizabeth
replied that it was. 'Very well—and this offer of marriage you have
“'I have, sir.'
“'Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists
upon your accepting it. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?'
“'Yes, or I will never see her again.'
“'An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day
you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will
never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will
never see you again if you do!'“
She began her literary work early, and at the age of sixteen she had accumulated quite a pile of manuscripts. She wrote as some artists paint, for the pure joy of the work, and she never allowed her name to appear on a title page. The majority of her acquaintances did not even suspect her of the “guilt of authorship.”
She disliked “Gothic” romances, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, and she wrote Northanger Abbey as a burlesque of that type. In this story the heroine, Catherine Moreland, who has been fed on such literature, is invited to visit Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire, where with an imagination “resolved on alarm,” she is prepared to be agitated by experiences of trapdoors and subterranean passages. On the first night of her visit, a violent storm, with its mysterious noises, serves to arouse the most characteristic “Gothic” feelings; but when the complete awakening comes and the “visions of romance are over,” Catherine realizes that real life is not fruitful of such horrors as are depicted in her favorite novels.
Pride and Prejudice is usually considered Jane Austen's best work, although Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion have their ardent admirers. In fact, there is an increasing number of discriminating readers who enjoy almost everything that she wrote. During the last five years of the eighteenth century, she produced some of her best novels, although they were not published until the period between 1811 and 1818.
The scenes of her stories are laid for the most part in small Hampshire villages, with which she was thoroughly familiar, the characters being taken from the middle class and the gentry with whom she was thrown. Simple domestic episodes and ordinary people, living somewhat monotonous and narrow lives, satisfy her. She exhibits wonderful skill in fashioning these into slight but entertaining narratives. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, she creates some refreshing situations by opposing Philip Darcy's pride to Elizabeth Bennet's prejudice. She manages the long-delayed reconciliation between these two lovers with a tact that shows true genius and a knowledge of the human heart.
A strong feature of Jane Austen's novels is her subtle, careful manner of drawing character. She perceives with an intuitive refinement the delicate shadings of emotion, and describes them with the utmost care and detail. Her heroines are especially fine, each one having an interesting individuality, thoroughly natural and womanly. The minor characters in Miss Austen's works are usually quaint and original. She sees the oddities and foibles of people with the insight of the true humorist, and paints them with most dexterous cunning.
William D. Howells, the chief American realist of the nineteenth century, wrote in 1891 of her and her novels:—
“She was great and they were beautiful because she and they were
honest and dealt with nature nearly a hundred years ago as realism
deals with it to-day. Realism is nothing more and nothing less than
the truthful treatment of material.”
She was, indeed, a great realist, and it seems strange that she and Scott, the great romanticist, should have been contemporaries. Scott was both broad and big-hearted enough to sum up her chief characteristics as follows:—
“That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of
feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most
wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself,
like any one going; but the exquisite touch which renders
commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the
description and the sentiment is denied to me.”
She died in 1817 at the age of forty-one and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, fourteen miles from her birthplace. The merit of her work was apparent to only a very few at the time of her death. Later years have slowly brought a just recognition of the important position that she holds in the history of the realistic novel of daily life. Of still greater significance to the majority is the fact that the subtle charm of her stories continues to win for her an enlarged circle of readers.
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, 1770-1850
Early Life and Training.—William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in 1770. He went to school in his ninth year at Hawkshead, a village on the banks of Esthwaite Water, in the heart of the Lake Country. The traveler who takes the pleasant journey on foot or coach from Windermere to Coniston, passes through Hawkshead, where he may see Wordsworth's name cut in a desk of the school which he attended. Of greater interest is the scenery which contributed so much to his education and aided his development into England's greatest nature poet.
We learn from his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, what experiences molded him in boyhood. He says that the—
”...common face of Nature spake to me
In this poem he relates how he absorbed into his inmost being the orange sky of evening, the curling mist, the last autumnal crocus, the “souls of lonely places,” and the huge peak, which terrified him at nightfall by seeming to stride after him and which awoke in him a—
”...dim and undermined sense
Of unknown modes of being.”
In his famous lines on the “Boy of Winander,” Wordsworth tells how—
Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.”
At the age of seventeen he entered Cambridge University, from which he was graduated after a four years' course. He speaks of himself there as a dreamer passing through a dream. There came to him the strange feeling that he “was not for that hour nor for that place;” and yet he says that he was not unmoved by his daily association with the haunts of his illustrious predecessors, or of—
“Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven
With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace,”
and of Milton whose soul seemed to Wordsworth “like a star.”
Influence of the French Revolution.—His travels on the continent in his last vacation and after his graduation brought him in contact with the French Revolution, of which he felt the inspiring influence. He was fond of children, and the sight of a poor little French peasant girl seems to have been one of the main causes leading him to become an ardent revolutionist. The Prelude tells in concrete fullness how he walked along the banks of the Loire with his friend, a French patriot:—
”...And when we chanced
One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl,
Who crept along fitting her languid gait
Unto a heifer's motion, by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
Its sustenance, while the girl with pallid hands
Was busy knitting in a heartless mood
Of solitude, and at the sight my friend
In agitation said, ''Tis against that
That we are fighting.'“
Just as Wordsworth was prepared to throw himself personally into the conflict, his relatives recalled him to England. When the Revolution passed into a period of anarchy and bloodshed, his dejection was intense. As he slowly recovered from his disappointment, he became more and more conservative in politics and less in sympathy with violent agitation; but he never ceased to utter a hopeful though calm and tempered note for genuine liberty.
Maturity and Declining Years.—Although Wordsworth was early left an orphan, he never seemed to lack intelligent care and sympathy. His sister Dorothy, a rare soul, helped to fashion him into a poet. Their favorite pastime was walking and observing nature. De Quincey estimates that Wordsworth, during the course of his life, mast have walked as many as 175,000 miles. He acted on his belief that—
“All things that love the sun are out of doors,”
and he composed his best poetry during his walks, dictating it after his return.
He must have had the capacity of impressing himself favorably on his associates or he might never have had the leisure to write poetry. When he was twenty-five, a friend left him a legacy of L900 to enable him to follow his chosen calling of poet. Seven years later, friends saw that he was appointed distributor of stamps for Westmoreland, at the annual salary of L400. Years afterward, a friend gave him a regular allowance to be spent in traveling.
The summer of 1797 saw him and Dorothy begin a golden year at Alfoxden in Somersetshire, in close association with Coleridge. The result of this companionship was Lyrical Ballads, an epoch-making volume of romantic verse, containing such gems as Wordsworth's Lines composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, Lines written in Early Spring, We Are Seven, and Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner. “All good poetry,” wrote Wordsworth in the Preface to the second edition of this volume, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This is the opposite of the belief of the classical school.
In 1797, after a trip to Germany, he and Dorothy settled at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the Lake Country. She remained a member of the household after he married his cousin, Mary Hutchinson, in 1802. The history of English authors shows no more ideal companionship than that of these three kindred souls. Dove Cottage where he wrote the best of his poetry, remains almost unchanged. It is one of the most interesting literary homes in England.
In 1813 he moved a short distance away, to Rydal Mount, where he lived the remainder of his life. In 1843 he was chosen poet laureate. He died in 1850 and was buried in Grasmere Churchyard.
A Poet of Nature.—Wordsworth is one of the world's most loving and thoughtful lyrical poets of Nature. For him she possessed a soul, a conscious existence, an ability to feel joy and love. In Lines written in Early Spring, he expresses this belief:—
“And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.”
All things seem to him to feel pure joy in existence:—
“The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare.”
It was also his poetic creed that Nature could bring to human hearts a message of solace and companionship. His poem, Lines composed a Short Distance above Tintern Abbey, is a remarkable exposition of this faith.
He would have scorned to be considered merely a descriptive poet of nature. He satirizes those who could do nothing more than correctly apply the color “yellow” to the primrose:—
“A primrose by a river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him
And it was nothing more.”
He interprets the sympathetic soul of Nature, not merely her outward or her intellectual aspect. He says in The Prelude:—
“From Nature and her overflowing soul
I had received so much, that all my thoughts
Were steeped in feeling.”
If we compare Wordsworth's line—
“This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,”
with Tennyson's line from The Princess—
“A full sea glazed with muffled moonlight,”
we may easily decide which shows more feeling and which, more art.
Many poets have produced beautiful paintings of the external features of nature. With rare genius, Wordsworth looked beyond the color of the flower, the outline of the hills, the beauty of the clouds, to the spirit that breathed through them, and he communed with “Nature's self, which is the breath of God.” He introduced lovers of his poetry to a new world of nature, a new source of companionship and solace, a new idea of a Being in cloud and air and “the green leaves among the groves.”
Poetry of Man: Narrative Poems.—Wordsworth is a poet of man as well as of nature. The love for nature came to him first; but out of it grew his regard for the people who lived near to nature. His poetry of man is found more in his longer narrative poems, although in them as well as in his shorter pieces, he shows the action of nature on man. In The Prelude, the most remarkable autobiographical poem in English, not only reveals the power in nature to develop man, but he also tells how the French revolution made him feel the worth of each individual soul and a sense of the equality of all humanity at the bar of character and conscience. As his lyrics show the sympathetic soul of nature, so his narrative poems illustrate the second dominant characteristic of the age, the strong sense of the worth of the humblest man.
Michael, one of the very greatest of his productions, displays a tender and living sympathy with the humble shepherd. The simple dignity of Michael's character, his frugal and honorable life, his affection for his son, for his sheep, and for his forefather's old home, appealed to the heart of the poet. He loved his subject and wrote the poem with that indescribable simplicity which makes the tale, the verse, and the tone of thought and feeling form together one perfect and indissoluble whole. The Leech-Gatherer and the story of “Margaret” in The Excursion also deal with lowly characters and exhibit Wordsworth's power of pathos and simple earnestness. He could not present complex personalities; but these characters, which belonged to the landscapes of the Lake District and partook of its calm and its simplicity, he drew with a sure hand.
His longest narrative poem is The Excursion (1814), which is in nine books. It contains fine passages of verse and some of his sanest and maturest philosophy; but the work is not the masterpiece that he hoped to make. It is tedious, prosy, and without action of any kind. The style, which is for the most part heavy, becomes pure and easy only in some description of a mountain peak or in the recital of a tale, like that of “Margaret.”
An Interpreter of Child Life.—Perhaps the French Revolution and the unforgettable incident of the pitiable peasant child were not without influence in causing him to become a great poetic interpreter of childhood. No poem has surpassed his Alice Fell, or Poverty in presenting the psychology of childish grief, or his We Are Seven in voicing the faith of—
”...A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,”
or the loneliness of “the solitary child” in Lucy Gray:—
“The sweetest thing that ever grew
Beside a human door.”
In the poem, Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower, Nature seems to have chosen Wordsworth as her spokesman to describe the part that she would play in educating a child. Nature says:—
“This child I to myself will take;
She shall be mine, and I will make
A lady of my own.
* * * * *
...She shall lean her ear
In many a secret place
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.”
One of the finest similes in all the poetry of nature may be found in the stanza which likens the charms of a little girl to those of:—
“A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.”
Finally, in his Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, he glorifies universal childhood, that “eye among the blind,” capable of seeing this common earth—
“Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.”
General Characteristics.—Four of Wordsworth's characteristics go hand in hand,—sincerity, feeling, depth of thought, and simplicity of style. The union of these four qualities causes his great poems to continue to yield pleasure after an indefinite number of readings. In his garden of poetry, the daffodil blossoms all the year for the “inward eye,” and the “wandering voice of the cuckoo” never ceases to awaken springtime in the heart.
His own age greeted with so much ridicule the excessive simplicity of the presentation of ordinary childish grief in Alice Fell, that he excluded it from many editions of his poems. We now recognize the special charm of his simplicity in expressing those feelings and thoughts that “do often lie too deep for tears.”
Wordsworth was most truly great when he seemed to write as naturally as he breathed, when he appeared unconscious of the power that he wielded. When he attempted to command it at will, he failed, as in the dull, lifeless lines of The Excursion. Sometimes even his labored simplicity is no better than prose; but such simple and natural poems as Michael, The Solitary Reaper, To My Sister, Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower, and the majority of the poems showing the new attitude toward childhood, are priceless treasures of English literature. Of most of these, we may say with Matthew Arnold, “It might seem that Nature not only gave him the matter for his poem, but wrote his poem for him.”
Wordsworth lacks humor and his compass is limited; but within that compass he is surpassed by no poet since Milton. On the other hand, no great poet ever wrote more that is almost worthless. Matthew Arnold did much for Wordsworth's renown by collecting his priceless poems and publishing them apart from the mediocre work. Among the fine productions, his sonnets occupy a high place. Only Shakespeare and Milton in our language excel him in this form of verse.
Wordsworth is greatest as a poet of nature. To him nature seemed to possess a conscious soul, which expressed itself in the primrose, the rippling lake, or the cuckoo's song, with as much intelligence as human lips ever displayed in whispering a secret to the ear of love. This interpretation of nature gives him a unique position among English poets. Neither Shakespeare nor Milton had any such general conception of nature.
The bereaved, the downcast, and those in need of companionship turn naturally to Wordsworth. He said that it was his aim “to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight.” His critics often say that he does not recognize the indifference, even the cruelty of nature; but that he chooses, instead, to present the world as a manifestation of love and care for all creatures. When he was shown where a cruel huntsman and his dogs had chased a poor hart to its death, Wordsworth wrote:—
“This beast not unobserved by nature fell;
His death was mourned by sympathy divine.
“The Being that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.”
Whatever view we take of the indifference of nature or of the suffering in existence, it is necessary for us, in order to live hopeful and kindly lives, to feel with Wordsworth that the great powers of the universe are not devoid of sympathy, and that they encourage in us the development of “a spirit of love” for all earth's creatures. It was Wordsworth's deepest conviction that any one alive to the presence of nature's conscious spiritual force, that “rolls through all things”—
“Shall feel an overseeing power
To kindle or restrain.”
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, 1722-1834
Life.—The troubled career of Coleridge is in striking contrast to the peaceful life of Wordsworth. Coleridge, the thirteenth child of a clergyman, was born in 1772 at Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire. Early in his life, the future poet became a confirmed dreamer, refusing to participate in the play common to boys of his age. Before he was five years old, he had read the Arabian Nights. Only a few years later, the boy's appetite for books became so voracious that he devoured an average of two volumes a day.
One evening, when he was about nine years old, he had a violent quarrel with his brother and ran away, sleeping out of doors all night. A cold October rain fell; but he was not found until morning, when he was carried home more dead than alive. “I was certainly injured;” he says of this adventure, “for I was weakly and subject to ague for many years after.” Facts like these help to explain why physical pain finally led him to use opium.
After his father's death, young Coleridge became, at the age of ten, a pupil in Christ's Hospital, London, where he remained eight years. During the first half of his stay here, his health was still further injured by continuing as he was in earlier childhood, “a playless daydreamer,” and by a habit of almost constant reading. He says that the food “was cruelly insufficient for those who had no friends to supply them.” He writes:—
“Conceive what I must have been at fourteen; I was in a continual
low fever. My whole being was, with eyes closed to every object of
present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny corner, and read,
read, read—fancy myself on Robinson Crusoe's island, finding a
mountain of plumcake, and eating a room for myself, and then eating
it into the shapes of tables and chairs—hunger and fancy!”
A few months after leaving Christ's Hospital, Coleridge went to Cambridge, but he did not remain to graduate. From this time he seldom completed anything that he undertook. It was characteristic of him, stimulated by the spirit of the French Revolution, to dream of founding with Southey a Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna. In this ideal village across the sea, the dreamers were to work only two hours a day and were to have all goods in common. The demand for poetry was at this time sufficiently great for a bookseller to offer Coleridge, although he was as yet comparatively unknown, thirty guineas for a volume of poems and a guinea and a half for each hundred lines after finishing that volume. With such wealth in view, Coleridge married a Miss Fricker of Bristol, because no single people could join the new ideal commonwealth. Southey married her sister; but the young enthusiasts were forced to abandon their project because they did not have sufficient money to procure passage across the ocean.
The tendency to dream, however, never forsook Coleridge. One of his favorite poems begins with this line:—
“My eyes make pictures when they are shut.”
He recognized his disinclination to remain long at work on prearranged lines, when he said, “I think that my soul must have preexisted in the body of a chamois chaser.”
In 1797-1798 Coleridge lived with his young wife at Nether-Stowey in Somerset. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to a house in the neighborhood in order to be near Coleridge. The two young men and Dorothy Wordsworth seemed to be exactly fitted to stimulate one another. Together they roamed over the Quantock Hills, gazed upon the sea, and planned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is one of the few things that Coleridge ever finished. In little more than a year he wrote nearly all the the poetry that has made him famous.
Had he, like Keats, died when he was twenty-five, the world would probably be wondering what heights of poetic fame Coleridge might have reached; but he became addicted to the use of opium and passed a wretched existence of thirty-six years longer, partly in the Lake District, but chiefly in a suburb of London, without adding to his poetic fame. During his later years he did hack work for papers, gave occasional lectures, wrote critical and philosophical prose, and became a talker almost as noted as Dr. Johnson. It is only just to Coleridge to recognize the fact that even if he had never written a line of poetry, his prose would entitle him to be ranked among England's greatest critics.
Coleridge's wide reading, continued from boyhood, made his contemporaries feel that he had the best intellectual equipment of any man in England since Francis Bacon's time. Once Coleridge, having forgotten the subject of his lecture, was startled by the announcement that he would speak on a difficult topic, entirely different from the one he had in mind; but he was equal to the emergency and delivered an unusually good address.
Young men used to flock to him in his old age to draw on his copious stores of knowledge and especially to hear him talk about German philosophy. Carlyle visited him for this purpose and speaks of the “glorious, balmy, sunny islets, islets of the blest and the intelligible,” which occasionally emerged from the mist of German metaphysics. He spent the last eighteen years of his life in Highgate with his kind friend, Dr. Gillman, who succeeded in regulating and decreasing the amount of opium which Coleridge took. He died there in 1834 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. Westminster Abbey does not have the honor of the grave of a single one of the great poets of this romantic age.
Poetry.—The Ancient Mariner (1798) is Coleridge's poetical masterpiece. It is also one of the world's masterpieces. The supernatural sphere into which it introduces the reader is a remarkable creation, with its curse, its polar spirit, the phantom ship, the seraph band, and the magic breeze. The mechanism of the poem is a triumph of romantic genius. The meter, the rhythm, and the music have well-nigh magical effect. Almost every stanza shows not only exquisite harmony, but also the easy mastery of genius in dealing with those weird scenes which romanticists love.
The moral interest of the poem is not inferior to its other charms. The Mariner killed the innocent Albatross, and we listen to the same kind of lesson as Wordsworth teaches in his Hart-Leap Well:—
“The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shat him with his bow.'“
The noble conclusion of the poem has for more than a hundred years continued to influence human conduct:—
“He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
His next greatest poem is the unfinished Christabel (1816). A lovely maiden falls under the enchantments of a mysterious Lady Geraldine; but the fragment closes while this malevolent influence continues. We miss the interest of a finished story, which draws so many readers to The Ancient Mariner, although Christabel is thickly sown with gems. Lines like these are filled with the airiness of nature:—
“There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.”
In all literature there has been no finer passage written on the wounds caused by broken friendship than the lines in Christabel relating to the estrangement of Roland and Sir Leoline. After reading this poem and Kubla Khan, an unfinished dream fragment of fifty-four lines, we feel that the closing lines of Kubla Khan are peculiarly applicable to Coleridge:—
“For he on honey dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
Swinburne says of Christabel and Kubla Khan: “When it has been said that such melodies were never heard, such dreams never dreamed, such speech never spoken, the chief things remain unsaid, unspeakable. There is a charm upon these poems which can only be felt in silent submission and wonder.”
General Characteristics of his Poetry.—Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge is not the poet of the earth and the common things of life. He is the poet of air, of the regions beyond the earth, and of dreams. By no poet has the supernatural been invested with more charm.
He has rare feeling for the beautiful, whether in the world of morals; of nature, or of the harmonies of sound. The motherless Christabel in her time of danger dreams a beautiful truth of this divinely governed world:—
“But this she knows, in joys and woes,
That saints will aid if men will call:
For the blue sky bends over all.”
His references to nature are less remarkable for description or photographic details than for suggestiveness and diffused charm, such as we find in these lines:—
”...the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.”
Wordsworth wrote few poems simpler than The Ancient Mariner. A stanza like this seems almost as simple as breathing:—
“The moving moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide;
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside.”
Prose.—Coleridge's prose, which is almost all critical or philosophical, left its influence on the thought of the nineteenth century. When he was a young man, he went to Germany and studied philosophy with a continued vigor unusual for him. He became an idealist and used the idealistic teachings of the German metaphysicians to combat the utilitarian and sense-bound philosophy of Bentham, Malthus, and Mill. We pass by Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1825), the weightiest of his metaphysical productions, to consider those works which possess a more vital interest for the student of literature.
His Lectures on Shakespeare, delivered in 1811, contained epoch-making Shakespearean criticism. We are told that every drawing-room in London discussed them. His greatest work on criticism is entitledBiographia Literaria (2 Vols., 1817). There are parts of it which no careful student of the development of modern criticism can afford to leave unread. The central point of this work is the exposition of his theory of the romantic school of poetry. He thus gives his own aim and that of Wordsworth in the composition of the volume of poems, known as Lyrical Ballads:—
”...it was agreed that my endeavors should be directed to persons
and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to
transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of
truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that
willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes
Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his
object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to
excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the
mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to
the loveliness and wonders of the world before us.”
Coleridge does not hold Wordsworth's belief that the language of common speech and of poetry should be identical. He shows that Wordsworth does better than follow his own theories. Yet, when he considers both the excellencies and the defects of Wordsworth's verse, Coleridge's verdict of praise is substantially that of the twentieth century. This is an unusual triumph for a contemporary critic, sitting in judgment on an author of an entirely new school and rendering a decision in opposition to that of the majority, who, he says, “have made it a business to attack and ridicule Mr. Wordsworth... His famebelongs to another age and can neither be accelerated nor retarded.”
GEORGE NOEL GORDON, LORD BYRON, 1788-1824
Life.—Byron was born in London in 1788. His father was a reckless, dissipated spendthrift, who deserted his wife and child. Mrs. Byron convulsively clasped her son to her one moment and threw the scissors and tongs at him the next, calling him “the lame brat,” in reference to his club foot. Such treatment drew neither respect nor obedience from Byron, who inherited the proud, defiant spirit of his race. His accession to the peerage in 1798 did not tend to tame his haughty nature, and he grew up passionately imperious and combative.
Being ambitious, he made excellent progress in his studies at Harrow, but when he entered Cambridge he devoted much of his time to shooting, swimming, and other sports, for which he was always famous. In 1809 he started on a two years' trip through Spain, Greece, and the far East. Upon his return, he published two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which describe his journey.
This poem made him immediately popular. London society neglected its old favorite, Scott, and eagerly sought out the handsome young peer who had burst suddenly upon it. Poem after poem was produced by this lion of society, and each one was received with enthusiasm and delight. Probably no other English poet knew such instant widespread fame as Byron.
Suddenly and unexpectedly this adulation turned to hatred. In 1815 Byron married Miss Milbanke, an heiress, but she left him a year later. Although no reason for the separation was given, the public fastened all the blame upon Byron. The feeling against him grew so strong that he was warned by his friends to prepare for open violence, and finally, in 1816, he left England forever.
His remaining eight years were spent mostly in Italy. Here, his great beauty, his exile, his poetry, and his passionate love of liberty made him a prominent figure throughout Europe. Notwithstanding this fame, life was a disappointment to Byron. Baffled but rebellious, he openly defied the conventions of his country; and seemed to enjoy the shock it gave to his countrymen.
The closing year of his life shone brightest of all. His main activities had hitherto been directed to the selfish pursuit of his own pleasure; and he had failed to obtain happiness. But in 1823 Byron went to Greece to aid the Greeks, who were battling with Turkey for their independence. Into this struggle for freedom, he poured his whole energies, displaying “a wonderful aptitude for managing the complicated intrigues and plans and selfishnesses which lay in the way.” His efforts cost him his life. He contracted fever, and, after restlessly battling with the disease, said quietly, one April morning in 1824, “Now I shall go to sleep.” His relatives asked in vain for permission to inter him in Westminster Abbey. He was buried in the family vault at Hucknall, Notthinghamshire, not far from Newstead Abbey.
Early Works.—The poems that Byron wrote during his brilliant sojourn in London, amid the whirl of social gayeties, are The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Parisina, Lara, and The Siege of Corinth. These narrative poems are romantic tales of oriental passion and coloring, which show the influence of Scott. They are told with a dash and a fine-sounding rhetoric well fitted to attract immediate attention; but they lack the qualities of sincere feeling, lofty thought, and subtle beauty, which give lasting fame.
His next publication, The Prisoner of Chillon (1816), is a much worthier poem. The pathetic story is feelingly told in language that often displays remarkable energy and mastery of expression and versification. His picture of the oppressive vacancy which the Prisoner felt is a well-executed piece of very difficult word painting:—
“There were no stars, no earth, no time,
No check, no change, no good, no crime—
But silence, and a stirless breath
Which neither was of life nor death;
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!”
Dramas.—Byron wrote a number of dramas, the best of which are Manfred (1817) and Cain (1821). His spirit of defiance and his insatiable thirst for power are the subjects of these dramas. Manfred is a man of guilt who is at war with humanity, and who seeks refuge on the mountain tops and by the wild cataract. He is fearless and untamed in all his misery, and even in the hour of death does not quail before the spirits of darkness, but defies them with the cry:—
“Back to thy hell!
Thou hast no power upon me, that I feel!
Thou never shall possess me, that I know;
What I have done is done; I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine;
* * * * *
Back, ye baffled fiends!
The hand of death is on me—but not yours!”
Cain, while suffering remorse for the slaying of Abel, is borne by Lucifer through the boundless fields of the universe. Cain yet dares to question the wisdom of the Almighty in bringing evil, sin, and remorse into the world. A critic has remarked that “Milton wrote his great poem to justify the ways of God to man; Byron's object seems to be to justify the ways of man to God.”
The very soul of stormy revolt breathes through both Manfred and Cain, but Cain has more interest as a pure drama. It contains some sweet passages and presents one lovely woman,—Adah. But Byron could not interpret character wholly at variance with his own. He possessed but little constructive skill, and he never overcame the difficulties of blank verse. A drama that does not show wide sympathy with varied types of humanity and the constructive capacity to present the complexities of life is lacking in essential elements of greatness.
Childe Harold, The Vision of Judgment, and Don Juan.—His best works are the later poems, which require only a slight framework or plot, such as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, The Vision of Judgement,and Don Juan.
The third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold, published in 1816 and 1818, respectively, are far superior to the first two. These later cantos continue the travels of Harold, and contain some of Byron's most splendid descriptions of nature, cities, and works of art. Rome, Venice, the Rhine, the Alps, and the sea inspired the finest lines. He wrote of Venice as she—
”...Sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
* * * * *
She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance.”
He calls Rome—
“The Niobe of nations! there she stands.
Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe;
An empty urn within her wither'd hands,
Whose holy dust was scattered long ago.”
The following description, from Canto III, of a wild stormy night in the mountains is very characteristic of his nature poetry and of his own individuality:—
“And this is in the night:—Most Glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber! let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight—
A portion of the tempest and of thee!
How the lit lake shines, a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comes dancing to the earth!
And now again 'tis black,—and now, the glee
of the loud hills shakes with its mountain-mirth
As if they did rejoice o'er a young earthquake's birth”
When George III. died, Southey wrote a poem filled with absurd flattery of that monarch. Byron had such intense hatred for the hypocrisy of society that he wrote his Vision of Judgment (1822) to parody Southey's poem and to make the author the object of satire. Pungent wit, vituperation, and irony were here handled by Byron in a brilliant manner, which had not been equaled since the days of Dryden and Pope. The parodies of most poems are quickly forgotten, but we have here the strange case of Byron's parody keeping alive Southey's original.
Don Juan (1819-1824), a long poem in sixteen cantos, is Byron's greatest work. It is partly autobiographic. The sinister, gloomy Don Juan is an ideal picture of the author, who was sore and bitter over his thwarted hopes of liberty and happiness. Therefore, instead of strengthening humanity with hope for the future, this poem tears hope from the horizon, and suggests the possible anarchy and destruction toward which the world's hypocrisy, cant, tyranny, and universal stupidity are tending.
The poem is unfinished. Byron followed Don Juan through all the phases of life known to himself. The hero has exciting adventures and passionate loves, he is favored at courts, he is driven to the lowest depths of society, he experiences a godlike happiness and a demoniacal despair.
Don Juan is a scathing satire upon society. All its fondest idols,—love, faith, and hope,—are dragged in the mire. There is something almost grand in the way that this Titanic scoffer draws pictures of love only to mock at them, sings patriotic songs only to add—
“Thus sung, or would, or could, or should have sung
The modern Greek in tolerable verse,”
and mentions Homer, Milton, and Shakespeare only to show how accidental and worthless is fame.
Amid the splendid confusion of pathos, irony, passion, mockery, keen wit, and brilliant epigram, which display Byron's versatile and spontaneous genius at its height, there are some beautiful and powerful passages. There is an ideal picture of the love of Don Juan and Haidee:—
“Each was the other's mirror, and but read
Joy sparkling in their dark eyes like a gem.”
”...they could not be
Meant to grow old, but die in happy spring,
Before one charm or hope had taken wing.”
As she lightly slept—
”...her face so fair
Stirr'd with her dream, as rose-leaves with the air;
Or as the stirring of a deep clear stream
Within an Alpine hollow, when the wind
Walks o'er it.”
General Characteristics.—The poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge shows the revolutionary reaction against classicism in literature and tyranny in government; but their verse raises no cry of revolt against the proprieties and moral restrictions of the time. Byron was so saturated with the revolutionary spirit that he rebelled against these also; and for this reason England would not allow him to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
As Byron frequently wrote in the white heat of passionate revolt, his verse shows the effects of lack of restraint. Unfortunately he did not afterwards take the trouble to improve his subject matter, or the mold in which it was cast. Swinburne says, “His verse stumbles and jingles, stammers and halts, where is most need for a swift and even pace of musical sound.”
The great power of Byron's poetry consists in its wealth of expression, its vigor, its rush and volume of sound, its variety, and its passion. Lines like the following show the vigorous flow of the verse, the love for lonely scenery, and a wealth of figurative expression:—
“Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains,
They crowned him long ago
On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds
With a diadem of snow.”
Scattered through his works we find rare gems, such as the following—
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell.”
We may also frequently note the working of an acute intellect, as, for instance, in the lines in which he calls his own gloomy type of mind—
”...the telescope of truth,
Which strips the distance of its phantasies,
And brings life near in utter nakedness,
Making the cold reality too real!”
The answers to two questions which are frequently asked, will throw more light on Byron's characteristics:—
I. Why has his poetic fame in England decreased so much from the estimate of his contemporaries, by whom he seemed worthy of a place beside Goethe? The answer is to be sought in the fact that Byron reflected so powerfully the mood of that special time. That reactionary period in history has passed and with it much of Byron's influence and fame. He was, unlike Shakespeare, specially fitted to minister to a certain age. Again, much of Byron's verse is rhetorical, and that kind of poetry does not wear well. On the other hand, we might reread Shakespeare's Hamlet, Milton's Lycidas, and Wordsworth'sIntimations of Immortality every month for a lifetime, and discover some new beauty and truth at every reading.
II. Why does the continent of Europe class Byron among the very greatest English poets, next even to Shakespeare? It is because Europe was yearning for more liberty, and Byron's words and blows for freedom aroused her at an opportune moment. Historians of continental literature find his powerful impress on the thought of that time. Georg Brandes, a noted European critic, says:—
“In the intellectual life of Russia and Poland, of Spain and Italy,
of France and Germany, the seeds which he had sown, fructified...
The Slavonic nations ...seized on his poetry with avidity... The
Spanish and Italian exile poets took his war cry... Heine's best
poetry is a continuation of Byron's work. French Romanticism and
German Liberalism are both direct descendants of Byron's
Swinburne gives as another reason for Byron's European popularity the fact that he actually gains by translation into a foreign tongue. His faulty meters and careless expressions are improved, while his vigorous way of stating things and his rolling rhetoric are easily comprehended. On the other hand, the delicate shades of thought in Shakespeare's Hamlet cannot be translated into some European tongues without distinct loss.
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, 1792-1822
Life.—Another fiery spirit of the Revolution was Shelley, born in 1792, in a home of wealth, at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex. He was one of the most ardent, independent, and reckless English poets inspired by the French Revolution. He was a man who could face infamy and defy the conventionalities of the world, and, at the same moment, extend a helpful hand of sympathy to a friend or sit for sixty hours beside the sick bed of his dying child. Tender, pitying, fearless, full of a desire to reform the world, and of hatred for any form of tyranny, Shelley failed to adjust himself to the customs and laws of his actual surroundings. He was calumniated and despised by the public at large, and almost idolized by his intimate friends.
At Eton he denounced the tyranny of the larger boys. At Oxford he decried the tyranny of the church over freedom of thought, and was promptly expelled for his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. This act so increased his hatred for despotic authority that he almost immediately married Harriet Westbrook, a beautiful school girl of sixteen, to relieve her from the tyranny of her father who wanted her to return to school. Shelley was then only nineteen and very changeable. He would make such a sudden departure from a place where he had vowed “to live forever,” that specially invited guests sometimes came to find him gone. He soon fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the brilliant woman who later wrote the weird romance Frankenstein, and he married her after Harriet Shelley had drowned herself. These acts alienated his family and forced him to forfeit his right to Field Place.
His repeatedly avowed ideas upon religion, government, and marriage brought him into conflict with public opinion. Unpopular at home, he left England in 1818, never to return. Like Byron, he was practically an exile.
The remaining four years of Shelley's life were passed in comparative tranquillity in the “Paradise of exiles,” as he called Italy. He lived chiefly at Pisa, the last eighteen months of his life. Byron rented the famous Lanfranchi Palace in Pisa and became Shelley's neighbor, often entertaining him and a group of English friends, among whom were Edward Trelawny, the Boswell of Shelley's last days, and Leigh Hunt, biographer and essayist.
On July 7, 1822, Shelley said: “If I die to-morrow, I have lived to be older than my father. I am ninety years of age.” The young poet was right in claiming that it is not length of years that measures life. He had lived longer than most people who reach ninety. The next day he started in company with two others to sail across the Bay of Spezzia to his summer home. Friends watching from the shore saw a sudden tempest strike his boat. When the cloud passed, the craft could not be seen. Not many months before, he had written the last stanza of Adonais :—
”...my spirit's bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.”
Shelley's body was washed ashore, July 18, and it was burned near the spot, in accordance with Italian law; but the ashes and the unconsumed heart were interred in the beautiful Protestant cemetery at Rome, not far from where Keats was buried the previous year.
Few poets have been loved more than Shelley. Twentieth century visitors to his grave often find it covered with fresh flowers. The direction which he wrote for finding the tomb of Keats is more applicable to Shelly's own resting place:—
“Pass, till the Spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access,
Where, like an infant's smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread.”
Works.—Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude (1816) is a magnificent expression of Shelley's own restless, tameless spirit, wandering among the grand solitudes of nature in search of the ineffably lovely dream maiden, who was his ideal of beauty. He travels through primeval forests, stands upon dizzy abysses, plies through roaring whirlpools, all of which are symbolic of the soul's wayfaring, until at last,—
“When on the threshold
of the green recess,”
his dying glance rests upon the setting moon and the sufferer finds eternal peace. The general tone of this poem is painfully despairing, but this is relieved by the grandeur of the natural scenes and by many imaginative flights.
The year 1819 saw the publication of a work unique among Shelley's productions, The Cenci. This is a drama based upon the tragic story of Beatrice Cenci. The poem deals with human beings, human passions, real acts, and the natural world, whereas Shelley usually preferred to treat of metaphysical theories, personified abstractions, and the world of fancy. This strong drama was the most popular of his works during his lifetime.
He returned to the ideal sphere again in one of his great poems, the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). This poem is the apotheosis of the French Revolution. Prometheus, the friend of mankind, lies tortured and chained to the mountain side. As the hour redemption approaches, his beloved Asia, the symbol of nature, arouses the soul of Revolution, represented by Demogorgon. He rises, hurls down the enemies of progress and freedom, releases Prometheus, and spreads liberty and happiness through all the world. Then the Moon, the Earth, and the Voices of the Air break forth into a magnificent chant of praise. The most delicate fancies, the most gorgeous imagery, and the most fiery, exultant emotions are combined in this poem with something of the stateliness of its Greek prototype. The swelling cadences of the blank verse and the tripping rhythm of the lyrics are the product of a nature rich in rare and wonderful melodies.
The Witch of Atlas (1820), Epipsychidion (1821), Adonais (1821), and the exquisite lyrics, The Cloud, To a Skylark and Ode to the West Wind are the most beautiful of the remaining works. The first two mentioned are the most elusive of Shelley's poems. With scarcely an echo in his soul of the shadows and discords of earth, the poet paints, in these works, lands—
”...'twixt Heaven, Air, Earth, and Sea,
Cradled, and hung in clear tranquillity;”
where all is—
“Beautiful as a wreck of Paradise.”
Adonais is a lament for the early death of Keats, and it stands second in the language among elegiac poems, ranking next to Milton's Lycidas. Shelley referred to Adonais as “perhaps the least imperfect of my compositions.” His biographer, Edward Dowden, calls it “the costliest monument ever erected to the memory of an English singer,” who
”...bought, with price of purest breath,
A grave among the eternal.”
Mrs. Shelley put some of her most sacred mementos of the poet between the leaves of Adonais, which spoke to her of his own immortality and omnipresence:—
“Naught we know dies. Shall that alone which knows
Be as a sword consumed before the sheath
By sightless lightning?
* * * * *
He is a portion of the loveliness,
Which once he made more lovely.”
Although some of Shelley's shorter poems are more popular, nothing that he ever wrote surpasses Adonais in completeness, poetic thought, and perfection of artistic finish.
Treatment of Nature.—Shelley was not interested in things themselves, but in their elusive, animating spirit. In the lyric poem, To Night, he does not address himself to mere darkness, but to the active, dream-weaving “Spirit of Night.” The very spirit of the autumnal wind seems to him to breathe on the leaves and turn them—
“Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
In his spiritual conception of nature, he was profoundly affected by Wordsworth; but he goes farther than the older poet in giving expression to the strictly individual forms of nature. Wordsworth pictures nature as a reflection of his own thoughts and feelings. In The Prelude he says:—
“To unorganic natures were transferred
My own enjoyments.”
Shelley, on the other hand, is most satisfying and original when his individual spirit forms in night, cloud, skylark, and wind are made to sing, not as a reflection of his own mood, but as these spirit forces might themselves be supposed to sing, if they could express their song in human language without the aid of a poet. In the lyric, The Cloud, it is the animating spirit of the Cloud itself that sings the song:—
“I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
* * * * *
I sift the snow on the mountains below
And their great pines groan aghast.”
He thus begins the song, To a Skylark—
“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,”
and he likens the lark to “an unbodied joy.”
He peoples the garden in his lyric, The Sensitive Plant, with flowers that are definite, individual manifestations of “the Spirit of Love felt everywhere,” the same power on which Shelley enthusiastically relied for the speedy transformation of the world.
“A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew.”
The “tulip tall,” “the Naiad-like lily,” “the jessamine faint,” “the sweet tuberose,” were all “ministering angels” to the “companionless Sensitive Plant,” and each tried to be a source of joy to all the rest. No one who had not caught the new spirit of humanity could have imagined that garden.
In the exquisite Ode to the West Wind, he calls to that “breath of Autumn's being” to express its own mighty harmonies through him:—
“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
* * * * *
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness.”
We may fancy that the spirit forms of nature which appear in cloud and night, in song of bird and western wind, are content to have found in Shelley a lyre that responded to their touch in such entrancing notes.
General Characteristics.—Shelley's is the purest, the most hopeful, and the noblest voice of the Revolution. Wordsworth and Coleridge lost their faith and became Tories, and Byron was a selfish, lawless creature; but Shelley had the martyr spirit of sacrifice, and he trusted to the end in the wild hopes of the revolutionary enthusiasts. His Queen Mab, Revolt of Islam, Ode to Liberty, Ode to Naples, and, above all, his Prometheus Unbound, are some of the works inspired by a trust in the ideal democracy which was to be based on universal love and the brotherhood of man. This faith gives a bounding elasticity and buoyancy to Shelley's thought, but also tinges it with that disgust for the old, that defiance of restraint, and that boyish disregard for experience which mark a time of revolt.
The other subject that Shelley treats most frequently in his verse is ideal beauty. He yearned all his life for some form beautiful enough to satisfy the aspirations of his soul. Alastor, Epipsychidion, The Witch of Atlas, and Prometheus Unbound, all breathe this insatiate craving for that “Spirit of Beauty,” that “awful Loveliness.”
Many of his efforts to describe in verse this democracy and this ideal beauty are impalpable and obscure. It is difficult to clothe such shadowy abstractions in clear, simple form. He is occasionally vague because his thoughts seem to have emerged only partially from the cloud lands that gave them birth. At other times, his vagueness resembles Plato's because it is inherent in the subject matter. Like Byron, Shelley is sometimes careless in the construction and revision of his verse. We shall, however, search in vain for these faults in Shelley's greatest lyrics. He is one of the supreme lyrical geniuses in the language. Of all the lyric poets of England, he is the greatest master of an ethereal, evanescent, phantomlike beauty.
JOHN KEATS, 1795-1821
Life.—John Keats, the son of a keeper of a large livery stable, a man “fine in common sense and native respectability,” was born in Moorfields, London, in 1795. He attended school at Enfield, where he was a prize scholar. He took special pleasure in studying Grecian mythology, the influence of which is so apparent in his poetry. While at school, he also voluntarily wrote a translation of much of Vergil's AEneid. It would seem as if he had also been attracted to Shakespeare; for Keats is credited with expressing to a young playmate the opinion that no one, if alone in the house, would dare read Macbeth at two in the morning.
When Keats was left an orphan in his fifteenth year, he was taken from school and apprenticed to a surgeon at Edmonton, near London.
When seventeen, he walked some distance to borrow a copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene. A friend says: “Keats ramped through the scenes of the romance like a young horse turned into a spring meadow.” His study of Grecian mythology and Elizabethan poetry exerted a stronger influence over him than his medical instructor. One day when Keats should have been listening to a surgical lecture, “there came,” he says, “a sunbeam into the room and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray: and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy land.”
He made a moderately good surgeon; but finding that his heart was constantly with “Oberon and the fairy land” of poesy, he gave up his profession in 1817 and began to study hard, preparatory to a literary career.
His short life was a brave struggle against disease, poverty, and unfriendly criticism; but he accomplished more than any other English author in the first twenty-five years of life. Success under such conditions would have been impossible unless he had had “flint and iron in him.” He wrote:—
“I must think that difficulties nerve the spirit of a man. They make
his Prime Objects a Refuge as well as a Passion.”
Late in 1818, after he had published his first volume of verse, he met Fanny Brawne, a girl of eighteen, and soon fell desperately in love with her. The next six months were the happiest and the most productive period of his life. His health was then such that he could take long walks with her. In the first spring after he had met her, he wrote in less than three hours his wonderful Ode to a Nightingale, while he was sitting in the garden of his home at Wentworth Place, Hampstead, near London, listening to the song of the bird. Most of his famous poems were written in the year after meeting her.
In February, 1820, his health began to decline so rapidly that he knew that his days were numbered. His mother and one of his brothers had died of consumption, and he had been for some time threatened with the disease. He offered to release Miss Brawne from her engagement, but she would not listen to the suggestion. She and her mother tried to nurse him back to health. Few events in the history of English authors are tinged with a deeper pathos than his engagement to Miss Brawne. Some of the letters that he wrote to her or about her are almost tragic. After he had taken his last leave of her he wrote, “I can bear to die—I cannot bear to leave her.”
Acting on insistent medical advice, Keats sailed for Italy in September, 1820, accompanied by a stanch friend, the artist Joseph Severn. On this voyage, Keats wrote a sonnet which proved to be his swan song:—
“Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores.”
While he lay on his sick bed in Rome, he said: “I feel the flowers growing over me.” In February, 1821, he died, at the age of twenty-five years and four months. On the modest stone which marks his grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, there was placed at his request: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” His most appropriate epitaph is Shelley's Adonais.
Poems.—In 1817 he published his first poems in a thin volume, which did not attract much attention, although it contained two excellent sonnets: On First Looking into Chapman's Homer and On the Grasshopper and Cricket, which begins with the famous line:—
“The poetry of earth is never dead.”
We may also find in this volume such lines of promise as:—
“Life is the rose's hope while yet unblown
The reading of an ever changing tale.”
A year later, his long poem, Endymion, appeared. The inner purpose of this poetic romance is to show the search of the soul for absolute Beauty. The first five lines are a beautiful exposition of his poetic creed. Endymion, however, suffers from immaturity, shown in boyish sentimentality, in a confusion of details, and in an overabundance of ornament. This poem met with a torrent of abuse. One critic even questioned whether Keats was the real name of the author, adding, “we almost doubt whether any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody.” Keats showed himself a better critic than the reviewers. It is unusual for a poet to recognize almost at once the blemishes in his own work. He acknowledged that a certain critic—
”...is perfectly right in regard to the 'slipshod' Endymion...
it is as good as I had the power to make it by myself. I have
written independently, without judgement, I may write
independently and with judgement hereafter.”
The quickness of his development is one of the most amazing facts in literary history. He was twenty-three when Endymion was published, but in the next eighteen months he had almost finished his life's work. In that brief time, he perfected his art and wrote poems that rank among the greatest of their kind, and that have influenced the work of many succeeding poets, such as Tennyson, Lowell, and Swinburne.
Nearly all his greatest poems were written in 1819 and published in his 1820 volume. The Eve of St. Agnes (January, 1819) and the Ode to a Nightingale (May, 1819) are perhaps his two most popular poems; but his other masterpieces are sufficiently great to make choice among them largely a matter of individual preference.
The Eve of St. Agnes is an almost flawless narrative poem, romantic in its conception and artistic in its execution. Porphyro, a young lover, gains entrance to a hostile castle on the eve of St. Agnes to see if he cannot win his heroine, Madeline, on that enchanted evening. The interest in the story, the mastery of poetic language, the wealth and variety of the imagery, the atmosphere of medieval days, combine to make this poem unusually attractive. The following lines appeal to the senses of sight, odor, sound, and temperature, as well as to romantic human feeling and love of the beautiful:—
”...like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven's deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odor with the violet,—
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love's alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window panes; St. Agnes' moon hath set.”
The fact that Keats could write the Ode to a Nightingale in three hours is proof of genius. This poem pleases lovers of music, of artistic expression, of nature, of romance, and of human pathos. Such lines as these show that the strength and beauty of his verse are not entirely dependent on images of sense:—
“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath.”
The Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ode on Melancholy, Lamia, and Isabella,—all show the unusual charm of Keats. He manifests the greatest strength in his unfinished fragment Hyperion, “the Goetterdaemmerung of the early Grecian gods.” The opening lines reveal the artistic perfection of form and the effectiveness of the sensory images with which he frames the scene:—
“Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star,
Sat gray-hair'd Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud.”
General Characteristics.—Keats is the poetic apostle of the beautiful. He specially emphasizes the beautiful in the world of the senses; but his definition of beauty grew to include more than mere physical sensations from attractive objects. In his Ode to a Grecian Urn, he says that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and he calls to the Grecian pipes to play—
“Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.”
Those poets who thought that they could equal Keats by piling up a medley of sense images have been doomed to disappointment. The transforming power of his imagination is more remarkable than the wealth of his sensations.
His mastery in choosing, adapting, and sometimes even creating, apt poetic words or phrases, is one of his special charms. Matthew Arnold says: “No one else in English poetry, save Shakespeare, has in expression quite the fascinating felicity of Keats.” Some of his descriptive adjectives and phrases, such as the “deep-damasked wings" of the tiger-moth, have been called “miniature poems.” In the eighty lines of the Ode to a Nightingale, we may note the “ full-throated ease” of the nightingale's song, the vintage cooled in the “deep-delved earth,” the “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” of the beaker “full of the warm South,” “the coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,” the sad Ruth “amid the alien corn,” and the “faery lands forlorn.”
A contemporary critic accused Keats of “spawning” new words, of converting verbs into nouns, of forming new verbs, and of making strange use of adjectives and adverbs. Some contemporaries might object to his “torched mines,” “flawblown sleet,” “liegeless air,” or even to the “calm-throated” thrush of the immortals. Modern lovers of poetry, however, think that he displayed additional proof of genius by enriching the vocabulary of poetry more than any other writer since Milton.
Keats was not, like Byron and Shelley, a reformer. He drew his first inspiration from Grecian mythology and the romantic world of Spenser, not from the French Revolution or the social unrest of his own day. It is, however, a mistake to say that he was untouched by the new human impulses. There is modern feeling in the following lines which introduce us to the two cruel brothers in Isabella:—
”...for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories.
* * * * *
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gushed blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts.”
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold wrote of Keats: “He is with Shakespeare.” Andrew Bradley, a twentieth century professor of poetry in the University of Oxford, says: “Keats was of Shakespeare's tribe.” These eminent critics do not mean that Keats had the breadth, the humor, the moral appeal of Shakespeare, but they do find in Keats much of the youthful Shakespeare's lyrical power, mastery of expression, and intense love of the beautiful in life. When Keats said: “If a sparrow comes before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel,” he showed another Shakespearean quality in his power to enter into the life of other creatures. At first he wrote of the beautiful things that appealed to his senses or his fancies, but when he came to ask himself the question:—
“And can I ever bid these joys farewell?”
“Yes, I must pass them for a nobler life,
Where I may find the agonies, the strife
Of human hearts.”
In Isabella, the Ode to a Nightingale, Lamia, and Hyperion, he was beginning to paint these “agonies” and “the strife”; but death swiftly ended further progress on this road. Before he passed away, however, he left some things that have an Elizabethan appeal. Among such, we may mention his welcome to “easeful death,” his artistic setting of a puzzling truth:—
”...Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips,
his line to which the young world still responds:—
“Forever wilt thou love and she be fair,”
and especially the musical call of his own young life, “yearning like a God in pain.”
THOMAS DE QUINCEY, 1785-1859
Life.-Thomas de Quincey was born in Manchester in 1785. Being a precocious child, he became a remarkable student at the age of eight. When he was only eleven, his Latin verses were the envy of the older boys at the Bath school, which he was then attending. At the age of fifteen, he was so thoroughly versed in Greek that his professor said of him to a friend: “That boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.” De Quincey was sent in this year to the Manchester grammar school; but his mind was in advance of the instruction offered there, and he unceremoniously left the school on his seventeenth birthday.
For a time he tramped through Wales, living on an allowance of a guinea a week. Hungering for books, he suddenly posted to London. As he feared that his family would force him to return to school, he did not let them know his whereabouts. He therefore received no money from them, and was forced to wander hungry, sick, and destitute, through the streets of the metropolis, with its outcasts and waifs. He describes this part of his life in a very entertaining manner in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
When his family found him, a year later, they prevailed on him to go to Oxford; and, for the next four years, he lived the life of a recluse at college.
In 1808 he took the cottage at Grasmere that Wordsworth had quitted, and enjoyed the society of the three Lake poets. Here De Quincey married and lived his happiest years.
The latter part of his life was clouded by his indulgence in opium, which he had first taken while at college to relieve acute neuralgia. At one time he was in the habit of taking an almost incredible amount of laudanum. Owing to a business failure, his money was lost. It then became necessary for him to throw off the influence of the narcotic sufficiently to earn a livelihood, In 1821 he began to write. From that time until his death, in 1859, his life was devoted mainly to literature.
Works.—Nearly all De Quincey's writings were contributed to magazines. His first and greatest contribution was The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in the London Magazine. TheseConfessions are most remarkable for the brilliant and elaborate style in which the author's early life and his opium dreams are related. His splendid, yet melancholy, dreams are the most famous in the language.
De Quincey's wide reading, especially of history, supplied the material for many of them. In these dreams he saw the court ladies of the “unhappy times of Charles I.,” witnessed Marius pass by with his Roman legions, “ran into pagodas” in China, where he “was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms,” and “was buried for a thousand years, in stone coffins, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids” in Egypt.
His dreams were affected also by the throngs of people whom he had watched in London. He was haunted by “the tyranny of the human face.” He says:—
“Faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands,
by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite,
my mind tossed, and surged with the ocean.”
Sound also played a large part in the dreams. Music, heart-breaking lamentations, and pitiful echoes recurred frequently in the most magnificent of these nightly pageants. One of the most distressing features of the dreams was their vastness. The dreamer lived for centuries in one night, and space “swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity.”
To present with such force and reality these grotesque and weird fancies, these vague horrors, and these deep oppressions required a powerful imaginative grasp of the intangible, and a masterly command of language.
In no other work does De Quincey reach the eminence attained in the Confessions, although his scholarly acquirements enabled him to treat philosophical, critical, and historical subjects with wonderful grace and ease. His biographer, Masson, says, “De Quincey's sixteen volumes of magazine articles are full of brain from beginning to end.” The wide range of his erudition is shown by the fact that he could write such fine literary criticisms as On Wordsworth's Poetry and On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth, such clear, strong, and vivid descriptions of historical events and characters as The Caesars, Joan of Arc, and The Revolt of the Tartars, and such acute essays on unfamiliar topics as The Toilette of a Hebrew Lady, The Casuistry of Roman Meals, and The Spanish Military Nun.
He had a contemplative, analytic mind which enjoyed knotty metaphysical problems and questions far removed from daily life, such as the first principles of political economy, and of German philosophy. While he was a clear thinker in such fields, he added little that was new to English thought.
The works which rank next to The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater are all largely autobiographical, and reveal charming glimpses of this dreamy, learned sage. Those works are Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), The English Mail Coach, and Autobiographic Sketches. None of them contains any striking or unusual experience of the author. Their power rests upon their marvelous style. Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow in Suspiria de Profundis and the Dream Fugue in the Mail Coach are among the most musical, the most poetic, and the most imaginative of the author's productions.
General Characteristics.—De Quincey's essays show versatility, scholarly exactness, and great imaginative power. His fame, however, rests in a large degree upon his style. One of its most prominent characteristics is, precision. There are but few English essayists who can compare with him in scrupulous precision of expression. He qualifies and elaborates a simple statement until its exact meaning becomes plainly manifest. His vocabulary is extraordinary. In any of the multifarious subjects treated by him, the right word seems always at hand.
Two characteristics, which are very striking in all his works, are harmony and stateliness. His language is so full of rich harmonies that it challenges comparison with poetry. His long, periodic sentences move with a quiet dignity, adapted to the treatment of lofty themes.
De Quincey's work possesses also a light, ironic humor, which is happiest in parody. The essay upon Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the best example of his humor. This selection is one of the most whimsical:—
“For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he come,
to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to
drinking and Sabbath breaking, and from that to incivility and
procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know
where you are to stop.”
De Quincey's gravest fault is digression. He frequently leaves his main theme and follows some line of thought that has been suggested to his well-stored mind. These digressions are often very long, and sometimes one leads to another, until several subjects receive treatment in a single paper. De Quincey, however, always returns to the subject in hand and defines very sharply the point of digression and of return. Another of his faults is an indulgence in involved sentences, which weaken the vigor and simplicity of the style.
Despite these faults, De Quincey is a great master of language. He deserves study for the three most striking characteristics of his style,—precision, stateliness, and harmony.
The tide of reaction, which had for same time been gathering force, swept triumphantly over England in this age of Romanticism.
Men rebelled against the aristocracy, the narrow conventions of society, the authority of the church and of the government, against the supremacy of cold classicism in literature, against confining intellectual activity to tangible commonplace things, and against the repression of imagination and of the soul's aspirations. The two principal forces behind these changes were the Romantic movement, which culminated in changed literary ideals, and the spirit of the French Revolution, which emphasized the close kinship of all ranks of humanity.
The time was preeminently poetic. The Elizabethan age alone excels it in the glory of its poetry. The principal subjects of verse in the age of Romanticism were nature and man. Nature became the embodiment of an intelligent, sympathetic, spiritual force. Cowper, Burns, Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats constitute a group of poets who gave to English literature a new poetry of nature. The majority of these were also poets of man, of a more ideal humanity. The common man became an object of regard. Burns sings of the Scotch peasant. Wordsworth pictures the life of shepherds and dalesmen. Byron's lines ring with a cry of liberty for all, and Shelley immortalizes the dreams of a universal brotherhood of man. Keats, the poet of the beautiful, passed away before he heard clearly the message of “the still sad music of humanity.”
While the prose does not take such high rank as the poetry, there are some writers who will not soon be forgotten. Scott will be remembered as the great master of the historical novel, Jane Austen as the skillful realistic interpreter of everyday life, De Quincey for the brilliancy of his style and the vigor of his imagination in presenting his opium dreams, and Lamb for his exquisite humor. In philosophical prose, Mill, Bentham, and Malthus made important contributions to moral, social, and political philosophy, while Coleridge opposed their utilitarian and materialistic tendencies, and codified the principles of criticism from a romantic point of view.
REFERENCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
Gardiner, Green, Walker, or Cheney. For the social side, see Traill, V., VI., and Cheney's Industrial and Social History of England.
The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vols. XI., XII.
Courthope's A History of English Poetry, Vol. VI.
Elton's A Survey of English Literature from 1780-1830, 2 vols.
Herford's The Age of Wordsworth.
Brandes's Naturalism in England (Vol. IV. of Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature.)
The Revolution in English Poetry and Fiction (Chap. XXII. of Vol. X. of Cambridge Modern History.)
Hancock's The French Revolution and the English Poets.
Scudder's Life of the Spirit in the Modern English Poets.
Symons's The Romantic Movement in English Poetry.
Reynolds's The Treatment of Nature in English Poetry between Pope and Wordsworth.
Mackie's Nature Knowledge in Modern Poetry.
Brookes's Studies in Poetry (Blake, Scott, Shelley, Keats).
Symons's William Blake.
Payne's The Greater English Poets of the Nineteenth Century (Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth).
Stephen's Hours in a Library, 3 vols. (Scott, De Quincey, Cowper, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge).
Dowden's Studies in Literature, 1879-1877.
Bradley's Oxford Lectures on Poetry (Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats).
Lowell's Among my Books, Second Series (Wordsworth, Keats).
Ainger's Life of Lamb. (E.M.L.)
Lucas's Life of Charles Lamb.
Goldwin Smith's Life of Cowper. (E.M.L.)
Wright's Life of Cowper.
Shairp's Robert Burns. (E.M.L.)
Carlyle's Essay on Burns.
Lockhart's Life of Scott., Hutton's Life of Scott. (E.M.L.)
Yonge's Life of Scott. (G.W.)
Goldwin Smith's Life of Jane Austen. (G.W.)
Helm's Jane Austen and her Country House Comedy.
Mitton's Jane Austen and her Times.
Adams's The Story of Jane Austen's Life.
Knight's Life of Wordsworth, 3 vols., Myers's Life of Wordsworth (E.M.L.), Raleigh's Wordsworth.
Robertson's Wordsworth and the English Lake Country.
Traill's Life of Coleridge (E.M.L.), Caine's Life of Coleridge (G.W.), Garnett's Coleridge.
Sneath's Wordsworth, Poet of Nature and Poet of Man.
Mayne's The New Life of Byron, 2 vols, Nichol's Life of Byron (E.M.L.), Noel's Life of Byron. (G.W.)
Trelawney's Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron.
Dowden's Life of Shelley, 2 vols., Symonds's Life of Shelley (E.M.L.), Sharp's Life of Shelley (G.W.). Francis Thompson's Shelley.
Clutton-Brock's Shelley: The Man and the Poet.
Hogg's Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley(contemporary).
Angeli's Shelley and his Friends in Italy.
Colvin's Life of Keats (E.M.L.), Rossetti's Life of Keats (G.W.), Hancock's John Keats.
Miller's Leigh Hunt's Relations with Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
Arnold's Essays in Criticism, Second Series (Keats).
H. Buxton Forman's Complete Works of John Keats (includes the Letters, the best edition).
Masson's Life of De Quincey. (E.M.L.)
Minto's Manual of English Prose Literature (De Quincey).
SUGGESTED READINGS WITH QUESTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
Blake.—Some of his best poems are given in Ward, IV., 601-608; Bronson, III., 385-403; Manly, I., 301-304; Oxford, 558-566; Century, 485-489, and in the volume in The Canterbury Poets.
Point out in Blake's verse (a) the new feeling for nature, ( b) evidences of wide sympathies, (c) mystical tendencies, and (d) compare his verses relating to children and nature with Wordsworth's poems on the same subjects.
Cowper.—Read the opening stanzas of Cowper's Conversation and note the strong influence of Pope in the cleverly turned but artificial couplets. Compare this poem with the one On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture or with The Task, Book IV., lines 1-41 and 267-332, Cassell's National Library, Canterbury Poets, or Temple Classics and point out the marked differences in subject matter and style. What forward movement in literature is indicated by the change in Cowper's manner? John Gilpin should be read for its fresh, beguiling humor.
For selections, see Bronson, III., 310-329; Ward, III., 422-485; Century, 470-479; Manly, I., 285-294.
Burns.—Read The Cotter's Saturday Night, For a' That and a' That, To a Mouse, Highland Mary, To Mary in Heaven, Farewell to Nancy, I Love My Jean, A Red, Red Rose. The teacher should read to the class parts of Tam o' Shanter.
The Globe edition contains the complete poems of Burns with Glossary. Inexpensive editions may be found in Cassell's National Library, Everyman's Library, and Canterbury Poets. For selections, see Bronson, III., 338-385; Ward. III., 512-571; Century, 490-502; Manly, I., 309-326; Oxford, 492-506.
In what ways do the first three poems mentioned above show Burns's sympathy with democracy? Quote some of Burns's fine descriptions of nature and describe the manner in which he treats nature. How does he rank as a writer of love songs? What qualities in his poems have touched so many hearts? Compare his poetry with that of Dryden, Pope, and Shakespeare.
Scott.—Read The Lady of the Lake, Canto III., stanzas iii.-xxv., or Marmion, Canto VI., stanzas xiii.-xxvii. (American Book Company's Eclectic English Classics, Cassell's National Library, orEveryman's Library.) Read in Craik, V., “The Gypsy's Curse” (Guy Mannering), pp. 14-17, “The Death of Madge Wildfire” (Heart of Middlothian), pp. 30-35, and “The Grand Master of the Templars” (Ivanhoe), pp. 37-42. The student should put on his list for reading at his leisure: Guy Mannering, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, and The Talisman.
In what kind of poetry does Scott excel? Quote some of his spirited heroes, and point out their chief excellences. How does his poetry differ from that of Burns? In the history of fiction, does Scott rank as an imitator or a creator? As a writer of fiction, in what do his strength and his weakness consist? Has he those qualities that will cause him to be popular a century hence? What can be said of his style?
Jane Austen.—In Craik, V., or Manly. II, read the selections from Pride and Prejudice. The student at his leisure should read all this novel.
What world does she describe in her fiction? What are her chief qualities? How does she differ from Scott? Why is she called a “realist”?
Wordsworth.—Read I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, The Solitary Reaper, To the Cuckoo, Lines Written in Early Spring, Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower, To my Sister, She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways, She Was a Phantom of Delight, Alice Fell, Lucy Gray, We Are Seven, Intimations of Immortality from Recollection of Early Childhood, Ode to Duty, Hart-Leap Well, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, Michael and the sonnets: “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,” “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour,” and “The world is too much with us, late and soon.” Some students will also wish to read The Prelude (Temple Classics or A.J. George's edition), which describes the growth of Wordsworth's mind.
All the above poems (excepting The Prelude) may be found in the volume Poems of Wordsworth, chosen and edited by Matthew Arnold (Golden Treasury Series, 331 pp., $1). Nearly all may also be found in Page's British Poets of the Nineteenth Century (923 pp., $2). For selections, see Bronson, IV., 1-54; Ward, IV., 1-88; Oxford 594-618; Century, 503-541; Manly, I., 329-345.
Refer to Wordsworth's “General Characteristics” (pp. 393-396) and select the poems that most emphatically show his special qualities. Which of the above poems seems easiest to write? In which is his genius most apparent? Which best presents his view of nature? Which best stand the test of an indefinite number of readings? In what do his poems of childhood excel?
Coleridge.—Read The Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Kubla Khan, Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni, Youth and Age; Bronson, I., 54-93; Ward, IV., 102-154; Page, 66-103; Century, 553-565; Manly, I., 353-364; Oxford, 628-656.
How do The Ancient Mariner and Christabel manifest the spirit of Romanticism? What are the chief reasons for the popularity of The Ancient Mariner? Would you call this poem didactic? Select stanzas specially remarkable for melody, for beauty, for telling much in few words, for images of nature, for conveying an ethical lesson. What feeling almost unknown in early poetry is common in Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner, Wordsworth's Hart-Leap Well, Burns's To a Mouse, On Seeing a Wounded Hare Limp by Me, A Winter Night, and Cowper's On a Goldfinch Starved to Death in his Cage?
The advanced student should read some of Coleridge's prose criticism in his Biographia Literaria (Everyman's Library). The parts best worth reading have been selected in George's Coleridge's Principles of Criticism (226 pp., 60 cents) and in Beers's Selections for the Prose Writings of Coleridge (including criticisms of Wordsworth and Shakespeare, 146 pp., 50 cents).
Note how fully Coleridge unfolds in these essays the principles of romantic criticism, which have not been superseded.
Byron.—Read The Prisoner of Chillon (Selections from Byron, Eclectic English Classics), Childe Harold, Canto III., stanzas xxi-xxv. and cxiii., Canto IV., stanzas lxxviii., and lxxix. “Oh, Snatch'd away in Beauty's Bloom,” “There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away,” and from Don Juan, Canto III., the song inserted between stanzas lxxxvi. and lxxxvii. All these poems will be found in the two volumes of Byron's works in the Canterbury Poets' series.
Selections are given in Bronson, IV., 125-174; Ward, IV., 244-303; Page, 170-272; Oxford, 688-694; Century, 586-613; Manly, I., 378-393.
From the stanzas indicated in Childe Harold, select, first, the passages which best illustrate the spirit of revolt, and, second, the passages of most poetic beauty. What natural phenomena appeal most to Byron? What qualities make The Prisoner of Chillon a favorite? Why is his poetry often called rhetorical?
Shelley.—Read Adonais, To a Skylark, Ode to the West Wind, To Night, The Cloud, The Sensitive Plant, and selections from Alastor and Prometheus Unbound. Shelley's Poetical Works, edited by Edward Dowden (Globe Poets), contains all of Shelley's extant poetry. Less expensive editions are in Canterbury Poets, Temple Classics, and Everyman's Library. Selections are given in Bronson, IV., 182-227; Ward, IV., 348-416; Page, 275-369; Oxford, 697-717; Century, 614-638; Manly, I., 394-411.
Under what different aspects do Adonais and Lycidas view the life after death? Has Shelley modified Wordsworth's view of the spiritual force in nature? Does Shelley use either the cloud or the skylark for the direct purpose of expressing his own feelings? Why is he sometimes called a metaphysical poet? What is the most striking quality of Shelley's poetic gift?
Keats.—Read The Eve of St. Agnes, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, Hyperion (first 134 lines), La Belle Dame sans Merci, Isabella, and the sonnets: On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, On the Grasshopper and Cricket, When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be, Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art. The best edition of the works of Keats is that by Buxton Forman. The Canterbury Poets and Everyman's Library have less expensive editions. All the poems indicated above may be found in Page's British Poets of the Nineteenth Century. For selections, see Bronson, IV., 230-265; Ward, IV., 427-464; Oxford, 721-744; Century, 639-655; Manly, I., 413-425.
By direct reference to the above poems, justify calling Keats “the apostle of the beautiful,” in both thought and language. Give examples of his felicitous use of words and phrases. Show by illustrations his mastery in the use of the concrete. To what special senses do his images appeal? Was he at all affected by the new human movement? Why does Arnold say, “Keats is with Shakespeare”? In what respects is he like the Elizabethans?
De Quincey.—Read Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow (Craik, V., 264-270). The first chapters of The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (Everyman's Library; Temple Classics; Century, 683-690; Manly, II., 357-366) are entertaining and will repay reading.
Does his prose show any influence of a romantic and poetic age? Compare his style with that of Addison, Gibbon, and Burke. In what respects does De Quincey succeed, and in what does he fail, as a model for a young writer?
Lamb.—From the Essays of Elia (Cassell's National Library ; Everyman's Library, Temple Classics) read any two of these essays: A Dissertation upon Roast Pig, Old China, Dream Children, New Year's Eve, Poor Relations. For selections, see Craik, V., 116-126; Century, 575-578; Manly, II., 337-345.
In what does Lamb's chief charm consist? Point out resemblances and differences between his Essays and Addison's.
Landor, Hazlitt, and Hunt.—Good selections are given in Craik, V.; Chambers, III.; Manly, II. Inexpensive editions of Landor's Imaginary Conversations and Pericles and Aspasia may be found in theCamelot Series. Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, Lectures on the English Poets, Lectures on the English Comic Writers, and Table Talk are published in Everyman's Library. TheCamelot Series and the Temple Classics also contain some of Hazlitt's works. A selection from Leigh Hunt's Essays is published in the Camelot Series.
What are the main characteristics of Landor's style? Select a passage which justifies the criticism: “He writes in marble.” Give some striking thoughts from his Imaginary Conversations. Compare his style and subject matter with Hazlitt's. Show that Hazlitt has the power of presenting in an impressive way the chief characteristics of authors. Select some pleasing passages from Leigh Hunt's Essays. Compare him with Addison and Lamb.
FOOTNOTES TO CHAPTER VIII:
[Footnote 1: Prelude, Book XI.]
[Footnote 2: gold.]
[Footnote 3: For a' That and a' That.]
[Footnote 4: Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle.]
[Footnote 5: Hart-Leap Well.]
[Footnote 6: Intimations of Immortality.]
[Footnote 7: Wordsworth's Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.]
[Footnote 8: Retirement.]
[Footnote 9: Conversation.]
[Footnote 10: I Love My Jean.]
[Footnote 11: remedy.]
[Footnote 12: Epistle to John Lapraik.]
[Footnote 13: The Vision.]
[Footnote 14: Sonnet: “The world is too much with us.”]
[Footnote 15: Hart Leap Well.]
[Footnote 16: A Day-Dream.]
[Footnote 17: Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV.]
[Footnote 18: Ibid., Chapter XXII.]
[Footnote 19: Manfred, Act I.]
[Footnote 20: Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III.]
[Footnote 21: The Dream.]
[Footnote 22: Adonais, Stanza xlix]
[Footnote 23: Epipsychidion.]
[Footnote 24: Ode to the West Wind.]
[Footnote 25: For a discussion of the different sensory images of the poets, see the author's Education of the Central Nervous System, pages 109-208.]
[Footnote 26: Sleep and Poetry.]
[Footnote 27: For full titles, see p. 50.]
[Footnote 28: For full titles, see p. 6.]