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POETS OF THE YOUNGER
APPRECIATION is the end and aim of the following pages. The verb "to appreciate" is used, rightly or wrongly, in two senses; it sometimes means to realise, at other times to enhance, the value of a thing. I use the word in both significations. While attempting to define, to appraise, the talent of individual poets, I hope to enhance the reader's estimate of the value of contemporary poetry as a whole. Some readers, of course, may already have formed a higher estimate than mine of the body of work which is here reviewed but the general tendency among cultivated people is, I think, to assume that English poetry has of late entered on a (temporary or permanent) period of decadence. Criticism has made great play with the supercilious catchword "minor poet." No one denies, of course, that there are greater and lesser lights in the firmament of song; but I do most strenuously deny that the lesser lights, if they be stars at all and not mere factitious fireworks, deserve to be spoken of with contempt. Now a shade of contempt has certainly attached of late years to the term "minor poet," which has given it a depressing and sterilising effect. It is this effect that I would fain counteract in some degree, by
ignoring an invidious and inessential distinction. The valid distinction, the only one that really matters, is between true poets and poets falsely so-called. All the writers dealt with in the ensuing pages are, in my estimation, true poets, however small may be the bulk of their work, however unequal its merit; for a poet should be judged by his best work, not by his worst. I do not for a moment doubt that some of the writers whom I discuss will be reckoned by posterity among the major poets of our time; others, very probably, will take minor rank. I leave the distinction to posterity; it does not at present concern me. Only this I know, that the surest way to check the growth of a rising talent is to affix to its possessor the sneering label of "minor poet." It is impossible in such a book as this to adopt any principle of inclusion and exclusion that shall not give offence, probably in many quarters. It may perhaps obviate some misunderstanding if I explain the sense in which I employ on the title-page the phrase "of the Younger Generation." My rule has been to include only poets born since 1850poets, that is to say, who have lived entirely within the half century which has just come to an end. But I have not looked very closely into birth certificates. My choice has been ultimately guided by another consideration more essential than the mere accident of age. I have dealt only with those poets who still seemed to be more or less on probation— whose position was still in some degree a matter of doubt. This principle excluded not only the great poets of the older generation, Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Meredith, but such admirable writers as Mr. W. E. Henley, Mr. Robert Bridges, and Mr. Austin Dobson, whose uncontested genius needs no further vindication.
I am far from assuming that my list includes all those poets who, in point of age and position, might justly have claimed a place in it. The output of verse, as all reviewers know, is so huge, that very probably the work of more than
one poet whom I would willingly have included lies buried in the mass, and has never happened to come within my ken. Other writers, again, I have regretfully omitted for no better reason than that their work does not happen to chime with my idiosyncrasy. Intellectually, I can recognise its merit; but it does not touch my emotions: it leaves me cold. I could name several writers whose work I have read and re-read, while preparing this book, in the hope that my mere formal approval would kindle at some point or other into vital admiration; but no amount of mental friction has generated the electric spark. I am quite willing to believe that in some of these cases the fault, the limitation, is on my side; but this belief has not induced me to affect a warmth I do not feel. The one merit I claim for my criticism is sincerity. The things I praise are the things I genuinely and spontaneously enjoy; and I could not if I would simulate such enjoyment. Every one, I presume, is subject to these personal limitations of taste; at any rate, when I find a man who professes to enjoy everything in literature, I am apt to doubt whether he really enjoys anything. And enjoyment is to my thinking the essence, the soul, of poetical criticism. Familiarity with critical canons, power of logical analysis, breadth of philosophic intelligence, will be of no avail if the critic lack that emotional sensibility to which poetry (not in its emotional passages alone) makes its peculiar, its specific appeal.
The expression and justification of enjoyment being, then, the highest function of criticism—or at any rate the main purpose of this book-I have included only those poets whose work, or some substantial portion of it, gives me genuine pleasure. At the same time I have by no means refrained from criticism in the narrower sense of the word. What I have attempted in each case has been the definition or delimitation of a talent. Every poet, even the greatest, has done less mature and more mature, less successful and more
successful, work. My effort has been to encourage readers to seek for and cling to what is noble, rare and permanent in a poet's work, not to persuade them, against all precedent and common sense, that any poet is infallible and evenly inspired throughout the whole mass of his production.
One somewhat inconvenient restriction I felt it necessary to impose upon myself from the outset. It would have been impertinent and essentially uncritical on my part to attempt to marshal the writers with whom I dealt in any order of merit, to range them in an ascending or descending scale. And as an imperfect and casual marshalling would have been as invidious as an exhaustive one, I found myself compelled to forswear all comparison whatsoever between the poets on my list. The essays are ranged in alphabetical order, and each writer is treated as though he or she were the only poet of the younger generation in England or America. This self-denying ordinance has cost me not a little trouble. Innumerable are the times when I have checked myself on the verge of slipping into the comparative mood. In some cases I have had to renounce what seemed to me a desirable elucidation or apt illustration, because it would have involved a parallel or contrast between two of the poets in question. Even where such confrontation. would apparently have redounded to the honour of both, I have regarded it as the thin end of the wedge and have resolutely foregone it. Perhaps I have carried this scruple to the point of pedantry. I merely note it as one of the conditions which, rightly or wrongly, I felt to be imposed
It follows from this that I could attempt no grouping in schools, or tracing of general tendencies. Regarding each poet as an isolated phenomenon, related only to the literature of the past, I have had to confine myself almost entirely to æsthetic criticism, the somewhat schoolmasterish testing of methods and results by standards generalised from the
practice, as I understood it, of our classic writers. The poet's philosophy I have in every case accepted without cavil, trying to define it no doubt, and remonstrating when it seemed to me obscure (for lucidity, after all, is a technical quality like another), but neither examining into its merits, nor attempting to place it in relation to the intellectual currents of the time. For such an attempt, indeed, my knowledge would probably not have sufficed; wherefore I had the less difficulty in renouncing it. As for grouping the poets in schools, that, too, was a task I readily pretermitted; for the main characteristic of almost all the men and women of whom I treat seems to me to be their marked individuality, their total dissimilarity one from another. Here and there, two, or perhaps three, might have been bracketed together; but from the point of view of a contemporary, the only perspective as yet attainable, it seems to me that the majority of the writers here dealt with defy co-ordination, and stand alone. If the reader will simply glance through the extracts I have been permitted to make, I think he will feel that whatever be the absolute power of this body of work, its variety could scarcely have been surpassed at any period of our literature.
If philosophical criticism was impossible to me, psychological criticism was almost equally out of the question. In very few cases had I any data to go upon, except those afforded by the poems themselves. "The most important data of all!" it may be said, truly enough; and I have of course tried to throw into relief such character-traits as I found imprinted on the work before me. But psychological criticism, to be of much value, must consist in the harmonisation of the talent and temperament revealed in the work of art, with family and personal history, or at least with nonartistic manifestations of idiosyncrasy and opinion. It must consist in the synthesis of external and internal data, the tracing of effects in art to causes in character and