« AnteriorContinuar »
with moving pictures of picturesque poverty and theatrical generosity to interest the sensibilities of the man of feeling? True rational humanity would not willingly see any one dependent upon the capricious bounty of another. Unable to reverse that general law, which prescribes labour as the lot of man, it endeavours lo direct the labour of the poor into a channel where they may claim a recompense from the exigencies of others, and not from their compassion. It would endow them with a right to receive assistance, instead of teaching them to supplicate for alms. Mr. Southey would doubtless be unwilling to encourage idleness and mendicancy; but there is in reality little difference between encouraging men not to labour at all, but to depend for their support on the charity of others, and encouraging them to pursue a species of labour for which there is no real demand, and from which the only returns which they obtain are in reality alms, considerately cloaked under the fictitious name of a reward. We do not deny, that the public, though in general the best patron, sometimes awards a too tardy and insufficient recompense to the literary benefactors of mankind; and in such instances we deem it right that the powerful and discerning few should be enabled to direct the stream of national bounty to the encouragement and reward of labours which the acquirements and comprehension of the generality of mankind do not enable them to appreciate. But widely different from this truly praiseworthy patronage is the disposition to encourage works which are neither beautiful nor useful, and whose only claim (if claim it can be called) is the temporary interest they may offer lo the curious, and the compassionate consideration that they are wonderfully good, for writings that were produced under such disadvantages.
Experience does not authorize us to regard it as probable, that the world will be favoured with any poetry of very exalted merit from persons in humble life and of defective education. There have appeared, among uneducated persons, many instances of extraordinary capacity for various sciences and pursuits. The science of numbers, of mechanics, of language, of music, painting, sculpture, architecture, have all had followers in humble life, who have discovered a strong native genius for each of those separate branches of art and learning, and have risen to eminence in their peculiar line. But poetry is not equally rich in examples of successful votaries from the ranks of the poor. Not one of the six writers recorded by Mr. Southey can be regarded as a successful example ; for nothing but the scarcity of such instances could have preserved them, like other valueless rarities, from the oblivion into which, notwithstanding even the embalming power of Mr. Southey's pen, they are fated at no very distant period to fall. It would appear, either thai habits of manual labour are unfavo 'rable to poetry, or that a talent for it is less inborn than acquired, or that is much affected by external circumstances, or that a considerable degree of education is essential to its full developement. To which of these causes we may attribute the dearth of distinguished poels from the humbler walks of life, it is not at present necessary to enquire. The fact of such a paucity is sufficient for our purpose ; and it is an additional argument against encouraging the poor and defectively educated to lend their minds to a pursuit in which the presumption of success is so considerably against them. Unless they happen to possess such powerful native talent, as it is needless to encourage and impossible to suppress, they are not likely to produce such writings as will obtain them advancement and success-real, unforced, unpatronised success, the success which arises
the delight and admiration of thousands, and not from the casual benevolence of individual patronage.
It might have been supposed, that of all things in the world which are not immoral, one of the least deserving encouragement was indifferent poetry. Mr. Southey nevertheless protests indignantly against this opinion. When,” says he, “it is laid down as a maxim of philosophical criticism, that poetry ought never to be encouraged unless it is excellent in its kind that it is an art in which inferior execution is not to be tolerated-a luxury, and must therefore be rejected unless it is of the very best; such reasoning may be addressed with success to cockered and sickly intellects, but it will never impose upon a healthy understanding, a generous spirit, or a good heart.' Mr. Southey, with that poetical tendency to metaphor which sometimes possesses him when he appears to reason, seems to have written the above passage under the influence of rather a forced analogy between the digestive powers of the human frame and the operations of the mind. If in the above remarks we substitute “food" for
poetry,” “appetite” for “ intellect,” and “the stomach” for “ understanding," much of what Mr. Southey has predicated will undoubtedly be true; since it is certain that a perfectly healthy person can eat with impunity many kinds of food that cannot be taken by one who is sickly. It is a sign of bodily health to be able to digest coarse food which cannot be eaten by the invalid ; and in like manner, according to Mr. Southey, it is the sign of a “healthy understanding” to be able to tolerate bad verses which would be rejected by a "sickly intellect." Mr. Southey may very probably have accustomed himself to talk of poetry as “food for the mind," till he has learned to confound the immaterial with the substantial; but we must remind him of one great failure in the parallel on which he appears to lean. It will not, we suppose, be denied, that the mind, and especially that faculty which enables us to judge of the excellence of poetry, requires cultivation, without which it cannot exercise ils functions effectively; but we have never yet heard of any such cultivation of the digestive powers. If man were born as decidedly a criticising and poetry-reading as he is an eating and drinking animal, and were likely to possess these faculties in most perfection in an unsophisticated state of nature, we should then allow that there would be much force in the observations of Mr. Southey. But the reverse of this is notoriously the case. Our power of estimating poetry is in a great degree acquired. The boy with an inpate taste for poetry, who first finds a copy of bellman's verses, is pleased with the jingle, and thinks the wretched doggerel excellent. He soon finds better verses, and becomes ashamed of the objects of his earliest admiration. In course of time avolume of Pope or Milton falls in his way, and he becomes sensible of what is really excellent in poetry, and learns to distinguish it from that which, although not positively bad, is common-place and of subordinate merit. Is this boy's mind, we ask, in a less healthy state at this advanced period of his critical discernment, than when he thought the bellman's verses excellent? or has his “intellect” been rendered “ sickly” by the dainty sare with which his mental tastes have latterly been pampered?
But the encouragement of inferior poetry is, according to Mr. Southey, a sign not only of “ a healthy understanding,” but of “ a generous spirit" and a “good heart.” If Mr. Southey means that indulgence towards the failings of others, and a disposition to look leniently upon their imperfect productions, are the results of generosity and goodness of heart, we tho
roughly agree with him ; but it is not merely indulgence for which he contends, it is encouragement. Now, though it is impossible to prove a negative, and it is very possible that the encourager of bad verses may be at the same time very generous and good-hearted, yet there is no necessary connection between that practice and those moral qualities; any more than it is necessarily a sign of generosity and a good heart to deal only with inferior tradesmen, and buy nothing but the worst commodities. A person who should be thus amiably content to buy bad things when he might have better, would, we fear, be considered a fool for his pains, even by those whom he permitted to supply him; and we cannot think that the encourager of bad poetry would remain long exempted from a similar censure. It is useless, we might almost say mischievous, to maintain that any thing ought to be “encouraged” that is not excellent in its kind. Let those who have not arrived at excellence be encouraged to proceed, and lo exert themselves, in order that they may allain it. This is good and praiseworthy encouragement; but let it be remembered, that this good purpose cannot be effected but by mingling with the exhortation to future exertions an unqualified censure of present imperfections. This, the only sound and rational encouragement, is directly opposed to that lenient tolerance of “inferior execution,” which appears to receive the commendation of Mr. Southey. Men are encouraged to do really well, not by making them satisfied with their present mediocrity, but by exhibiting it to them in the true light, and stimulating them to higher excellence. Whatever may be speciously said about the virtues of charity and contentment, we may be assured that he is no benefactor of the human race who would teach us to be satisfied with inferior excellence in any thing, while higher excellence is attainable.
Among the statements which we are told can be addressed with success oply" to cockered and sickly intellects,” is this,-that poetry is a luxury, and must therefore be rejected unless it is “ of the very best.” It is needless to discuss this question at much length. It may be natural for the lover of poetry to contend that it is something much better and more important than a luxury, but it is nevertheless treated as such by the world at large, and we fear that nothing that can be said will induce the public to regard poetry in any other light. All the most important business of life is transacted in prose—all the most important lessons of religion and morality are inculcated in prose-we reason in prose-we argue in prose—we harangue in prose. There were times when laws were chanted, and Orpheus and Amphion were, it is believed, poetical legislators, as were almost all legislators, among barbarous people, whose reason must be addressed through the medium of their imagination. But these times are past recall; and we fear, whatever it may be contended poetry ought to be, Mr. Southey must be contented with the place which it actually occupies. That place is both honourable and popular; and it will not conduce to its success to claim for it more than is its due.
In conclusion, we must sày, that much as we have differed from Mr. Southey, we have been glad to see that he is inclined to look with favour upon the mental labours of the poorer classes. We trust that his agreeable pen will be hereafter exercised in their behalf; but with this material difference,-that instead of luring them into the flowery region of poetry, he will rather teach them to cultivate pursuits which are more in harmony with their daily habits, and to prefer the useful to the ornamental.
LORD BYRON'S POETRY.
See Note, page 138.
It is contended that poetry is destined to complete a certain cycle or great revolution, accompanying and dependent on a correspondent cycle of the feelings as well as of the manners of society. That, originating in times of turbulence and anarchy, it was at first coarse and vehement; -- then pompous and stately; then affectedly refined and inge nious, and finally, gay, witty, discursive, and familiar. That at this stage of refinement, however, mankind become disgusted with the heartless frivolity of their gratifications, and acquire a longing for strong emotions, so that poelry, following the current of popular opinion, is compelled to seek for subjects in the manners of ruder ages, to revive the feats of chivalry, and the loves of romance; or to wander, in search of unbridled passion, amongst nations yet imperfectly civilised. Lastly, that this is the period at which we are now arrived: that a growing appetite for turbulent emotion is the peculiar characteristic of the age ; that we are no longer satisfied with viewing the mere effects of strong passion, but require the passion itself to be dissected before our eyes; and that Lord Byron, having surpassed all his contemporaries in this species of moral anatomy, has, of course, attained the pinnacle of popular favour.
Now, we venture to contend that the poetical cycle here described is purely imaginary; and that if any indications of it were, indeed, discoverable in the history of our own poetry, it would not be fair to deduce from them a correspondent cycle of the na
appetite" for any sort of emotions. Language and manners are, from age to age, either progressively improved, or at least changed, and the traces of such changes may be found in works of contemporary poets; but the passions of mankind are always the same, and always capable of being called out by a proper degree of excitement. If centuries have passed away since the birth of Shakspeare, does it follow that an appetite for those emotions, which he alone was able to rouse, lay dormant during the interval, and has only revived within the last twenty years? We greatly doubt the fact, as well as the existence of the symptoms which are adduced in proof of it. The last twenty years have, doubtless, been wonderfully fertile of crimes and miseries; and there have been some persons in this country who have hailed, with joy and praise, every step of that desolating tyranny, wbich threatened to spread over the world, and awakened in ils progress all those strong emotions which are pronounced to be so delectable. But these persons were not very numerous, and certainly not legitimate arbiters of taste, or of poctical talent. In the whole remainder of the nation, we believe that the horrid realilies which passed before their eyes did not raise any appetite for scenes of mimic terror; and if Mr. Scott, Mr. Southey, and Lord Byron have transported their readers to the ages of romance, to the wilds of America, or to the shores of Greece, we suspect that they all followed the impulse of their own studies or habits, withoul dreaming that they thus completed a poetical cycle, or ministered to any taste or appetile peculiar to the present age or country.
Without dwelling any longer on the general objections to this new and fanciful theory we now proceed to the point immediately at issue. It is contended, on one hand, tha for the purpose of suiting the poetical taste of the present times, “the minds of the great agents must be unmasked for us -- and all the anatomy of their throbbing bosoms laid open to our gaze.” We think, on the contrary, that this anatomical operation is essentially unpoetical; and that, therefore, Lord Byron, who is emphatically styled the “scarcher of dark bosoms,” is least attractive, and least popular, whenever he attempts to execute this special office. We do not mean to question the extent to which the analysis of mind, or of sensation, is capable of being carried, or to vilipend the delight attendant on such researches: we only contend that the pleasures of intellect are materially different from the pleasures of illusion,- that the two are incompatible; and that the writer who secks to excite any emotion will never effect this by attempting to analyse its nature and origin; but must content himself with describing its effects, because it is only with these that his readers can be supposed to be conyersant. Every passion of the soul has its visible symptoms, by which the correspondent feeling of the observer is instantly awakened ; and it is only by the delineation of these symptoms, so correct as to be recognised by the simplest reader, and to produce a momentary illusion, and to call out, by means of the pictured image, the same train of sympathies as would have been excited by the reality, that the poet can possess himself of our imagination and become master of our emotions. The secret sensibility which lurks within our bosoms, which pervades the whole animated frame, and transmits through it the indications of joy or grief, of pleasure or pain, but of which the excess is suffocating and unullerable, cannot itself become the subject of description. To attempt such description is, we think, to exceed the legitimate pretensions of poetry, and to invade the province of metaphysics. On Ibis ground we object to some passages in the Corsair, which are intended to represent the prison-thoughts of Conrad. On similar grounds we have more strongly objected to The Giaour, - but enough of this. We have slated our opinion, and leave the question for the decision of our readers. -- Quarterly Review, Vol. x. pp. 455-457.
POETRY OF CRABBE.
The following admirable Critique is referred to in page 277. (See Note.) The history of Mr. Crabbe as an author bas been somewhat singular. He first appeared in that character in the year 1783, and was received in such a manner as might have warranted the hope that his second appearance would not be long delayed. But, loo indolent or too unambitious, Mr. Crabbe sunk back into privacy; and five-andtwenty years elapsed before he renewed his claims on the public notice. His increased success on this second occasion does not strike us as matter of surprise. We had become sick of the luscious monotony of Muses who seemed to have been fed only on flowers; and were therefore prepared to receive with indulgence even the rude efforts of a more firm and manly genius. At the same time it must be confessed, that the candidate was in no want of illustrious friends to bring him down (like the deductores of old) to the place of canvass, and to secure, by their influence, the favourable suffrages of his countrymen. Criticism itself could not refuse a smile to the verse which had early obtained the praise of Burke and Johnson, and more recently cheered the dying bed of Fox.
The first glow of admiration, however, is now gone; and sufficient time has since passed to allow of our ascertaining prelty accurately the final judgment of the public respecting the merits of Mr. Crabbe. It is, if we are not mistaken, that he has greatly misapplied great powers; and that, although an able, he is not a pleasing poei. In this judgment we entirely acquiesce.
The peculiarity of this author is, that he wishes to discard every thing like illusion from poetry. He is the poet of reality, and of reality in low lise. His opinions on this subject were announced in the opening of his first poem, “ The Village;” and will be best explained by extracting from that work some lines which contain a general enunrialion of his system :