Whatever truth there may be in the assertion, that none but a poet should criticize a poet, we are nevertheless extremely happy to meet now and then with dissertations on poetry in sober prose; for most of our modern bards, as if they were afraid that posterity would not take the trouble to be their commentators, have enshrined themselves in their own annotations.
The author before us seems to have written the greater part of these remarks at a time when the subjects of criticism, on which, he enters, excited a livelier interest than they do at present in the public mind. More than half of his pages is devoted to the refutation of Dr. Johnson's heretical dogmas on the merits of out best writers. There was a time when no true admirer of Milton or Gray could speak without a rapture of indignation of Johnson's blasphemies against those poets. We know not if any duels were fought in that fashionable controversy, as they were in the course of another, which did not long precede it, in this part of the island, viz. the guilt or innocence of Mary Queen of Scots; but if blood was not spilt, a great deal of gall was generated. Nearly coeval with these, was the Rowleyan controversy, concerning the authenticity of the poems produced by Chatterton. On this subject also, Mr. Stockdale has taken the field with as much ardour as we should now expect in a writer on the Catholic question, or the expedition to Copenhagen. On both questions, whether as the adversary of Johnson or of Miller and Bryant, Mr. Stockdale appears to us rather impetuous as an advocate; yet generally, and with good feelings, in the right. We are only afraid this ingenuous veteran will find the public interest not so warm as his own. Johnson's true glory will live for ever; his violent prejudices have already lost their authority. The refutation of his errors, therefore, is not now called for. Of all that was ever written against him, there is but one worthy of being preserved as a literary curiosity; we mean the continuation of his criticism on Gray's Elegy, being an admirable imitation of his style, and a temperate caricature of the unfairness of his strictures. Still, however, though the names and fashions of our literary controversies have changed, there is much matter in these lectures of a general and imperishable interest.
The series of Mr. Stockdale's Eminent Poets commences with Spencer. In going further back, in point of date, than Johnson, his plan is commendable. Spencer, however antiquated his style, is certainly the earliest of our modern English poets. Surrey and Wyatt, though they are found in the mighty chasm that occurs in our poetical history between Chaucer and Spencer, and though they are sufficiently intelligible to be called modern, are still not sufficiently great to stand as the leaders of a new dynasty. The metaphysical school, who succeeded Spencer and Shakespeare, were unworthy to stand in Johnson's list as the only surviving predecessors of Milton.
The outlines of Spencer's poetical character are pretty faithfully drawn by our author, though, as he duly acknowledges, with ample obligations to the labours of a preceding critic, Warton. The principal circumstance which seems to have debarred Spencer from attaining, as he has certainly approached the throne of poetical excellence, seem to be the excessive wildness of that machinery which he has adopted from the more extravagant of the Italian schools, from Ariosto, and not from Tasso. Under this may perhaps be included the fault of his excessive allegory and personification, which associates personified abstract ideas and human beings at the battle as well as the banquet, to the exclusion of even that faint consistency which fable ought to preserve. The form of his stanza has been pronounced by many critics to be tedious and monotonous. Our author confesses that he does not think so; and yet he supposes that it is owing to the shackles of this stanza, that the poetry of Spencer has been loaded with so many passages of languor, tautology, and violated grammar. Undoubtedly the stanza of Spencer is less easily constructed in our language than in Italian; but none of the faults of Spencer can be justly attributed to the form of his metre. It is by far the richest and the sweetest of our measures. More definite than blank verse, it admits both of simplicity and magnificence of sound and language. Without the terseness of unvaried rhyme, a measure unfitted to long narration, it is sufficiently uniform to please the ear, and sufficiently various to protract the pleasure. Spencer owes his languid lines merely to the careless taste of an age which set no value on condensed expression. Without disrespect to our truly majestic measure of blank verse, let some of the rich passages in Spencer, or of the Castle of Indolence, be produced, — those passages especially of the Fairy Queen, in which Spencer's genius has put forth a diligent hand, and we shall find, that the melody and the pomp of this measure, while it accords with the humbler, gives dignity to the loftiest conceptions. When the difficulty of any measure is such as to occasion more restraint in overcoming it than effect when it is overcome, that measure may be called a shackle upon genius. But where so much effect is produced, the difficulty that is overcome becomes a triumph to genius; and the restraint operates like those obstacles of oblique pressure in mechanics, which ultimately augment the impetus of projectile bodies, though, for a while, they seemed to oppose it. But, in truth, if we except the unfortunate adoption of extravagantly allegorical machinery, the few imperfections of Spencer seem to arise from his carelessness. The life of man was not sufficient to have wrought up to classical purity so much composition as he has left behind him. Profusion was the fault of his bountiful genius, as prolixity was that of his minor contemporaries. It was the custom to write much on the minutest subject; and though the fertile mind of Spencer precludes that profusion which gives words without ideas, still there is an accumulation of characters, events, speeches and descriptions, which bewilder the reader, not so much with enchantment, as confusion. The story of the Fairy Queen is more like a succession of triumphal arches, than a regular building. We pass on with admiration and delight; but yet both are occasionally cooled by the labyrinthical irregularity of the design. We miss that regular subserviency of minor events and characters to those which are great and important, which constitutes the charm of a perfect story, whether we call it Epic, or by any other appellation. The characters are in vain varied from each other by a charming verisimilitude and fidelity to human nature. They are in vain elevated to the most heroic scale of excellence to produce that entire interest, of which Spencer's genius could not otherwise have failed. Superlative heroes and peerless beauties are crowded upon us in such numbers, that we lose sight of them in the blaze of each other. Had Spencer lived later in the days of poetry, there is every reason to suppose he would have simplified his plan, and condensed the versification of his poem. In a poem of a few hundred pages, the stanza would not seem monotonous; in one, amounting to thousands of pages, blank verse itself would at least wear us out.
Let it not be held sacrilegious that these remarks are made on a name so justly revered by Englishmen; on one who, if Chaucer be called the day-star, may certainly be pronounced the sunrise of our poetry. What shall we think of that romantic poem, which, with all the faults of its structure and careless execution, is still the wonder of a third century, and the fountain from which our great poets of the last age imbibed their inspiration most deeply. We shall give, however, the praises of Spencer in our author's own language.
"When I sit down to read Spencer, (I presume not to determine with what preparation of the mind he should be read by others), I never think of tracing his allegory. I only with to imbibe the animated and glowing page before me. I forget this world, and am transported to the bright and variegated regions of imagination. His descriptions are presented with such insinuating eloquence, and with such a force of colouring, that even his figures of a grotesque wildness must please those who are most pleased with chaster beauties. You view pictures drawn by the hand of a matter, endowed with contrasted talents, — the mild and beaming skies of Lorraine, the rude and tangled precipices of Salvador Rosa. And though his heroes are the heroes of chivalry and romance, you are often entertained and interested with striking examples of the real nature of man, — of what comes home to social and domestic life. All the passions of the human breast he exhibits with their characteristic features and emotion, particularly the must universally active and powerful of our passions, loves It is remarked by the best critics, that he is particularly powerful in the plaintive and pathetic strain. The truth of this observation is evinced in many passages of the Fairy Queen, arid in those of his smaller poems, which are expressly elegiac." Vol. I. p. 27.
The subject of the next Lecture is Shakespeare; of whom it seems difficult to say any thing that has not been said before — a difficulty which Mr. Stockdale has not overcome. Of Shakespeare's minor poems he thinks unfavourably; an opinion with which the reasonable worshippers of our greatest bard are likely to coincide. All the praise that can be given to those pieces for which his contemporaries gratuitously called him the honey-tongued Shakespeare, is, that they are bad resemblances of the heaviest passages of Spencer. But, when we compare the dramatic style of Shakespeare with the descriptive of Spencer, it is then that we are conscious how rich the age of Elizabeth was, which at once contained two such masters, so high in their degree, yet so different in the species of their merit. In Spencer, we see, as it were, the painter; in Shakespeare the statuary, of imitated nature. Instead of the rich and highly-coloured style of Spencer, so peculiarly suited to description, Shakespeare presents us with the simple and complete imitation of naked nature. His style, therefore (unless where it suits pedantic characters, or complies with his own occasional love of latinizing the meaning of words), is more like the language of life, varying from the ludicrous to the sublime with the characters who address us. Shakespeare is more eminently the poet of nature; he brings nature more palpably before us; his imitation is nearer.
Among other remarks by no means original we are told, that invention is one of the grand characteristics of Shakespeare; that no poet ever possessed this faculty in a more fertile or vigorous degree; and we are taught to discriminate between the poetical gifts of invention and imagination. "The inventive poet (says Mr Stockdale) signalizes himself by combining remoter images. Such a writer is emphatically the [Greek characters], the poet, the maker, almost the creator. Yet,
What can we reason but from what we know?"
This question, unanswerable as it seems, he answers by immediately subjoining, "The inventive or creative genius sometimes disdains the walk of man; nay, it will not be limited by the various, the vast, and the apparently unbounded region of nature." He then gives the wierd sisters, the airy dagger, and the enchanted island, as the wonderful, the charming, or the striking productions of Shakespeare's invention; "the finest assemblage of objects (he continues) which have obeyed the common and established laws of nature. Human characters, however forcibly or humorously drawn, I beg permission to class with the works of imagination. Caliban and Prospero, according to this distinction, are the boast of Shakespeare's invention; Shylock and Falstaff those of his imagination." All this distinction appears to us superfluous. To divide invention from imagination, seems to be merely dividing the included from the including term. "Imagination (as the most luminous of moral philosophers has described it [author's note: Stewart's Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind]) is a complex power; it includes conception, or simple apprehension, which enables us to form a notion of those former objects of perception, or of knowledge, out of which we are to make a selection; abstraction, which separates the selected materials from the qualities and circumstances which are connected with them in nature; and judgment and taste directs their combination. To these powers we may add, that particular habit of association to which we give the name of fancy, as it is this which presents to our choice all the different materials which are subservient to the efforts of imagination, and which may, therefore be considered as forming the groundwork of poetical genius."
Now, this description of imagination will apply with equal propriety to Shakespeare's enchanted island, and to his character of Falstaff, leaving no greater merit to his supernatural than his mortal agents. In fact, in point of consummate excellence, the character of Falstaff, though human, is more truly original than that of the monster himself. He found materials for both in the characters of men, and in their reigning superstitions. We may allow poetry to boast, in her own language, of him who "exhausted worlds, and then imagined new." But, in reality, the new worlds could only be made up of the elements supplied by the old. For Caliban, as well as Falstaff, the materials were ready to his hand. The component parts of the latter abounded in common life. The materials of the monstrous character abounded in the floating legends of the age; an age, when the names and offices of familiar spirits were as familiar to the ear, arid as well believed, as those of human beings; — an age, in which the reigning monarch wrote a treatise on the horns and tail of the devil. To the Rosicrucian philosophy we are indebted for the nominal machinery of the inimitable tragedy of the Tempest; though to Shakespeare we are indebted for all that genius could do with such machinery. Nor is it improbable, that, in some of those legends of Italian fable, from which so many of his plays are derived, he found the very name and offices of his admired Caliban, the witch's bastard by the rape of a demon.
We are next presented with two whole lectures on Milton. In the first, our lecturer engages to demonstrate, "with almost mathematical precision, that Milton is the first, because the most sublime of all poets." The steps of Mr. Stockdale's demonstration, however, appear to us more of a legal than a mathematical nature. He subpoenas two witnesses to character; Addison is one; Johnson the other. Addison's evidence is wholly favourable; Johnson's is partly unfavourable; but, by skilful cross-questioning, he is made to contradict himself. He then triumphantly exclaims to Johnson, "Out of thine own mouth I will condemn thee." The glaring inconsistencies of Johnson, do indeed convict him; but this, in law, would only set aside the credibility of his evidence. In criticism it is a two-edged argument; it invalidates the faith of his praise as well as of his censure. I object to the sincerity of Dr. Johnson's censure, says the worshipper of Milton, because I can confront them with his praises. And I object to his praises, the assailant of Milton's merit will reply, because I can confront them with his censures. This proves that the merits of poets are to be debated on their own grounds, not merely on the critical authorities for or against them.
Let us admit, however, that Milton's greatness is established by such judicial process, — established it surely is by the testimony which every mind alive to the beautiful and the great will bear to his genius: still, we object to the truth of our lecturer's text, that Milton is the greatest of all poets; or, to adopt the still wilder words of his declamation, "that all other poets are babies compared to him." The claim to this supremacy is founded on Milton's sublimity; and the following definition of sublimity is subjoined. "I shall endeavour," says Mr. Stockdale, "to give a comprehensive and clear idea, or definition, of that capital species of writing. To write then with sublimity, is to chuse the greatest or the most splendid, or the most awful, existing or imaginable objects, and to express or display them with a corresponding propriety, force, and majesty of expression." Now, we object, with great deference, to the clearness of this definition; for it tells us no more than that sublime writers chuse great subjects, and write with great dignity upon them. Nor can we admit sublimity to be called a "species" of writing, as if it were the epic, the tragic, or the pastoral; it is a quality, not a species of writing; it is a quality, too, which comprehends considerable varieties. The sublime in splendour of conception, in pomp of language, in description of prodigious things, is Milton's. Analogies are unsafe illustrations, but the reader of Milton has probably felt from his influence, an impression quite analogous to that elevating pleasure which cartoon paintings of the first masters excite. Nothing can exceed, in the quality of sublime, those pictures of the fallen angels in their march over Hell, and in their council of Pandemonium. Nothing, in beauty or sublimity, can exceed (we shall say generally) the first six books of the Paradise Lost. But this excellence, this sublimity, and this beauty which nothing eclipses, does not necessarily eclipse all other excellence. Milton's glory may consist in his subject: that subject has certainly afforded his genius ample room for some of the finest scenes and finest passages of human writing. But the common testimony of mankind permits its to say, without fear of being called presumptuous, that, as a whole, Paradise Lost is deficient in interest; that the last six books do most palpably fall off; and, that the warfare between God and his creature is a constant bar to our sympathy with either victor or vanquished, and annihilates, what is the soul of pleasure in poetical narration, curiosity. These expressions are not Johnsonian cavils; they contain all that can be fairly said in objection to Milton, and nothing more. How much still remains to excite our veneration! Allowing therefore to Milton every praise that can be pronounced on those passages, and even entire hooks, where the agents of his poem, his speeches and conception of character are sublime; still, this quality of sublimity, does not absorb all excellence. The state of fancy excited by it, is not, by its nature, suited for long possession of the human mind. It keeps its faculties on the utmost stretch; it is of itself but a single quality: and though it does not exist in Milton, any more than in other great poets, unconnected with the beautiful and pathetic; yet, if it be assumed as the ground of Milton's claim to supremacy in poetry, we are entitled to say, that a certain union of other constituent qualities of a poet, are, collectively, paramount to its greatness. The opinion which, we make bold to say, the world at large maintain, is, that the aggregate of all the poetical qualities of Shakespeare is superior to that of Milton's, — including his sublimity and every other claim to admiration.
If the epic poet be sublime, so is our great tragedian. We do not pretend to divide the general term sublime with unnecessary distinction; yet, when we say that Shakespeare is sublime, we must speak more of his merit in the aggregate than judging him by detached passages. His sublimity is more strong than brilliant; it lies more in effect than in perceptible manner. It is like listening to an orator, of whose powers of persuasion we are not fully conscious till he has finished his discourse. When we peruse the dialogue of his dramas, so much of the familiar occurs in language, that the triumph over our sympathies seems to be obtained without an effort of the poet. The design of Milton to dazzle us with splendid, and overwhelm us with great images, is always obvious. Milton has all the ensigns and regalia of sovereign genius; Shakespeare all the power and prerogative. Let us recur to an instance of the sublime in Shakespeare, and it will illustrate this distinction. Take the scene of Macbeth relating his murder of Duncan to Lady Macbeth. "There's one did laugh in his sleep, and one cried murder." — The dialogue commencing with this line, has no passage, which, taken separately, and read to a person unacquainted with the play, would seem a specimen of sublime composition; yet, the effect of the whole, when we read the play, is sublime; it is like something more than human language. If the terrors of the tragic muse be not sublime, by what name shall we call them? Let us again suppose it possible to find a person susceptible of poetical impressions, who had not read Milton, and we should have no difficulty, in every page, to quote such sentences as would strike him, though read unconnectedly, with wonder and delight; — such lines as the description of Satan and his peers. "He spoke, and to confirm his words outflew millions of flaming swords," &c. But let such reader, even warm and fresh from the bright wonders of Paradise Lost, submit his feelings to the influence of some of Shakespeare's best tragedies, and the result, we think, will be, that, judging by collective effect, by creation of character, by vivid imitation of nature, and by combined and general tests of genius, will award the superiority to Shakespeare.
Nor would this judgment be formed exclusively on the creative originality of our dramatic master. Without reference to their comparative power over the passions of terror and pity, let the testimony of mankind decide, which of the two poets is richer in those sentences which contain as it were the pith, the quintessence, the condensed originality, which might serve for the texts volumes, for the motto of every situation in life, is the poet from whom it has been emphatically said, "that philosophers might learn wisdom and courtiers politeness," is this poet one of the babies compared to Milton?
In the praise of Milton's minor poems, our author is deservedly enthusiastic. There is one piece which has escaped his eulogy, and which, from being omitted in many editions of Milton's works, is less popularly known than its extreme majesty and picturesque beauty seem to deserve. We allude to the speech of the Genius of the Wood in the Arcades.
For know, by lot from Jove, I am the Power
Of this fair wood, and live in oaken bower,
To nurse the saplings tall, and curl the grove
With ringlets, quaint and wanton windings wove;
And all my plants I save from nightly ill
Of noisome winds and blasting vapors chill,
And from the boughs brush off the evil dew,
And heal the harms of thwarting thunder blue,
Or what the cross dire-looking planet smites,
Or hurtful worm with canker'd venom bites;
When evening grey doth rise, I fetch my round
Over the mount and all this hallow'd ground,
And early, ere the odorous breath of morn
Awakes the slumbering leaves, or tassell'd horn
Shakes the high thicket, haste I all about,
Number my ranks, and visit every sprout
With puissant words and murmurs made to bless:
But else, in deep of night, when drowsiness
Hath lock'd up mortal sense, then listen I
To the celestial Syrens' harmony,
That sit upon the nine enfolded spheres,
And sing to those that hold the fatal sheers,
And turn the adamantine spindle round,
On which the fate of gods and men is wound:
Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie,
To lull the daughters of Necessity,
And keep unsteady nature to her law,
And the low world in measured motion draw
After the heavenly tune, which none may hear
Of human mould with gross unpurged ear. &c. &c.
The rich and diversified merits of Dryden, form, as our author justly remarks, not an abrupt descent from the sublimity of Milton. Whether we recollect him as a lyric, a narrative, dramatic, political, or satyrical poet, or as a translator, the name of Dryden summons up recollections of excellence. The union of critical with poetical power; the vigour and the hale manliness of expression which for ever look fresh in his sentences and lines; the majestic force without harshness, and the perfect and downright English of Dryden's style, entitle him to this great succession, and perhaps rank him in merit the fourth after Spencer, Shakespeare and Milton, of English poets. If, indeed, we could forget Otway, there would be no need of qualifying this opinion; but the pathos of Otway, after all, as it stands single in competition with the infinite varieties of Dryden's merit, allow us rather to suggest, than to dwell upon a doubt of their comparative rank. Nor is there to be found, in all the treasures of biography, a life more interesting than Dryden's. In the midst of all its alloy, his genius commands our admiration, as his character, though degraded by several imperfections, attaches our regard. The life of Otway, imperfectly as it is given, exhibits a mind of finer sensibility, sinking under adversity. Dryden's teems with interest and with instruction. While the few and venial spots which poverty left upon his fame, may afford a lesson to the wisest, and a caution to the weakest; his unassuming modesty, his fortitude, his industry, and his high spirit, will teach no less improving example. His creative powers are less by far than those of his great poetical predecessors; yet he enlarged the empire of poetry. He applied it with grace and effect to subjects which had never before been thought susceptible of its beauties; and he did so, without either raising his subjects to an undue importance, or degrading his poetry, by bringing it down to meet his subject. Polemical religion and politics, the least obviously adapted for such embellishments, came from his hands with attractions unknown before or since. The constitutional blemishes of his Hind and Panther, form, it is true, one exception to this merit; but, even in that production, there are nervous passages; and his Religio Laici more than atones for all the defects of its sister poem. The criticism of Pope is but an echo of his critical poetry. Indeed, in his critical canons, he reminds us of the primitive lawgivers, who passed their ordonnances in verse, and whose ordonnances have continued to be obeyed when reduced by others to familiar prose. For, common as the truths which he uttered are now become, we owe them traditionally to him. We find them, no doubt, even in Blair; but Dryden first promulged them.
As a political poet, he is without a rival, and without a second. Before we censure the scriptural obscurity of Absalom and Achitophel, let us recollect the scriptural knowledge of the age in which he wrote, when every Bible name and fact was familiar to every reader, — let us recollect, also, the fine advantage which his genius drew from masking his satyre behind this allegorical parallel. As the poetical criticism in general, so the poetical satyre in particular, of Dryden, was the prototype of Pope's. The Dunciad prolonged, without magnifying, the triumph of talent over dulness. We should quote our lecturer's characteristic remarks on Dryden's translation as the best specimen, in our apprehension, of his notice of this poet, were there not already commentaries on those performances more valuable than ever were written on translated poetry. These, are found in Dryden's own prefaces, and dedications. A more perfect essay on translation, or a finer discrimination of the antient poets, does not exist, than in his preface to a miscellany of translations from Theocritus, Lucretius, and Horace. In the variety of his translations, unequal a they are in merit, a complete preference is still difficult, from the number of rival beauties; but those of Horace are perhaps his masterpieces. The enviable sensations of a fortunate individual, have been well described by an eloquent writer, who, descending into the new-discovered ruins of Pompeii, found the Roman senator in his robes, whose body had been preser ved with almost the semblance of life for fifteen hundred years. There is a pleasure analogous to this, in perusing some passages of Dryden's Horace; but something more than dead antiquity is there restored. We have not the dust, but the soul of Horace; no affected adaptation of antient expressions to modern usages; nothing of that smart dressing out of an antient statue in the modern costume, which so much disfigures Pope's, and, it must be owned also, many of Dryden's translations. The language of antiquity is changed, but not its simplicity. How much the nature and sprightliness of the "Vides ut alta stet nive Candidum," is preserved in the ode which concludes with these lines!
The appointed hour of promised bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half-unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign,
And hides but to be found again—
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.
Nor has lyric poetry, if we except the memorable ode from Hafiz by Sir William Jones, found a happier transfusion from. one language into another, than in many lines of the 29th ode of the Second Book.
Fortune, that, with malicious joy,
Does man her slave oppress,
Proud of his office to destroy,
Is seldom pleased to bless:
Still various, and inconstant still,
But with an inclination to be ill,
Promotes, degrades, delights in strife,
And makes a lottery of life:
I can enjoy her while she's kind
But when she dances in the wind,
And shakes her wings, and will not flay,
I puff the prostitute away;
The little or the much she gave is quietly resigned, &c. &c.
We should have wished to see these, or similar passages of this poet given by Mr. Stockdale, not to the exclusion of those which he has inserted, but in preference to some of his own digressions which astonish us — but not with delight. It would be invidious to quote at full length; but we cannot help wondering, that a passage like that in the 269th page of his first volume, should come from any writer who has taste, spirit, and polite information enough to collect remarks on English literature. In this extraordinary page, Mr. Stockdale supposes himself, even in presence of his belles-lettres audience, speaking face to face with the departed spirit of Dryden. In this supposed phantasmagoria, he begins, "Few men have contributed so largely as you (Dryden) to the poetical improvement of your country;" and, after a prefatory compliment, he proceeds to inform Dryden, that a celebrated writer rose among us (who at the end of two pages is discovered to be Dr Johnson); that this writer wrote lives of the poets, which gave to him (Mr. Stockdale) offence in many exceptionable passages; but that the public swallowed his dogmas with avidity, and that numerous biographers published his (Dr Johnson's) life. This horrible address to the spirit of Dryden lasts for several pages. We beseech Mr. Stockdale to extirpate it from his book, whenever it comes to a second edition; and if his friends do not give him the same advice, we shall think that his zeal and good intentions have fewer friends than they deserve. Without meaning disrespect to Mr. Stockdale, by far the best part of the notice of Dryden is what he quotes from Johnson, because he quotes the best of Johnson; and the general survey of Dryden's merit is more impartially executed by that great critic, than his general character of any other poet.
Dryden is one of those poets on whose faults and inequalities it fair to dwell as a matter of truth; but for the interests and promotion of good taste, and for the sake of warning to young writers, it is not so necessary. The reason is, that, though a poet trained by discipline, and formed upon rules, he is still a most natural writer; his faults are those of carelessness, not of bad taste: hence they are obvious, and not alluringly dangerous, like the systematic affectations of poets, who err from inherent or acquired corruption. If we except his partiality to rhyming tragedies, there seems no distinguishable fault in his poetical creed. When minds of this kind are impelled by want, or betrayed by impatience, to publish their crudities and errors, however numerous, they are not apt to assume the shape of imposing errors. It is the "dulcia vitia" of system, and laborious polish, which are apt to perplex and betray an inexperienced taste. But the chaff and the corn of Dryden are easily separable. Where he offends, he offends as boldly as he pleases. Equivocal passages may be found; but ambiguity is as seldom his fault in merit as in meaning. But with all its high endowments, the poetical mind of Dryden was far short of even limited and frail human perfection. He wants one of the chief characteristics of genius, a tender and pathetic mind. The power (as Johnson observes) which predominated in his intellectual operations, was rather strong reason than quick sensibility. On all occasions that were presented, he rather studied than felt; and produced sentiments, not such as nature enforces, but meditation supplies. With the simple and elemental passions as they spring separately in the mind, he seems not much acquainted; and seldom describes them, but as they are complicated by the various relations of society, and confused in the tumults and agitations of life. What he says of love, may contribute to the explanation of his character.
Love various minds does variously inspire,
It stirs in gentle bosoms gentle fire,
Like that of incense on the altar laid
But raging flames tempestuous fouls invade
A fire which every windy passion blows,
With pride it mounts, or with revenge it glows.
Dryden's was not one of the gentle bosoms: Love, as it subsists in itself, but with no tendency but to the person loved, and wishing only for correspondent kindness; such love as shuts out all other interest — the love of the golden age, was too soft and subtle to put his faculties in motion. He hardly conceived it, but in its turbulent effervescence with some other desires; when it was inflamed by rivalry, or obstructed by difficulties; when it invigorated ambition, or exasperated revenge.
Pope is naturally introduced as the successor of Dryden. His character is thus given by our lecturer.
"In comparing and estimating different poets of the first class, we ought to observe something like mathematical accuracy, — we ought to weigh the whole aggregate of their respective merits. In making comparative estimates, with this justice to Pope, we should find in him so many, and so apparently incompatible excellences, that we should deem the possible and eternal privation of his works as great a single loss as could happen to the republic of letters. Of what a melancholy and irreparable chasm, among the poetical ornaments of England, would feeling hearts be sensible, if the Abelard to Eloisa could be lost! This poem is quite unrivalled in the antient and modern world: it consists of three hundred and sixty lines, and every line is superlatively elegant, harmonious, and pathetic. This observation is not applicable to any other poem of such a length; but this is not its only glorious singularity. The hopes, the fears, the wishes, the raptures and the agonies of love, were never so naturally and forcibly impressed on the soul by any other eloquence, if we except Rousseau."
Pope is an excellent poet; but this is not a way to lecture on his merits. This is the commonplace language, which every miss at a boarding-school could utter, if she had the boldness to acknowledge having read Eloisa to Abelard. Yet we have sought in vain for a more rational and discriminate eulogy on the favourite poet of the last century. The poem of Eloisa does indeed glow with the finer fires of passion and of feeling. It is his great work; but he is much indebted to Ovid for many of its beauties. There is much in Sappho to Phaon of which Eloisa's warmest and most, enchanting passages remind us. Had Mr. Stockdale told us, that Eloisa to Abelard is the finest of English love-epistles, we should not make any exception to the expression; had he called it the finest of all epistles antient or modern, we should have at least understood him; but what he means by saying, it is absolutely unrivalled in antient or modern times, is by no means so easily comprehended. Is it superior to the fourth book of Virgil's Aenied? is it superior to every thing of every kind in the poetical treasures of Greece and Rome? Were a parallel started between this epistle and some of the finest passages in antiquity, we have no doubt that Mr. Stockdale would decide with as little hesitation, and probably with as much justice, as he devotes Homer to contempt, and all his pedantic admirers. But a modest man is slow in giving, and a reasonable man in believing, these decisions on comparison of old and new writings, especially against the antients. We shall not therefore believe, either that Homer is inferior to Milton, or that Pope's Eloisa is superior to every thing antient, merely on Mr. Stockdale's assertion, till we ascertain with better certainty that he is competent to draw the comparison. To estimate Pope's value as a poet, by "the melancholy chasm, of which feeling hearts would be sensible, if Eloisa's epistle were lost," we confess, exceeds our computing faculty. Our lecturer may have clearer notions on the subject; but there is something in the supposition which perplexes and confuses us. If the feeling hearts recollected the poem, then, it could not be lost; and if it was totally lost and forgotten, then they could not be aware that there was any thing so good to lament for.
We are told that Pope unites those excellences which are apparently incompatible. Now, superlative terms should always be used with caution, but above all when speaking of such a poet as Pope. He is one to be measured by no mean standard. What is good in his poetical character, is greatly good; so that, to match one acknowledged quality, that which we bring to prove his uniting with it another great quality, should he striking indeed. Our lecturer has, as usual, left those apparently incompatible excellences undefined. Correctness, which distinguishes Pope as one great excellence, is united with his shrewdness, his wit, and his common sense. There is nothing in these qualities apparently incompatible with correctness. The poetical quality, which we should least expect to see united with correctness, is that daring luxuriance of fancy or association which distinguishes Spencer or Shakespeare, and which is found even in Dryden in no scanty degree. But neither this romantic fancy, nor extreme pathos, nor sublimity of the very first order, are discoverable in Pope.
In the midst of this chapter, however unwilling we may be to submit to the universal authority of Dr Johnson, yet it is quite refreshing to meet with passages of his better sense and more dispassionate decisions, which our author quotes. The sentences of Johnson stand indeed with peculiar advantage n this insulated situation; and Mr. Stockdale is entitled to the same sort of gratitude which we feel to a dull landlord who has invited s to dine with an interesting visitor. In fact, after the one has bewildered us, the other puts us right. It is not easy to add to what Johnson has said; still less should we presume to take away from the truly admirable summary of Pope's character which he has drawn. But when we assent to the opinions of a superior mind, we generally find its utterance so conveyed, that we can assent in a qualified manner, where assent is, on the whole, due, and yet find room for some partial distinction of our own. "If Pope is not a poet, (says Johnson), where is poetry to be found?" This is certainly true; for though the forte of Pope be neither pathos, sublimity, not daring originality, yet that he moves the affections, approaches to majesty of thought, and possesses much of his own creation, who shall deny? The indiscriminate praise of our author is; that Pope united apparently inconsistent excellences; Dr. Johnson touches off his picture more rationally, by saying, that he had, in proportions very nicely suited to each other, all the qualities which constitute genius. The excellences of Pope were adjusted by proportion to each other, and not incompatible qualities. "He had invention, (Dr Johnson continues), by which new trains of ideas are formed, and new scenes of imagery displayed, as in the Rape of the Lock; or extrinsic embellishments and illustrations are connected with a known subject, as in the Essay on Criticism." The adaptation of his Rosicrucian machinery in the Rape of the Lock, is indeed an inventive and happy creation, in the limited sense of the word, to which all poetical creation must be restricted. There is no finer gem than this poem in all the lighter treasures of English fancy. Compared with any other mock-heroic in our language, it shines in pure supremacy for elegance, completeness, point and playfulness. It is an epic poem in that delightful miniature which diverts us by its mimicry of greatness, and yet astonishes by the beauty of its parts, and the fairy brightness of its ornaments. In its kind, it is matchless; but still it is but mock-heroic, and depends, in some measure, for effect on a ludicrous reference in our own minds to the veritable heroics whose solemnity it so wittily affects. His aerial puppets of divinity, — his sylphs and gnomes, and his puppet heroes and heroines, — the beaux and belles of high life, required rather a subtle than a strong hand to guide them through the mazes of poetry. Among inventive poets, this single poem will place him high. But if our language contains any true heroic creations of fancy, the agents of Spencer's and Milton's machinery will always claim a superior dignity to their Lilliputian counterfeits.
"He had imagination, Johnson observes, which enables him to convey to the reader the various forms of nature, incidents of life, and energies of passion, as in his Elosia, his Windsor Forest, and his Ethic Epistles." It is true that Pope's imagination could convey the forms of nature, yet many poets have looked upon nature much less through a medium than Pope, and have seen her and painted her in less artificial circumstances. The landscapes of Pope are either such as the tourist would sketch within ten miles of London; or, if he attempts more enchanting scenery, he gives, by his vague and general epithets, only the picture of a picture; he writes more by rote than by conception, like a man who saw nature through the medium of the classics, and not with the naked eye. In vain we shall search his Pastorals, or Windsor Forest, for such a landscape as surrounds the Castle of Indolence, the Bower of Eden, or the inimitable Hermitage of Beattie.
Without defining the picturesque, we all feel that it is a charm in poetry seldom applicable to Pope. In the knowledge and description of refined life, Pope is the mirror of his times. He saw through human character as it rose in the living manners of his age, with the eye of a judge and a satyrist; and he must be fond of exceptions, who should say that such a satyrist did not understand human nature. Yet, when we use the trite phrase of Shakespeare understanding human nature, we mean something greatly more extensive than when we apply the same praise to Pope. From the writings of the former, we learn the secrets of the human heart, as it subsists in all ages, independent of the form and pressure of the times. From Pope we learn its foibles and peculiarities in the 18th century. We have men and women described by Shakespeare; by Pope we have the ladies and gentlemen of England. Whatever distinctions of mental expression and physiognomy the latter delineates, we see those distinctions, whether leaning to vice or virtue, originate partly in nature, but still more in the artificial state of society. The standard of his ridicule and morality, is for ever connected with fashion and polite life. Amidst all his wit, it has been the feeling of many in reading him, that we miss the venerable simplicity of the poet, in the smartness of the gentleman. To this effect, the tune of his versification certainly contributes. Without entering into an inquiry whether his practice of invariably closing up the sense completely within the couplet is right or wrong, it is clear that Pope has made the melody of his general measure as perfect as it can be made by exactness: whether a slight return to negligence, might net be preferable to the very acme of smoothness which he has chosen, is a subject which, interesting as it is, we will not now encroach on the reader's patience by examining.
The epistle of Eloisa evinces his knowledge of one passion, and his feeling of it to have been genuine. It is possibly a fair inference from this, that his poetical sympathy could have followed with the same success any other of the leading passions or their combinations, and exhibited a picture of the human heart, (in Epic poetry for instance,) under the influence of other emotions and situations, with the same bold originality as he has pourtrayed Eloisa. We state this as a fair doubt, from reverence to so great a name, and because the boundaries of a short article make us distrust our power of exactly justifying a contradiction. But, with deference, we state our opinion, that Pope, from his writings, appears to know human nature more as a satyrist than a man of feeling; that none of his writings (least of all his elegy on an unfortunate lady) demonstrate power in the pathetic; that a gay life, of high polish and conversation, while it brightened his wit, and pointed his shrewdness, probably diminished the reflective energy of his mind, and made him more observant of foibles than of passions, of manners than of nature in the abstract. There is one sacred passion which nature has ordained to be independent of fashion and artificial manners, for its eternal vehemence. Hence, the poet who may have been limited in observing other secrets of the human bosom, by the greatest bane to originality, an intercourse with the narrow limits of the fashionable world, may even, with that disadvantage, observe and paint the omnipotence of love in all its greatness and simplicity. After all, we should rather forego this theory, than the pleasure of reading the works of our great modern; so that we piously hope Mr. Stockdale's melancholy test of his merit, their eternal and irreparable loss, will never be resorted to.
From the higher region of poetry, our lecturer seems sensible that he is coming down a considerable step when he proceeds to Young. His general character of him will be acknowledged to be just.
"Nature had bestowed on Young an exuberant, vigorous and original genius. It was boundless in its versatility; it was inexhaustible in its resources. But its uncommon and splendid qualities were darkened and dishonoured by their opposite characteristics. He has left us many proofs that he could be extremely injudicious; his taste was extremely vitiated. He often tires us with what I can term no better than poetical tricks or legerdemain. He is apt to prolong a forcible and shining thought to its debility and its death, by an Ovidian redundance and puerility; and he seems to have exerted the whole stretch and grasp of his mind to unite remote images and thoughts, which could never have been associated but by the most elaborate affectation. By an overheated fancy breaking through every pale of judgement, he sometimes loses himself in fustian, when he imagines that he has attained sublimity."
In one respect, our author puts us in mind of a rower in a boat; he looks one way and proceeds another. In Young we find him treating of Pope, and in Thomson looking back upon Young. A Johnson, or a Croft, are ever and anon present to receive some castigation; and are seemingly thrown in his way, that he may have the pleasure of kicking them out of it. His remarks on Young are, nevertheless, in general judicious, except where he praises the minor poems of that author. The prose of Young s clearly and happily described by the frequent manliness of its originality, and its grotesque and whimsical decorations.
With higher genius, and with a milder spirit of religion, Thomson adorned the contemporary age of Young, and drew from that, as from the succeeding, a deeper admiration. Whether the object of poetry be to please, or to mend the heart, either definition will suit the muse of Thomson. His inspiration awakens, and almost creates anew, that moral sense which polished life, and the petty agitations of artificial society, are most apt to obliterate, viz. the sense of beauty in external nature; a principle on which so much innocence and happiness depend. Other poets have shown us choice scenes of nature; Thomson leads us abroad to look at her whole horizon, and all her vicissitudes. He gives us (we might almost say) a separate and new enthusiasm for the beauties of creation, which, in other poets, we only feel by occasions, as the scenery is connected with some transient action or event. When we consider the nature of this moral charm in the author of the Seasons, we find a reason for his popularity exceeding that of all other poets, even those who are not his inferiors in genius. The narrative and dramatic poets, who appeal to the more tumultuous and palpable passions, depend on curiosity for the delight we find in them. When the story is told, or the drama wound up, it is difficult to bring our curiosity fresh to their perusal. But the Seasons present to us imitations of nature, which the eye delights not merely to revisit, but to rest and to muse upon. In the placid and still nature of the objects, we have time to gather a multitude of associations. There is scarce a reader of Thomson, whose own mind will not furnish recollections in proof of this. The features of nature, in Thomson's description, are without vagueness or indistinctness, but still general, and applicable, by association, to the particular scenery which is freshest and pleasantest in the actual remembrance of every individual among the million who read him. All descriptive poetry, it is true, possesses, to a certain degree, this charm of general applicability to individual association; but it could be easily proved that an event and an agent, by being more particular themselves, lose, in generality of association, what they gain to the reader in curiosity and interest. This will not prove that Thomson's poetry yields more intense delight in the present perusal, than others of high merit; but, by the calmness and permanence of the pleasure, it accounts for our recurring to it so often.
Amidst the profuse and noble praise which Johnson has lavished upon this poet, Mr. Stockdale seems highly offended that he should have ventured to hint at a blemish. Yet, surely, for the sake of taste, and, above all, for the sake of preserving poetical style free from the most dangerous, because the most fascinating fault, florid and excessive ornament, it may be said, with all reverence to Thomson, that he is frequently too exuberant, and fills the ear rather than the mind. Many of his epithets are barren blossoms, gaudy, but unprofitable. Yet, if faults are to be found, they ought also to be distinguished. The faults of Thomson whether useless epithets, or occasional redundance, are not great defects in his poetry. He never provokes us, like Young, with disgust at fustian or nonsense. When Thomson sacrifices a thought to false taste, he only dresses the victim in flowers, and leads it on in procession. Young butchers it outright, and dissects it on the altar. On the subject of Thomson's minor poems, of which some are exquisitely beautiful, and others of unequal merit, we should perhaps do no justice either to Mr. Stockdale's or our own thoughts, by entering in the narrow bounds of a short paper; but no admirer of Thomson can forbear to mention his Castle of Indolence — a poem in which there appears an immaculate simplicity, which he had not attained in his Seasons. In the first part, at least, he has realized the idea of perfect poetry. Of the superior purity of Thomson's style, in this enchanting production, Mr. Stockdale seems not to be aware. The inequality of the second part of the Castle of Indolence is known and acknowledged; yet one cause of this is perhaps the finished perfection of the first. It was enough; it needed no second part. It resembles the well-known air of pastoral simplicity, to which all the skill of an inventive master, could not furnish a second. Yet in the second part, as we have it, what inimitable stanzas are found! The poetry of the Castle of Indolence can only be described in poetry.
A more vehement chapter of criticism is scarcely to be found, than Mr. Stockdale's remarks on the poet next in succession, whose genius he idolizes, and whose memory he defends, with a fervour beyond all the other worshippers, and all the other defenders of Chatterton. What that wonderful boy would have been, is a question which we shall not decide so emphatically as Mr. Stockdale; what he was is undeniable — the greatest poet that ever appeared in immature years. The moral character of Chatterton has been basely insulted by bigots, and by ignorant men. The pretended antiquity of his poems has been denounced as a crime against truth, with all the solemnity with which Ananias's lie is quoted from scripture. The word "forgery" does not apply to such an innocent deception. In this conclusion we perfectly agree with Mr. Stockdale, though we cannot concur in all the rapture, and all the asperity with which his sentence is delivered.
Our author's account of the poetry of Gray has no pretensions to originality. In a long and laborious defence, we think he forgets one very obvious excuse for the obscurity of the Bard, which is, that the language of prophecy, according to all usage, having been obscure in real prophecy; as an imitative artist, the poet is justified in couching the language of his poetical prophet in the same obscurity. He succeeds better in defending its originality, and the probability of its fiction, against the attacks of Dr Johnson.
We take our leave now of these rhetorical criticisms; without much admiration of the author, and certainly without any disposition to pass a severe sentence on him. He tells us he is old and leaves us to infer that he is not opulent. We hope, therefore, that his publication will succeed; and are positive that it has a great deal more merit than many that have succeeded. Intermingled with a good deal of irrelevant declamation, the lovers of poetry will find many striking remarks on the works of our best writers; and the younger students in belles-lettres, in particular, for whose use it seems chiefly intended, will be delighted with the enthusiasm with which this veteran extols the beauties, and recounts the triumphs of their favourites. For more sober readers, there is something too much of this; but there is an air of sincerity and candour throughout; nor can any thing be more commendable, than the zeal which it uniformly shows in behalf of truth and of merit.