That the periodical criticism of the present day, as criticism, enjoys but a slender portion of public respect, — except among mere book-buyers and blue-stockings, — cannot be denied. It would be unjust not to confess that it has its uses. But, in return, it has its reward. The public, and public critics, mutually serve and despise each other; and if both, for the most part, know that this is the case, the latter are too politic to complain of injustice, and the former too indolent to resent it. Each party is content to accept the evil with the good.
But a feeling much stronger than that of contempt has attached itself to this part of the public press, in consequence of certain attempts of modern criticism to blight and wither the maturity of genius; or — still worse — to change its youthful enthusiasm into despair, and thus tempt it to commit suicide; or — worst of all — to creep to its cradle, and strangle it in the first bloom and beauty of its childhood. To feel that all this has been attempted, and most of it effected, by modern criticism, we need only pronounce to ourselves the names of Chatterton and Kirke White among the dead, of Montgomery, and Keats, and Wordsworth among the living; — not to mention Byron, Shelley, Hunt, &c. It is only necessary to refer, in particular, to the first four of these names; for the others, with an equal share of poetic "ambition," have less of "the illness does attend it;" — less of its over-refined and morbid sensibility.
The miraculous boy, Chatterton, might have been alive, glorying in, and glorifying himself, his country, and his age, at this day, if he had not encountered a shallow-thoughted and cold-blooded critic: for though he was one of the true "children of the sun" of poetry, his more than human power was linked to more than human weakness. Poor Kirke White, too! different as they were in almost every thing — the one a star, the other a flower — yet, both received their light and beauty from the same sun, and both participated in the same fate. To think that the paltry drudge of a bookseller should be permitted to trample in the dirt of a review such an amaranthine flower as this — worthy as it was, to have bloomed in the very Eden of Poetry! — And what had the brilliant, and witty, and successful creator of a new era in criticism to do with the plaintive and tender Montgomery? — If he was too busy or too happy to discover any music in sighs, or any beauty in tears, at least he might have been too philosophical, or too good-natured, to laugh at them. Suppose the poet did indulge a little too much in the "luxury of grief," — if it was weakness, at least it was not hypocrisy; and there was small chance of its infecting either the critic or his readers — so that he exhibited little either of skill or courage in going out of his way to pick a quarrel with it. The poet, with all his fine powers, has scarcely yet recovered from the effects of that visitation; and the critic, with all his cleverness, never will.
It would lead us too far from our present purpose, — and indeed does not belong to it, — to do more than refer to the exploits of the same work against the early attempts of the two writers who at present share the poetic throne of the day. Whatever else they might want, these attacks had at least boldness; and they could do little mischief, for the objects of them were armed at all points against the assault. It is not to these latter, but to such as those on Kirke White and Montgomery, and a late one on the work which we are about to notice, that the periodical criticism of the day owes that resentment and indignation which is at present felt against it, by the few whose praise (in matters of literature) is not censure. To make criticism subservient to pecuniary or ambitious views is poor and paltry enough; but there is some natural motive, and therefore some excuse, for this: but to make it a means of depressing true genius, and defrauding it of its dearest reward — its fair fame — is unnaturally, because it is gratuitously, wicked. It is a wickedness, however, that might safely be left to work out its own punishment, but that its anonymous offspring too frequently do their mischievous bidding for a time, and thus answer the end of their birth.
In thinking of these things we are tempted to express an opinion which perhaps it would be more prudent to keep to ourselves, — viz. that poetical criticism is, for the most part, a very superfluous and impertinent business; and is to be tolerated at all only when it is written in an unfeigned spirit of admiration and humility. We must therefore do ourselves the justice to disclaim for once, any intention of writing a regulars critique in the present instance. Criticism, like every thing else, is very well in its place; but, like every thing else, it does not always know where that is. Certainly a poet, properly so called, is beyond its jurisdiction — for good and bad, when applied to poetry, are words without a meaning. One might as well talk of good or bad virtue. That which is poetry must be good. It may differ in kind and in degree, and therefore it may differ in value; but if it be poetry, it is a thing about which criticism has no concern, any more than it has with other of the highest productions of Fine Art. The sublimities of Michael Angelo are beyond the reach of its ken — the divine forms of Raphael were not made to be meddled with by its unhallowed fingers — the ineffable expressions of Corregio must not be sullied by its earthy breath. These things were given to the world for something better than to be written and talked about and they have done their bidding hitherto, and will do it till they cease to exist. They have opened a perpetual spring of lofty thoughts and pure meditations; they have blended themselves with the very existence, and become a living principle in the hearts of mankind; — and they are, now, no more fit to be touched and tampered with than the stars of heaven — for like them "Levan di terra al cielo nostr' intelletto." We will not shrink from applying these observations, prospectively, to the young poet whose work we are about to notice. Endymion, if it be not, technically speaking, a poem, is poetry itself. As a promise, we know of nothing like it, except some things of Chatterton. Of the few others that occur to us at the moment, the most remarkable are Pope's Pastorals, and his Essay on Criticism; — but these are proofs of an extraordinary precocity, not of genius, but of taste, as the word was understood in his day; and of remarkably early acquaintance with all the existing common-places of poetry and criticism. It is true that Southey's Joan of Arc, and Campbell's Pleasures of Hope, were both produced before their authors were one-and-twenty. But Joan of Arc, though a fine poem, is diffuse, not from being rich, but from being diluted; and the Pleasures of Hope is a delightful work — but then it is a work — and one cannot help wishing it had been written at thirty instead of twenty.
Endymion is totally unlike all these, and all other poems. As we said before, it is, not a poem at all. It is an ecstatic dream of poetry — a flush — a fever — a burning light — an involuntary outpouring of the spirit of poetry — that will not be controuled. Its movements are the starts and boundings of the young horse before it has felt the bitt — the first flights of the young bird, feeling and exulting in the powers with which it is gifted, but not yet acquainted with their use or their extent. It is the wanderings of the butterfly in the first hour of its birth; not as yet knowing one flower from another, but only that all are flowers. Its similitudes come crowding upon us from all delightful things. It is the May-day of poetry — the flush of blossoms and weeds that start up at the first voice of spring. It is the sky-lark's hymn to the day-break, involuntarily gushing forth as he mounts upward to look for the fountain of that light which has awakened him. It is as if the muses had steeped their child in the waters of Castaly, and we beheld him emerging from them, with his eyes sparkling and his limbs quivering with the delicious intoxication, and the precious drops scattered from him into the air at every motion, glittering in the sunshine, and casting the colours of the rainbow on all things around.
Almost entirely unknown as this poem is to general readers, it will perhaps be better to reserve what we have further to say of its characteristics, till we have given some specimens of it. We should premise this, however, by saying that our examples will probably exhibit almost as many faults as beauties. But the reader will have anticipated this from the nature of the opinion we have already given — at least if we have succeeded in expressing what we intended to express. In fact, there is scarcely a passage of any length in the whole work, which does not exhibit the most glaring faults — faults that in many instances amount almost to the ludicrous: yet positive and palpable as they are, it may be said of them generally, that they are as much collateral evidences of poetical power, as the beauties themselves are direct ones. If the poet had had time, or patience, or we will even say taste, to have weeded out these faults as they sprang up, he could not have possessed the power to create the beauties to which they are joined. If he had waited to make the first half dozen pages of his work faultless, the fever — the ferment of mind in which the whole was composed would have subsided for ever. Or if he had attempted to pick out those faults afterwards, the beauties must inevitably have gone with them — for they are inextricably linked together.