Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century, delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Association, by DELTA.
The name, or rather the mark of [Delta], is a magic mark throughout the entire kingdom of British literature. The gentleman who chooses thus to subscribe himself is favorably known as a poet, as a writer on medical literature, as the author of a very successful Scotch novel, yclept Mansie Wauch, as one of the principal contributors and conductors of Blackwood's Magazine, and as a most amiable and accomplished private person. Nor are we sure, if, all things considered, any man, whether in England or Scotland, could have been singled out, who was likely to manage the difficult and complicated subject of these lectures in a safer, a more candid, and less exceptionable style, than Dr. Moir — especially before an audience so constituted, that one-half came probably with the notion (however ludicrous this presumption may seem to all others) that any one of themselves might have treated the subject better than he!
But, apart altogether from the composition of his audience — peculiar and unique, we believe, in the world — Delta has nobly effected his purpose. That was to express honestly and in simple language, without shrinking, and without show, his own views and feelings as to our last half-century's poetical literature. And it is fortunate, for us, and all his readers, that these are the views of no narrow sectarian, or soured bigot, or self-conceited and solemn twaddler — but of an enlightened, wide-minded, and warm-hearted man, whose very errors and mistakes are worthy of respectful treatment, and all of whose opinions are uttered from the sincerity of an honest heart, and in the eloquent and dignified language of a poet.
Had we a thousand pens, each should run on, like that of a "ready writer," in the praise of poetry. Assuredly, among the many sweets which God has infused into the cup of being among the many solaces of this life, the many relics of the primeval past, the many foretastes of the glorious future, there are few more delicious than the influences of poetry. It transports us from the dust and discord of the present troubled sphere into its own flair world. It "lays us," as Hazlitt beautifully says, "in the lap of a lovelier nature, by stiller streams, and fairer meadows;" it invigorates the intellect by the elevated truth which is its substance; it enriches the imagination by the beauty of its pictures; it enlarges the mental view by the width and grandeur of its references; it inflames the affections by the "touch ethereal of its fiery rod;" it purifies the morals by the powers of pity and terror; and, when concentrated and hallowed, it becomes the most beautiful handmaid in the train of faith, and may be seen with graceful attitude sprinkling the waters of Castalia on the roses in the garden of God. The pleasures which poetry gives are as pure as they are exquisite. Like the manna of old, they seem to descend from a loftier climate — not of the earth, earthy, but of celestial birth, they point back to heaven as their future and final home. They bear every reflection, and they awaken no re-action. A night with the Muses never produces a morning with the Fiends. The world into which poetry introduces us is always the same. The "Sun of Homer shines upon us still." The meadows of genius are, for ever fresh and green. The skies of imagination continually smile. The actual world changes — the ideal is always one and the same — Achilles is always strong — Helen is always fair — Mount Ida continually cleaves the clouds — Scamander rushes ever by — the Eve of Milton still stands ankle deep in the flowers of her garden — and the horn of Fitzjames winds in the gorge of the Trosachs for evermore. And when we remember that above the storms and surges of this tempestuous world there rises in the pages of the poet a fairy realm, which he who reads may reach, and straightway forget his sorrow, and remember his poverty no more, we see the debt of gratitude we owe to poetry, and, looking at the perennial peace and loveliness which surround her wherever she goes, we feel entitled to apply to her the beautiful lines originally addressed to the bird of spring—
Sweet bird, thy bower is ever fair
Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year.
Love — pure, refined, insatiable affection — for the beautiful forms of this material universe, for the beautiful affections of the human soul, for the beautiful passages of the history of the past, for the beautiful prospects which expand before us in the future — such love burning to passion, attired in imagery, and speaking in music, is the essence and the soul of poetry. It is this which makes personification the life of poetry. The poet looks upon nature, not with the philosopher, as composed of certain abstractions, certain "cold material laws;" but he breathes upon them, and they quicken into personal life, and become objects as it wore of personal attachment. The winds with him are not cold currents of air, they are messengers, they are couriers — the messengers of destiny, the couriers of God; the rainbow is not a mere prismatic effect of light; but to the poet, in the language of the Son of Sirach, "it encompasseth the heavens with a glorious circle, and the hands of the Most High have bended it." The lightning is not simply an electric discharge, it is a barbed arrow of vengeance, it is winged with death; the thunder is not so much an elemental uproar, as it is the voice of God; the stars are not so much distant worlds, as they are eyes looking down on men with intelligence, sympathy, and love; the ocean is not a dead mass of waters, it is a "glorious mirror to the Almighty's form;" the sky is not to the poet, a "foul and pestilent congregation of vapors," it is a magnificent canopy "fretted with golden fire," nay, to his anointed eye every blade of grass lives, every flower has its sentiment, every tree its moral, and—
Visions, as poetic eyes avow,
Hang in each leaf, and cling to every bough.
This perpetual personification springs from that principle of love which teaches the poet not only to regard all men as his brethren, the whole earth as his home, but to throw his own excess of soul into dumb, deaf, and dead things, and to find even in them subjects of his sympathy, and candidates for his regard. It was in this spirit that poor Burns did not disdain to address the mouse running from his ploughshare as his "fellow-mortal," and bespeak even the ill-fated daisy, which the same ploughshare destroyed — say rather transplanted into the garden of never-dying song—
Wee, modest, crimson-tippet flower,
Thou'st met me in an evil hour,
And I maun crush below the stoure
Thy feeble stem;
To spare thee noo is past my power,
Thou bonnie gem.
Alas! it's no thy neebor sweet,
The blithesome lark, companion meet,
Bending thee 'mang the dewy weet,
Wi' spreckled breast,
While upward springing, blithe to greet
The purpling East.
Nor, so long as love and the personifying principle springing from it exist, are we afraid for the decline or fall of poetry. Dr. Moir, we humbly conceive, has a morbid and needless horror at the progress of science; he speaks with a sort of timid hope of "poetry ultimately recovering from the staggering blows which science has inflicted, in the shape of steam conveyance, of electro-magnetism, of geological exposition, of political economy, of statistics — in fact, by a series of disenchantments, original genius, in due time must from new elements frame new combinations, and these may be at least what the kaleidoscope is to the rainbow, or an explosion of hydrogen in the gasometer to a flash of lightning on the hills. But this alters not my position — that all facts are prose until colored by imagination or passion. From physic we have swept away alchemy, incantation, and cure by the royal touch; from divinity, exorcism, and purgatory, and excommunication; and from law, the trial by wager of battle, the ordeal by touch, and the mysterious confessions of witchcraft. In the foamy seas we can never more expect to see Proteus leading out his flocks; nor in the dimpling stream another Narcissus admiring his own fair face; nor Diana again descending on Latmos to Endymion. We cannot hope another Una 'making a sunshine in the shady place;' nor another Macbeth meeting with other witches on the blasted heath; nor another Faust wandering amid the mysterious sights and sounds of another May-day night. Robin Hoods and Rob Roys are incompatible with sheriffs and the county police; rocks are stratified by geologists exactly as satins are measured by mercers; and Echo, no longer a vagrant classical nymph, is compelled quietly succumb to the laws of acoustics."
He says again, "Exactness of knowledge is a barrier to the laying on of that coloring by which alone facts can be invested with the illusive lines of poetry." And again, he defines "poetry the imaginative and limitless, and science the definite and true;" and says, "Poetry has ever found 'the haunt and the main region of her song' either in the grace and beauty which cannot be analysed, or in the sublime of the indefinite. Newton with his dissection of the rainbow, Anson with his circumnavigation of the earth, and Franklin with his lightning-kite, were all disenchanters. Angels no longer alight on the iris; Milton's sea-covered sea — sea without shore — is a geographical untruth; and in the thunder men no more hear the voice of the Deity."
Thus far, Delta — and very beautiful and ingenious these illustrations are. But, first, many of the things he mentions, although banished from the province of belief, are not thereby banished from that of poetry, or of that quasi-belief which good poetry produces. Milton, not Milton's age, believed in the Heathen Mythology; and yet how beautifully has he made it subserve poetical purposes. Scott had no faith in ghosts or witchcraft, or the second sight, and yet he has turned them to noble imaginative account; and when he speaks of the second sight as being now "abandoned to the purposes of poetry," he truly describes a common process, the fact of which is fatal to Delta's theory — a process through which sublime and beautiful illusions of all kinds, cast out, of man's understanding, take refuge in his imagination, and become a rich stock of materials for the poet. Godwin, too, did not believe in alchemy, and yet he has founded a magnificent prose poem upon an alchemist's imaginary story.
Nay, secondly, the further we advance beyond the point of believing such illusions, their poetic value and power are often enhanced. An English boy, we venture to say, reads the "Arabian Nights" with more generous gusto, with more intense delight, than did ever a boy in Bagdad. What comparison between all the ancient minstrels put together, and the minstrel lays or minstrel prose of Scott, who wrote in the nineteenth century? What grey primeval father ever felt, or could ever have expressed, the beauty of the feeling for the rainbow as Campbell has done? And did not John Keats — a Cockney youth — breathe a new poetic spirit into the pagan Mythus, and throne its gods in statelier and more starry mansions than Homer or Aeschylus themselves? Not only is a "thing of beauty a joy for ever," but its beauty swells and deepens with time. All those illusions to which Delta so eloquently refers — in medicine, law, and physics — although thrust forth from the inner shrine of truth, linger on, in their highest ideal shapes, in the beautiful porch of poetry. There stands still the Alchemist, the smoke of his great sacrifice to nature still crossing his countenance, and giving a mystic wildness to his aspect; there the Witch still mutters her spell, and thickens her infernal broth; there the Ghost disturbed tells, as he walks with troubled steps, the secrets of his prison-house, his own shadowy hair on end in its immortal horror; there the Marinere, returned from a far countrie, speaks of antres vast, and deserts idle — of spectre ships sailing upon windless oceans — of spirits sitting amid the shrowds at midnight — of double suns and bloody rainbows; there Scheherezade continues her ever-wondrous and ever-widening tale; there still twangs the bow of Robin Hood, and wave the feathers of Rob Roy; there, as the Earthquake at times shakes the ground, it seems the spasm of an imprisoned giant; as a sunbeam of peculiar beauty slants in, Uriel is seen descending upon it; and as the thunder utters its tremendous monotony, there are still voices ready to exclaim, "God hath spoken once, yea, twice have I heard this, Power belongeth unto God." Still to fancy and to feeling — to imagination's quick ear, and to passion's burning heart — "all things are possible."
Thirdly, Delta, we think, unduly restricts the domain of poetry, when he strikes out from its map the provinces of the definite and the true. We grant that often poetry loves to wear a robe of moonlight, and a scarf of mist, as she walks along in her beauty. But there is also a severe, purged, and lofty poetry which delights in the naked light of truth — the clear shining of a morning without clouds. Such was the poetry of Homer, of Chaucer, of Crabbe, and many others. Such is the principal part of what is called didactic poetry. Such poetry, too, is found in abundance in Scripture, and has obtained from critics the name of Gnomic, or Sententious song. Now, it is certain that the advance of definite knowledge must tend to the perfectionment of this species of poetry, since it loves to deal with direct facts, definite propositions, and the higher of the works of art.
Fourthly, Delta omits to notice, that while some of those indefinitudes and sublimities in which poetry has often hitherto delighted to revel, may yield before advancing science and civilisation, others, of perhaps a grander cast, shall take their room. He is aware that in ancient demonology, next, or even superior, as an hour for starting a spirit to the noon of night, was the noon of day. We are at present in a transition state. The sun of science has risen, but has not reached his meridian. Consequently, the poetry of science, or of philosophy, has not fully arrived. But arrive it shall, in due time, and in our notion must be of a far higher cast than the poetry of superstition — beautiful as that was, is, and must continue to be. Lucretius was in the rear of Epicurus — Milton after Luther — and Scott after Chivalry. We must wait for the advent of those poets who shall set to song the great discoveries and philosophies of our day. Nay, even at present, we can detect the germs of poetry in our advancing knowledge. "The heavens," says Hazlitt, "have gone farther off." Strange, indeed, if the telescope has pushed them away! Surely, if the "cusps" of the "houses" of astrology have left us, the constellations and firmaments of the universe have come nearer. "There shall never be another Jacob's Dream." Never — for we have now a "more sure word of prophecy," and "new heavens" are coming! We, for our parts, venture to hope that the "witching time" of noon is near. "Poetry," says one, "shall lead in a new age, even as there is a star in the constellation Harp which shall yet, astronomers tell us, be the polar star for a thousand years." May we not be fast nearing that star? All the sciences are already employed, and may yet be more solemnly enlisted into the service of poetic song. Botany shall go forth into the fields and the woods, collect her fairest flowers, and bind them with a chaplet for the brow of Poetry. Conchology from the waters, and from the ocean shores, shall gather her loveliest shells, and hark! when uplifted to the ear of Poetry,
Pleased they remember their august abodes,
And murmur as the ocean murmurs there.
As Anatomy continues to lay bare the human frame, so fearfully and wonderfully made, Poetry shall breathe upon the "dry bones," and they shall live. Chemistry shall lead Poetry to the side of her furnace, and show her transformations scarcely less marvellous and magical than her own. Geology, with bold yet trembling band, lifting up the veil from the history of past worlds — from cycles of ruin and of renovation — shall allow the eye of Poetry to look down in wonder, and to look up in fire. And Astronomy shall conduct Poetry to her observatory, and mingle her own joy with hers, as they behold the spectacle of that storm of suns, which is blowing in the midnight sky. In the prospect of the progress of this last science, indeed, we see opening up the loftiest of conceivable fields for the poet. Who has hitherto adequately sung the wonders of the Newtonian — how much less of the Herschelian heavens! And who is waiting, with his lyre in his hands, to praise the steep-rising splendors of the Rossian skies? We have the "Night Thoughts" — a noble strain, but a whole century behind the present stage of the science; but who shall write us a poem on "Night" worthy, in some measure, of the solemn yet spirit-stirring theme? Sooner or later it must be done. The Milton of Midnight must yet arrive.
Coleridge somewhere profoundly remarks, that all knowledge begins with wonder, passes through an interspace of admiration mixed with research, and ends in wonder again. Now what is true of knowledge is true of poetry. She, too, begins with wonder; and from this feeling have sprung her first rude, and stuttering strains. Admiration, culture, the artistic use of the wonders of the past succeed, and to this stage we have now come. But we may yet rise, and that speedily, to a higher and almost ideal height, when the stationary unutterable wonder of the first poetic age shall be superadded to the admiration and art of the second, and when the new and perfect poetry shall include both. The infant, abashed at some great spectacle, covers his face with his little hands; the man stands erect, with curious kindling eye before it; the true philosopher imitates the attitude of the angels, who, nobler infants, "veil their faces with their wings." So poetry at first prattles bashfully, it then admires learnedly, and at last it bends, yet burns, in seraphic homage.
Visions go, but truths succeed or remain. The rainbow ceases to be the bridge of angels, but not to be the prism of God. The thunder is no longer the voice of capricious and new kindled wrath, but is it not still the echo of conscience? and does it not speak to all the higher principles in the human soul? The stars are no longer the geographical limits or guides of man's history; but are they not now milestones in the city not made with bands-the city of God? The universe has lost those imaginary shapes or forms by which men of old sought to define and bound it; but it has, instead, stretched away indefinitely, and become that "sea, without shore" of which Milton dreamed. The Genii imagined to preside over the Elements have vanished; but, instead of them, the Elements themselves have gained a mystic importance, and sit in state upon their secret thrones, till some new one power, perhaps, rises to displace and include them all.
The car of Neptune scours the deep no more; but there is, instead, the great steam-vessel walking the calm waters in triumphant beauty, or else wrestling like a demon of kindred power, with the angry billows. Apollo and the Muses are gone; but in their room there stands the illimitable, undefinable thing called Genius — the electricity of the intellect — the divinest element in the mind of man. Newton "dissected the rainbow," but left it the rainbow still. Anson "circumnavigated the earth," but it still wheels round the sun, blots out at times the moon, and carries a Hell of caverned mysterious fire in its breast. Franklin brought down the lightnings on his kite, but, although they said to him, "Here we are," they did not tell him, "This or that are we." In short, beauty, power, all the poetical influences and elements, retire continually before us like the horizon, and the end and the place of them are equally and for ever unknown.
Delta is, as all who are acquainted with him know, a man of genuine, though unobtrusive, piety. Every line of his poetry proves him a Christian. And it is on this account that we venture to ask him, in fine, how will this theory of his consort with the doctrine of man's immortal progress? how account for the ever-welling poetry of the "New Song?" and how explain the attitude of those beings who, knowing God best, admire him the most, praise him most vehemently, and pour out before him the richest incense of wonder and worship? Here is poetry surviving amid the very blaze of celestial vision; and surely we need not expect that any stage of mental advancement on earth can ever see its permanent decline or decay.
If we have dwelt rather long upon this point, it is partly because we count it a question of considerable moment; because we think Delta's notion in reference to it is pushed forward somewhat prominently, and more than once, and because it is one of the few theories in the book which, while it has a general character, is susceptible of special objections. We have indeed still one or two of his minor statements to combat. But we pass, first, with sincere gratification, to speak of the mainmerits of his book.
The most prominent, perhaps, of these, is Catholicity. He is a generous, as well as a just, judge. He has looked over the poetry of the last fifty years with an eye of wise love. Finding two schools in our literature, which, after a partial and hollow truce, are gradually diverging, if not on the point of breaking out, into open hostility, he has, in some measure, acted as a mediator between them. Not concealing his peculiar favor for the one, he is yet candid and eloquent in his appreciation of the demi-gods of the other. Adoring Scott, he is just to Shelley. He sees the fire mingled with mysticism, "like tongues of flame amid the smoke of a conflagration;" but he greatly prefers the swept hearth and the purged, clear, columnar flames of the ancient Homeric manner. Inclining to what he thinks the more excellent way, he does not denounce as a dunce or an impostor every one who has chosen, or who encourages others in choosing, another and a more perilous style. The energy and beauty of his praise show, moreover, its sincerity. False or ignorant panegyric may easily be detected. It is clumsy, careless, and fulsome; it often praises writers for qualities they possess not, or it singles out their faults for beauties, or by overdoing, overleaps itself, and falls on the other side. It now gives black eyes to the Saxon, and now fair hair to the Italian — commends Milton for his equality, Dryden for his imagination, Pope for his nature, and Byron for his truth. Very different with honest praise. It shows, first, by the stroke of a moment, the man it means, and after drawing a strong and hard outline of his general character, it makes the finer and warmer shades flush over it gently and swiftly, as the vivid green of spring passes over the fields. And such always, or generally, is the distinct, yet imaginative, the clear and eloquent praise of Delta.
He goes to criticise, too, in the spirit of a poet. Prosaic criticism of poetry is a nuisance which neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear. A drunkard cursing the moon — a maniac foaming at some magnificent statue, which stands serene and safe above his reach — or a ruffian crushing roses on his way to midnight plunder, is but a type of the sad work which clever, but heartless and unimaginative, critic often makes of works of genius. Nay, there is a class, less despicable, but more pernicious, who make their moods and states play the critic — now the moods of their mind, and now the states of their stomach, the verdicts of which, nevertheless, issued in cold, oracular print, are received by the public as veracious. There is a set, again, whose criticisms are formed upon the disgustingly dishonest principle of picking out all the faults, and ignoring all the beauties, of a composition; and who do not give the faults even the poor advantage of showing them in their context. And there are those who judge of books by their publisher, or by the nation of their author, or by his profession, or by his reputed creed. It were certainly contemptible to allude to the existence of such reptiles at all, were it not that they are permitted to crawl in some popular periodicals; that they shelter under, and abuse the shade of the "Anonymous;" and that they have prevailed to retard the wider circulation of the writings, without being able to check the spread of the fame, of some of the most gifted of our living men. To take one out of many cases, we simply ask the question, Have some of our leading London journals ever taken the slightest notice of any one of the works of perhaps the most eloquent and powerful genius at present alive in Britain — we mean Professor Wilson? And if this has been little loss to him, has it been less a disgrace to them? Delta is altogether a man of another spirit. He is at once a poet and a gentleman; and how fortunate were many of our critics, could he transfer even the lesser half of this fine whole to them! His genial enthusiasm never, or seldom, blinds his discriminating eyesight. And throughout all this volume he has praised very few indeed who have not, in some field or another of poetry, eminently distinguished themselves.
We mention again the wide knowledge of the poetry of the period which his lectures display. This bursts out, as it were, at every pore of the book. There is no appearance of cramming for his task, although here and there he does allude to writers who have either, per se, or per alios, been thrust into the field of his view. We notice, however, that he has made one or two important omissions. His silence as to Sydney Yendys, was, we understand, an oversight. The slip containing a criticism of The Roman, accidentally slipped out as the printing was going on. It was the same with a notice of Taylor's Eve of the Conquest. Other blanks there are, but, on the whole, when we consider the width of the field he has traversed, the marvel is that they are so few.
We have a more serious objection to state. It is with regard to the scale he has (in effect, though indirectly) constructed of our poets. Scott he sets "alone and above all;" then he places Wordsworth, Byron, Wilson, and Coleridge, on one level — Campbell, Southey, James Montgomery, Moore, and Crabbe, seem to stand in the next file; then come Pollok, Aird, Croly, and Milman; then Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson; and, in fine, the [Greek characters], the minor, or rising poets. Delta will pardon us if we have mistaken his meaning, but this has been the impression left on us by the perusal of his lectures. Now, admitting that Scott, in breadth, variety, health, dramatic and descriptive powers, was the finest writer of his age, yet surely he is not to be compared as a poet with many others of the time; nor as a profound thinker and consummate artist, with such men as Wordsworth and Coleridge. As a VATES, what proportion between him and Shelley, Keats and Byron? In terseness and true vigor, he yields to Crabbe; and in lyrical eloquence and fire, to Campbell. Wilson, as a man of general genius and Shakspearian all-sidedness, is inferior to few men of any age; but, as a poet, as an artist, as a writer, has done nothing entitling him to rank with Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Campbell and Crabbe are commensurate names, but they rank as poets much more highly above Southey and Montgomery than Delta seems willing to admit. And, greatly as we admire Croly, Aird, and Pollok, we are forced to set Keats and Shelley above them in point of richness and power of genius, as well as of artistic capacity.
Delta, in his capacity of poet, is not uniformally national but, as a critic, his heart beats most warmly, and his language flows out with most enthusiasm and fluency, toward the poets of Scotland. He has mingled with some of the noblest of English spirits too; may, for aught we know, have climbed Helvellyn with Wordsworth; has, at any rate, "seated at Coleridge's bedside at Hampstead," heard him recite the Monody to Chatterton, in tones "delicate, yet deep, and long drawn out;" but he has evidently been on terms of more fond and familiar intercourse with the bards of his own country.
He has sat occasionally at the Noctes Ambrosianae, has frequently walked with Aird through the sweet gardens of Duddingston, listened to Wilson sounding on his way as they scaled Arthur's Seat together, or to Hogg repeating Kilmeny, mingled souls with poor William Motherwell, and crossed pipes with Dr. Macnish, the Modern Pythagorean has read The Course of Time in MS., and now and then seen Abbotsford in its glory, while the white peak of the wizard's head was still shining amid its young plantations. Hence a little natural exaggeration in speaking of the men and the subjects he knows best — an exaggeration honorable to his heart, not dishonorable to his head, and which does not detract much from the value of his estimates; nay, it has enabled him, in reference to Scottish genius, to write with a fine combination of generous ardor, and of perfect mastery. Cordially do we unite with him in condemning the gross affectations, the deliberate darkness, the foul smoke, and, above all, the assumption, exclusiveness, and conceit, which distinguish the writings of our minor mystics; and we have already granted that he is just in his estimate of the genius of many of the higher members of the school, and sincere in his desire to produce a reconciliation between them and their more lucid and classical brethren. Still we could have wished that he had entered more systematically and profoundly into the points of difference between the two schools, and the important aesthetical questions which are staked upon their resolution. He might, for instance, have traced the origin of mystical poetry to the fact that there are in poetry as well as in philosophy, things hard to be understood, words unutterable, yet pressing against the poet's brain for utterance; have shown that the expression given to such things should be as clear and simple as possible; that the known should never be passed off for the unknown under a disguise of words (even as a full might be mistaken for a crescent moon, behind a cloud sufficiently thick), that a mere ambitious desire to utter the unknown should never be confounded with a real knowledge of any of its mysterious provinces; that as no system of mystical philosophy is, as yet, complete, so it has never yet been the inspiration of a truly great and solid poem, although it has produced many beautiful fragments — that fragments are in the meantime the appropriate tongue of the mystical, as certainly as that there is no encyclopedia written in Sanscrit, and no continent composed of aerolites — that even great genius, such as Shelley's in the Prometheus, has failed in building up a long and lofty poem upon a mystical plan — that alone, of British men in this age, Coleridge so thoroughly comprehended the transcendental system, as to have been able to write its epic, which he has not done — that much of the oracular poetry of the day is oracular nonsense, the spawn of undigested learning, or the stuff of morbid dreams — that the day for great mystical poems may yet come, but that meanwhile we are tempted to quote Dr. Johnson's language (whose spontaneous and sincere sayings, by the way, are seldom if ever mistaken), in reference to William Law, and to apply it to our Brownings, Herauds, Patmores, &c. "Law fell latterly into the reveries of Jacob Behmen, whom he alleged to have been in the same state with St. Paul, and to have seen unutterable things; but, were it even so, Jacob would have resembled St. Paul still more, by not attempting to utter them."
Chaos, no doubt, in its successive stages, was a poem, but it was not till it became creation that it was said of it, "It is very good." So often the crude confusions, the half-delivered thoughts, the gasping utterances of a true poet of this mystical form, have a grandeur and an interest in them, but they rather tantalise than satisfy; and when they pretend to completeness and poetic harmony, they are felt to insult as well as tantalise.
So far as Delta has erred on this subject, it is in that he has decried mystic poetry per se, and has not restricted himself to the particular and plentiful examples around him of bad and weak poetry "hiding itself, because it was afraid," among trees or clouds — intricacies of verse or perplexities of diction. But, even as from science advancing towards its ideal there may be expected to arise a severe and powerful song, so, when man becomes more conversant with the mysteries of his own spiritual being — more at home in those depths within him, which angels cannot see — and after he has formed a more consistent and complete theory of himself, his position in the universe, his relation to the lower animals and to the creation, his relations in society and to God — after, in one word, what is now called mysticism has become a clear and mighty tree, rising from darkness and clothing itself with day as with a garment, then may it not become musical with a sweet, a full, and a far-resounding poetry, to which [Delta] himself, notwithstanding all the characteristic triangular sharpness of his intellectual perceptions, would listen well pleased? It is this hope alone which sustains us, as we see the new gaining so rapidly upon the old, in the domain not only of thought but of poetry. The pseudo-transcendental must give place to the true.
It may indeed be said, "But will not thus much of what is indefinite — and, therefore, the fairy food of our poetic bees — disappear?" We answer, as we have replied before in reference to science, Yes, but only to be replaced by a more ethereal fare. The indefinite will be succeeded by other and other shapes of that infinitude which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive. And, however perfect our future systems may be, there will always appear along their outlines a little mist, to testify that other fields and still grander generalisations lie within and beyond it.
Our space is now nearly exhausted, otherwise we had some thing more to say about these lectures and their author. The faults we have had occasion to mention, and others we might name, have sprung from no defect of capacity or taste, but partly from the accident of his local habitation, partly from the generous kindliness of his heart — a noble fault, and principally from the false position he and all are compelled to assume, who enter on that grand arena of mutual deception and graceful imposture called the lecture-room. Having felt long ago, by experience and by observation, what grave lies lectures generally are, what poor creatures even men of genius and high talents often become ere they can succeed in lecturing, and how we yet want a name that can adequately discriminate or vividly describe the personage who feels himself at home on a lecture platform, we were abundantly prepared, by the words "six lectures," to expect a certain quantity of clap-trap, and are delighted to find that in the book there is so little. We rejoice to see, by the way, from a recent glance at that repertory of wit and wisdom — Boswell's "Johnson" — that old Samuel, entertained the same opinion with us of the inutility of lectures, and their inferiority to books as a means of popular education; and that, too, many years ere they had become the standing article of disgust and necessary nuisance which they seem now to be.
But, instead of dwelling on Delta's faults, or quoting any of the eloquent and beautiful passages in which his lectures abound, we close by calling on our readers to peruse for themselves. His book is not only worthy of his reputation, but is really one of the heartiest, sincerest, and most delightful works of criticism we have read for many a long year.
We almost tremble now to begin a criticism on any advanced and long-known author. While we were writing a recent paper on Joanna Baillie, the news arrived of her death. While expecting the proof of the above article on "Delta," the melancholy tidings of his sudden decease reached us. Shall we say, in the language of Lalla Rookh,
I never rear'd a fair gazelle,
To glad me with her soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well,
And love me, it was sure to die?
About two months ago, the lamented dead opened up a communication with us, which promised to ripen into a long and friendly correspondence. "Dis aliter visum est." Delta the Delightful is no more. On a visit in search of health, he reached Dumfries, a town dear to him on many accounts, and principally because there sojourned a kindred spirit — Thomas Aird — one of his oldest and fastest friends. On the evening of Thursday, the 3d of July, as the amiable and gifted twain were walking along the banks of the Nith, Delta was suddenly seized with a renewal of his complaint — peritonitis — a peculiar kind of inflammation, and it was with great difficulty that his friend could help him home to his hotel. There, fortunately, were his wife and one of his children. He was put immediately to bed, and every remedy that could promise relief was adopted. On Friday he rallied somewhat. Dr. Christison was summoned from Edinburgh, and came, accompanied by the rest of Delta's family. On Saturday he grew worse, and early on Sunday morning he expired, surrounded by his dear family, and by two of his old friends, one of the Messrs. Blackwood and Mr. Aird. On Thursday the 11th, he was buried in Musselburgh, where he had long officiated as a physician, universally respected and beloved. He was only fifty-three. For nearly thirty-three, years he had been a popular contributor to Blackwood's Magazine. His principal literary works are, A Legend of Genevieve, with other Poems (which includes the best of his poetical contributions to the magazines and annuals), Mansie Wauch, and the Sketches of Poetical Literature, above criticised. He published, also, several medical works of value, as well as edited the works of Mrs. Hemans, and wrote the Life of John Galt, &c.
We have spoken briefly, but sincerely, in the article, of Delta's intellectual merits; it remains only to add, that, although we never met him in private, we can testify with perfect certainty, that a better man, or a lovelier specimen of the literary character, did not exist: he had many of its merits, and none of its defects; he used literature as a "staff, not a crutch" — it was the elegant evening pastime of one vigorously occupied through the day in the work of soothing human anguish, and going about doing good. Hence he preserved to the last his child-like love of letters; hence he died without a single enemy; hence his personal friends — and they were the elite of Scotland — admired and loved him with emulous enthusiasm. Peace to his fine and holy dust! reposing now near that of the fine boy, whose premature fate he has sung in his Casa Wappy — one of the truest and tenderest little poems in the language, to parallel which, indeed, we must go back to Cowper and his verses on his Mother's Picture. In all the large sanctuary of sorrow, there is no chamber more sweetly shadowed than that in which the dear child reposes, embalmed in the double odors of parental affection and poetic genius.