Page images
PDF
EPUB

merit in literature, and the lowest order of minds will legislate for the exercise of that faculty which should give law to the highest. Every new book would come to us with the ambiguous compliment, that it was adapted to the meanest capacity. We have never been able to appreciate with any tolerable distinctness the grounds of that complacent superiority implied in the confession of not being able to understand an author, though we have frequently seen airs assumed on the strength of that acknowledged incapacity. One has a vision of the lame, halt, and blind dropping compassionate fourpences into the hats of their unmutilated fellow-citizens. Apelles judged rightly in pronouncing Alexander's horse a better critic than his master. The equine was more liberal than the imperial appreciation.

The merit of Pope is wholly of the intellect. There is nothing in him of that finer instinct which characterizes all those who, by universal consent, have been allowed as great poets, and have received the laurel from posterity. His instinct is rather that of a man of taste than of genius. In reading Shakspeare, we do not concern ourselves as to the particular shape which his thoughts assume. That is wholly a secondary affair. We should as soon think of criticizing the peculiar form of a tree or a fern. Though we may not be able to codify the law which governs them, we cannot escape a feeling of the harmony and fitness resulting from an obedience to that law. There is a necessity for their being of that precise mould, and no other, which peremptorily overrules all cavil. With Pope, on the contrary, the form is what first demands notice. It is here that the poet has put forth his power and displayed his skill. He makes verses by a voluntary exercise of the intellect, rather than from the overflow of the creative power. We feel that he had his choice between several forms of expression, and was not necessarily constrained to the one he has selected. His verses please us, as any display of mental skill and vigor never fails to do. The pleasure he gives us is precisely similar to that we derive from reading the Spectator, and is in both cases the result of identical causes. His apothegms are wholly of the intellect, and that, too, of the intellect applied to the analysis of artificial life. He does not, according to Bacon's definition of poetry, “ conform the shows of things to the desires of the soul." Yet he dwells in the

He

shows of things rather than in the substances, and conforms them, sometimes despotically, to the necessities of his satire. He jeers and fouts the artificial life which he sees. mocks at it, as Lucian derided Zeus, - an atheist to the gods of the day, with no settled belief in any higher gods. He does not confute the artificial by comparison with any abiding real. He impales all contemporary littlenesses upon the sharp needles of his wit, and in his poems, as in an entomological cabinet, we see preserved all the ugly insects of his day. He does not tacitly rebuke meanness by looking over it to the image of a perennial magnanimity. He does not say sternly, "Get thee behind me, Satan !” but mischievously affixes a stinging epigram to horns, hoof, and tail, and sends Beelzebub away ridiculous. His inkstand was his arsenal, but it was not his to use it in Luther's hearty catapultic fashion.

We do not so much commend the New Timon, then, as being a return to purer models, but as a protest against the excesses into which the prevailing school had degenerated. Latterly, poetry seems to have deserted the strong and palpable motions of the common heart, and to have devoted itself to the ecstatic exploration of solitary nerves, - the less tangible, the better. The broad view attainable from those two peaks of Parnassus, which Sir John Denham sensibly defined to be “Nature and Skill,” seems to be wellnigh neglected. Our young poets, instead of that healthy glow of cheek earned only by conversation with the robust air of the summit, and the labor incident to the rugged ascent, seem to value ihemselves upon their paleness, and to think him the better man who has spent most time in peering dizzily down the dark rists and chasms round the base of the mountain, or in gazing into the potential millstones of its solid rock. The frailer the tissue of the feeling, the greater the merit in tracing it to its extremes, -a spiderlike accomplishment at best. Their philosophy (if we call that so which they esteem as such, and which is certainly nothing else) stands in grave need of Philotas's leaden soles. One might almost expect to see them blown out of existence by the incautious puffs of their own publisher or clique. The farther the poet can put himself out of the common, the more admirable is he. The reflections of Perillus in his bull, of Regulus in his hogshead, or of Clarence in his malmsey-butt, would furnish

The 66

an ample stock in trade to any young poet. Or a nearer approach to nature and the interests of every-day life might be found in the situation of Terence McHugh, buried alive at the bottom of a well, and so finding it to be the residence of at least one unquestionable verity.

Mystery, too, has become a great staple with our poets. Every thing must be accounted for by something more unaccountable. Grandgousier's simple and pious theory to explain the goodliness of Friar John's nose would hardly pass muster now.

mystery of our being” has become a favorite object of contemplation. Egoism has been erected into a system of theology. Self has been deified like the Egyptian onion,

“ Nascuntur in hortis

Numina.” Poets used to look before and after. Now, their eyes are turned wholly inward, and ordinarily with as useful result as was attained by the Brahmin who spent five years in the beatific inspection of his own navel. Instead of poems, we have lectures on the morbid anatomy of self. Nature herself must subscribe their platform of doctrine, and that not " for substance, scope, and aim,” but without qualification. If they turn their eyes outward for a moment, they behold in the landscape only a smaller image of themselves. The mountain becomes a granite Mr. Smith, and the ocean (leaving out the salt) a watery Mr. Brown, - in other words à Mr. Brown with the milky particles of his composition deducted. A new systema mundi is constructed, with the individual idosyncrasy of the poet for its base. And, to prolong the delight of swallowing all this sublime mystification, enraptured simplicity prays fervently, with the old epicure, for the neck of a crane. Fortunately, that of a goose will suffice.

Nor has our mother tongue been safe from the experimental incursions of these philosophers. They have plunged so deeply into the well of English undefiled as to bring up mud from the bottom. This they call “ Saxon,” and infuse portions of it into their productions, deepening the turbid obscurity. Strange virtues have been discovered in compound words, and the greater the incongruity of the mixture, the more potent the conjuration. Phrases, simple or unmeaning enough in themselves, acquire force and become

the

mystical by repetition, like the three Tods of the Cabalists, or the Kóyć "Outras of the Eleusinian mysteries. Straightforwardness has become a prose virtue. The poet wanders about his subject, looks for it where he knows it is not, and avoids looking where he knows it is, like a child playing at hide-andseek, who, to lengthen the pleasure of the hunt, peeps cautiously into keyholes and every other impossible place, leaving to the last the table, under which lurks, with ostrich-like obviousness, the object of his search. It had been fortunate for Columbus, could he have recruited his crews with such minstrels, whose only mutiny would have been at the finding of •the expected continent. We have seen the translation of a Hindoo deed which affords an exact parallel to such poetry. It begins with a general history of India, diverges into a system of theology, exhausts all the grantor's knowledge of natural history and astronomy, relates a few fables on differest subjects, throws in a confused mass of compound words (one of them containing one hundred and fifty-two syllables), and finally reveals the object of this ponderous legal machine in a postscript of six lines conveying an acre or two of land.

The New Timon, if not the exact reverse of all this, is at least a resolute attempt in the opposite direction. We do not believe it possible to revive the style of Pope. It was a true mirror of its own age, but it would imperfectly reflect ours. Its

truth then would make it false now. The petere fontes points to other springs than these. Much less do we believe in confining literature to the strait channel of any one period. That is surely a very jejune kind of conservatism, which, with the Athenian Ephorus, would cut every new string added to the lyre. The critics have too often assumed the office of Ephorus in our commonwealth of letters, and have unfortunately become impressed with the notion, that this chordisection is the chief part of their official duty. As Selden said that equity was measured by the length of my Lord Chancellor's foot for the time being, so has judgment in these cases been too often meted, if not by the length, at least by the susceptibility, of my Lord Ephorus's ear. If every Phrynio had been thus dealt with, the lyre would never have lost that pristine simplicity and compactness, and that facility at making itself understood, which characterized it when it was a plain tortoise-shell, ere idle Hermes had embarrassed and perplexed it with a single string.

very

The author is a professed disciple of Pope, but he is wanting in the vivid common-sense, the crystal terseness, and the epigrammatic point of his original. Moreover, he is something of a “snob.” His foundling Lucy must turn out to be an earl's daughter; his Hindoo Timon must be a nabob. It is clear that he reverences those very artificial distinctions which he professes to scorn. So much contempt could not be lavished on what was insignificant. Himself the child of a highly artificial state of society, there seems to be something unfilial and against nature in his assaults upon it. • His New Timon is made a Timon by the very things which he affects to despise. Pope was quite superior to so subaltern a feeling

The plot of the story is not much to our taste. Morvale, the hero, is the son of a half-Hindoo father and an English mother. The mother, left a widow, “ Loathed the dark pledge the abhorred nuptials bore ;

Yet young, her face more genial wedlock won,
And one bright daughter made more loathed the son.
Widowed anew, for London's native air
And two tall footmen sighed the jointured fair;
Wealth hers, why longer from its use exiled ?

She fled the land and the abandoned child.” In the mean while, a rich friend of Morvale's father opportunely dies, leaving his immense wealth to the son. This self-devotion on the part of the very rich is happily universal in the Utopia of the novel and the melodrama.

We are thus introduced to Mr. Morvale. “ They sought and found the unsuspecting heir

Couched in the shade that neared the tiger's lair,
His gun beside, the jungle round him, — wild,
Lawless, and fierce as Hagar's wandering child :
To this fresh nature the sleek life deceased
Left the bright plunder of the ravaged East.
Much wealth brings want, -'that hunger of the heart
Which comes when Nature man deserts for Art:
His northern blood, his English name, create
Strife in the soul till then resigned to fate ;
The social world, with blander falsehood graced,
Smiles on his hopes and lures him from the waste.

-P. 21.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »