« PreviousContinue »
the fulness of the accounts that have come down to us of his less gisted contemporaries, we are inclined to attribute to the evenness of his temperament and the simplicity of his life. If he had been ambitious eccentric, an innovator or a brawler, if he had believed that his position was inferior to his deserts, and had therefore striven to force himself into notice by hanging on to the skirts of a great man or by meddling with the political or religious squabbles of the day, there would have been something to tell about him, some striking incidents to record, some failures or successes to chronicle. As it was, he left nothing but his plays and his name behind him. All that we know of his history can be told in a dozen words, and we must infer his character from his works, in which he says nothing about himself. He came to London a penniless boy, wrote his dramas and acted in them, lived quietly but joyously, amassed a competency, retired to his native place, bought lands, and died an honest and unpretending burgher of Stratford. There was nothing obtrusive in his character or his life, and consequently so little is known of either, that the Wolfs and Heynes of a future generation will probably deny his personality, as they now do that of Homer. But what copious accounts we have of the roisterous, conceited, and quarrelsome Ben Jonson !
We are forgetting the object of our sermon, which is to teach poets not to be wayward or pugnacious, but to mind their own concerns and take heed to their rhymes, and not to quarrel with the world or with the critics, who, in matters of taste, are the world's representatives. There have been symptoms of rebellion in the literary republic of late, open avowals of opinions tending to confusion and anarchy, which bode no good to the cause either of letters or morals, and so need to be watched and vigorously repressed by the guardians of the state. The origin of the evil is in the amazing increase of the number of small poets, who are emboldened by their multitude, and call for a larger liberty than was enjoyed by their predecessors. There is no hope, nowadays, of hearing the Lay of the Last Minstrel.
We do not now live under the reign of a single bard, or under a poetical oligarchy ; we are subjected to the tender mercies of a mob, who manifest a disposition to have every thing their own way. They go for the repeal of all penal statutes, of all literary legislation, and for the instant abolition of the VOL. LXVI. — No. 139.
quarterly reviews. They are inclined to cut loose from the society of poor mortals who write and talk nothing but prose, and to set up a community by themselves. “ Jack Cade the clothier means to dres commonwealth, and turn it, and set a new nap upon it.” They have even the effrontery to require that they shall be “judged by their peers,
that none but poets shall be allowed to criticize poetry, and that a man shall be set in the stocks, if he yawns over one of their books, unless he is able to write a better one himself. Rogues might as well demand that none but thieves should be inade judges at the Old Bailey, and that they should always be tried by a jury of pickpockets. They think “ the king's counsel are no good workmen. And yet it is said, — Labor in thy vocation ; — which is as much as to say, Let the magistrates be laboring men ; and therefore should we be magistrates." The proposition is disorganizing and anarchical.
An instructive conversation is reported, in Lockhart's Life of Scott, between the Great Unknown and Tom Moore, who paid a visit to Abbotsford some five-and-twenty years ago, before the shadows had fallen over that home of ro
“ They sallied out for a walk through the plantations, and, among other things, the commonness of the poetic talent in these days was alluded to. ·Hardly a Magazine is now published,' said Moore, that does not contain verses which some thirty years ago would have made a reputation.' Scott turned, with his look of shrewd humor, as if chuckling over his own success, and said, · Ecod, we were in the luck of it to come before these fel. lows'; but he added, playfully flourishing his stick as he spoke, • We have, like Bobadil, taught them to beat us with our own weapons. In complete novelty,' says Moore, he seemed to think lay the only chance for a man ambitious of high literary reputation in these days.'
We are suffering, then, from the injudicious kindness of a former generation to its poets, and the lavish rewards that were heaped upon them. The supply is proportioned to the demand in this, as in every other branch of trade, and the immediate consequence of a scarcity and a rise of prices is a glut. Or, to change the metaphor, the sun of popular favor has warmed the soil, and a superabundant harvest of weeds has sprung up where our fathers were able to gather only a few wild-flowers. This, again, proves our theory, that the poetic faculty is really a very common endowment, and needs but little cultivation and encouragement, before it will appear in exuberant manifestations. But the misfortune of the case is, that, in the midst of a vast crowd, it is very difficult for an individual bard to get a hearing. Instead of a few plaintive sounds stealing at eve over the fields from the modest pipe or oaten straw of some rustic poet, we have now the clang of a whole orchestra constantly ringing through the air in terrible discord, till ordinary mortals are fain to stop their ears, and scold the importunate minstrels as roundly as Bacchus and Xanthias did the frogs. Every obscure lane and alley in the metropolis has become a Grub street, and poets' heads are popped out of every garret window. Or they stand shivering at the corners of the streets, and thrust their wares in the face of every comer, who usually passes them by with as little notice as a universal philanthropist takes of a common beggar.
What effect this multiplication and rivalry of voices are likely to have on the interests of poetry, whether harsh and dissonant sounds are not sure to come when so many are straining their throats in vain attempts to make themselves heard, is a serious question. Poets are now their own worst enemies ; they jostle one another in the crowd, they stand in each other's light, and every luckless bard treads on his neighbour's corns. They must look back with longing regret on the good old quiet times, when Hayley slumbered as the monarch of Parnassus, and a very small group of the Muses' minor favorites nodded around him.
“ Aucun soin n'approchait de leur paisible cour,
On reposait la nuit, on dormait tout le jour.” The first voice which broke that numbing spell was heard with grateful applause ; but one poet chimed in after another, their numbers increasing every day, till a universal hubbub succeeded, and it is now difficult to distinguish the strains of the nightingales from the screaming of the parrots and the chattering of the jays. There are evils in this state of things ; it is a hardship, we confess, that the voice of the true minstrel is so likely to be drowned amid the dissonant cries of a mob who cover the honors which belong solely to him. But we do not believe that the poets will mend the matter by attempting to take the reins into their own hands,
to establish a new code of laws, and to preside over the execution of them. Prose-writers may often be bad judges of poetry, but not quite so bad, we are convinced, as the poets themselves. The latter will either show indiscriminate severity, and order every one of their rivals to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, or they will acquit contrary both to the law and the evidence, in the hope that equal leniency will be shown when their own turn shall come, and they, too, shall stand like culprits in the dock.
Scott's opinion, that in complete novelty lies the only chance for success, is doubtless a true one, but it is dangerous to act upon it; by novelty he meant originality of matter, while most of our contemporary poets seem to think that newness of form is sufficient. So they play all imaginable tricks with metre, and some that are unimaginable, and think that they have hit upon a new thought when they have only invented a new and very uncouth stanza. Their lines are remarkable for nothing but the curious infelicity with which harsh sounds are packed together, and for regular dissonance. Then, again, simplicity and clearness are old-fashioned virtues ; so these seekers after originality heap up the most fantastic combinations of ideas that a sick brain ever devised, envelop them in a great fog of words, and leave the unhappy reader to pick out the meaning as best he may. Many of their verses are like Chinese puzzles ; one must study an hour before he can put the parts together so that they will fit, and the reward of his labor is but a sprawling Chinese picture after all. They imitate Goethe, who once frankly declared that he wrote Faust meaning nothing in particular by it, and gravely intending to accept whatever interpretation was made of it by those stupidly profound countrymen of his, the German commentators, as the right one.
The demand that poets alone should be admitted to be critics of poetry leads naturally to the proposition, that no one shall be entitled to find fault with or go to sleep over a poem, unless he is able to write a better one himself. The adoption of this law would be a fine thing, indeed, for the bard ; it would create for him a sort of fools' paradise. But carry out the principle by applying a similar law to all other artificers, and see how helpless and miserable we should be
No one shall complain of his boot-maker till he is able to take up a lapstone and show him how a pair of boots ought to be made. The poor husband cannot gently hint that the soup is smoked, or the mutton no more than half roasted, without being met by a sharp voice from the other end of the table, inviting him to go into the kitchen and cook a dinner to suit himself. Only a Jack of all trades, or an admirable Crichton, could continue to exercise the inestimable privilege of finding fault with every thing ; our worthy friends, the general reformers and menders of the universe, would be wholly thrown out of employment. Nobody but an Alphonso of Castile could continue the business.
Still further; equal justice requires that if all the censure, so also all the praise, of poetry must come from the poets themselves. Will our bards accept this extension of the rule ? Will they be content to sing only to each other, all prosaic mortals being put out of earshot ? Even if they did assent, we doubt whether they would be better satisfied with the result; there may be a disagreement of opinion, even in a packed jury. Horace, Boileau, and Pope are not remarkable for mildness of criticism ; satire in their hands was not reduced to complaisance. The first of these had a very just conception of the critic's office when he compared him to a whetstone, the excellence of which depends upon its grit :
“ Ergo fungar vice cotis, acutum Reddere quæ ferrum valet, exsors ipsa secandi;
Munus et officium, nil scribens ipse, docebo.” If not allowed to select their own critics, our modern bards would fain establish their own principles of criticism. Of course, the purpose of all their intended innovations in the theory of taste and the code of letters is to palliate their own offences against former laws, and to screen themselves from merited punishment. Thus, one of their demands is, that a poem shall be judged, not from its intrinsic merits, or from the impression it makes on the reader, but from the author's point of view, and with sole reference to the object which he intended to accomplish. The establishment of this principle would raise a very convenient buckler against all ill-natured remarks. If the versification is jagged and uncouth, we are told that the writer intended it should be so, greater smoothness being incompatible with the main purpose of the poem. If the meaning is affected or silly, the imagery grotesque, the sentiment unnatural, the opinions impious or