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English Poetry from Chaucer to Tennyson and Browning

by Hiram Corson
Literature, in its most restricted art-sense, is an expression in letters of the life of the spirit of man co-operating with the intellect. Without the co-operation of the spiritual man, the intellect produces only thought; and pure thought, whatever be the subject with which it deals, is not regarded as literature, in its strict sense. For example, Euclid's `Elements', Newton's `Principia', Spinoza's `Ethica', and Kant's `Critique of the Pure Reason', do not properly belong to literature. (By the "spiritual" I would be understood to mean the whole domain of the emotional, the susceptible or impressible, the sympathetic, the intuitive; in short, that mysterious something in the constitution of man by and through which he holds relationship with the essential spirit of things, as opposed to the phenomenal of which the senses take cognizance.)

The term literature is sometimes extended in meaning (and it may be so extended), to include all that has been committed to letters, on all subjects. There is no objection to such extension in ordinary speech, no more than there is to that of the signification of the word, "beauty" to what is purely abstract. We speak, for example, of the beauty of a mathematical demonstration; but beauty, in its strictest sense, is that which appeals to the spiritual nature, and must, therefore, be concrete, personal, not abstract. Art beauty is the embodiment, adequate, effective embodiment, of co-operative intellect and spirit,— "the accommodation," in Bacon's words, "of the shows of things to the desires of the mind."

It follows that the relative merit and importance of different periods of a literature should be determined by the relative degrees of spirituality which these different periods exhibit. The intellectual power of two or more periods, as exhibited in their literatures, may show no marked difference, while the spiritual vitality of these same periods may very distinctly differ. And if it be admitted that literature proper is the product of co-operative intellect and spirit (the latter being always an indispensable factor, though there can be no high order of literature that is not strongly articulated, that is not well freighted, with thought), it follows that the periods of a literature should be determined by the ebb and flow of spiritual life which they severally register, rather than by any other considerations. There are periods which are characterized by a "blindness of heart", an inactive, quiescent condition of the spirit, by which the intellect is more or less divorced from the essential, the eternal, and it directs itself to the shows of things. Such periods may embody in their literatures a large amount of thought,—thought which is conversant with the externality of things; but that of itself will not constitute a noble literature, however perfect the forms in which it may be embodied, and the general sense of the civilized world, independently of any theories of literature, will not regard such a literature as noble. It is made up of what must be, in time, superseded; it has not a sufficiently large element of the essential, the eternal, which can be reached only through the assimilating life of the spirit. The spirit may be so "cabined, cribbed, confined" as not to come to any consciousness of itself; or it may be so set free as to go forth and recognize its kinship, respond to the spiritual world outside of itself, and, by so responding, KNOW what merely intellectual philosophers call the UNKNOWABLE.

To turn now to the line of English poets who may be said to have passed the torch of spiritual life, from lifted hand to hand, along the generations. And first is

     "the morning star of song, who made 
His music heard below:
"Dan Chaucer, the first warbler, whose sweet breath
Preluded those melodious bursts that fill
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still."

Chaucer exhibits, in a high degree, this life of the spirit, and it is the secret of the charm which his poetry possesses for us after a lapse of five hundred years. It vitalizes, warms, fuses, and imparts a lightsomeness to his verse; it creeps and kindles beneath the tissues of his thought. When we compare Dryden's modernizations of Chaucer with the originals, we see the difference between the verse of a poet, with a healthy vitality of spirit, and, through that healthy vitality of spirit, having secret dealings with things, and verse which is largely the product of the rhetorical or literary faculty. We do not feel, when reading the latter, that any unconscious might co-operated with the conscious powers of the writer. But we DO feel this when we read Chaucer's verse.

All of the Canterbury Tales have originals or analogues, most of which have been reproduced by the London Chaucer Society. Not one of the tales is of Chaucer's own invention. And yet they may all be said to be original, in the truest, deepest sense of the word. They have been vitalized from the poet's own soul. He has infused his own personality, his own spirit-life, into his originals; he has "created a soul under the ribs of death." It is this infused vitality which will constitute the charm of the Canterbury Tales for all generations of English speaking and English reading people. This life of the spirit, of which I am speaking, as distinguished from the intellect, is felt, though much less distinctly, in a contemporary work, `The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman'. What the author calls "KIND WIT", that is, "natural intelligence", has, generally, the ascendency. We meet, however, with powerful passages, wherein the thoughts are aglow with the warmth from the writer's inner spirit. He shows at times the moral indignation of a Hebrew prophet.

The `Confessio Amantis' of John Gower, another contemporary work, exhibits comparatively little of the life of the spirit, either in its verse or in its thought. The thought rarely passes the limit of natural intelligence. The stories, which the poet drew from the `Gesta Romanorum' and numerous other sources, can hardly be said to have been BORN AGAIN. The verse is smooth and fluent, but the reader feels it to be the product of literary skill. It wants what can be imparted only by an unconscious might back of the consciously active and trained powers. It is this unconscious might which John Keats, in his `Sleep and Poetry', speaks of as "might half slumbering on its own right arm", and which every reader, with the requisite susceptibility, can always detect in the verse of a true poet.

In the interval between Chaucer and Spenser, this life of the spirit is not distinctly marked in any of its authors, not excepting even Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, whose sad fate gave a factitious interest to his writings. It is more noticeable in Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst's `Induction to the Mirror for Magistrates', which, in the words of Hallam, "forms a link which unites the school of Chaucer and Lydgate to the `Faerie Queene'."

The Rev. James Byrne, of Trinity College, Dublin, in his lecture on `The Influence of National Character on English Literature', remarks of Spenser: "After that dark period which separated him from Chaucer, after all the desolation of the Wars of the Roses, and all the deep trials of the Reformation, he rose on England as if, to use an image of his own,

     "`At last the golden orientall gate 
Of greatest heaven gan to open fayre,
And Phoebus, fresh as brydegrome to his mate,
Came dauncing forth, shaking his deawie hayre,
And hurled his glistering beams through gloomy ayre.'

"That baptism of blood and fire through which England passed at the Reformation, raised both Protestant and Catholic to a newness of life. That mighty working of heart and mind with which the nation then heaved throughout, went through every man and woman, and tried what manner of spirits they were of. What a preparation was this for that period of our literature in which man, the great actor of the drama of life, was about to appear on the stage! It was to be expected that the drama should then start into life, and that human character should speak from the stage with a depth of life never known before; but who could have imagined Shakespeare?"

And what a new music burst upon the world in Spenser's verse! His noble stanza, so admirably adapted to pictorial effect, has since been used by some of the greatest poets of the literature, Thomson, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Shelley, and numerous others; but none of them, except in rare instances, have drawn the music out of it which Spenser drew.

Professor Goldwin Smith well remarks, in his article on Mark Pattison's Milton, "The great growths of poetry have coincided with the great bursts of national life, and the great bursts of national life have hitherto been generally periods of controversy and struggle. Art itself, in its highest forms, has been the expression of faith. We have now people who profess to cultivate art for its own sake; but they have hardly produced anything which the world accepts as great, though they have supplied some subjects for `Punch'."

Spenser who, of all the great English poets, is regarded by some critics as the most remote from real life, and the least reflecting his age, is, nevertheless, filled with the spirit of his age—its chivalric, romantic, patriotic, moral, and religious spirit. When he began to write, the nation had just passed through the fiery furnace of a religious persecution, and was rejoicing in its deliverance from the papistical rule of Mary. The devotion to the new queen with which it was inspired was grateful, generous, enthusiastic, and even romantic. This devotion Spenser's great poem everywhere reflects, and it has been justly pronounced to be the best exponent of the subtleties of that Calvinism which was the aristocratic form of Protestantism at that time in both France and England.

The renewed spiritual life which set in so strongly with Spenser, reached its springtide in Shakespeare. It was the secret of that sense of moral proportion which pervades his plays. Moral proportion cannot be secured through the laws of the ancients, or through any formulated theory of art. It was, I am assured, through his deep and sensitive spirit-life that Shakespeare felt the universal spirit and constitution of the world as fully, perhaps, as the human soul, in this life, is capable of feeling it. Through it he took cognizance of the workings of nature, and of the life of man, BY DIRECT ASSIMILATION OF THEIR HIDDEN PRINCIPLES,— principles which cannot be reached through an observation, by the natural intelligence, of the phenomenal. He thus became possessed of a knowledge, or rather wisdom, far beyond his conscious observation and objective experience.

Shakespeare may be regarded as the first and the last great artistic physiologist or natural historian of the passions; and he was this by virtue of the life of the spirit, which enabled him to reproduce sympathetically the whole range of human passion within himself. He was the first of the world's dramatists that exhibited the passions in their evolutions, and in their subtlest complications. And the moral proportion he preserved in exhibiting the complex and often wild play of the passions must have been largely due to the harmony of his soul with the constitution of things. What the Restoration dramatists regarded or understood as moral proportion, was not moral proportion at all, but a proportion fashioned according to merely conventional ideas of justice. Shakespeare's moral proportion appeared to them, in their low spiritual condition, a moral chaos, which they set about converting, in some of his great plays, into a cosmos; and a sad muss, if not a ridiculous muss, they made of it. Signal examples of this are the `rifacimenti' of the Tempest by Dryden and Davenant, the King Lear by Tate, and the Antony and Cleopatra (entitled `All for Love, or the World well Lost') by Dryden.

In Milton, though there is a noticeable, an even distinctly marked, reduction of the life of the spirit (in the sense in which I have been using these words) exhibited by Shakespeare, it is still very strong and efficient, and continues uninfluenced by the malign atmosphere around him the last fifteen years of his life, which were lived in the reign of Charles II. Within that period he wrote the `Paradise Lost', `Paradise Regained', and `Samson Agonistes'. "Milton," says Emerson, "was the stair or high table-land to let down the English genius from the summits of Shakespeare."

"These heights could not be maintained. They were followed by a meanness and a descent of the mind into lower levels; the loss of wings; no high speculation. Locke, to whom the meaning of ideas was unknown, became the type of philosophy, and his "understanding" the measure, in all nations, of the English intellect. His countrymen forsook the lofty sides of Parnassus, on which they had once walked with echoing steps, and disused the studies once so beloved; the powers of thought fell into neglect."

The highest powers of thought cannot be realized without the life of the spirit. It is this, as I have already said, which has been the glory of the greatest thinkers since the world began; not their intellects, but the co-operating, unconscious power IMMANENT in their intellects.

During the Restoration period, and later, spiritual life was at its very lowest ebb. I mean, spiritual life as exhibited in the poetic and dramatic literature of the time, whose poisoned fountain-head was the dissolute court of Charles II. All the slops of that court went into the drama, all the `sentina reipublicae', the bilge water of the ship of state. The dramatic writers of the time, to use the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, "walked in the vanity of their mind; having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that was in them because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, gave themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness." The age, as Emerson says, had no live, distinct, actuating convictions. It was in even worse than a negative condition. As represented by its drama and poetry, it may almost be said to have repudiated the moral sentiment. A spiritual disease affected the upper classes, which continued down into the reign of the Georges. There appears to have been but little belief in the impulse which the heart imparts to the intellect, or that the latter draws greatness from the inspiration of the former. There was a time in the history of the Jews in which, it is recorded, "there was no open vision". It can be said, emphatically, that in the time of Charles II. there was no open vision. And yet that besotted, that spiritually dark age, which was afflicted with pneumatophobia, flattered itself that there had never been an age so flooded with light. The great age of Elizabeth (which designation I would apply to the period of fifty years or more, from 1575 to 1625, or somewhat later), in which the human faculties, in their whole range, both intellectual and spiritual, reached such a degree of expansion as they had never before reached in the history of the world,— that great age, I say, the age of Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Bacon, Raleigh, Hooker, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Chapman, Dekker, Ford, Herbert, Heywood, Massinger (and this list of great names might be continued),—that great age, I say, was regarded by the men of the Restoration period as barbarous in comparison with their own. But beneath all, still lay the restorative elements of the English character, which were to reassert themselves and usher in a new era of literary productiveness, the greatest since the Elizabethan age, and embodying the highest ideals of life to which the race has yet attained. We can account, to some extent, for this interregnum or spiritual life, but only to some extent. The brutal heartlessness and licentiousness of the court which the exiled Charles brought back with him, and the release from Puritan restraint, explain partly the state of things, or rather the degree to which the state of things was pushed.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, or somewhat earlier, the rise of the spiritual tide is distinctly observable. We see a reaction setting in against the soulless poetry which culminated in Alexander Pope, whose `Rape of the Lock' is the masterpiece of that poetry. It is, in fact, the most brilliant society-poem in the literature. De Quincey pronounces it to be, though somewhat extravagantly, "the most exquisite monument of playful fancy that universal literature offers." Bishop Warburton, one of the great critical authorities of the age, believed in the infallibility of Pope, if not of THE Pope.

To notice but a few of the influences at work: Thomson sang of the Seasons, and invited attention to the beauties of the natural world, to which the previous generation had been blind and indifferent. Bishop Percy published his `Reliques of Ancient English Poetry', thus awakening a new interest in the old ballads which had sprung from the heart of the people, and contributing much to free poetry from the yoke of the conventional and the artificial, and to work a revival of natural unaffected feeling. Thomas Tyrwhitt edited in a scholarly and appreciative manner, the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. James McPherson published what he claimed to be translations from the poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal. Whether genuine or not, these poems indicated the tendency of the time. In Scotland, the old ballad spirit, which had continued to exist with a vigor but little abated by the influence of the artificial, mechanical school of poetry, was gathered up and intensified in the songs of him "who walked in glory and in joy, following his plow, along the mountain-side", and who is entitled to a high rank among the poetical reformers of the age.

It is not surprising that the great literary dictator in Percy's day, Dr. Samuel Johnson, should treat the old ballads with ridicule. The good man had been trained in a different school of poetry, and could not in his old age yield to the reactionary movement. Bishop Warburton, who ranked next to Johnson in literary authority, had nothing but sneering contempt to bestow upon upon the old ballads, and this feeling was shared by many others in the foremost ranks of literature and criticism. But in the face of all opposition, and aided by the yearning for literary liberty that was abroad, the old ballads grew more and more into favor. The influence of this folklore was not confined to England. It extended across the sea, and swayed the genius of such poets as Buerger and Goethe and Schiller.

Along with the poetical revival in the eighteenth century, came the great religious revival inaugurated by the Wesleys and Whitefield; and of this revival, the poetry of William Cowper was a direct product. But the two revivals were co-radical,— one was not derived from the other. The long-suppressed spiritual elements of the nation began to reassert themselves in religion and in poetry. The Church had been as sound asleep as the Muses.

Cowper belongs to the Whitefield side of the religious revival, the Evangelicals, as they were called (those that remained within the Establishment). In his poem entitled `Hope', he vindicates the memory of Whitefield under the name Leuconomus, a translation into Greek, of White field. It was his conversion to Evangelicism which gave him his inspiration and his themes. `The Task' has been as justly called the poem of Methodism as the `Paradise Lost' has been called the epic of Puritanism. In it we are presented with a number of pictures of the utterly fossilized condition of the clergy of the day in the Established Church (see especially book II., vv. 326-832, in which he satirizes the clergy and the universities).

Cowper has been truly characterized by Professor Goldwin Smith, as "the apostle of feeling to a hard age, to an artificial age, the apostle of nature. He opened beneath the arid surface of a polished but soulless society, a fountain of sentiment which had long ceased to flow."

The greatest things in this world are often done by those who do not know they are doing them. This is especially true of William Cowper. He was wholly unaware of the great mission he was fulfilling; his contemporaries were wholly unaware of it. And so temporal are the world's standards, in the best of times, that spiritual regenerators are not generally recognized until long after they have passed away, when the results of what they did are fully ripe, and philosophers begin to trace the original impulses.

     "Only reapers, reaping early      
  In among the bearded barley,
  Hear a song that echoes cheerly
  From the river winding clearly
  Down to towered Camelot:
  And by the moon the reaper weary,
  Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
  Listening, whispers, 'Tis the fairy
  Lady of Shalott."

John Burroughs, in his inspiring essay on Walt Whitman entitled `The Flight of the Eagle', quotes the following sentence from a lecture on Burns, delivered by "a lecturer from over seas", whom he does not name: "When literature becomes dozy, respectable, and goes in the smooth grooves of fashion, and copies and copies again, something must be done; and to give life to that dying literature, a man must be found not educated under its influence."

Such a man I would say was William Cowper, who, in his weakness, was

     "Strong to sanctify the poet's high vocation", 

and who

     "Testified this solemn truth, while phrenzy desolated,—      
  Nor man nor angel satisfies whom only God created."

John Keats, in his poem entitled `Sleep and Poetry', has well characterized the soulless poetry of the period between the Restoration and the poetical revival in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but more especially of the Popian period. After speaking of the greatness of his favorite poets of the Elizabethan period, he continues:—

          "Could all this be forgotten?  Yes, a schism      
Nurtured by foppery and barbarism,
Made great Apollo blush for this his land.
Men were thought wise who could not understand
His glories: with a puling infant's force
They sway'd about upon a rocking-horse,
And thought it Pegasus."

(Alluding to the rocking-horse movement of the Popian verse.)

                    "Ah dismal soul'd!
   The winds of heaven blew, the ocean roll'd
It's gathering waves—ye felt it not. The blue
   Bar'd its eternal bosom, and the dew
   Of summer nights collected still to make
   The morning precious: beauty was awake!
   Why were ye not awake? But ye were dead
To things ye knew not of,—were closely wed
   To musty laws lined out with wretched rule
   And compass vile: so that ye taught a school
   Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit,
   Till, like the certain wands of Jacob's wit,
   Their verses tallied. Easy was the task:
   A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask
   Of Poesy. Ill-fated, impious race!
   That blasphem'd the bright Lyrist to his face,
   And did not know it,—no, they went about,
   Holding a poor, decrepid standard out
   Mark'd with most flimsy mottoes, and in large
   The name of one Boileau!"

     "Only reapers, reaping early 
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, 'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott."

John Burroughs, in his inspiring essay on Walt Whitman entitled `The Flight of the Eagle', quotes the following sentence from a lecture on Burns, delivered by "a lecturer from over seas", whom he does not name: "When literature becomes dozy, respectable, and goes in the smooth grooves of fashion, and copies and copies again, something must be done; and to give life to that dying literature, a man must be found not educated under its influence."

Such a man I would say was William Cowper, who, in his weakness, was

     "Strong to sanctify the poet's high vocation", 

and who

     "Testified this solemn truth, while phrenzy desolated,— 
Nor man nor angel satisfies whom only God created."

John Keats, in his poem entitled `Sleep and Poetry', has well characterized the soulless poetry of the period between the Restoration and the poetical revival in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but more especially of the Popian period. After speaking of the greatness of his favorite poets of the Elizabethan period, he continues:—

          "Could all this be forgotten?  Yes, a schism 
Nurtured by foppery and barbarism,
Made great Apollo blush for this his land.
Men were thought wise who could not understand
His glories: with a puling infant's force
They sway'd about upon a rocking-horse,
And thought it Pegasus."

(Alluding to the rocking-horse movement of the Popian verse.)

                    "Ah dismal soul'd! 
The winds of heaven blew, the ocean roll'd
It's gathering waves—ye felt it not. The blue
Bar'd its eternal bosom, and the dew
Of summer nights collected still to make
The morning precious: beauty was awake!
Why were ye not awake? But ye were dead
To things ye knew not of,—were closely wed
To musty laws lined out with wretched rule
And compass vile: so that ye taught a school
Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit,
Till, like the certain wands of Jacob's wit,
Their verses tallied. Easy was the task:
A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask
Of Poesy. Ill-fated, impious race!
That blasphem'd the bright Lyrist to his face,
And did not know it,—no, they went about,
Holding a poor, decrepid standard out
Mark'd with most flimsy mottoes, and in large
The name of one Boileau!"

It was these lines that raised the ire of Byron, who regarded them as an irreverent assault upon his favorite poet, Pope. In the controversy occasioned by the Rev. W. L. Bowles's strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope, Byron perversely asks, "Where is the poetry of which one-half is good? Is it the Aeneid? Is it Milton's? Is it Dryden's? Is it any one's except Pope's and Goldsmith's, of which ALL is good?"

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the spiritual flow which, as I have said, set in about the middle of the eighteenth century, and received its first great impulse from William Cowper, reached its high tide in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Southey, and Byron. These poets were all, more or less, influenced by that great moral convulsion, the French revolution, which stirred men's souls to their deepest depths, induced a vast stimulation of the meditative faculties, and contributed much toward the unfolding of the ideas "on man, on nature, and on human life", which have since so vitalized English poetry. *

    —      * "The agitation, the frenzy, the sorrow of the times,
   reacted upon the human intellect, and FORCED men into meditation.
   Their own nature was held up before them in a sterner form.
   They were compelled to contemplate an ideal of man, far more colossal
   than is brought forward in the tranquil aspects of society;
   and they were often engaged, whether they would or not,
   with the elementary problems of social philosophy.
   Mere danger
   forced a man into thoughts which else were foreign to his habits.
   Mere necessity of action forced him to decide."
   —Thomas De Quincey's `Essay on Style'. —

Wordsworth exhibited in his poetry, as they had never before been exhibited, the permanent absolute relations of nature to the human spirit, interpreted the relations between the elemental powers of creation and the moral life of man, and vindicated the inalienable birthright of the lowliest of men to those inward "oracles of vital deity attesting the Hereafter." Wordsworth's poetry is, in fact, so far as it bears upon the natural world, a protest against the association theory of beauty of the eighteenth century—a theory which was an offshoot of the philosophy of Locke, well characterized by Macvicar, in his `Philosophy of the Beautiful' (Introd., pp. xv., xvi), as "an ingenious hypothesis for the close of the eighteenth century, when the philosophy then popular did not admit, as the ground of any knowledge, anything higher than self-repetition and the transformation of sensations."

Coleridge's `Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is an imaginative expression of that divine love which embraces all creatures, from the highest to the lowest, of the consequences of the severance of man's soul from this animating principle of the universe, and of those spiritual threshings by and through which it is brought again under its blessed influence. In his `Cristabel' he has exhibited the dark principle of evil, lurking within the good, and ever struggling with it. We read it in the spell the wicked witch Geraldine works upon her innocent and unsuspecting protector; we read it in the strange words which Geraldine addresses to the spirit of the saintly mother who has approached to shield from harm the beloved child for whom she died; we read it in the story of the friendship and enmity between the Baron and Sir Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine; we read it in the vision seen in the forest by the minstrel Bard, of the bright green snake coiled around the wings and neck of a fluttering dove; and, finally, we read it in its most startling form, in the conclusion of the poem, "A little child, a limber elf, singing, dancing to itself," etc., wherein is exhibited the strange tendency to express love's excess "with words of unmeant bitterness". This dark principle of evil, we may suppose, after dwelling in the poet's mind, in an abstract form, crept into this broken poem, where it lies coiled up among the choicest and most fragrant flowers, and occasionally springs its warning rattle, and projects its forked tongue, to assure us of its ugly presence.

Both these great poems show the influence of the revival of the old English Ballads. Coleridge had drunk deep of their spirit.

Shelley and Byron were fully charged with the revolutionary spirit of the time. Shelley, of all the poets of his generation, had the most prophetic fervor in regard to the progress of the democratic spirit. All his greatest poems are informed with this fervor, but it is especially exhibited in the `Prometheus Unbound', which is, in the words of Todhunter, "to all other lyrical poems what the ninth symphony is to all other symphonies; and more than this, for Shelley has here outsoared himself more unquestionably than Beethoven in his last great orchestral work. . . . The Titan Prometheus is the incarnation of the genius of humanity, chained and suffering under the tyranny of the evil principle which at present rules over the world, typified in Jupiter; the name Prometheus, FORESIGHT, connecting him with that poetic imagination which is the true prophetic power, penetrating the mystery of things, because, as Shelley implies, it is a kind of divine Logos incarnate in man—a creative force which dominates nature by acting in harmony with her."

It is, perhaps, more correct to say of Byron, that he was charged with the spirit of revolt rather than with the revolutionary spirit. The revolutionary spirit was in him indefinite, inarticulate; he offered nothing to put in the place of the social and political evils against which he rebelled. There is nothing CONSTRUCTIVE in his poetry. But if his great passion-capital, his keen spiritual susceptibility, and his great power of vigorous expression, had been brought into the service of constructive thought, he might have been a restorative power in his generation.

The greatest loss which English poetry ever sustained, was in the premature death of John Keats. What he would have done had his life been spared, we have an assurance in what he has left us. He was spiritually constituted to be one of the subtlest interpreters of the secrets of life that the whole range of English poetry exhibits. No poet ever more deeply felt "the vital connection of beauty with truth". He realized in himself his idea of the poet expressed in his lines,—

     "'Tis the man who with a man
  Is an equal, be he king,
  Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
  Or any other wondrous thing
  A man may be 'twixt ape and Plato;
  'Tis the man who with a bird,
  Wren, or eagle, finds his way to
     All its instincts; he hath heard
The lion's roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the tiger's yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother tongue." *

— * "We often think of Shelley and Keats together, and they seem to have an attraction for minds of the same cast. They were both exposed to the same influences, those revolutionary influences in literature and religion which inaugurated a new period. Yet there is a great contrast as well as a great similarity between them, and it is interesting to remark the different spiritual results in the case of these two different minds subjected to conditions so similar in general, though different in detail. Both felt the same need, the need of ESCAPE, desiring to escape from the actual world in which they perceived more evil than good, to some other ideal world which they had to create for themselves. This is the point of their similarity; their need and motive were the same, to escape from the limitations of the present. But they escaped in different directions, Keats into the past where he reconstructed a mythical Greek world after the designs of his own fancy, Shelley into a future where he sought in a new and distant era, in a new and distant world, a refuge from the present. We may compare Keats's `Hyperion' with Shelley's `Prometheus', as both poems touch the same idea— the dominion of elder gods usurped by younger, for Prometheus belonged to the elder generation. The impression Keats gives us is that he represents the dethroned gods in the sad vale, "far from the fiery noon", for the pleasure of moving among them himself, and creates their lonely world as a retreat for his own spirit. Whereas in the `Prometheus Unbound' we feel that the scenes laid in ancient days and built on Greek myths, have a direct relation to the destinies of man, and that Shelley went back into the past because he believed it was connected with the future, and because he could use it as an artistic setting for exhibiting an ideal world in the future.

"This problem of escape—to rescue the soul from the clutches of time, `ineluctabile tempus',—which Keats and Shelley tried to resolve for themselves by creating a new world in the past and the future, met Browning too. The new way which Browning has essayed—the way in which he accepts the present and deals with it, CLOSES with time instead of trying to elude it, and discovers in the struggle that this time, `ineluctabile tempus', is really a faithful vassal of eternity, and that its limits serve and do not enslave illimitable spirit."

—From a Paper by John B. Bury, B.A., Trin. Coll., Dublin, on Browning's `Aristophanes' Apology', read at 38th meeting of the Browning Soc., Jan. 29, 1886. —

Wordsworth, and the other poets I have named, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge, made such a protest against authority in poetry as had been made in the 16th century against authority in religion; and for this authority were substituted the soul-experiences of the individual poet, who set his verse to the song that was within him, and chose such subjects as would best embody and articulate that song.

But by the end of the first quarter of the present century, the great poetical billow, which was not indeed caused by, but received an impulse from, the great political billow, the French Revolution (for they were cognate or co-radical movements), had quite spent itself, and English poetry was at a comparatively low ebb. The Poetical Revolution had done its work. A poetical interregnum of a few years' duration followed, in which there appeared to be a great reduction of the spiritual life of which poetry is the outgrowth.

Mr. Edmund W. Gosse, in his article `On the Early Writings of Robert Browning', in the `Century' for December, 1881, has characterized this interregnum a little too contemptuously, perhaps. There was, indeed, a great fall in the spiritual tide; but it was not such a dead-low tide as Mr. Gosse would make it.

At length, in 1830, appeared a volume of poems by a young man, then but twenty-one years of age, which distinctly marked the setting in of a new order of things. It bore the following title: `Poems, chiefly Lyrical. By Alfred Tennyson, London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, Cornhill, 1830.' pp. 154.

The volume comprised fifty-three poems, among which were `The Poet' and `The Poet's Mind'. These two poems were emphatically indicative of the high ideal of poetry which had been attained, and to the development of which the band of poets of the preceding generation had largely contributed.

A review of the volume, by John Stuart Mill, then a young man not yet twenty-five years of age, was published in `The Westminster' for January, 1831. It bears testimony to the writer's fine insight and sure foresight; and it bears testimony, too, to his high estimate of the function of poetry in this world—an estimate, too, in kind and in degree, not older than this present century. The review is as important a landmark in the development of poetical criticism, as are the two poems I have mentioned, in the development of poetical ideals, in the nineteenth century.

In the concluding paragraph of the review, Mill says: "A genuine poet has deep responsibilities to his country and the world, to the present and future generations, to earth and heaven. He, of all men, should have distinct and worthy objects before him, and consecrate himself to their promotion. It is thus that he best consults the glory of his art, and his own lasting fame. . . . Mr. Tennyson knows that "the poet's mind is holy ground"; he knows that the poet's portion is to be

     "Dower'd with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, 
The love of love";

he has shown, in the lines from which we quote, his own just conception of the grandeur of a poet's destiny; and we look to him for its fulfilment. . . . If our estimate of Mr. Tennyson be correct, he too is a poet; and many years hence may be read his juvenile description of that character with the proud consciousness that it has become the description and history of his own works."

Two years later, that is, in 1832 (the volume, however, is antedated 1833), appeared `Poems by Alfred Tennyson', pp. 163. In it were contained `The Lady of Shalott', and the untitled poems, known by their first lines, `You ask me why, tho' ill at ease', `Of old sat Freedom on the Heights', and `Love thou thy Land, with Love far brought'.

In `The Lady of Shalott' is mystically shadowed forth the relation which poetic genius should sustain to the world for whose spiritual redemption it labors, and the fatal consequences of its being seduced by the world's temptations, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

The other poems, `You ask me why', `Of old sat Freedom', and `Love thou thy land', are important as exponents of what may be called the poet's institutional creed. A careful study of his subsequent poetry will show that in these early poems he accurately and distinctly revealed the attitude toward outside things which he has since maintained. He is a good deal of an institutional poet, and, as compared with Browning, a STRONGLY institutional poet. Browning's supreme and all-absorbing interest is in individual souls. He cares but little, evidently, about institutions. At any rate, he gives them little or no place in his poetry. Tennyson is a very decided reactionary product of the revolutionary spirit which inspired some of his poetical predecessors of the previous generation. He has a horror of the revolutionary. To him, the French Revolution was "the blind hysterics of the Celt", {`In Memoriam', cix.}, and "the red fool-fury of the Seine" {`I. M.', cxxvii.}. He attaches great importance to the outside arrangements of society for upholding and advancing the individual. He would "make Knowledge circle with the winds", but "her herald, Reverence", must

Before her to whatever sky
Bear seed of men and growth of minds."

He has a great regard for precedents, almost AS precedents. He is emphatically the poet of law and order. All his sympathies are decidedly, but not narrowly, conservative. He is, in short, a choice product of nineteenth century ENGLISH civilization; and his poetry may be said to be the most distinct expression of the refinements of English culture—refinements, rather than the ruder but more vital forms of English strength and power. All his ideals of institutions and the general machinery of life, are derived from England. She is

          "the land that freemen till, 
That sober-suited Freedom chose,
The land where, girt with friends or foes,
A man may speak the thing he will;
Where faction seldom gathers head,
But by degrees to fullness wrought,
The strength of some diffusive thought
Hath time and space to work and spread."

But the anti-revolutionary and the institutional features of Tennyson's poetry are not those of the higher ground of his poetry. They are features which, though primarily due, it may be, to the poet's temperament, are indirectly due to the particular form of civilization in which he has lived, and moved, and had his culture, and which he reflects more than any of his poetical contemporaries.

The most emphasized and most vitalized idea, the idea which glints forth everywhere in his poetry, which has the most important bearing on man's higher life, and which marks the height of the spiritual tide reached in his poetry, is, that the highest order of manhood is a well-poised, harmoniously operating duality of the active or intellectual or discursive, and the passive or spiritually sensitive. This is the idea which INFORMS his poem of `The Princess'. It is prominent in `In Memoriam' and in `The Idylls of the King'. In `The Princess', the Prince, speaking of the relations of the sexes, says:—

          "in the long years liker must they grow; 
The man be more of woman, she of man;
He gain in sweetness and in moral height,
Nor lose the wrestling thews that throw the world;
She mental breadth, nor fail in childward care,
Nor lose the childlike in the larger mind;
Till at the last she set herself to man,
Like perfect music unto noble words;
And so these twain, upon the skirts of Time,
Sit side by side, full-summ'd in all their powers,
Dispensing harvest, sowing the To-be,
Self-reverent each and reverencing each,
Distinct in individualities,
But like each other ev'n as those who love.
Then comes the statelier Eden back to men:
Then reign the world's great bridals, chaste and calm:
Then springs the crowning race of humankind."

To state briefly the cardinal Tennysonian idea, man must realize a WOMANLY MANLINESS, and woman a MANLY WOMANLINESS.

Tennyson presents to us his ideal man in the 109th section of `In Memoriam'. It is descriptive of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. All that is most characteristic of Tennyson, even his Englishness, is gathered up in this poem of six stanzas. It is interesting to meet with such a representative and comprehensive bit in a great poet.

     "HEART-AFFLUENCE in discursive talk 
From household fountains never dry;
That saw through all the Muses' walk;
The bearer in its fiery course;
And passions pure in snowy bloom
Through all the years of April blood."

The first two verses of this stanza also characterize the King Arthur of the `Idylls of the King'. *1* In the next stanza we have the poet's institutional Englishness:—

     "A love of freedom rarely felt, 
Of freedom in her regal seat
Of England; not the school-boy heat,
The blind hysterics of the Celt;
In such a sort, the child would twine
A trustful hand, unask'd, in thine,
And find his comfort in thy face;
All these have been, and thee mine eyes
Have look'd on; if they look'd in vain,
My shame is greater who remain,
Nor let thy wisdom make me wise."

— *1* See `The Holy Grail', the concluding thirty-two verses, beginning: "And spake I not too truly, O my Knights", and ending "ye have seen that ye have seen".

*2* The idea of `The Princess'. —

Tennyson's genius was early trained by the skeptical philosophy of the age. All his poetry shows this. The `In Memoriam' may almost be said to be the poem of nineteenth century scepticism. To this scepticism he has applied an "all-subtilizing intellect", and has translated it into the poetical "concrete", with a rare artistic skill, and more than this, has subjected it to the spiritual instincts and apperceptions of the feminine side of his nature and made it vassal to a larger faith. But it is, after all, not the vital faith which Browning's poetry exhibits, a faith PROCEEDING DIRECTLY FROM THE SPIRITUAL MAN. It is rather the faith expressed by Browning's Bishop Blougram:—

     "With me faith means perpetual unbelief 
Kept quiet like the snake 'neath Michael's foot,
Who stands firm just because he feels it writhe."

And Tennyson, in picturing to us in the Idylls, the passage of the soul "from the great deep to the great deep", appears to have felt it necessary to the completion of that picture (or why did he do it?), that he should bring out that doubt at the last moment. The dying Arthur is made to say:—

               "I am going a long way 
With these thou seest—if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)—
To the island-valley of Avilion"; etc.

Tennyson's poetry is, in fact, an expression of the highest sublimation of the scepticism which came out of the eighteenth century, which invoked the authority of the sensualistic philosophy of Locke, and has since been fostered by the science of the nineteenth; while Browning's poetry is a decided protest against, and a reactionary product of, that scepticism, that infidel philosophy (infidel as to the transcendental), and has CLOSED with it and borne away the palm.

The key-note of his poetry is struck in `Paracelsus', published in 1835, in his twenty-third year, and, with the exception of `Pauline' published in 1833, the earliest of his compositions: Paracelsus says (and he who knows Browning knows it to be substantially his own creed):—

  "Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise 
From outward things, whate'er you may believe:
There is an inmost centre in us all,
 Where truth abides in fulness; and around
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
 This perfect, clear perception—which is truth;
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Blinds it, and makes all error: and `TO KNOW'
 Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without. Watch narrowly
The demonstration of a truth, its birth,
 And you trace back the effluence to its spring
And source within us, where broods radiance vast,
 To be elicited ray by ray, as chance Shall favour:
 chance—for hitherto, your sage
 Even as he knows not how those beams are born,
 As little knows he what unlocks their fount;
 And men have oft grown old among their books
To die, case-hardened in their ignorance,
 Whose careless youth had promised what long years
Of unremitted labour ne'er performed:
 While, contrary, it has chanced some idle day,
 That autumn-loiterers just as fancy-free
 As the midges in the sun, have oft given vent
 To truth—produced mysteriously as cape
 Of cloud grown out of the invisible air.
 Hence, may not truth be lodged alike in all,
 The lowest as the highest? some slight film
 The interposing bar which binds it up,
 And makes the idiot, just as makes the sage
 Some film removed, the happy outlet whence
 Truth issues proudly? See this soul of ours!
 How it strives weakly in the child, is loosed
 In manhood, clogged by sickness, back compelled
 By age and waste, set free at last by death:
 Why is it, flesh enthralls it or enthrones?
 What is this flesh we have to penetrate?
 Oh, not alone when life flows still do truth
 And power emerge, but also when strange chance
 Ruffles its current; in unused conjuncture,
 When sickness breaks the body—hunger, watching,
 Excess, or languor—oftenest death's approach—
Peril, deep joy, or woe. One man shall crawl
 Through life, surrounded with all stirring things,
 Unmoved—and he goes mad; and from the wreck
 Of what he was, by his wild talk alone,
 You first collect how great a spirit he hid.
 Therefore set free the spirit alike in all,
 Discovering the true laws by which the flesh
 Bars in the spirit! . . .
                    I go to gather this 
The sacred knowledge, here and there dispersed
About the world, long lost or never found.
And why should I be sad, or lorn of hope?
Why ever make man's good distinct from God's?
Or, finding they are one, why dare mistrust?
Who shall succeed if not one pledged like me?
Mine is no mad attempt to build a world
Apart from His, like those who set themselves
To find the nature of the spirit they bore,
And, taught betimes that all their gorgeous dreams
Were only born to vanish in this life,
Refused to fit them to this narrow sphere,
But chose to figure forth another world
And other frames meet for their vast desires,—
Still, all a dream! Thus was life scorned; but life
Shall yet be crowned: twine amaranth! I am priest!"

And again:—

                    "In man's self arise 
August anticipations, symbols, types
Of a dim splendour ever on before,
 In that eternal circle run by life:
For men begin to pass their nature's bound,
 And find new hopes and cares which fast supplant
Their proper joys and griefs; and outgrow all *
 The narrow creeds of right and wrong, which fade
 Before the unmeasured thirst for good; while peace
 Rises within them ever more and more.
 Such men are even now upon the earth,
 Serene amid the half-formed creatures round,
 Who should be saved by them and joined with them."

In the last three verses is indicated the doctrine of the regenerating power of exalted personalities, so prominent in Browning's poetry, and which is treated in the next paper.

— * proper: In the sense of the Latin PROPRIUS, peculiar, private, personal. —

There is no `tabula rasa' doctrine in these passages, nor in any others, in the poet's voluminous works; and of all men of great intellect and learning (it is always a matter of mere insulated intellect), born in England since the days of John Locke, no one, perhaps, has been so entirely untainted with this doctrine as Robert Browning. It is a doctrine which great spiritual vitality (and that he early possessed), reaching out, as it does, beyond all experience, beyond all transformation of sensations, and all conclusions of the discursive understanding, naturally and spontaneously rejects. It simply says, "I know better", and there an end.

The great function of the poet, as poet, is, with Browning, to open out a way whence the imprisoned splendor may escape, not to effect entry for a light supposed to be without; to trace back the effluence to its spring and source within us, where broods radiance vast, to be elicited ray by ray.

In `Fifine at the Fair', published thirty-seven years after `Paracelsus', is substantially the same doctrine:—

     "Truth inside, and outside, truth also; and between 
Each, falsehood that is change, as truth is permanence.
The individual soul works through the shows of sense,
(Which, ever proving false, still promise to be true)
Up to an outer soul as individual too;
And, through the fleeting, lives to die into the fixed,
And reach at length `God, man, or both together mixed'."

In his poem entitled `Popularity', included in his "fifty men and women", the speaker, in the monologue, "draws" his "true poet", whom HE knows, if others do not; who, though he renders, or stands ready to render, to his fellows, the supreme service of opening out a way whence the imprisoned splendor of their souls may escape, is yet locked safe from end to end of this dark world.

Though there may be, in his own time, no "reapers reaping early in among the bearded barley" and "piling sheaves in uplands airy" who hear his song, he holds the FUTURE fast, accepts the COMING AGES' duty, their present for this past. This true, creative poet, whom the speaker calls "God's glow-worm, creative in the sense of revealing, whose inmost centre, where truth abides in fulness, has that freedom of responsiveness to the divine which makes him the revealer of it to men, plays the part in the world of spirit which, in the material world was played by the fisher who, first on the coast of Tyre the old, fished up the purple-yielding murex. Until the precious liquor, filtered by degrees, and refined to proof, is flasked and priced, and salable at last, the world stands aloof. But when it is all ready for the market, the small dealers, "put blue into their line", and outdare each other in azure feats by which they secure great popularity, and, as a result, fare sumptuously; while he who fished the murex up was unrecognized, and fed, perhaps, on porridge.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things