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And in the first of the two instances we maintain that the moral truth of the picture is in no way violated by any such exaggeration of the real circumstances of Villiers's death, as may possibly exist in the painting of the room and the bed, both of which it is admitted were of the very humblest description.
Such are two perfectly fair examples of the justice of De Quincey's criticism. The incorrectness which Lord Macaulay has adduced, not only against Pope, but against the whole of that school of poets, has more foundation in truth. Pope's moonlight scene in Homer, Addison's 'Cato,' Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village,' are all in different places cited by him as examples of incorrect thought, the coupling together of ideas, that is to say, incompatible with each other. Of the other poets of this age we shall have something to say presently. That Pope shared with them a real ignorance of natural scenery we readily confess, and that he was incorrect when he wrote of it only follows from the other propositions we have laid down concerning him. Such were not the phenomena that arrested his attention and worked on his sensibility. He took them as he found them ready made to his hand in the traditional vocabulary of Parnassus. And we do not therefore hesitate to give him up to his pursuers upon this charge. It is one which quite obviously does not interfere with our present argument in his fa
But is there then no sense in which the correctness which Pope supposed himself to possess is really true of him? On this point it is to be observed that the correctness aimed at by the poet and the correctness denied him by his modern critics are probably two different things. When we talk of the 'poverty of conception' among critics which has made this quality the distinctive excellence of Pope, we must remember that Pope himself adopted the conception from his earliest adviser, Walsh, and is himself answerable for the opinion of posterity on the subject. He looked abroad and he saw, as he thought, all the choice
eminences of poetry already occupied. Omnia jam vulgata. What was he to do in these latter days by which to achieve a reputation that should not be a mere reflex from earlier writers? He fancied on consideration that there was yet one comparatively humble path unoccupied, and that was correctness. In order therefore to find out what Pope meant by correctness, we have to ascertain in what he differed from his predecessors. Dryden and Denham and Waller, as far as grammar and syntax are concerned, are pretty much on a level with Pope. It was not therefore any deficiency in these qualities which he set himself to remedy. In the highest qualities of imagination he confessedly felt that there was little more glory to be reaped. But what he did see was this, that the straggling and rather lumbering metre in which poetry was then written might be girded up and disciplined with advantage. This was the task he took in hand. He gathered up the loose threads, he rewove as it were, and tightened our whole metrical system, and cast it in such a form as remained dominant for a hundred years, and educated a school of poets. These, if not among the most sublime, were yet among the most manly and vigorous, the most graphic, and the most tender in our literature. And that quality, by whatever name it may be called, must have been something genuine and valuable which was the literary parent of Churchill and Johnson, of Crabbe and Goldsmith. For to say, as Professor Conington does (Oxford Essays, 1858), that Churchill endeavoured to return to the negligent vigour of Dryden,' is not true; not at least if it is meant that he endeavoured successfully. might have tried to shake off the Popian style. But there it is impressed upon every line he wrote far more deeply, in our opinion, than in the versification of Rogers and Campbell. Nobody can doubt the change which English poetry underwent in passing from the hands of Dryden into those of Pope. Compare the character of Zimri and the character of Atticus. Why
can twenty people repeat the latter for every five who can repeat the former? Or if it be thought that Zimri is not the best of Dryden's characters, then let us select any other; we still say the result will be the same: and why is it? Not because Dryden is less weighty, less pointed, or less brilliant. But because Pope bestowed upon the English heroic that final perfection of form which gives a completeness and rotundity to the impression which it stamps upon the mind. This is our own explanation. But no reader of the slightest literary taste, and not pledged to any particular views beforehand, can, we think, read a passage of Dryden first and a passage of Pope afterwards without feeling very strongly what it was that Pope meant by resolving to be correct, however difficult he might find it to express this feeling in words of critical propriety. What he would feel, is the charm of finish, of symmetry, of proportion; and we may add, of condensation. Every clause in Pope has always just sufficient space allotted to it, and no more. The gradations in every passage of importance are modulated with the nicest art, and the climax is disposed with the happiest knowledge of effect. In Dryden it is rare to meet with half-a-dozen lines together in which we do not wish something away; something that checks the continuous flow, and weakens the final leap, of the descending billow. From Pope, passage after passage could be quoted of which_the evolution is perfect. That Pope possessed collateral and common excellences which exceeded in value this central and peculiar one must of course never be forgotten. But
Pope was not to be the trumpeter of these; nor are we concerned with them at present.
In saying that Pope 'educated' a
All these in sweet confusion sought the shade,
It is extremely improbable that any man walking near an English_village should hear all these sounds at the same moment; but that he should constantly have heard them at the same moment is so improbable as to make us feel certain that Goldsmith must have written that passage without any distinct image in his
mind of what he was describing in words. Cows are brought home to be milked from five to six in the afternoon. School would be over generally rather earlier. Geese leave off gabbling at all events before sunset; and Shakspeare could have told Goldsmith that the goose and the nightingale are not heard together.
We find a similar kind of looseness in Thomson, who makes, for instance, the sweet smell of the beanfields in blossom a feature of spring instead of summer. We might easily multiply examples of this failing were it necessary. But they all tend to show that the ideas of nature possessed by the poets of the period were general rather than particular, vague rather than precise, and derived rather than original. A man standing on the terrace of the 'Star and Garter' at Richmond may survey with unfeigned delight the beautiful prospect stretched before him, yet be incapable of appreciating its separate features, its varieties of light and shade, of colour and of form, the sum of which are the cause of his pleasurable sensations. Another man might tell us, in so many words, that he preferred Fleet-street; and he would stand in the same relation to the first gazer as Pope stood in towards Thomson, Goldsmith, and Warton. But should a third comer appear who was able to explain to the others the minute component beauties which produced the glorious result; and not only that, but should teach them to understand the true beauty of nature in even her most ordinary aspects; he would represent what the poets of our own day are compared with the, three last-mentioned ones. The latter doubtless loved nature; but they did not know her like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Tennyson, and hence the fact that all their rural pictures have so many features in common; the majority being apparently drawn from the one common fund of the classics.
They hardly ever seize upon particulars, upon the special traits of any given tree, flower, or stream, as objects interwoven with their affections, and forming part of those influences which contribute to their moral life. Their admiration is intellectual admiration; and we can only conclude by saying that if the poets of the eighteenth century be poets only in virtue of what they have written upon the beauties of nature, five-sixths of them would not be poets at all.
Collins's Ode to Evening' is one exception, and a brilliant exception. In that there is the most intense realization of the phenomena observed, and an indication of the sympathies which exist between man and nature more like the nineteenth century than the eighteenth. Gray's 'Elegy' of course is another. But even in that it is rather the exquisite appreciation of the situation in general that we admire than any intimate acquaintance with the varying aspects of nature. However, not to be hypercritical, we will allow that Gray's poetry is a genuine exception to the rule we have been laying down. The 'Ode to Evening,' however, is our favourite. There is nothing of its kind in English literature to surpass, we had almost said equal it. There is not a single stanza in it which does not present us with some little touch evincing the most close and delicate observation, expressed in language as near perfection as anything in our own Laureate. The three following stanzas are pre-eminently beautiful :
Then let me rove some wild and heathy scene;
Whose walls more awful nod
By thy religious gleams.
Or, if chill blustering winds or driving rain
That, from the mountain's side,
Views wilds, and swelling floods,
And hamlets brown, and dim-discover'd spires,
It must be confessed that what a single ode could do to atone for the deficiencies of his poetical brethren,
Collins has here done. Some touches of the same sort are to be found in Cowper, in whom it is the fashion
to see the first dawn of a new era in English poetry. It is not our present purpose to controvert this view. But we merely wish to remark that if we pick out of Cowper's poetry all that is not moral poetry we reduce it to very small dimensions: and that if we admit the claims of his moral poetry, we admit all that has been claimed by our earlier argument on the subject. Cowper, to the sincerity of an honest man, added all the fervour of a Christian one; and this creating a seeming difference between him and Pope may have given rise to the idea that he was from one point of view a truer poet. But whatever he may have gained on the one side he lost upon the other; for he was certainly an inferior artist; and although the ease with which the style of Pope was imitated, and the vulgarity to which it was reduced in consequence, drove the leaders of the literary world to invent a new fashion, the fact must not blind us to the intrinsic value of the original and genuine garb, as worn by its rightful author, and its marked superiority to all the copies and variations of it which the eighteenth century produced.
And now the reader will see that the one point upon which this article hinges is this-whether, namely, man's passions as displayed in society, not above it, nor below it, nor alongside of it, but in it, are not as fit food for poetry as any other class of subject-matter? If this question is to be answered in
the negative, shall we not ostracise many of the finest passages in Shakspeare? If it is to be answered in the affirmative, what standingground have those who still deny, as many do, that Pope was a poet? To those who still feel in doubt, who scarcely like to say when the question is asked them point-blank that he is not, but who yet feel inwardly that he is not a poet for them, we with all diffidence commend these remarks. To the admirers of the great writer whom we have feebly endeavoured to vindicate they will possibly seem impertinent. To those who have once for all closed their ears to argument we do not appeal. To those who still hesitate between the two, and to these only, is our article addressed. It is time that some better understanding were arrived at among English critics. It is not to their credit that the position in literature of a writer like Pope should still be undetermined; for such indecision points to a lack of philosophical insight into the first principles of poetry. We do not venture to suppose that we have written anything which shall solve this long-disputed problem. We do hope that we may have suggested some useful thoughts to others who are better competent to solve it.
The whole question of the poetry of the eighteenth century is involved in the question here repeated; and therefore it is that we have prefixed to this article the title which it bears.
THE STORY OF NALA AND DAMAYANTI.
TRANSLATED FROM THE SANSCRIT TEXT, BY
Now Nala, when he left the blameless Queen,
In gratitude; for there is none like me
Among all creeping things; come, therefore, lift me,
Where the fire burned, and would have laid him down,
A change of raiment, vanished from his sight.
* In the original occurs a play upon a Sanscrit word which signifies ten, and is also the second person imperative of the verb bite.' The serpent is made to bid Nala take ten steps, counting each aloud; at the tenth step the serpent interprets the numeral as a command. The object of this is obviously to excuse the apparent ingratitude of the serpent.