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of Milton in the Spectator was a criticism, not the less damaging because indirect, of the superficial poetry then in vogue. His praise of the old ballads condemned by innuendo the artificial elaboration of the drawing-room pastoral by contrasting it with the simple sincerity of nature. Himself incapable of being natural except in prose, he had an in. stinct for the genuine virtues of poetry as sure as that of Gray. Thomson's “ Winter” (1726) was a direct protest against the literature of Good Society, going as it did to prove that the noblest society was that of one's own mind heightened by the contemplation of outward nature. What Thomson's poetical creed was may be surely inferred from his having modelled his two principal poems on Milton and Spenser, ignoring rhyme altogether in the “Seasons," and in the Castle of Indolence "rejecting the stiff mould of the couplet. In 1744 came Akenside's “ Pleasures of Imagination,” whose very title, like a guide-post, points away from the level highway of commonplace to mountain-paths and less domestic prospects. The poem was stiff and unwilling, but in its loins lay the seed of nobler births, and without it the "Lines written at Tintern Abbey” might never have been. Three years later Collins printed his little volume of Odes, advocating in theory and exemplifying in practice the natural supremacy of the imagination (though he called it by its older name of fancy) as a test to distinguish poetry from verse-making. The whole Romantic School, in its germ, no doubt, but yet unmistakably foreshadowed, lies already in the “ Ode on the Superstitions of the Highlands.” He was the first to bring back into poetry something of the antique fervor, and found again the long-lost secret of being classically elegant without being pedantically cold. A skilled lover of music, he rose from the general sing-song of his generation to a harmony that had been silent since Milton, and in him, to use his own words,
“ The force of energy is found, And the sense rises on the wings of sound.” But beside his own direct services in the reformation of our poetry, we owe him a still greater debt as the inspirer of Gray, whose“ Progress of Poesy," in reach, variety, and loftiness of poise, overflies all other English lyrics like an eagle. In spite of the dulness of contemporary ears, preoccupied with the continuous hum of the popular hurdy-gurdy, it was the prevailing blast of Gray's trumpet that more than anything else called men back to the legitimate standard. Another poet, Dyer, whose
Milton, Collins, and Gray, our three great masters of harmony, were all musicians.
2 Wordsworth, who recognized forerunners in Thomson, Collins, Dyer, and Burns, and who chimes in with the popular superstition about Chatterton, is always somewhat niggardly in his appreciation of Gray. Yet he owed him not a little. Without Gray's tune in his ears, his own noblest Ode would have missed the varied modulation which is one of its main charms. Where he forgets Gray, his verse sinks to something like the measure of a jig. Perhaps the suggestion of one of his own finest lines,
(“. The light that never was on land or sea,”) was due to Gray's
“ Orient hues unborrowed of the sun." I believe it has not been noticed that among the verses in Gray's
“ Fleece ” was published in 1753, both in the choice of his subject and his treatment of it gives further proof of the tendency among the younger generation to revert to simpler and purer models. Plainly enough, Thomson had been his chief model, though there are also traces of a careful study of Milton.
Pope had died in 1744, at the height of his renown, the acknowledged monarch of letters, as supreme as Voltaire when the excitement and ex. posure of his coronation ceremonies at Paris hastened his end a generation later. His fame, like Voltaire's, was European, and the style which he had carried to perfection was paramount throughout the cultivated world. The new edition of the Sonnet on the Death of West, which Wordsworth condemns as of no value, the second
“ And reddening Phæbus lifts his golden fires ” is one of Gray's happy reminiscences from a poet in some respects greater than either of them :
“Jamque rubrum tremulis jubar ignibus erigere alte
Lucret., iv. 404, 405. Gray's taste was a sensitive divining-rod of the sources whether of pleasing or profound emotion in poetry. Though he prized pomp, he did not undervalue simplicity of subject or treatment, if only the witch Imagination had cast her spell there. Wordsworth loved solitude in his appreciations as well as in his daily life, and was the readier to find merit in obscurity, because it gave him the pleasure of being a first discoverer all by himself. Thus he addresses a sonnet to John Dyer. But Gray was one of “the pure and powerful minds” who had discovered Dyer during his lifetime, when the discovery of poets is more difficult. In 1753 he writes to Walpole : “Mr. Dyer has more poetry in his imagination than almost any of our number, but rough and injudicious.” Dyer has one fine verse,
“On the dark level uf adversity.”
“Dunciad,” with the Fourth Book added, published the year before his death, though the substitution of Cibber for Theobald made the poem incoherent, had yet increased his reputation and confirmed the sway of the school whose recognized head he was, by the poignancy of its satire, the lucidity of its wit, and the resounding, if somewhat uniform, march of its numbers. He had been translated into other languages living and dead. Voltaire had long before pronounced him “ the best poet of England, and at present of all the world.”] It was the apotheosis of clearness, point, and technical skill, of the ease that comes of practice, not of the fulness of original power. And yet, as we have seen, while he was in the very plenitude of his power, there was already a widespread discontent, a feeling that what “comes nearest,” as Phillips calls it, may yet be infinitely far from giving those profounder and incalculable satisfactions of which the soul is capable in poetry. A movement was gathering strength which prompted
“The age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty." Nor was it wholly confined to England. Symptoms of a similar reaction began to show themselves on the Continent, notably in the translation of Milton (1732) and the publication of the Nibelungen Lied (1757) by Bodmer, and the imitations of Thomson in France. Was it possible, then, that there was anything better than good sense, elegant diction, and the highest polish of style ? Could there be an intellectual appetite which antithesis failed to satisfy? If the horse would only have faith enough in his green spectacles, surely the straw would acquire, not only the flavor, but the nutritious properties of fresh grass. The horse was foolish enough to starve, but the public is wiser. It is surprising how patiently it will go on, for generation after generation, transmuting dry stubble into verdure in this fashion.
1 MS. letter of Voltaire, cited by Warburton in his edition of Pope, vol. iv. p. 38, note. The date is 15th October, 1726. I do not find it in Voltaire's Correspondence.
The school which Boileau founded was critical and not creative. It was limited, not only in its essence, but by the capabilities of the French language and by the natural bent of the French mind, which finds a predominant satisfaction in phrases if elegantly turned, and can make a despotism, political or æsthetic, palatable with the pepper of epigram. The style of Louis XIV. did what his armies failed to do. It overran and subjugated Europe. It struck the literature of imagination with palsy, and it is droll enough to see Voltaire, after he had got some knowledge of Shakespeare, continually endeavoring to reassure himself about the poetry of the grand siècle, and all the time asking himself, “Why, in the name of all the gods at once, is this not the real thing ?” He seems to have felt that there was a dreadful mistake somewhere, when poetry must be called upon to prove itself inspired, above all when it must demonstrate that it is interesting, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Difficulty, according to