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And as I say this another obstacle rises in my path. The papers of which this volume is made up are more than thirty years old. Now, a preface is in some sort also a letter of introduction, and how shall I assume such a responsibility in respect of a person so little known to me as Myself of a generation ago? We are no longer on speaking terms, and, if we still nod to each other on the rare occasions when we chance to meet, it is more from involuntary habit than for any reason of good-fellowship. We are still intimate with each other's failings and weaknesses, as those of the same blood are apt to be; but there is likewise such an estrangement between us as is possible only between those who by birth are in possession of those fatal secrets.
Yet in trying to evade writing a preface, it occurs to me that there is one explanation I should be glad to make. The contents of this book (with the single exception of the essay on Lessing) were originally written as lectures for an audience consisting not only of my own classes, but also of whatever other members of the University might choose to attend. This will account for, if it do not excuse, their more rhetorical tone. They were meant to be suggestive rather than methodically pædagogic. As my own excursions widened, as I opened new vistas through the crowding growth of my own prejudices and predilections, I was fain to encourage in others that intellectual hospitality which in myself I had found strengthening from an impulse till it became a conviction that the wiser mind should have as many entrances for unbidden guests as was fabled of the Arabian prince's tent. I have had much gratifying evidence that I was fairly successful in hitting what I aimed at, though never satisfied that I had in me the stuft of which a perfectly adequate professor is made, however well it might have served the turn tor a tolerable Mercury. I make this confession because I am conscious that, while capable of endless drudgery in acquisition, I am by nature quite too impatient of detail in communicating what I have acquired. Moreover, in giving what I had written to the press, I omitted much subsidiary and illustrative matter; and this I regret now when it is too late.
Let me end with saying how much it pleases me to think that I should find readers here in the Old Home, where I have never been made to feel that I was a stranger, though my ancestor did his best to make me one by seeking a new home in New England two hundred and fifty years ago.
J. R. LOWELL.
October 13th, 1888.
ESSAYS ON THE ENGLISH POETS.
HAUCER had been in his grave one hundred and fifty
years ere England had secreted choice material enough for the making of another great poet.
The nature of men living together in societies, as of the individual man, seems to have its periodic ebbs and floods, its oscillations between the ideal and the matter-of-fact, so that the doubtful boundary line of shore between them is in one generation a hard sandy actuality strewn only with such remembrances of beauty as a dead sea-moss here and there, and in the next is whelmed with those lace-like curves of ever-gaining, ever-receding foam, and that dance of joyous spray which for a moment catches and holds the sunshine.
From the two centuries between 1400 and 1600 the indefatigable Ritson, in his Bibliographia Poetica, has made us a catalogue of some six hundred English poets, or, more properly, verse-makers. Ninety-nine in a hundred of them are mere names, most of them no more than shadows of names, some of them mere initials. Nor can it be said of them that their works have perished because they were written in an obsolete dialect; for it is the poem that keeps the language alive, and not the language that buoys up the poem.
The revival of letters, as it is called, was at first the revival of ancient letters, which, while it made men pedants, could do very little toward making them poets, much less toward making them original writers. There was nothing left of the freshness, vivacity, invention, and careless faith in the present which make many of the productions of the Norman Trouvères delightful reading even now. The whole of Europe during the fifteenth century produced no book which has continued readable, or has become, in any sense of the word, a classic. I do not mean that that century has left us no illustrious names, that it was not enriched with some august intellects who kept alive the apostolic succession of thought and speculation, who passed along the still unextinguished torch of intelligence, the lampada vita, to those who came after them. But a classic is properly a book which maintains itself by virtue of that happy coalescence of matter and style, that innate and exquisite sympathy between the thought that gives life and the form that consents to every mood of grace and dignity, which can be simple without being vulgar, elevated without being distant, and which is something neither ancient nor modern, always new and incapable of growing old. It is not his Latin which makes Horace cosmopolitan, nor can Béranger's French prevent his becoming so. No hedge of language, however thorny, no dragon-coil of centuries, will keep men away from these true apples of the Hesperides if once they have caught sight or scent of them. If poems die, it is because there was never true life in them that is, that true poetic vitality which no depth of thought, no airiness of fancy, no sincerity of feeling, can singly communicate, but which leaps throbbing at touch of that shaping faculty, the imagination. Take Aristotle's ethics, the scholastic philosophy, the theology of Aquinas, the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, the small politics of a provincial city of the Middle Ages, mix in at will Grecian, Roman, and Christian mythology, and tell me what chance there is to make an immortal poem of such an incongruous mixture. Can these dry bones live? Yes, Dante can create such a soul under these ribs of death that one hundred and fifty editions of his poem shall be called for in these last sixty years, the first half of the sixth century since his death. Accordingly, I am apt to believe that the complaints
one sometimes hears of the neglect of our older literature are the regrets of archæologists rather than of critics. One does not need to advertise the squirrels where the nut-trees are, nor could any amount of lecturing persuade them to spend their teeth on a hollow nut.
On the whole, the Scottish poetry of the fifteenth century has more meat in it than the English, but this is to say very little. Where it is meant to be serious and lofty it falls into the same vices of unreality and allegory which were the fashion of the day, and which there are some patriots so fearfully and wonderfully made as to relish. Stripped of the archaisms (that turn every y to a meaningless 2, spell which quhilk, shake schaik, bugle bowgill, powder puldir, and will not let us simply whistle till we have puckered our mouths to quhissill) in which the Scottish antiquaries love to keep it disguised—as if it were nearer to poetry the further it got from all human recognition and sympathy-stripped of these, there is little to distinguish it from the contemporary verse-mongering south of the Tweed Their compositions are generally as stiff and artificial as a trellis, in striking contrast with the popular ballad-poetry of Scotland (some of which possibly falls within this period, though most of it is later), which clambers, lawlessly if you will, but at least freely and simply, twining the bare stem of old tradition with graceful sentiment and lively natural sympathies. I find a few sweet and flowing verses in Dunbar's “Merle and Nightingale”-indeed, one whole stanza that has always seemed exquisite to me. It is this-
“ Ne'er sweeter noise was heard by living man
Than made this merry, gentle nightingale,
Of every love but upon God alone." But except this lucky poem, I find little else in the serious verses of Dunbar that does not seem to me tedious and