DURING the last two or three years, we have often heard the lament that the Victorian era of poetry was closed; that with the death of Tennyson the last great voice had fallen silent; that only the small harpers with their glees were left, such as Chaucer saw sitting at the feet of the mighty masters of old; or that if one or two who might claim to belong to the band of fame lingered on, they were now old men, and their voices were no longer heard or were faint with age. But the lament was futile, however it might seem to be justified by the verse of the new Poet Laureate. Pye was Poet Laureate at the beginning of the century, as Austin is at its end. But before Pye died Scott and Wordsworth had already secured their seats among the immortals, and England, at the end of the century no less than at the beginning, is still the nursing mother of poets; and though Tennyson and his compeers be dead, her genius, with its eternal youth, is still finding fresh expression for itself, inspired with a novel poetic spirit as genuine as any that has moulded English verse.
This splendid continuous fertility of English genius, this unbroken poetic expression of English character and life from Chaucer to Rudyard Kipling, is unparalleled in the moral and intellectual history of any other race. For five full centuries England has had such a succession of poets as no other land can boast. There is no reason to fear that the succession will fail. One dynasty may follow another, but the throne will not lack a king. It is a change of dynasty which we are witnessing now, and it was the mistaking of this for a break in succession that has given occasion to the lament that the Victorian era of poetry had ended.
As we look back over the poetry of the century, two main inspiring motives, exhibiting a natural evolution of poetic doctrine and influence, are clearly distinguishable. The one, of which Wordsworth is the representative, proceeded direct from external nature in her relations to man; while the other, with many representatives from Keats to Tennyson, Arnold, Clough, and Browning, was derived from human nature, from man himself in his various relations to the universe and to his kind. And all these latter poets, however they might differ in their look upon life, treated it either ideally and romantically, or else as matter mainly of introspective reflection and sentiment. Poetry with them was not so much an image of life as, on the one hand a scenic representation of it, and on the other a criticism of it. In their kind, the finer dramatic lyrics of Browning, scenic representations of life, may long stand unsurpassed, while for criticism and exposition of life of the intellectual order Clough and Arnold may have no rivals, as Tennyson may have none in the field of pure sentiment in exquisite lyrical form.
The poetry inspired by these motives was the adequate expression of the ideals of the age,—of its shifting creeds, its doubts, its moral perplexities, its persistent introspection. The mood lasted for full fifty years, and never did the prevailing mood of the higher life of a people find nobler or more complete utterance. But meanwhile the process of mental and spiritual evolution was going on. The mood was gradually changing; the poets themselves, by uttering it, were exhibiting its limitations; it was a phase of the spiritual life of man, of which no age exhibits the full orb. A new generation had been growing up under these poets, with its own conceptions and aspirations and its new modes of confronting the conditions of existence. It found the poetic motives of the earlier part of the century insufficient; neither external nature nor human nature in any select aspect was what it cared most about. It had taken to heart the instructions of the poets; it aimed "to see life steadily and see it whole," or, in Clough's words,
"to look straight out upon
The big plain things that stare one in the face."
It took the whole world for its realm, and was moved to depict it in its actual aspect and what was called its reality. The realists of yesterday or to-day are the legitimate offspring of the romanticists and idealists of the mid-century, following, as is often the habit of sons, a different course from that which their fathers pursued. The new spirit showed itself at first in prose fiction. It was weak and often misdirected. It waited for its poet. For realism—the aim to see the world and to depict it as it is—required for the fit performance of its work the highest exercise of the poetic imagination. The outward thing, the actual aspect, is in truth the real thing and the true aspect only when seen by the imaginative vision. To see a thing truly, a man must, as Blake says, look through, not with the eye. The common reporter sees with his eye, and, meaning to tell the truth, tells a falsehood. But the imagination has insight, and what it sees is reality.
It is now some six or seven years since Plain Tales from the Hills gave proof that a man who saw through his eyes was studying life in India and was able to tell us what he saw. And those who read the scraps of verse prefixed to many of his stories, if they knew what poetry was, learned that their writer was at least potentially a poet, not by virtue of fantasy alone, but by his mastery of lyrical versification. The rhythm of these fragments had swing and ease and variety, and there was one complete little set of verses, at the head of the last story in the book, which made clear the writer's title to the name of poet. We had not then seen Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, or Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads: they came to us before long, and showed that the qualities which distinguished Mr. Kipling's stories were not lacking in his poems. There was the same sure touch, the same insight, the same imaginative sympathy with all varieties of life, and the same sense of the moral significance of life even in its crudest, coarsest, and most vulgar aspects. Many of these verses were plainly the work of youth,—of a boy full of talent, but not yet fully master of his own capacities, not yet wholly mastered by his own genius. They had a boyish audacity and extravagance; they were exuberant; there was too much talent in them, usurping the place and refusing the control of genius: but underneath their boyishness, and though their manner was not yet wholly subdued to art, there was a vital spirit of fresh and vigorous originality which, combined with extraordinary control of rhythmical expression, gave sure promise of higher manly achievement.