Ward's English Poets

AN excursion through eight or ten centuries of verse is an undertaking like the circumnavigation of the globe; the space to be traversed is so great that it takes a life-time to make the way familiar. The mariner on shore, as he retraces his course in memory from island to cape, is mindful chiefly of the great way-marks of nature. No navigator finds a new course to the antipodes, or deviates with advantage from the ocean highways.

The long succession of English poems, so diverse in thought and style, gives a bewildering impression at the outset, and it is only by a great effort that they can he grasped and contemplated in a mass. Few persons can hope to be equally familiar with every portion ; but as in the world of nature, so in the lesser world of art, the main features are immutably established. The great poets are the natural centres of groups ; they are as fixed as mountains. No one questions the rank of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. After naming these, we go back and locate in proper order (and in smaller characters) Ben Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Cowper, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. And then we can add a great number of lesser magnitude, some of whom are as much beloved as their great brethren, and perhaps more generally read.

Historically viewed, the epochs are clearly divided. At the beginning we can observe on the one hand the alliterative verse of the Anglo-Saxons, and on the other the rude rhymes of the minstrels and trouveres. We see the two currents of speech and of art, each rough and unpleasing alone, meeting and swelling at the time of Gower, Langland, and Chaucer. We see the perfected speech and the perfected art iu the Faerie Queene. Later, we see the rise of the drama, and the appearance of that alpine group of poets surrounding and heightening the grandeur of the skypointing Shakespeare. Passing by Milton, we observe the decline of imagination first shown in Dryden and still more conspicuous in Pope, with whom sense and wit with ease and grace were the accepted substitutes for poetic fire. The revolution against that formal school, led by Wordsworth, has taken place almost within our time ; and the later history of poetry, perhaps as glorious as that of any period, is familiar to all modern readers.

English poetry covers an enormous space, and in spite of areas of dullness it is probably as a whole superior in all high qualities to that of any modern nation. The poetry of Italy and of Spain ended not long after the Middle Ages. Since the Reformation, no great poems have appeared in any but Protestant countries. The poetry of Germany is scarcely more than a century old, — Goethe and Schiller, as they were the first, so they are almost the last of the great German poets, — and that of France, brilliant and finished as it is in some respects, is wholly wanting in the subtile, unnamed quality which characterizes the chief works of British as well as of ancient classical authors.

We welcome every conscientious attempt to illustrate the history of English verse, and to give an appreciative estimate of the work of each bal’d. The labors of cycloptedists and collectors of anthologies bring forgotten traits to light, and enable us to take a broader and completer view of the most precious of our intellectual possessions. No perfect collection exists, either in the form of catalogue or anthology. Warton is a mine for antiquaries alone. Johnson’s Lives are entertaining, but his judgments are not trustworthy, because the great author was totally destitute of the poetic sense. Chambers’s useful work is marred by bad taste and by inexcusable carelessness. Countless volumes of Elegant Extracts only testify that our poetical literature is too vast and many-sided for the grasp of any one man.

It is not the man of highest genius that will make the most valuable collection for general use. Emerson’s Parnassus is best only for Emersonian readers. Think what an anthology we should have from Browning ! — great in many respects, doubtless, but confined to a limited tract of human thought and experience. Imagine, on the other hand, what a gay and melodious collection we might have had from Tom Moore !

Perhaps a creator of verse could not he the best collector. The task would appear to call rather for a man of refined perception, general reading, and wide sympathies. It is only a truism to say that no earnest lover of poetry ever examined an anthology without feeling that he could have bettered it. He might be grateful for new light here and there, but he would be sure to resent the omission of favorite poems, and to deplore the lack of appreciation of favorite poets. It must be frankly admitted, therefore, that the student who has gone over the field of English poetry for himself will take up a new work like this with some caution, not to say distrust. It is impossible that his attitude should be other than critical.

Mr. Ward’s collection appears to have been made by the collaboration of a literary senate. No fewer than twenty different names are signed to the biographical and critical introductions. The greater number were written by Edmund W. Gosse. The best known of the writers are Matthew Arnold, Professor Skeat, Goldwin Smith, and Mark Pattison. These little essays embody the latest results of literary research, and are for that reason, if for no other, extremely valuable. They are also well written, in the main, and have a uniform high seriousness, as if the tone had been taken in concert. There are occasional blemishes, as where a writer calls Herrick “a pagan and a hedonist.” The jolly parson was no doubt intensely Greek in feeling, and a lover of pleasure ; but there was no need to ransack the dictionary to find an epithet. This is part of the influence of Taine on the rising critics, — the attempting to epitomize a character in one dashing phrase. There are evident marks of care in most of these prefaces, but their value to readers will depend upon the interest felt in the several subjects.

This brings us to consider whether all the poems and extracts gathered in these volumes are worthy of preservation. An anthology, a collection of blossoms, should have the best specimens, all the best, and only the best. The only latitude allowed the collector is in respect to the varying standards of excellence in the successive centuries. Gower was satisfied with verses that we find harsh and dry. We may agree with the editor and his senate that Gower should be represented ; we only stipulate that he shall be represented in due perspective from this century, and not as he appeared to admirers in his own time.

In this view we must consider that too much space has been allowed to the early poets, Chaucer excepted. Considered in themselves, and omitting for the time the historical connection, the poems of Lydgate and Occleve, as well as “ the morall Gower,” have very little interest for any readers. These poets of the old dispensation are to be preserved by the literary annalist; they should not have more than twenty dreary lines apiece in an anthology.

There is another class of so-called poets; which should have been excluded on another ground. We refer to the writers in Scotch and other Northern dialects between the age of Chaucer and that of Spenser. It is an English anthology that is offered to us, and it does not matter that Scotland is now a part of the kingdom ; because the same is true of Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. We are to trace the current of English speech and of English poetry back through legitimate channels ; we do not preserve the dialectic offshoots. No part of our poetical lineage is derived from Douglas or Dunbar. The time was when many contemporaneous forms of speech prevailed in the island ; but it was settled at a comparatively early period which of them was to be developed into the national language. The influences that led to the predominance of London were decisive against the Northern variations. Says John of Trevisa, in the fourteenth century, “ Al the longage of the Nortlmmbres, and specialyeh at York, ys so scharp, slytting and frotyng, and unshape, that we Southeron men may that longage unnethe [scarcely] understonde. Y trowe that this ys bycause a buth [they are] nygh to strange men and aliens that speketh strangelych, and also by cause that the Kinges of Engelond woneth [are used to dwell] alway fer fram that contray : For a buth [they are] more yturnd to the south contray; and gef a goth [if they go] to the north contray, a goth with gret help and strength. The cause why a buth [they are] more in the south contray than in the north may he bet re cornlond, more people, more noble cytes and more profytahle havenes.”

The Act of Union could not be retroactive ; it could not annex the uncouth dialect of the North, nor make Englishmen heirs of Scottish tradition. The Scotch dialect blossomed in Burns, and as a literary medium may be said to have ended with him. The old speech still haunts the rural firesides, but it is doomed to extinction. That Scotchmen should have a living interest in their royal Jamie, and in other Northern poets cited in this work, is not strange ; but to Englishmen they are foreign. Perhaps they could be tolerated if they were brilliant, or even mildly interesting, but they are worse thau uncouth ; they are dull. It is with a gatherer of flowers that we are dealing, and we have a right to object to thistles.

Chaucer is to be mastered only by patient study; but when his style has become familiar, what scenes are open to our view ! The England of that day lives eternally in his pages. Piers Plowman also repays the student an hundred fold ; but the same cannot be said of the other poets before Spenser. In Morley’s invaluable Tables the names may be seen ranged at the top of their life-lines ; and the records of their works stand like sepulchral memorials. A literary historian may consult them ; a philologist or grammarian may find kernels of use in their barren pages; hut no other man will have patience with their whistling, croaking verse.

Between Chaucer and Spenser there were two poets only in whom the reading public retains an interest, — Wyatt and Surrey. The judgment of Tame in this respect was right : “ Must we quote all these good people, who speak without having anything to say ? ”

It will be impossible, as it would be undesirable, to go over the volumes in detail. We will say in general that the editors have been liberal and tolerant, and the list of poets is considerably larger, we think, than any American scholar would have made it; that is to say, there are specimens in the volumes which are not truly poetical, and scarcely worth preserving.

That Sidney was in many respects a man of vivid genius is undeniable ; but it is Sir Philip, the peerless knight and the lamented hero of Zutplien, rather than the sonnetteer and the Arcadian romancer, of whom mankind have such a fond remembrance. It seems to us that the merits of his verse are somewhat overstrained in Miss Ward’s delightful essay, He uses our tongue with manly vigor, and makes thought at once eloquent and melodious ; but it is au intellectual fire that we observe. The sonnets are classic in form, and the lines show frequently a mastery of expression ; but they move us no more than a Latin epitaph. It is pleasant, though, to see the enthusiasm of the lady who has had charge of the memory of the immortal youth ; and we must applaud the effect produced by her able sketch and the accompanying specimens, albeit they are rather numerous in comparison with those given of much greater men.

The great brotherhood of dramatists that preceded and surrounded Shakespeare are generally well treated; but the estimate of the great hard himself is far more satisfying. The essayist, Professor Dowden, has confined himself mainly to the elucidation of the sonnets and of the Venus and Adonis. It is true, there is great difficulty in presenting extracts from plays ; but an essayist who offers to us his views upon Shakespeare as a poet, and omits all reference to the mines of golden ore in his dramas, appears to have thrown away his most valuable material.

Milton, of all the “tuneful choir,” is shown with most art and with most splendor of effect. The selections are numerous, as they should be, and are unquestionably the best. The introductory essay, by Mark Pattison, author of the life of Milton in Morley’s series, English Men of Letters, considering its limits, is beyond comparison the ablest and roost thorough presentation of the merits of our great Puritan poet yet made. It is a model of good taste, and is full of valuable suggestions upon the subject of poetic art. The singular perfection of this essay — the power of clear thinking and clear statement, as well as the exquisite perception of beauty which it shows — makes us regret that an author so admirably fitted for literary criticism had not been assigned a larger share in the work.

The second volume contains fewer great names, and less poetry of the highest order. From the time of Milton there is a period of gradual decline ; but the lack of strength is almost made up by the affluence of beauty, the charm of sentiment, and the sparkle of wit. Dryden’s stately music, the pastorals of Wither, the songs of Carew, most refined of lovers, and of Herrick, steeped in sentimental languor, yet striking the British harp with the sure hand of a Greek, the delicate fancies of Suckling, the manly dignity of Lovelace, the quaint conceits of holy George Herbert, and the masculine energy of Donne,— these are treasures of which any people might be proud. They are peculiarly English ; and the literature of no other nation is so rich in poetry of this order, — not great, not heroic, not world famous, but delightful and inexhaustible.

In the third volume there are a few eminent names, Pope, Collins, Gray, Goldsmith, Cowper, and Burns being the chief. It also contains a number that are historical, and for that reason demand mention, and not a few that might have been advantageously omitted from a work like this. For the mere pleasure of reading no one will take up such writers of verse as William Walsh, Sir Samuel Garth, Allan Ramsay, John Armstrong, William Somerville, Matthew Green, John Byrom, Richard Glover. Mark Akenside, Christopher Smart, Thomas Warton, and others that might be named. No one will read Dr, Johnson’s ponderous heroics or the filth of Dean Swift more than once.

The Scotch seem to be well represented in Mr. Ward’s senate, and there is a superfluity of their Boeotian verse. The specimens of Robert Fergusson, for instance, must have been brought in, we suppose, as a kind of Ollendorff’s exercises in the Northern patois. There is no other reason apparent. By constantly referring to the foot-notes the sense of the lines can be gathered, and when that is done the utter absence of poetry is manifest.

We must repeat that our interest in the greater number of eighteenth-century poets is purely due to the historical continuity. People read Addison’s Blenheim to see of what wretched verse the author of perfect prose could he guilty. They must give some study to the rhymed eloquence of Pope, the royal dwarf who lorded it over all the wits and poets of his time, and whose influence reached far beyond his century. They will skim over the moral platitudes of Young, .the Tapper of his age, and smile at their affected inversions, — as if a prose sentence became poetical by turning it inside out.

Of the memoirs in the third volume, the best, incomparably, is that of Collins, by Algernon Swinburne. It is brief, far too brief, and it is itself almost a poem. It is such an estimate as none but a poet could have made, and its illustrations, drawn from the poetic painters of modern landscapes, — such as Corot and Millet, ■— are suggestive of ideas and feelings that elude any direct expression. This little essay, so instinct with feeling and so rich in color, is in vivid contrast with the perfunctory style of some other writers in the same volume.

Matthew Arnold’s memoir of Gray is one of the longest, and is on the whole unsatisfactory. It would seem that the author is not quite settled in his own mind as to the genius of Gray, and he accompanies himself with inharmonic quotations from all sorts of people. The best parts of the essay are those that treat of the varied learning and acquirements of the poet. The selections include nearly every poem of value. Mark Pattison’s essay upon Pope is able and decisive. It is invaluable to the student, as it presents the literary history of the century in a just and clear light. Mr. Ward, the editor, furnishes the memoir of Cowper, which is pleasant and appreciative. Goldsmith is perhaps too lightly estimated by Professor Dowden. Burns is reviewed by an able writer, Dr. Service; and though, after the matchless essay of Carlyle, all other judgments must appear cold and inadequate, still in this modest introduction the character of the people’s poet and the traits of his genius are well set forth. William Blake, artist and poet, is sympathetically treated by J. Comyns Carr.

As we come to the end we have a feeling of disappointment, because the great poets who are still living are excluded. A volume of modern poetry in which we do not find Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, Morris, Rossetti, and Aubrey De Vere can hardly be satisfactory to American readers. Some of the best of nineteenth-century poets are singing yet. Some of the dead are omitted that deserve mention, and some are treated with unreasonable severity. Macaulay was not a great poet, but his Roman ballads are fully as good as the poems of Praed, or Tennant, or Mrs. Hemans. The tone in which that learned and powerful writer is mentioned is almost contemptible. It sounds like a tory strain, or perhaps is caught from the prevailing but unacknowledged feeling of Oxford against Cambridge. Horace Smith was not a great poet, either, but his Hymn to the Flowers will be remembered after many of the minor poems in these volumes have been forgotten.

In the last volume the disadvantages of having memoirs and estimates by different hands are painfully apparent. The separate judgments do not accord. Sir Henry Taylor has much to say of Southey, whose Oriental temples and domes of gilded words are as far as possible from poetic creations. His Battle of Blenheim, with its parrot-like refrain “ For’t was a famous victory,” his quaint address To a Spider, and his Stanzas Written in My Library comprise about all the poetry he ever wrote. Mr. J. A. Symonds presents Lord Byron to us as a splendid genius, with some faults, to be sure, and calls his Don Juan one of the great poems of the century; and the dean of St. Paul’s, R. W. Church, properly exalts Wordsworth as the great philosophical poet of our times. That these views are totally discordant it needs no argument to show. Between Wordsworth and Byron the distance is as great as between Gabriel and Mephistopheles, — between the peddler of the Excursion and Byron’s Lara. Of the article on Wordsworth it may be said that it is a wellreasoned and a correct statement by a careful and finished writer ; but it cannot for a moment be compared with the essay by Lowell upon the same subject. In Lowell’s vigorous, allusive, and ornate sentences there are thoughts and images beyond the power of any hut a highly poetical mind.

The characterization of Coleridge, by Walter H. Pater, is at once acute and felicitous. In the quality of pure imagination Coleridge ranks among the first of poets, and his psychological studies gave him a singular insight into the labyrinths of human feeling. All this is clearly reasoned and charmingly expressed. The illustrations of his imaginative power cited in the essay are numerous and to the point.

Landor is treated by Lord Houghton (Richard Monckton Milnes) at considerable length. Concerning this great man and great genius it may be said that no poems of any age are more completely “ caviare to the general ” than his. They are pure as crystals, fine cut as antique cameos, but wanting in human interest, because addressed to the intellectual faculties, and never to the emotional nature.

Matthew Arnold’s essay upon Keats shows the critic in his liveliest vein. The biographical portion is somewhat discursive, but it affords a vivid picture of the man; and in the critical estimate the qualities of his genius and his place among England’s noblest poets are clearly shown.

The admirers of Shelley will be pleased to notice the ample space given to the most ethereal, most poetical, of poets. The selections are admirable, as is natural; for how could any one possessed of the least taste go amiss ? The essay, which, if not thoroughly critical, is lucid, appreciative, and interesting, is by Frederic W. H. Myers.

But it will be impossible to notice the separate articles in detail. There is evidence throughout of careful study and of a spirit of fairness ; and if the whole impression is in some respects confusing, it is because entire unity is impossible in the work of so many laborers. The focal distance varies in the optical instruments of different observers. In some few instances space seems to have been wasted, as in the pages given to Thomas Peacock and T. L. Beddoes. It is difficult to consider such verses classic or even interesting. In other instances the difficulty appears to be in making quotation serve any fair purpose. This is so with regard to Mrs. Browning, an author whose power is undeniable, but not exerted in short, single impulses. The just impression of her poetry is to be obtained only by continuous reading. Vires acquirit eundo.

On the whole, it should be said that the bringing together of so many fine and thoughtful essays by so many different writers, animated by similar high purposes and finished with such literary art, is something that inspires a hearty admiration for the intellectual resources of the mother country.

We have reserved our remarks upon the Historical Introduction for the last. Such an essay may be likened to the portico of a building, and it should be appropriate in every sense to the main structure. The author, Matthew Arnold, has endeared himself to this generation by his liberal views and his generous sympathy with everything tending to elevate and refine mankind. His mind exhibits in full fruition the effects wrought by poetry in a serene, lovely spirit and a noble humanity. It is natural that in a work of cooperation like this he should have a prominent place. The historian begins with the Provencal poetry, dwells with some emphasis upon Chaucer, passes by Spenser and Shakespeare, dismisses Milton with a word, states the cases of Dryden and Pope, glances at Gray, expatiates at some length upon Burns (who is not an English poet), and then suddenly ends. The retrospect is rapid and erratic, and leaves a painful sense of incompleteness, not to say of irrelevancy. It is a survey of only rare portions of the field, and is not founded upon any philosophical view of the eras of development. We must add that, in the preliminary discussion upon the vital essence of poetry, he has almost wholly missed the mark. A specimen of verse might be accurately described in the terms he employs which should yet be destitute of poetry. The best statement is that in poetry “ thought and art are one.” He tells us that poetry “ has a mark, an accent, of high beauty and power.” What the mark or accent is he does not state, He quotes Aristotle as saying that poetry as compared with history is characterized by “ higher truth and a higher seriousness.” To this truth and seriousness. he says, must be added the charm of “ diction and movement.” When he comes to give instances, he refers rather pleonastically to Chaucer’s “ divine liquidness of diction and divine fluidity of movement.” He dwells lingeringly on the line,

“ O martyr souded in virgiuitee,” the rhythm of which is not superior to hundreds that could be quoted from the great bard. But the supreme instance he gives of the high poetic accent is a line of Dante, which he quotes three times: —

“In la sua voluntade è nostra pace.”

If nothing more can be said to show the inherent quality of poetry than is set down in this Historical Introduction, and if there are no more signal instances of the sublime and beautiful in English verse than are here cited, then the labors of critics have been vain, and this anthology is a waste of labor.

The reader, we think, will recognize the fact that the great element which Mr. Arnold has overlooked is imagination. Doubtless he has the limitations of other critics, and feels what lie does not adequately express. We are willing to believe this; otherwise, poetry with him, like the unvitalized religion satirized by St. Paul, would be like “ sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.”

Against these vague and disappointing definitions we will set some sentences from Mr. Pattison’s essay : ‘‘ Milton, like all poets of the first order, knew, or rather felt, that human action or passion is the only subject of poetry. This is no mere conventional rule, established by the critics or by custom; it rests upon the truth that poetry must be the vehicle of emotion. Poetry is an address to the feelings and imagination, not to the judgment and the understanding. The world and its cosrnical processes, or nature and natural scenery, are in themselves only objects of science. They become matter for the poet only after they have become impregnated with the joys and distresses, the hopes and fears, of man. . . . Descriptive poetry is in fact a contradiction in terms. . . . To exhibit in space is the privilege of the arts of design. Poetry, whose instrument is language, involves succession in time, and can only present that which comes to pass under one of its two forms, action or passion.”

“ Milton was in possession of this secret, . . . in virtue of the intensity of human passion which glowed in his bosom; . . . the imagery is there not for its own sake ; it is the vehicle of the personal feelings of the Man.”

“ The Addison-Johnson criticism, which regarded a poem as made up of images and propositions in verse, could not teach the truth. So the poets went to work to describe scenery. And our collections are filled with verse, didactic and descriptive, which, with many merits of style and thought, has no title to rank as poetry.”

This sound doctrine and its corollaries should have been placed at the beginning, and should have guided the selections and comments throughout. But, with all drawbacks, we are bound to say that tins collection of English poetry is by far the best which has been made within similar limits. The reading public will be grateful for such care aud taste as the work displays.

Francis H. Underwood.

  1. 2 The English Poets. Selections, with Critical Introductions by various writers, and a General Introduction by MATTHEW ARNOLD. Edited by THOMAS HUMPHRY WARD, M. AFour vols. London and New York: Macmillan & Co.