Aubrey De Vere's Essays

A POET’S thoughts about poetry are always interesting; and in these two volumes 1 we have not only criticism of the greatest of English poets, which is the fruit of long-continued reflection upon them, but also a theory of poetry. Aubrey de Vere, too, shows plain signs of having himself lived much in the ideal elements of life; in his mind poetry has been a vital thing. He values it chiefly for its highest office as a teacher of moral wisdom, and a quickener of the spiritual part of our nature. He justly decides that its real subject is man’s life ; this is the centre of interest in all great thought, and the rest is but ornament and episode. Naturally, he seeks in Spenser and Wordsworth, who were respectively the principal philosophical poets of their time, their ideas regarding humanity. It is not common to treat of Spenser in this way. His work, with its intricate allegory, its machinery of fairyland and chivalry, its ideal landscape, is regarded as remote from life; but just as the creations of art, which also have what one may call this objective unreality, are yet the expression, oftentimes, of the most real human feeling and the most substantial thought of the mind, so the figures of his embroidered poem compose a procession of true life. They are conceived and used in accordance with a comprehensive doctrine of the nature of humanity, which Spenser undoubtedly meant to enforce through the medium of the imagination; this doctrine, in fact, is the stuff they are made of.

It is not an easy thing to resolve into its moral elements the creations of a poet who blends many strains of truth. His method is not the consecutive process of logical reflection and explication, but the simultaneous embodiment of what, however arrived at, he presents as intuitive, needing only to be seen, to be acknowledged. In the analysis, the distinctive poetic quality is too apt to be dissipated, and the poet is forgotten in the philosopher. Certain broad aspects maybe easily made out. Chivalry, with its crowd of fairy knights, certainly rests, in Spenser’s great work, upon the old conception of the Christian life as one militant against the enemies of the soul in the world ; and quite as clearly he also represents this life as being, within the breast, ideal peace. Peace within and war without: these are two root-ideas out of which the poem flowers on its great double branches. He teaches specifically how to attain self-control, and how to meet attacks from without; or rather how to seek those many forms of error which do mischief in the world, and to overcome them for the world’s welfare. This is a bald statement, but it indicates well enough in. what way Spenser employed the knightly ideal of succor on the one hand, and the Christian ideal of moral perfection on the other, in order to make a poem which should instruct as well as delight the world. He himself asserts that his aim was as lofty as this, and to a man such as he was a lower aim, a merely artistic purpose, would have been impossible. It is fortunate that he was not less endowed with the sense of loveliness than with a serious mind ; for he thus illustrates not only the possible union of the two principal aims of poetry in all times, but also the truth that to a man whose perception of beauty is most perfect the beauty of holiness is the more impressive and authoritative in its commands. Aubrey de Vere, in his two long essays upon this theme, devotes himself especially to the declaration and the proof that Spenser’s poetic character was essentially that of a man deeply interested in human life, and he tries to prevent the poet’s severely ideal, and sometimes fantastic, method from obscuring, as for many minds it does, the real nature of that allegory, so marvelous for invention, eloquence, and perpetual charm of style, which is seldom thought to be more than an intricate and lovely legend of the imagination. The critic is not blind to the great defects of the work, — and no poem of equal rank has more, — nor does he neglect the excellences that are obvious to the least thoughtful reader ; but he succeeds in placing before us its intellectual and moral substance.

In doing this he reveals his own theory of poetry, and it is one that derives its philosophy from the great historic works of our literature, and is grounded on the practice of the English masters whose fame is secure. Its cardinal principle is that man is the only object of interest to man, all else being subordinate, and valuable only for its relations to this main theme ; and more particularly this subject is the spiritual life, not the material manifestations of his energies in deeds apart from their meaning. The Italian masters of Spenser too often lost themselves in incident, in romance, in story for its own sake ; they were destitute of that ethical spirit which insists on planting in the deeds their significance, and regarding this as an integral, and indeed the only immortal, part of the action. The laws of life, not the chances of individuals, were Spenser’s subject, and in this he differs from Ariosto, and leaves his company. Spenser’s genius was thus abstract and contemplative, and Platonic in the sense that he used images always with some reference to the general truths that transcend imagination, and are directly apprehended only intellectually. Allegory was therefore his necessary method. Spenser never succeeded in harmonizing the disparate elements of his material to which he fell heir by literary tradition ; and besides the inconsistencies and incoherencies of the Renaissance culture, which never reached any unity in its own time, there were also special disturbances in his intellectual life because of the political and religious conflicts in England itself, from entanglement with which he was not free ; and, moreover, he does not seem to have subdued the philosophical and poetic impulses of his own nature to any true accord. His poem, therefore, did not take on that perfection, that identity of purpose and execution, which would have placed it in the first rank, and he remains below the supreme poets of the world. The study of his work, as an illustration of the conditions and art of poetry, is most instructive. Its defects teach more than its excellence, but they do not disturb the theory which Aubrey de Vere sets forth ; and he would be but a blind critic who should easily argue that Spenser succeeded when he obeyed the pure artistic impulse, and failed because of the interference of his graver genius with the poetical mind, his thought with his sensibility.

But let us take the other example of Wordsworth. The great difference between the two is, that Spenser was concerned with the moral virtues and man’s acquirement of them, while Wordsworth was more narrowly limited to the influence of nature in forming the soul. Both looked to the same end, — spiritual life; but Wordsworth had a different startingpoint. His mind was more individual, and he assumed that his own history was typical; he was less rich in the stores of antiquity, and he had less sensibility to beauty in its ideal forms ; but he knew the place that nature held in his own development, and he became specifically the poet of nature, not only as beauty visible to the eye, but also, and mainly, as an invisible influence in the lives of men. Much of his verse was a pastoral form of philosophy ; meditation counted for more than beauty in it, but the scene was the English country, and the characters were rustics. There was, too, something of imaginative untruth in it, no doubt, similar to that inherent in all pastoral poetry. These common men, however, were not individuals, but stood for man, and Wordsworth, in delineating their histories, was writing a parable as well as a story. In other portions of his verse, he used a more abstract method, especially in the Orphic Odes, to which Aubrey de Vere calls special attention for the sake of the thought they contain. It is not necessary to enter on the subject of Wordsworth more particularly. As a moralist he was much given to maxims ; and in all that concerns the social and political life of man, as well as his personal relations to virtue, Wordsworth was, as the critic claims with much emphasis, filled with a certain ardor, which may be called passion, if one likes. The lack of passion in the ordinary sense — and it cannot be made out that Wordsworth possessed this quality — only renders more plain the moral endowment of the poet, his absorbing interest in the manly virtues, and the supreme value which he placed on the spiritual life and its ideal relations. He considered these relations most directly as existing toward nature, and having their operation in the emotion which nature excites. He did not altogether escape from the pantheism incident to such a constant preoccupation of the mind with the works and course of nature, and consequently he is less distinctively Christian than Spenser ; but Aubrey de Vere easily makes it out that Wordsworth’s philosophy, much as it differed from Spenser’s, is concerned with the same topics of moral and spiritual life, and is the substance of his poetry.

It would be an error, however, if the reader should fancy that the critic pleads his cause in the hard and argumentative manner in which it falls to us to state it. His method of treatment, notwithstanding some stiffness and orderliness in the plan, is really discursive, with much examination of passages in detail. The important thing to us is the attitude he takes, which is always idealistic in thought, and exacting of the moral element in spirit. In another essay he divides all poets into the national and the ideal schools. Something might well be urged against such a line of demarkation, for the two overlap ; but he means to include the realistic poets in the former division, and the poets who were less confined to the objective material of their own age in the latter. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Coleridge he calls mainly national, and Spenser, Milton, Shelley, Keats, and Landor mainly ideal. The principal value of this distinction is, that it groups together those poets of whom he specially treats ; and they, we need not say, are, in this portion of the essays, the ideal ones. He is not just to Milton, but we let that pass. In writing of the others, he has opportunity for still further illustration of the theory of poetry he holds, and he shows that these later poets have their best success the closer they keep to the subject of man, and the more they treat it with a pure, spiritual method ; while, on the other hand, they are defective in proportion as they fail in this. It would be impossible for a critic with such standards as these to pass in review the work of the moderns, and not to notice the general decline in the moral weight and the spirituality of late poetic literature. Materialism, both as respects the objects of man’s pursuit and the character of his speculation in philosophy, has been so important and growing a factor of the times that, if there is any validity in this theory of poetry, it must follow that our poetic work has lost elevation, meaning, and utility. Religion itself, so far as the general thought of nineteenth-century civilization is concerned, has suffered a diminution of its authority, and consequently the spiritual life of man has filled a less prominent part in the eyes of these generations. It is significant that these volumes end with one or two religious essays, in which the Christian defends faith itself against attack, not in a controversial but in a humane spirit, and from the standpoint of the higher life.

These essays, taken together, are thus a protest against the general tendencies of our time, and draw a lesson from our poetical literature to show us the value of great ideas to the poet, and by consequence to all those to whom the poet appeals. The writer speaks as a man rather than a critic, and his interest, as well as that of the poets he specially analyzes for us, is in our life. We think no student of literature can read these volumes without great profit ; for besides the general theory which they unfold, they contain much minute criticism, and many happily turned dicta and suggestive observations by the way, and they embody the results of a thorough and sympathetic acquaintance with the poets. There is, with the rest, a long review of the entire body of Sir Henry Taylor’s work in detail, which is studded with critical remarks upon the drama as a form of art, and also upon its English history. Altogether, there is a body of criticism here, the ripened result of a full mind, such as comes only from the reflection of a lifetime. It bears unmistakable evidences of great refinement of taste, of much thoughtful care, of wide familiarity with literature ; and there is throughout its pages a rare feeling for what is pure and wise and noble in the imaginative work of the great poets, and what is serviceable for the spiritual life, under whatever creeds or masters it may be led ; and its spirit is as enlightened as it is liberal. This may seem high praise, but nothing less would convey our sense of the real excellence of these essays, and of the importance of the truth about poetry, which is also truth about life, that they try to set forth and to make prevail.

  1. Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By AUBREY DE VERE, LL. D. 2 vols. New York: London: Macmillan & Co. 1887.