"Is the man going mad? thought I. He is very like Don Quixote.
"'What color are they, I say?' repeated he vehemently.
"'I am sure I don't know, sir,' said I, with the meekness of ignorance.
"'I knew you didn't. No more did I—an old fool that I am!— till this young man comes and tells me. Black as ash-buds in March. And I've lived all my life in the country; more shame for me not to know. Black: they are jet-black, madam.'"
Excellent botany, no doubt, and very dainty verse; and yet I cannot think the fame of the great masters of song depends on such trivialities as this. Black as ash-buds March,—one might read all the famous epics of the past without acquiring this curious bit of information. Now it is perfectly sure that, practically all the verse--makers of the present day look to natural description for their main theme, and would clap their poetical hands as in the joy of a vast inspiration over one such novel bit of observation that chanced to fall in their way. And in this they have but carried to its extreme tenuity the disposition of the romantic poets, their forbears. There is a good deal of this petty, prying nature-cult in Keats and Shelley, along with inspiration of a more solid or mystical quality. And it is Wordsworth who chants over the small celandine:—
"Since the day I found thee out,
Little flower!—I'll make a stir,
Like a great astronomer."
Some kinship of spirit, some haunting echo of the revolutionary cry, binds us very close to the singers of that age, and we are perforce influenced by their attitude toward the outer world. It would be a matter of curious inquiry to search out the advent of this nature-worship into poetry, and to trace it down through later writers. Its growth and culmination are in a way coincident with the revolutionary period to which Byron belongs, and, like most innovations of the kind, it denotes both an enlargement and a loss of idealism. The peculiar form of religious enthusiasm developed in the Middle Ages had wrought out its own idealism. The soul of the individual man seemed to the Christian of that day, as it were, the centre of the world, about which the divine drama of salvation revolved; and on the position taken by the individual in this drama depended his eternal life. A man's personality became of vast importance in the universal scheme of things, and a new and justifiable egotism of intense activity was born. There was necessarily an element of anguish in this thought of personal importance and in security, but on the whole, while faith lasted, it was overbalanced by feelings of joy and peace; for, after all salvation was within reach. The idealism of such a period found its aim in the perfection of man's soul, and humanity in the life of its individual members was the one theme of surpassing interest. The new humanism which came in with the Renaissance modified, but did not entirely displant this ideal; the faith of the earlier ages remained for a long time intact. But by the closing years of the eighteenth century the long illusion of man's personal value in the universe had been rudely shattered; his anchor of faith bad been rent away. Then came the readjustment which is still in progress, and is still the cause of so much unrest and tribulation. In place of the individual arose a new ideal of humanity as a whole,—a very pretty theory for philosophers, but in no wise comforting for the homeless soul of man, trained by centuries of introspection to deem himself the chosen vessel of grape. There was a season of revolt. The individual, still bearing his burden of self-importance, and seeing now no restrictive laws to bind him, gave himself to all the wild vagaries of the revolutionary period. Nor is it a matter of chance that Voltaire, the father of modern skepticism, and Rousseau, the first of romantic nature-worshipers, had worked together to this end. It was under this stimulus that those who were unable to silence the inner need amidst the turmoil of action turned to the outer world, seeking there the comfort of an idealism not attainable in the vague abstraction of humanity. The individual found a new solace in reverie, which seemed to make him one with the wide and beneficent realm of nature. The flattering trust in his own eternal personality was undermined, the unsubdued egotism born of the old faith left him solitary amid mankind; he turned for companionship to the new world whose kinship to himself was so newly discovered:—
"Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
In solitude, where we are least alone;
A truth, which through our being then doth melt
And purifies from self: it is a tone,
The soul and source of music, which makes known
Eternal harmony, and sheds a charm,
Like to the fabled Cytherea's zone,
Binding all things with beauty;—'t would disarm
The spectre Death, had he substantial power to harm."
An eternal harmony did indeed spring from this new source of music; it was a substantial gain, a new-created idealism in poetry. But we should not shut our eyes to the concomitant danger and loss. In this flattering absorption into nature the poet was too apt to forget that, after all, the highest and noblest theme must forever be the struggle of the human soul; he was too ready to substitute vague reverie for honest thought, and to lose his higher sympathy with man in the eager pursuit of minute phenomena. We are all familiar with the travestied nature-cult to be seen especially in un attached women, who seek in this way an outlet for unemployed emotions such as formerly they found in religious enthusiasm. There is, alas, too much of this petty sentimentality in the verse of the day. We turn to the earlier bards of the century, the founders of this new religion, for guidance and inspiration, and too often we imitate their weakness instead of their strength. Wordsworth has made a stir over the small celandine, and Tennyson has discovered that ash-buds are black in March; the present generation must, for originality, examine the fields with a botanist's lens, while the poor reader, who retains any use of his mind, is too often reminded of the poet Gray's shrewd witticism, that he learnt botany to save himself the trouble of thinking. If for no other reason, we are justified in calling attention to Byron, who in his treatment of nature shows the same breadth and mental scope, the same human sympathy, which characterize his classical use of metaphor.