20 AUGUST 1881, Page 14


MR. WARD'S ENGLISH POETS.* THESE two volumes will probably attract more readers than the earlier selections. The poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are criticised and illustrated -with much variety of opinion and ability, and the fact that the critics often differ in their judgments serves to make their comments more lively. No one who loves poetry and the literary gossip associated with our poets will find these pages dull. The volumes are full of interest, and at the same time, not wholly free from comments which will surprise and possibly irritate the student of our poetical literature. Mr. Matthew Arnold, it will be remem- bered, touched the chord of controversy in his introduc- tion to the work ; and in his literary criticisms, as well as in the notices of his coadjutors, a note may be occasion- ally heard which, in most ears, will sound like a discord, —as, for example, when Mr. Swinburne speaks of "the divine right and the godlike duty of tyrannicide." On the whole, however, the impression left by the work now before us in its complete form is highly favourable. It is a selection we are glad to possess, and shall always be glad to open ; and if it fail to satisfy the reader—and it ought not to satisfy him—it is fitted, by its able criticisms and generally well-chosen illustrations, to lead him to study for himself the great poets of his country. A selection of this kind is, of course, always open to criticism.

• The Engliah Poets; Selections, with Critical Introductions try Various Writer.., and a General Introduction by Matthew Arnold. Edited by Thomas EInmphry Ward, ILA. Vol. In. "Addison to Blake." Vol. IV. "Wordsworth to Dobell." London : Macmillan and Co. 1880. No two men probably think alike on matters poetical, and the various writers who supply the introductions to Volumes ilL and IV. are about thirty in number.

The first point for comment that strikes us is the somewhat arbitrary insertion of certain names supposed to be "poetically considerable," and the omission of others that have, at least, an equal claim to the honour. If Hookham Frere and Mackworth Praed deserve a place, why not Canning and Peter Pindar, and Horace Smith, and, above all, Thackeray, a greater humourist in verse than any of them ? If Sydney Dobell and Emily Brontë, why not James Montgomery, Christopher North, Alexander Smith, the once popular "L. E. L.," and that true, but by no means popular poet, Sir Aubrey de Vere ? The editor was probably compelled to give considerable freedom of choice to his contributors ; but the work would, we think, have been more valuable if that freedom had been abridged, and the selection had fulfilled the promise held out in Mr. Arnold's introduction, and comprised no names or poems that may not be called "celebrated." The independence of the criticisms no one would desire to limit.

The age of prose, as it is now customary to call an age once signalised by the absurd title of "Augustan," receives generous —some will say too generous—regard. Mr. Austin Dobson's treatment of Prior, Mr. Pattison's of Pope, Mr. Saintsbury's of Thomson, Mr. Swiuburne's of Collins, and above all, Mr.

Matthew Arnold's treatment of Gray, supply that fine literary criticism—in its charm so near akin to poetry—which will give a keener zest to the reader's pleasure in the study of these poets. He will read, too, with curiosity and interest Mr. Courthope's brief notes upon Dr Johnson, who is said to be the best writer of prologues in the language ; Professor Dowden's sympathetic words about Oliver Goldsmith, whose special art it has been to win something like affection from all his critics ; and Mr.

Gosse's appreciative comments on Lady Winchelsea, the " Ardelia" of Pope, a writer well-nigh lost to fame ; but critics, no matter how clever and ingenious, will induce few men, unless they be professed students, to read the passages selected from such small versemen as Dr. Armstrong, William Somerville, Mathew Green, and John Dyer.

In the fourth and final volume of the series, which begins with Wordsworth and ends with Sydney Dobell—a compara- tively insignificant poet, who might with advantage have given place to his brilliant parodist, Aytoun—there are few names we should wish to see omitted ; but to some poets, notably to Thomas Hood, a little more space, if not more praise, might justly have been granted. We cannot think that Hood is adequately represented, either as humonrist or poet, by "The Bridge of Sighs," "A Parental Ode to My Son," and "The Death-bed." To give more pages to Peacock than to Hood is assuredly an error. Peacock has his own place in our literature, and a unique place it is, but though he wrote clever verses, one may hesitate to rank him with the poets of his century.

And now, without attempting to criticise these volumes at the length which they demand—for this would almost need the fifty pages allowed to a Quarterly reviewer—we shall touch lightly on a few topics which may be said to force themselves on the attention. No one is better fitted than Mr. Dobson to appre- ciate the exquisite art of Prior, whose genius as a poet of society has never been surpassed. John Wesley thought that Prior's "Solomon "—a hopelessly dead poem—contained some of the finest verses that ever appeared in the English tongue, but there can be no doubt that this lively poet's fame depends wholly on his occasional verses. He can tell a story well in verse, and unfortunately, though Dr. Johnson would not admit it, wrote tales that are grossly offensive ; but Prior's special gift was that of a graceful and humorous lyrist, and as an epigrammatist Mr. Dobson truly says he is unrivalled in England. He gives, however, only two or three specimens of his art in this way. Prior, indeed, does not figure largely in this collection, but what Mr. Dobson says of him is singularly appreciative, and could not be better said :—

"However much," he writes, "one might attempt to define the work of Prior, there would always be a something left undefined,—a something that animates the whole and yet defies the critic, who falls back upon the old, threadbare devices for describing the inde- scribable. His is the 'nameless charm' of Piron's epigram, that fugi- tive je ne sais quoi of gaiety, of wit, of grace, of audacity, it is im- possible to say what, which eludes analysis, as the principle of life escapes the anatomist."

This is true, and yet it is worth observing that this biilliant lyrist is also, when he attempts to be solid and serions, one of the dullest and most prosaic of poets. . There are few English poems that have passed through so many editions as Thomson's "Seasons," a singularly original poem, full of faults and of beauties, and liked best probably by the uncritical reader for its weakest passages. Thomson was a friend of Pope, although the two poets had little in common, the one looking to Nature for his inspiration, the other to

Society ; but it is remarkable that Pope's best simile from Nature is to be found in an alteration made, with Thomson's sanction, in his episode of Palaemon and Lavinia. Mr. Saintsbury thinks that Thomson's blank *verse cannot receive too much commendation, which is somewhat startling praise. There are passages in "The Seasons" not to be surpassed for sonorous verse and vividness of imagination, but the glaring defects of the work—

defects of versification and of conception—are at least as conspicuous as its beauties. Another once popular but now neglected poet also receives generous recognition from Mr. Saintsbnry. Young is one of the lesser lights in the firmament of poetry ; and the " Castle of Indolence," or even the" Hymn," with which Thomson closes his "Seasons," are more precious poetically than the "Night Thoughts" or the "Last Day." Mr. Saiutsbury's judgment on the Rector of Welwyn is appre- ciative and just. He acknowledges the depths to which Young sinks, and that hardly any worse poetry has been written than his "Odes." On the other hand, "If poetry and poets could be judged by single lines, there are few, save the highest, who could safely challenge comparison with Young. He had an astonishing fertility of thought of a certain kind, and a corre- sponding fertility of expression."

The Seasons" and the "Night Thoughts" were the gift- books of our grandfathers. They were as much coveted by youthful readers eighty years ago, as Mr. Tennyson's works and Mr. Longfellow's are in our day. Thomson and Young stand still upon our shelves, but live no longer in our hearts ; their power is appreciated by critics, but their once enormous popu- larity has departed, never to return. Such is the uncertainty of fame land yet the fame of the poet is, of all fame, the most enduring.

Dean Stanley, writing of John and Charles Wesley, observes that a great critic of our day is said to have held out in one hand The Golden Treasury of English Lyrics, and in the other The Book of Praise, and to have asked why Mr. Palgrave's selection contains so little that is bad, and Lord Sel- borne's so little that is good. A hymn, it may be replied, does not need even for enduring popularity the distinctive quality which we term "poetical." It must have the ardour and earnestness which, in theological phraseology, are known as "unction ;" it must also have rhythmical movement ; but the best hymns are indebted far more to deep feeling than to imagination or fancy. Dean Stanley writes of the "uniform pedestrian style" which is, unfortunately, familiar to English Churchmen, in the vast mass of the verses contained in Hymns Ancient and Modern, and no doubt his happy phrase applies to a large number of those hymns. But we question whether this "pedestrian style" renders them less beautiful or less dear to the hearts of Churchmen. The special charm which makes some of these hymns instinct with life in every line is due to the spirit of devotion rather than to the spirit of poetry. Some- times the two combine, and then the strain of the hymn-writer, as in the "Wrestling Jacob" of Charles Wesley, quoted by the Dean, is worthy of a great lyric poet. And this allusion to lyric poetry reminds us that, in Mr. Swinburne's judgment, the first half of the last century produced in Collins its one, dis- tinguished, lyric poet. In this respect Gray, we are told, was not worthy to unloose the latchets of his shoes :—

"The Muse gave birth to Collins ; she did but give suck to Gray.

His range of flight was, perhaps, the narrowest, but assuredly the highest of his generation He could put more

spirit of colour into a single stroke, more breath of music into a single note, than could all the rest of his generation into all the labours of their lives."

Mr. Matthew Arnold's critical comments on Gray follow those of Mr. Swinburne upon Collins. In style and in method of thought the contrast between these two critics is remark- able. Mr. Arnold has more than once lately adopted what may be called an arbitrary mode of criticism, in which he hangs all his remarks upon some phrase more or less appropriate. A friend of Gray had said that the poet never spoke out, and these words form the text of Mr. Arnold's discourse. He never spoke out, because he was born in an age of prose, and to this misfortune it was due that he wrote so little, and also that the little he did write is not free from the faults of the time. "Still, with whatever drawbacks," the critic adds, " Gray is alone, or almost alone (for Collins has something of the like merit), in his age." It is pretty evident that Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Arnold are far from estimating alike the merits of these two great lyrists ; but it is fair to add that while Mr. Arnold has nothing more to say of Collins, Mr. Swinburne, in his large way of writing, celebrates the unassailable and sovereign station that Gray holds for all ages to come as an elegiac poet.

The suggestiveness of the comments on the great poets of this century, and on some poets that are not great, makes it difficult to break off, but this review is already too long. Briefly, we may ask the reader to turn to Sir Henry Taylor's judicious remarks upon Rogers, Campbell, and Southey, and if any one hesitates to accept the magnificent eulogy of Southey, who, for his ardent piety, his moral strength, the variety of his powers, and the beauty of his life, is pronounced to be, of all his contemporaries, the greatest 9nan, it may be well to remem- ber that a very similar opinion was expressed by Sara Cole- ridge, a woman eminent for her acuteness and sanity of judgment. Sir Henry Taylor allows, of course, that in Southey's day there were greater thinkers and greater poets ; but the man Southey, although not the author, probably deserves the place here assigned to him by his friendly critic. Sir Walter Scott is scarcely represented with suffi- cient fullness in this selection, but the introduction by Mr. Goldwin Smith is a creditable performance. We like it far better than his recent biography of Cowper. Scott's manly, clear-sighted nature, his directness, and simple representation of nature are not appreciated by certain subtly-endowed critics of our day, who prefer what is mystical in thought and intricate in expression. Shelley, the idol of imaginative souls, had probably a clear idea of what he meant by his song ; but its lovely music seems to have the art, certainly not designed by the poet, of converting otherwise sound critics into raving enthusiasts. This "most unspeakable of artists" is treated with comparative moderation of judgment by Mr. Myers ; but we notice here an inclination to carry his criticism to a height which his readers will scarcely care to climb with him. His critical aspirations may be, to a certain extent, stimulating and noble, but there is a point where the mountain mists surround him, and the eye can follow hint no longer.

Something we should like to have said of Mr. Matthew Arnold's masterly criticism of Keats, of the editor's treatment of Clough, of Lord Houghton's delightful comments upon Landor, and of Dean Stanley's notes on Keble. There is fruitful matter here, which the reader will seek for himself. In closing the volumes, we must express our regret that they are injured by a few glaring misprints.