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ENGLISH POETS OF THE NINETEENTH
The consideration of the “Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century” involves more than a mere criticism of individual authors.
can pay much attention to the theme, without being led into inquiries concerning the nature and province of poetry, and the verbal difficulties which perplex the subject of literary ethics. A few observations on some of the sophisms which make poetry synonymous with falsehood, and virtue with propriety, may not be uninteresting to our readers.
The common objection, to poetry lies in the word “unreal.” In most minds, real life is confounded with actual life. The ideal or the imaginary is deemed to be, at the best, but a beautiful illusion. Reality is affirmed chiefly of those objects directly cognizable by the senses and the understanding. Now, it seems to us, that the mere fact that most minds perceive a higher existence than the life they actually lead, a life more in harmony with moral and natural laws, is an evidence that actual life is a most imperfect embodiment of real life. The difference between duty and conduct, law and its observance, nature and convention, about measures the difference between the real and the actual. No sophism can be more monstrous than that which represents actual life as sufficient for the wants and capacities of human nature. In all the great exigencies of existence, the actual glides away under our very feet, and the soul falls back instinctively upon what is real and permanent. The code of practical atheism, which condemns poetry as fantastical, strikes at the very root of morals and religion; and those prudent worldlings who adopt it must have a very dim insight into the ethical significance of those words which represent the world as “living in a vain show.” Now, poetry is the protest of genius against the unreality of actual life. It convicts convention of being false to the nature of things; and it does so by perceiving what is real and permanent in man and the universe. It actualizes real life to the imagination, in forms of grandeur and beauty corresponding to the essential truth of things. Literature is the record of man's attempt to make actual to thought a life approaching nearer to reality than the boasted actual life of the world. If the term ideal means something opposed to truth, then it should be abandoned to all the scorn and contempt which falsehood deserves. But the falsehood of life is not in idea so much as in practice; and the sin of the ideal consists, not in being itself a lie, but in giving the lie to commonplace. If the phrase, realizing the ideal, were translated into the phrase, actualizing the real, much ambiguity might be avoided. The inspiration of all the hatred lavished on poetry, by the narrowminded and selfish, is the feeling that poetry convicts them of folly, falsehood, and meanness.
* The Poets and Poetry of England in the Nineteenth Century. By Rufus W. Griswold. Philadelphia : Carey & Hart. 1 vol. 8vo. Second editiou. American Review, July, 1845.
Poetry, then, is, most emphatically, a “substantial world.” Who shall estimate what vast stores of happiness and improvement the domain of imagination has revealed to us? There we see the might and the majesty, the beauty and the grace, the tenderness and the meekness, of humanity, in their real forms. Let us think, for one moment, of the new world of beings which genius has created, and which poetry makes the denizens of all earnest hearts. Who shall say that he is without companions, to whose soul the marvellous beings of the poet's heart and fancy are constant visitants? In that wide variety of individual characters, whom genius has framed out of the finest and greatest elements of human nature, do we not find companions as genial, friends as true, as those whose faces we see, and whose hands we clasp ? Are they not the brethren of our minds and hearts seen by the soul, if not by the eye ? Do they not shed the hues of romance, and inspire the thoughts of power, amid the most toilsome drudgery of existence ? Faces may glad the eye of the artisan, in his unremitting labor, as warm, as kindling, and as beautiful, as ever beamed in palaces, or shed lustre on courts. The aristocracy of convention may think him too mean for notice, yet the
of Miriam may mingle with the clink of his hammer, and the sweetest embodiments of beauty and grace which the cunning of genius has shaped may cluster around him in familiar intercourse! Who shall measure the happiness of the boy, when he is first introduced to the realities of Robinson Crusoe, and pores with trembling delight over the dear, dog-eared leaves ? In reading works of imagination, worthy of the name, we do not treat them as fictions. The Vicar of Wakefield we love as a real being. Falstaff, with his rosy face and nimble wit, is a companion who reflects our whole joyousness of mood. We are with the fifth Henry in the trenches of Harfleur; with Balfour of Burley in his rock-ribbed prison ; with Rob Roy on his native heather. We stand on the parapet with the Jewess, and echo her defiance to the Knight Templar; we eagerly follow every step of Jeannie Deans, in that toilsome and dangerous journey to London, which has given to her name the immortality of the affections. We muse and moralize with Jacques; we play pranks with the delicate Ariel ; we break a lance with the stout Sir Tristam ; we smite, with the first Richard, the “Paynim foe in Palestine.” Touchstone has always a sharp jest in his very look to make our risibles tingle with delight. Faulconbridge has ever at hand a phrase of scorn, which we can pitch at cowardice and hypocrisy; Macbeth has ever a solemn truth to thrill our souls with
We have friends for every mood, comforters for every sorrow; a glorious company of immortals, scatter. ing their sweet influences on the worn and beaten paths of our daily life. Shapes that haunt thought's wilder
" nesses” are around us in toil, and suffering, and joy; mitigating labor, soothing care, giving a keener relish to delight; touching the heroic string in our nature with a noble sentiment; kindling our hearts, lifting our imaginations, and hovering alike over the couch of health and the sick pillow, to bless and cheer, and animate and console !
The world of beings we have been considering, we deem a real world. Poetry is that sublime discontent with the imperfection of actual life, arising from the vision of something better and nobler, of which actual life is still speculatively capable. This discontent is the source of the poetical, whether displayed in action
or thought. It is the inspiration of reform. Poets have thus been finely called the "unacknowledged legislators of the world;" for the passionate or persuasive utterance of great thoughts brings them home to the affections ; and, embodied in shapes of beauty, they imperceptibly mould the minds by whom they are perceived. The ideal of yesterday becomes the fact of to-day. True progress consists in a continual actualization of realities. Poetry, in its theoretical aspect, refers to truth, and to truth alone. But poets, living in actual life, must, to some extent, partake of its imperfections. Their perceptions of the real must be affected by the influences of their time, and by individual passions and prejudices. "The gift of genuine insight" is possessed by none in perfection, and to none is the whole domain of reality open. Thus we do not call Shakspeare a universal poet, but the most universal of all poets. Poetry, in the form in which it appears in literature, may be practically defined, as a record, left by the greatest natures of any age, of their aspirations after a truth and reality above
It represents, to some extent, the “motion toiling in the gloom
“The spirit of the years to come,
Yearning to mix itself with life.”
The real elements in the life of any people, the most interesting and valuable portions of their history, everything in them not shifting and empirical, may be said to constitute their poetry. When Sir Philip Sidney ordered the
сир of water, intended to slake his own dying thirst, to be passed to the wounded soldier by his side, he made his most important contribution to the poetry of his nation.