« PreviousContinue »
protested that true inspiration was rather to be found in “ae spark o' Nature's fire,”—or at the nearest tavern:
Leese me on drink! it gies us mair
Than either school or college. Like Sterne, who boasted that his pen governed him, Burns praised and affected the impromptu:
But how the subject theme may gang,
Let time or chance determine;
Perhaps turn out a sermon. His Muse was to be the mood of the moment. Herein he brought to fulfillment the sentimental desire for the liberation of the emotions; but his work, taken as a whole, can scarcely be said to vindicate the faith that the emotions, once freed, would manifest instinctive purity. At his almost unrivalled best, he can sing in the sweetest strains the raptures or pathos of innocent youthful love, as in Sweet Afton or To Mary in Heaven; but straightway sinking from that elevation of feeling to the depths of vulgarity or grossness, he will chant with equal zest and skill the indulgence of the animal appetites.* He hails the joys of life, but without discriminating between the higher and the lower. Yet these exuberant animal spirits which, unrestrained by conscience or taste, drove him too often into scurrility, gave his work that passion-warm, throbbing, and personal which had been painfully wanting in earlier poets of sensibility. It was his emotional intensity as well as his lyric genius that made him the most popular poet of his time.
In Burns, sentimentalism was largely temperamental, unreflective, and concrete. In William Blake, the singularity of whose work long retarded its due appreciation, sentimentalism was likewise temperamental; but, unconfined to actuality, became far broader in scope, more spiritual, and more consistently philosophic. Indeed, Blake was the ultimate sentimentalist of the century. A visionary and symbolist, he passed beyond Shaftesbury in his thought, and beyond any poet of the school in his endeavor to create a new and appropriate style. His contemporary, Erasmus Darwin, author of The Botanic Garden, was trying to give sentimentalism a novel interpretation by describing the life of plants in terms of human life; but, Darwin being destitute of artistic sense, the result was grotesque. Blake, by training and vocation an engraver, was primarily an artist; but, partly under Swedenborgian influences, he had grasped the innermost character of sentimentalism, perceived all its implications, and carried them fearlessly to their utmost bounds. To him every atom of the cosmos was literally spiritual and holy; the divine and the human, the soul and the flesh, were absolutely one; God and Man were only two aspects of pervasive “mercy, pity, peace, and love.” Nothing else had genuine reality. The child, its vision being as yet unclouded by false teachings, saw the universe thus truly; and Blake, therefore, in Songs of Innocence, gave glimpses of the world as the child sees it,--a guileless existence amid the peace that passes all understanding. He hymned the sanctity of animal life: even the tiger, conventionally an incarnation of cruelty, was a glorious creature of divine mould; to slay or cage a beast was, the Auguries of Innocence protested, to incur anathema. The Book of Thel allegorically showed the mutual interdependence of all creation, and reprehended the maiden shyness that shrinks from merging its life in the sacrificial union which sustains the whole.
* In this edition, the poems of Burns, unlike those of the other poets, are printed not in the order of their publication but as nearly as ascertainable in that of their composition,
To Blake the great enemy of truth was the cold logical reason, a truncated part of Man's spirit, which was incapable of attaining wisdom, and which had fabricated those false notions that governed the practical world and constrained the natural feelings. Instances of the unhappiness caused by such constraint, he gave in Songs of Experience, where The Garden of Love describes the blighting curse which church law had laid upon free love. To overthrow intellectualism and discipline, Man must liberate his most precious faculty, the imagination, which alone can reveal the spiritual character of the universe and the beauty that life will wear when the feelings cease to be unnaturally confined. Temporarily Blake rejoiced when the French Revolution seemed to usher in the millennium of freedom and peace; and his interpretation of its earlier incidents in his poem on that theme* illustrates in style and spirit the highly original nature of his mind. More than any predecessor he understood how the peculiarly poetical possibilities of sentimentalism might be elicited, namely by emphasizing its mystical quality. Thus under his guidance mysticism, which in the early seventeenth century had sublimated the religious poetry of the orthodox, returned to sublimate the poetry of the radicals; and with that achievement the sentimental movement reached its climax.
Burns died in 1796; Blake, lost in a realm of symbolism, became unintelligible; and temporarily sentimentalism suffered a reaction. The French Revolution, with its Reign of Terror, and the rise of a military autocrat, though supported, even after Great Britain had taken up arms against Napoleon, by some “friends of humanity" who placed universal brotherhood above patriotism, seemed to the general public to demonstrate that the sentimental theories and hopes were untrue to life and led to results directly contrary to those predicted. Once again, in Canning's caustic satires of The Anti-Jacobin, conservatism raised its voice. But by this time sentimentalism was too fully developed and widely spread to be more than checked. Under the new leadership of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, the movement, chastened and modified by experience, resumed its progress; and the fame of its new leaders presently dimmed the memory of those pioneers who in the eighteenth century had undermined the foundations of orthodoxy, slowly upbuilt a new world of thought, gradually fashioned a poetic style more suited to their sentiments than the classical, and thus helped to plunge the modern world into that struggle which, in life and in literature, rages about
ERNEST BERNBAUM * The French Revolution was suppressed at the time, and has been recovered only in our own day by Dr. John Sampson, who first published it in the admirable Clarendon Press edition of Blake.
ENGLISH POETS OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
If Heaven the grateful liberty would give,
I. THE GENTLEMAN'S RETIREMENT
Near some fair town I'd have a private seat,
With all those moderns, men of steady sense,
II. HIS FORTUNE AND CHARITY
I'd have a clear and competent estate,
III. His HOSPITALITY AND TEMPERANCE