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American Scott, the American Mrs. Hemans, the American Wordsworth. There is nothing to fear from too great license as yet. At present, every English author can see a distorted reflection of himself here, a something like the eidolons of the Homeric Hades, not ghosts precisely, but unsubstantial counterparts. He finds himself come round again, the Atlantic Ocean taking the function of the Platonic year. Our authors are the best critics of their brethren (or parents) on the other side of the water, catching as they do only what is exaggerated in them. We are in need of a literary declaration of independence; our literature should no longer be colonial.
Let us not be understood as chiming in with that foolish cry of the day, that authors should not profit by example and precedent, a cry which generally originates with some hardy imitator, the "stop thief!" with which he would fain distract attention from himself. It is the tower-stamp of an original mind, that it gives an awakening impulse to other original minds. Memory was the mother of the Muses. Montaigne says, "In my country, when they would decipher a man that has no sense, they say such a one has no memory." But to imitate the works of another is not to profit by them. It is making them our dungeon. It is better to smell of the lamp than of the library. Yet the most original writers have begun in some sort as imitators, and necessarily so. They must first learn to speak by watching the lips and practising the tones of others. This once acquired, the native force within masters and moulds the instrument. speare's early poems have the trick and accent of Spenser. Milton's Comus was written with a quill from the Swan of Avon's wing, dipped in Jonson's ink. But even the imitations of an original mind give no small oracle of originality. The copyist mimics mannerisms only. Like Crashaw's minstrel,
"From this to that, from that to this, he flies."
The original mind is always consistent with itself. Michel Angelo, cramped by the peculiar shape of a piece of marble which another sculptor had roughed out for a conception of his own, conquered something characteristic out of that very restraint, and the finished statue proclaimed its author. The poet, like the sculptor, works in one material, and there, in the
formless quarry of the language, lie the divine shapes of gods and heroes awaiting the master's evocation.
The republication of a poem which has made a sensation in England is not without its importance to us. We read of an ancient nation who, every New Year, made clean hearths, and then rekindled them with fire sent round by their king for that end. A rite not unlike this in form, though widely dif ferent in meaning, is still maintained by many of our authors. So soon as a new light makes its appearance in England, every native rushlight is ceremoniously extinguished, and the smoking wick set once more ablaze by the stolen touch of that more prosperous foreign flame. From the avatar of this Christmas we cannot remotely conjecture in what shape an author shall choose to appear at the next. But the book, which we have made the text of our somewhat erratic discourse, is not only worthy of notice, inasmuch as it may serve as a model, but still more from its own intrinsic merits, and because it is a strong protest against the form and spirit of the poetry now in vogue. It once more unburies the hatchet of the ancient feud between what are called the "natural" and "artificial" schools.
The dispute in this case, as in most others, has concerned itself chiefly about words. An exact definition of the terms used by the contending parties would have been the best flag of truce. Grant the claims of the disciples of Pope, and you blot out at once the writings of the greatest poets that ever lived. Grant those of the opposite party, and you deny to Pope any merit whatever. The cardinal point of the whole quarrel lies in the meaning attached to the single word poet. The most potent champion of Popery in our day gave by his practice the direct lie to his assumed theory. The Age of Bronze, the only poem which he wrote professedly upon this model, is unreadable from sheer dulness. His prose letters in the Bowles controversy were far more in Pope's vein and spirit.
The author of the New Timon avows himself a follower of Pope. We shall by-and-by have occasion to try him by his own standard. In the mean time, we shall barely remark, that his allusions to Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Keats are presumptuous and in bad taste. The fact that he misspells the name of one of these poets argues either a very petty affectation, or a shameful unfamiliarity with what he pretends to criticize.
The truth is, that Pope's merit lies in the concinnity and transparency of his style. It is this, rather than the sentiment, which charms. Thousands of readers find no want of orthodoxy in the Essay on Man, who would recoil in horror from the rough draught of Bolingbroke, on which it was based. Fancy, purity of diction, conciseness, unfailing wit, all these are Pope's, and they have given him immortality. But these are not essentially the attributes of a poet. In imagination, the crowning faculty of the poet, nay, the one quality which enphatically distinguishes him as such, Pope is wanting. A single example of the pure exercise of this faculty is not to be found in his works.
A profusion of ignorance and bad temper have been lavished on this topic. Had the controversy been understandingly carried on, there would have been no occasion for ill-feeling. One chief blunder has been the defining of authors as belonging to a certain school because they happened to be addicted to the use of a measure consisting of a certain number of feet, yet not the less variable on that account. Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith are commonly named together, authors as dissimilar as Chaucer and Racine. Crabbe, Campbell, and Rogers have all three used the same measure, yet are wholly unlike each other and unlike their three predecessors above named. Byron, who also used the "English Heroic" (as it is commonly called) in the Corsair and some other poems, presents still another totally distinct variety.
What, then, is the secret of that predilection in the minds of many to that kind of writing which is rather vaguely defined to be "of the Pope school"? Many, no doubt, adhere to it on the ground of its age and respectability, a prejudice which Pope himself has admirably satirized. Others commend it on the score of its being easily comprehensible. Others again are charmed with what they esteem the grace, precision, and finish of its metre.
It is unquestionably the prime merit of style, that it conveys the author's ideas exactly and clearly. But after all, the ideas to be conveyed are of more importance than the vehicle, and it is one thing to see distinctly what they are, and another to comprehend them. Undoubtedly the first requisite is that they be worth comprehending. Once establish the principle, that easiness of comprehension is the chief
merit in literature, and the lowest order of minds will legislate for the exercise of that faculty which should give law to the highest. Every new book would come to us with the ambiguous compliment, that it was adapted to the meanest capacity. We have never been able to appreciate with any tolerable distinctness the grounds of that complacent superiority implied in the confession of not being able to understand an author, though we have frequently seen airs assumed on the strength of that acknowledged incapacity. One has a vision of the lame, halt, and blind dropping compassionate fourpences into the hats of their unmutilated fellow-citizens. Apelles judged rightly in pronouncing Alexander's horse a better critic than his master. The equine was more liberal than the imperial appreciation.
The merit of Pope is wholly of the intellect. There is nothing in him of that finer instinct which characterizes all those who, by universal consent, have been allowed as great poets, and have received the laurel from posterity. His instinct is rather that of a man of taste than of genius. In reading Shakspeare, we do not concern ourselves as to the particular shape which his thoughts assume. That is wholly a secondary affair. We should as soon think of criticizing the peculiar form of a tree or a fern. Though we may not be able to codify the law which governs them, we cannot escape a feeling of the harmony and fitness resulting from an obedience to that law. There is a necessity for their being of that precise mould, and no other, which peremptorily overrules all cavil. With Pope, on the contrary, the form is what first demands notice. It is here that the poet has put forth his power and displayed his skill. He makes verses by a voluntary exercise of the intellect, rather than from the overflow of the creative power. We feel that he had his choice between several forms of expression, and was not necessarily constrained to the one he has selected. His verses please us, as any display of mental skill and vigor never fails to do. The pleasure he gives us is precisely similar to that we derive from reading the Spectator, and is in both cases the result of identical causes. His apothegms are wholly of the intellect, and that, too, of the intellect applied to the analysis of artificial life. He does not, according to Bacon's definition of poetry, "conform the shows of things to the desires of the soul." Yet he dwells in the
shows of things rather than in the substances, and conforms them, sometimes despotically, to the necessities of his satire. He jeers and flouts the artificial life which he sees. He mocks at it, as Lucian derided Zeus, an atheist to the gods of the day, with no settled belief in any higher gods. He does not confute the artificial by comparison with any abiding real. He impales all contemporary littlenesses upon the sharp needles of his wit, and in his poems, as in an entomological cabinet, we see preserved all the ugly insects of his day. He does not tacitly rebuke meanness by looking over it to the image of a perennial magnanimity. He does not say sternly, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" but mischievously affixes a stinging epigram to horns, hoof, and tail, and sends Beelzebub away ridiculous. His inkstand was his arsenal, but it was not his to use it in Luther's hearty catapultic fashion.
We do not so much commend the New Timon, then, as being a return to purer models, but as a protest against the excesses into which the prevailing school had degenerated. Latterly, poetry seems to have deserted the strong and palpable motions of the common heart, and to have devoted itself to the ecstatic exploration of solitary nerves, the less tangible, the better. The broad view attainable from those two peaks of Parnassus, which Sir John Denham sensibly defined to be "Nature and Skill," seems to be wellnigh neglected. Our young poets, instead of that healthy glow of cheek earned only by conversation with the robust air of the summit, and the labor incident to the rugged ascent, seem to value themselves upon their paleness, and to think him the better man who has spent most time in peering dizzily down the dark rifts and chasms round the base of the mountain, or in gazing into the potential millstones of its solid rock. The frailer the tissue of the feeling, the greater the merit in tracing it to its extremes, a spiderlike accomplishment at best. Their philosophy (if we call that so which they esteem as such, and which is certainly nothing else) stands in grave need of Philotas's leaden soles. One might almost expect to see them blown out of existence by the incautious puffs of their own publisher or clique. The farther the poet can put himself out of the common, the more admirable is he. The reflections of Perillus in his bull, of Regulus in his hogshead, or of Clarence in his malmsey-butt, would furnish