Alfred Austin



The Poetry of the Period.





THE reader who has been good enough to peruse the critical essays in which we have attempted to appraise the writings of Mr. Tennyson, Mr. Browning, Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Arnold, Mr. Morris, and others, cannot have failed already to perceive that it was not without good reason (or, at any rate, without serious design) that we comprehended the works of them all under the appellation of "The Poetry of the Period." He will have noticed that we have completely overlooked any more faults of detail with which their verse may be infected – have abstained from all inquiry into what may be called their literary peculiarities and individual intellectual defciencies – have never for one moment separated them from the age in which they write; but that, whilst refusing to them, one and all, the faintest claim to be regarded as great poets, we have rather intimated our astonishment that, under the circumstances, their productions should be as good as they are. Of course it is possible that we form an exaggerated estimate of their worth, since we cannot help having some sympathy with the productions of the period in which we too "live, move, and have our being," and that posterity, necessarily still more impartial, will think less of them even than we do. It is quite certain, however, it will not think more of them. We desire in this summary to make that important point more defnitely clear.

For it is one of the most common but most superficial of errors, and one whose predominance in a scientific age is singularly unpardonable, to suppose that poetry, and indeed all art, is exclusively an affair partly of individual inclination, and partly of public patronage. The notion is radically false in both particulars. As far as individuals with a natural bent for the production of poetry are concerned, it is highly and antecedently probable that the number is pretty constant through successive generations. That it is variable can never by any possibility be proved. On the other hand, what the world can do for a poet in any particular age is just as much beyond its control as his own genius is beyond his – every age having a decided bent, just as absolutely as every individual. Very little reflection suffices to show that, if such be the case, the perseverance of the latter will be of little avail, supposing the disposition of the former to be opposed to it. It is the nature of an apple-tree to grow apples, and to shed its leaves; but take it to Ceylon, it becomes undeciduous, and bears no more [34] fruit. The tree cannot help itself, neither can the people of Ceylon. The conditions under which apples are produced having been removed, naturally enough apples likewise disappear. The person who does not see that his own species – or any variation of it, eg. poets – will equally, though, of course, not quite so obviously, suffer modification by a complete shifting of the conditions, is not much indebted to his epoch for the only thing, save material comfort, it has got to give him particularly worth having – viz., an appreciation of the universality and permanence of law. If he be an ordinarily intelligent person, he can have no difficulty in understanding that the individual, whether poet, painter, statesman, or philosopher, must be largely indebted for what of excellent or defective there is in him, to the age, people, and intellects by which he is surrounded. They are his atmosphere – his soil, sun, sky – in a word, his climate. In speaking of Mr. Tennyson, we remarked that, could we imagine him transplanted to the Elizabethan era, he would have been a much smaller poet than he is now, and probably the mere writer of a few courtly masques; whereas, if we could imagine Shakespeare transplanted into ours, he would very likely not have worked as a poet at all – or, if he had persisted in following his bent, have been considerably inferior, in work done, to the actual Mr. Tennyson with whom we are acquainted. The explanation, of course, is that the climate of the Elizabethan age was so fine and bracing – so favourable, in fact, to the growth and development of one predisposed to be a really great poet – that Mr. Tennyson would have been nipped to the ground, and where he now daintily clambers would have been compelled to crawl; whilst the climate of the Victorian era, on the contrary, is so relaxing, that where Mr. Tennyson thrives and luxuriates to the full extent of his natural capacity, Shakespeare, like the tree transplanted to the equator, would have apparently changed his whole nature, and ceased altogether to bear poetical fruit.

This, then, is the real truth of the matter – that great poetry is, like everything else, an affair indispensably of external conditions, since the existence of the internal conditions may be presumed, and can never be proved to be absent. But the presence or absence of the requisite external conditions is demonstrable, and no one who has formed any approach to a just idea of the essential conditions for the production of great poetry, or great art of any sort, can doubt, not only that they are absent in the present age, but that actively hostile conditions are ruling in their stead. What publishers call a "demand" for poetry on the part of the reading public, and what severe crities would call an itch for versifying on the part of innumerable gentlemen and ladies, have nothing on earth to do with the production of great or even fairly good poetry. The versifying mania has raged in all known epochs with about equal severity – thus fortifying the presumption that mere individual proclivities are pretty constant [35] generation after generation – and certainly there is no abatement of the disease just at present. The words of Garin d'Apchier are just as applicable now as they were in the days of the Troubadours: "Les jougleurs se sont multipliés au point qu'il y en a autant que de lapins dans une garenne: on en est inondé." How little their quantity contributes to improve their quality, let any impartial person decide. Just as little is its quality affected by the "demand" for it, which during the last five or six years, at any rate, has been very remarkable. For art is not like dry-goods, whatever some people may think or in dolently assume to the contrary. The law of demand and supply breaks down when once you pass the limits of craft, and invade the region of art. Though the material and labour requisite for the production of art must be paid for somehow, all the money in the world cannot produce one stroke of art, any more than it can produce the notes of a nightingale. The proper conditions alone can produce that, and demand is not one of them, much less all of them. Financial patronage – whether it be the patronage of wealthy, cultured dilettanti, of a luxurious, getting-on, and aspiring public, or of a centralised and tasteful State – is equally powerless to evoke manifestations of art if the social conditions are wanting to its development. Financial patronage may found academies, distribute prizes, confer laureateships, instigate unbounded competition. But what then? Great art, whether it be poetry or any other of its branches, bears as much resemblance to birthday odes, or poems that run through innumerable editions, as a monarch of the forest does to a faultless park-paling, or a wind-stirred group of water – reeds to an exquisitely finished cane-bottomed chair. Naturally this age, having plenty of money, and having procured with it an immense amount of desirable things – underground railways, ocean steamers, splendid carriages and horses, rare and long-kept vintages, enormous mirrors, miles of lace, new colours, exciting novels by eminent hands, newspapers without end, gorgeous spectacles, naked dancing-girls, deft cooks, many courses, and a mild religion – is desirous of having likewise great art, which it has always heard is a good thing, and which it likewise fancies that it has got. For why should it not have it? It is quite ready to pay for it. To pay what for it? That is the question. Ready money. Alas! ready money is not the price of great art. Great art is to be reached only through spontaneity, simplicity, faith, unconscious earnestness, and manly concentration. It is idle to inquire if the age would make a sacrifice of its artificiality, its self-consciousness, its feminine infirmities, its scepticism, its distracted aims, in order to obtain it, since it would argue a complete metamorphosis of the age into something different from what it is; and ages are just as powerless to change their character as leopards to change their skins. It can offer money, favourable criticisms, and the entrée to its most conspicuous drawing-rooms – for it has got these [36] things to give. But the contemporary social atmosphere and climate are no more within its gift or control than is the direction of the winds, the stir of volcanoes, the tumult of the sea, or the electricity of the air. These are not the commodities of market overt, and the heavens have not yet been assailed by the law of demand and supply.

Here, then, we touch firm ground. We bring the poet en rapport with his age, and at best he can but say what it has got to say. The more his own disposition is in harmony with that of his time, the more complete, lucid, and satisfactory will be his poetry. If he clashes with it, the conflict will be evident in his verse – with discord, incompleteness, and obscurity as the result. It stands to reason that it must be so; for the resultant of two forces pushing in the same direction is of necessity both simpler and stronger than that of the two forces pulling in different directions. Of this truth Mr. Tennyson is a most remarkable example. He has never once, as we have previously remarked, betrayed the slightest symptom of possessing the highest of poetical gifts. There is not one sublime passage in the whole of his works; and, what is more, there is no attempt at one. Yet we repeat our opinion that he must be conceded the first place among living English poets, though some of them have occasionally aimed at higher flights than any he has dreamed of. For whilst they are partly of the age, and partly at issue with it, he is of his age almost wholly and solely. Take, for instance, his idea of the poet; it will illustrate our meaning excellently well, particularly when we compare it with that entertained by poets of a very different calibre.

"The poet in a golden clinic was born,
    With golden stars above,"

Mr. Tennyson tells us; and he goes on to speak of his thoughts –

    "Filling with light

"And vagrant melodies the winds which bore
    Them earthward till they lit;
Then, like the arrow-seeds of the field-flower,
    The fruitful wit,

"Cleaving, took root, and springing forth anew
    Where'er they fell, behold,
Like to the mother-plant in semblance, grew
    A flower all gold.

"Thus truth was multiplied on truth, the world
    Like one great garden showed,
And through the wreaths of floating dark upcurled,
    Rare sunrise flowed."

The poem, no doubt, is well known to our readers; and they will [37] remember how Freedom is next invoked, with "no blood upon her maiden robes," and then Wisdom, of whom it is said that she was armed with only one poor poet's scroll, and that

".  .  .  .  .  .  .  . No sword
    Of wrath her right arm whirled."

We have not quoted this as a specimen of Mr. Tennyson's best manner – for, verily, it is rather artificial stuff – but as showing the tone of his mind on a cardinal point with which his own vocation and genius are indissolubly associated. In another short poem on the same subject, the view taken of the poet's ground and function is equally characteristic, and, if anything, still smaller:

"Vex not thou the poet's mind.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Clear and bright it should be ever,
Flowing like a crystal river."

The ground wherein he dwells is not to be invaded by the "dark brow'd sophist." Everything therein is holy water, spicy flowers, and laurel-shrubs; and it is thus finally described:

"In the heart of the garden the merry bird chants.
    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
      In the middle leaps a fountain,
              Like sheet lightning
              Ever brightening
      With a low melodious thunder;
      All day and all night it is ever drawn
         From the brain of the purple mountain,
         Which stands in the distance yonder:
      It springs on a level of flowery lawn,
      And the mountain draws it from Heaven above,
      And it sings a song of undying love."

Did we exaggerate when we said that Mr. Tennyson is the tenant of the garden? To be such is evidently his own beau ideal. To sing among laurel-shrubs, spicy flowers, sparkling fountains, flowery lawns – behold, according to his own confession, the "holy ground" of the poet! There is a mountain in the distance yonder, but he does not go to it. Mountains are not for small birds. Hark to a different strain! –

"The sky is changed! and such a change!   Oh night,
And storm, and darkness, ye are wondrous strong,
Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light
Of a dark eye in woman!   Far along
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
Leaps the live thunder.   Not from one lone cloud,
But every mountain now hath found a tongue,
And Jura answers through her misty shroud,
Back to the joyous Alps, who calls to her aloud!

[38] "And this is in the night! Most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber! Let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight, –
A portion of the tempest, and of thee!
How the lit lake shines, a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comes dancing to the earth!
And now again 'tis black, – and now the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain mirth,
As though they did rejoice o'er a young earthquake's birth.

"Sky, mountains, river, winds, lake, lightnings – ye,
With night, and clouds, and thunder, and a soul
To make these felt and feeling, well may be
Things that have made me watchful; the for roll
Of your departing voices is the knoll
Of what in me is sleepless, – if I rest.
But where of ye, O tempests, is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find at length, like eagles, some high nest?

"Could I unbody and unbosom now
That what is most within me, – could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Own, know, feel, and yet breathe, into one word,
And that one word were lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword."

That is not the Poetry of the Period. Not much holy water and laurel-shrubs there. It is not a matter of a purple mountain in the distance, but of black rattling crags, and the poet is a portion of them and their tumultuous glee. The mountains have found a tongue, and so has the poet, but yet not one that contents him. Mr. Tennyson,

"Flowing like a crystal river,
Bright as light, and clear as wind,"

says without difficulty or deficiency what he has got to say; and no wonder. But the greater voice, when it has said immeasurably more, still feels that it has not said a millionth part enough. It will live and die unheard. The one feels that he ought to be hemmed "in the heart of a garden," and accordingly is so. The other yearns "to mingle with the universe," and cannot, altogether. The one is satisfied with a "fountain, like sheet lightning, ever brightening." The other is drawn instinctively to the surging, seductive, but for ever unsurrendering sea: –

"And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward.   From a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers; they to me
[39] Were a delight; and if the freshening sea.
Made them a terror, 'twas a pleasing fear;
For I was, as it were, a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my head upon thy mane – as I do here!"

Nothing could more forcibly illustrate the abyss that lies between poetry that is beautiful, and poetry that is great, and between the periods which give birth to each respectively. The present age is set upon being proper, pious, peaceful, complete, and respectable. Not that it is necessarily any of the five; but they constitute its ideal. It thinks fighting highly undesirable, if not actually wrong. It hates rows. It regards a loudly avowed disbelief and discontent as disreputable, if not something worse. In reality it entertains doubts about everything, but it is a comfort-loving coward, and takes refuge in a more or less silent compromise. Fancy a poet saying nowadays, as Wordsworth said,

"Carnage is God's eldest daughter!"

On the contrary, there is now "no blood upon the maiden robes" of Freedom. Not that, as a fact, there is not plenty of it; we are compelled to fight every now and then, but we do not like it, and we have not manliness enough to exult in it, when nothing but fighting is left. Even when we do right, we openly profess to fight for our interests, not for right; sighing all the while for the return of peace, laurel-shrubs, fountains, and holy water.

All this, as we have said, proves the feminine, timorous, narrow, domesticated temper of the times, and explains the feminine, narrow, domesticated, timorous Poetry of the Period. Take yet another sign, though it is only a fresh illustration of the same truth – a looking at the old fact in a new light. What is one of the chief marks of great poetry? Surely, action. Indeed, we may say of great poetry, what Demosthenes said of great oratory, that the soul of it is – action, action, action. The "Iliad" is all action. So, almost all, is the "Æneid." Look at the action in "Paradise Lost!" To name the poetry of Shakespeare is to name the poetry of action. What are the "Lady of the Lake," "Marmion," and "Rokeby," but action – action? Byron's early tales bristle with movement; and in "Childe Harold," the inanimate themselves, battlefields, ruins, mountains, sepulchres, the very air, are made to stir with vigorous and active pulses. Turn to Mr. Tennyson, and what do we see? Still life – almost uniform still life. There is motion of a kind – but of what kind? You have the rustling of silks, the blowing of zephyrs, the caracoling of palfreys, the humming of bees, the sighs of lovers; you see leagues of grass washed by slow broad streams, languid pulses of the oar, Orion sloping slowly to the west, stately ships on placid waters, summers [40] crisp with shining woods, all imbedded in exquisite verse, of which it may almost be said, as of the author's own "Sleeping Beauty," that

"It sleeps, nor dreams. but ever dwells
   A perfect form in perfect rest."

It wants shaking; but you would shake it in vain. Sound and fury, not always signifying nothing, would not come of it, for they are not there. Mr. Tennyson can speak glibly and well of

".  .  .  . greaves and cuisses dash'd with drops
By onset;"

but he cannot take us into the onset, and show us how the drops come there, and all the glorious bloody thick of the fight. He can

".   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   . take Excalibur
And fling him far into the middle mere;"

but he cannot take him into the reek of battle, and make him strike and act. What could possibly be tamer than such lines as the following? –

"Then Enid waited pale and sorrowful,
And down upon him bore the bandit three.
And at the midmost charging, Prince Geraint
Drave the long spear a cubit through his breast,
And out beyond; and then against his brace
Of comrades, each of whom had broken on him
A lance that splintered like an icicle,
Swung from his brand a windy buffet out,
Once, twice, to right, to left, and stunned the twain,
Or slew them."

What could be poorer, again, than the description of wild Limours dashing against Geraint? –

".   .   .   .   .   . Who closed with him, and bore
Down by the length of lance and arm beyond
The crapper, and so left him stunned or dead,
And overthrew the next that followed him,
And blindly rushed on all the rout behind."

In plain English, all this is very miserable, and utterly unworthy of Mr. Tennyson's powers, when exercised on a congenial subject. Many a schoolboy would have described it better. We feel, as we read either of these passages, that the man's heart was not in them. The description is accurate enough, and, in a sense, pictorial; but it smells ineffably of the studio and the lamp. There is no dust, and clang, and hot blood in it. In a word, it too is still life, where still life ought not to be; and nothing can be more certain than that whenever Mr. Tennyson's admirers wish to cite examples of his real poetical powers – and the examples are endless – they will infallibly have to cite [41] passages avowedly to still life belonging. It is surely needless to point out how an instinctive taste and preference for still life is not a masculine, but a feminine propensity; and equally so, that we have thus a fresh corroboration of the particular charge we have so strongly pressed both against our age and its worthy Laureate.

But there is yet another, though again a kindred, mark by which we may recognise that the Poetry of the Period is not great. No poet of the first rank can be named who has been satisfied with things "of the earth, earthy," as the subject and mechanism of his verse. Homer invades the halls of the celestial gods, Virgil the gloomy abode of the infernals. Milton soars up to heaven and swoops down to hell, and Dante had already joined to those conquests the purgatory of his more Catholic creed. Shakespeare has his delicate Puck, and his dainty Ariel –

"To run upon the sharp wind of the north,
To do me business in the veins of the earth,
When it is baked with frost."

Listening to that hyperterrestrial singing, we are forced to exclaim, with Ferdinand:

"Where should this music be? i' the air or the earth?
It sounds no more: and, sure, it waits upon
Some god o' the island.   .   .   .   .   .
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   But 'tis gone.
No, it begins again.   .   .   .   .   .
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes.   I hear it now above me."

No mortal business, either, is it that we hear in that magnificent drama bequeathed us by Byron, in which scandalous imaginations have recently been groping for corroboration of a filthy and venal fable. It is at the bidding of a god of the island, too, that

"The spirits of the unbounded universe,
They who do compass earth about, and dwell
In subtler essence – they to whom the tops
Of mountains inaccessible are haunts,
And earth's and ocean's caves familiar things" –

are compelled, at the will of Manfred, to rise and appear! Well might the witch reply:

".   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   Son of Earth!
I know thee, and the powers that give thee power:"

when, flinging water into the air, he muttered the adjuration to the

"Beautiful spirit with the hair of light
And dazzling eyes of glory, in whose form
The charms of earth's least mortal daughters grow
To an unearthly stature, in an essence
Of purer elements,"

[42] and forced her to commune with him. "The powers which give thee power" – there's the rub! They gave it to Homer, to Dante, to Milton, to Shakespeare, to Shelley, to Byron, to Goethe. They withhold it – does it not sound almost ludicrous to write the name? – from Mr. Tennyson. He is of the earth, earthy – very beautiful earth, the very finest possible clay, but clay and, alas! not spirit. Not to him, nor to any fallen on evil days like ours, has been granted that consummate power, that culminating spell of all, which

".   .   .   .   . .   .   .   .   .   bodies forth
The forms of things unknown;
Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,"

but strong imagination only. Mr. Tennyson and his contemporaries are often lovely, but never "lovely in their strength." That is a combination wholly beyond them. Mr. Browning, as we have seen, would fain be strong, but is only grotesque, and has unguardedly left us the secret of his process in the closing lines of Sordello:

". . .  Spirits are conjectured fairer foul,
Evil or good, judicious authors think,
According as they vanish in a stink,
Or in a perfume.   Friends, be frank   ye snuff
Civet, I warrant.   Really?   Like enough!
Merely the savour's rareness; any nose
May ravish with impunity a rose:
Rifle a musk-pod, and 'twill ache like yours!
I'd tell you that same pungency ensures
An after-gust – but that were overbold.
Who would, have heard Sordello's story told."

Mr. Browning is both overbold and exceedingly indiscreet, to boot. He has succeeded in securing the attention of a curious and novelty loving age by the prepense pungency of his ungainly verses; but he may rest assured, the "after-gust" will be very brief. Literary oddity and acrobatism will not be mistaken by posterity for strength.

But perhaps the most forcible explanation of the fact that the Poetry of the Period, with all its excellent intentions, falls so lamentably short of greatness, remains to be mentioned; and with it we may fitly bring the subject to a close. So little have art, its nature and necessary conditions, been considered by those who, both in writing and conversation, make these things their perpetual theme, that they actually point to the extreme diversity of what they call the art-productions of this age, and to the divergence, both in subject and in treatment, of the various authors we have mentioned, as a proof of its vast intrinsic art-producing capacity. Had they the faintest glimmer of the real truth, they would be aware that such a fact, [43] if established, is conclusive, in the event of any difference of opinion on the subject, against their position. Great poets are the unambiguous representative voice of decisive eras that have arrived at some definite conclusion. Mr. Matthew Arnold, who is honourably distinguished from our unreflecting crowd of critics by the sobriety of his understanding and the subtle delicacy of his judgment – and whose opinions, despite his manifest talents and accomplishments (which they cannot well challenge), they accordingly hold in but indifferent esteem – has intimated what an important difference there is between literature that is "adequate" and literature that is "inadequate." An adequate literature he finds in the age of Pericles. He might have added that it is to be found likewise in the age of Elizabeth, and in the first two decades of the present century, and that it is lamentably absent in the age of Victoria. As Mr. Arnold has apologised for the incompleteness of the lecture in which he propounds this view, we need not dwell upon the defect he has himself confessed; we can only regret it, and hope that at some future time he will more fully develope a most pregnant observation. Happily, we can introduce what we wish to say under cover of a writer more profound and suggestive even, though unhappily more hasty, than the late occupant of the Poetry chair at Oxford. It is Auguste Comte, who makes the further remark – incidentally indeed, as so many of his most precious remarks are made – that art, in its highest and most satisfactory form, cannot possibly be expected from an epoch and a people whose best and most vivid intellects are not substantially agreed. The truth of the observation will be acknowledged by any one who will take the pains to ask himself two questions: firstly, whether the law as stated is antecedently probable; and secondly, whether it is corroborated by our historical experience – or, in other words, whether the epochs and nations most conspicuous for the production of art, to which Mr. Matthew Arnold's epithet of "adequate" may properly be applied, have not been conspicuous for intellectual concord? Of course nations and epochs have over and over again been stolidly or enthusiastically at one (though rarely the latter), not only without developing art of the highest order, but without developing art of any sort. We need, however, scarcely observe that indispensable conditions are something very different from absolute guarantees.

That the conditions laid down by Comte are truly indispensable will be readily seen when we put the matter in a more homely light. We have already seen that the poet, no matter what his individual temperament and tendencies, cannot hope to contend successfully against an age of opposite temperament and tendencies, and that only by the amicable co-operation of the two can great poetry possibly be produced. The reason of this is that the poet, like anybody and everything else, is very much at the mercy of conditions totally independent of himself. [44] Having thus recalled the enormous effect which we have shown is producible on the individual, let us now, since we are in a better condition to do so, estimate the effect likely to be wrought in him by great diversity of simultaneous conditions; and surely it is not only comprehensible, but obvious, that though their extreme diversity may develope in him a larger number of qualities, it will not and cannot develope some one quality to the extent the latter would have been developed had the conditions hostile to it been wholly absent, and the conditions eminently friendly been present exclusively, or, at least, greatly predominated. Now, in an age in which men's opinions, wishes, and modes of thought are consentaneous, these conditions, composing the atmosphere, the climate, of which we spoke, are brought to bear upon the individual to be developed – in the case we are considering, the poet – with full, combined, and undisturbed force. He gets the benefit, or, as it may happen, the damage of their collectiveness. If they are too strong for him they overwhelm him, as they would have overwhelmed Mr. Tennyson in the age of Elizabeth, or at the beginning of this century. If they are not too strong for him, but he, on the contrary, is strong enough to be buoyed up by them, they hear him on to the grandest work and the furthest immortality, as in the two epochs we have named they carried Shakespeare and Byron. Of course, had a Shakespeare or at Byron not been there, their force would have been largely thrown away and wasted, since it is the poorest and most meagre philosophy in the world to suppose, with one school of thinkers, that men are always forthcoming for emergencies. But, again, Shakespeare and Byron had been there in vain, if the force to employ them had been wanting, since it is equally preposterous to suppose that man can make emergencies. It is when you have, to use Mr. Matthew Arnold's admirable phraseology, "a significant, a highly-developed, a culminating epoch," that you have the chance (again to have resort to his language) of "a comprehensive, a commensurate, an adequate literature." The one is not infallibly ensured by the other; but where you have not got the first, it is dead certain that you will not get the second.

Now, what is the temper of the age in which we live? Is intellectual concord one of its characteristics? On the contrary, is not intellectual discord its very mark and note? It is an age blown about "with every wind of doctrine." It cannot make up its mind on any one single subject, except that to have plenty of money is a good thing; and even on that point it has occasional miserable qualms of conscience, being ever and anon half-disposed to suspect that, after all, hairshirts and serge are better than purple and fine linen. It entertains the most serious doubts as to Christianity save as an historical phenomenon; and though it cannot bring itself really to believe in the old pagan deities, it would like vastly to revivify them. It is by no [45] means sure even as to the existence of God; and if there be one, what He is like completely baffles its power of deciding. Between the doctrine that men have no souls, and that tables and pianos have, it swings in painful and ludicrous oscillation. What is the best form of government; what the desirable state of society; what man's mission – what woman's; who ought to rule and who obey, or whether anybody ought to obey at all; whether marriage be an obsolete institution, or one deserving of rehabilitation; whether troops of nude dancing-girls be an indecent spectacle, or only an agreeably exciting entertainment: on all these, and indeed on every fundamental matter, it is in a hopeless plight of doubt and bewilderment. It consoles itself by asserting that, if it is wanting in decision, it is remarkable for toleration. It is a tolerant age. No doubt it is; though we may observe it would be rather extraordinary, not to say scandalous, if, under the circumstances, it were anything else. Still, toleration is a good thing, however brought about, and has its merits. But it has its drawbacks also, and we will name two of them. A tolerant age never produced great deeds or great poets, and it never will. Strong and practically unanimous convictions and passionate earnestness are wanted for those two products. The convictions of the community are in a state of pitiable flux, and its passions are quiescent, save in the pursuit of puny personal objects. On every conceivable subject the country is torn by what we might call factions, if any of them had vigour enough to deserve that name. What wonder, then, if it can find no adequate voice, no really one great poet, to give its feelings utterance? Its feelings are so complex and unmarshalled that it requires a number of small ambiguous voices to represent each particular shade of its many moods and yearnings. It is not satisfied with anything, and least of all is it satisfied with itself – only, unfortunately, it, lacks decision enough to be thoroughly dissatisfied. Could it arrive at that culminating stage, it would then be possible for a poet to arise to express a grand gigantic discontent, and to indicate, to that extent, a prospect of relief. The opinions of everybody who has thought on the subject at all invariably conduct us to the same conclusion. We do not live in a culminating, comprehensive, adequate epoch; and therefore we have not what Mr. Mathew Arnold calls a culminating, comprehensive, and adequate literature. Our poets do not comprehend the situation, because it is so illogical, self-conflicting, and chaotic, that possibly it cannot be comprehended. We have

"Infants crying in the night,
    And with no language but a cry ;"

but that obviously is not "adequate." Turning to Comte's theory, we are led to a similar issue; for he merely states the same thing in different words. We have no concord, intellectual, moral, social, or [46] vital; and, accordingly, we waste our puny individual or sectional efforts in letting of a series of small fireworks. We lack volume, for combination alone can give that.

Listen to what another great living French critic says in corroboration of this same theory. "Il n'y a pas" (writes M. Ernest Renan, in his Essay on Lamennais) "de plus mauvaise disposition pour un philosophe et un critique que ce feu ardent et sombre, cette colère profonde et obstinée qui ne veut pas être adoucie; il n'y a pas de meillenre pour un artiste et un poète. Le tour absolu des opinions de Lamennais, qui nous a valu tant de pauvres raisonnements, tant de jugements défectueux, nous a valu aussi les cinquante pages de grand style les plus belles de notre siècle." *

Truer words were never penned; and they are strikingly applicable to the Poetry of the Period. Some of our poets, or would-be poets, are, as we have seen, very decent philosophers – Mr. Browning remarkably so – and not bad reasoners; but they lack that feu ardent et sombre indispensable to the great singer. And the amusing part of it is, that the admirers of the Poetry of the Period are so hopelessly astray in the matter, that they actually estimate poets by what they call their power of speculative thought; the Spectator newspaper, much addicted to this sort of thing, rating Byron very cheaply, because, as is alleged, "he was a sheer Philistine in all matters of criticism." The "Philistinism," by the way, is alleged to be shown in admiration of Pope. We ourselves should be disposed to associate that term with an incapacity for admiring him. All this, however, is utterly beside the question; and we have alluded to it only to show how utterly at sea is the average mind of the time on the subject of poetry, and indeed of art of all kinds. No such tenth-rate authorities, however, carry any weight. It is to thinkers and scholars, like Mr. Arnold, M. Renan, and Comte that we must have recourse. "L'art a besoin d'un énergique parti pris," says M. Renan; and without that, all the philosophy, reasoning, and speculative powers in the world will avail a man nothing. The age, bemuddled and perplexed, can take no parti pris. Hamlet is its prototype. It is a mass of distracted irresolution, and is consequently powerless; and the curse of its impotence is upon each and every of its children.

It may possibly strike some people as arrogant thus to dispose of [47] the pretensions of living poets, supported as they are by certain living critics. Our answer is, that it is of no use having opinions without having also the courage of them; that we have long and deeply pondered the matter on which we have written; that false pretensions are an injury to literature, and to the honour of the mighty dead; that we have given plentiful quotations to enable our readers to judge for themselves; and that newspaper criticism has given some people such factitious authority that it is only fair and good work to set them down at their full value. We will take but one instance, but it covers a multitude of others. We will begin with a quotation:

                      Scene II.
                  (Adam alone.)

"Misery, oh my misery!   O God, God!
How could I ever, ever, could I do it?
Whither am I come? where am I?   0 me miserable!
My God! my God! that I were back with Thee!
O fool!   O fool!   O irretrievable act!
Irretrievable what, I should like to know.
What act, I wonder?   What is it I mean?
Fool – fool! where am I?   O my God!   Fool – fool!
Why did we do't?   Eve – Eve!   Where are you?   Quick!
O God!   O God! what are we? what shall we do?
What is all this about, I wonder now.
Yet I am better, too.   I think it will pass."

Now, what do our readers think of that? That it is simply idiotic drivel, of course. Nevertheless, they will find it quoted in the Spectator, no longer ago than the 11th of last September, in a review of the works of Arthur Hugh Clough, who is the writer of it, and which the Spectator, in terms of admiration, calls, "this remarkable soliloquy." On the same occasion, it declares that Clough has written "one of the greatest poems – if not in all English literature, which is likely enough – certainly of our day and generation." Is it arrogant to declare of such a critic that he is an ignorant and presumptuous scribbler, wholly unentitled to give an opinion on poetry at all? Yet such contemptible stuff as the above is nowadays printed by the weekly cart-load.

So much for the want of deference shown to individuals. As for the age itself, it should be remembered that every age is addicted to self-complacency, and this age of ours is not peculiarly free from that quality. Every age has had its great poets, until both the poets and the age were dead. "The fame of Ausonius," says Gibbon, "stamps the criticism of the time." Some future Gibbon will, we fear, make the same painful observation about our time and Mr. Tennyson. Locke professed a profound admiration for the genius of Sir Richard Blackmore; and the verses of Charles Montagu, Earl of Halifax, figure in [48] various collections of the British classics. There have been times in English literature when a man writing of living poets could not well have omitted a reference to Nahum Tate, Laurence Eusden, Colley Cibber, William Whitehead, and Henry James Pye; for each of these new obscure worthies was, in his turn, Poet Laureate of England. Burns spoke of Shenstone as "the celebrated poet whose divine elegies do honour to our nation, our language, and our species." Yet, alas for the vanity of contemporary fame! when Hugh Miller visited the Leasowes, and asked in Halesowen for a copy of Shenstone's poems, the shopwoman had never heard of him; but she knew Samuel Salt, a local teetotal poet, and offered him a wrathful satire of Samuel's on the community of Oddfellows! So it is. Nemo judex in sua causa; no age can be trusted to assess its own merits and that of its poets. Posterity, that rude court of appeal, far oftener than not upsets such interested decisions; and it will certainly upset that which affects to talk of the bards of whom we have discoursed as great poets. "Faites grand, sire!" said an admirer lately to the Emperor of the French; but that is precisely what neither sovereign nor singer can in these days do. Many living writers of poetry have written beautifully and well, and some of their verse will for a time be kindly remembered. But they have fallen short of true greatness, and accordingly they will not be admitted among the stars that shine for ever and ever.



[Fußnote, S. 46]

* "No worse disposition could there be for a philosopher and a critic than that ardent but sombre fire, that profound and obstinate anger, which will on no account be mollified; there could not possibly be a better one for an artist and a poet. To the absolute character of the opinions of Lamennais, to which we owe so much indifferent reasoning and so many defective judgments, we are indebted, however, for fifty pages, in the real grand style, which are the most beautiful of our time."   zurück





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Alfred Austin: The Poetry of the Period





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer