John Addington Symonds

 

 

A Comparison of Elizabethan with Victorian Poetry.

 

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Editionsbericht
Literatur

 

ENGLISH literature, under the Tudors and the first king of the house of Stuart, owed much of its unexampled richness to a felicitous combination of circumstances. Feudalism had received a mortal wound in the Wars of the Roses, and was dying. The people came to knowledge of itself, and acquired solidity during the reigns of Henry VII., Henry VIII., and Elizabeth. Englishmen were brought into the fellowship of European nations through Wolsey's audacious diplomacy. They began to feel their force as an important factor, which had henceforth to be reckoned with in peace or war. Grave perils attended the formation of Great Britain into a separate and self-sustaining integer of Europe; nor was it until the Protectorate that these islands made their full weight recognised. None of the perils, however, which shook England during the period of consolidation, sufficed to disturb the equilibrium of government and social order. On the other hand, they stimulated patriotism, and braced the nation with a sense of its own dignity. Our final rupture with Rome, after the trials of Queen Mary's reign were over, satisfied the opinion of a large majority. Our collision with Spain, in the crisis marked by the Armada, took a turn which filled the population with reverent and religious enthusiasm. These two decisive passages in English history promoted the pride of the race, and inspired it with serious ardour. Instead of weakening the Crown or the Church, they had the effect of rendering both necessary to the nation. Then, when Scotland was united to England and Ireland, at the accession of James, a disciplined and nobly expansive people thought themselves for a moment on the pinnacle of felicity.

While the English were thus becoming a powerful and self-conscious nation, those intellectual changes which divided the mediæval from the modern period, and which we know by the names of Renaissance and Reformation, took place. It is a peculiarity of this transition time in our islands, that what used to be called "the new learning" with its new theories of education, its new way of regarding nature, and its new conceptions of human life, was introduced simultaneously with the Reformation. Italy had accomplished the Revival of Learning; Germany had revolted against Catholicism. France had felt both movements unequally and partially, amid the confusion of civil wars and the clash of contending sects. Italy, [56] after the Tridentine Council, was relapsing into reactionary dulness. Germany was dismembered by strifes and schisms. France underwent the throes of a passionate struggle, which subordinated the intellectual aspects of both Renaissance and Reformation to political interest. England alone, meanwhile, enjoyed the privilege of receiving that twofold influx of the modern spirit without an overwhelming strain upon her vital forces. The Marian persecution was severe enough to test the bias of the people, and to remind them of the serious points at issue, without rending society to its foundations. Humanism reached our shores when its first enthusiasms — enthusiasms which seemed in Italy to have brought again the gods and vices of the pagan past — had tempered their delirium. We have only to compare men like More, Ascham, Colet, Buchanan, Camden, Cheke, the pioneers of our Renaissance, with Filelfo, Poggio, Poliziano. Pontano, in order to perceive how far more sober and healthy was the tone of the new learning in Great Britain than in Italy.

In this connection it is worthy of notice that humanism, before it moulded the minds of the English, had already permeated Italian and French literature. Classical erudition had been adapted to the needs of modern thought. Antique authors had been collected, printed, annotated, and translated. They were fairly mastered in the south, and assimilated to the style of the vernacular. By these means much of the learning popularised by our poets, essayists, and dramatists came to us at second-hand, and bore the stamp of contemporary genius. In like manner, the best works of Italian, French, Spanish, and German literature were introduced into Great Britain together with the classics. The age favoured translation, and English readers, before the close of the sixteenth century, were in possession of a cosmopolitan library in their mother tongue, including choice specimens of ancient and modern masterpieces.

These circumstances sufficiently account for the richness and variety of Elizabethan literature. They also help to explain two points which must strike every student of that literature — its native freshness, and its marked unity of style.

Elizabethan literature was fresh and native, because it was the utterance of a youthful race, aroused to vigorous self-consciousness under conditions which did not depress or exhaust its energies. The English opened frank eyes upon the discovery of the world and man, which had been effected by the Renaissance. They were not wearied with collecting, collating, correcting, transmitting to the press. All the hard work of assimilating the humanities had been done for them. They had only to survey and to enjoy, to feel and to express, to lay themselves open to delightful influences, to con the noble lessons of the past, to thrill beneath the beauty and [57] the awe of an authentic revelation. Criticism had not laid its cold, dry finger on the blossoms of the fancy. The new learning was still young enough to be a thing of wonder and entrancing joy. To absorb it sufficed. Like the blood made in the veins of a growing man by strong meat and sound wine, it coursed to the brain and created a fine frenzy. That was a period of bright ideas, stimulating creative faculty, animating the people with hope and expectation, undimmed, untarnished by the corrosion of the analytic reason. "Nobly wild, not mad," the adolescent giants of that age, Marlowe and Raleigh, Spenser and Shakespeare, broke into spontaneous numbers, charged with the wisdom and the passion of the ages fused in a divine clairvoyance.

Elizabethan literature has a marked unity of style. We notice a strong generic similarity in those poets which veils their specific differences. This is perhaps the first and most salient point of contrast between Elizabethan and Victorian literature. It makes a cautious critic pause. After the lapse of two centuries, he asks himself, will Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Landor, Tennyson, Campbell, William Morris, Rogers, Swinburne, Clough, Rossetti, Browning, Mrs. Browning, Matthew Arnold, and the rest of them, seem singing to one dominant tune, in spite of their so obvious differences? Will our posterity discern in them the note in common which we find in Sidney, Herrick, Spenser, Shakespeare, Fletcher, Marlowe, Jonson, Barnfield, Dekker, Marston, Chapman, Raleigh, Drayton, Drummond, Webster, and the rest of those great predecessors? The question has to be asked; but the answer is not easily given. We can neither reject ourselves into the past, nor project ourselves into the future, with certainty sufficient to decide whether what looks like similarity in the Elizabethan poets, and what looks like diversity in the Victorian poets, are illusions of the present.

Yet something can be attempted in explanation of the apparent puzzle. The circumstances of the Elizabethan age favoured unity of style. The language, to begin with, had recently been remade under the influence of new ideals and new educational systems. Ear more than lapse of years and wastes of desolating warfare separated sixteenth-century English from the speech of Chaucer. The spirit itself, which shapes language to the use of mind, had changed through the action of quickening conceptions and powerfully excited energies. And to this change in the spirit the race was eagerly responsive. In a certain way all writers felt the Bible, Greece, Rome, Italy, France, Germany; all strove to be in tune with the new learning. At the same time, criticism was hardly in its cradle; you find a trace of it in Jonson, Bacon, Selden, Camden; but it does not touch the general. The people were any[58]thing but analytical, and poetry issued from the very people's heart, as melody from the strings of the violoncello. The spontaneity which we have already noted as a main mark of Elizabethan utterance, led thus to unity of style. The way in which classical masterpieces were then studied, conduced to the same result. Those perennial sources of style were enjoyed in their entirety, absorbed, assimilated, reproduced with freedom. They were not closely scrutinised, examined with the microscope, studied with the view of emphasizing this or that peculiarity a single critic found in them. And the same holds good about contemporary foreign literatures. Everything which these literatures contained was grist for the English mill: not models to be copied, but stuff to be used.

Now compare the intellectual conditions of the Victorian age. Take language first. Instead of having no literary past, except Chaucer, Skelton, the English Bible, and Sir Thomas Mallory behind our backs, we have the long self-conscious period between Dryden and Byron, during which our mother tongue was carefully elaborated upon a definite system. Victorian poetry has to reckon with Elizabethan poetry and the poetry of Queen Anne — for English people call their epochs by the names of queens. This constitutes at the outset a great difference, making for diversity in style. A writer has more models to choose from, more openings for the exercise of his personal predilections. And the mental attitude has altered also. We are highly conscious of our aims, profoundly analytical. All study of literature has become critical and comparative. The scientific spirit makes itself powerfully felt in the domain of art. It is impossible for people of the present to be as fresh and native as the Elizabethans were. Such a mighty stream, novies Styx interfusa, in the shape of accumulated erudition, grave national experiences, spirit-quelling doubts, insurgent philosophies, and all too aching pressing facts and fears, divides the men of this time from the men of that. It is enough now to have indicated these points. The argument will return to some of them in detail. For the moment we may safely assert that a prominent note of Elizabethan as distinguished from Victorian literature is unity of tone, due to the felicitous circumstances of the nation in that earlier period.

 

II.

 

What, then, is the characteristic of Elizabethan poetry? I think the answer to this question lies in the words — freedom, adolescence, spontaneity; mainly freedom. The writers of that age were free from the bondage to great names, Virgil or Cicero or Seneca. They owned no allegiance to great languages, like the Latin; to famous canons of taste, like the Aristotelian unities; to scholastic authority [59] and academical prescription. They were politically and socially free, adoring the majesty of England in the person of their sovereign, and flattering a national ideal when they burned poetic incense to Elizabeth. That strain of servility which jars upon our finer sense in the romantic epics of Ariosto and Tasso, is wholly absent from The Faery Queen. They were notably free in all that appertains to religion. Where but in England could a playwright have used words at once so just and so bold as these of Dekker?

                    "The best of men
That e'er wore earth about him, was a sufferer —
A soft, meek, patient, humble, tranquil spirit:
The first true gentleman that ever breathed."

A delicate taste can hardly be offended by this reference to Christ, and yet we feel that it could not have been made except in an age of undisputed liberty. Their freedom was the freedom of young strength, untrammelled energies, with El Dorado in the western main, and boundless regions for the mind to traverse. This makes their touch on truth and goodness and beauty so right, so natural, so unerring. They have the justice of perception, the clarity of vision, the cleanliness of feeling which belong to generous and healthy manhood in its earliest prime. The consequence of this freedom was that each man in that age wrote what he thought best, wrote out of himself, and sang spontaneously. He had no fear of academies, of censorship, of critical coteries, of ecclesiastical censure, before his eyes. How different in this respect was the liberty of Shakespeare from the servitude of Tasso. At the same time, as we have already seen, this spontaneity was controlled by a strong sense of national unity. The English were possessed with an ideal, which tuned their impassioned utterances to one key-note. The spirit of the people was patriotic, highly moralised, intensely human, animated by a robust belief in reality; martial, yet jealous of domestic peace; assiduous in toil, yet quick to overleap material obstacles and revel in the dreams of the imagination; manly, but delicate; inured to hardship, but not quelled as yet by disappointment and the disillusion of experience. In a word, Elizabethan poetry is the utterance of "a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks .... like an eagle muing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full mid-day beam."

Freedom being thus the dominant note of Elizabethan poetry, it follows that the genius of the race will return to it with love and admiration at epochs marked by the resurgent spirit of liberty. This is why the literature of the Victorian age has been so powerfully influenced by that of Elizabeth. The French Revolution shook Europe to the centre, and opened illimitable vistas at the commence[60]ment of the century. In 1815, England, after her long struggle with Napoleon, stood crowned with naval and military laurels, in possession of a hardly-earned peace. It is not to be wondered that critics like Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, editors like Gifford, historians like Collier, should have ransacked the forgotten treasures of the Shakespearian drama at this moment. Poetry aimed at Elizabethan phraseology and used Elizabethan metres. Byron adapted the Spenserian and octave stanzas to his purposes of satire and description; Keats and Shelley treated the heroic couplet with Elizabethan laxity of structure and variety of cadence; Wordsworth and Coleridge revived the Elizabethan rhythms of blank verse. The sonnet was cultivated, and lyrical measures assumed bewildering forms of richness. At the same time, a revolt began against those canons of taste which had prevailed in the last century. Wordsworth denounced conventional poetic diction; it savoured of literary treason to profess a particular partiality for Pope; fancy was preferred to sense, exuberance of imagery to chastened style, audacity of invention to logic and correctness.

This return to Elizabethanism has marked the whole course of Victorian poetry. But times are changed, and we ourselves are changed in them. The men of this century have never recaptured "the first fine careless rapture" of the sixteenth century. What were dreams then, have become sober expectations. Instead of El Dorado we have conquered California, the gold-fields of Australia, the diamond mines of South Africa. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries North America was won and lost; East India was gained by heroism and adventure worthy of a Drake and Raleigh; and now the crown of that vast empire on the forehead of our Queen weighs heavy with the sense of serious responsibilities. The English race is no longer adolescent; we cannot model our national genius like a beautiful young hero rejoicing in his naked strength and scattering armies by his shout: the sculptor who did so would forget the years which have ploughed wrinkles on that hero's forehead, the steam-engines which are his chariot, the ironclad navies which waft him over ocean, the electricity which plays like lightning in his eyes. Victorian poets cannot be spontaneous in the same sense as our ancestors were. Like Iago, they are nothing if not critical. Science has imposed on them her burden of analysis, and though science reveals horizons far beyond the dreams of Bacon, it fills the soul with something well-nigh kin to hopelessness. Man shrinks before the Universe. We have lived through so much; we have seen so many futile philosophies rise like mushrooms and perish; we have tried so many political experiments, and listened to so many demagogues of various complexions, that a world-fatigue has penetrated deep into our spirit. The [61] masterpiece of the century is Goethe's Faust, and its hero suffers from the welt-schmerz. A simple faith in God and the, Bible yields to critical inquiry, comparative theology, doubts and difficulties of all kinds. Religious liberty in this age consists more in the right to disbelieve as we think best than to believe according to our conscience. Pessimism, already strong in Byron, has grown and gathered strength with introspection until we find it lurking in nearly all the sincerest utterances of the present. We are oppressed with social problems which admit of no solution, due to the vast increase of our population, to the industrial changes which have turned England from an agricultural to a manufacturing country, to the unequal distribution of wealth, the development of huge, hideous towns, the seething multitudes of vicious and miserable paupers which they harbour. We watch the gathering of revolutionary storm-clouds, hear the grumbling of thunder in the distance, and can only sit meanwhile in darkness — so gigantic and unmanageable are the forces now in labour for some mighty birth of time. Who can be optimistic under these conditions? "Merry England" sounds like a mockery now. Instead of merry England the Victorian poet has awful, earnest, grimly menacing London to sing in. These things were not felt so much at the beginning of the century; they are bringing it to a close in sadness and strong searchings of soul.

 

III.

 

Elizabethan genius found its main expression in the drama. No epic worthy of the name was produced in the sixteenth century, for Spenser's Faery Queen has not the right to be so styled. But every great national epoch which attains to utterance through art has a specific clairvoyance, and England in the age we call Elizabethan was clairvoyant for the drama; that is to say, men wrought with an unerring instinct in this field, and the lesser talents were lifted into the sphere of the greater when they entered it. After the drama, and closely associated with it, came those songs for music in which the English of the sixteenth century excelled. The lyric rapture, that which has been called the lyric cry, penetrates all verbal music of that period. We find it modulating blank verse and controlling the rhythms of the couplet and the stanza. The best subsidiary work of the age consisted of translations, adaptations, and free handlings of antique themes in narrative verse. Chapman's Homer, Fairfax's Tasso, Marlowe's Hero and Leander, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, rank among the masterpieces of Elizabethan poetry. But drama and song, when all accounts are settled, remain the crowning glories of that literature.

|62] The Victorian age can boast no national drama. Poetical plays have indeed been produced which do credit to the talents of their authors. 1 Yet the century has not expressed its real stuff, nor shown its actual clairvoyance in that line. We cannot point to a Victorian drama as we do to an Elizabethan drama, and challenge the world to match it. This is due perhaps in part to those incalculable changes which have substituted the novel for the drama. The public of the present time is a public of readers rather than of hearers, and the muster-roll of brilliant novelists, from Scott and Jane Austen, through Thackeray and Dickens, down to George Eliot and George Meredith, can be written off against the playwrights of the sixteenth century. Poetry, surveyed from a sufficient altitude, claims these imaginative makers, though they used the vehicle of prose. Even less than the sixteenth has the nineteenth produced an epic, and for similar reasons. Tennyson chose the right name for his Arthurian string of studies when he called them Idylls of the King. To claim for them epical coherence was only a brilliant afterthought. It is not given to any race under the conditions of conscious culture to create a genuine epic. That rare flower of art puts forth its bloom in the first dawn of national existence. If we except the Iliad and the Odyssey, how few real epics does the human race possess! The German Nibelungen Lied is a late rifacimento of Scandinavian sagas. Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur, our nearest approach to a true epic, is the digest of a score of previous romances. The Song of Roland is an epical lyric. We call the Æneid an epic because it throbs with the sense of Rome. Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. We call the Divine Comedy an epic because it embalms the spirit of the Middle Ages at their close; we call Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained epics because they carry such a weight of meaning and are so monumentally constructed. But the Æneid, the Divine Comedy, and Milton's Paradise are not epics in the proper sense of the word; they are the products of reflection and individual genius, not the self-expression of a nation in its youth. And just as the novel has absorbed our forces for the drama, so has it satisfied our thirst for epical narration. In that hybrid form where poetry assumes the garb of prose, both drama and epic for the modern world lie embedded.

What, then, are the specific channels of Victorian utterance in verse? To define them is difficult, because they are so subtly varied and so inextricably interwoven. Yet I think they may be superficially described as the idyll and the lyric. Under the idyll I should class all narrative and descriptive poetry, of which this age has been extraordinarily prolific; sometimes assuming the form of minstrelsy, as in the lays of Scott; sometimes approaching to the [63] classic style, as in the Hellenics of Landor; sometimes rivalling the novelette, as in the work of Tennyson; sometimes aiming at psychological analysis, as in the portraits drawn by Robert Browning; sometimes confining art to bare history, as in Crabbe; sometimes indulging flights of pure artistic fancy, as in Keats' Endymion and Lamia. Under its many metamorphoses the narrative and descriptive poetry of our century bears the stamp of the idyll, because it is fragmentary and because it results in a picture. Here it inclines to the drama, here it borrows tone from the epic; in one place it is lyrical, in another, it is didactic; fancy has presided over the birth of this piece, reflection has attended the production of that. But in each case the artist has seen his subject within narrow compass, treated that as a complete whole, and given to the world a poem in the narrative and descriptive style, reminding us of the epic in its general form, of the drama or the lyric in its particular treatment. Those who have read the technical lessons which the idylls of Theocritus convey, will understand why I classify this exuberant jungle of Victorian poetry under the common title of idyll.

No literature and no age has been more fertile of lyric poetry than English literature in the age of Victoria. The fact is apparent. I should superfluously burden my readers if I were to prove the point by reference to Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Rossetti, Clough, Swinburne, Arnold, Tennyson, and I do not know how many of less illustrious but splendid names, in detail. The causes are not far to seek. Without a comprehensive vehicle like the epic, which belongs to the first period of national life, or the drama, which belongs to its secondary period, our poets of a later day have had to sing from their inner selves, subjectively, introspectively, obeying impulses from nature and the world, which touched them not as they were Englishmen, but as they were this man or that woman. They had no main current of literature wherein to plunge themselves, and cry: "Ma naufragar m'θ dolce in questo mar." 1 They could not forego what made them individuals; tyrannous circumstances of thought and experience rendered their sense of personality too acute. When they sang, they sang with their particular voice; and the lyric is the natural channel for such song. But what a complex thing is this Victorian lyric! It includes Wordsworth's sonnets and Rossetti's ballads, Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" and Keats' odes, Clough's "Easter Day" and Tennyson's "Maud," Swinburne's "Songs before Sunrise" and Browning's "Dramatis Personæ," Thomson's "City of Dreadful Night" and Mary Robinson's "Handful of Honeysuckles," Andrew Lang's Ballades and Sharp's "Weird of Michael Scot," Dobson's dealings with the eighteenth century and Noel's "Child's Garland," Barnes's Dorsetshire Poems and Buchanan's London Lyrics, the songs from Empedocles on Etna and [64] Ebenezer Jones's "Pagan's Drinking Chant," Shelley's Ode to the "West Wind" and Mrs. Browning's "Pan is Dead," Newman's hymns and Gosse's Chant Royal. The kaleidoscope presented by this lyric is so inexhaustible that any man with the fragment of a memory might pair off scores of poems by admired authors, and yet not fall upon the same parallels as those which I have made.

The genius of our century, debarred from epic, debarred from drama, falls back upon idyllic and lyrical expression. In the idyll it satisfies its objective craving after art. In the lyric it pours forth personality. It would be wrong, however, to limit the wealth of our poetry to these two branches. Such poems as Wordsworth's "Excursion," Byron's "Don Juan" and "Childe Harold," Mrs. Browning's "Aurora Leigh," William Morris's "Earthly Paradise," Clough's "Amours de Voyage," are not to be classified in either species. They are partly autobiographical, and in part the influence of the tale makes itself distinctly felt in them. Nor again can we omit the translations, of which so many have been made; some of them real masterpieces and additions to our literature. Cary's Dante, Rossetti's versions from the early Tuscan lyrists, Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam, are eminent examples. But the list might be largely extended. Then again Morris's "Song of Sigurd," Swinburne's "Tristram of Lyoness," E. Arnold's "Light of Asia," deserve a place apart, as epical rehandlings of memorable themes.

 

IV.

 

In all this Victorian poetry we find the limitations of our epoch, together with its eminent qualities. Criticism and contemplation have penetrated literature with a deeper and more pervasive thoughtfulness. Our poets have lost spontaneity and joyful utterance. But they have acquired a keener sense of the problems which perplex humanity. The author of "In Memoriam" struck a false note when he exclaimed –

"I sing but as the linnet sings."

Nothing can be more unlike a linnet's song than the metaphysical numbers of that justly valued threnody. Clough came closer to the truth when he hinted at the poet's problem in this age as thus: –

"To finger idly some old Gordian knot,
 Unskilled to sunder and too weak to cleave,
 And with much toil attain to half-believe."

The most characteristic work of the century has a double object, artistic and philosophical. Poetry is used to express some theory of life. In Byron the world-philosophy is cynical or pessimistic. Shelley interweaves his pantheism with visions of human perfectibility. Wordsworth proclaims an esoteric cult of nature. Swinburne at one time rails against the tyrant gods, at another preaches the [65] gospel of republican revolt. Matthew Arnold embodies a system of ethical and æsthetical criticism in his verse. Clough expresses the changes which the Christian faith has undergone, and the perplexities of conduct. Thomson indulges the blackest pessimism, a pessimism more dolorous than Leopardi's. Browning is animated by a robust optimism, turning fearless somersaults upon the brink of the abyss. Mrs. Browning condenses speculations upon social and political problems. Roden Noel, too little appreciated to be rightly understood, attempts a world-embracing metaphysic of mysticism. Even those poets who do not yield so marked a residuum of philosophy are touched to sadness and gravity by the intellectual atmosphere in which they work. Virgil's great line –

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt"² —

might be chosen as a motto for the corpus poetarum of our epoch. In reading what the age has produced, certain phrases linger in our memory —

"Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

"The still, sad music of humanity."

"Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."

"Tears from the depth of some divine despair."

"Seek, seeker, in thyself, submit to find
 In the stones bread and life in the blank mind."

These haunt us like leading-phrases, the master notes of the whole music.

Starting with enthusiasm at the commencement of the century, our poets have gradually lost such glow of hope as inspired them with spontaneous numbers in its earlier decades. The wide survey of elder and contemporary literatures submitted to their gaze has rendered them more assimilative, reproductive, imitative, reminiscent than spontaneous. When Matthew Arnold defined poetry in general to be "a criticism of life," he uttered a curious and pregnant paradox. It would be hardly a paradox to assert that Victorian poetry is in large measure the criticism of all existing literatures. More and more we have dedicated our powers to the study of technicalities, to the cultivation of the graces, to the elaboration of ornament, and to the acclimatisation upon English soil of flowers borrowed from alien gardens of the Muses. We have forgotten what George Sand said to Flaubert about style: "Tu la considθres comme un but, elle n'est qu'un effet." The result is a polychromatic abundance of what may be called cultured poetry, which does not reach the heart of the people, and does not express its spirit. That is due, no doubt, in part to the fact that there is less of aspiration than of meditation to deal with now, less of an actual joy in eventful living than of serious reflection upon the meanings and the purposes of life. [66] Yet this poetry is true to the spirit of a critical and cultured age; and when the time comes to gather up the jewels of Victorian literature, it will be discovered how faithfully the poets have uttered the thoughts of the educated minority.

A comprehensive survey of our poetry is rendered difficult by the fact that no type, like the drama of the sixteenth century, has controlled its movement. We cannot regard it as a totality composed of many parts, progressing through several stages of development. In this respect, again, it obeys the intellectual conditions of the century. Its inner unity will eventually be found, not in the powerful projection of a nation's soul, but in the careful analysis and subtle delineation of thoughts and feelings which agitated society during one of the most highly self-conscious and speculative periods which the world has passed through. The genius of the age is scientific, not; artistic. In such an age poetry must perforce be auxiliary to science, showing how individual minds have been touched to fine issues of rhythmic utterance by the revolutions in thought which history, philosophy, and criticism are effecting.

 

V.

 

Passing from these general reflections to points of comparison in detail, we must remember that Victorian poetry started with a return to Elizabethan, and that this motive impulse has never wholly been lost sight of. The two periods may be fitly compared in that which both possess in common, a copious and splendid lyric. Our means of studying Elizabethan lyric poetry have been largely increased in the past years by the labours of Mr. Thomas Oliphant, Professor Arber, Mr. W. J. Linton, and Mr. A. H. Bullen. To the last-named of these gentlemen we owe three volumes of lyrics culled from Elizabethan song-books, which are a perfect mine of hitherto neglected treasures. 1 Taken in connection with the songs from the dramatists and the collected lyrics of men like Sidney, Raleigh, Spenser, Herrick, these books furnish us with a tolerably complete body of poems in this species.

What strikes us in the whole of this great mass of lyric poetry, is its perfect adaptation to music, its limpidity and directness of utterance. Like Shelley's skylark, the poet has been –

                  "Pouring his full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art."

Each composition is meant to be sung, and can be sung, because the poet's soul was singing when he made it. They are not all of one kind or of equal simplicity. The lyrics from the song-books, for example, have not the intensity of some songs introduced into the dramas of that period, "in which," as Mr. Pater once observed while speaking [67] of the verses sung by Mariana's page in Measure for Measure, "the kindling power and poetry of the whole play seems to pass for a moment into an actual strain of music." They are rarely so high-strung and weighty with meaning as Webster's dirges, or as Ford's and Shirley's solemn descants on the transitoriness of earthly love and glory. Nor, again, do we often welcome in them that fulness of romantic colour which makes the lyrics of Beaumont and Fletcher so resplendent. This is perhaps because their melodies are not the outgrowth of dramatic situations, but have their life and being in the aerial element of musical sound. For the purposes of singing they are exactly adequate, being substantial enough to sustain and animate the notes, and yet so slight as not to overburden these with too much meditation and emotion. We feel that they have arisen from the natural marrying of musical words to musical phrases in the minds which made them. They are the right verbal counterpart to vocal and instrumental melody, never perplexing and surcharging the tones which need language for a vehicle with complexities of fancy, involutions of ideas, or the disturbing tyranny of vehement passions. And this right quality of song, the presence of which indicates widespread familiarity with musical requirements in England of the sixteenth century, may be likewise found in the more deliberate lyrics of dramatic or literary poets — in Jonson's and Shakespeare's stanzas, in the lofty odes of Spenser and the jewelled workmanship of Herrick.

We discover but little of this quality in the lyrics of the Victorian age. It is noticeable that those poets upon whom we are apt to set the least store now, as Byron, Scott, Hood, Campbell, Moore, Barry Cornwall, Mrs. Hemans, possessed it in greater perfection than their more illustrious contemporaries.

I once asked an eminent musician, the late Madame Goldschmidt, why Shelley's lyrics were ill-adapted to music. She made me read aloud to her the "Song of Pan" and those lovely lines "To the Night," "Swiftly walk o'er the western wave, Spirit of Night!" Then she pointed out how the verbal melody seemed intended to be self-sufficing in these lyrics, how full of complicated thoughts and changeful images the verse is, how packed with consonants the words are, how the tone of emotion alters, and how no one melodic phrase could be found to fit the dædal woof of the poetic emotion.

"Wrap thy form in a mantle gray,
           Star-inwrought!
 Blind with thine hair the eyes of day,
 Kiss her until she be wearied out —

"How different that is," said Madame Goldschmidt, "from the largo of your Milton –

"'Let the bright Seraphim in burning row,
  Their loud uplifted angel-trumpets blow!

|68] "How different it is from Heine's simplicity –

"'Auf Fliigeln des Gesanges
  Herz liebchen trag' ich dich fort.

"I can sing them," and she did sing them then and there, much to my delight; "and I can sing Dryden, but I could not sing your Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats; no, and not much of your Tennyson either. Tennyson has sought out all the solid, sharp words, and put them together; music cannot come between." This was long ago, and it gave me many things to think over, until I could comprehend to what extent the best lyrics of the Victorian age are not made to be sung.

Madame Goldschmidt's remarks were only partially true perhaps. There is no reason, if we possessed a Schubert, why Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" should not be set to music; and Handel could surely have written alternate choruses and solos for a considerable part of Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty." Yet the fact remains that Victorian lyrics are not so singable as Elizabethan lyrics; and the reason is that they are far more complex, not in their verbal structure merely, but in the thoughts, images, emotions which have prompted them. The words carry too many, too various, too contemplative suggestions. Nothing can be lyrically more lovely than:

"Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
 Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn."

Or than –

"Fair are others: none beholds thee:
    But thy voice sounds low and tender
 Like the fairest, for it folds thee
    From the sight, that liquid splendour;
 And all feel, yet see thee never,
 As I feel now, lost for ever!

Or than –

"Will no one tell me what she sings?
 Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
 For old, unhappy, far-off things,
 And battles long ago;
 Or is it some more humble lay,
 Familiar matter of to-day?
 Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
 That has been, and may be again."

But Wordsworth in the last of these examples is meditative, reflective, questioning; his stanza will not suit the directness of musical melody. But the finest phrases in the specimens from Keats and Shelley, "charmed magic casements," "perilous seas," "that liquid splendour," perplex and impede the movement of song.

It is not precisely in poignancy or depth or gravity of thought [69] that the Victorian differ from the Elizabethan lyrists. What can be more poignant than –

"Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
 That dost not bite so nigh
        As benefits forgot:
 Though thou the waters warp,
 Thy sting is not so sharp
        As friend remembered not."

What can be deeper than –

"Of what is't fools make such vain keeping?
 Sin their conception, their birth weeping;
 Their life a general mist of error,
 Their death a hideous storm of terror."

What can be graver than –

"The glories of our birth and state
     Are shadows, not substantial things;
 There is no armour against fate,
     Death lays his icy hand on kings."

For pure poignancy, profundity, and weight, Elizabethan lyrics will compare not unfavourably with Victorian. The difference does not consist in the ore worked by the lyrists, but in their way of handling it. In this latter age a poet allows himself far wider scope of treatment when he writes a song. He does not think of the music of voice or viol, but of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of the soul. The result is a wealthier and fuller symphony, reaching the imaginative sense not upon the path of musical sound, but appealing to the mental ear and also to that "inward eye which is the bliss of solitude." The Victorian lyric, superior in its range, suggestiveness, variety, and richness, inferior in its spontaneity and birdlike intonation, corresponds to the highly-strung and panharmonic instrument of the poet's spirit which produced it, and to the manifold sympathies of the reader's mind for which it was intended. It is iridescent with the intermingled hues of fancy, contemplation, gnomic wisdom, personal passion, discursive rhetoric, idyllic picture-painting. Modes of complicated expression, involving serried reasoning, audacious metaphors, elliptical imagery, and rapid modulations from one key of feeling to another, which a playwright like Shakespeare employed only in his dramatic dialogue, find themselves at home in the lyrical poetry of our age.

 

VI.

 

For another point of comparison, let us take some of those "lyrical interbreathings" in Elizabethan dramatic dialogue, which are surcharged with sweetness, and contrast these with the sweetness of Victorian verse. I might select Shakespeare's lines upon the flowers [70] scattered by Perdita in The Winter's Tale. But I prefer to choose my examples from less illustrious sources. Here, then, is the sweetness of Fletcher: –

"I do her wrong, much wrong; she's young and bl²essed,
 Fair as the spring, and as his blossoms tender;
 But I, a nipping north-wind, my head hung
 With hails and frosty icicles: are the souls so too,
 When they depart hence — lame, and old, and loveless?
 Ah, no! 'tis ever youth there: age and death
 Follow our flesh no more; and that forced opinion,
 That spirits have no sexes, I believe not."

Here is the sweetness of Ford: –

"For he is like to something I remember,
 A great while since, a long, long time ago."

Here is the sweetness of Dekker: –

"No, my dear lady, I could weary stars,
 And force the wakeful moon to lose her eyes,
 By my late Watching, but to wait on you.
 When at your prayers you kneel before the altar,
 Methinks I'm singing with some quire in heaven,
 So blest I hold me in your company."

Here is the sweetness of Massinger: –

"This beauty, in the blossom of my youth,
 When my first fire knew no adulterate incense,
 Nor I no way to flatter but my fondness,
 In all the bravery my friends could show me,
 In all the faith my innocence could give me,
 In the best language my true tongue could tell me,
 And in the broken sighs my sick heart lent me,
I sued and served."

The sweetness of these passages, none of which are singular, or such as may not be easily matched with scores of equal passages from the same and other playwrights, is like the sweetness of honey distilling from the honeycomb. It falls unsought and unpremeditated with the perfume of wilding flowers. Nay more, like honey from the jaws of Samson's lion, we feel it to be ex forti dulcedo, the sweetness of strength.

When we turn to the sweetness of Victorian poetry, we rarely find exactly the same quality. In Keats it is overloaded; in Coleridge it is sultry; in William Morris it is cloying; in Swinburne it is inebriating; in Shelley it is volatilised; in Wordsworth it is somewhat thin and arid; in Tennyson it is sumptuous; in Rossetti it is powerfully perfumed. We have exchanged the hedgerow flowers for heavy-headed double roses, and instead of honey we are not unfrequently reminded — pardon the expression — of jam. Poets, who by happy accident or deliberate enthusiasm, have at some moment come nearest to the Elizabethan simplicity and liquidity of [71] utterance, catch this honeyed sweetness best. We feel that Browning caught it when he wrote: –

                      "A footfall there
Suffices to upturn to the warm air
Half-germinating spices; mere decay
Produces richer life, and day by day
New pollen on the lily petal grows,
And still more labyrinthine buds the rose."

Tennyson produced something different when he wrote that musical idyll — "Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height," which closes upon two incomparable lines of linked melody long drawn out: –

"The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
 And murmuring of innumerable bees."

Here, as in the former instance of lyric verse, it would be unreasonable to contend that Elizabethan poets surpassed the Victorian. On the contrary, the latter know more distinctly what they are about, and sustain the sweetness of their style at a more equal level. They are capable of a more perfectly even flow of sugared verse. What we have to notice is that the quality has altered, and that the change is due to the more involved, more concentrated intellectual conditions of the later age. Poets are no longer contented with impulsive expression. And as I said before, they cannot "recapture the first fine careless rapture" of their adolescent masters in the art of song. The wayward breezes and the breath of wild flowers in that earlier sweetness escape them.

 

VII.

 

The freedom and spontaneity of the Elizabethan age had attendant drawbacks. Owing to the absence of reflection and self-criticism, poets fell into the vices of extravagance and exaggeration, bombast and euphuism. In their use of language, the indulgence of their fancy, the expression of sentiment and the choice of imagery, they sought after emphasis, and displayed but little feeling for the virtue of reserve. All the playwrights, without even the exception of Shakespeare, are tainted with these blemishes. Jonson, who was an excellent critic when he dictated mature opinions in prose, showed a lack of taste and selection in his dramas. There is a carelessness, a want of balance, a defect of judgment in the choice of materials and their management, a slovenliness of execution, throughout the work of that period. Superfluities of every kind abound, and at the same time we are distressed by singular baldness in details. What can be poorer, for example, than Jonson's translations from Virgil and Catullus, more clumsy and superfluous than his translations from Sallust and Tacitus? Poets seem to have been satisfied with saying "This will do," instead of labouring [72] till the thing was as it had to be. They tossed their beauties like foam upon the tide of tumultuous and energetic inspiration. Yet even in this carelessness and unconsidered fecundity, we recognise some of the noblest qualities of the Elizabethan genius. There is nothing small or mean or compassed in that art. Its vices are the vices of the prodigal, not of the miser; of the genial spendthrift, whose imprudence lies nearer to generosity than to wanton waste. We pardon many faults for the abounding vigour which marks these poets; for their wealth of suggestive ideas, their true sympathy with nature, their insight into the workings of the human heart, their profuse stream of fresh and healthy feeling.

When the Elizabethan spirit declined in England it was the business of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to impose limits on all this "unchartered freedom" of the intellect. Then the good and bad effects of critical canons and academical authority came to light. We had our Dryden and our Pope, our Goldsmith and Swift, our Addison and Steele, our Fielding and Johnson. But we had also a deplorable lack of real poetry in comparison with the foison of Elizabethan harvests. If not miserly, the English genius, so far as fancy and imagination are concerned, became thrifty. It erred by caution rather than by carelessness. It doled its treasures out like one who has a well-filled purse indeed, but who is not hopeful of turning all he touches into gold like Midas.

At the beginning of the Victorian age one sign of the return to Elizabethanism was the license which poets allowed themselves in matters pertaining to their art. Keats, in Endymion, Shelley, in The Revolt of Islam, Byron, in nearly every portion of his work, displayed Elizabethan faults of emphasis, unpruned luxuriance, defective balance. It was impossible, however, for the nineteenth century to be as euphuistic or as chaotic as the sixteenth. Taste, trained by critical education, and moulded by the writers of Queen Anne's reign, might rebel against rules, but could not help regarding them. In spite of these restraints, however, poets who almost exactly reproduced the Elizabethans in their blemishes and virtues, like Wells and Beddoes, poets who caricatured them with a pathetic touch of difference, like Sydney Dobell and Alexander Smith, appeared about the middle of the century. And then Browning loomed on the horizon, surely the brawniest neo- Elizabethan Titan whom our age has seen, and whom it has latterly chosen to adore. As years advanced, mere haphazard fluency grew to be less and less admired; and while keeping still within the sphere of romantic as opposed to classical art, the English poets aimed at chastened diction, correct form, polished versification. Tennyson, who represents the height of the Victorian period, brought poetic style again to the Miltonic or Virgilian point of finish. In him a just conception of the work as a whole, a consciousness of his [73] aims and how to attain them, together with a high standard of verbal execution, are combined with richness of fancy and sensuous magnificence worthy of an Elizabethan poet in all his glory.

When, therefore, we compare the two epochs upon this point of taste and style, we are able to award the palm of excellence to the latter. Having lost much, we have gained at least what is implied in artistic self-control, without relapsing into the rigidity of the last century.

 

VIII.

 

The freedom, about which I have said so much, as forming the main note of Elizabethan poetry, accounts for the boldness with which men of letters treated moral topics, and for their clear-sighted outlook over a vast sphere of ethical casuistry. Not to the spirit of that age, but to the genius of our nation, I ascribe the manly instinct which guided these pioneers of exploration and experience through many a hazardous passage. The touch of the Elizabethan poets in such matters was almost uniformly right. They may show themselves gross, plain-spoken, voluptuous. We should not tolerate Jonson's Crispinus, or Shakespeare's Mercutio, or Marlowe's Hero and Leander at the present day. But they were not prurient or wilfully provocative. It is impossible to imagine an Elizabethan Zola, or an Elizabethan Paul Bourget - writers, that is to say, who deliberately attempt to interest those who read their works in moral garbage. Of garbage there is enough in that literature, and more than enough; but only in the same sense as there were open drains and kennels in the streets of London, by the brink of which high-tempered gentlemen walked, and duels were fought, while dreams of love warmed young imaginations, and wise debates on statecraft or the destinies of empires were held by greybeards. Of such kind is the rivulet of filth in Elizabethan poetry, coursing, as the sewer then coursed, along the paths of men, dividing human habitations.

We have forced the sewage, which is inseparable from humanity, to run underneath our streets and houses. We have prohibited the entrance of unsavoury topics into our literature. If Marston were born again among us we should stop our noses, and bid the fellow stand aloof. Even Thomas Carlyle has been christened by even Mr. Swinburne, Coprostomos, or some such Byzantine title, indicating intolerable coarseness. 1 This shows how resolute we are to root out physical noisomeness, and with what sincerity we prefer typhoid poison to the plague accompanied by evil odours. It does not prove that we are spiritually cleaner than our ancestors. The right deduction is that [74] the race has preserved its wholesomeness under conditions altered by a change of manners. Neither then nor now, in the age of Elizabeth or in the age of Victoria, has the English race devoted its deliberate attention to nastiness.

In breadth of view, variety of subject, our Victorian poets rival the Elizabethan. Life has been touched again at all points and under every aspect with equal boldness and with almost equal manliness. But since the drama has ceased to be the leading form of literature, the treatment of moral topics has of necessity become more analytical and reflective. If space allowed, this opinion might be supported by a comparison of the two epochs with regard to philosophic poetry. In sententious maxims, apophthegms on human fate, pithy saws, and proverbial hints for conduct, Elizabethan literature abounds. But we do not here meet with poems steeped in a pervading tone of thought — thought issuing from the writer's self, shaping his judgments, controlling his sensations, modelling his language, forcing the reader to sojourn for a season in the brain-wrought palace of his mood. For instance, Shakespeare uttered the surest word of imaginative doubt, of that scepticism which makes man question his own substantiality, when Prospero exclaimed –

                "We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sloep."

Marston in one phrase expressed man's desire to escape from self, that impossible desire which underlies all reaction against the facts of personal existence:

"Can man by no means creep out of himself,
 And leave the slough of viperous grief behind?"

Webster reiterated a dark conviction of man's impotence in lines like these –

"We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and bandied
 Which way pleases them."

Yet neither these nor any other Elizabethan poets elaborated their far-reaching views on life into schemes of versified philosophy. We do not find among them a Shelley or a Thomson. Pungent as the gnomic sentences of that age may be, they have relief and background in a large sane sympathy with man's variety of vital functions. The rapier of penetrative scrutiny is plunged and replunged into the deepest and most sensitive recesses of our being. But the thinker speedily withdraws his weapon, and suffers imagination to play with equal curiosity upon the stuff of action, passion, diurnal interests, the woof of sentient self-satisfied existence. Regarding human nature as a complex whole, those poets seized on its generic aspects and touched each aspect with brief incisive precision. Our poets are apt to concentrate their mind upon one aspect, and to subli[75]mate this into an all-engrossing element, which gives a certain sustained colour j to their work. Less rich in gnomic wisdom, they are more potent in the communication of settled moods — more "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." It follows that while the Elizabethans had nothing of what Goethe called "lazzaretto poetry," we have much. The affectations of our age do not run toward verbal euphuism, but toward sickliness of sentiment and a simulated discontent with the world around us. A man of Mr. Mallock's calibre would not have set society in the sixteenth century at work upon the problem, "Is life worth living?" Schopenhauer and Hartmann could hardly have existed then, and they assuredly would not have found disciples. But in an age which produces essayists and philosophers of this sort, poetry cannot fail to be introspective and tinged with morbidity. Fortunately, though this is so, few verses have been written by Englishmen during the nineteenth century of which their authors need repent upon the death-bed.

 

IX.

 

The Elizabethan poets, far more truly than their Italian predecessors, if we except Dante, and more truly than any of their contemporaries in other countries, loved external nature for its own sake. There is hardly any aspect of the visible world, from the flowers of the field to the storm-clouds of the zenith, from the stars in their courses to the moonlight sleeping on a bank, from the embossed foam, covering the sea-verge, to the topless Apennines, which was not seized with fine objective sensibility and illustrated with apt imagery by Shakespeare and his comrades. Yet, keenly appreciative of nature as these poets were, nature remained a back ground to humanity in all their pictures. Her wonders were treated as adjuncts to man, who moved across the earth and viewed its miracles upon his passage. Therefore, although imaginatively and sympathetically handled, these things were lightly and casually sketched.

The case is different with the literature of this century, for reasons which can be stated. In the first place, our poets have mostly been men leading a solitary life, in close connection with nature, withdrawn from the busy hum of populous cities. Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Rossetti: it is clear, by only mentioning the leading poets of our age, that this is the fact; and to enlarge the list would be to prove the point superfluously. Unlike the writers of the Restoration and Queen Anne's reign, Victorian poets have not breathed the atmosphere of society, the town, the coffee-house. Even if they lived in London, the town, the coffee-house, society had ceased to exist for them. Unlike the [76] writers of Elizabeth's and James's reigns, they have not had the theatre, with its paramount interest in human action and passion, its vast and varied audience, to concentrate their gaze on man. And while circumstance divided them in this way from what Pope called "the proper study of mankind," the special forms of poetry they cultivated — idyllic and contemplative verse, lyric in its extended sense, descriptive and reflective — led them perforce to nature as a source of inspiration. They worked, moreover, through a period in which the sister art of painting devoted herself continually more and more to the delineation of the outer world in landscape. And this brings us to the decisive difference, the deep and underlying reason why external nature has exercised so powerful and penetrative an influence over contemporary poetry. What we call science, that main energy of the age, which has sapped old systems of thought, and is creating a new basis for religion, forces man to regard himself as part and parcel of the universe. He is no longer merely in it, moving through it, viewing it and turning it round, as Sir Thomas Browne delightfully said, for his recreation. He knows himself to be, in a deep and serious sense, of it, obedient to the elements, owning allegiance to the sun.

Even the poets of the beginning of the century, who resented the impact of science most - even Keats, who cried –

              "Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?"

bowed to the dominant spirit of the nineteenth century. Keats, "the Elizabethan born out of due time, "as he has been called, kept himself indeed unspotted from the contagion of science. Yet his passion for nature, moving though it did on lines traced by Spenser, has a far greater intensity, a far more fiery self-abandonment to the intoxication of earth, than would have been possible in the sixteenth century. Professor Conington used to formulate Keats's craving after nature in a some what ribald epigram: "Would thou wert a lollipop, then I could suck thee." The modern spirit took this form of sensuous imaginative subjectivity in Keats. In Byron it became a kind of lust, burning but disembodied, an escapement of the defrauded and disillusioned soul into communings with forces blindly felt to be in better and more natural tune with him than men were. Shelley's metaphysical mind was touched by nature to utterances of rapt philosophy, which may some day form the sacred songs of universal religion. Prometheus Unbound and the peroration of Adonais enclose in liquid numbers that sense of spirituality permeating the material world upon which our future hopes are founded. Wordsworth, working apart from his contemporaries, expressed man's affinity to nature and man's dependence on the cosmic order with greater reserve. Still, it is difficult to go farther in nature-worship than Wordsworth [77] did in those sublimely pathetic lines written above Tintern Abbey; and nothing indicates the difference between the Victorian and the Elizabethan touch on the world better than his blank verse fragment describing a pedestrian journey through the Simplon Pass.

In the course of the nineteenth century it might seem as though this passion for nature — the passion of Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth — had declined. To assume this would, however, be a great mistake. What has steadily declined is the Elizabethan strain, the way of looking upon I nature from outside. The modern strain, the way of looking upon nature as congenial to man, has strengthened, but with fear and rending of the heart, and doubt. The time is not yet ripe for poetry to resume the results of science with imaginative grasp. What has been called the cosmic enthusiasm is too undefined as yet, too unmanageable, too pregnant with anxious and agitating surmise, to find free utterance in emotional literature. In our days science is more vitally poetical than art; it opens wider horizons and excites the spirit more than verse can do. Where are the fictions of the fancy compared with the vistas revealed by astronomers, biologists, physicists, geologists? Yet signs are not wanting — I see them in some of the shorter poems of Lord Tennyson, I see them in the great neglected work of Roden Noel, I see them in the fugitive attempts of many lesser men than these — which justify a sober critic in predicting that our century's enthusiasm for nature is but the prelude to a more majestic poetry, combining truth with faith and fact with imagination, than the world has ever known.

 

X.

 

It will have been noticed that in this essay the terms Elizabethan and Victorian are used with considerable laxity. The object is to define two periods of English literature, the one extending from Wyatt to Milton, or, roughly speaking, from the year 1530 to the year 1650, the other covering the whole of the nineteenth century, and dating from the publication of Walter Savage Landor's Gebir. These two periods are divided by a space of a hundred and fifty years, during which our literature developed upon lines divergent from the course taken by the Renaissance of the sixteenth century. I have contended that Victorian literature is marked by a reaction in favour of Elizabethanism, and that the general scope and tone of poetry in these periods are closely similar.

Form is a matter of such prominence in art that I shall perhaps be excused for recapitulating some points upon this topic. During the Restoration and Queen Anne's reign, versifiers lost the power and liking for that English unrhymed iambic, which began with Marlowe and culminated with Milton. They dropped the use of lyric measures, [78] rarely employed the sestine or the octave or the Spenserian stanza, and so utterly neglected the sonnet, that even a poet of Gray's exquisite tact was unable to produce a tolerable specimen. The song became neat, terse, epigrammatic, shorn of picturesqueness, sparkling with elegance. But the dominant metre of the eighteenth century was the rhyming couplet. Poets used this form with a fine sense of its point, with a sustained respect for its structural limitations; not as the Elizabethans had employed it, loosely, with variety of pause and period, and with frequent enjambements from one line to another. The wilding graces which we appreciate in the couplets of Marlowe, Beaumont, Spenser, Fletcher, were abhorred by the school of versifiers at whose head stands Pope.

In close connection with these changes in the form of poetry the intermediate period of a hundred and fifty years exhibits a marked alteration of artistic aim and feeling. Diction is corrected, luxuriant shoots are pruned; wit, sense, and taste — words recurring with significant frequency in the literature of the eighteenth century — are cultivated at the expense of imagination and capricious fancy. At the height of the epoch a conceit is held in abomination, and a play on words regarded as a crime. The point and polish of Pope, the limpid purity of Goldsmith, the weighty eloquence of Johnson, were the climax of this counter movement in our literature. Didactic, satirical, epistolary compositions assumed predominance under the reign of criticism, sense, restricted form.

With the dawn of the Victorian age a second reaction set in. It was indicated by the Rowley poems of Chatterton, the lyrics of Blake, the sonnets of Bowles, the blank verse of Cowper and of Landor. Then the current ran strongly, as we have already seen, toward Elizabethan metres, Elizabethan modes of workmanship, and ways of regarding art and nature. The English Renaissance of the sixteenth century became renascent in the nineteenth.

It has been the purpose of the foregoing pages to show in what way this renascent Elizabethanism of the Victorian epoch differs from that of the earlier period; how the altered conditions of English life, especially in the growth of great cities and the emergence of grave social problems through the development of mechanical industry, have saddened and subdued the tone of our poets; how criticism and the physical sciences, together with changes in religious thought, have affected their outlook over the world and man; why they have become more contemplative and analytical, less spontaneous, with a tendency to pessimism, instead of the genial optimism of their predecessors; and finally, to what extent the absence of a commanding type of national art, like the drama, has forced them into idyllic, descriptive, meditative, and lyrical forms of utterance.

It is impossible to condense the net result of this comparison in a [79] single formula. Yet one of the principal conclusions to which it leads us may be singled out. When we survey the literatures of these two epochs, we shall be struck with the generalising force and breadth of the earlier, the particularising subtlety and minuteness of the latter. The Elizabethans seem to sing with one voice, although the key in which their melody is cast may vary. They treat of nature and of man from a common point of view, albeit the world and humanity affect them differently. The Victorians have each a voice of his own, an attitude toward man and nature determined by specific mental faculty. Each has been born something separate, and made something still more separate by education. Elizabethan art is instinctive, Victorian art reflective. The material submitted to the workman in the one age is a complex whole; and this is surveyed in its superficies, seized in its salient aspects. In the other age the complex has been disintegrated, parcelled into details by the operation of sympathies and intuitions proper to distinct individualities. Our first question with regard to an Elizabethan is: What grasp and grip does he possess upon the common stuff of art? Our first question with regard to a Victorian is: How does the man envisage things, from what point of view does he start, by what specific spirit is he controlled? Thus in the nineteenth century we come face to face with individualities who affect us mainly through the tone of their particular natures. The poets are critical and self-conscious in creation. We are critical and self-conscious in submission to their influence, in estimating their achievement. This intimate and pungent personality, settling the poet's attitude toward things, moulding his moral sympathies, flavouring his philosophy of life and conduct, colouring his style, separating him from fellow-workers, is the leading characteristic of Victorian literature — that which distinguishes it most markedly from the Elizabethan.

While many points have been passed in review much has naturally been omitted, and the method of treatment has necessitated the suppression of important modifications. It would in the one case have been interesting to raise the question how far Puritanism influenced the national tone in literature; whether, for example, the abeyance into which music fell after the Commonwealth had anything to do with the decline of song and spontaneous melody. It would have been desirable in the second case, while treating of Restoration, Queen Anne, and Georgian poetry, to have qualified some sweeping statements by an examination of a lyrist like Gray, and to have shown to what extent the three main periods marked out shade into one another at their edges. But two Greek proverbs, no less than want of space, warn me to lay down the pen here. "Nothing overmuch," "The half is better than the whole."

 

 

[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[62] (1) Darley, Landor, Beddoes, Horne, Procter, Shelley, Browning, Taylor, Swinburne, and possibly Tennyson, demand commemoration in a footnote.   zurück

[63] (1) "To drown in this great tide is sweet for me."   zurück

[66] (1) They are published by Mr. J. C. Nimmo, the last of them called Love Poems from the Song-Books of the Seventeenth Century, being privately printed.   zurück

[73] (1) I am not sure of the epithet, and have none of Swinburne's diatribes against Carlyle to refer to.   zurück

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Fortnightly Review.
Bd. 45, New Series, 1889, Nr. 265, 1. Januar, S. 55-79.

Gezeichnet: JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).


The Fortnightly Review   online
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The Fortnightly Review   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 2. Toronto 1972.

 

 

Zeitschriften-Repertorium

 

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Literatur

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Amigoni, David / Regis, Amber K. (Hrsg.): (Re)Reading John Addington Symonds [Special Issue]. In: English Studies. A Journal of English Language and Literature 94.2 (2013), S. 131-231.

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Camlot, Jason: Style and the Nineteenth-Century British Critic. Sincere Mannerisms. Aldershot 2008.

Christ, Carol T.: Victorian Poetics. In: A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Hrsg. von Richard Cronin u.a. Malden, MA 2002, S. 1-21.

Dekkers, Odin: John Addington Symonds and the Science of Criticism. In: Nineteenth-Century Prose 43 (2016), S. 339-356.

Evangelista, Stefano: 'Life in the Whole': Goethe and English Aestheticism. In: Publications of the English Goethe Society 82.3 (2013), S. 180-192.

Habib, M. A. R. (Hrsg.): The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, 6: The Nineteenth Century, c. 1830-1914. Cambridge 2013.

Thain, Marion: The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism. Forms of Modernity. Edinburgh 2016.

 

 

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer