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POETRY AT THE DEATH OF
T'he time seems to have arrived at last, when we may contemplate without passion that precise, mundane, and rhetorical order of poetry which is mainly identified in our minds with the names and practice of Dryden, of Pope, and of Johnson. The school of writers who cultivated this order—and those who emphasize their faults admit that they did institute a school—have commonly been described as the classical, because their early leaders claimed to emulate and restore the grace and precision of the poets of antiquity, to write in English as Horace and Ovid were then supposed to have written in Latin,-that is to say, with a polished and eclectic elegance.* The prestige of these classical versemen was first attacked, in the middle of the eighteenth century, by Gray and Chatterton; and their influence received blow upon blow until the close of the century, when the efflorescence of the naturalistic poets, first from within, as in Crabbe, and then much more decisively from without, as in Wordsworth and Coleridge, destroyed it altogether. To the first and second generation after this revolution in taste, the classical species of poetry seemed no poetry at all. Dryden and Pope, who had been enthroned so long in secure promise of immortality, felt their shrines shaken as by an earthquake. It became the fashion to say that these men were no poets at all, and Keats, in a curious passage of his youth, made himself the daring spokesman of this heresy.
* Horace will our superfluous Branches prune,
Waller to Roscommon, 1684.
“Yes, a schism
And did not know it,-no, they went about,
In these lines Keats has so admirably summed up the convictions of the first half of the present century with regard to the classical poetry, that I need make little comment upon them, further than to point out that with the tact of a great writer he has contrived to condemn the practice he is attacking, no less by the form in which he clothes his ideas, than by the ideas themselves. The passage I have just quoted does not merely satirize the poetry which is presently coming under our consideration, but it is written in extreme formal opposition to it :
That sentence is a cluster of what the French call enjambements, stridings-over; although we have so much of the thing in our literature, we have no word for it in English. It has been proposed to pronounce the French word as though it were English, enjambments, but this is hideous. My friend, Mr. Austin Dobson, with whom I was talking over the subject of this volume, proposed to me the term
* From Sleep and Poetry, 11. 181–206, published in the Poems of 1817.
overflow * for these verses in which the sense is not concluded at the end of one line or of one couplet, but straggles on, at its own free will, until it natural1 ly closes; and I will, if you please, adopt it throughout this course of lectures, as equivalent to the vers enjambé of the French. In its simplest definition, then, the formular difference between the two classes or orders of English poetry is, that the romantic class is of a loose and elastic kind, full of these successive overflows, while the classical is closely confined to the use of distich, that is to say, of regular couplets, within the bounds of each of which the sense is rigidly confined.
It will now be well to show the distinction between these two orders by examples. The passage just quoted from Keats will serve us very well as a specimen of the romantic order. While the wayward music of it is still in our ears, I will contrast it with a few lines from Dryden :
“All human things are subject to decay,
To settle the succession of the state ; * Milton describes the same peculiarity in The Verse (Paradise Lost, fifth title-page) as “the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another."
And, pondering which of all his sons was fit
The temper in which these two writers, Dryden and Keats, are here displayed, is almost identical. I have selected the second piece, because, like the first, it breathes indignation against the mediocrity of poetasters. Our ears will none the less instruct us in a moment that here we have two brilliant artists whose methods, whose ambitions, whose whole conception of style, are at the poles of contrast. Briefly, then, it may be said that each of the manners thus exemplified has been twice in the ascendant in English poetry. * The classical, or precise, when poetry first began to be written in modern English; the romantic, when poetry revived under the Tudor monarchs ; the classical again from the English Commonwealth to the French Revolution; the romantic again ever since.“ The subject of our present investigation is confined to the phenomena and history of the second of these changes, that which succeeded the career of Shakespeare, and led to a new fashion which culminated in the art of Pope. That this change occurred is obvious to everybody, but the causes that led to it are so obscure, and even the history of it has hitherto been so little studied, that the inquiry we are about to pursue may be said to be practically a novel one. In un