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hopelessness who believe that the tragic drama is no more. Some have thought that the vast number of standard plays is the cause why new plays are not produced. But genius does not work on a consideration of the supply in the market, of the stock on hand. In whatever way it has power to bring itself into sympathy with the heart of the people, so as to dwell in their love and delight, it will go to its work in obedience to such impulses; and surely there is always change enough from one generation to another to make a new field for dramatic composition, or for any kind of literature, so as to enable a mind of power to write more entirely to the passions of his contemporaries, than any one living before him has done.
It seems to us that the poetry of our days has not dealt enough with life and reality. They surely contain elements of poetry, if we had poets who were capable of bringing to use the more difficult materials of their art. Some critics have conceived that the matter of poetry might become exhausted; but the opinion is not likely to gain much credit amongst us. The bolder opinion, that all conditions of human life, for will contain the inexhaustible matter of that art, seems more suitable to our genius. There has been a decided tendency in our own days to prove the capacity of some apparently unfavourable states of life. But it may be questioned whether the experiment has yet found eminent success. What is wanting to poetry in ages like ours, seems to be rather the proper composition of the minds of poets, than a sufficiency of matter in the life from which they would have to paint. The minds of civilised men are too much unpoetical, because the natural play of sensitive imagination in their minds is, in early years, suppressed. They are cultivated with poetry indeed, but that is an unproductive cultivation. Every mind has, by nature, its own springs of poetry. And it may be conceived, that if nature were suffered to have a freer development in our minds, we should grow up, looking upon our own life with that kind of deep emotion with which, in earlier ages, men look upon the face of society; with something like a continuance of those strange and strong feelings with which, as children, we gazed upon the life even of our own generation. We begin in imagination; but we outgrow it. We pass into a state which is not of wisdom, but one in which imagination and
natural passion are suppressed and extinct, and a sort of worldly temper and tone of mind, a substitute for wisdom, is adopted-like it, only in its immunity from youthful illusions. But wisdom retains the generosity of youth without its dreams, whereas this worldly wit of ours parts with youth and generosity together; and yet, while it dispels those pardonable dreams, does not exempt us from deceptions of its own, and from passions which have the ardour, but not the beauty of youth.
What Poet of the present day is there, who, grasping resolutely with the reality of life, such as our own age brings it forth, has produced true, simple, and powerful poetry? Two have made approaches to this kind, Cowper and Wordsworth. But the poetry of Cowper wants power. And though Wordsworth has expressly applied himself to this part of poetry, yet the strongest passion of his own mind is the passion for nature; and his most powerful poetry may be called almost contemplative. He is the poet of meditation. His sympathy with passions is very imperfect. And the poetry which he has drawn from present life, which, assuredly, he has much contemplated and studied, is more of a touching gentleness than of power. It is, moreover, human life blended, and almost lost in nature. It is nowhere the strength of life brought out to be the very being of poetry. Of those of our poetical writers, who, with some power indeed of glowing imagination, have wrought pictures of other scenes of the world, we hold it not necessary to speak. They have escaped from reality. Burns appears to us the only one who, looking steadfastly upon the life to which he was born, has depictured it, and changed it into poetry.
This appears to us the true test of the mind which is born to poetry, and is faithful to its destination. It is not born to live in antecedent worlds, but in its own; in its own world, by its own power, to discover poetry; to discover, that is, to recognise and distinguish the materials of life which belong to imagination.
Imagination discovering materials of its own action in the life present around it, ennobles that life, and connects itself with the on-goings of the world; but escaping from that life, it seems to us to fly from its duty, and to desert its place of service.
The poetry which would be produced by imagination, conversing intimately with human life, would be that of tragedy. But we have no tragic poet. Schiller is, perhaps, the only great tragic poet who has lived in the same day with ourselves. And wild and portentous as his shapes of life often are, who is there that does not feel that the strange power by which they hold us is derived from the very motions of our blood, and that the breath by which we live breathes in them? He has thrown back his scenes into other times of the world : but we find ourselves there. It is from real, present life, that he has borrowed that terrible spell of passion by which he shakes so inwardly the very seat of feeling and thought. The tragic poets of England, in the age of our dramatic literature, have shown the same power; and they drew it from the same source ; from imagination submitted to human life, and dwelling in the midst of it.
The whole character of our life and literature seems to us to show in our cultivated classes a disposition of imagination to separate itself from real life, and to go over into works of art. It may appear to some a matter of little consequence; and perhaps they will think that it is then beginning to confine itself to its right province. We think there are many who will not be so easily satisfied; and to whom it will appear that such a separation, if it be indeed taking place, cannot be effected without grievous injury to the character of our minds. We think it possible that the great overflow of poetry in this age may be in part from this cause. And there seems to us already a great disappearance of imagination from the character of all our passions. But life is still strong.
And wherever men are assembled in societies, and are not swallowed up in sloth or most debasing passion, there the great elements of our nature are in action: and much as in this day, to look upon the face of life, it
appears to be removed from all poetry, we cannot but believe that, in the very heart of our most civilised life—in our cities—in each great metropolis of commerce-in the midst of the most active concentration of all those relations of being which seem most at war with imagination—there the materials which imagination seeks in human life are yet to be found.
It were much to be wished, therefore, for the sake both of
our literature and of our life, that imagination would again be content to dwell with life—that we had less of poetry, and that of more strength; and that imagination were again to be found as it used to be, one of the elements of life itself; a strong principle of our nature living in the unidst of our affections and passions, blending with, kindling, invigorating, and exalting them all. Then might the spirit of dramatic literature be revived.
END OF VOL. VII.
PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS, EDINBURGH.