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About the middle of the eighteenth century, we find the revived study of the Greek and Latin classics bringing with it a more artistic style of poetry. Examples of this we find in both Gray and Collins.
There are in the poems which Gray (1716-1771) has left us, few though they be, such a perfect finish of language, such a felicity of expression, such richness and harmony of numbers, and such beauty and sublimity of thought and imagination, as to place him decidedly at the head of all English lyric poets.
The works of William Collins (1720-1756), one of the very finest of our lyric poets, “will abide comparison,” says Campbell, “ with whatever Milton wrote under the age of thirty. If they have rather less exuberant wealth of genius, they have more exquisite touches of pathos. Like Milton, he leads us into the haunted ground of imagination ; like him, he has the rich economy of expression haloed with thought, which, by single or few words, often hints entire pictures to the imagination. ... He carried sensibility and tenderness into the highest region of abstracted thought; his enthusiasm spreads a glow even amongst the shadowy tribes of mind ; and his allegory is as sensible to the heart as it is visible to the fancy.”
Collins is the only one of the minor poets of whom, if he had lived, it cannot be said that he might not have done the greatest things. The germ is there. He is sometimes affected, unmeaning, and obscure, but he also catches rich glimpses of the bowers of Paradise, and has lofty aspirations after the highest seats of the Muses. With a great deal of tinsel and splendid patchwork, he has not been able to hide the solid sterling ore of genius. In his best works there is an ethic simplicity, a pathos, and fervour of imagination, which make us the more lament that the efforts of his mind were at first depressed by neglect and pecuniary embarrassment, and at length buried in the gloom of an unconquerable and fatal malady.
Oliver Goldsmith (1731-1774), whose writings range over every department of miscellaneous literature, challenges attention as a poet, chiefly for the unaffected ease, grace, and tenderness of his descriptions of rural and domestic life, and for a certain vein of pensive philosophic reflection.
In 1765, an interest which had sprung up in the romantic poets, was increased by the publication of Dr. Percy's “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.” The narrative ballad and romance now engaged the attention of our poets, and they turned to the ruder times of history for wild stories of human life. At the same time there was growing love for lonely and even savage scenery.
The Ossian of James Macpherson, published about this time, which gave itself out as an English translation of Gaelic epic poems, may be mentioned as an illustration of this new element. A still more remarkable example is found in the poems of Thomas Chatterton, the “ marvellous boy ” who committed suicide in 1770, at the age of seventeen.
In estimating the promises of the genius of Chatterton, says one critic, “I would rather lean to the utmost enthusiasm of his admirers, than to the cold opinion of those who are afraid of being blinded to the defects of the poems attributed to Rowley, by the veil of obsolete phraseology which is thrown over them.” The inequality of Chatterton's various productions may be compared to the disproportions of the ungrown giant. His works have nothing of the definite neatness of that precocious talent which stops in early maturity.
Traces, in the poets, of a pleasure in rural things, and the emotions they awakened, are, it has been observed, to be met with chiefly amongst the Puritans who, because they hated the politics of the Stuarts, before the civil war and the corruption of the court after it, lived apart from the town in quietude. Previous to the time of Pope, the best natural description is to be found in the works of two Puritans, Marvel and Milton. The first poem, however, devoted to natural description, appeared during Pope's lifetime, in the shape of the Seasons, by James Thomson, a Scotchman, who survived Pope only four years. In nature and originality, Thomson (1700-1748) is superior to all the descriptive poets
except Cowper, and few poems in the English language have been more popular than the Seasons. “It is almost stale to remark,” observes Campbell, “the beauties of a poem so universally felt ; the truth and genial interest with which he carries us through the life of the year ; the harmony of succession which he gives to the casual phenomena of nature ; his pleasing transition from native to foreign scenery, and the soul of exalted and unfeigned benevolence which accompanies his prospects of the creation.”
The spirit of true poetry now revived, and Cowper, (17371800) completed what Thomson had begun. This conventional style had been destined to fall, but it was to leave behind it that taste for correct language and versification which had been established by the example of Pope, and found to be quite compatible with the utmost freedom and originality of conception and expression.
Cowper is eminently the David of English poetry, pouring forth like the great Hebrew bard his own deep and warm feelings in behalf of moral and religious truth. The delightful freedom of his manner, so acceptable to those who had long been accustomed to a poetic school, of which the radical fault was constraint; his noble and tender morality ; his fervent piety ; his glowing and well-expressed patriotism; his descriptions unparalleled in vividness and accuracy since Thomson ; his playful humour and his powerful satire ; the skilful construction of his verse, at least in the “ Task," and the refreshing variety of that fascinating poem-all together conspired to render him highly popular, both among the multitude of common readers, and among those who, possessed of poetical powers themselves, were capable of intimately appreciating those of a real poet."
The development of natural poetry was still further aided by the writings of Crabbe (d. 1832). In delineating the homely every-day scenes of common English life-in depicting the tenants of the lowly cottage, the rude hut, the parish workhouse, and the jail—perhaps Crabbe has never been surpassed. His command of language and facility in rhyme are remarkable, and without being free from diffuseness, there is often
an epigrammatical terseness in his lines which delights even a careless reader.
In Crabbe, we find, if not the most natural, at any rate the most literal of our descriptive poets. He exhibits the smallest circumstances of the smallest things. He gives the very costume of meanness, the non-essentials, of every trifling incident. He is his own landscape painter and engraver too. His pastoral scenes seems printed on paper in little dotted lines. He describes the interior of a cottage like a person sent there to distrain for rent. He has an eye to the number of arms in an old worm-eaten chair, and takes care to inform himself and the reader whether a joint-stool stands upon three legs or upon four. You know the Christian and surnames of every one of his heroes, the dates of their achievements, whether on a Sunday or Monday, the colour of their clothes and of their hair, and whether they squinted or not.
As a companion poet to Crabbe we have Bloomfield, the author of The Farmer's Boy (d. 1823). As a painter of simple natural scenery and of the still life of the country, few writers have more undeniable and unassuming pretensions than this self-taught poet. The fault, indeed, of his genius is that it is too humble ; his Muse has something not only rustic but menial in her aspect. He seems afraid of elevating nature lest she should be ashamed of him.
Robert Burns (1759-1796) was a rural poet of a very different stamp from Bloomfield. “Burns," says Professor Wilson, “is by far the greatest poet that ever sprang from the bosom of the people, and lived and died in a humble condition. Indeed no country in the world but Scotland could have produced such a man; and he will be for ever regarded as the glorious representation of the genius of his country. He was born a poet, if ever man was, and to his native genius alone is owing the perpetuity of his fame. For he manifestly had never very deeply studied poetry as an art or reasoned much about its principles, or looked abroad with the wide ken of intellect for objects and subjects on which to pour out his inspiration."
With Robert Burns, poetry written in the Scottish dialect
uttered almost its last note of genius, we would have said its last had it not been for the recollection of James Hogg's lovely poem of Kilmany in the Queen's Walk.
Amongst the poets of what may be called the French Revolution period we have such writers as Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Campbell, Scott, Rogers, and Moore.
Robert Southey (1774-1843) commenced his poetical career with the revolutionary poem of Wat Tyler in 1794 ; between 1802 and 1814 he wrote Thalaba, the Curse of Kohama, and Roderick the Last of the Goths. Undoubtedly his short pieces are by far his best ; but Thalaba, at any rate, is a work which makes a lasting impression on the mind.
Of Wordsworth (1770-1850), it may be said that his poetry is not external but internal ; it does not depend on tradition or story, or old song, like the poetry, for example, of his contemporary Sir Walter Scott ; he furnished it from his own mind and was his own subject. He is the poet of mere sentiment. Of many of his lyrical ballads it is impossible to speak in terms of too high praise. They open a finer and deeper vein of thought and feeling than any poet of modern times has done or attempted.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1773-1834) is as sure of an enduring reputation as any poet of his age. His best work is but little, but of its kind it is perfect and unique. On his incomparable Genevieve he has lavished all the melting graces of poetry and chivalry ; in his Ancient Mariner he has sailed and in his Christabel flown to the very limits of invention and belief, and in his Fire Famine and Slaughter he has revived the vehement strains of the sibyls or, rather, furies.
Much disappointment was felt that Thomas Campbell (17771844) did not give more to the world than the few compositions which evinced such exalted poetical genius. The fact is, perhaps, as Scott stated it : Campbell was in a manner a bug bear to himself; the brightness of his early success was a detriment to all his after efforts. He was afraid of the shadow that his own faine cast upon him.