had been in his grave one hundred and fifty years ere England
bad secreted choice material enough for the making of another great poet.
The nature of men living together in societies, as of the individual man, seems to have its periodic ebbs and floods, its oscillations between the ideal and the matter-of-fact, so that the doubtful boundary line of shore between them is in one generation a hard sandy actuality strewn only with such remembrances of beauty as a dead sea-moss here and there, and in the next is whelmed with those lacelike curves of ever-gaining, ever-receding foam, and that dance of joyous spray which for a moment catches and holds the sunshine.
From the two centuries between 1400 and 1600 the indefatigable Ritson
in his Bibliographia Poetica
has made us a catalogue of some six hundred English poets, or, more properly, verse-makers.
Ninety-nine in a hundred of them are mere names, most of them no more than shadows of names, some of them mere initials.
Nor can it be said of them that their works have perished because they were written in an obsolete dialect; for it is the poem that keeps the language alive, and not the language that buoys up the poem.
The revival of letters, as it is called, was at first the revival of ancient
letters, which, while it made men pedants, could
do very little toward making them poets, much less toward making them original writers.
There was nothing left of the freshness, vivacity, invention, and careless faith in the present which make many of the productions of the Norman Trouveres
delightful reading even now. The whole of Europe
during the fifteenth century produced no book which has continued readable, or has become in any sense of the word a classic.
I do not mean that that century has left us no illustrious names, that it was not enriched with some august intellects who kept alive the apostolic succession of thought and speculation, who passed along the still unextinguished torch of intelligence, the lampada vitoe
, to those who came after them.
But a classic is properly a book which maintains itself by virtue of that happy coalescence of matter and style, that innate and exquisite sympathy between the thought that gives life and the form that consents to every mood of grace and dignity, which can be simple without being vulgar, elevated without being distant, and which is something neither ancient nor modern, always new and incapable of growing old. It is not his Latin which makes Horace cosmopolitan, nor can Beranger's French prevent his becoming so. No hedge of language however thorny, no dragon-coil of centuries, will keep men away from these true apples of the Hesperides if once they have caught sight or scent of them.
If poems die, it is because there was never true life in them, that is, that true poetic vitality which no depth of thought, no airiness of fancy, no sincerity of feeling, can singly communicate, but which leaps throbbing at touch of that shaping faculty the imagination.
Take Aristotle's ethics, the scholastic philosophy, the theology of Aquinas
, the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, the small politics of a provincial city of the Middle Ages
, mix in at will Grecian, Roman
and Christian mythology, and tell me what chance there is to make an immortal poem of such an incongruous mixture.
Can these dry bones live?
can create such a soul under these ribs of death that one hundred and fifty editions of his poem shall be called for in these last sixty years, the first half of the sixth century since his death.
Accordingly I am apt to believe that the complaints one sometimes hears of the neglect of our older literature are the regrets of archaeologists rather than of critics.
One does not need to advertise the squirrels where the nut-trees are, nor could any amount of lecturing persuade them to spend their teeth on a hollow nut.
On the whole, the Scottish poetry of the fifteenth century has more meat in it than the English
, but this is to say very little.
Where it is meant to be serious and lofty it falls into the same vices of unreality and allegory which were the fashion of the day, and which there are some patriots so fearfully and wonderfully made as to relish.
Stripped of the archaisms (that turn every y to a meaningless z
, spell which quhilk
, shake schaik
, bugle bowgill
, powder puldir
, and will not let us simply whistle till we have puckered our mouths to quhissill
) in which the Scottish antiquaries love to keep it disguised,—as if it were nearer to poetry the further it got from all human recognition and sympathy,— stripped of these, there is little to distinguish it from the contemporary verse-mongering south of the Tweed.
Their compositions are generally as stiff and artificial as a trellis, in striking contrast with the popular ballad-poetry of Scotland
(some of which possibly falls within this period, though most of it is later), which clambers, lawlessly if you will, but at least freely and simply, twining the bare stem of old tradition with graceful sentiment and lively natural sympathies.
I find a few
sweet and flowing verses in Dunbar
's ‘Merle and Nightingale
,’—indeed one whole stanza that has always seemed exquisite to me. It is this:—
Ne'er sweeter noise was heard by living man
Than made this merry, gentle nightingale.
Her sound went with the river as it ran
Out through the fresh and flourished lusty vale;
O merle, quoth she, O fool, leave off thy tale,
For in thy song good teaching there is none,
For both are lost,—the time and the travail
Of every love but upon God alone.
But except this lucky poem, I find little else in the serious verses of Dunbar
that does not seem to me tedious and pedantic.
I dare say a few more lines might be found scattered here and there, but I hold it a sheer waste of time to hunt after these thin needles of wit buried in unwieldy haystacks of verse.
If that be genius, the less—we have of it the better.
His ‘Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins,’ over which the excellent Lord Hailes went into raptures, is wanting in everything but coarseness; and if his invention dance at all, it is like a galley—slave in chains under the lash.
It would be well for us if the sins themselves were indeed such wretched bugaboos as he has painted for us. What he means for humor is but the dullest vulgarity; his satire would be Billingsgate if it could, and, failing, becomes a mere offence in the nostrils, for it takes a great deal of salt to keep scurrility sweet.
, in his ‘Chronicle of Scottish Poetry,’ has admiringly preserved more than enough of it, and seems to find a sort of national savor therein, such as delights his countrymen in a haggis
, or the German in his sauer-kraut
. The uninitiated foreigner puts his handkerchief to his nose, wonders, and gets out of the way as soon as he civilly can. Barbour
,’ if not precisely a poem, has passages whose simple tenderness raises them to
That on Freedom is familiar.1
But its highest merit is the natural and unstrained tone of manly courage in it, the easy and familiar way in which Barbour
always takes chivalrous conduct as a matter of course, as if heroism were the least you could ask of any man. I modernize a few verses to show what I mean.
When the King
turns to fly from the battle of Bannockburn (and Barbour
with his usual generosity tells us he has heard that Sir Aymer de Valence
led him away by the bridle-rein against his will), Sir Giles d'argente
Saw the king thus and his menie
Shape them to flee so speedily,
He came right to the king in hy [hastily]
And said, ‘Sir, since that is so
That ye thus gate your gate will go,
Have ye good-day, for back will I:
Yet never fled I certainly,
And I choose here to bide and die
Than to live shamefully and fly.’
’ is in many ways the best rhymed chronicle ever written.
It is national in a high and generous way, but I confess I have little faith in that quality in literature which is commonly called nationality,—a kind of praise seldom given where there is anything better to be said.
Literature that loses its meaning, or the best part of it, when it gets beyond sight of the parish steeple, is not what I understand by literature.
To tell you when you cannot fully taste a book that it is because it is so thoroughly national, is to condemn the book.
To say it of a poem is even worse, for it is to say that what should be true of the whole compass of
human nature is true only to some northand-by-east-half-east point of it. I can understand the nationality of Firdusi when, looking sadly back to the former glories of his country, he tells us that ‘the nightingale still sings old Persian’; I can understand the nationality of Burns
when he turns his plough aside to spare the rough burr thistle, and hopes he may write a song or two for dear auld Scotia
That sort of nationality belongs to a country of which we are all citizens,— that country of the heart which has no boundaries laid down on the map. All great poetry must smack of the soil, for it must be rooted in it, must suck life and substance from it, but it must do so with the aspiring instinct of the pine that climbs forever toward diviner air, and not in the grovelling fashion of the potato.
Any verse that makes you and me foreigners is not only not great poetry, but no poetry at all. Dunbar
's works were disinterred and edited some thirty years ago by Mr. Laing
, and whoso is national enough to like thistles may browse there to his heart's content.
I am inclined for other pasture, having long ago satisfied myself by a good deal of dogged reading that every generation is sure of its own share of bores without borrowing from the past.
A little later came Gawain Douglas
, whose translation of the Aeneid is linguistically valuable, and whose introductions to the seventh and twelfth books—the one describing winter and the other May
——have been safely praised, they are so hard to read.
There is certainly some poetic feeling in them, and the welcome to the sun comes as near enthusiasm as is possible for a ploughman, with a good steady yoke of oxen, who lays over one furrow of verse, and then turns about to lay the next as cleverly alongside it as he can. But it is a wrong done to good taste to hold up this item
description any longer as deserving any other credit than that of a good memory.
It is a mere bill of parcels, a post-mortem
inventory of nature, where imagination is not merely not called for, but would be out of place.
Why, a recipe in the cookery-book is as much like a good dinner as this kind of stuff is like true word-painting.
The poet with a real eye in his head does not give us everything, but only the best
He selects, he combines, or else gives what is characteristic only; while the false style of which I have been speaking seems to be as glad to get a pack of impertinences on its shoulders as Christian in the Pilgrim
's Progress was to be rid of his. One strong verse that can hold itself upright (as the French
critic Rivarol said of Dante
) with the bare help of the substantive and verb, is worth acres of this dead cord-wood piled stick on stick, a boundless continuity of dryness.
I would rather have written that half-stanza of Longfellow
's, in the ‘Wreck of the Hesperus
,’ of the ‘billow that swept her crew like icicles from her deck,’ than all Gawain Douglas
's tedious enumeration of meteorological phenomena put together.
A real landscape is never tiresome; it never presents itself to us as a disjointed succession of isolated particulars; we take it in with one sweep of the eye,—its light, its shadow, its melting gradations of distance: we do not say it is this, it is that, and the other; and we may be sure that if a description in poetry is tiresome there is a grievous mistake somewhere.
All the pictorial adjectives in the dictionary will not bring it a hair's-breadth nearer to truth and nature.
The fact is that what we see is in the mind to a greater degree than we are commonly aware.
O lady, we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth Nature live!
I have made the unfortunate Dunbar
the text for a diatribe on the subject of descriptive poetry, because I find that this old ghost is not laid yet, but comes back like a vampire to suck the life out of a true enjoyment of poetry,—and the medicine by which vampires were cured was to unbury them, drive a stake through them, and get them under ground again with all despatch.
The first duty of the Muse is to be delightful, and it is an injury done to all of us when we are put in the wrong by a kind of statutory affirmation on the part of the critics of something to which our judgment will not consent, and from which our taste revolts.
A collection of poets is commonly made up, nine parts in ten, of this perfunctory verse-making, and I never look at one without regretting that we have lost that excellent Latin phrase, Corpus poetarum
. In fancy I always read it on the backs of the volumes,—a body
of poets, indeed, with scarce one soul to a hundred of them.
One genuine English poet illustrated the early years of the sixteenth century,—John Skelton
He had vivacity, fancy, humor, and originality.
Gleams of the truest poetical sensibility alternate in him with an almost brutal coarseness.
He was truly Rabelaisian before Rabelais
But there is a freedom and hilarity in much of his writing that gives it a singular attraction.
A breath of cheerfulness runs along the slender stream of his verse, under which it seems to ripple and crinkle, catching and casting back the sunshine like a stream blown on by clear western winds.
was an exceptional blossom of autumn.
A long and dreary winter follows.
, who brought back with him from Italy
the blank-verse not long before introduced by Trissino, is to some extent another exception.
He had the sentiment of nature and unhackneyed feeling, but he has no mastery of verse, nor any elegance
We have Gascoyne, Surrey
, stiff, pedantic, artificial, systematic as a country cemetery, and, worst of all, the whole time desperately in love.
Every verse is as flat, thin, and regular as a lath, and their poems are nothing more than bundles of such tied trimly together.
They are said to have refined our language.
Let us devoutly hope they did, for it would be pleasant to be grateful to them for something.
But I fear it was not so, for only genius can do that; and Sternhold
are inspired men in comparison with them.
was at least the author of two noble stanzas:—
The Lord descended from above
And bowed the heavens high,