Page images
[ocr errors][merged small]
[graphic][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

National Review.




[THE National Review is a new organ of English sentiment. It represents the extreme "lib. eral" school, and is conducted with marked ability. We desire simply to advise our readers of the fact, that they may know the stand-point of its writers. Its theological biases sometimes af fect its opinions in the field of literature, as in some of its criticisms on Milton in the very able and interesting essay which we here present to our readers.-ED. ECLECTIC.]

WE Couple these two books together, not because of their likeness, for they

are as dissimilar as books can be, nor on account of the eminence of their authors, for in general two great authors are too much for one essay, but because they are the best possible illustration of

* Enoch Arden, etc. By ALFRED TENNYSON,

D.C.L., Poet Laureate.

Dramatis Personce. By ROBERT BROWNING. NEW SERIES-VOL. I., No. 3.

something we have to say upon poetical art-because they may give to it life and freshness. The accident of contemporaneous publication has here brought together two books, very characteristic of modern art, and we want to show how they are characteristic.

Neither English poetry nor English criticism have ever recovered the eruption which they both made at the beginning of this century into the fashionable world. The poems of Lord Byron were received with an avidity that resembles our present avidity for sensation novels, and were read by a class which at present reads little but such novels. Old men who remember those days may be heard to say, "We hear nothing of poetry, nowadays; it seems quite down." And down" it certainly is, if for poetry it be a descent to be no longer the favorite excitement of the more frivolous part of the "upper" world. That stimulating poetry is now little read. A stray schoolboy may still be detected in a wild admiration for the Giaour or the Corsair,



tably was that of criticism. The science that expounds which poetry is good and which is bad is dependent for its popular reputation on the popular estimate of poetry itself. The critics of that day had a day, which is more than can be said for some since; they professed to tell the fashionable world in what books it would find new pleasure, and therefore they were read by the fashionable world. Byron counted the critic and poet equal. The Edinburgh Review penetrated among the young, and into places of female resort where it does not go now. As people ask, "Have you read Henry Dunbar? and what do you think of it?" so they then asked,

do you think of it ?" Lord Jeffrey, a shrewd judge of the world, employed himself in telling it what to think; not so much what it ought to think, as what at bottom it did think, and so by dexterous sympathy with current society he gained contemporary fame and power. Such fame no critic must hope for

(and it is suitable to his age, and he | should not be reproached for it.) but the real posterity-the quiet students of a past literature-never read them or think of them. A line or two linger on the memory; a few telling strokes of occa sional and felicitous energy are quoted, but this is all. As wholes, these exaggerated stories were worthless; they taught nothing, and, therefore, they are forgotten. If nowadays a dismal poet were, like Byron, to lament the fact of his birth, and to hint that he was too good for the world, the Saturday Review would say that "they doubted if he was too good; that a sulky poet was a questionable addition to a tolerable world; that he need not have been born" Have you read the Giaour? and what as far as they were concerned." Doubtless, there is much in Byron besides his dismal exaggeration, but it was that exaggeration which made "the sensation," which gave him a wild moment of dangerous fame. As so often happens, the cause of his momentary fashion is the cause also of his lasting oblivion. Moore's former reputation was less ex- now. cessive, yet it has not been more per- where the poems themselves do not penHis articles will not penetrate manent. The prettiness of a few songs etrate. preserves the memory of his name, but cism was loud; now poetry is a still When poetry was noisy, critias a poet to read he is forgotten. There small voice, and criticism must be smallis nothing to read in him; no exquisite er and stiller. As the function of such thought, no sublime feeling, no consum- criticism was limited so was its subject. mate description of true character. Al- For the great and (as time now proves) most the sole result of the poetry of the permanent part of the poetry of his that time is the harm which it has done. time-for Shelley and for Wordsworth It degraded for a time the whole char-Lord Jeffrey had but one word. He acter of the art. It said by practice, by said "It won't do." a most efficient and successful practice, do to amuse a drawing-room. And it will not that it was the aim, the duty of poets, to catch the attention of the passing, the fashionable, the busy world. If a poem "fell dead," it was nothing; it was composed to please the "London" of the year, and if that London did not like it, why it had failed. It fixed upon the minds of a whole generation, it engraved in popular memory and tradition, a vague conviction that poetry is but one of the many amusements for the light classes, for the lighter hours of all classes. The mere notion, the bare idea, that poetry is a deep thing, a teaching thing, the most surely and wisely elevating of human things, is even now to the coarse public mind nearly unknown.

As was the fate of poetry, so inevi

amusement for idle hours, a metrical The doctrine that poetry is a light species of sensational novel, has not indeed been without gainsayers wildly popular. Thirty years ago, Mr. Carlyle most rudely contradicted it. But perhaps this is about all that he has done. He has denied, but he has not disproved. He has contradicted the floating paganism, but he has not founded the deep religion. All about and around us a faith in poetry struggles to be extricated, but it is not extricated. Some day, at the touch of the true word, the whole confusion will by magic cease;

*The first words in Lord Jeffrey's celebrated
review of the "Excursion"
never do."
were: "This will

the broken and shapeless notions cohere and crystallize into a bright and true theory. But this cannot be yet.

But though no complete theory of the poetic art as yet be possible for us, though perhaps only our children's chil dren will be able to speak on this sub. ject with the assured confidence which belongs to accepted truth, yet something of some certainty may be stated in the easier elements, and something that will throw light on these two new books. But it will be necessary to as sign reasons, and the assigning of reasons is a dry task. Years ago, when criticism only tried to show how poetry could be made a good amusement, it was not impossible that criticism itself should be amusing. But now it must at least be serious, for we believe that poetry is a serious and a deep thing.

There should be a word in the language of literary art to express what the word "picturesque" expresses for the fine arts. Picturesque means fit to be put into a picture; we want a word literatesque, "fit to be put into a book." An artist goes through a hundred different country scenes, rich with beauties, charms, and merits, but he does not paint any of them. He leaves them alone; he idles on till he finds the hundred-and-first—a scene which many observers would not think much of, but which he knows by virtue of his art will look well on canvas, and this he paints and preserves. Susceptible observers, though not artists, feel this quality too; they say of a scene, "How picturesque !" meaning by this a quality distinct from that of beauty, or sublimity, or grandeur-meaning to speak not only of the scene as it is in itself, but also of its fitness for imitation by art; meaning not only that it is good, but that its goodness is such as ought to be transferred to paper; meaning not simply that it fascinates, but also that its fascination is such as ought to be copied by man. A fine and insensible instinct has put language to this subtle use; it expresses an idea without which fine art criticism could not go on, and it is very natural that the language of pictorial should be better supplied with words than that of literary criticism, for the eye was used before the mind, and language embodies primitive sensu

ous ideas, long ere it expresses, or need express, abstract and literary ones.

The reason why a landscape is "picturesque" is often said to be that such landscape represents an "idea." But this explanation, though in the minds of some who use it it is near akin to the truth, fails to explain that truth to those who did not know it before; the word "idea" is so often used in these subjects when people do not know anything else to say; it represents so often a kind of intellectual insolvency, when philosophers are at their wit's end, that shrewd people will never readily on any occasion give it credit for meaning anything. A wise explainer must, therefore, look out for other words to convey what he has to say. Landscapes, like everything else in nature, divide themselves as we look at them into a sort of rude classification. We go down a river, for example, and we see a hundred landscapes on both sides of it, resembling one another in much, yet differing in something; with trees here, and a farmhouse there, and shadows on one side, and a deep pool far on; a collection of circumstances most familiar in themselves, but making a perpetual novelty by the magic of their various combinations. We travel so for miles and hours, and then we come to a scene which also has these various circumstances and adjuncts, but which combines them best, which makes the best whole of them, which shows them in their best proportion at a single glance before the eye. Then we say, "This is the place to paint the river: this is the picturesque point!" Or, if not artists or critics of art, we feel without analysis or examination that somehow this bend or sweep of the river shall, in future, be the river to us; that it is the image of it which we will retain in our mind's eye, by which we will remember it, which we will call up when we want to describe or think of it. Some fine countries, some beautiful rivers, have not this picturesque quality: they give us elements of beauty, but they do not combine them together; we go on for a time delighted, but after a time somehow we get wearied; we feel that we are taking in nothing and learning nothing; we get no collected image before our mind; we see the accidents and circumstances of that sort of scenery,

« PreviousContinue »