Poetry in The Age of Johnson

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      General Characteristics. Broadly viewed, the history of later 18th-century poetry is, as we have said, the history of a struggle between old and new, and of the gradual triumph of the new. On the one hand, there were writers who followed the general practice of the school of Pope, and aimed to produce the kind of verse which Pope had brought to perfection and made popular. In the works of these men, therefore, we recognize the continuance of what we may here call the Augustan tradition. On the other hand, there was a marked tendency among writers of the rising generation to abandon the practice of the school of Pope, respond to a different range of influences, and seek fresh subjects, fresh forms, and fresh modes of feeling and expression. In the works of these men, therefore, we may recognize the breaking up of the Augustan tradition. When in his Essay on Pope (1756) Joseph Warton took the ground that Pope was a great ‘wit’, but not a great poet, since his work lacked those imaginative and emotional qualities which are essential to true poetry; when in his Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), addressed to Richardson, Young maintained that poets should leave off imitating classic models and depend upon nature and the promptings of individual genius, it is evident that the change of taste is beginning to express itself in open protest against the principles of the reigning fashion.

      Thus the Age of Johnson, in respect of its poetry, is obviously an age of transition, innovation, and varied experiment. It must, however, be borne in mind that the great general movement from old to new was the result of many forces, and resolves itself under analysis into a number of different movements following many lines. At this juncture, the reader should return to the epitome of the chief characteristics of the classical school of poetry already given (see 59). As was there shown, classical poetry (1) was mainly the product of the intelligence and was strikingly deficient in emotion and imagination; (2) it was almost exclusively a ‘town’ poetry; (3) it was conspicuously wanting in romantic spirit; (4) it was extremely formal and artificial in style; and (5) it adhered rigorously to the closed couplet. At all these points reaction set in. (1) Emotion, passion, and imagination invaded poetry to the destruction of its dry intellectuality, and the old narrow didactic principles were discarded. (2) Poetry ceased to concern itself exclusively with the ‘town’, and began to deal with nature and rustic life. A most important feature in it is the growth of the sense of the picturesque. (3) The romantic spirit revived, and this revival brought with it great changes in the themes and temper of verses (4) Efforts were now made to break away from the stereotyped conventions of ‘poetic diction’, and to substitute for these simplicity of phrase and the language of nature. (5) The supremacy of the closed couplet was attacked and other forms of verse used in its place. These lines of reaction are sometimes independent of one another, sometimes they run together, and sometimes they cross; and the resulting complexity is so great that to follow the history of our later eighteenth-century poetry in detail would be impossible within the limits of a brief sketch like this. A few matters of outstanding importance only can be here touched on. In the interests of simplicity, we will first deal with the continuance of the Augustan tradition; then we will consider some aspects of the breaking up of that tradition; and finally we will speak of a few individual poets whose work is sufficiently significant, either on the personal or on the historical side, to justify separate mention.

      The Continuance of the Augustan Tradition. Neglecting many minor men, we may here associate this with the names of two most important writers JOHNSON and GOLDSMITH.

      Emphasis must first be laid upon a point already noted, that both Johnson and Goldsmith were strong conservatives in literary theory. In an epoch of change, they held fast to the immediate past. Johnson
‘took it for granted’, as Macaulay said, “that the kind of poetry which flourished in his own time” and “which he had been accustomed to hear praised from his childhood” was the best kind of poetry; and he not only upheld its claims by direct advocacy of its canons, but also consistently opposed every experiment in which, as in the ballad revival (see 84) he detected signs of revolt against it. Goldsmith was equally convinced that the writers of the Augustan age provided “ the true standard for future imitation”; for him, in Masson’s words, “Pope was the limit of classic English literature”; and at all important points, as in his aversion to blank verse, he showed himself fundamentally hostile to change. We shall thus be prepared to find that the creative work of both these writers is avowedly classical in matter and manner. Johnson’s two chief poems, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, belong entirely to the preceding generation; not indeed in their pessimistic tone, for that is the expression of the poet’s personal character, but in their didacticism, their formal, rhetorical style, and their adherence to the closed couplet. The same may be said of Goldsmith’s two important poems, The Traveller and The Deserted Village, for these, also, as verified pamphlets on political economy, are statedly didactic; they are written in the closed couplet, of which indeed they provide admirable examples; and they are often marred by the stilted and pompous phraseology which was then deemed effective. They may, therefore, be fairly described as the last great works of the outgoing artificial eighteenth-century school. Yet when we examine them more minutely we realize that, as Goldsmith put himself and his own poetical temperament into everything he wrote, these poems, though they nominally follow the Augustan tradition, mark in various ways a rupture with it. While they are didactic and philosophical, the thesis is often an excuse for digressions of the purest poetry, and the argument a mere thread upon which the writer hangs pictures, reflections, and reminiscences. The tender feeling which pervades them and gives them so much of their peculiar charm, is also remarkable; Goldsmith greatly disliked sentimentalism, yet he was himself touched by its growing power. Their treatment of nature and rural life must also be noted. The poet, looking back at past experiences through a haze of memory, recalls what he has himself seen and known, and writes of that; and though his landscape and his peasants are undoubtedly rather conventionalized, his descriptions have none the less an unmistakably personal quality. It is clear, therefore, that conservative as Goldsmith was, he yielded more than he realized to the influences at work about him; while, as for Johnson, it is particularly instructive to remember that, though he was incomparably the strongest individual force in the literary world of his time, he was still unable to check the encroachments of the new spirit which he abhorred.

      The Reaction in Form. In considering some aspects of the reaction against the Augustan tradition, we may conveniently begin with the change in form, though, as this was very generally associated with changes in other directions, it cannot of course be dealt with exhaustively by itself.

      The main feature of this reaction in style was the abandonment of the Popean couplet for experiments in other kinds of verse. It is probable that these experiments were in part prompted by natural impatience of a single monotonous form, and a corresponding desire for change. But the direct influence of reviving interest in long-neglected pre-Augustan writers has also to be recognized. Growing admiration of Milton, for example, was the principal immediate cause of the rise and spreading popularity of blank verse. The first important piece of eighteenth-century blank verse, Thomson’s Seasons, to which further reference will be made later, was obviously fashioned on Milton’s. Other examples of the same form belonging to the closing years of the Age of Pope are, as already mentioned (see 62), Somerville’s The Chase, Young’s Night Thoughts, and Blair’s The Grave; and to these may now be added Dyer’s The Ruins of Rome (1740) and Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744). The use of blank verse greatly increased during the Age of Johnson, and the language of Goldsmith in regard to it, in the dedication to The Traveller and elsewhere, proves that, much to that writer’s annoyance, it was then firmly established side by side with the couplet. An equal interest attached to what is known as the Spenserian revival. This began quite early in the century with a number of attempts, none of them very serious or important, to reproduce the Spenserian stanza (see 26), and even Spenser’s archaic diction, and the immense vogue which such experiments presently obtained is shown by the fact that over 50 poems in this stanza were published between 1730 and 1775. Johnson’s emphatic protest in The Rambler (May 14, 1751) is conclusive evidence of the extending power of this particular movement. ‘The imitation of Spenser’, writes the Great Cham, “by the influence of some men of learning and genius seems likely to grow upon the age” — a circumstance which he goes on to deplore. We speak of the Spenserian revival here, because at the outset it was purely formal. But little by little the spell of the Faery Queene fell upon those who read and imitated, and thus Spenser helped to open up for the new generation the wonder-world of chivalry, knight-errantry, and medieval romance. The general course of the movement may perhaps be indicated by a comparison of the three principal Spenserian poems of the century. The Schoolmistress (1742, revised 1750) of WILLIAM SHENSTONE (1714-1763), in which we have a delightful picture of an old village dame school, uses the language and style of Spenser expressly for purposes of burlesque; nothing, the author declares, would ever induce him to take Spenser seriously. THOMSON’S Castle of Indolence (1748) adopts much of the Gothic machinery of the Faery Queene, and reproduces many of its essential characteristics. The Minstrel (1771-74) of JAMES BEATTIE (1735-1803) rejects the mere formal imitation of Spenser entirely, except in respect of the stanza, but the larger influence of the master is sufficiently attested in the reasons which the poet assigns for his choice of this: “it pleases my ear”, he says, “and seems, from its Gothic structure and original, to bear some relation to the subject and spirit of the poem.”

      Two points in connection with the general reaction in form must be made clear. In the first place, in technical quality and aesthetic effect, both blank verse and the Spenserian stanza are the very antithesis of the terse, epigrammatic closed couplet, and appealed to the new generation both by contrast with this, and by their elasticity and the opportunity they afforded for the free movement of the poet’s mind. Secondly, while many writers now rejected the couplet, the couplet itself was allowed to remain intact in the particular shape which it had finally assumed in the hands of Pope. In other words, until well on in the nineteenth century, when poets used the couplet at all, it was still the classic couplet which they adopted. It was not until the days of Leigh Hunt and Keats, as we shall see presently, that the reaction in form extended to the couplet itself, and the loose romantic type was substituted for the long supreme Popean kind.

      The Growth of the Love of Nature in Eighteenth-Century Poetry. The growth of a love of nature and of a feeling for the picturesque is one of the most marked and interesting general features in the history of English poetry between Pope and Wordsworth. It is true that even in the thoroughly metropolitan literature of the Restoration period and the Age of Anne, we occasionally catch a breath of fresh air which seems to blow straight from the woods and fields. To say nothing of Milton and Marvell, who were survivors of “the giant race before the flood”, we must remember that THOMAS PARNELL (1679-1718) and LADY WINCHELSEA (circa 1660-1720) show a genuine sense of natural beauty and the charms of rural life. But these were exceptions, and speaking in general terms, we are quite justified in saying that our English Augustan poetry was a poetry of city life. The muse of the time loved best to frequent the coffee house and the drawing room; solitude she despised; and if, once in a while, she wandered out into the country, it was seldom farther than Richmond Hill or Windsor Forest. Nature in its wilder and more rugged aspects shocked the refined taste of a generation which had been trained to prefer the trim garden to the unspoiled hillside. According to the artificial conception then prevalent, nothing could be beautiful save what had been reduced to symmetry by rule and line. In the words of a typical and authoritative exponent of these ideas, Addison, “we find the works of nature still the more pleasing the more they resemble art”.

      In dealing with the poetry of the fifteenth century (see 16) we noted the fact that, while the landscape of the English writers of that time was wholly bookish and conventional, that of their Scottish contemporaries was often painted directly from reality and with great care and accuracy; and we asked the reader to bear this in mind, since we should presently learn that Scottish poets “did much to bring the love of nature into later English literature”. The truth of this statement we are now in a position to appreciate. It was in the writings of a Lanarkshire man, ALLAN RAMSAY (1686-1758), that the reviving love of nature first became conspicuous. Drawing his inspiration largely from the popular songs and ballads of his own peasantry, Ramsay produced in The Gentle Shepherd (1725), a real pastoral poem, the characters in which are genuine shepherds and shepherdesses, and not the traditional shadows of a mere literary Arcadia. But the stream which he here set flowing reached our London public and became an influence in our English literature through the works of another Scotsman, whose name has already been mentioned—JAMES THOMSON (1700-1748). His Seasons a descriptive poem in four parts (1726-30) belongs in many ways to the Augustan school; it is charged with didacticism in the approved manner; its vocabulary is highly Latinised; the conventions of ‘poetic diction’ abound in it; its style is in consequence often frigid and bombastic; its descriptions frequently impress us as ‘got up’. Yet Thomson gives us real landscape; he writes largely from personal knowledge; and many of his incidental touches are marked by great precision and sympathy. However we may now judge his performance, we must at least recognize its historical claims as the first really important poem in which nature, instead of being subordinated to man, is made the central theme. While less influential than the Seasons, we must still name with them the contemporary work of a Welshman, JOHN DYER (1700-1758), who has already appeared in connection with the reaction in form, and whose descriptive Grongar Hill, a piece of vigorous landscape painting, which owes much to Milton, but more to nature itself, was published in the same year as Thomson’s Winter. From this time on the love of nature became increasingly prominent in our poetry. We find it, for example, in William Collins and William Blake; in Goldsmith, as we have said; and, as we shall presently see, in Gray, Burns, and Cowper.

      The Development of Naturalism. With this steady growth of a love of nature, we may conveniently associate that general ‘return to nature’ (as it is broadly called) which profoundly affected later eighteenth-century poetry in subject, tone, and style. This ‘return to nature’ meant something more than an increasing feeling for the picturesque and for the charms of the country. It meant a rising sense of all that is implied in the contrast between nature and civilization, and a deepening belief that, as the cramping conventions of our artificial social system prevent the free development and expression of individuality, and give birth to many evils, the only way of salvation for men and nations lies through a radical simplification of life. This resulted in poetry in the quest for more elementary themes, which of course had to be sought among the unsophisticated country folk rather than amid the complexities of the recognized centers of culture and refinement, and for more natural modes of treatment. Greater simplicity in the subject matter chosen, in the passions described, and in the language employed, were thus among the principal objects aimed at by many poets of the new generation. In considering the various lines of reaction against the artificial poetry of the Augustan school, the utmost stress must therefore be laid upon the attempt to bring poetry back to nature and reality.

      As the development of naturalism, so conceived, was due to the co-operation of many influences, literary and social, so its effects have to be looked for now in one direction and now in another, and they are in general so intimately bound up with other features of the new poetry that it would be impossible to isolate them for separate study. One or two points must, however, be indicated.

      On the side both of matter and of style, simplification was much aided by the spread of an interest in old ballad literature. Of the ballad revival in its other aspects, I shall speak in the next section. Here we have only to note its connection with the development of naturalism. Augustan of the Augustans though he was, Addison had perceived that the informality and spontaneity of Chevy Chase and The Bahes in the Woody childish as they seemed to him to be, gave them a wonderful power of appeal; and this power of appeal now came to be more and more fully realized. The old ballad phrase, “God rest his soul”, had, as we remember, been ‘improved’ and ‘refined’ by the Augustans into “Eternal blessings on his shade attend.” Despite Johnson’s ridicule of the old ballads in general, people now began to discover that the simpler form is much better and more poetical than the translation, and this discovery led to a change of taste, which in the long run was bound to prove fatal to all the theories of the Augustan school about elegance and effect. At first, the movement towards simplicity was slow and halting; even Bishop Percy (see next section) polished some of the old ballads in his collection as a concession to the extreme refinement of his age. But it gained ground, and, as it did so, it made writers and readers alike increasingly conscious of the superiority of what is natural and spontaneous in poetry to all the carefully cultivated conventional mannerisms of the long-accepted school of art.

      At this point, mention may be made of the work of WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827). A mystic and a visionary, whose apocalyptic effusions were inspired, as he himself declared, by the desire to restore the golden age, and who was also much influenced by the medieval revival, Blake might indeed find a place also among our early romantic poets. But I speak of him here, because in that part of his poetry which really concerns all readers—in his Poetical Sketches, Songs of Innocence, and Songs of Experience—the love of the country, of simple life, of childhood and home, mark him out as a leader in that naturalistic kind of poetry the poetry of ordinary things which Wordsworth was a little later to bring to perfection. Meanwhile, another and curiously contrasted phase of naturalism was being exemplified by Blake’s contemporary GEORGE CRABBE (1754-1832), in whose works—The Village, The Newspaper, The Parish Register, The Borough, Tales in Verse, and Tales of the Hall—it took the form of extreme and uncompromising realism. Himself a child of poor parents, and for many years a hardworking parish clergyman, Crabbe knew the life of the poor, with all its penury, misery, and discontent, from the inside, and it is this life, as he had seen it, that he sets himself to depict in his verse. His program is unflinching fidelity to facts: MI sing the cot”, he announces, “as truth will paint it, and as bards will not”; and he holds so resolutely to his principle that he never relieves the heavy gloom of his pictures by a single idealizing touch. It is singular that, though he lived through the years of its splendid activity, Crabbe remained to the end of his long life entirely uninfluenced by the romantic movement. His regular employment of the closed couplet is also a point of connection with the outgoing classic school. But his plain and realistic handling of materials taken from actual life, and his total repudiation of all the pastoral conventions which had long stood between the poet and the world of reality about him, give him special importance in the naturalistic reaction against the Augustans tradition.

      The Romantic Revival. Even more important than this development of naturalism was the general revolt which went on at the same time against the hard temper, the dry intellectuality, the hatred of the fantastic, the visionary, and the mystical, which, as we have seen, were among the chief characteristics of the Augustan school. This revolt we call the romantic movement. To find a definition of ‘romantic’, which shall be at once sufficiently broad and sufficiently exact, is extremely difficult. The word is so loosely employed even by critics that it is often taken to cover everything anti-Augustan, including naturalism. This is a mistake against which the student should be carefully on his guard, since naturalism, though contemporary with romanticism, and like this, a movement of reaction against Augustan ideals, was a reaction on entirely different lines. Perhaps the points already indicated will serve to show the origin, direction, and fundamental meaning of this particular movement. By romantic we connote (1) the principle of spontaneity in literature, which implies the assertion of individuality against the conventions of the schools, the rejection of that critical code which had bound poetry down to the so-called rules of art, and the belief that poetic genius is really inspired, and should be a law unto itself. Romanticism was thus a part of the general later eighteenth-century movement for the emancipation of the individual, and that is why the great French writer, Victor Hugo, described it as “liberalism in literature”. (2) A particular mood and temper, of which strong passion, sensibility, aspiration, and melancholy are widely recognized component elements. It is this aspect of it which is specially brought out in Mr. Watts-Dunton’s definition of the romantic revival as “the renaissance of wonder and mystery”. (3) A love of the wild, fantastic, abnormal, and supernatural. And (4) as a result of the combined influences of all these things, a fondness for a particular kind of subject matter which was quite a fresh kind in the middle of the eighteenth century, and which gave free play to individual genius, stimulated the mood in question, and appealed to the newly awakened taste for the marvelous. Perhaps a few concrete examples will help to make these points clear. Thus, then, we call the couplets of Keats’s Endymion romantic because they are ‘free’, in the sense that they repudiate the formal canons of the Augustan form. We speak of the spirit of Gray’s Elegy as romantic melancholy, and of the fierce emotion of Byron’s eastern tales as romantic passion. We use the same epithet to describe the fantastic narrative of Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel and the supernaturalism of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

      Now, as the Middle Ages were, from all points of view, essentially romantic ages, it was natural that the imagination of men of the temper and tastes specified should turn back to them in search of inspiration and themes. Hence a very important phase of the romantic movement (in part a cause, and in part the effect of it) was the medieval or Gothic revival, to which, as we have seen, a certain stimulus had early been given by the renewed study of the writings of Spenser. The results of this medieval revival in prose fiction have already been noted. About the time of the production of The Castle of Otranto, its influences became equally conspicuous in poetry. Its significance is shown in a most interesting way by the critical theories of a writer of this period, RICHARD HURD (1720-1808), who in his Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) boldly maintained that ‘Gothic manners’ provide far better material for poetry than classical mythology (now, it must be remembered, worn threadbare and reduced to lifeless convention by constant repetition). “May there not”, asks Hurd, “be something in the Gothic Romance particularly suitable to the views of a genius, and the ends of poetry? And may not the philosophic moderns have gone too far in their perpetual ridicule and contempt of it?” And, again, in opposition to the Augustan principle that the poet should ‘follow nature’ in the sense that he should keep to the well-beaten tracks of experience: “The poet has a world of his own, where experience has less to do than consistent imitation. He has, besides, a supernatural world to range in.... In the poet’s world all is marvelous and extraordinary.” These ideas will help us to connect the medieval revival with the general movement of reaction against the Augustan tradition, and with the transformation which the whole conception of the nature, place, and functions of poetry was now undergoing.

      As in the development of naturalism, so in this revival of the romantic past, a powerful influence was exerted by the spread of an interest in ballad literature, which, formerly cultivated only by a few antiquaries here and there, now became increasingly popular with general readers. The most important ballad book of the eighteenth century was BISHOP PERCY’S Reliques of Ancient English Poetry; consisting of old Heroic Songs and Other pieces of our Earlier Poetry; together with Some Few of Later Date (1765). These volumes contained the collections of many years, and their publication was in the first instance suggested by Shenstone (see 81). Though Percy himself little anticipated such a result, the Reliques proved a great power in spreading romantic tastes, and, as we shall presently see, his first reading of them made an epoch in the intellectual development of Scott. An Essay on the Ancient Minstrelsy which the editor prefixed as an introduction to the ballads themselves, also counted in the same direction. It was, for example, the immediate inspiration of Beattie’s Minstrel (see 81).

      A name of extraordinary fascination in the history of the medieval revival is that of THOMAS CHATTERTON, ‘the marvelous boy’, who was born at Bristol in 1752, and died by his own hand in a London garret in 1770, before he had quite completed his eighteenth year. Chatterton’s poems fall into two groups, but those which he published in his own name, and in which the Augustan tradition in matter and form is largely preserved, are of far less important to us here than those which he gave out as the work of a certain Thomas Rowley, a mythical Bristol priest of the fifteenth century. The medieval fiction, which the boy invented, and by means of which he endeavored to palm off his fabrications upon the world as ancient originals, is in its own way as remarkable as the poems themselves. The fact that for a time he contrived to deceive many critics, including Walpole, proves how little real knowledge of fifteenth-century English then existed, for his attempted reproduction of the language and style of the age he sought to revive is full of glaring blunders and anachronisms. We are now able to follow the actual processes by which he concocted his ‘Rowley’ dialect. But the value of such poems as Aella and the Ballad of Charity is as great as ever, both because they are probably the most wonderful things ever written by a boy of Chatterton’s age, and because they are another clear indication of the fast-growing curiosity of critics and the public regarding everything belonging to the Middle Ages.

      This medieval revival was accompanied by a further spread of interest in the romantic past, and especially by the opening up of the heroic and legendary world of the north the world of Celtic antiquity. The Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland considered as the Subject of Poetry written by WILLIAM COLLINS (1721-1759), as early as 1749, though not published till 1788, reveals its broad significance in its very title. But for the full meaning of this phase of the romantic movement, we have to turn to what are known as the Ossianic poems. In 1760 a young Scotch schoolmaster, JAMES MACPHERSON (1736-1796) published a small volume of Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland and translated from the Galic [sic] or Erse Language. These were offered as literal versions of “genuine remains of ancient Scottish poetry”. They gave rise to an immense amount of curiosity and speculation, and Macpherson started on a literary pilgrimage through the Highlands in quest of fresh material of the same general character. As a result, he produced Fingal, an Epic Poem in six books, in 1762, and Temora, an Epic Poem in eight books, in 1763. Public interest both in Edinburgh and in London was now at fever heat, and a fierce controversy broke out between those who supported Macpherson’s assertion that these poems were the actual work of a Gaelic bard of the third century named Ossian, and those (Johnson among the number) who denounced them as gross and impudent forgeries. The questions at issue cannot yet be regarded as definitely settled, and it is still impossible to decide how much of the substance of the poems is really ancient and how much in them, as they stand, is to be referred to the manipulation of the editor and compiler, who undoubtedly treated his materials with a very free hand. Fortunately, we need not enter into the discussion in order to appreciate the epoch-making character of Macpherson’s work. In the loosely rhythmical prose which he adopted for his so-called translations, he carried to an extreme the formal reaction of the time against the classic couplet. In matter and spirit, he is wildly romantic. These Ossianic poems are filled with supernaturalism, steeped in melancholy, and tremulous with that highly-wrought sentimentalism which, as we have seen, was then invading literature from every side. The world they depicted, too, was a world of heroic simplicity set in a landscape of mountains and mists; and thus, while they exhibited a striking development in the treatment of nature, they also made a specially potent appeal to the imagination of men who were beginning to feel themselves cramped by the narrow and petty conventions of social life, and were fast growing weary of the well-bred tone of the drawing-room poetry which had long been fashionable. The desire to get ‘back to nature’ is a conspicuous feature of these poems. To us their note is hopelessly falsetto. But to the readers of their own time they seemed a genuine voice out of the strong, unspoilt, primitive past, when men were unsophisticated, and natural, and great. In seeking to account for their enormous vogue and influence both in England and on the Continent for a wave of Ossianic enthusiasm swept over Europe, and in revolutionary France boys and girls still bore the names of Ossian’s heroes and heroines—we must always keep their social significance well in view. They captivated readers of all classes, touched their sympathies, and set their hearts aflame, not merely because they stood for a change in the style of literature, but also, and far more, because they fell in with the rising mood of revolt against the evils bred by an artificial society and an over-ripe civilization. In this case, therefore, we see how the influences of naturalism and romanticism ran together, and are able to trace both back to those social forces which molded and directed the literature of the age.

      It is interesting to observe that the whole movement for the revival of the romantic past came to its head in the decade between 1760 and 1770. To this decade belong Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance, The Castle of Otranto, Percy’s Reliques, the poems of Chatterton, Macpherson’s Ossian, and, as we shall see in a moment, the most romantic work of Gray. It will therefore be evident that those who, like Scott and Coleridge, were born in the first years of the decade following, grew into boyhood just in time to feel the full force of the influences which these writers had brought into literature.

      Gray, Burns, and Cowper. To deal in any detail with the writings of these three specially important poets of the age of transition would carry us beyond the limits of our sketch, but enough must be said about each of them to make his historical position clear.

      THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771), a man of poor physique, a great scholar, and a recluse, produced but little poetry, but what he wrote is not only exquisite in quality and finish, but is also curiously interesting as a kind of epitome of the changes which were coming over the literature of his time. Among his first poetic efforts (apart from a Latin poem on Locke’s philosophy) was a poem on The Alliance of Education and Government, belonging to the Augustan school, and written in the closed couplet. Gray never succeeded in finishing it. His first publication was the ode On a Distant Prospect of Eton College written in 1742 and published anonymously by Dodsley in 1747. Next year appeared in the first three volumes of Dodsley’s collection his Eton Ode, the Ode to Spring, and the poem On the Death of a Favourite Cat. These are conventional in thought and diction and contain little to suggest the new spirit. The Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (perhaps the most famous of all English poems) a great change appears, and many features make it historically very important. There is, first, the use of nature, which, though employed only as a background, is still handled with fidelity and sympathy. There is, next, the churchyard scene, the twilight atmosphere, and the brooding melancholy of the poem, which at once connect it (as we have said) with one side of the romantic movement—the development of the distinctive romantic mood. The contrast drawn between the country and the town—the peasants’ simple life and—‘the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’ is a third particular which will be noted. Finally, in the tender feeling shown for ‘the rude forefathers of the hamlet’ and the sense of the human value of the little things that are written in the short and simple annals of the poor, we see poetry, under the influence of the spreading democratic spirit, reaching out to include humble aspects of life hitherto ignored. Thus, despite the poet’s continued use of the Augustan trick of personification and capital letters, the Elegy marks a stage in the evolution of Gray’s genius. Yet it was only a stage, for as he grew older he became increasingly romantic. The two great odes, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, are filled with the new conception of the poet as an inspired singer rather than an accomplished artist—in the terms of the eighteenth-century antithesis, an ‘enthusiast’ rather than a ‘wit’; while the short poems on northern and Celtic themes, like The Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin, take their place (as we have already pointed out) in the history of the revival of the romantic past. The interest of Gray’s development as a poet should now be clear. He began with verified pamphlets in Pope’s manner; passed on through conventional lyrics to the Elegy; and ended with experiments which are fundamentally romantic in character.

      Gray, though a man of very pure poetic feeling, was singularly unprolific. ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796) was endowed with a marvelously spontaneous power of genius and an almost unrivaled gift of song. Absolute sincerity to himself and his surroundings was, however, the ultimate basis of his strength; a Scottish peasant, he wrote frankly as a peasant, and became the poetic interpreter of the thoughts and feelings, the racy humor, the homespun philosophy, the joys, sorrows, passions, superstitions, and even sometimes the lawlessness and the debaucheries, of the class from which he sprang. Of all these things he sang with an entire freedom from everything suggestive of mere literary mannerism and affectation. It is indeed quite a mistake to regard him as an unlettered plowman. He read widely and critically. But standard English literature affected him but little, though it may be noted as a detail that his most ambitious poem, The Cotter's Saturday Night, is in the Spenserian stanza. His poetic ancestry was in fact Scottish, and the chief literary influence behind his own work, vernacular poetry as represented by the songs and ballads of the Scottish peasant folk. Perhaps more than any other poet of the later eighteenth century he helped to bring natural passion back into English verse. Another important point about his writings is their strong democratic quality. He was keenly responsive to the revolutionary spirit of his age. We feel this spirit when, in The Cotter's Saturday Night, he contrasts the homely life and the simple piety of the peasant and his family with the wealth and vulgar ostenta¬tion, the luxury and the artificial refinements of the fashionable world; and when he sings that:

‘The rank is but the guinea’s stamp
The man’s the gowd for a’ that,’

      Prophesies of the coming time when all over the world men will be brothers, and reminds us that it is ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ which ‘makes countless thousands mourn’, he constitutes himself the mouthpiece of the growing faith of his time in Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.

      No contrast could be greater than that between this full-blooded, robust Ayrshire plowman, and the delicate, sensitive, morbid WILLIAM COWPER (1731-1800), yet in the movements of literary history, the two men stand close together. Cowper began to write poetry late in life, and as a means of keeping his mind from preying upon itself and from brooding over those torturing religious anxieties which more than once turned his melancholy into positive madness. He was not a student of poetry; he gave little or no attention to poetry as an art; he wrote just to express his own ideas in his own way. In his satires indeed he follows the conventional model of Pope, but in his principal poem, The Task, he abandons tradition entirely and pursues an independent course. This long blank verse poem is in one sense as much the poetic masterpiece of later eighteenth-century evangelicalism as Paradise Lost is the masterpiece of the militant Puritanism of the seventeenth century. But, though it contains much of the narrow religious teaching of Cowper’s sect, it contains a great deal, too, which transcends all mere sectarian limitations. It is extremely discursive and rambling, and is wholly wanting in any structural backbone. Yet, if it exhibits no organic unity, it possesses a unity of motive and meaning. Its real text, as Cowrper himself said, is praise of retirement and of country life as favorable to religion and virtue; the philosophy of life expounded in it is expressly hostile to all the evils attendant upon the march of civilization; and the oft-quoted line—“God made the country and man made the town”—shows how far Cowper was unconsciously at one with the revolutionists who were preaching the gospel of ‘back to nature’ and the simplification of life. In the sympathetic treatment of nature and landscape he comes nearest of all eighteenth-century poets to Wordsworth; while, despite occasional lapses into ‘poetic diction’, he comes nearest to him, too, in the unaffected directness of his language. The Task also overflows with the spirit of humanitarianism, and, notwithstanding the poet’s personal fastidiousness, his hermit-life existence, and the selfish character of his religion, it is also strongly impregnated with the ideas of liberty. Its denunciation of such abuses as militarism and the slave trade is noteworthy; and even more so, the powerful passage in which the Bastille is attacked as the symbol of tyranny and irresponsible authority. It is an interesting point to remember that this passage was published in 1785, and that only four years later the Bastille fell.

      Some critics have seen in Cowper a premonition of Wordsworth; others, of Byron. In a sense, he foreshadowed both. In his love of nature, his emotional response to it, and his sympathetic handling of humble rural life, he certainly anticipates Wordsworth; but, strangely enough, considering the character of the man and his creed, his poetry is filled with indications of social unrest, and thus in a rough waypoints forward to Byron. The most important figure in English poetry between Pope and Wordsworth, his life serves to connect the age of the former with that of the latter. When he was born, Pope was at the height of his power. When he died, Burns had been four years in his grave and the Lyrical Ballads two years before the world. 

      Meanwhile, a writer unlike all others of the period had been producing poetry which is now regarded as being on a much higher level than his contemporaries thought it to be. CHRISTOPHER SMART (1722-1771) was educated at Cambridge, but he spent most of his later life in poverty, was for a while insane, and towards the end of his life went into a debtors’ prison. Yet his Song to David (1763) is one of the greatest among English religious poems, and Robert Browning’s Saul owed much to it. Smart’s most remarkable work, Tubilate Agno, was left as a jumble of manuscripts, which the editor of an edition published in 1954 has endeavored to arrange in difficult to interpret, it contains much that is worth pondering; while the sections addressed to ‘my Cat Jeoffrey’ delight every lover of cats as well as every poetry lover.

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