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THE LIBRARY

OF

THE UNIVERSITY
OF CALIFORNIA

LOS ANGELES



GIFT



<fcition



THE WRITINGS OF
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
IN PROSE AND POETRY
VOLUME IV



LITERARY ESSAYS



IV.



BY



JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL




BOSTON AND NEW YORK

HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY

<fe iitof rs'ide press, amfcnt>ge



Copyright, 1871, 1876, 1890,
BY JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.

Copyright, 1899,
BY MABEL LOWELL BURNETT.

All rights reserved.



The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. 8. A.
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Company.



College
Library

00



CONTENTS

POPE ,. . . 1

MILTON ..,......58

DANTE ....... 118

SPENSEK ..*.... . 265

WOBDSWOKTH . , . 854



.O60161



LITERARY ESSAYS



POPE

1871

IN 1675 Edward Phillips, the elder of Milton's
nephews, published his Theatrum Poetarum. In
his Preface and elsewhere there can be little doubt
that he reflected the aesthetic principles and liter
ary judgments of his now illustrious uncle, who had
died in obscurity the year before. 1 The great poet
who gave to English blank verse the grandeur and
compass of organ-music, and who in his minor poems
kept alive the traditions of Fletcher and Shake
speare, died with no foretaste, and yet we may
believe as confident as ever, of that " immortality
of fame " which he tells his friend Diodati he was
" meditating with the help of Heaven " in his
youth. He who may have seen Shakespeare, who
doubtless had seen Fletcher, and who perhaps per
sonally knew Jonson, 2 lived to see that false school
of writers whom he qualified as " good rhymists,
but no poets," at once the idols and the victims of
the taste they had corrupted. As he saw, not with-

1 This was Thomas Warton's opinion.

2 Milton, a London boy, was in his eighth, seventeenth, and
twenty-ninth years, respectively, when Shakespeare (1616), Flet
cher (1625), and B. Jonson (1637) died.



2 POPE

out scorn, how they found universal hearing, while
he slowly won his audience fit though few, did he
ever think of the hero of his own epic at the ear of
Eve ? It is not impossible ; but however that may
be, he sowed in his nephew's book the dragon's
teeth of that long war which, after the lapse of
a century and a half, was to end in the expulsion
of the usurping dynasty and the restoration of the
ancient and legitimate race whose claim rested on
the grace of God. In the following passage surely
the voice is Milton's, though the hand be that of
Phillips : " Wit, ingenuity, and learning in verse,
even elegancy itself, though that comes nearest, are
one thing ; true native poetry is another, in which
there is a certain air and spirit, which, perhaps,
the most learned and judicious in other arts do not
perfectly apprehend ; much less is it attainable by
any art or study." The man who speaks of ele
gancy as coming nearest, certainly shared, if he was
not repeating, the opinions of him who thirty years
before had said that " decorum " (meaning a higher
or organic unity) was " the grand masterpiece to
observe " in poetry. 1

It is upon this text of Phillips (as Chalmers has
remarked) that Joseph Warton bases his classifi
cation of poets in the dedication to Young of the first
volume of his essay on the Genius and Writings of
Pope, published in 1756. That was the earliest pub
lic and official declaration of war against the reign
ing mode, though private hostilities and reprisals had
been going on for some time. Addison's panegyric
1 In his Tractate on Education.



POPE 8

of Milton in the Spectator was a criticism, not the
less damaging because indirect, of the superficial
poetry then in vogue. His praise of the old bal
lads condemned by innuendo the artificial elabora
tion of the drawing-room pastoral by contrasting it
with the simple sincerity of nature. Himself inca
pable of being natural except in prose, he had an in
stinct for the genuine virtues of poetry as sure as
that of Gray. Thomson's " Winter " (1726) was a
direct protest against the literature of Good Society,
going as it did to prove that the noblest society
was that of one's own mind heightened by the
contemplation of outward nature. What Thomson's
poetical creed was may be surely inferred from his
having modelled his two principal poems on Milton
and Spenser, ignoring rhyme altogether in the
" Seasons," and in the " Castle of Indolence " reject
ing the stiff mould of the couplet. In 1744 came
Akenside's " Pleasures of Imagination," whose very
title, like a guide-post, points away from the level
highway of commonplace to mountain-paths and
less domestic prospects. The poem was stiff and
unwilling, but in its loins lay the seed of nobler
births, and without it the " Lines written at Tintern
Abbey " might never have been. Three years later
Collins printed his little volume of Odes, advocat
ing in theory and exemplifying in practice the nat
ural supremacy of the imagination (though he called
it by its older name of fancy) as a test to distin
guish poetry from verse-making. The whole Roman
tic School, in its germ, no doubt, but yet unmistaka
bly foreshadowed, lies already in the " Ode on the



4 POPE

Superstitions of the Highlands." He was the first
to bring back into poetry something of the antique
fervor, and found again the long-lost secret of being
classically elegant without being pedantically cold.
A skilled lover of music, 1 he rose from the general
sing-song of his generation to a harmony that had
been silent since Milton, and in him, to use his own
words,

" The force of energy is found,
And the sense rises on the wings of sound."

But beside his own direct services in the reforma
tion of our poetry, we owe him a still greater debt
as the inspirer of Gray, whose " Progress of Poesy,"
in reach, variety, and loftiness of poise, overflies
all other English lyrics like an eagle. In spite of
the dulness of contemporary ears, preoccupied with
the continuous hum of the popular' hurdy-gurdy,
it was the prevailing blast of Gray's trumpet that
more than anything else called men back to the
legitimate standard. 2 Another poet, Dyer, whose

* Milton, Collins, and Gray, our three great masters of harmony,
were all musicians.

2 Wordsworth, who recognized forerunners in Thomson, Collins,
Dyer, and Burns, and who chimes in with the popular superstition
about Chatterton, is always somewhat niggardly in his appreciation
of Gray. Yet he owed him not a little. Without Gray's tune in
his ears, his own noblest Ode would have missed the varied mod
ulation which is one of its main charms. Where he forgets Gray,
his verse sinks to something like the measure of a jig. Perhaps the
suggestion of one of his own finest lines,

(" The light that never was on land or sea,")
was due to Gray's

" Orient hues unborrowed of the sun."
I believe it has not been noticed that among the verses in Gray's



POPE 5

" Fleece " was published in 1753, both in the choice
of his subject and his treatment of it gives further
proof of the tendency among the younger genera
tion to revert to simpler and purer models. Plainly
enough, Thomson had been his chief model, though
there are also traces of a careful study of Milton.
Pope had died in 1744, at the height of his
renown, the acknowledged monarch of letters, as
supreme as Voltaire when the excitement and ex
posure of his coronation-ceremonies at Paris has
tened his end a generation later. His fame, like
Voltaire's, was European, and the style which he
had carried to perfection was paramount through
out the cultivated world. The new edition of the

Sonnet on the Death of West, which Wordsworth condemns as of
no value, the second

" And reddening Phosbus lifts his golden fires "
is one of Gray's happy reminiscences from a poet in some respects
greater than either of them :

" Jamque rubrum tremulis jubar ignibus erigere alte
Cum coeptat natura."

Lucret., iv. 404, 405.

Gray's taste was a sensitive divining-rod of the sources whether of
pleasing or profound emotion in poetry. Though he prized pomp,
he did not undervalue simplicity of subject or treatment, if only
the witch Imagination had cast her spell there. Wordsworth loved
solitude in his appreciations as well as in his daily life, and was
the readier to find merit in obscurity, because it gave him the plea
sure of being a first discoverer all by himself. Thus he addresses
a sonnet to John Dyer. But Gray was one of " the pure and power
ful minds " who had discovered Dyer during his lifetime, when the
discovery of poets is more difficult. In 1753 he writes to Wai-
pole : ' ' Mr. Dyer has more poetry in his imagination than almost
any of our number, but rough and injudicious." Dyer has one fine
verse,

" On the dark level of adversity."



6 POPE

" Dunciad," with the Fourth Book added, pub
lished the year before his death, though the sub
stitution of Gibber for Theobald made the poem
incoherent, had yet increased his reputation and
confirmed the sway of the school whose recognized
head he was, by the poignancy of its satire, the lu
cidity of its wit, and the resounding, if somewhat
uniform, march of its numbers. He had been
translated into other languages living and dead.
Voltaire had long before pronounced him " the
best poet of England, and at present of all the
world." 1 It was the apotheosis of clearness, point,
and technical skill, of the ease that comes of prac
tice, not of the fulness of original power. And
yet, as we have seen, while he was in the very plen
itude of his power, there was already a widespread
discontent, a feeling that what " comes nearest,"
as Phillips calls it, may yet be infinitely far from
giving those profounder and incalculable satisfac
tions of which the soul is capable in poetry. A
movement was gathering strength which prompted

" The age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty."

Nor was it wholly confined to England. Symptoms
of a similar reaction began to show themselves on
the Continent, notably in the translation of Milton
(1732) and the publication of the Nibelungen Lied
(1757) by Bodmer, and the imitations of Thomson
in France. Was it possible, then, that there was

1 MS. letter of Voltaire, cited by Warburton in his edition of
Pope, vol. iv. p. 38, note. The date is 15th October, 1726. I do
not find it in Voltaire's Correspondence.



POPE 1

anything better than good sense, elegant diction,
and the highest polish of style ? Could there be
an intellectual appetite which antithesis failed to
satisfy ? If the horse would only have faith enough
in his green spectacles, surely the straw would ac
quire, not only the flavor, but the nutritious proper
ties of fresh grass. The horse was foolish enough
to starve, but the public is wiser. It is surprising
how patiently it will go on, for generation after
generation, transmuting dry stubble into verdure
in this fashion.

The school which Boileau founded was critical
and not creative. It was limited, not only in its
essence, but by the capabilities of the French lan
guage and by the natural bent of the French mind,
which finds a predominant satisfaction in phrases
if elegantly turned, and can make a despotism, po
litical or aesthetic, palatable with the pepper of
epigram. The style of Louis XIV. did what his
armies failed to do. It overran and subjugated
Europe. It struck the literature of imagination
with palsy, and it is droll enough to see Voltaire,
after he had got some knowledge of Shakespeare,
continually endeavoring to reassure himself about
the poetry of the grand siecle, and all the time
asking himself, " Why, in the name of all the gods
at once, is this not the real thing ? " He seems to
have felt that there was a dreadful mistake some
where, when poetry must be called upon to prove
itself inspired, above all when it must demonstrate
that it is interesting, all appearances to the con
trary notwithstanding. Difficulty, according to



8 POPE

Voltaire, is the tenth Muse ; but how if there were
difficulty in reading as well as writing? It was
something, at any rate, which an increasing number
of persons were perverse enough to feel in attempt
ing the productions of a pseudo-classicism, the clas
sicism of red heels and periwigs. Even poor old
Dennis himself had arrived at a kind of muddled
notion that artifice was not precisely art, that there
were depths in human nature which the most per
fectly manufactured line of five feet could not
sound, and passionate elations that could not be
tuned to the lullaby seesaw of the couplet. The
satisfactions of a conventional taste were very well
in their own way, but were they, after all, the high
est of which men were capable who had obscurely
divined the Greeks, and who had seen Hamlet,
Lear, and Othello upon the stage ? Was not
poetry, then, something which delivered us from
the dungeon of actual life, instead of basely recon
ciling us with it ?

A century earlier the school of the cultists had
established a dominion, ephemeral, as it soon ap
peared, but absolute while it lasted. Du Bartas,
who may, perhaps, as fairly as any, lay claim to its
paternity, 1 had been called divine, and similar hon
ors had been paid in turn to Gongora, Lilly, and
Marini, who were in the strictest sense contempo
raneous. The infection of mere fashion will hardly

1 Its taste for verbal affectations is to be found in the Roman
de la Rose, and (yet more absurdly forced) in Gauthier de Coinsy ;
but in Dn Bartas the research of effect not seldom subjugates the
thought as well as the phrase.



POPE 9

account satisfactorily for a vogue so sudden and so
widely extended. It may well be suspected that
there was some latent cause, something at work
more potent than the fascinating mannerism of
any single author in the rapid and almost simul
taneous diffusion of this purely cutaneous eruption.
It is not improbable that, in the revival of letters,
men whose native tongues had not yet attained the
precision and grace only to be acquired by long
literary usage, should have learned from a study of
the Latin poets to value the form above the sub
stance, and to seek in mere words a conjuring prop
erty which belongs to them only when they catch
life and meaning from profound thought or power
ful emotion. Yet this very devotion to expression
at the expense of everything else, though its ex
cesses were fatal to the innovators who preached
and practised it, may not have been without good
results in refining language and fitting it for the
higher uses to which it was destined. The cultists
went down before the implacable good sense of
French criticism, but the defect of this criticism
was that it ignored imagination altogether, and
sent Nature about her business as an impertinent
baggage whose household loom competed unlaw
fully with the machine-made fabrics, so exquisitely
uniform in pattern, of the royal manufactories.
There is more than a fanciful analogy between the
style which Pope brought into vogue and that
which for a time bewitched all ears in the latter
half of the sixteenth century. As the master had
made it an axiom to avoid what was mean or low,



10 POPE

so the disciples endeavored to escape from what was
common. This they contrived by the ready expe
dient of the periphrasis. They called everything
something else. A boot with them was

" The fining leather that encased the limb " ;

coffee became

" The fragrant juice of Mocha's berry brown " ;

and they were as liberal of epithets as a royal
christening of proper names. Two in every verse,
one to balance the other, was the smallest allow
ance. Here are four successive verses from " The
Vanity of Human Wishes " :

" The encumbered oar scarce leaves the dreaded coast
Through purple billows and & floating host.
The bold Bavarian in a luckless hoar
Tries the dread summits of Ccesarian power."

This fashion perished also by its own excess, but
the criticism which laid at the door of the master
all the faults of his pupils was unjust. It was de
fective, moreover, in overlooking how much of what
we call natural is an artificial product, above all in
forgetting that Pope had one of the prime qualities
of a great poet in exactly answering the intellect
ual needs of the age in which he lived, and in
reflecting its lineaments. He did in some not in
adequate sense hold the mirror up to nature. His
poetry is not a mountain-tarn, like that of Words
worth; it is not in sympathy with the higher
moods of the mind ; yet it continues entertaining,
iu spite of all changes of mode. It was a mirror in
a drawing-room, but it gave back a faithful image



POPE 11

of society, powdered and rouged, to be sure, and
intent on trifles, yet still as human in its own way
as the heroes of Homer in theirs.

For the popularity of Pope, as for that of Marini
and his sect, circumstances had prepared the way.
English literature for half a century after the Res
toration showed the marks both of a moral reaction
and of an artistic vassalage to France. From the
compulsory saintship and cropped hair of the Puri
tans men rushed or sneaked, as their temperaments
dictated, to the opposite cant of sensuality and a
wilderness of periwig. Charles II. had brought
back with him from exile French manners, French
morals, and above all French taste. Misfortune
makes a shallow mind sceptical. It had made the
king so ; and this, at a time when court patronage
was the main sinew of authorship, was fatal to the
higher qualities of literature. That Charles should
have preferred the stately decorums of the French
school, and should have mistaken its polished man
nerism for style, was natural enough. But there
was something also in the texture of the average
British mind which prepared it for this subjuga
tion from the other side of the Channel. No ob
server of men can have failed to notice the clumsy
respect which the understanding pays to elegance
of manner and savoir-faire, nor what an awkward
sense of inferiority it feels in the presence of an
accomplished worldliness. The code of society is
stronger with most persons than that of Sinai, and
many a man who would not scruple to thrust his
fingers in his neighbor's pocket would forego green



12 POPE

peas rather than use his knife as a shovel. The
submission with which the greater number surren
der their natural likings for the acquired taste of
what for the moment is called the World is a highly
curious phenomenon, and, however destructive of
originality, is the main safeguard of society and
nurse of civility. Any one who has witnessed the
torments of an honest citizen in a foreign gallery
before some hideous martyrdom which he feels it
his duty to admire, though it be hateful to him as
nightmare, may well doubt whether the gridiron of
the saint were hotter than that of the sinner. It
is only a great mind or a strong character that
knows how to respect its own provincialism and
can dare to be in fashion with itself. The bewil
dered clown with his " Am I Giles ? or am I not ? "
was but a type of the average man who finds him
self uniformed, drilled, and keeping step, whether
he will or no, with the company into which destiny
or chance has drafted him, and which is marching
him inexorably away from everything that made
him comfortable.

The insularity of England, while it fostered pride
and reserve, entailed also that sensitiveness to ridi
cule which haunts^pride like an evil genius. " The
English," says Barclay, writing half a century be
fore the Restoration, " have for the most part
grave minds and withdrawn, as it were, into them
selves for counsel ; they wonderfully admire them
selves and the manners, genius, and spirit of their
own nation. In salutation or in writing they en
dure not (unless haply imbued with foreign man



POPE 13

ners) to descend to those words of imaginary ser
vitude which the refinement (blandities) of ages
hath invented." 1 Yet their fondness of foreign
fashions had long been the butt of native satirists.
Every one remembers Portia's merry picture of the
English lord : " How oddly he is suited ! I think
he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in
France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behavior
everywhere." But while she laughs at his bun
gling efforts to make himself a cosmopolite in ex
ternals, she hints at the persistency of his inward
Anglicism : " He hath neither Latin, French, nor
Italian." In matters of taste the Anglo-Saxon
mind seems always to have felt a painful distrust
of itself, which it betrays either in an affectation
of burly contempt or in a pretence of admiration
equally insincere. The young lords who were to
make the future court of Charles II. no doubt found
in Paris an elegance beside which the homely blunt-
ness of native manners seemed rustic and under
bred. They frequented a theatre where propriety
was absolute upon the stage, though license had its
full swing behind the scenes. They brought home
with them to England debauched morals and that
urbane discipline of manners whicn is so agreeable
a substitute for discipline of mind. The word
" genteel " came back with them, an outward symp
tom of the inward change. In the last generation,
the men whose great aim was success in the Other
World had wrought a political revolution ; now,
those whose ideal was prosperity in This World
1 Barclaii Satyricon, p. 382. Barclay had lived in France.



14 POPE

were to have their turn and to accomplish with
their lighter weapons as great a change. Before
the end of the seventeenth century John Bull was
pretty well persuaded, in a bewildered kind of way,
that he had been vulgar, and especially that his
efforts in literature showed marks of native vigor,
indeed, but of a vigor clownish and uncouth. He
began to be ashamed of the provincialism which
had given strength, if also something of limitation,
to his character.

Waller, who spent a whole summer in polishing
the life out of ten lines to be written in the Tasso
of the Duchess of York, expresses the prevailing
belief as regarded poetry in the prologue to his
" improvement " of the " Maid's Tragedy " of
Beaumont and Fletcher. He made the play rea
sonable, as it was called, and there is a pleasant
satire in the fact that it was refused a license be
cause there was an immoral king in it. On the
throne, to be sure, but on the stage ! Forbid it,
decency !

" Above our neighbors' our conceptions are,
But faultless writing is the effect of care ;
Our lines reformed, and not composed in haste,
Polished like marble, would like marble last.

" Were we but less indulgent to our fau'ts,
And patience had to cultivate our thoughts,
Our Muse would flourish, and a nobler rage
Would honor this than did the Grecian stage. "

It is a curious comment on these verses in favor
of careful writing, that Waller should have failed
even to express his own meaning either clearly or



POPE 15

with propriety. He talks of "cultivating our
thoughts," when he means " pruning our style ' r ;
he confounds the Muse with the laurel, or at any
rate makes her a plant, and then goes on with per
fect equanimity to tell us that a nobler " rage "
(that is, madness) than that of Greece would fol
low the horticultural devices he recommends. It
never seems to have occurred to Waller that it is
the substance of what you polish, and not the polish
itself, that insures duration. Dryden, in his rough-
and-ready way, has hinted at this in his verses to
Congreve on the " Double Dealer." He begins by
stating the received theory about the improvement
of English literature under the new regime, but
the thin ice of sophistry over which Waller had
glided smoothly gives way under his greater weight,
and he finds himself in deep water ere he is aware.

" Well, then, the promised hour has come at last,
The present age in wit obscures the past ;
Strong were our sires, and as they fought they writ,
Conquering with force of arm 1 and dint of wit.
Theirs was the giant race before the Flood ;
And thus when Charles returned our Empire stood ;
Like Janus he the stubborn soil manured,
With rules of husbandry the rankness cured,
Tamed us to manners when the stage was rude,
And boisterous English wit with art endued ;
Our age was cultivated thus at length,
But what we gained in skill we lost in strength ;
Our builders were with want of genius curst,
The second temple was not like the first."

There would seem to be a manifest reminiscence of

1 Usually printed arms, but Dryden certainly wrote arm, to
correspond with dint, which he used in its old meaning' of a down
right blow.



16 POPE

Waller's verse in the half -scornful emphasis which
Dryden lays on " cultivated." Perhaps he was at



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