John Churton Collins.

A treasury of minor British poetry selected and arranged with notes .. online

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Online LibraryJohn Churton CollinsA treasury of minor British poetry selected and arranged with notes .. → online text (page 1 of 19)
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68, 3, for statlie ' read ' statelie.'
,, 98, at foot, for * FLECKNO ' read ' FLECKNOE.'

,, 102, line 12, tf/ter 'ty'd' insert (,).
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,, 132, line 4 from foot, for ' are ' read ' aire.'

,, 134, at foot, insert 'ANON.'



A NEW Treasury of British poetry might almost seem an
impertinence, so numerous, and in many cases so excel-
lent, are collections of this kind. To go no farther than
Mr. Francis Palgrave's Golden Treasury, Dean Trench's
Household Book of English Poetry ', Mr. Locker- Lampson's
Lyra Elegantiarum, and Mr. Humphry Ward's English
Poets, are not these, it may be asked, all that lovers of
poetry could desire, and are not these in everybody's
hands ? I, for one, should certainly reply in the affirma-
tive, and I should no more think of entering into com-
petition with them than I should think of re-gathering
and presenting again the flowers of their anthologies. If
this collection has any relation to them it is that of
the aftermath to the full harvest, of the gleaner to the
binder of the sheaves. But I modestly claim for this little
volume an independent place. It is an experiment, and
it is, so far as I know, an experiment which has not
been attempted before. The principle on which the
poems have been selected, and the principle on which
they have been arranged, I must ask permission to
explain fully and precisely, and this is the more necessary
as my book, unfortunately, labours under the disadvantage
of being very imperfectly described by its title. It is
commonly objected to anthologies that they copy each
other, that they travel in a round, that the same poets,


illustrated by the same poems, appear and reappear till
they become trite by repetition, and that this applies not
merely to poets who have long been classical and whose
names are household words, but to the minor poets also.
Thus, as surely as Ben Jonson, Herrick, and Waller are
presented, so surely is the one the herald of Drink to
me only with thine eyes and Queen and Huntress,
the other of Gather ye rosebuds and Faire Daffodils^
and the third of Go, lovely rose. A few original
explorers of taste and judgment add from time to time
to the treasury of gems, which soon passes into common
property, till at last, as anthologies multiply, they become
little more than compilations from compilations. As
long as selections confine themselves to certain poets
and to the very best things of their kind, to gems, so to
speak, of the first water, it is difficult to see how this
can be avoided ; for poetry attaining a very high standard,
though abundant, is soon exhausted, and repetition is
inevitable. Without questioning the truth of the Greek
proverb Sis r\ rpl<s TO, KaAa, that we cannot have too
much of a good thing, I should yet not have ventured to
add another volume to the volumes already dedicated
to such good things. My chief object has been, if I
may say so, to supplement those works and to introduce
the general reader to poems which, though well worth
his attention, are, as a rule, not to be found at all in
popular anthologies, and in no case are among the stock-
pieces in those collections, and with which presumably
therefore he will not be familiar. I have for this reason
excluded all those poets who may be regarded as
classics, as well as those who are much in vogue. Thus
Chaucer is passed over ; thus in the Elizabethan Age,
to say nothing of Spenser and Shakespeare, Marlowe
and Ben Jonson have no place. In the eighteenth


century neither Pope nor Swift, neither Gray nor
Collins, neither Goldsmith nor Cowper is represented.
In the nineteenth century exclusion has even extended
to Moore and Southey. If I have included Waller,
Congreve, Prior, and Thomson, it is only because I have
sought to give prominence to one or two poems which
are not generally noticed. And what applies to them
applies to Crabbe.

But I have confined my area within stricter limits
still. Where a poet has only written two or three good
things, which have gone the round of the anthologies, I
have omitted him. Where a poet's work has been
abundant I have carefully avoided the "gems" with which
every one is familiar, and have chosen what seemed to
me best in the residue. I have thus had to deprive
my book of many diamonds, but I hope I have secured
in their place as many excellent pearls. I have not, it is
true, excluded all poems which are familiar even to the
general reader. I have inserted for instance Logan's
Braes of Yarrow and Ode to the Cuckoo, but I have
done my utmost to avoid what is trite.

But what has been restricted on one side has been
allowed latitude on another. I have not confined
myself to songs and lyrics, though songs and lyrics are
the staple of my collection. I have plucked a flower
wherever I could find it. I have occasionally detached
passages from voluminous narrative, philosophic, and
mock-heroic poems. From long lyrics I have chosen a
stanza or two, or even a few lines ; I have not excluded
sonnets ; I have not grudged a place to a good epigram.
Wherever in my rambles among tombs I have come
upon an epitaph which seemed worthy of preservation I
have inserted it, and I venture to think that I have thus
saved from perishing more than one of those compositions



which well deserve to be remembered. With all this
variety every endeavour has been made to give a certain
unity to the collection, and to prevent it from becoming,
what it so easily might have become, a mere miscellany.
It will be seen that each piece illustrates some phase it
may be of thought, it may be of passion, it may be of
sentiment in relation to life or to death, or in relation
to supernaturalism or to nature in other words, that the
note throughout is lyrical. Within this limit the selections
are in every possible tone between the intense expression
of intense emotion, and the gayest and lightest abandon
of the humorist and wit. Life itself, on its passive side,
is little more than the record of what finds expression in
these varied moods, and that its reflection may be the
more faithfully returned in these poems, I have arranged
them on a new principle. I have endeavoured to give
them a sort of dramatic propriety by making them cor-
respond, or at least roughly correspond, to the different
stages of human experience. In each of the four books
the poems pertaining to childhood and youth come first,
and animal joy, passion, and pleasure are the themes.
Next come poems of a more mingled yarn and in more
diverse keys, expressive of the experiences of manhood.
Then serious reflection begins to predominate, till

About the rim
Scull-things in order grim
Grow out in graver mood, obey the sterner stress,

and the note is elegiac till death closes the scene on
earth. Lastly come, as a fitting conclusion, poems in
which hope and faith find expression. To this arrange-
ment there is, however, one exception. It seemed
desirable that, as the opening poems of the first book
are in very obsolete language, they should not be


distributed among the others, but be placed where they
naturally would have been placed had the collection
been arranged chronologically.

This Treasury has also another aim, a subordinate
aim it is true, but one which has never been lost sight
of, and that is to illustrate the history of our minor
lyric poetry not its form, that has been for obvious
reasons impossible, but its essence and spirit. The
period covered is from the first half of the thirteenth
century to recent times, a period of some seven hundred
years. The present collection extends to four books.
The first book comprises selections from the minor
poetry which appeared between the middle of the
thirteenth century and the close of the Elizabethan Age ;
the selections in the second book range from 1625 to
1700: in the third book, from 1700 to 1798; in the
fourth, from 1798 to recent times. Living poets have
for obvious reasons been excluded.

Fletcher of Saltoun's famous saying about the ballads
of a nation is susceptible of a much wider application
than he gave to it. It is in the minor poetry of an age
that contemporary life impresses itself most deeply, and
finds perhaps its most faithful mirror. In the great
masterpieces of poetry that life is presented in an ideal
light, and in relation to ideal truth. What belongs
to a time is subordinated to what belongs to all time,
what is actual to what is typical, what is local to what
is universal. There is, moreover, in genius of the higher
order a dominant, a despotic individuality which tempers
and assimilates the material on which it works to its
own potent idiosyncrasy. It is not in the Canterbury
Tales that the England of Edward III. becomes fully
articulate, for where, even in a whisper, is heard the
voice which pierces us to the soul in Langland ? It is


not in the Faerie Queen or even in the Dramas of
Shakespeare that the England of Elizabeth and James
is presented to us on all its sides, for Spenser never
forgets that he is a didactic allegorist, and Shakespeare
that he is a dramatic artist. Still less is the England
of the Revolution reflected in the masterpieces of Milton,
or the England of the latter part of the eighteenth and
the first part of the nineteenth century in the master-
pieces of Byron, Scott, Wordsworth, and Shelley. It is
otherwise with the minor poetry of any particular era.
Here for the eclecticism, if we may so express it, of the
great masters the age itself finds a tongue. For the
voice which speaks in these poets is the voice of the
nation, of the courtier, of the statesman, and man of
affairs, of the scholar, and litterateur, of the churchman,
of the man of pleasure, of the busy citizen, of the recluse,
of the soldier and sailor, of the peasant, of the mechanic,
and of women of all classes and of all callings. What
is moulding, what is colouring, what is in any way affect-
ing the life of the time has its record here. Is the pulse
of the nation quickened or depressed; are imagination
and passion, or fancy and sentiment, or reason and
reflection in the ascendant, is the prevailing tendency
in the direction of simplicity and nature, or towards
ingenuity and art, is the moral tone in society high or
low, is the period a period of progress, or of decadence,
or of transition, the answer to all this may be found,
and found in detail, in our collections of minor poetry.
Take, for instance, the poetry of the Sloane and Harleian
MSS. with the other poetry in Mr. Wright's Collections.
Here is the England of the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries so fully, so faithfully depicted, that its social
and political history might be written from those antho-
logies. Gushing from the heart as the song of a bird


ring out those primitive lyrics, with their gracious sim-
plicity, their freshness, their abandon, their harmonious
responsiveness to the inspiring mood. Be the theme
what it may, sincerity, truth, and nature prevail. In the
love lyrics hope and despair, rapture and compliment
express themselves without conceits, and with charming
naivete'. No jarring chord of distrust or doubt is
audible in the religious poetry which is the simple
expression of thanksgiving, praise, and prayer. Let
us go forward to 1557 to Edward's Paradise of Dainty
Devices and to Tottel's Miscellany. Here all the char-
acteristics of the period, stretching from the dawn of the
Reformation to the last two years of Mary's reign, have
full illustration, the influence exercised on our literature
by the Latin classics, by Italy, by Spain, the last notes
of medievalism blending with the first notes of the new
world, the affectation of the forms and fashions of the
Renaissance, the large infusion of moral and religious
reflection, the gloom, depression, and anxiety which
darkened and vexed those sombre times. Let us pass
on to the beginning of the next century to England's
Helicon (1600), and to Davison's Poetical Rhapsody
(1602). Here we are at the acme of the great Eliza-
bethan Age. The clouds have rolled away, all is
splendour, all is joy. The extraordinary complexity and
tropical luxuriance of that wonderful era which seems
to blend all that characterises the infancy, the maturity,
and the decadence of a literature in its entirety, are
fully displayed in those collections. But the pre-
dominating strain is rapture. It is the poetry of men
who are in different degrees, but in very truth inspired.
They may indulge in conceits, they may affect trivial
graces, their pedantry may sometimes jar on us, but the
unmistakable accent of enthusiasm is theirs. Let us go


forward eighty-two years to the next important Treasury
of Minor Poetry. Between 1684 and 1716 appeared
Tonson's Miscellanies in six parts. We turn over its
pages ; we are not only in another world but in a world
which seems scarcely to retain any trace of the former.
Imagination has disappeared, enthusiasm has disappeared,
fervour, colour, richness all are gone ; rhetoric has
superseded passion ; simplicity and naivete have given
place to ingenuity and wit, not the ingenuity and wit
of the metaphysical school, but of a generation which
has receded much farther from the sphere of poetry,
and which seems indeed to have lost all touch with it.
Pitched in as low a key as they well could be, both ethic
and aesthetic have alike degenerated. High instincts,
high aims, high actions are never the themes. Nothing
is so rare as a touch of romance or transcendentalism.
If the love poetry is not marked, as it frequently is,
by cynicism and grossness, levity and libertinism are
its characteristics, expressed, it is true, with so much
grace and charm of style as not to be repulsive. It is
the poetry of an age of reaction, and of reaction in a
twofold sense, spiritually and morally against the ideals
of Puritanism and of the religious party generally,
artistically against the licence and extravagance of the
Elizabethans and their immediate successors. But it
is the poetry also of an age of revolution. As between
the accession of Elizabeth and about 1616 everything
contributed to subordinate the genius of science and
criticism to the genius of romance and poetry, so at
the time of the Restoration the tendency was exactly
the reverse. A great scientific movement had passed
over Europe and had become influential everywhere.
The spirit of inquiry, of analysis, of reflection was at
work in all directions. Men reasoned, where before


they felt, and questioned, where before they accepted
and enjoyed. To think clearly, to argue correctly, and
to express the results in a precise and lucid style was
the surest way of hitting the popular taste. The poets,
under the dominion of the same influence, followed
the prose-writers, and so far as essentials are concerned
there is little to distinguish them. Both dealt with the
same subjects and treated them in the same spirit.
The charm of both lies partly in their moderation,
knowledge of life, wit, and good sense, and partly in
their power of expression. In both this reached a high
degree of excellence. Nothing could be more finished
than the style of some of these poets, than the style, for
example, of Rochester, of Sedley, and of Congreve at its
best. But the light of poetry burns very low in these
the luminaries of Tonson's Collection^ as it burnt very
low in the sun of their system the great Dryden him-
self. Again let us go forward sixty-seven years and take
the last edition of Dodsley's Collection with Pearch's
Supplement published respectively in 1782 and 1783.
We have here, illustrated from the writings of minor
poets, a complete history of our poetry from the
appearance of Pope to the dawn of the era of Words-
worth and Coleridge. And step by step we may trace
its progress. First we mark the predominance of all
that characterised the work of Pope and his school,
those ethical commonplaces, that refined mock-heroic,
that admirable satire, that point, that wit, that perfection
of mechanical form. But side by side with this, sotto
voce as it were, the pensive sentimentalism of Parnell,
the genuine love of nature shown by Thomson and Dyer.
As the century proceeds the note of Pope grows fainter,
and the chords struck by Parnell, Thomson, and Dyer
find more and more response. Soon all the signs of


reaction against the classical, or to speak more correctly,
the critical school of Dryden and Pope become con-
spicuous. The occasional substitution of Greek models
for Latin by Akenside, Gray, Mason, and Glover ; the re-
vival of romanticism in such works as Percy's Reliques,
and the Macpherson and Chatterton forgeries, some of the
Odes of Collins and of the Wartons, the enthusiasm for
nature, the cultivation of the ballad, the reappearance of
the sonnet, the increasing tendency to prefer incident to
reflection, the life of the country to the life of the town,
the affectation of simplicity, the large infusion of senti-
ment, the revival and accentuation of the spirit of liberty,
the awakening of the spirit of philanthropy, of all this is
the poetry collected by Dodsley and Pearch the record.
In the work of many of these poets it is in some
respects but a step to the work of the great poets of the
next age. Nature had no more faithful votary or
painter in Wordsworth than she had in the authors of
Grongar Hill, of the Ode to Evening, of the Ode to
Rural Elegance, of Flora's Fables, of The Enthusiast, of
The Minstrel, of Amwell. The note which Scott struck
in The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion had been
struck by Thomas Warton in his Crusade and Grave of
King Arthur. Crabbe is anticipated by Falconer and
Langhorne, Coleridge and Keats in some important
respects by Chatterton and others, and what has been
called the most original contribution ever made to poetry,
the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, may be
resolved into elements, every one of which is to be traced
in our minor poetry between the accession of George
III. and 1790. As in social and political life, so also
in poetry, which is its expression, the great cataclysm
of the Revolution did but broaden and deepen into
torrents and rivers the rills which had their sources and


had defined their channels in the low tablelands of the
England of Walpole and of Pulteney, of the Grenvilles
and of Lord North. Twenty years later brings us to
the Poetical Register, another twenty-two years to Alaric
Watts' Poetical Album, another six decades or so to Mr.
Alfred Miles' Poets of the Century. In these collections
may be traced not merely the evolution of our lyrical
poetry but its history from the end of the last century to
the present time. We seem as we turn over the pages
of the last two Anthologies the Poetical Register is the
asylum of mediocrity to be once more amid the
luxuriance and splendour, the rapture and glory of the
Elizabethan Miscellanies. Passion and enthusiasm are
again aglow and in a far intenser degree than in the
lyrists of England's Helicon and the Poetical Rhapsody. A
music as sweet, as liquid, as spontaneous as theirs, but
infinitely richer, subtler, and more varied is in our ears.
And it is heard on all sides, not in the strains of the
master-singers only, but in those of the many who make
up the chorus. The high level attained in the minor
poetry of the first six decades of the present century has
certainly no parallel in any preceding age. Between 1 800
and 1860 there are at least a hundred poets, there are
probably more, who have the note of distinction, whose
note, that is to say, is not essentially commonplace or
essentially imitative. Between 1860 and the present
time talent has undoubtedly been more conspicuous than
genius, but genius has not been rare, and the talent dis-
played, the standard reached in taste, in receptivity, in
technique, and in expression are truly wonderful It
would be no exaggeration to say that many and very
many of the minor poets of the last sixty years would,
had they lived a century and a half ago, have become


The distinguishing characteristic of the poetry of the
present century, regarded comprehensively, is its extra-
ordinary complexity. This has arisen partly from the
faithfulness with which it has, in each generation, reflected
the intense and manifold life of modern times, and
partly from the natural tendency of an age of culture to
eclecticism. We may trace in it the influence of every
important movement which has from the beginning of
the century affected politics and society. Now it has
the note of the exaltation and excitement of the revolu-
tionary era, now the note of the reactionary depression
which succeeded it. Here it is the trumpet-voice of all
that subsequently found vent in the cries for emancipa-
tion, relief, and reform, and in the demands and aspirations
of the Chartists and Communists ; here again it is the
protest plaintive, indignant, or humorous of conservative
opposition. Of every phase and mood in the conflict
between Christianity and Agnosticism, between Tran-
scendentalism and Science, between the creed of the
optimist and the creed of the pessimist it is the faithful
expression. The very ^Eolian harp of the Zeit-Geist, its
chords have responded to every breath of the popular
breeze. But if the poetry which has had its inspiration
from the life of the age blends so many diverse notes, the
poetry of culture has still more complexity. The tendency
of culture is towards imitation, and imitation is naturally
coextensive with what excites admiration and sympathy.
Men are now universal students, and the note of the
poetry of all ages and of all nations has been caught
and returned by modern lyrists. One recalls the old
Greek choruses, another the melic it may be of Sappho,
or of Pindar, of Anacreon or of Simonides, another that
of Catullus or of Horace. Here Hafiz or Omar is
inspiration and model ; here it is the accent of Dante


and his circle, or of Petrarch, or perhaps of Leopardi or
of Manzoni. Others recall the lyric of Spain, of Portugal,
or of France. One revives Villon, another Ronsard, or
the echo is the echo of Branger, of De Musset, of
Victor Hugo. The old German ballads inspire some ;
in many others the note is the note of Goethe, or of
Schiller, of Riickert, or of Heine. Of our own past and of
the past of Scotland and Ireland the poetry of every
century has its imitators. And the marvel is that so
large a portion of this essentially imitative poetry should
have so much intrinsic excellence. But excellence it
has and often of a high order. Longinus remarks that
if inspiration, in the proper sense of the term, is the gift
of Heaven, there is an inspiration not less genuine which
may be kindled by sympathy. This is the soul of
imitative poetry, the informing power which moulds a
copy into a counterpart and exalts servility into rivalry.
And in this lies the secret of the power and charm of so
much of modern poetry.

Such, in slight outline, has been the course of our
lyrical poetry, such its general characteristics, such the
influences which have at different periods affected it.
I have already said that in this selection I have been
obliged to subordinate historical illustration to other
considerations. I had originally inserted several poems
which were of interest because they were particularly
typical of the period to which they belonged, but on
second thoughts, for the reason which I have stated,
they were removed. Still the reader who cares to go
through these poems consecutively, in the order of the
books in which they are arranged, will discern broadly
the characteristics of our lyrical poetry at every important
stage in its progress, and so be able to trace, at least in
outline, the general course of its evolution.

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Online LibraryJohn Churton CollinsA treasury of minor British poetry selected and arranged with notes .. → online text (page 1 of 19)