IT proves sufficiently the lavish wealth of our own age in poetry that the pieces which, without conscious departure from the standard of excellence, render this Book by far the longest, were with very few exceptions composed during the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. Exhaustive reasons can hardly be given for the strangely sudden appearance of individual genius, but none, in the editor's judgment, can be less adequate than that which assigns the splendid national achievements of our recent poetry to an impulse from the frantic follies and criminal wars that at the time disgraced the least essentially civilized of our foreign neighbours. The first French Revolution was rather, in his opinion, one result, and in itself by no means the most important, of that far wider and greater spirit which, through inquiry and doubt, through pain and triumph, sweeps mankind round the circles of its gradual development; and it is to this that we must trace the literature of modern Europe. But, without more detailed discussion on the motive causes of Scott, Wordsworth, Campbell, Keats, and Shelley, we may observe that these poets, with others, carried to further perfection the later tendencies of the century preceding, in simplicity of narrative, reverence for human passion and character in every sphere, and impassioned love of Nature; that, whilst maintaining on the whole the advances in art made since the Restoration, they renewed the half-forgotten melody and depth of tone which marked the best Elizabethan writers; that, lastly, to what was thus inherited they added a richness in language and a variety in metre, a force and fire in narrative, a tenderness and bloom in feeling, an insight into the finer passages of the soul and the inner meanings of the landscape, a larger and wiser humanity, hitherto hardly attained, and perhaps unattainable even by predecessors of not inferior individual genius. In a word, the nation which, after the Greeks in their glory, has been the most gifted of all nations for poetry, expressed in these men the highest strength and prodigality of its nature. They interpreted the age to itself: hence the many phases of thought and style they present. To sympathize with each, fervently and impartially, without fear and without fancifulness, is no doubtful step in the higher education of the soul. For, as with the affections and the conscience, purity in taste is absolutely proportionate to strength; and when once the mind has raised itself to grasp and to delight in excellence, those who love most will be found to love most wisely.
Line 11.Stout Cortez: history requires here Balboa (A.T.).
It may be noticed that to find in Chapman's Homer the "pure serene" of the original, the reader must bring with him the imagination of the youthful poethe must be "a Greek himself," as Shelley finely said of Keats.
Line 4.Nature's Eremite: like a solitary thing in Nature.
This beautiful sonnet was the last word of a poet deserving the title "marvellous boy" in a much higher sense than Chatterton. If the fulfilment may ever safely be prophesied from the promise, England appears to have lost in Keats one whose gifts in poetry have rarely been surpassed. Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, had their lives been closed at twenty-five, would (so far as we know) have left poems of less excellence and hope than the youth who, from the petty school and the London surgery, passed at once to a place with them of "high collateral glory."
A masterly example of Byron's command of strong thought and close reasoning in verse: as the next is equally characteristic of Shelley's wayward intensity; and cciv. of the dramatic power, the vital identification of the poet with other times and characters, in which Scott is second only to Shakespeare.
Bonnivard, a Genevese, was imprisoned by the Duke of Savoy in Chillon on the Lake of Geneva for his courageous defence of his country against the tyranny with which Piedmont threatened it during the first half of the seventeenth century. This noble sonnet is worthy to stand near Milton's on the Vaudois massacre.
After the capture of Madrid by Napoleon, Sir J. Moore retreated before Soult and Ney to Corunna, and was killed whilst covering the embarkation of his troops. His tomb, built by Ney, bears this inscription"John Moore, leader of the English armies, slain in battle, 1809."
Scott has given us nothing more complete and lovely than this little song, which unites simplicity and dramatic power to a wildwood music of the rarest quality. No moral is drawn, far less any conscious analysis of feeling attempted; the pathetic meaning is left to be suggested by the mere presentment of the situation. Inexperienced critics have often named this, which may be called the Homeric manner, superficial, from its apparent simple facility; but first-rate excellence in it (as shown here, and in cxcvi., clvi., and cxxix.) is in truth one of the least common triumphs of poetry. This style should be compared with what is not less perfect in its way, the searching out of inner feeling, the expression of hidden meanings, the revelation of the heart of Nature and of the soul within the soulthe analytical method, in short, most completely represented by Wordsworth and Shelley.
Line 10.Arcturi: seemingly used for "northern stars."
L. 14.This line, omitted from Mrs. Shelley's editions of her husband's works, and consequently from the "Golden Treasury," was discovered by Dr. Garnett, and published in the Westminster Review for July 1870.
L. 21.And wild roses, etc. Our language has no line modulated with more subtle sweetness. A good poet might have written, "And roses wild;" yet this slight change would disenchant the verse of its peculiar beauty.
The leading idea of this beautiful description of a day's landscape in Italy is expressed with an obscurity not infrequent with its author. It appears to be: On the voyage of life are many moments of pleasure, given by the sight of Nature, who has power to heal even the worldliness and the uncharity of man.
L. 76.Sun-girt City: it is difficult not to believe that the correct reading is sea-girt. Many of Shelley's poems appear to have been printed in England during his residence abroad; others were printed from his manuscripts after his death. Hence probably the text of no English poet after 1660 contains so many errors. See the Note on No. ix.
Written soon after the death, by shipwreck, of Wordsworth's brother John. This poem should be compared with Shelley's following it. Each is the most complete expression of the innermost spirit of his art given by these great poetsof that idea which, as in the case of the true painter (to quote the words of Reynolds), "subsists only in the mind. The sight never beheld it, nor has the hand expressed it; it is an idea residing in the breast of the artist, which he is always labouring to impart, and which he dies at last without imparting."