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ably felt, and if we are on the watch for the growth of the faculty of close observation and of true and fluent expression, we shall find not a little to interest us in their productions, faulty and dull as they are. Thomson's Seasons is almost the first long descriptive poem in English. There had, to be sure, been many pastorals and a few pieces like Coopers Hill and Windsor Forest; but in them nature, instead of being the center of interest, was little more than a pleasant background or setting for man and his works. Furthermore, they did not attempt to picture the real country, but dealt with artificial nature in a conventionalized way. Thomson, on the contrary, showed a real enthusiasm for the out-of-doors and for country life, and described them with more reality and at much greater length than had any previous poet. Since, then, The Seasons was practically the first and for a time the only important descriptive poem, and since it remained throughout the century not merely the greatest work of its kind but the most popular of any kind, it naturally became the most potent influence in this style of writing. The best evidence of such influence is that Thomson made blank verse the accepted vehicle for nature poetry, and even fastened upon that poetry his own turgid diction and contorted style. This was a particularly unfortunate legacy, for, to be effective, nature poetry must be natural. In epic and didactic works a certain amount of bombast is tolerable, and even in descriptions of floods, storms, and other unusual phenomena a heightened style is not unsuitable; but a view from a hill-top or a twilight walk along a river loses its charm when described in the manner of Dr. Johnson.
As a matter of fact, turgidity of style and diction forms the principal defect of the nature poetry of the century, and on this account particular attention will be paid to its gradual elimination. The process was for several reasons more gradual than might be expected. In the first place, the time was anything but revolutionary; poets were conservative and usually conventional, they did what others had done and the public was pleased. Then, too, pomposity and stylistic contortions gave a kind of poetic covering to what was really prose. But even a poetic conception would hardly have seemed poetic if expressed with the simplicity of Tintern Abbey. For any such plainness the poets and the public were alike unready. The development was, to be sure, towards a more natural and more conversa
1 This is probably the reason why the heroic couplet was little used by the best descriptive poets of the eighteenth century. It had been developed only along the line of terseness and brilliance, and in this field connoted work such as Pope did. To picture the country truly and movingly in couplets, either the ability or the courage was lacking.
tional style, that is, towards prose; yet the timid versifiers of the time were so anxious not to be prosaic that they adopted what they regarded as poetic manner. Besides, love of the country was by no means so common in the days of Pope and Johnson as it is to-day, and men often wrote about nature without much enthusiasm or much knowledge of the subject. Under these conditions conventionality flourished and the contorted and grandiose expressions sanctioned by The Seasons, and in a way by Paradise Lost, yielded very slowly before the advances of simplicity.
The influence of Thomson made itself felt almost immediately. Within a few months of the publication of his Winter (1726), David Mallet or Malloch, as his name had been in Scotland-composed an unrimed piece of a thousand lines which he called The Excursion, a misleading title, for Mallet meant by it "a short excursive survey of the Earth and Heavens," including descriptions of storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the like.' The poem was undoubtedly suggested by Thomson's work, which had been written while the two young Scots were rooming together. It is destitute of inspiration and is weighed down by exaggerated Miltonisms of style and language. For these, however, Mallet did not have to go to Thomson, since he had already employed them five years before in a short piece which confessedly imitated "the greatest of all the English poets."2 Furthermore, many of the phrases in The Excursion testify to a considerable familiarity with Milton.3
Some years later, in 1747, Mallet published a second unrimed poem, Amyntor and Theodora, or the Hermit, a variation of the old story of the hermit who saves the life of a young man only to find that the youth is the son of his greatest enemy and the beloved of his own lost daughter. Later the daughter is recovered and all ends happily. The best passages, like this one (which gives far too favor
1 See the summary prefixed to the poem in the "corrected" edition of his works (1759), i. 66. About the same time another of Thomson's fellow-countrymen, Dr. John Armstrong, was busying himself with a winter-piece in imitation of Shakespeare, which, however, was not printed until 1770 (in his Miscellanies, i. 147-58). It contains realistic pictures of the season, but has slight value as poetry.
2 See Mallet's letter to John Ker, Dec. 21, 1721 (Europ. Mag., 1793, xxiii. 413), which also settles the date of the poem. For the piece itself, The Transfiguration, see ib. xxv. 52.
For example, "hoar Hill" (1st ed., 1728, p. 13, cf. Allegro, 55), "quick-glancing" (p. 17, cf. P. L., vii. 405), "void profound" (p. 35, cf. P. L., ii. 438), "prime Orb" (p. 60, cf. P. L., iv. 592, of the sun in each case), "Star amid the Train of Night" (p. 64, cf. P. L., v. 166). The later edition, which is considerably enlarged, contains "the clouds assume Their gayest liveries" (Works, 1759, i. 70, cf. Allegro, 62), "by winds sublim'd" (ib. 85, cf. P. L., i. 235, of a volcano in each case), etc.
able an impression of the poem as a whole), are those that describe the wild scenery of the Hebrides, where the story is laid:
From this steep,
Diffus'd immense in rowling prospect lay
The northern deep. Amidst, from space to space,
The vernal verdure tinctures gay with gold.1
Thomson's influence also made itself felt in the four books of James Ralph's Night (1728), each of which is a nocturnal picture, in conventional style and language, of the more obvious features of one of the seasons. Ralph inclines to couplet prosody and to a style but slightly Miltonic. He had been somewhat closer to Paradise Lost the year before in his Tempest, or the Terrors of Death, an uninspired moralized description of a storm at sea.2
Formal description of nature plays practically no part in Somervile's Chace (1735), but many incidental touches reveal the keen eye and the hearty love for the out-of-doors which might be expected of a country gentleman devoted to hunting. We are shown the hares, for instance, ""'mong Beds of Rushes hid," sitting "wary, and close' near the "matted Blade," listening "intent... with one Ear erect"; or we watch them as
In the long Grass they skulk, or shrinking creep
We follow the hounds as they range "in the rough bristly Stubbles," or in the copse,
Thick with entangling Grass, or prickly Furze;
1 ii. 76-91; see also iii. 359-69. The references are to the revised version of the poem as published in his Works, i. 141–2, 173.
? In the preface to Night he discusses Paradise Lost and its verse at some length, and on the title-page of The Tempest quotes four lines from it. For his epic Zeuma, see p. 280 below.
and, "where ancient Alders shade The deep still Pool," we see them sweep the "Morning Dews"
that from their Feet besprinkling drop
Dispers'd, and leave a Track oblique behind.'
That the inability to write simple, fluent blank verse makes eighteenth-century poetry a very inadequate representation of the feelings of its authors is illustrated in the work of John Dyer. Dyer was a true poet, not great or particularly virile, but a man of fine sensitiveness to the beauties of the external world, and of considerable skill in verse. The following lines record the impression that the Roman ruins made in 1740 upon an earlier Childe Harold:
Fall'n, fall'n, a silent Heap; her Heroes all
Sunk in their Urns; behold the Pride of Pomp,
Tow'ring aloft, upon the glitt'ring plain,
Like broken Rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent Palaces, crush'd Columns, rifted Moles,
Fanes roll'd on Fanes, and Tombs on buried Tombs.2
These lines are from a forgotten poem. Their author's Grongar Hill has preserved him a place in the anthologies, and his Fleece is known, at least by name, to many. Why, then, has this unwarranted neglect fallen upon The Ruins of Rome? The explanation is in part to be found in lines like these:
Swift is the Flight of Wealth; unnumber'd Wants,
Necessity, and seek the splendid Bribe;
The citron Board; the Bowl emboss'd with Gems,
Of seeming Ivy, by that artful Hand,
Corinthian Thericles; whate'er is known
Of rarest acquisition; Tyrian Garbs,
Neptunian Albion's high testaceous Food."
"How could the author of the previous passage have written this one?" we exclaim. But how could he, living when he did and not being a great poet, have done otherwise? He admired the blank
1 The Chace, ii. 32, 30, 213, 41–2, 58; iii. 41-2; iv. 380-81, 416-18. On Somervile, see pp. 361-3 below.
2 Ruins of Rome (1740), P. 2.
Ib. 26. The lines that immediately follow the first passage quoted are almost as bad as these.
verse of Paradise Lost and tried to imitate it, and the only other unrimed poems that he knew, Cyder and The Seasons, had the same defects as his own. Although his taste was in the main excellent, he, like most of his contemporaries, undoubtedly enjoyed an inflated style and a turgid diction and found little to object to in the lines just quoted.
Dyer possessed a genuine though slender vein of poetry, and might, had he been born fifty years later, have produced something of 'power to live and serve the future hour'; but he had fallen on evil days for a writer of blank verse. Like other descriptive poets, he is best when he is least Miltonic, — but he is usually Miltonic. Practically every characteristic that distinguishes Paradise Lost is annoyingly in evidence in his verse, inversion, apposition, the use of an adjective for an adverb or a substantive or of words in their original but obsolete senses, and a fondness for series of proper names or for adjectives made from such names by the addition of -ean.1
Another cultivated Englishman who sought to record in blank verse the impressions made upon him by travels on the continent was George Keate. The title of Keate's first unrimed poem, Ancient and Modern Rome (written in 1755), recalls that of the first part of Thomson's Liberty, "Ancient and Modern Italy compared," but in contents it is much nearer to the Ruins of Rome. Like Dyer's work, it is a descriptive poem interspersed with reflections, but here the similarity ends, for the oft-invoked "Muse" was deaf to Keate's call. Nor does his epic fragment The Helvetiad (written in 1756), which Voltaire dissuaded him from finishing, give any evidence of her visitations. Yet she seems to have taken some interest in his nature poem, The Alps (1763), an inflated, formal, stilted work, but one that does reveal a knowledge and love of the mountains among which Keate lived for many years. It may be that few modern readers will derive much pleasure from the piece; but any one who goes through it attentively can hardly help feeling that its author wrote with his heart in the subject and his eye on the object, and that the defects of expression were to be expected at a time when writers were inexperienced in describing the wild and sublime in nature. Keate's work is notable for its observation rather than for its poetry; yet it contains somewhat impressive pictures of Alpine forests, rivers, avalanches, snow-storms, and thunder-storms. This is one of his best passages:
1 Dyer's octosyllabics, Grongar Hill and The Country Walk, are almost entirely descriptive; and his blank verse, The Fleece, shows in many single lines and in a few long passages an appreciation of romantic scenery, of the ocean, and particularly of the English landscape that is much like Thomson's. See below, pp. 446-7, 367-72.