« PreviousContinue »
LATE VOGUE OF THE SHORTER POEMS
THE Augustans were essentially non-lyric. Their lack of imagination, the emphasis they laid upon reason, propriety, and form, and their avoidance, in verse, of any expression of ecstasy or tender personal feeling, all these were fatal to song. For over a century, in consequence, the lyric impulse was dead in England. Lyrics there were, to be sure, and some good ones, but hardly so many as a single year produced in the spacious times of Elizabeth and James. Even the beauty of the Restoration songs is the beauty of decay; and years before Pope began to lisp in numbers the impulse to sing and the power of song were practically gone, not to reappear until the eve of the nineteenth century.1
It must not be thought that the disappearance of song was due merely to a mistaken theory of what poetry is; the causes were deeper than that. The qualities that lie at the heart of the lyric— spontaneity, intensity, subjectivity were gone from verse and with them had departed the singing voice. Interest in lyric poetry had likewise ceased, for the Augustans were apparently as little inclined to listen to outpourings from the hearts of others as to pour themselves out in song. Most lyrics probably seemed to them a bit silly, bordering on bad taste, or lacking in reserve, if not, like Shakespeare's sonnets, actually dull. Real ecstasy they disliked, hence the failure of Smart's superb Song to David to find an audience; fine poetic feeling and delicacy of fancy were beyond most of them, hence Collins's Odes did not sell and so late as 1789 Blake's Songs of Innocence fell on deaf ears; hence, too, what is more to our purpose, for many years Milton's minor poems found almost no admirers.
If Lycidas is, as Tennyson once asserted, "a touchstone of poetic taste," there must have been little sensitiveness to the finer qualities
1 If conservative dates are desired, 1687 (the death of Waller, the completion of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, and the publication of Newton's Principia) or 1688 (the Revolution and the birth of Pope), and 1786 (the Kilmarnock Burns) or 1783 (Blake's Poetical Sketches) may be taken; but the period could with safety be extended ten years at each end, particularly at the latter, since Burns's songs were in no respect the product of the English literature of his time and Blake's found no readers.
2 See a letter from Edward Fitzgerald to Fanny Kemble, March 26, 1880. The same idea had been expressed by Thomas Warton in his edition of Milton's minor poems (1785, p. 34), and by Miss Seward (Letters, 1811, i. 191).
in verse throughout the century following the Restoration; for Milton's monody, though published in 1638 and reissued along with his other short poems in 1645, was rarely mentioned before 1740. Nor were any of its companions generally appreciated until they had been at least a hundred years in print. This neglect is the more surprising because by 1740 the pieces had appeared in at least ten editions of Milton's complete poems,1 and had been published by themselves twice in English (1645, 1673) and once in French (1730). Moreover, Paradise Regained, Samson, Lycidas, and Comus had been turned into Latin by William Hog (1690-98), and Allegro, Penseroso, and Lycidas had been included in two editions of Dryden's popular Miscellany (1716, 1727). Much has been made, too much, of the failure of Paradise Lost to win immediate recognition; yet little surprise has been expressed that the minor poems, though published twenty-two years before the epic, attracted slight attention for as many years after it had achieved popularity. In the numerous early references to Milton it is almost always Paradise Lost that is mentioned,3 and even such writers as allude to the shorter pieces usually seem not to expect their readers to be familiar with them.
It is not strange, therefore, that in the period of approximately a century between their publication and 1742 the total number of pieces thus far discovered which show any influence from the various minor poems, except in borrowed phrases, is only forty-two, and that of these only two, Parnell's Hymn on Contentment and Dyer's Grongar Hill, were generally known or of much importance. Yet there was no prejudice like that against blank verse to stand in the way of these lyrics, nor would their general character lead one to expect such neglect; for they are not mysterious or dithyrambic, but deal with universal feelings and have the restraint, the impersonality, the quiet, and the careful workmanship which are the delight of the true classicist. One can see that the Augustans might not have cared for the ecstatic Song to David or the strange, childlike Songs of Innocence; but their indifference to Allegro, Penseroso, Comus, and Ly
1 It is impossible without examining each edition (which I have been unable to do) to say just how many were published. The "Poetical Works" usually appeared in two volumes, which were sold separately; and, as there was more demand for the first volume, Paradise Lost, a single issue of the remaining poems seems often to have sufficed for two or more editions of the "Works." I can find evidence for only nine printings of the complete minor poems before 1740.
2 That is, after the publication of the Spectator papers in 1712.
3 See pp. 8-9 above.
Except the poem To Aristus, the sonnet in the London Magazine for July, 1738, and that by Philip Yorke, which were influenced by Milton's sonnets (see below, pp. 489-90).
cidas gives rise to the suspicion that most of them were deaf to the subtler harmonies of poetry. No doubt there were many readers whose attention had never been called to the lyrics, but, as thousands of copies were sold, a large number of persons must at one time or another at least have glanced them over. In the first half of the eighteenth century there were probably many who agreed with what Johnson said of Lycidas: "The diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. What beauty there is we must therefore seek in the sentiments and images. . . . In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." ." In 1783 an admirer of the poem acknowledged its "incorrectness" and doubted if it "should be considered as a model of composition." Even the open-minded Dryden seems not to have cared for Milton's minor poems. "Rhyme was not his talent," he declares; "he had neither the ease of doing it, nor the graces of it; which is manifest in his Juvenilia, or verses written in his youth, where his rhyme is always constrained and forced, and comes hardly from him." 3
In this matter Pope had broader sympathies than his predecessor, for he praised the "Juvenilia," lent them to a friend, and even in his earliest publications used many phrases from them. His opponent, Lewis Theobald, the original hero of The Dunciad, explained that "the general Beauties of those two Poems of MILTON, intitled, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, are obvious to all Readers, because the Descriptions are the most poetical in the World." The poet laureate Nahum Tate, who was also pilloried in The Dunciad, seems to have taken a phrase from Allegro and the suggestion for an entire poem
1 "Milton," in Lives (ed. Hill), i. 163. This was no chance utterance; he told Miss Seward "he would hang a dog that read the Lycidas twice" (see her Letters, i. 66).
2 John Scott, Critical Essays (1785), 63-4. Scott says, however (p. 38), that Johnson in his account of Lycidas 'widely dissented from the vox populi.' As late as 1804 John Aikin, a critic of good standing, wrote that it was "a poem of a peculiar cast, concerning which you will probably find it difficult to fix your judgment. . . . The constructions are... occasionally harsh, and the language obscure... yet there are passages in which I think you cannot fail to recognise the master-hand of a true poet" (Letters on English Poetry, 2d ed., 1807, pp. 125-6).
3 Essay on Satire (Works, Scott-Saintsbury ed., xiii. 20). Dryden may, to be sure, have liked the poems apart from their rimes.
4 See above, p. 115; and below, Appendix A.
5 Preface to his edition of Shakespeare (1733), pp. xix-xx. Pointed out by George Sherburn in his Early Popularity of Milton's Minor Poems (Modern Philology, xvii. 259-78, 515-40). I am indebted to Mr. Sherburn's articles (which appeared after this chapter was finished) for some ten or fifteen references that are acknowledged in my