Page images
PDF
EPUB

to display their reading, rather than that chaste simplicity which delights, and that “noble expanse of thought, which fills the whole mind." This race of poets, if such they may be called, did not become extinct till towards the close of the seventeenth century. Cowley, WALLER, DenHAM, and many others, were infected with the false taste which they had propagated, and thus extended the mischief. Milton, though he adopted, in one instance, the manner of these metaphysical versifiers, yet in general disdained it, and contributed much to discourage the unworthy fashion. DRYDEN went still further, in some respects, in rectifying the public taste. But towards the close of the century, a style of poetry, which had so long, and on such high authority, maintained its ground, ceased to be popular. The English poetry of the eighteenth century, therefore, is, in general, more delicate in its sentiments, more correct and elegant in its diction, more chaste in its figures and illustrations, more harmonious in its numbers, and, on the whole, more simple and natural in its struco ture, than that of any preceding age.

The improvements in French Poetry, in the century under consideration, though worthy of notice, have been less numerous and remarkable. With the nature of these, however, and the persons to whom the honour of effecting them is chiefly due, the author is not sufficiently acquainted to enable him to speak distinctly. In improving the poetry of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, it is believed that still less has been done within the last hundred years; but of this, also, too little is known to warrant an attempt to give any distinct views of the subject.

The poetic character of Germany rose to great eminence in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Among the earliest and most successful lag

LAND.

bourers in attuning the German language to poetry were HALLER, KLOPSTOCK, GESNER, and WIE

Before the works of these great literary reformers appeared, this language could scarcely boast of any poems superior to those of GOTTSCHED and SCHOONAIK. A poetic diction was to be formed. Accordingly, Baron Haller is said to have written his poem on Reason, Superstition, and Infidelity, for the express purpose of proving that the German language was capable of an advantageous application to moral and philosophical poetry. It was before remarked, that KLOPSTOCK was eminently successful in improving the versification of his native language. His Messiah, on its first appearance, was severely criticised, on account of the novel expressions and combinations which it contained; but these innovations soon gained credit, and were generally adopted; and the author may be said to have formed a new era in German poetry. GESNER and WIELAND carried these improvements still further. Besides these, the writings of GELLERT, LESSING, KLEIST, GLEIM, and several others, have contributed largely to enrich and refine the versification of their country; insomuch that the poetry of Germany, which, half a century ago, was scarcely thought worthy of notice, may be reckoned, at the present day, among the most polished, harmonious, and spirited in the republic of letters.

The poetry of Sweden received, during the same period, improvements of a similar nature. About the middle of the century arose Dahlin, the father of Swedish poetry. He attained high excellence in the Epic, Tragic, and Lyric departments of poetic composition, and contributed much towards establishing the reign of taste in his country. To him many successors have arisen, some of whom have pursued, with honourable success, the same track. Among these, the most conspicuous are Count de Creutz, Count De GYLLENBORG, Mai dame de NORDENFLYCHT, Count OXENSTIERNA, KELLGREN, LEOPOLD, LIDNER, TORILD, and seves ral others, whose writings abundantly testify, that the Swedish language, notwithstanding its former defects, is capable of exhibiting, under the hand of a master, all that harmony, tenderness, and force, which, when -united, render the productions of the poet so interesting. The labours of KELLGREN, in particular, for a number of years past, to polish and refine the versification of his country, are said to have been eminently successful, and highly honourable to his character:

The poetry of Russia 'is almost wholly the growth of the eighteenth century. CANTEMIR, ILINSKI, FREDIATOFSKI, and a few others, adventured in this new field at a very early period of the century; but they were rather rhymers than poets. The first respectable poet in the Russian language was LOMONOZOF, who wrote about the middle of the century. His compositions are principally of the lyric kind, which, for originality, energy of language, and sublimity of sentiment, deserve much praise. He was followed in this career of improve ment by SUMOROKOF, who is represented as the founder of the Russian drama, and one of the most successful refiners of the poetic language of his country. To these succeeded a number of poets; who all contributed something to improve the versification of this language; among the most distinguished of whom are KHERASKOF and KARAMSIN. The Rossiada of the former, as it has been greatly admired by the author's countrymen, so its appearance doubtless formed an important era in the progress of their poetic character. The various works

į See Catte.V'S View of Sweden, and ACERBI's Travels.

of KARAMSIN are also entitled to respectful notice among the valuable contributions to this branch of literary improvement,

After these preliminary remarks concerning the refinements and riches which have been communicated to the poetic language of several countries of Europe, it may be proper to take a brief review of the principal productions to which the eighteenth century gave birth, in the various departments of poetry; after which the way will be prepared for some general reflections on the poetic character of the age.

EPIC POETRY.

In Epic poetry the period of this Retrospect produced few specimens above mediocrity. The Henriude of VOLTAIRE stands at the head of the list. This performance, like most of the works of its celebrated author, discovers great genius, and has been the subject of high applause, particularly among French critics. For boldness of conception, general felicity of language, and just and noble sentiments, it is entitled to honourable distinction. But from a real or supposed inaptitude of the French language for the majestic character of epic composition; from the indiscreet choice of a modern hero, and a recent train of events in the

& Few literary men in the eighteenth century rendered themselves more conspicuous than FRANCIS AROUET De Voltaire. He was born in 1694, at Paris, where he died in 1778. Endowed with an uncommon share of wit, humour, fancy, and taste, he was distinguished as an interesting and entertaining writer for more than half a century. He enjoyed a high reputation, not only as an epic poet, but also as a dramatist, an historian, a novelist, an essayist, and a miscellaneous writer. His talents were so various, that there is scarcely any department of literary labour in which he has not left something, which, taken alone, would show him to have been an eminent man. It is to be lamented that his talents were so much devoted to the cause of impiety and licentiousness; and that he so often betrayed a willingness to set ali principle, truth, and decorum at defiance for the purpose of attacking the religion and the character of Christians VOL. II.

2 B

author's own country, as the subject; and from some egregious faults in the incidents and machinery, the best critics have denied to this poem the praise of first-rate excellence.

The Leonidas of Mr. Glover is one of the most meritorious efforts in the department of epic poetry which English literature presented, during the age under consideration. This work has long maintained a high character among English critics. The Calvary of Mr. CUMBERLAND is entitled to the next place; a poem which has been pronounced to be “ imbued with the genuine spirit of Milton, and destined, therefore, most probably, to immortality.”. Though the author has not, perhaps, given sufficient scope to his imagination, but confined himself too closely to the sacred history, for the full exertion of his poetic strength, yet both the plan and execution of his work do him immortal honour, and afford high pleasure both to the critic and the christian. The Joan of Arc, by Mr. SOUTHey, while it obviously betrays the haste and carelessness with which it was written,' discovers, at the same time, the undoubted genius and taste of the author, The sentiments, in general, are noble and generous; the characters introduced are, for the most part, well supported; the imagery is bold and impressive, and the versification, without being always correct, is easy, harmonious, and beautiful. To these may be added Arthur, or the Northern Enchantment, by Mr. HOLE; and several other epic poems, which, though not entitled to rank with those above mentioned, yet do credit to the poetic talents of their respective writers.

But, if no poet since the time of Milton have honoured our language with a work which deserves to be compared with the Paradise Lost, yet this period

1 The Foan of Arc probably furnishes the first instance in the history of literature of an epic poem of equal length being written in six weeks !

« PreviousContinue »