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there are many descriptive passages in The Prelude and The Excursion, the main purpose of all his longer works is philosophical. Two of the earliest pieces, it is true, the Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, belong, except that they are in rime, to the class we have been considering; but it is significant of the changing order that none of the mature poems do.
The form had served its purpose and there is no reason to regret its passing. Admirable as was much of the descriptive verse, a long poem cannot be made up entirely of pictures of nature, and the episodes, moralizings, and accounts of famous persons and places with which Thomson and his successors diversified their works are hardly successful. In previous and subsequent poetry descriptions are introduced incidentally, or, better still, as with Wordsworth and Hardy, are made an integral part of a narrative or philosophical work. The inevitable formlessness and digressiveness of the long nature poem brought it into disrepute among more critical readers." Pope sneered at his own early work, in which "pure Description held the place of Sense,” and, like many of his contemporaries, seems to have regarded pictures of the country as purely decorative, for he thought a poem made up of them was absurd as a feast made up of sauces." 2 The Monthly Review held that this kind of verse “is doubtless inferior, both in dignity and utility, to ethic compositions,” and questioned whether it were not “in itself a bad species of poetry.” “More descriptive poetry!" it exclaimed on the appearance of Wordsworth's second volume, "Have we not yet enough? Must eternal changes be rung on uplands and lowlands, and nodding forests, and brooding clouds, and cells, and dells, and dingles?” 3 Yet there can be no doubt as to the popularity of most pieces of the class. “The cultivators of the higher species of the poetic art,” declared the Critical Review, "must be contented with the applause of the learned and discerning few: but the poet who pourtrays the appearances of nature ... provides a feast for the public, and will not fail to obtain the reward to which he is entitled. - Hence, while the
1 These qualities, together with the inflated language and contorted style of many poems of the class, are amusingly parodied in Samuel Wesley's piece, The Descriptive, a Miltonick, after the Manner of the Moderns (Poems, 1736, pp. 151-6).
? See Joseph Warton's edition of Pope (1797), iv. 22 n.
3 xviii. 278 (1758); enl. ed., xii. 166, 216–17 (1793). In 1798 it referred to "the ill success of most adventurers in this province of poetry" (enl. ed., xxvii. 106), while twelve years earlier it had remarked, “In poems merely descriptive, it requires no common command of language, as well as strength of fancy, to support the simple majesty of blank verse, as many unsuccessful attempts have sufficiently proved" (lxxiv. 70). Chalmers in 1810 (English Poets, xvii. 451) thought Scott's Amwell "liable to all the objections attached to descriptive poetry.”
odes of Gray are read by few and relished by fewer still, the Seasons of Thomson are in the hands of every one.
What light, we may well ask before leaving the subject, does this survey of unrimed descriptive verse throw upon the work of the greater men who wrote it, Thomson, Cowper, and Wordsworth? As to Thomson there can be no question. Not only is The Seasons the first extensive picture of the out-of-doors, but until the publication of The Task it dominated poetry of the kind no less in style and diction than in plan and in the aspects of nature presented, and even in Wordsworth's day its influence was still considerable.
With Cowper the case is different. He was not so much an innovator as a perfecter. He did not begin things, but encouraged them in a direction they were already taking. It is doubtful if the course of English literature would have been noticeably different if he had never written; at the most he but strengthened tendencies already started. His work is largely didactic and religious, like that of his contemporaries; and, like most of them, he seldom loses sight of a house and never strays from the peaceful, cultivated country to the wild moors or the lonely mountain lakes. In observation, and in drawing finely detailed pictures of actual scenes, Cowper made no notable advance. It is his humor, taste, and sensitiveness, his delicate, deft art, that make The Task what it is; and these his admirers rarely caught. Yet he undoubtedly was a strong force in the development of simple, fluent expression, and by strengthening the tendencies of men like Hurdis and Grahame in the same direction he probably helped prepare the way for Michael and Tintern Abbey. V
Wordsworth's greatness becomes more apparent when his work is compared with that of his predecessors, for it is then seen to be as important historically as it is esthetically. He was not the first, to be sure, to make nature the center of the picture; that had been done in the Walks in a Forest, the Birds of Scotland, and some other poems; and, so far as closeness of observation and the use of details go, he really falls behind Gisborne and Grahame. But with Wordsworth
1 New arrangement, xxxi. 83 (1801).
2 It is commonly supposed that Wordsworth, if he did not actually discover the English lakes, was at least practically the first to make them known to literature. Miss Reynolds, in her Treatment of Nature in English Poetry, has discussed the poems of Brown and Dalton, as well as the prose of Amory, Arthur Young, Gray, Gilpin, Hutchinson, and others who deal with the region, and may have thought it unnecessary to mention the numerous more obscure works of the same kind that were published before 1800. Yet few of us realize that so early as 1792 the public had “reason to be almost sated” with “those admired lakes” (Crit. Rev., new arr., vi. 545), that the trip through them was “the fashionable tour of the times” (Mo. Rev., enl. ed., xii. 342-3), and that even in noticing Wordsworth’s Evening Walk the Critical Review (new arr.,
there is something greater than details, something that lies behind them, that is perceived not with the eyes but with the imagination, something that is, so far as poetry is concerned, the very heart of nature. It is the depth of his insight into this inner spirit, the intensity with which he felt its power, that is the new and invaluable element in his poetry. His landscapes are no more real than those of his predecessors, but they are flooded with a new light,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet's dream. He dwelt upon aspects of nature unmentioned in earlier poetry, on
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills. Again, eighteenth-century writers, however beautiful and interesting they found the out-of-doors, thought of it not as closely related to man but as a thing apart. To Wordsworth the two seemed vitally connected:
One impulse from a vernal wood
Than all the sages can. “The round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky," spoke to him not of God alone but of man; he heard in them "the still, sad music of humanity.” Shaftesbury, Akenside, and the other deists had realized the spiritual ministry that nature may perform, but with them it was largely an intellectual perception that played a small part in their lives and was by no means the center of interest in their work. Wordsworth, on the other hand, exemplified it in his life and insisted upon it in his poetry to an extent undreamed of by previous writers. Indeed, he went farther than all but a very few have cared to follow him. “Therefore am I still,” he wrote, in words so familiar that their full meaning is apt to be overlooked,
well pleased to recognise
Of all my moral being. viii. 347) remarked, “Our northern lakes have of late years attracted the attention of the public in a variety of ways. They have been visited by the idle, described by the curious, and delineated by the artist.” Richard Cumberland's Ode to the Sun (Odes, 1776, with an important preface), the anonymous Ode to the Genius of the Lakes in the North of England (1781, see Crit. Rev., lii. 234), Joseph Budworth's Windermere (1798), and William Taylor's Topographical Ode (Southey's Annual Anthology, 1799, i. 1-9) all deal with the region.
It is these things, and not any supposed beginnings of romanticism or of nature poetry, that make Wordsworth's part in the Lyrical Ballads, aside from its esthetic value, a memorable contribution to English literature.
EPIC AND BURLESQUE POETRY
“A CORRESPONDENT wrote us lately,” declared the Edinburgh Review in 1808, “an account of a tea-drinking in the west of England, at which there assisted no fewer than six epic poets a host of Parnassian strength, certainly equal to six-and-thirty ordinary bards.” 1 Although this noteworthy encounter took place in the days of Wordsworth and Coleridge, there must have been similar occasions attended by quite as many rivals of Homer and Virgil when Queen Anne 'sometimes counsel took and sometimes tea,' or when Cowper and Johnson were votaries of "the bubbling and loud hissing urn."
For the epic ferment was unusually active in the eighteenth century. From 1695 to 1723, it will be remembered, Blackmore was pouring out
Heroic poems without number,
Long, lifeless, leaden, lulling lumber; ? and Pope's earliest and latest works were epics. The impulse towards heroic poetry seems to have grown rather than abated as the century advanced.
Oft do I burn to snatch the Epic Lyre, declared H. F. Cary in 1788; and, though his ambition was dampened by his less than sixteen years, he urged his friend the Swan of Lichfield to “proceed, the Epic wire Awake." 3 "By the sacred energies of Milton," Lamb wrote to Coleridge, I adjure you to attempt the Epic.
“Young poets,” said Southey, “are, or at least used to be, as ambitious of producing an epic poem, as stage-stricken youths of figuring in Romeo or Hamlet. It had been the earliest of my daydreams. I had begun many such.” 5 ? See p. 90 above.
3 Sonnets and Odes (1788), 33, 9. * Jan. 10, 1797. Further evidences of the interest in this kind of writing are seen in Voltaire's Essay on Epic Poetry (1727, with Rolli's Remarks upon it, 1728) and his epic La Henriade (1723, with John Lockman's translation of it into blank verse, 1732), and William Hayley's rimed Essay on Epic Poetry (1782, “in five epistles” with elaborate notes).
Preface to the 1837 edition of Joan of Arc (Works, 1837, vol. i. p. xvii); see also his Life and Correspondence (1849), i. 118-19. Southey completed Joan when he was only nineteen; Pope began an epic called Alcander when he was thirteen, and James Montgomery one on Alfred when he was two years older; Glover published nine books of his
1 xi. 362.