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are prosaic rather than poetic forms of literature, and as a matter of fact the prose of the period is distinctly better than its verse. But between Shakespeare's death and the Restoration so many extravagancies had been committed in the name of poetry that some such reform was necessary if poetry was to retain its hold upon the general body of men.
The great poets of this period are John Dryden (1631-1700) and Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Their successor, Dr. Johnson (1709-1784), endeavored both by his poems and by his criticisms to maintain the traditions of this school. But another change was coming over English poetry. The romantic spirit, so long exiled from English verse, began about the middle of the eighteenth century to show its head again. We catch its first notes in Johnson's contemporaries, Thomas Gray (1716-1771) and Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774). The love of nature, the familiarity with country sights and sounds, the loving sympathy with the hard lives and fortunes of the poor, which appear in the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and The Deserted Village, are notes wholly alien to the so-called classical poets. On the other hand, the carefully polished form, the deliberately restrained imagination, and the direct appeal to average common sense although to a common sense tinged with emotion which mark these poems, show that their authors were living in a time of transition, and that the full day of romanticism in poetry had not yet dawned.
The first, but by no means most important, poet of the romantic school is William Cowper (1731-1800). The circumstances of his life forced him to reside in the country, and his poetry is full of the gentle influences of country sights and sounds. “My descriptions,” he said, “are all from nature; not one of them second-handed." He discarded the elaborate balance and polish of the old school
in favor of a simple directness of expression in keeping with the objects of which he wrote. His far greater contemporary, Robert Burns (1759-1796), occupies a singular position in English literature. In his English verse he is a weak shadow of some minor members of the school of Pope ; but his Scotch poems, which alone are worthy of consideration, show him to be a singer such as had not been known since the Elizabethan period. He has Shakespeare's sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men ; he revives the long-forgotten lyric of love; and he gives fervid expression to the new hopes for liberty, equality, and fraternity begotten of the great movement of the French Revolution.
Probably the most important of all the poets of this time in his influence upon his contemporaries and upon subsequent English poetry was William Wordsworth (1770-1850). In his work we find a complete breach with the old traditions of poetical composition. He deliberately renounced all allegiance to the school of Pope, and set up a new standard of poetry, both as regards subject matter and form. The proper themes for poetry were to be drawn, he held, from the contemplation of nature or from the simple, natural lives of men uncorrupted by the artificial atmosphere of towns. The language of poetry he considered to differ in no respect from that of prose except with reference to the metre. Many of Wordsworth’s best poems are in flat contradiction to this theory; but, at the same time, he rendered English poetry an immense service by clearing it of the unnatural and affected diction which had gathered about it in the last hundred years, and by recalling poets to the true objects of their contemplation, nature and the heart of man.
Closely allied with Wordsworth is his friend and companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Coleridge wrote comparatively little poetry, but what he wrote was of great importance. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the most perfect expression of the new element of the supernatural which had found its way into English poetry. Readers of the time of Pope or Johnson would have considered this poem unreal, unnatural, and therefore ridiculous, if not disgusting. His unfinished poem, Christabel, may be said to have set the fashion of poetry in which Scott and Byron achieved such great success, the romantic story embodied in a simple, irregular, but very charming metre.
In the narrative poems of Walter Scott (1771-1832) we see poetry turning with delight toward the romantic Middle Ages, which the critics of the eighteenth century had despised as times of darkness and superstition. Scott's charming lyric gift, too, proves him a singer of the new school, and the very haste and carelessness of much of his work shows how far he had departed from the old standards of poetry
The most dazzling figure of the romantic school is, of course, Lord Byron (1788–1824). His youth, his rank, his genius, made him for a time the idol of the reading world in England, and completed the triumph of romantic principles. Byron's best work, however, is not to be found in the metrical tales which first brought him into prominence, but in his later and maturer poems. In these he expressed his own passionate emotions, love of liberty, hatred of oppression, scorn of conventional morality, and self-pity for his shattered life, with a sincerity and strength unknown before in English poetry.
His friend and sometime associate in exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), was a far truer artist in poetry, and one of the greatest of all English lyric poets. Like Byron, Shelley hated the tyranny which, after the fall of Napoleon, was engaged in trampling out the surviving sparks of liberty upon the Continent, and, like Byron, he broke entirely with the established law and order of his native land, like Byron, too, his poems are filled with a self-pity which has provoked the scorn of harsh critics. But Shelley had what Byron lacked, a devotion to the noblest ideals of humanity, - to purity, truth, and love.
His sympathy with nature, too, was far more close and intimate than Byron's. Furthermore, through his best work there glows a fervent genius which seems little less than inspiration.
John Keats (1795-1821) is sometimes grouped with Byron and Shelley as the last of the romantic poets; but his connection with them is a pure accident of time. For the political and social questions in which they were so deeply interested he cared nothing at all. He deliberately turned away from the harsh struggles of the world to slake his thirst for beauty at the springs of Grecian legend and mediæval romance. His early death cut short a career of perhaps the noblest promise in English literature since Marlowe's day. His best poems, all composed in the last year or two of his life, are marvels of poetic beauty, and have exercised an immense influence over the poets of the succeeding age.
The age of romanticism closed with the death of Byron in 1824 ; the Victorian era may be said to open with the publication of Tennyson's Poems, chiefly Lyrical, in 1830. This age is still too near our own to be summed up in a critical phrase or two, but a few of its characteristics may be pointed out. There was, first of all, no such breach with tradition as marked the culmination of the romantic school. Each of the three greatest Victorian poets, Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), Robert Browning (1812-1889), and Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), drew large draughts of inspiration from a poet of the preceding age; but in each there was an original element which far outweighed their borrowings. Tennyson's deep interest in the social and religious problems of his day, Browning's eager sympathy with the strife and struggle of the individual soul and his power of character portrayal, and Arnold's grace and classic beauty of form, are original elements quite wanting in the masters from whom these poets drew.
About the middle of the period, a minor trio of poets, Rossetti (1828-1882), Morris (1834-1896), and Swinburne (1837–), came forward to give utterance to the new æs. thetic spirit that was awakening in England, and to breathe into their poetry a mystical passion and a dreamy languor hitherto unknown in English verse. a whole, the age was, in the matter of form and subject, one of the most diverse and complex in English literature. In spirit it was for the most part serious, deeply occupied with the results of modern scientific discovery, and broadly sympathetic. Its highest achievements in poetry have been the idyllic narrative and nobly meditative poems of Tennyson, the strong and lifelike character studies of Browning, and the masterly elegies of Arnold, along with a large and very admirable body of lyric poetry found not only in the works of these three chief poets, but in that of many of their contemporaries and disciples.