« ForrigeFortsett »
seduced, in some frail moment, to try how his thoughts will look in print: then, for a second or two or least, he feels as the greatest genius in the world feels on the same occasion,“ laudum immensa cupido,” a longing after immortality that mounts into a hope-a hope that becomes a conviction of the power of realizing itself in all the glory of ideal reality ; than which no actual reality ever afterward is half so enchantingly enjoyed.
Hence the literature of our time is commensurate with the universality of education; nor is it less various than universal to meet capacities of all sizes, minds of all acquirements, and tastes of every degree. Books are multiplied on every subject on which any thing or nothing can be said, from the most abstruse and recondite to the most simple and puerile: and while the passion of book-jobbers is to make the former as familiar as the latter by royal ways to all the sciences, there is an equally perverse rage among genuine authors to make the latter as august and imposing as the former, by disguising commonplace topics with the colouring of imagination, and adorning the most insignificant themes with all the pomp of verse. This degradation of the high, and exaltation of the low--this dislocation, in fact, of every thing, is one of the most striking proofs of the extraordinary diffusion of knowledge --and of its corruption, too--if not a symptom of its declension by being so heterogeneously blended, till all shall be neutralized. Indeed, when millions of intellects, of as many different dimensions and as many different degrees of culture, are perpetually at work, and it is almost as easy to speak as to think, and to write as to speak, there must be a proportionate quantity of thought put into circulation.
Meanwhile, public taste, pampered with delicacies even to loathing, and stimulated to stupidity with excessive excitement, is at once ravenous and mawkish-gratified with nothing but novelty, nor with novelty itself for more than an hour. To meet this diseased appetite, in prose not less than in verse, a factitious kind of the marvellous has been invented, consisting, not in the exhibition of supernatural incidents or heroes, but in such distortion, high colouring, and exaggeration of natural incidents and ordinary personages, by the artifices of style, and the audacity of sentiment employed upon them, as shall produce that sensation of wonder in which halfinstructed minds delight. This preposterous effort at display may be traced through every walk of polite literature, and in every channel of publication'; nay, it would hardly be venturing too far to say that every popular author is occasionally a juggler, rope-dancer, or posture-maker, in this way, to propitiate those of his readers who will be pleased with nothing less than feats of legerdemain in the exercises of the pen.
It must be conceded that there never was a time when so great a number of men of extraordinary genius flourished together in this island ; as many may have existed, and perhaps there may be always an equal quantity of latent capacity; but since the circumstances of no previous period of human history have been altogether so calculated to awaken, inspirit, and perfect every species of intellectual energy, it is no arrogant assumption in favour of the living, no disparagement of the merits of the dead, to assert the manifest superiority of the former in developed powers--powers of the rarest and most
elevated kind in poetry—the noblest of the arts, and that which is brought earliest to the consummation of excellence, as it depends not upon the progress of science, but on sensibility to that which is at all times in itself equally striking in the grandeur, beauty, and splendour of external nature, with corresponding intensity of feeling towards whatsoever things are pure, lovely, and of good report in the mind of man, or in the scenes and circumstances of domestic life.
In poetry, late as it is in the age of the world, and after all the anticipations in every field that could furnish subjects for verse within the last three thousand years, the present generation can boast of at least six names that may be ranked with any other six (averaging the measure of genius on both sides) not only of our own country, but of any other that were contemporaries, independent of a far greater number of highly accomplished writers, such as in every refined and lettered period must abound --men who are rather poets by choice than by destiny, and who, if they had been either kings or beggars, would not have been poets at all ; because in the one case they would have been above, and in the other below, the temptation and pleasure of courting the Muses. Southey, Campbell, Wordsworth, Scott, Moore, and Byron-these, under any circumstances, from the original bias of their minds, must have been poets: had they been born to thrones, they would have woven for themselves chaplets of bays more glorious than the crowns which they inherited; had they been cast in the meanest stations of civilized society, they would have been distinguished among their peers, and above them, by some emanation of that “light from heaven" which no darkness of ignorance in untutored minds could utterly extinguish or always hide.
It must be further acknowledged by all who have justly appreciated the works of these authors (which
are exceedingly dissimilar in those respects wherein each is most excellent), that the great national events of their day have had no small influence in training their genius, leading them to the choice of subjects, and modifying their style. So far, then, these circumstances have been sources of inspiration; but there is a drawback with regard to each, that, yielding to the impatient temper of the times in their eager pursuit of fame, they have occasionally aimed at the temple on the mountain-top, not by the slow, painful, and laborious paths which their immortal predecessors trod, and which all must tread who would be sure of gaining the eminence, and keeping their station when they have gained it,—but they have rather striven to scale the heights by leaping from rock to rock up the most precipitous side, forcing their passage through the impenetrable forests that engirdle it, or plunging across the headlong torrents that descend in various windings from their fountains at the peak.' Thus they have endeavoured to attract attention and excite astonishment, rather by prodigious acts of spontaneous exertion, than to display gradually, and eventually to the utmost advantage, the well directed and perfectly concentrated force of their talents. In a word, it may be doubted whether one of the living five (for Byron is now beyond the reach of warning) has ever yet done his very best in a single effort worthy of himself (I mean in their longer works), by sacrificing all his merely good, middling, and inferior thoughts, which he has in common with everybody else, and appearing solely in his peculiar character,-that character of excellence, whatever it may be, wherein he is distinct from all the living and all the dead; the personal identity of his genius shining only where he can outshine all rivals, or where he can shine alone when rivalry is excluded. Till each of the survivors has done this, it can hardly be affirmed that he has secured the immortality of one of his great intellectual offspring: there is a vulnerable part of each, which Death with his dart, or Time with his scythe, may sooner or later strike down to oblivion. *
The unprecedented sale of the poetical works of Scott and Byron, with the moderate success of others, proves that a great change had taken place both in the character of authors and in the taste of readers, within forty years.
About the beginning of the French revolution scarcely any thing in rhyme, except the ludicrous eccentricities of Peter Pindar, would take with the public: a few years afterward, booksellers ventured to speculate in quarto volumes of verse, at from five shillings to a guinea a line, and in various instances were abundantly recompensed for their liberality. There are fisty living poets (among whom it must not be forgotten, that not a few are of the better sex-I may single out four ; Miss. Joanna Baillie, Mrs. Hemans, Miss Mitford, and L. E. L.) whose labours have proved profitable to themselves in a pecuniary way, and fame in proportion has followed the more substantial reward. This may appear a degrading standard by which to measure the genius of writers and the intelligence of readers, but, in a commercial country at least, it is an equitable one; for no man in his right mind can suppose that such a rise in the market demand could have taken place, unless the commodity itself had become more precious or more rare, or the taste of the public for that kind of literature had been exceedingly improved. Now poetry, instead of being more rare, was tenfold more abundant when it was most
* In reading the foregoing passage at the Royal and London Institutions, the author distinctly remarked, that as he could not be supposed to speak invidiously of any one of the great poets implicated in the qualified censure, he did not think any other apology necessary either to themşelves or their admirers there present, except that, deeming such censure applicable to contemporaries in general, he had named those only who could not be injured in their established reputation, or their honourable feelings, by the fraukness of friendly criticism; and who could therefore afford to be told of faults which they had, in a small degree, in common with a multitude of their inferiors, who have the same in a much higher.