IT is more difficult to characterize the English poetry of the eighteenth century than that of any other. For it was an age, not only of spontaneous transition, but of bold experiment; it includes not only such divergences of thought as distinguish the "Rape of the Lock" from the "Parish Register," but such vast contemporaneous differences as lie between Pope and Collins, Burns and Cowper. Yet we may clearly trace three leading moods or tendencies: the aspects of courtly or educated life, represented by Pope, and carried to exhaustion by his followers; the poetry of Nature and of Man, viewed through a cultivated and at the same time an impassioned frame of mind by Collins and Gray; lastly, the study of vivid and simple narrative, including natural description, begun by Gay and Thomson, pursued by Burns and others in the north, and established in England by Goldsmith, Percy, Crabbe, and Cowper. Great varieties in style accompanied these diversities in aim. Poets could not always distinguish the manner suitable for subjects so far apart; and the union of the language of courtly and of common life, exhibited most conspicuously by Burns, has given a tone to the poetry of that century which is better explained by reference to its historical origin than by naming it, in the common criticism of our day, artificial. There are again, a nobleness of thought, a courageous aim at high and, in a strict sense, manly excellence in many of the writers. Nor can that period be justly termed tame and wanting in originality which produced poems such as Pope's satires, Gray's odes and Elegy, the ballads of Gay and Carey, the songs of Burns and Cowper. In truth poetry at this as at all times was a more or less unconscious mirror of the genius of the age, and the brave and admirable spirit of inquiry which made the eighteenth century the turning-time in European civilization is reflected faithfully in its verse. An intelligent reader will find the influence of Newton as markedly in the poems of Pope, as of Elizabeth in the plays of Shakespeare. On this great subject, however, these indications must here be sufficient.
The Bard. This ode is founded on a fable that Edward the First, after conquering Wales, put the native poets to death. After lamenting his comrades (stanzas 2, 3), the Bard prophesies the fate of Edward the Second, and the conquests of Edward the Third (4); his death and that of the Black Prince (5); of Richard the Second, with the wars of York and Lancaster, the murder of Henry the Sixth (the "meek usurper"), and of Edward the Fifth and his brother (6). He turns to the glory and prosperity following the accession of the Tudors (7), through Elizabeth's reign (8), and concludes with a vision of the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton.
Line 13.Glo'ster: Gilbert de Clare, son-in-law to Edward.
L. 14.Mortimer: one of the Lords Marchers of Wales.
L. 35.Arvon: the shores of Carnarvonshire opposite Anglesey.
L. 57.She-wolf: Isabel of France, adulterous Queen of Edward the Second.
L. 87.Towers of Julius: the Tower of London, built in part, according to tradition, by Julius Cæsar.
L. 93.Bristled boar: the badge of Richard the Third.
L. 99.Half of thy heart: Queen Eleanor died soon after the conquest of Wales.
L. 109.Arthur: Henry the Seventh named his eldest son thus, in deference to British feeling and legend.
The editor has found no authoritative text of this poem, in his judgment, superior to any other of its class in melody and pathos. Part is probably not later than the seventeenth century; in other stanzas a more modern hand, much resembling Scott's, is traceable. Logan's poem (cxxvii.) exhibits a knowledge rather of the old legends than of the old verses.
A little masterpiece in a very difficult style; Catullus himself could hardly have bettered it. In grace, tenderness, simplicity, and humour it is worthy of the ancients; and even more so, from the completeness and unity of the picture presented.
Perhaps no writer who has given such strong proofs of the poetic nature has left less satisfactory poetry than Thomson. Yet he touched little which he did not beautify; and this song, with "Rule, Britannia," and a few others, must make us regret that he did not more seriously apply himself to lyrical writing.
Burns justly named this "one of the most beautiful songs in the Scots or any other language." One verse, interpolated by Beattie, is here omitted; it contains two good lines, but is quite out of harmony with the original poem.
Line 13.Bigonet, little cap, probably altered from beguinette.
The editor knows no sonnet more remarkable than this, which, with clxii., records Cowper's gratitude to the lady whose affectionate care for many years gave what sweetness he could enjoy to a life radically wretched. Petrarch's sonnets have a more ethereal grace and a more perfect finish, Shakespeare's more passion; Milton's stand supreme in stateliness, Wordsworth's in depth and delicacy; but Cowper's unites with an exquisiteness in the turn of thought, which the ancients would have called irony, an intensity of pathetic tenderness peculiar to his loving and ingenuous nature. There is much mannerism, much that is unimportant or of now exhausted interest, in his poems; but where he is great, it is with that elementary greatness which rests on the most universal human feelings. Cowper is our highest master in simple pathos.
Nothing except his surname appears recoverable with regard to the author of this truly noble poem. It should be noted as exhibiting a rare excellencethe climax of simple sublimity.
It is a lesson of high instructiveness to examine the essential qualities which give first-rate poetical rank to lyrics such as "To-morrow" or "Sally in our Alley," when compared with poems written (if the phrase may be allowed) in keys so different as the subtle sweetness of Shelley, the grandeur of Gray and Milton, or the delightful pastoralism of the Elizabethan verse. Intelligent readers will gain hence a clear understanding of the vast imaginative range of poetrythrough what wide oscillations the mind and the tastes of a nation may pass; how many are the roads which Truth and Nature open to excellence.