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thought somewhat qualified to establish an “idea of poetical excellence”—Spenser, Drayton, Jonson, Fletcher, Chapman, for example. These were not much valued in Malone's golden age of “more modern and polished productions;”—but let that pass. We are coming back to the opinions of this obsolete school; and we venture to think the majority of readers now will not require us to make an apology for Shakspere's poems.
If Malone thought it necessary to solicit indulgence for the “Venus and Adonis,” and “Lucrece,” he drew even a more timid breath when he ventured to speak of the Sonnets. “I do not feel any great propensity to stand forth as the champion of these compositions. However, as it appears to me that they have been somewhat underrated, I think it incumbent on me to do them that justice to which they seem entitled.” No wonder he speaks timidly. The great poetical lawgiver of his time—the greater than Shakspere, for he undertook to mend him, and refine him, and make him fit to be tolerated by the super-elegant intellects of the days of George III.had pronounced that the Sonnets were too bad even for his genius to make tolerable. He, Steevens, who would take up a play of Shakspere's in the condescending spirit with which a clever tutor takes up a smart boy's verses—altering a word here, piecing out a line there, commending this thought, shaking his head at this false prosody, and acknowledging upon the whole that the thing is pretty well, seeing how much the lad has yet to learn—he sent forth his decree that nothing less than an act of parliament could compel the reading of Shakspere's Sonnets. For a long time mankind bowed before the oracle ; and the Sonnets were not read. Wordsworth has told us something about this:—
“There is extant a small volume of miscellaneous poems in which Shakspeare expresses his feelings in his own person. It is not difficult to conceive that the editor, George Steevens, should have been insensible to the beauties of one portion of that volume, the Sonnets; though there is not a part of the writings of this poet where is found, in an equal compass, a greater number of exquisite feelings felicitously expressed. But, from regard to the critic's own credit, he would not have ventured to talk of an act of parliament not being strong enough to compel the perusal of these, or any production of Shakspeare, if he had not known that the people of England were ignorant of the treasures contained in those little pieces.””
* Preface to Poetical Works.
That ignorance has been removed; and no one has contributed more to its removal, by creating a school of poetry founded upon Truth and Nature, than Wordsworth himself. The critics of the last century have passed away:—
“Peor and Bailim
By the operation of what great sustaining principle is it that we have come back to the just appreciation of “the treasures contained in those little pieces?” The poet-critic will answer:—
“There never has been a period, and perhaps never will be, in which vicious poetry, of some kind or other, has not excited more zealous admiration, and been far more generally read, than good; but this advantage attends the good, that the individual, as well as the species, survives from age to age: whereas, of the depraved, though the species be immortal, the individual quickly perishes; the object of present admiration vanishes, being supplanted by some other as "easily produced, which, though no better, brings with it at least the irritation of novelty, with adaptation, more or less skilful, to the changing humours of the majority of those who are most at leisure to regard poetical works when they first solicit their attention. Is it the result of the whole, that, in the opinion of the writer, the judgment of the people is not to be respected? The thought is most injurious; and, could the charge be brought against him, he would repel it with indignation. The people have already been justified, and their eulogium pronounced by implication, when it is said, above—that, of good poetry, the indiridual, as well as the species, survives. And how does it survive but through the people? what preserves it but their intellect and their wisdom *
“Past and future are the wings
On whose support, harmoniously conjoin'd,
The voice that issues from this spirit is that vor populi which the Deity inspires. Foolish must he be who can mistake for this a local acclamation, or a transitory outcry—transitory though it be for years, local though from a nation! Still more lamentable is his error who can believe that there is anything of divine infallibility in the clamour of that small though loud portion of the community, ever governed by factitious influence, which, under the name of the PUBLIC, passes itself, upon the unthinking, for the PEoP LE.”” * Preface to Poetical Works.
It is this perpetual mistake of the public for the people that has led to the belief that there was a period when Shakspere was neglected. He was always in the heart of the people. There, in that deep, rich soil, have the Sonnets rested during two centuries; and here and there in remote places have the seeds put forth leaves and flowers. All young imaginative minds now rejoice in their hues and their fragrance. But this preference of the fresh and beautiful of poetical life to the pot-pourri of the last age must be a regulated love. Those who, seeing the admiration which now prevails for these outpourings of “exquisite feelings felicitously expressed,” talk of the Sonnets as equal, if not superior, to the greatest of the poet's mighty dramas, compare things that admit of no comparison. Who would speak in the same breath of the gem of Cupid and Psyche, and the Parthenom? In the Sonnets, exquisite as they are, the poet goes not out of himself (at least in the form of the composition), and he walks, therefore, in a narrow circle of art. In the “Venus and Adonis,” and the “Lucrece, the circle widens. But in the Dramas, the centre is the Human Soul, the circumference the Universe.