Page images
PDF
EPUB

and desert, and to ascertain how far unex- It is to be considered also, that though it be ninpied popularity does really imply unrival- the end of poetry to please, one of the parties led talent.

whose pleasure, and whose notions of excelAs it is the object of poetry to give pleasure, lence, will always be primarily consulted in it would seem io be a pretty safe conclusion, its composition, is the poet himself; and as he that that poetry must be the best which gives must necessarily be more cultivated than the he greatest pleasure to the greatest number great body of his readers, the presumption is, of persons. Yet we must pause a little, be- that he will always belong, comparatively iore we give our assent to so plausible a pro- speaking, to the class of good judges, and en. position. It would not be quite correct, we deavour, consequently, to produce that sort of Tear, to say that those are invariably the best excellence which is likely to meet with their judges who are most easily pleased. The approbation. When authors, therefore, and great multitude, even of the reading world, those of whose suffrages authors are most must necessarily be uninstructed and inju- ambitious, thus conspire to fix upon the same dicious; and will frequently be found, not standard of what is good in taste and compoonly to derive pleasure from what is worthless sition, it is easy to see how it should come to in finer eyes, but to be quite insensible to bear this name in society, in preference to those beauties which afford the most exquisite what might afford more pleasure to individuals delight to more cultivated understandings. of less influence. Besides all this, it is obTrue pathos and sublimity will indeed charm vious that it must be infinitely more difficult every one: but, out of this lofty sphere, we to produce any thing conformable to this exare pretty well convinced, that the poetry alted standard, than merely to fall in with the which appears most perfect to a very refined current of popular taste. To attain the former taste, will not often turn out to be very popular object, it is necessary, for the most part, to poetry.

understand thoroughly all the feelings and This, indeed, is saying nothing more, than associations that are modified or created by that the ordinary readers of poetry have not cultivation :-To accomplish the latter, it will a very refined taste; and that they are often often be sufficient merely to have observed insensible to many of its highest beauties, the course of familiar preferences. Success, while they still more frequently mistake its however, is rare, in proportion as it is difficult; imperfections for excellence. The fact, when and it is needless to say, what a vast addition stated in this simple way, commonly excites rarity makes to value,-or how exactly our neither opposition nor surprise : and yet, if it admiration at success is proportioned to our be asked, why the taste of a few individuals, sense of the difficulty of the undertaking. who do not perceive beauty where many Such seem to be the most general and im. others perceive it, should be exclusively dig- mediate causes of the apparent paradox, of nified with the name of a good taste; or why reckoning that which pleases the greatest poetry, which gives pleasure to a very great number as inferior to that which pleases the number of readers, should be thought inferior few; and such the leading grounds for fixing to that which pleases a much smaller num- the standard of excellence, in a question of ber,--the answer, perhaps, may not be quite mere feeling and gratification, by a different so ready as might have been expected from rule than that of the quantity of gratification the alacrity of our assent to the first propo- produced. With regard to some of the fine sition. That there is a good answer to be arts—for the distinction between popular and given, however, we entertain no doubt: and if actual merit obtains in them all—ihere are no That which we are about to offer should not other reasons, perhaps, to be assigned; and, appear very clear or satisfactory, we must in Music for example, when we have said thaí submit to have it thought, that the fault is not it is the authority of those who are best qualialtogether in the subject.

fied by nature and study, and the difficulty In the first place, then, it should be remem- and rarity of the attainment, that entitles cerbered, that though the taste of very good tain exquisite performances to rank higher judges is necessarily the taste of a few, it is than others that give far more general delight, implied, in their description, that they are per- we have probably said all that can be said in sons eminently qualified, by natural sensi- explanation of this mode of speaking and bility, and long experience and reflection, to judging. In poetry, however, and in some perceive all beauties that really exist, as well other departments, ihis familiar, though some. as to settle the relative value and importance what extraordinary rule of estimation, is justiof all the different sorts of beauty ;-they are fied by other considerations. in that very state, in short, to which all who As it is the cultivation of natural and perare in any degree capable of tasting those re- haps universal capacities, that produces ihat fined pleasures would certainly arrive, if their refined taste which takes away our pleasure sensibility were increased, and their experi- in vulgar excellence, so, it is to be considered, ence and reflection enlarged. It is difficult

, that there is an universal tendency to the protherefore, in following out the ordinary analo- pagation of such a taste; and that, in times gies of language, to avoid considering them as tolerably favourable to human happiness, in the right, and calling their taste the true there is a continuai progress and improvement and the just one; when it appears that it is in this, as in the other faculties of nations and such as is uniformly produced by the cultiva- large assemblages of men. The number of tion of those faculties upon which all our per- intelligent judges may therefore be regarded eptions of taste so obviously depend. as perpetually on the increase. The inner

circle, to which the poet delights chiefly to of unsuitable finery. There are other features, pitch his voice, is perpetually enlarging; and, no doubt, that distinguish the idols of vulgar looking to that great futurity to which his am- admiration from the beautiful exemplars of bition is constantly directed, it may be found, pure taste; but this is so much the most charthat the most refined style of composition to acteristic and remarkable, that we know no which he can attain, will be, at the last, the way in which we could so shortly describe the most extensively and permanently popular. poetry that pleases the multitude, and disThis holds true, we think, with regard to all pleases the select few, as by saying that it the productions of art that are open to the consisted of all the most known and most inspection of any considerable part of the brilliant parts of the most celebrated authors, community; but, with regard to poetry in -of a splendid and unmeaning accumulation particular, there is one circumstance to be at- of those images and phrases which had long tended to, that renders this conclusion pecu- charmed every reader in the works of their liarly safe, and goes far indeed to reconcile original inventors. the taste of the multitude with that of more The justice of these remarks will probably cultivated judges.

be at once admitted by all who have attended As it seems difficult to conceive that mere to the history and effects of what may be cultivation should either absolutely create or called Poetical diction in general, or even of utterly destroy any natural capacity of enjoy- such particular phrases and epithets as have ment, it is not easy to suppose, that the qual- been indebted to their beauty for too great a ities which delight the uninstructed should notoriety. Our associations with all this class be substantially different from those which of expressions, which have become trite only give pleasure to the enlightened. They may in consequence of their intrinsic excellence, be arranged according to a different scale, now suggest to us no ideas but those of and certain shades and accompaniments may schoolboy imbecility and childish affectation. be more or less indispensable ; but the quali- We look upon them merely as the common, ties in a poem that give most pleasure to the hired, and tawdry trappings of all who wish refined and fastidious critic, are in substance, to put on, for the hour, the masquerade habit we believe, the very same that delight the of poetry; and, instead of receiving from them most injudicious of its admirers :—and the any kind of delight or emotion, do not even very wide difference which exists between distinguish or attend to the signification of their usual estimates, may be in a great de- the words of which they consist. The ear is gree accounted for, by considering, that the so palled with their repetition, and so accusone judges absolutely, and the other relatively tomed to meet with them as the habitual ex-that the one attends only to the intrinsic pletives of the lowest class of versifiers, that qualities of the work, while the other refers they come at last to pass over it without exmore immediately to the merit of the author. citing any sort of conception whatever, and The most popular passages in popular poetry, are not even so much attended to as to expose are in fact

, for the most part, very beautiful their most gross incoherence or inconsistency and striking; yet they are very often such to detection. It is of this quality that Swift passages as could never be ventured on by has availed himself in so remarkable a manany writer who aimed at the praise of the ner, in his famous “Song by a person of judicious; and this, for the obvious reason, quality," which consists entirely in a selection ihat they are trite and hackneyed,—that they of some of the most trite and well-sounding have been repeated till they have lost all phrases and epithets in the poetical lexicon grace and propriety,--and, instead of exalting of the time, strung together without any kind The imagination by the impression of original of meaning or consistency, and yet so disgenius or creative fancy, only nauseate and posed, as to have been perused, perhaps by offend, by the association of paltry plagiarism one half of their readers, without any suspiand impudent inanity. It is only, however, cion of the deception. Most of those phrases, on those who have read and remembered the however, which had thus become sickening, original passages, and their better imitations, and almost insignificant, to the intelligent that this effect is produced. To the ignorant readers of poetry in the days of Queen Anne, and the careless, the twentieth imitation has are in themselves beautiful and expressive, all the charm of an original; and that which and, no doubt, retain much of their native oppresses the more experienced reader with grace in those ears that have not been alien. weariness and disgust, rouses them with all ated by their repetition. the force and vivacity of novelty. It is not But it is not merely from the use of much then, because the ornaments of popular poetry excellent diction, that a modern poet is thus are deficient in intrinsic worth and beauty, debarred by the lavishness of his predecessors. that they are slighted by the critical reader, There is a certain range of subjects and charbut because he at once recognises them to be acters, and a certain manner and tone, which stolen, and perceives that they are arranged were probably, in their origin, as graceful and without taste or congruity. In his indignation attractive, which have been proscribed by tire at the dishonesty, and his contempt for the same dread of imitation. It would be too poverty of the collector, he overlooks alto long to enter, in this place, into any detailed gether the value of what he has collected, or examination of the peculiarities-originating remembers it only as an aggravation of his chiefly in this source- —which distinguish anoffence,-as converting larceny into sacrilege, cient from modern poetry. It may be enough and adding the guilt of profanation to the folly I just to remark, that, as the elements of poetical emotion are necessarily limited, so it was ' tion, should revolt more by their effectation natural for those who first sought to excite it, than they attract by their originality, is just to avail themselves of those subjects, situa- and natural; but even the nobler devices that tions, and images, that were most obviously win the suffrages of the judicious by their incalculated to produce that effect; and to assist trinsic beauty, as well as their novelty, are them by the use of all those aggravating cir- apt to repel the multitude, and to obstruct cumstances that most readily occurred as the popularity of some of the most exquisite likely to heighten their operation. In this productions of genius. The beautiful bul miway, they may be said to have got possession nute delineations of such admirable observers of all the choice materials of their art; and, as Crabbe or Cowper, are apt to appear tedious working without fear of comparisons, fell to those who take little interest in their subnaturally into a free and graceful style of jects, and have no concern about their art;execution, at the same time that the profusion and ihe refined, deep, and sustained pathetic of their resources made them somewhat care- of Campbell, is still more apt to be mistaken less and inexpert in their application. After- for monotony and languor by those who are poets were in a very different situation. They either devoid of sensibility, or impatient of could neither take ihe most natural and gene- quiet reflection. The most popular style un ral topics of interest, nor treat them with the doubtedly is that which has great variety and ease and indifference of those who had the brilliancy, rather thạn exquisite finish in its whole store at their command-because this images and descriptions; and which touches was precisely what had been already done by lightly on many passions, without raising any those who had gone before them: And they so high as to transcend the comprehension of were therefore put upon various expedients ordinary mortals—or dwelling on it so long as for attaining their object, and yet preserving to exhaust their patience. their claim to originality. Some of them ac- Whether Mr. Scott holds the same opinion cordingly set themselves to observe and de- with us upon these matters, and has intentionlineate both characters and external objects ally conformed his practice to this theory;-or with greater minuteness and fidelity; --and whether the peculiarities in his compositions others to analyse more carefully the mingling have been produced merely by following out passions of the heart, and to feed and cherish the natural bent of his genius, we do not prea more limited train of emotion, through a sume to determine: But, that he has actually longer and more artful succession of incidents, made use of all our recipes for popularity, we -while a third sort distorted both nature and think very evident; and conceive, that few passion, according to some fantastical theory things are more curious than the singular skill, of their own; or took such a narrow corner or good fortune, with which he has reconciled of each, and dissected it with such curious his claims on the favour of the multitude, with and microscopic accuracy, that its original his pretensions to more select admiration. form was no longer discernible by the eyes Confident in the force and originality of his of the uninstructed. In this way we think own genius, he has not been afraid to avail that modern poetry has both been enriched himself of common-places both of diction and with more exquisite pictures, and deeper and of sentiment, whenever they appeared to be more sustained strains of pathetic, than were beautiful or impressive:-using them, howknown to the less elaborate artists of antiquity; ever, at all times, with the skill and spirit of at the same time that it has been defaced an inventor; and, quite certain that he could with more affectation, and loaded with far not be mistaken for a plagiarist or imitator, he more intricacy. But whether they failed or has made free use of that great treasury of succeeded, and whether they distinguished characters, images, and expressions, which themselves from their predecessors by faults had been accumulated by the most celebrated or by excellences, the later poets, we conceive, of his predecessors,—at the same time that must be admitted to have almost always the rapidity of his transitions, the novelty of written in a more constrained and narrow his combinations, and the spirit and variety manner than their originals, and to have de- of his own thoughts and inventions, show parted farther from what was obvious, easy, plainly that he was a borrower from any thing and natural. Modern poetry, in this respect, but poverty, and took only, what he would may be compared, perhaps, without any great have given, if he had been born in an earlier impropriety, to modern sculpture. It is greatly generation. The great secret of his popuinferior to the ancient in freedom, grace, and larity, however, and the leading characteristic simplicity; but, in return, it frequently pos- of his poetry, appear to us to consist evidently sesses a more decided espression, and more in this, that he has made more use of common fine finishing of less suitable embellishments. topics, images, and expressions, than any orig.

Whatever may be gained or lost, however, inal poet of later times; and, at the same by this change of manner, it is obvious, that time, displayed more genius and originality poetry must become less popular by means than any recent author who has worked in of it: For the most natural and obvious man- the same materials. By the latter peculiarity, ner, is always the most taking ;-and what he has entitled himself to the admiration of ever costs the author much pains and labour, every description of readers ;-by the former, is usually found to require a corresponding he is recommended in an especial manner to effort on the part of the reader,—which all the inexperienced-at the hazard of some little readers are not disposed to make. That they offence to the more cultivated and fastidious. who seek to be original by means of affecta- In the choice of his subjects, for example, he does not attempt to interest merely by fine lads and anecdotes, and the sentimental glitter observation or pathetic sentiment, but takes of the most modern poetry,—passing from the assistance of a story, and enlists the read the borders of the ludicrous to those of the er's curiosity among his motives for attention. sublime--alternately minute and energeticThen his characters are all selected from the sometimes artificial, and frequently negligent most common dramatis persona of poetry ;- --but always full of spirit and vivacity:kings, warriors, knights, outlaws, nuns, min- aboundiog in images that are striking, at first strels, secluded damsels, wizards, and true sight, to minds of every contexture—and lovers. He never ventures to carry us into never expressing a sentiment which it can the cottage of the modern peasant, like Crabbe cost the most ordinary reader any exertion to or Cowper; nor into the bosom of domestic comprehend. privacy, like Campbell; nor among creatures Such seem to be the leading qualities that of the imagination, like Southey or Darwin. have contributed to Mr. Scott's popularity; Such personages, we readily admit, are not in and as some of them are obviously of a kind themselves so interesting or striking as those to diminish his merit in the eyes of more to whom Mr. Scott has devoted himself; but fastidious judges, it is but fair to complete they are far less familiar in poetry and are this view of his peculiarities by a hasty notherefore more likely; perhaps, to engage the tice of such of them as entitle him to unqualiattention of those to whom poetry is familiar. fied admiration ;-and here it is impossible In the management of the passions, again, Mr. not to be struck with that vivifying spirit of Scott appears to us to have pursued the same strength and animation which pervades all popular, and comparatively easy course. He the inequalities of his composition, and keeps has raised all the most familiar and poetical constantly on the mind of the reader the imemotions, by the most obvious aggravations, pression of great power, spirit and intrepidity. and in the most compendious and judicious There is nothing cold, creeping, or feeble, in ways. He has dazzled the reader with the all Mr. Scott's poetry ;-no laborious littleness, splendour, and even warmed him with the or puling classical affectation. He has his failtransient heat of various affections; but he ures, indeed, like other people ; but he always has nowhere fairly kindled him with enthu- attempts vigorously: And never fails in his imsiasm, or melted him into tenderness. Writ- mediate object, without accomplishing someing for the world at large, he has wisely ab- thing far beyond the reach of an ordinary stained from attempting to raise any passion writer. Even when he wanders from the to a height to which worldly people could not paths of pure taste, he leaves behind him the be transported; and contented himself with footsteps of a powerful genius; and moulds giving his reader the chance of feeling, as a the most humble of his materials into a form brave, kind, and affectionate gentleman must worthy of a nobler substance. Allied to this often feel in the ordinary course of his exist- inherent vigour and animation, and in a great ence, without trying to breathe into him either degree derived from it, is that air of facility ihat lofty enthusiasm which disdains the or- and freedom which adds so peculiar a grace dinary business and amusements of life, or to most of Mr. Scott's compositions. There that quiet and deep sensibility which unfits is certainly no living poet whose works seem for most of its pursuits. With regard to dic- to come from him with so much ease, or who tion and imagery, too, it is quite obvious that so seldom appears to labour, even in the most Mr. Scott has not aimed at writing either in a burdensome parts of his performance. He very pure or a very consistent style. He seems, indeed, never to think either of him. seems to have been anxious only to strike, self or his reader, but to be completely identiand to be easily and universally understood; fied and lost in the personages with whom he and, for this purpose, to have culled the most is occupied; and the attention of the reader glittering and conspicuous expressions of the is consequently either transferred, unbroken, most popular authors, and to have interwoven to their adventures, or, if it glance back for á them in splendid confusion with his own ner moment to the author, it is only to think how vous diction and irregular versification. In- much more might be done, by putting forth different whether he coins or borrows, and that strength at full, which has, without efdrawing with equal freedom on his memory fort, accomplished so many wonders. It is and his imagination, he goes boldly forward, owing partly to these qualities, and partly to in full reliance on a never-failing abundance; the great variety of his style, that Mr. Scott and dazzles, with his richness and variety, is much less frequently tedious than any other even those who are most apt to be offended bulky poet with whom we are acquainted. with his glare and irregularity. There is His store of images is so copious, that he nothing, in Mr. Scott, of the severe and ma- never dwells upon one long enough to projestic style of Milton-or of the terse and duce weariness in the reader; and, even fine composition of Popeor of the elaborate where he deals in borrowed or in tawdry elegance and melody of Campbell—or even wares, the rapidity of his transitions, and the of the Howing and redundant diction of transient glance with which he is satisfied as Southey.—But there is a medley of bright to each, leave the critic no time to be offendimages and glowing words, set carelessly and ed, and hurry him forward, along with the loosely together-a diction, tinged successive- múltitude, enchanted with the brilliancy of ly with the careless richness of Shakespeare, the exhibition. Thus, the very frequency of the harshness and antique simplicity of the his deviations from pure taste, comes, in some old romances, the homeliness of vulgar bal- sort, to constitute their apology; and the pro fusion and variety of his faults to afford a new publications. We are more sure, aowever, proof of his genius.

that it has fewer faults, than that it has greater These, we think, are the general character- beauties; and as its beauties bear a strong istics of Mr. Scott's poetry. Among his minor resemblance to those with which the public peculiarities, we might notice his singular has already been made familiar in those cele. talent for description, and especially for the brated works, we should not be surprised if description of scenes abounding in motion or its popularity were less splendid and remark, action of any kind. In this department, in- able. For our own parts, however, we are of deed, we conceive him to be almost without opinion, that it will be oftener read hereafter a rival, either among modern or ancient poets; than either of them; and, that, if it had apand the character and process of his descrip-peared first in the series, their reception would tions are as extraordinary as their effect is have been less favourable than that which it astonishing. He places before the eyes of has experienced. It is more polished in its his readers a more distinct and complete pic- diction, and more regular in ite versification; ture, perhaps, than any other artist ever pre- the story is constructed with infinitely more sented by mere words; and yet he does not skill and address; there is a greater propor(like Crabbe) enumerate all the visible parts tion of pleasing and tender passages, with of the subjects with any degree of minute- much less antiquarian detail; and, upon the ness, nor confine himself

, by any means, to whole, a larger variety of characters, more what is visible. The singular merit of his artfully and judiciously contrasted. There is delineations, on the contrary, consists in this, nothing so fine, perhaps, as the battle in Marthat, with a few bold and abrupt strokes, he mion-or so picturesque as some of the scatfinishes a most spirited outline, –and then in- tered sketches in the Lay; but there is a stantly kindles it by the sudden light and co- richness and a spirit in the whole piece, which lour of some moral affection. There are none does not pervade either of these poems-a of his fine descriptions, accordingly, which do profusion of incident, and a shifting brilliancy not derive a great part of their clearess and of colouring, that reminds us of the witchery picturesque effect, as well as their interest, of Ariosto—and a constant elasticity, and oce from the quantity of character and moral ex- casional energy, which seem to belong more pression which is thus blended with their de- peculiarly to the author now before us. tails, and which, so far from interrupting the It may appear superfluous, perhaps, for us conception of the external object, very power to present our readers with any analysis of a fully stimulate the fancy of the reader to work, which is probably, by this time, in the complete it; and give a grace and a spirit to hands of as many persons as are likely to see the whole representation, of which we do not our account of it. As these, however, may know where to look for any other example. not be the same persons, and as, without

Another very striking peculiarity in Mr. making some such abstract, we could not Scott's poetry, is the air of freedom and na- easily render the few remarks we have to ture which he has contrived to impart to most offer intelligible, we shall take the liberty of of his distinguished characters; and with beginning with a short summary of the fable. which no poet more modern than Shakespeare The first canto, which is entitled The Chase, has ventured to represent personages of such begins with a pretty long description of a stagdignity. We do not allude here merely to the hunt in the Highlands of Perthshire. As the genuine familiarity and homeliness of many chase lengthens, the sportsmen drop off; till of his scenes and dialogues, but to that air of at last the foremost huntsman is left alone; gaiety and playfulness in which persons of and his horse, overcome with fatigue, stumhigh rank seem, from time immemorial, to bles, and dies in a rocky valley. The adhave thought it necessary to array, not their venturer pursues a little wild path, through a courtesy only, but their generosity and their deep ravine; and at last, climbing up a craggy hostility. This tone of good society, Mr. eminence, discovers, by the light of the evenScott has shed over his higher characters with ing sun, Loch Katrine, with all its woody great grace and effect; and has, in this way, islands and rocky shores, spread out in glory not only made his representations much more before him. After gazing with admiration on faithful and true to nature, but has very agree this beautiful scene, which is described with ably relieved the monotony of that tragic so- greater spirit than accuracy, the huntsman lemnity which ordinary writers appear to think winds his hor in the hope of being heard indispensable to the dignity of poetical heroes by some of his attendants; and sees, to his and heroines. We are not sure, however, infinite surprise, a little skiff

, guided by a whether he has not occasionally exceeded a lovely woman, glide from beneath the trees little in the use of this ornament; and given, that overhang the water, and approach the now and then, too coquettish and trifling a tone shore at his feet. The lady calls to her father; to discussions of weight and moment. and, upon the stranger's approach, pushes her

Mr. Scott has many other characteristic ex- shallop from the shore in alarm. After hold. cellences :—But we have already detained ing a short parley with him, however, from our readers too long with this imperfect sketch the water, she takes him inio the boat

, and of his poetical character, and must proceed, carries hím to a woody island; where she withoui further delay, to give them some ac- leads him into a sort of sylvan mansion, rudecount of the work which is now before us. ly constructed of trunks of trees, moss, and of this, upon the whole, we are inclined to thatch, and hung round, within, with trophies think more highly than of either of his former of war, and of the chase. An elderly lady is

« PreviousContinue »