網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

LECTURE XI.

Contemporary Literature.

The present age not an unpoetical one- Five names worthy of

distinction — Samuel Rogers — The “Pleasures of Memory" Rogers's “Italy”—Galileo and Milton — Moore's Songs - Irish patriotism—The true question respecting poetical compositionLamb's lines on the “Old Familiar Faces”-Scott's career of author. ship-Scott the second in rank of Scottish poets-His childhood at Sandy Knowe--His early reading-His interview with Burns, Influence of the Story of the Rebellion of 1745 on his geniusHis love of natural scenery—The minstrelsy of the Scottish border -Hallam's remark on the Scottish ballads — Story of Christie's Will—“The Lay of the Last Minstrel”-Scott's merit as a poet-Influence of the French Revolution on his mind—“Marmion"“The Lady of the Lake”—Decline of his poetical powers—“ Bonny Dundee"-"Battle of Otterburne"-His pilgrimage to Italy.

This course of lectures, so kindly and patiently followed by you, has now brought us to the limit of the poets of a past generation. The lives of those two true poets who were last considered reached the closing years of the last century,—the death of Burns having taken place in the year 1796, and that of Cowper in 1800. The mind naturally draws a boundary-line which separates them from the poets of the present century and our own times. The remaining lectures will be appropriated to some of our contemporaries who have devoted their genius to the cultivation of that vast and noble field of English literature we have been travelling over.

It is quite an habitual opinion to characterize the generation of the nineteenth century as unpoetical ; and in many respects, it must be confessed, the censure is well directed. But when the philosophic critic of some future age shall seek to judge us, the judgment will be a different one.

We are apt to form our estimate with minds diverted to the countless agencies visibly at work around us,-to the various manifestations of the busy, bustling, superficial temper of the times, which leads men to seek the unsure and brief support of mere expedients, instead of the constancy and security of abiding principles. There are perpetually obtruded on our notice some traits of the times, showing the race occupied rather with the world of sense than with strenuous efforts of thought or high aspirations of imagination. But these—the more obvious characteristics—are temporary; they pass away, and in their place remain those which are more durable. When some future literary historian shall come to write the character of his ancestry in the early portion of the nineteenth century, he will seek for evidences of that character, not in such things as from time to time flash upon us, awakening some admiration or amazement, but in the surviving literature of the generation, and especially in the imaginative department of it, which, gaining a wider and more permanent command of the sympathies, has therefore a more lasting life. It endures from age to age, and to it men of other times are apt to look as the mirror of the generation to which that literature belonged. It is a somewhat vain and perhaps presump

VOL. II.

4

tuous thing to attempt to gain futurity for a point of imaginative vision, and thus anticipate the judgment of posterity. As far as we may indulge in such speculation, we may fancy some eye, as yet unborn, conning what is now the fair page of some fresh book, but then turned into the “sere and yellow leaf;" and if it should chance to be a page on which is inscribed some shallow piece of pride in the superiority of the age,--some ostentation of the incomparable advancement of physical science or the mechanic arts, or of universal education and the march of mind, or some loud boasting of political regeneration,-it might prompt the compassionate smile at such ebullitions of inordinate and short-sighted vanity; short-sighted, because these are matters in which, great as may be the achievements of one generation, they are usually outstripped and set aside by those of a succeeding generation. From such manifestations of our character we might be pronounced a sensuous, unimaginative generation,- self-centered, self-seeking, selfsatisfied, prone to divorce the present from both past and future, breaking covenant with the mighty dead by irreverent violation of time-honoured institutions and usages, as being, according to the phrase, behind the times, and not looking with prophetic eye to days that are to come. But the chief evidence of the character of an age is sought in its literature; and, contemplating that of our times, the writer of some distant day will find that there flourished during the early period of the nineteenth century a numerous company of poets, and among them not a few truly inspired, who would do honour to any age. Indeed, unimaginative and unpoetic as we are, too often, in the habit of considering the

generation of our own times, if we measure both the amount and mèrit and variety of the poetry which has been produced within the last thirty or forty years, this age, in the annals of English poetry, is surpassed only by the golden age of Queen Elizabeth, with which, indeed, it may not inappropriately be compared.

The list of successful poets in our times is, in truth, a registry which contrasts finely with the poverty of several former periods; and, on approaching what may be called our contemporaries' poetry, I have found a necessity of making some selection from a numerous company of poets who would all be entitled to consideration in a more extended course. I have, therefore, chosen five names as worthy of chief distinction, hoping to be able occasionally to present some incidental notices of those to whom more space would, under other circumstances, be due. The choice names—chosen not without reflection, and with regard to their eminence and their influence -are the names of Scott, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, and Wordsworth. The ranks of the poets of the nineteenth century have been already thinned by death. Of the five names just repeated but two survive, and only one in the unimpaired possession of his genius. That one has witnessed the passing away of his brother bards, in quick succession too, within the last few years,-a speedy action of death, not lost upon the thoughtful imagination of the survivor :

“Like clouds which rake the mountain summit,

Or waves that own no curbing hand,
How fast has brother followed brother

From sunshine to the sunless land !

their graves.

“Yet I, whose lids from infant slumbers

Were earlier raised, remain to hear
A timid voice, that asks, in whispers,

Who next will drop and disappear ?" Byron, and Scott, and Coleridge, and Crabbe, and the Ettrick Shepherd, as he is called, to escape the unpoetic name of James Hogg, -and Mrs. Hemans, each having filled a space in the literature of this century, are in

The survivors, not a few in number, are for the most part mute in song as the dead; but, to appreciate the extent of living poetic power, it is only necessary to recall the names of Rogers, and Campbell, and Moore, and Milman, and Southey, and Wordsworth, to say nothing of some others of good repute.

It is a noticeable fact that among the poets of our days the one who first gained an honourable award of reputation, the first and oldest of them all, is still among the living, "a worthy and a prosperous gentleman,”—the poet Samuel Rogers. He came into public notice as the author of the “Pleasures of Memory,” which appeared during the last century; and he is now living in cheerful and esteemed old age, after a life of purity and afluent elegance, on the verge of eighty years. He stands truly the patriarch of the poets of the nineteenth century; and, as such, honour should first be done to him before I pass on to the chief subjects of this and the succeeding lectures.

Rogers's first poem was produced at a time most propitious to the acquisition of a general popularity. It was a period of poetical dearth. The career of Burns as well as of Cowper were wellnigh over when this poem

« 上一頁繼續 »