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HEBTEW FREE SEUL LECTURES POR MTGLISH P

POETRY. EW YORK

SSOCI

LECTURE X.

Burns. (WITH NOTICES OF JOHNSON'S LIVES OF THE POETS.) Monotony of Pope's verse- –The revival of a truer spirit of Poetry

Chatterton-Merit of Cowper-Dr. Johnson's literary dictatorshipHis “Lives of the Poets”—Sir Egerton Brydges's criticism on them -Cowper's judgment of them-Johnson's incapacity for poetical criticism—Johnson's judgments on Gray_"London"_“Vanity of Human Wishes”—Percy's “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry”— The character of this poetry-Robert Burns-His boyhood-Early trials—Mossgeil Farm—The freshness of his poetry—Its universality -Wordsworth’s lines—The Mountain-Daisy-The Field-mouseCotter's Saturday Night-Tam O'Shanter—Mary Campbell-Morality of Burns's poetry—The bard's epitaph-Wordsworth’s Lines to the Sons of Burns. IN

my last lecture I was constrained to pass, somewhat too hastily, from the poetry of Pope to that of Cowper, thus bringing the earlier portion of the eighteenth century in too close contact with its later period. It has been my aim, throughout this course of lectures, to make it, as far as possible, comprehensive not only of the exposition of the individual poets selected, but of the progress of English poetry in its successive ages, as it has been modified by the influence of genius and the spirit of the times. I propose, therefore, in order not to deviate now from the plan as presented to my own mind at the outset, to endea

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vour to supply, in a very general way, the chasm in my last lecture between Pope and Cowper. Before proceeding to the chief subject of the present lecture, I wish to dispose in as short a space of some of the omitted subjects. The influence of Pope's poetry, or rather that school of poetry which began with Dryden and was completed by Pope, was unquestionably injurious on all the writers who came within its reach. It reduced poetry to mere versification, and thus, in the hands of pupils who were deficient in the natural powers of the masters, it became mechanical,-a thing of sound, and little else. Besides, the ear was habituated but to one fashion of sound; for Dryden and Pope had spent almost their whole effort upon one form of verse,—the rhyming couplet of the ten-syllable line. They had set English poetry to one tune in the position of its pauses and the balanced succession of the notes, so that every puny versifier could give, if not the same music, at least a very good echo of it. It became a kind of hand-organ operation, in which one hand could grind out the sounds nigh as well as another. Besides this levelling faculty, listening almost exclusively to one fashion of metrical sounds, the ear lost its power of receiving other metres. With the incessant, unrelieved tinkling of the heroic rhyming, couplet, the sense of poetical music grew deaf to the richer and varied harmonies in which the elder poets had taken such delight and exhibited such manifold power both in the language and in themselves. The melody of Shakspeare's admirable dramatic blank verse, and the equally appropriate epic blank verse, and the variety of versifications in his smaller poems, ceased to be appreciated; and, when Pope is extolled as having brought verse to perfection, it is forgotten that there is a multitude of other metrical constructions besides that on which he relied. Indeed, when he departed from the one tune he played so sweetly, in other measures he failed egregiously; for, when attempting an unwonted lyrical strain in honour of St. Cecilia, to whom certainly his best music was due, the strain he uttered was one from which the saint herself could scarce have extracted melody; and in that much overrated ode, “The Dying Christian to his Soul,” the sound of the verses is at once poor and inappropriate, falling greatly below the solemnity of the subject. But the imitators of Pope risked few such experiments, and followed their model in that species of verse in which he had been so successful that they were willing to consider it the chief and best of English measure, if not the only one worth cultivating. Prosperous as both Dryden and Pope had been in establishing each in his day, and though there have been critics who have praised that species of poetry as the highest order of poetry, it is a school in which not one poet of eminence has risen. In fact, it died with Pope; for, when carried to its legitimate results, it then became obvious how much nature had been sacrificed to art, and how, sooner or later, the heart of the nation craved that nature should be brought home to enjoy her own again. The truth was told in some lines by Dryden

“ There is music, uninformed by art,,
In those wild notes which, with a merry heart,
The birds in unfrequented shades express,
Who, better taught at home, yet please us less.”

Giving to Pope all praise for skill as a versifier in one form of verse, I cannot but consider his metrical powers as greatly overrated, when I remember how limited they were in their application. Indeed, it seems to me conclusive of the sinking of English poetry during that period, that its music was monotonous. The Muse had given up many of her grandest and sweetest notes. Artificial poetical composition needs but a limited set of metres, like a musical instrument with its certain range of keys. But true poetry has its hundred, its unnumbered voices, like nature. The poet needs them all: each one in its true time is ready in his service. How narrow must the scope of poetry have grown when, as with the poets and critics of a considerable part of the eighteenth century, the high-wrought, one-toned verse of Pope attained such exaggerated and exclusive favour! It has not been so with the greatest of our poets; and it is indeed one proof of their greatness that there were perpetually rising, in their spirits, imaginations and thoughts and passions each naturally seeking and finding utterance in varied and appropriate measure. When calling quickly to my memory the vast variety of English metres, the compass of instrumental music seems an inadequate parallel to the many-toned voice of Poetry. I would find it rather in the multitudinous sounds of nature herself,—

“For terror, joy, or pity,
Vast is the compass and the swell of notes;
From the babe's first cry, to voice of regal city,

Rolling a solemn sea-like bass, that floats
Far as the woodlands, with the trill to blend

Of that shy songstress whose love-tale
Might tempt an angel to descend
While hovering o'er the moonlight-vale ;

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The heavens, whose aspect makes our minds as still

As they themselves appear to be,

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