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Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Essays: English and American PREVIOUS CONTENTS · BOOK CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD NEXT

Essays: English and American. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

The Study of Poetry Matthew Arnold

‘THE FUTURE 1 of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.’ Let me be permitted to quote these words of my own, as uttering the thought which should, in my opinion, go with us and govern us in all our study of poetry. In the present work it is the course of one great contributory stream to the world-river of poetry that we are invited to follow. We are here invited to trace the stream of English poetry. But whether we set ourselves, as here, to follow only one of the several streams that make the mighty river of poetry, or whether we seek to know them all, our governing thought should be the same. We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. Science, I say, will appear incomplete without it. For finely and truly does Wordsworth call poetry ‘the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of

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all science’; and what is a countenance without its expression? Again, Wordsworth finely and truly calls poetry ‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’; our religion, parading evidences such as those on which the popular mind relies now; our philosophy, pluming itself on its reasonings about causation and finite and infinite being; what are they but the shadows and dreams and false shows of knowledge? The day will come when we shall wonder at ourselves for having trusted to them, for having taken them seriously; and the more we perceive their hollowness, the more we shall prize ‘the breath and finer spirit of knowledge’ offered to us by poetry. But if we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order of excellence. We must accustom ourselves to a high standard and to a strict judgment. Sainte-Beuve relates that Napoleon one day said, when somebody was spoken of in his presence as a charlatan: ‘Charlatan as much as you please; but where is there notcharlatanism?’—‘Yes’ answers Sainte-Beuve, ‘in politics, in the art of governing mankind, that is perhaps true. But in the order of thought, in art, the glory, the eternal honour is that charlatanism shall find no entrance; herein lies the inviolableness of that noble portion of man’s being.’ It is admirably said, and let us hold fast to it. In poetry, which is thought and art in one, it is the glory, the eternal honour, that charlatanism shall find no entrance; that this noble sphere be kept inviolate and inviolable. Charlatanism is for confusing or obliterating the distinctions between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true. It is charlatanism, conscious or unconscious, whenever we confuse or obliterate these. And in poetry, more than anywhere else, it is unpermissible to confuse or obliterate them. For in poetry the distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true, is of paramount importance. It is of paramount importance because of the high destinies of poetry. In poetry, as in criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty, the spirit of our race will find, we have said, as time goes on and as other helps fail, its consolation and stay. But the consolation and stay will be of power in proportion to the power of the criticism of life. And the criticism of life will be of power in proportion as the poetry conveying it is excellent rather than inferior, sound rather than unsound or half-sound, true rather than untrue on half-true. The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can. A clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present. And yet in the very nature and conduct of such a collection there is inevitably something which tends to obscure in us the consciousness of what our benefit should be, and to distract us from the pursuit of it. We should therefore steadily set it before our minds at the outset, and should compel ourselves to revert constantly to the thought of it as we proceed. Yes; constantly in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious. A poet or a poem may count to us
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historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and they may count to us really. They may count to us historically. The course of development of a nation’s language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet’s work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticising it; in short, to overrate it. So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic. Then, again, a poet or poem may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. Our personal affinities, likings and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work, and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance. Here also we overrate the object of our interest, and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. And thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments—the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal. Both fallacies are natural. It is evident how naturally the study of the history and development of poetry may incline a man to pause over reputations and works once conspicuous but now obscure, and to quarrel with a careless public for skipping, in obedience to mere tradition and habit, from one famous name or work in its national poetry to another, ignorant of what it misses, and of the reason for keeping what it keeps, and of the whole process of growth in its poetry. The French have become diligent students of their own early poetry, which they long neglected; the study makes many of them dissatisfied with their so-called classical poetry, the court-tragedy of the seventeenth century, a poetry which Pellisson long ago reproached with its want of the true poetic stamp, with its politesse stérile et rampante, but which nevertheless has reigned in France as absolutely as if it had been the perfection of classical poetry indeed. The dissatisfaction is natural; yet a lively and accomplished critic, M. Charles d’Héricault, the editor of Clément Marot, goes too far when he says that ‘the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history.’ ‘It hinders,’ he goes on, ‘it hinders us from seeing more than one single point, the culminating and exceptional point; the summary, fictitious and arbitrary, of a thought and of a work. It substitutes a halo for a physiognomy, it puts a statue where there was once a man, and hiding from us all trace of the labour, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures, it claims not study but veneration; it does not show us how the thing is done, it imposes upon us a model. Above all, for the historian this creation of classic personages is inadmissible; for it withdraws the poet from his time, from his proper life, it breaks historical relationships, it blinds criticism by conventional admiration, and renders the investigation of literary origins unacceptable. It gives us a human personage no longer but a God seated immovable amidst His perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus; and hardly will it be possible for the young student to whom such work is exhibited at such a distance from him, to believe that it did not issue ready—made from that divine head.’ All this is brilliantly and tellingly said, but we must plead for a distinction. Everything depends on the reality of a poet’s classic character. If he is a dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the
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and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character. it is entirely in its enabling us to have a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent. we are sure of frequent temptation to adopt the historic estimate. this is what is formative. True. when it drops out of the class of the very best. only. perhaps. and with the less good he overbusies himself. The elaborate philological groundwork which we require them to lay is in theory an admirable preparation for appreciating the Greek and Latin authors worthily. the better we shall be able. is injurious.word classic. we must employ if we are to make poetry yield us its full benefit. probably they do not always impose even on the literary men who adopt them. or the personal estimate. and the business of exhibiting him. classical). And naturally the poets to be exhibited in it will be assigned to those persons for exhibition who are known to prize them highly. the failures of a genuine classic. to acquaint oneself with his time and his life and his historical relationships. that we do well. this is the great benefit to be got from the study of poetry. the attempts. which latter. to set it fixedly before our minds as our object in studying poets and poetry. as it is. But the case here is much the same as the case with the Greek and Latin studies of our schoolboys. but the authors are little known and less enjoyed. the very occupation with an author. the benefit of clearly feeling and of deeply enjoying the really excellent. the personal estimate when we are dealing with poets our contemporaries. The more thoroughly we lay the groundwork. of very much gravity. This is what is salutary. the truly classic in poetry. and we must rate it. we must perceive when his work comes short. and to make the desire of attaining it the one principle to which. to enjoy the authors. The historic estimate is likely in especial to affect our judgment and our language when we are dealing with ancient poets. But they lead to a dangerous abuse of language. Everything which interferes with it. In the present work. as the Imitation says. which hinders it. is mere literary dilettantism unless it has that clear sense and deeper enjoyment for its end. To trace the labour. this might be true in fact as it is plausible in theory. So with the investigator of ‘historic origins’ in poetry. amongst our 8 9 . then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can. The exaggerations due to the historic estimate are not in themselves. Their report hardly enters the general ear. The idea of tracing historic origins and historical relationships cannot be absent from a compilation like the present. rather than to those who have no special inclination towards them. the weaknesses. at its proper value. and is prone to over-rate it in proportion to the trouble which it has cost him. ad unum semper oportet redire principium. the elaborate philological preparation goes on. So we hear Cædmon. It may be said that the more we know about a classic the better we shall enjoy him. I say. or at any rate modern. if time were not so short. whatever we may read or come to know. Cum multa legeris et cognoveris. He ought to enjoy the true classic all the better for his investigations. we always return. in such cases. and not with eyes blinded with superstition. it may be said. if we lived as long as Methuselah and had all of us heads of perfect clearness and wills of perfect steadfastness. True. disposes us to affirm and amplify his importance. he often is distracted from the enjoyment of the best. therefore. But the use of this negative criticism is not in itself. and to forget the real estimate. and. Moreover. we must read our classic with open eyes. nevertheless. So high is that benefit. and schoolboys’ wits not so soon tired and their power of attention exhausted.

The poem has vigour and freshness. the Chanson de Roland at its best. the Chanson de Roland. if our judgments are to have any solidity. and also the degree oft his quality. M.own poets. De Carlemagne sun seignor ki l’nurrit. this is the sort of praise which is given to Homer. I have already noticed the enthusiasm of one accomplished French critic for ‘historic origins. marched before the Norman troops.’ 2 That is primitive work. If our words are to have any meaning. Of course we are not to require this other poetry to resemble them. Higher praise there cannot well be. and it is suggested that in theChanson de Roland by one Turoldus or Théroulde. But M. Short passages. Vitet. even single lines. In its general design he finds the grandiose conception. But now turn to Homer— [Greek] 3 We are here in another world. I repeat. and of the vassals who died at Roncevaux’. and justly given. he truly says. Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent. Roland. will serve our turn quite sufficiently. Vitet gives to the Chanson de Roland. comments upon that famous document of the early poetry of his nation. another order of poetry altogether. des humes de sun lign. a poem preserved in a manuscript of the twelfth century in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. who was with William the Conqueror’s army at Hastings. Let us try. compared to Milton. It is indeed a most interesting document. and can therefore do us most good. a monument of epic genius. we must not heap that supreme praise upon poetry of an order immeasurably inferior. mortally wounded. and it is the praise due to epic poetry of the highest order only. of the genuine epic. in its details he finds the constant union of simplicity with greatness.—or take his [Greek] 4 the address of Zeus to the horses of Peleus. singing ‘of Charlemagne and of Roland and of Oliver. De dulce France. which are the marks. Vitet is not satisfied with seeing in it a document of some poetic value. in all other poetry which we may place beside them. Take that incomparable line and a 1 0 . with his face turned towards Spain and the enemy— ‘De plusurs choses à remembrer li prist. a suppliant before him. One thinks of Homer. then. we have certainly the matter.—or take finally his [Greek] 5 the words of Achilles to Priam. perhaps even some of the words. of the chant which Taillefer sang. The joculator or jongleur Taillefer. and to no other. with an undeniable poetic quality of its own. infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality. and distinguish it from the artificial epic of literary ages. it may be very dissimilar. here is rightly due such supreme praise as that which M. But if we have any tact we shall find them.’ Another eminent French critic. It deserves such praise. De tantes teres cume li bers cunquist. and such praise is sufficient for it. when we have lodged them well in our minds. lay himself down under a pine-tree. he sees in it a grand and beautiful work. the poet’s comment on Helen’s mention of her brothers. and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters. so said the tradition. Take the two lines which I have just quoted from Homer. it is not without pathos. and of very high historic and linguistic value.

Piangevan elli…’ 6 take the lovely words of Beatrice to Virgil— ‘Io son fatta da Dio. the very highest quality. but they have in common this: the possession of the very highest poetical quality. The specimens I have quoted differ widely from one another. yet shone Above them all the archangel. but perfect. Hamlet’s dying request to Horatio— ‘If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart. single line— ‘In la sua volontade è nostra pace. Nè fiamma d’esto incendio non m’assale…’ 7 take the simple. tale. Absent thee from felicity awhile. perhaps. to feel the degree in which a high poetical quality is present or wanting there. They are far better recognised by being felt in the verse of the master. sua mercè. if we have tact and can use them.half of Dante. and care Sat on his faded cheek…’ add two such lines as— ‘And courage never to submit or yield And what is else not to be overcome…’ and finish with the exquisite close to the loss of Proserpine. whatever poetry may be laid before us. we may safely. to conduct us to a real estimate. the loss ‘…which cost Ceres all that pain To seek her through the world. we shall find that we have acquired a sense enabling us. and rock his brains In cradle of the rude imperious surge…’ and take. but where and in what they arise. They are in 1 1 . but his face Deep scars of thunder had intrench’d.—to take specimens of poetry of the high. Ugolino’s tremendous words— ‘Io no piangeva. than by being perused in the prose of the critic.’ 8 Take of Shakespeare a line or two of Henry the Fourth’s expostulation with sleep— ‘Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes. are enough even of themselves to keep clear and sound our judgments about poetry. not indeed how and why the characters arise. as well. It is much better simply to have recourse to concrete examples. and to say: The characters of a high quality of poetry are what is expressed there. Nevertheless if we are urgently pressed to give some critical account of them. Che la vostra miseria non mi tange.’ These few lines. And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story…’ Take of Milton that Miltonic passage: ‘Darken’d so. venture on laying down. If we are thoroughly penetrated by their power. to save us from fallacious estimates of it. Critics give themselves great labour to draw out what in the abstract constitutes the characters of a high quality of poetry. sì dentro impietrai.

Both of these. we may be sure. But it was a bloom of French poetry. of the troubadours. Only one thing we may add as to the substance and matter of poetry. So stated. by the style and manner of that poetry. some significance in them. this: that the substances and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing. and they are in its manner and style. to what we have said. that high poetic truth and seriousness are absent from his substance and matter. that to the style and manner of the best poetry their special character. even yet more. the poetry of France had a clear predominance in Europe. and power. So far as high poetic truth and seriousness are wanting to a poet’s matter and substance. yet they are nevertheless vitally connected one with the other. its productions in the langue d’oil and its productions in the langue d’oc. so far also.the matter and substance of the poetry. The superior character of truth and seriousness. that seedtime of all modern language and literature. we shall find. of southern France. is indissolubly connected. what is in itself evident. during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. guiding ourselves by Aristotle’s profound observation that the superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness ([Greek]). an accent. and. follow rapidly from the commencement the course of our English poetry with them in my view. classics. at any rate. at the court of our Anglo-Norman kings. Let us add. is absent from a poet’s style and manner. than in France itself. is due to its poetry of the langue d’oil. their accent. again. will a high poetic stamp of diction and movement be wanting to his style and manner. Once more I return to the early poetry of France. is of importance because of its effect on Italian literature. and to bring forth. also. We may add yet further. for we should thereby be darkening the question. I will. but in the hope of bringing out. of high beauty. and as our native poetry formed itself. in its origins. Made by himself. The two superiorities are closely related. Neither will my limits allow me to make any full application of the generalities above propounded. the two accents. their whole force lies in their application. the style and manner on the other. in the matter and substance of the best poetry. therefore. and of establishing an important principle more firmly by their means. with which our own poetry. and of all other poetry which is akin to it in quality. And though we distinguish between the two characters. is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its style and manner. in the space which remains to me. the application would impress itself upon his mind far more deeply than made by me. The mark and accent are as given by the substance and matter of that poetry. truth and seriousness. not clearing it. But if we are asked to define this mark and accent in the abstract. worth.—the first literature of modern Europe to strike the true and grand note. But the predominance of French poetry in Europe. And I could wish every student of poetry to make the application of them for himself. by their movement. the substance and matter on the one hand. of superiority. these are but dry generalities. is given by their diction. In proportion as this high stamp of diction and movement. our answer must be: No. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the twelfth century the bloom of this romance-poetry was earlier and stronger in England. in an eminent degree. the poetry of the langue d’oc. Of the two divisions of that poetry. and are in steadfast proportion one to the other. the poetry of northern France and of the tongue which is now the French language. it formed itself out of 1 2 1 3 1 4 . as in Dante and Petrarch it brought forth. have a mark.

Christian of Troyes. however. an unchallenged predominance. for even of that stanza which the Italians used. the French romance-writer. Et que li lius li abelisse Tant que de France n’isse L’onor qui s’i est arestée!’ ‘Now by this book you will learn that first Greece had the renown for chivalry and letters: then chivalry and the primacy in letters passed to Rome. The romance—poems which took possession of the heart and imagination of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are French. was French. and which Chaucer derived immediately from the Italians. he says. ‘the pride of French literature. the basis and suggestion was probably given in France. but the romance-setting which was common to them all.this. Et de la clergie la some. in chivalry and letters. far more generally than he is read now. but so also. literature. His language is a cause of difficulty for us. But in the fourteenth century there comes an Englishman nourished on this poetry. formulates the claims. it is a difficulty to be unhesitatingly accepted and overcome. as time goes on. rhyme. nor have we anything which can be placed in competition with them. This constituted for the French poetry. we shall find that his superiority is both in the substance 1 5 1 6 1 7 .’ Themes were supplied from all quarters. ‘they are. and which gained the ear of Europe. which is flowing still for us and will flow always.’ In the same century. Only by means of the historic estimate can we persuade ourselves not to think that any of it is of poetical importance. Puis vint chevalerie à Rome. his poetical importance does not need the assistance of the historic estimate. and now it is come to France. Chaucer’s power of fascination. is enduring.’ as Southey justly says. of France. is the language of Burns. metre from this poetry. God grant it may be kept there. and language. In Chaucer’s case. that the honour which has come to make stay in France may never depart thence!’ Yet it is now all gone. If we ask ourselves wherein consists the immense superiority of Chaucer’s poetry over the romance-poetry—why it is that in passing from this to Chaucer we suddenly feel ourselves to be in another world. as follows:— ‘Or vous ert par ce livre apris. He will be read. The Italian Brunetto Latini. ‘la parleure en est plus delitable et plus commune a toutes gens. the thirteenth. taught his trade by this poetry. getting words. Chaucer (I have already named him) fascinated his contemporaries. it is real. at the height of the Middle Age. as in that of Burns. but so too did Christian of Troyes and Wolfram of Eschenbach. and I think in quite as great a degree. He is a genuine source of joy and strength. Diex doinst qu’ele i soit retenue. Qui ore est en France venue. the master of Dante. this French romance-poetry of which the weight of substance and the power of style are not unfairly represented by this extract from Christian of Troyes. and that the place may please it so well. his native country. wrote his Treasure in French because. Que Gresse ot de chevalerie Le premier los et de clergie.

the story of the Christian child murdered in a Jewry— ‘My throte is cut unto my nekke-bone Saidè this child. In Spenser. Of his style and manner. and as by way of kinde I should have deyd. The virtue is such as we shall not find. according to the proverb. Chaucer is the father of our splendid English poetry.’ And again: ‘He is a perpetual fountain of good sense. His superiority in substance is given by his large.’ Johnson misses the point entirely when he finds fault with Dryden for ascribing to Chaucer the first refinement of our numbers. Will that his glory last and be in minde. and yet may have no real poetry at all. perhaps. They are irresistible. a truly human point of view. Shakespeare. Milton. I feel disposed to say that a single line is enough to show the charm of Chaucer’s verse. we have only to read Wordsworth’s first three lines of this stanza after Chaucer’s— ‘My throat is cut unto the bone. as ye in bookès finde. And the virtue is irresistible. The refinement of our numbers means something far more than this. that poetry. I must yet find room for an example of Chaucer’s virtue. and says that Gower also can show smooth numbers and easy rhymes. We have only to call to mind the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. as I have given examples to show the virtue of the great classics. has truth of substance. Bounded as is my space. it is difficult to speak temperately. A single line. at one time it is his liquid diction of which in these poets we feel the virtue. however. clear yet kindly view of human life. simple. we can follow the tradition of the liquid diction. he makes an epoch and founds a tradition.’ Wordsworth has modernised this Tale. I trow. and Chaucer’s poetry has truth of substance. in the romance-poets. Keats. The right comment upon it is Dryden’s: ‘It is sufficient to say.’ because by the lovely charm of his diction. and justify all the rapture with which his successors speak of his ‘gold dew-drops of speech.’ It is by a large. is too little if we have not the strain of Chaucer’s verse well in our memory. the fluid movement of Chaucer. Chaucer has not their helplessness. his divine fluidity of movement. free. and to feel how delicate and evanescent is the charm of verse. he has gained the power to survey the world from a central. that here is God’s plenty. in all English poetry. It is from The Prioress’ Tale. But Jesus Christ.—so unlike the total want. and at another time it is his fluid movement. let us take a stanza. free. of all intelligent command of it. outside the poets whom I have named as the special inheritors of Chaucer’s tradition. the lovely charm of his movement. he is our ‘well of English undefiled. yea.of his poetry and in the style of his poetry. 1 8 1 9 . if we think first of the romance-poetry and then of Chaucer’s divine liquidness of diction. that merely one line like this — ‘O martyr souded 9 in virginitee!’ has a virtue of manner and movement such as we shall not find in all the verse of romance—poetry. sound representation of things.—but this is saying nothing. this high criticism of life. A nation may have versifiers with smooth numbers and easy rhymes. longè time agone. And for the worship of his mother dere Yet may I sing O Alma loud and clere.

many hours ago. I say. which poetry must have before it can be placed in the glorious class of the best. His poetry transcends and effaces. therefore.Said this young child. Poets. and therewith an important part of their virtue. The accent of such verse as ‘In la sua volontade è nostra pace…’ is altogether beyond Chaucer’s reach. in the last stanza of La Belle Heaulmière 10) more of this important poetic virtue of seriousness than all the productions of Chaucer. It is often said that the power of liquidness and fluidity in Chaucer’s verse was dependent upon a free. And yet Chaucer is not one of the great classics. Chaucer is not one of the great classics. freedom. Of such avail is poetic truth of substance. we praise him. upon a liberty. Dante’s has it. such as is now impossible. the power of their criticism of life.—Dante. easily and without effort. And there is no doubt what that something is. A voice from the slums of Paris. and by the law of kind I should have died. he lacks the high seriousness of the great classics. benignity. for instance. It is this chiefly which gives to our spirits what they can rest upon. of making words like neck. and words like cause. Other poets with a like liberty do not attain to the fluidity of Chaucer.’ The charm is departed. To our praise. But its apparition in Villon. then. Still. of Chaucer as a poet there must be this limitation. his view of things and his criticism of life. the immortal poet who died eighty years before Chaucer. the high and excellent seriousness. Shakespeare’s has it. the voice of poor Villon out of his life of riot and crime. it transcends and effaces all the English poetry subsequent to it down to the age of Elizabeth. yea. the main fact for us to bear in mind about Chaucer is his sterling value according to that real estimate which we firmly adopt for all poets. something is wanting. have known how to attain his fluidity without the like liberty. such as Burns too enjoyed. It is true that Chaucer’s fluidity is conjoined with this liberty. fifty or sixty years after Chaucer. It is the [Greek]. shrewdness. but we are to adopt a real. He has not their accent. though he has not high poetic seriousness. this virtue of giving us what we can rest upon will be more and more highly esteemed. the greatness of the great poets. and is admirably served by it. Homer’s criticism of life has it. and in men like Villon. all the romance-poetry of Catholic Christendom. such as Shakespeare or Keats. in its natural and necessary union with poetic truth of style. into a disyllable by adding to them. but it has not this high seriousness. into a disyllable by sounding the e mute. Possibly. bird. is fitful. a licentious dealing with language. but we ought not to say that it was dependent upon it. but we feel that this accent is out of the question for him. has at its happy moments (as. The substance of Chaucer’s poetry. Burns himself does not attain to it. it transcends and effaces all the English poetry contemporary with it. rhyme. It was dependent upon his talent. not a historic. However we may account for its absence. and corresponding to his truth of substance he 2 0 2 1 . He has poetic truth of substance. who have a talent akin to Chaucer’s. to the poetry of Chaucer. is that their virtue is sustained. And yet. has largeness. which Aristotle assigns as one of the grand virtues of poetry. and with the increasing demands of our modern ages upon poetry. estimate of poetry. again. What is wanting to him is suggested by the mere mention of the name of the first great classic of Christendom. It may be said that it was necessarily out of the reach of any poet in the England of that stage of growth.

and down even into our own times.’ Cowley could see nothing at all in Chaucer’s poetry.’—we pronounce that such a prose has its own grandeur. which is natural and pleasing. here. I have undertaken to translate in my declining years. in poetry. he shall now gird his temples with the sun. such masters in letters as Dryden and Pope. When we find Milton writing: ‘And long it was not after. at any rate. or on the continuation and close of this poetry in Milton. Addison. and there are many signs to show that the eighteenth century and its judgments are coming into favour again. has universal currency. a man. The age of Dryden. whether it will be found to coincide with the real estimate. and Shakespeare and Milton as our poetical classics. both of them. we all of us recognise it as great poetry. of such energetic and genial power? And yet. and the question is. but the authority of Wordsworth and Coleridge does not weigh much with the young generation. we must have the real estimate of it. which represents them as such. sincerely believed itself to have produced poetical classics of its own. when I was confirmed in this opinion. Dryden.’—we pronounce that such a prose is intolerable. With him is born our real poetry. though not perfect. in the present case. and Johnson. I hope yet those few here will so discover and confirm that. at such an estimate without offence. Pope. Are the favourite poets of the eighteenth century classics? It is impossible within my present limits to discuss the question fully. When we find Chapman. that from Gades to Aurora and Ganges few eyes can sound her. as we have seen. ought himself to be a true poem. For my present purpose I need not dwell on our Elizabethan poetry. and which has been so long established that it cannot easily give way. Dryden regards as not seriously disputable the opinion ‘that the sweetness of English verse was never understood or practised by our fathers. And all through the eighteenth century. We all of us profess to be agreed in the estimate of this poetry. And what man of letters would not shrink from seeming to dispose dictatorially of the claims of two men who are. Dryden heartily admired it. denied it. if we are to gain the full benefit from poetry. The real estimate. the date being out of her darkness in this morning of our poet. but that it is obsolete and inconvenient. and even to have made advance. struggling with wants. in plenty and at ease. that he.has an exquisite virtue of style and manner. and one of them. expressing himself in this preface thus: “Though truth in her very nakedness sits in so deep a pit. as it is easy to begin. compares them with Dryden’s own. together with our whole eighteenth century which followed it. wishing to praise Chaucer’s numbers. but of its exquisite manner and movement all he can find to say is that ‘there is the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it. on all sides. But when we find Dryden telling us: ‘What Virgil wrote in the vigour of his age. the stereotyped phrase of approbation for good verse found in our early poetry has been. I cast about for some mode of arriving. and. An historic estimate of that poetry hasestablished itself. the Elizabethan translator of Homer. beyond all its predecessors. And perhaps the best way is to begin. as is well known. two men of such admirable talent. the real estimate? Wordsworth and Coleridge. Are Dryden and Pope poetical classics? Is the historic estimate. with cordial praise. that it even approached the verse of Dryden. who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things.’ Addison. With the next age of our poetrydivergency and difficulty begin. praised its matter admirably. oppressed with 2 2 2 3 2 4 2 5 2 6 . our greatest.

Pope as the splendid high priest. the freedom was achieved.’ I answer: Admirable for the purposes of the high priest of an age of prose and reason. so it was also with letters. too. Yet Dryden was Milton’s contemporary. But an almost exclusive attention to these qualities involves some repression and silencing of poetry. A fit prose was a necessity. is a powerfulpoetic application? Do you ask me whether the poetry of these men has either the matter or the inseparable manner of such an adequate poetic criticism. Though they may write in verse. whether they work in prose or in verse. is admirable. without some neglect and impairment of the religious life of the soul. from men whose criticism of life has a high seriousness. liable to be misconstrued in all I write. of our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century. or even. but it was impossible that a fit prose should establish itself amongst us without some touch of frost to the imaginative life of the soul. of our age of prose and reason. whose destiny it may be to bring their nation to the attainment of a fit prose. an undoubtedly baneful and retarding one if it had continued. the time had likewise come when our nation felt the imperious need of freeing itself from the absorbing preoccupation which religion in the Puritan age had exercised. The men of letters. must of necessity. no doubt. The needful qualities for a fit prose are regularity. benignity? Do you ask me whether the application of ideas to life in the verse of these men. take it almost where you will.’—then we exclaim that here at last we have the true English prose. It was impossible that this freedom should be brought about without some negative excess. is not good? ‘To Hounslow Heath I point. precision. though they may in a certain sense be 2 7 2 8 . uniformity. the preoccupation. curbed in my genius. precision. insight. it is the poetry of the builders of an age of prose and reason. balance. freedom. And as with religion amongst us at that period. and the spiritual history of the eighteenth century shows us that the freedom was not achieved without them. often a powerful application. whether it has the accent of ‘Absent thee from felicity awhile…’ or of ‘And what is else not to be overcome…’ or of ‘O martyr souded in virginitee!’ I answer: It has not and cannot have them.sickness.’ I answer: Admirable for the purposes of the inaugurator of an age of prose and reason. has poetic largeness. and these chicks my own. without that high seriousness. balance. Do you ask me whether Dryden’s verse. is not good? ‘A milk-white Hind. But do you ask me whether such verse proceeds from men with an adequate poetic criticism of life. a prose such as we would all gladly use if we only knew how. and Banstead Down Thence comes your mutton. Still. was got rid of. give a predominating. uniformity. take it almost where you will. immortal and unchanged. Do you ask me whether Pope’s verse. So. Fed on the lawns and in the forest ranged. For the purposes of their mission and destiny their poetry. an almost exclusive attention to the qualities of regularity. But after the Restoration the time had come when our nation felt the imperious need of a fit prose. We are to regard Dryden as the puissant and glorious founder. like their prose.

is often a harsh. in Burns. let us try to reach a real estimate of the poetry of Burns.’ We English turn naturally. the real Burns either. through perpetually studying and enjoying them. But he tells us himself: ‘These English songs gravel me to death. Scotch religion. By his English poetry Burns in general belongs to the eighteenth century. Gray is our poetical classic of that literature and age. they are classics of our prose. when it is not a partial countryman who reads him. Sylvander. I have been at Duncan Gray to dress it in English. I have not the command of the language that I have of my native tongue. I think that my ideas are more barren in English than in Scotch. and no one can deny that it is of advantage to a poet to deal with a beautiful world. And now. and he caught their poetic point of view for regarding life. ‘Mark ruffian Violence. While subtle Litigation’s pliant tongue The life-blood equal sucks of Right and Wrong!’ Evidently this is not the real Burns. the position of Gray is singular. No doubt a poet’s criticism of life may have such truth and power that it triumphs over its world and delights us.masters of the art of versification. and demands a word of notice here. he caught them of others. and Scotch manners. or his name and fame would have disappeared long ago. for in itself it is not a beautiful world. But he lived with the great poets. but all I can do is desperately stupid. The point of view and the manner are not self-sprung in him. Nor is Clarinda’s love-poet. But this world of Scotch drink. But. View unsuspecting Innocence a prey. above all. to the poems in our own language. Let us boldly say that of much of this poetry. not for him. he has a tenderness for it. As guileful Fraud points out the erring way. coming in times more favourable. and Scotch manners. we are met by the great name of Burns. Burns may triumph over 2 9 3 0 3 1 3 2 . we are met. distain’d with crimes. but in those poems we have not the real Burns. have attained to an independent criticism of life. but he is a classic. Rousing elate in these degenerate times. caught their poetic manner. a poetry dealing perpetually with Scotch drink. of national partiality. Scotch religion. and Scotch manners. whereas Addison and Pope never had the use of them. Scotch religion. a repulsive world: even the world of hisCotter’s Saturday Night is not a beautiful world. In this tender mood he reads pieces like the Holy Fair or Halloween. He has not the volume or the power of poets who. The real Burns is of course in this Scotch poems. with the Greeks. and Scotch manners is against a poet. Gray had the use of them at times. and where the real estimate of them is not reached without difficulty. A Scotchman is used to this world of Scotch drink. He is the scantiest and frailest of classics in our poetry. In fact. he meets its poet halfway. and has little importance for us. a sordid. and he had not the free and abundant use of them. Scotch religion. as we draw towards the end of the eighteenth century. he lived. A Scotchman’s estimate is apt to be personal. We enter now on times where the personal estimate of poets begins to be rife. Burns’ world of Scotch drink. Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry. after Gray. But in spite of the disturbing pressures of personal partiality. because we can read them easily.

let us look at him closely. To kittle up our notion By night or day. and a’ that. equality.’ Or in a higher strain— ‘Who made the heart. Their dignities. But an honest man’s aboon his might. Guid faith he mauna fa’ that! For a’ that. I waive the quantum o’ the sin. delightful. when this puissant genius. With still more confidence will his admirers tell us that we have the genuine Burns. genuine touches.his world. on drinking deep. something. The pith o’ sense. who so often set morality at defiance. But never tempt th’ illicit rove. dignity. and it is unsatisfactory. it waukens lair. and still more. therefore. convivial. its various tone. genuine. but because it has not that accent of sincerity which bacchanalian poetry. as in the famous songFor a’ that. not because it is bacchanalian poetry. Burns is the first case we have had where the bias of the personal estimate tends to mislead. to do it justice. And petrifies the feeling. Many of his admirers will tell us that we have Burns. a pride o’ worth. but let us observe how and where. The hazard o’ concealing. falls moralising— ‘The sacred lowe o’ weel-placed love Luxuriantly indulge it. the great poet. duke. Tho’ naething should divulge it.’ There is a great deal of that sort of thing in Burns.’ Here they find his grand. very often has. poetically unsound. Be’t whisky gill or penny wheep Or only stronger potion. of men. But och! it hardens a’ within. It kindles wit. There is something in it of bravado. A marquis. he can bear it. and a’ that. something which makes us feel that we have not the man speaking to us with his real voice. when his strain asserts the independence. It pangs us fou o’ knowledge. It never fails. 3 3 3 4 . here— ‘Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair Than either school or college. often he does triumph over his world. and a’ that— ‘A prince can mak’ a belted knight. Are higher rank than a’ that. ’tis He alone Decidedly can try us. He knows each chord. and a’ that.

I think.—the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity. undoubtedly. comes short of the high seriousness of the great classics. is what gives to such verse as ‘In la sua volontade e nostra pace…’ to such criticism of life as Dante’s. the rest. We never can adjust it. it must be an application under the conditions fixed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.’ There is criticism of life for you. His genuine criticism of life. by conceiving his work as having truth of matter and truth of manner. is verbiage. is ironic. in the Farewell to Nancy. high seriousness. That’s the true pathos and sublime Of human life. We arrive best at the real estimate of Burns. Had we never loved sae blindly. from missing the perfect poetic accent in them. unsurpassable— ‘To make a happy fireside clime To weans and wife. The accent of high seriousness. But for supreme poetical success more is required than the powerful application of ideas to life. but which have in them a depth of poetic quality such as resides in no verse of Byron’s own— ‘Had we never loved sae kindly. its various bias. he is not speaking to us from these depths. born of absolute sincerity. the admirers of Burns will say to us. No. if our sense is quick.Each spring. The doctrine of the last—quoted lines coincides almost exactly with what was the aim and end. as in those four immortal lines taken by Byron as a motto for The Bride of Abydos. he is more or less preaching. will be that we shall admire more the poetry where that accent is found. or never parted. surely. like Chaucer. made by a man of vigorous understanding. Xenophon tells us. And the compensation for admiring such passages less. of all the teaching of Socrates. Never met. Burns.’ Or in a better strain yet. a strain. but not the accent or the poetic virtue of the highest masters. But know not what’s resisted.’ But a whole poem of that quality Burns cannot make. At moments he touches it in a profound and passionate melancholy. We had ne’er been broken-hearted. when the sheer poet in him speaks. And the application is a powerful one. and the virtue of matter and manner which goes with that high seriousness is wanting to his work. Those laws fix as an essential condition. Then at the balance let’s be mute. and (need I say?) a master of language. his admirers will say. its power. we must perceive that we have not in those passages a voice from the very inmost soul of the genuine Burns. Is this accent felt in the passages which I have been quoting from Burns? Surely not. in the poet’s treatment of such matters as are here in question. What’s done we partly may compute. there is the application of ideas to life! There is. it is not— 3 5 3 6 3 7 3 8 .

In the world of The Jolly Beggars there is more than hideousness and squalor. as so many of us have been. and power which make the famous scene in Auerbach’s Cellar. boundless swiftness. more significant than that of Burns. Whistle and I’ll come to you. shrewd. whose mighty scheme These woes of mine fulfil. the manner of Burns has spring.—here we have the genuine Burns. where his manner is flawless. of Goethe’s Faust. in things like Duncan Gray. but a poet with thorough truth of substance and an answering truth of style. The freedom of Chaucer is heightened. his poetic genius triumphs over it. that of life and the world. are. Here. and also in those poems and songs where to shrewdness he adds infinite archness and wit. and will be. his view is large. Tam Glen. where his largeness and freedom serve him so admirably. as in Tam o’ Shanter.—of that beautiful spirit building his many-coloured haze of words and images ‘Pinnacled dim in the intense inane’— no contact can be wholesomer than the contact with Burns at his archest and soundest. The Jolly Beggars. Auld Lang Syne (this list might be made much longer). sometimes almost intolerable.— truly poetic therefore. Instead of the fluidity of Chaucer’s manner. Burns is by far the greater force. free. seem artificial and tame beside it. the benignity of Chaucer deepens. richer. But seas between us braid hae roar’d Sin auld lang syne…’ where he is as lovely as he is sound. Not a classic. reckless energy. and his manner of rendering what he sees is to match. truth. and may be inclined perhaps to prize Burns most for his touches of piercing. his great difference from Chaucer. The world of Chaucer is fairer. in Burns. nor with a verse rising to a criticism of life and a virtue like theirs. but when the largeness and freedom of Burns get full sweep.—in things like the address to the mouse whose home he had ruined.—of the pathos of human nature. as they come before him. or still more in that puissant and splendid production. of whom the real estimate must be high indeed. though he has perhaps less charm. But perhaps it is by the perfection of soundness of his lighter and archer masterpieces that he is poetically most wholesome for us. by a fiery. But we must note. benignant. and to benignity infinite pathos. at the same time. For the votary misled by a personal estimate of Shelley. We all of us have a leaning towards the pathetic. nor with the excellent [Greek] of the great classics. his world may be what it will. Here firm I rest. It has a breadth. and which are only matched by Shakespeare and Aristophanes. for verse like— ‘We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn From mornin’ sun till dine. yet the piece is a superb poetic success. 3 9 . of non-human nature. the pathos. giving us a poetry sound to the core. they must be best Because they are Thy will!’ It is far rather: Whistle owre the lave o’t! Yet we may say of him as of Chaucer. into an overwhelming sense of the pathos of things. in Burns. pathos. and a perfect poetic whole is the result. my Lad.‘Thou Power Supreme. also. Side by side with the ‘On the brink of the night and the morning My coursers are wont to respire. there is bestiality.

H. They flatter. using the poetry of the great classics as a sort of touchstone. it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. A collection like the present. At any rate the end to which the method and the estimate are designed to lead. and the men of his lineage. it is enough to have taken the single case of Burns. if they do lead to it. 443–445. Currency and supremacy are insured to it. 939–942. to place this from Tam Glen — ‘My minnie does constantly deave me And bids me beware o’ young men. to deceive me. But wha can think sae o’ Tam Glen?’ But we enter on burning ground as we approach the poetry of times so near to us— poetry like that of Byron. and to have suggested how we may proceed. For my purpose.—the benefit of being able clearly to feel and deeply to enjoy the best. ‘Ah. and from leading to which. they get their whole value. Shelley. and that to provide it is becoming a vast and profitable industry. [back] Note 3. and Wordsworth—of which the estimates are so often not only personal. let me say it once more at parting. We are often told that an era is opening in which we are to see multitudes of a common sort of readers.’ iii. but personal with passion. ‘So said she. why gave we you to King Peleus. and thou too.But the Earth has just whispered a warning That their flight must be swifter than fire…’ of Prometheus Unbound. that such readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature.’ edited by T. Published in 1880 as the General Introduction to ‘The English Poets. unhappy pair. with its succession of celebrated names and celebrated poems. of supreme importance. ‘Then began he to call many things to remembrance. and to exhibit it in use so far as to put any one who likes in a way of applying it for himself.’ 4 0 4 1 . to a mortal? but ye are without old age. in former days wast.—all the lands which his valour conquered. and Charlemagne his liege lord who nourished him. Ward. not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice. and immortal.’—‘Iliad. Was it that with men born to misery ye might have sorrow?’—‘Iliad. and masses of a common sort of literature. the truly classic.—is an end. as we had previously corrected by the same means the historic estimate where we met with it.’ xvii. but by something far deeper.—by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity. [back] Note 2. to correct this estimate. [back] Note 5. in poetry. offers a good opportunity to us for resolutely endeavouring to make our estimates of poetry real. ‘Nay. Note 1. how salutary. she says. they long since in Earth’s soft arms were reposing. But it never will lose currency with the world. happy. [back] Note 4. Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world. I have sought to point out a method which will help us in making them so. how very salutary. old man. it never will lose supremacy. the first poet we come to of whose work the estimate formed is evidently apt to be personal.’—‘Chanson de Roland. and pleasant France. as we hear. in spite of monetary appearances.

The name Heaulmière is said to be derived from a head-dress (helm) worn as a mark by courtesans. thanked be His mercy. Shakespeare · Bible · Saints · Anatomy · Harvard Classics · Lit. fixed fast. 543. 85. 39. History · Quotations · Poetry © 2011 Bartleby. ‘Of such sort hath God. so of stone grew I within. soldered. [back] Note 9. [back] Note 6.com .’ xxxiii. 91–93. neither doth the flame of this fire strike me. [back] Note 10. The last stanza of the ballad runs thus— [back] CONTENTS · BOOK CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD PREVIOUS NEXT þÿ Search Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.’—‘Paradiso. The French soudé. [back] Note 8. ‘I wailed not. made me.—they wailed. [back] Note 7.xxiv.’ ii. In Villon’s ballad. 40. a poor old creature of this class laments her days of youth and beauty. ‘In His will is our peace.’ iii. that your misery toucheth me not.’—‘Inferno.’—‘Inferno.

More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us. I say. in my opinion. our religion. pluming 1 2 . The Harvard Classics. not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses. 1909–14. as here. There is not a creed which is not shaken. and now the fact is failing it. to sustain us. For finely and truly does Wordsworth call poetry ‘the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science’. Wordsworth finely and truly calls poetry ‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’. Science. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry. We should conceive of poetry worthily. and called to higher destinies. and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.þÿ þÿ þÿ Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Essays: English and American PREVIOUS CONTENTS · BOOK CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD NEXT Essays: English and American. Without poetry. or whether we seek to know them all. the rest is a world of illusion. But whether we set ourselves. parading evidences such as those on which the popular mind relies now. We are here invited to trace the stream of English poetry. our race. But for poetry the idea is everything. go with us and govern us in all our study of poetry. the idea is the fact. not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea. where it is worthy of its high destinies. The Study of Poetry Matthew Arnold ‘THE FUTURE 1 of poetry is immense. to console us. and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. our governing thought should be the same. it has attached its emotion to the fact. our philosophy. as uttering the thought which should. than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. and what is a countenance without its expression? Again. in the supposed fact. as time goes on. because in poetry. will find an ever surer and surer stay. will appear incomplete without it. of divine illusion. In the present work it is the course of one great contributory stream to the world-river of poetry that we are invited to follow. to follow only one of the several streams that make the mighty river of poetry. our science will appear incomplete.’ Let me be permitted to quote these words of my own.

more than anywhere else. The course of development of a nation’s language. it is unpermissible to confuse or obliterate them. and poetry. Sainte-Beuve relates that Napoleon one day said. is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present. we have said. ‘in politics. But the consolation and stay will be of power in proportion to the power of the criticism of life. sound and unsound or only half-sound. For in poetry the distinction between excellent and inferior. the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming. and the more we perceive their hollowness. is of paramount importance. to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies. It is charlatanism. sound rather than unsound or half-sound. what are they but the shadows and dreams and false shows of knowledge? The day will come when we shall wonder at ourselves for having trusted to them. and to distract us from the pursuit of it. and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it. And in poetry. the really excellent. by two other kinds of estimate. both of which are fallacious. should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. and should compel ourselves to revert constantly to the thought of it as we proceed. the more we shall prize ‘the breath and finer spirit of knowledge’ offered to us by poetry. It is of paramount importance because of the high destinies of poetry. the only true one. sound and unsound or only half-sound. In poetry. they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. But if we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry. deeper sense of the best in poetry. which is thought and art in one. Yes. that this noble sphere be kept inviolate and inviolable. and by regarding a poet’s work 3 4 5 . in art. the glory. But this real estimate. as in criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. the eternal honour is that charlatanism shall find no entrance.’ It is admirably said. that charlatanism shall find no entrance. And the criticism of life will be of power in proportion as the poetry conveying it is excellent rather than inferior. since poetry. as nothing else can. A poet or a poem may count to us historically. true rather than untrue on half-true. when somebody was spoken of in his presence as a charlatan: ‘Charlatan as much as you please. But in the order of thought. is profoundly interesting. We must accustom ourselves to a high standard and to a strict judgment. sustaining. it is the glory. conscious or unconscious. in the art of governing mankind. and let us hold fast to it. herein lies the inviolableness of that noble portion of man’s being. the spirit of our race will find. The best poetry is what we want. if we are not watchful. as time goes on and as other helps fail. And yet in the very nature and conduct of such a collection there is inevitably something which tends to obscure in us the consciousness of what our benefit should be. We should therefore steadily set it before our minds at the outset. Charlatanism is for confusing or obliterating the distinctions between excellent and inferior. and they may count to us really. In poetry. and delighting us. whenever we confuse or obliterate these. we must also set our standard for poetry high. constantly in reading poetry. the eternal honour. true and untrue or only half-true. that is perhaps true. is liable to be superseded. for having taken them seriously. the historic estimate and the personal estimate. A clearer. its consolation and stay. but where is there notcharlatanism?’—‘Yes’ answers Sainte-Beuve. must be poetry of a high order of excellence.itself on its reasonings about causation and finite and infinite being. thought. and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it. true and untrue or only half-true. They may count to us historically. a sense for the best.

to overrate it. Our personal affinities. it claims not study but veneration. the failures. or has been. if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the word classic. and hardly will it be possible for the young student to whom such work is exhibited at such a distance from him. in short. fictitious and arbitrary. likings and circumstances.’ ‘It hinders. it puts a statue where there was once a man. the court-tragedy of the seventeenth century. goes too far when he says that ‘the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history. then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can. the attempts. with its politesse stérile et rampante. it imposes upon us a model. but we must plead for a distinction. M. a poet or poem may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. Above all. because to us it is. the culminating and exceptional point. of high importance. of a thought and of a work. It gives us a human personage no longer but a God seated immovable amidst His perfect work. and hiding from us all trace of the labour. and to quarrel with a careless public for skipping. the summary. the editor of Clément Marot. And thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments—the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal. ignorant of what it misses. Charles d’Héricault. yet a lively and accomplished critic. from one famous name or work in its national poetry to another. This is what is salutary.’ All this is brilliantly and tellingly said. and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character. Then. we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticising it. like Jupiter on Olympus. let us explode him. and renders the investigation of literary origins unacceptable. it does not show us how the thing is done. the study makes many of them dissatisfied with their so-called classical poetry. and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses. But if he is a real classic. a poetry which Pellisson long ago reproached with its want of the true poetic stamp. for it withdraws the poet from his time. it breaks historical relationships. Here also we overrate the object of our interest. but which nevertheless has reigned in France as absolutely as if it had been the perfection of classical poetry indeed.’ he goes on. The French have become diligent students of their own early poetry. which they long neglected. It substitutes a halo for a physiognomy. and of the whole process of growth in its poetry. classical). The dissatisfaction is natural. again. So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic. Everything depends on the reality of a poet’s classic character. have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work. this is what is formative. and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. let us sift him. this is the 6 7 . in obedience to mere tradition and habit. and of the reason for keeping what it keeps. it blinds criticism by conventional admiration. from his proper life.as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is. if he is a false classic. for the historian this creation of classic personages is inadmissible. If he is a dubious classic. It is evident how naturally the study of the history and development of poetry may incline a man to pause over reputations and works once conspicuous but now obscure. to believe that it did not issue ready—made from that divine head. the weaknesses. ‘it hinders us from seeing more than one single point. Both fallacies are natural.

probably they do not always impose even on the literary men who adopt them. disposes us to affirm and amplify his importance. to set it fixedly before our minds as our object in studying poets and poetry. 8 9 . The historic estimate is likely in especial to affect our judgment and our language when we are dealing with ancient poets. He ought to enjoy the true classic all the better for his investigations. True. at its proper value. and the business of exhibiting him. which hinders it. the personal estimate when we are dealing with poets our contemporaries. the benefit of clearly feeling and of deeply enjoying the really excellent. to enjoy the authors.great benefit to be got from the study of poetry. True. only. and. nevertheless. whatever we may read or come to know. we must employ if we are to make poetry yield us its full benefit. I have already noticed the enthusiasm of one accomplished French critic for ‘historic origins. Cum multa legeris et cognoveris. we must read our classic with open eyes. that we do well. it is entirely in its enabling us to have a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent. So we hear Cædmon. comments upon that famous document of the early poetry of his nation. is mere literary dilettantism unless it has that clear sense and deeper enjoyment for its end. amongst our own poets. the elaborate philological preparation goes on. The idea of tracing historic origins and historical relationships cannot be absent from a compilation like the present. to acquaint oneself with his time and his life and his historical relationships.’ Another eminent French critic. we must perceive when his work comes short. The elaborate philological groundwork which we require them to lay is in theory an admirable preparation for appreciating the Greek and Latin authors worthily. The more thoroughly we lay the groundwork. or at any rate modern. Moreover. or the personal estimate. this might be true in fact as it is plausible in theory. the better we shall be able. So high is that benefit. but the authors are little known and less enjoyed. To trace the labour. and schoolboys’ wits not so soon tired and their power of attention exhausted. the weaknesses. we are sure of frequent temptation to adopt the historic estimate. But the use of this negative criticism is not in itself. But they lead to a dangerous abuse of language. it may be said. Vitet. of very much gravity. the failures of a genuine classic. and we must rate it. It may be said that the more we know about a classic the better we shall enjoy him. therefore. the attempts. and to make the desire of attaining it the one principle to which. is injurious. But the case here is much the same as the case with the Greek and Latin studies of our schoolboys. if time were not so short. in such cases. I say. compared to Milton. he often is distracted from the enjoyment of the best. as it is. The exaggerations due to the historic estimate are not in themselves. Everything which interferes with it. Their report hardly enters the general ear. and not with eyes blinded with superstition. And naturally the poets to be exhibited in it will be assigned to those persons for exhibition who are known to prize them highly. So with the investigator of ‘historic origins’ in poetry. the truly classic in poetry. and to forget the real estimate. perhaps. we always return. as the Imitation says. rather than to those who have no special inclination towards them. if we lived as long as Methuselah and had all of us heads of perfect clearness and wills of perfect steadfastness. In the present work. the very occupation with an author. and with the less good he overbusies himself. which latter. ad unum semper oportet redire principium. M. and is prone to over-rate it in proportion to the trouble which it has cost him. when it drops out of the class of the very best.

who was with William the Conqueror’s army at Hastings. he truly says. and of very high historic and linguistic value. Vitet is not satisfied with seeing in it a document of some poetic value. lay himself down under a pine-tree. than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters.the Chanson de Roland. Vitet gives to the Chanson de Roland. I repeat.’ 2 That is primitive work. which are the marks. and it is suggested that in theChanson de Roland by one Turoldus or Théroulde. It is indeed a most interesting document. of the genuine epic. But now turn to Homer— [Greek] 3 We are here in another world. and can therefore do us most good. and justly given. and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. des humes de sun lign. when we have lodged them well in our minds. in its details he finds the constant union of simplicity with greatness. But if we have any tact we shall find them. in all other poetry which we may place beside them.—or take his [Greek] 4 the address of Zeus to the horses of Peleus. with his face turned towards Spain and the enemy— ‘De plusurs choses à remembrer li prist. a suppliant before him. so said the tradition. The poem has vigour and freshness. another order of poetry altogether. Take that incomparable line and a half of Dante. Ugolino’s tremendous words— ‘Io no piangeva. this is the sort of praise which is given to Homer. De dulce France. The joculator or jongleur Taillefer. Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent. a poem preserved in a manuscript of the twelfth century in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. here is rightly due such supreme praise as that which M. and it is the praise due to epic poetry of the highest order only. the Chanson de Roland at its best. then. it is not without pathos. we must not heap that supreme praise upon poetry of an order immeasurably inferior. mortally wounded. De tantes teres cume li bers cunquist. and also the degree oft his quality. and such praise is sufficient for it. and of the vassals who died at Roncevaux’. and to no other. perhaps even some of the words. One thinks of Homer. a monument of epic genius. De Carlemagne sun seignor ki l’nurrit. it may be very dissimilar. even single lines. In its general design he finds the grandiose conception. Of course we are not to require this other poetry to resemble them. singing ‘of Charlemagne and of Roland and of Oliver. the poet’s comment on Helen’s mention of her brothers. infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality. and distinguish it from the artificial epic of literary ages. will serve our turn quite sufficiently. marched before the Norman troops. Higher praise there cannot well be. Take the two lines which I have just quoted from Homer. he sees in it a grand and beautiful work.—or take finally his [Greek] 5 the words of Achilles to Priam. with an undeniable poetic quality of its own. sì dentro impietrai. It deserves such praise. if our judgments are to have any solidity. Let us try. Piangevan elli…’ 6 1 0 . If our words are to have any meaning. But M. Short passages. we have certainly the matter. of the chant which Taillefer sang. Roland.

the style and manner on the other. as well. They are in the matter and substance of the poetry. to feel the degree in which a high poetical quality is present or wanting there. Critics give themselves great labour to draw out what in the abstract constitutes the characters of a high quality of poetry. They are far better recognised by being felt in the verse of the master. The specimens I have quoted differ widely from one another. It is much better simply to have recourse to concrete examples. Che la vostra miseria non mi tange. to conduct us to a real estimate. venture on laying down. are enough even of themselves to keep clear and sound our judgments about poetry. the loss ‘…which cost Ceres all that pain To seek her through the world.’ 8 Take of Shakespeare a line or two of Henry the Fourth’s expostulation with sleep— ‘Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes. Hamlet’s dying request to Horatio— ‘If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart. and power. Nevertheless if we are urgently pressed to give some critical account of them. and rock his brains In cradle of the rude imperious surge…’ and take. if we have tact and can use them.’ These few lines. and to say: The characters of a high quality of poetry are what is expressed there. but where and in what they arise. Nè fiamma d’esto incendio non m’assale…’ 7 take the simple. and they are in its manner and style. of high beauty.—to take specimens of poetry of the high. we shall find that we have acquired a sense enabling us. the substance and matter on the one hand. but perfect. worth. an accent. but they have in common this: the possession of the very highest poetical quality. to save us from fallacious estimates of it. and care Sat on his faded cheek…’ add two such lines as— ‘And courage never to submit or yield And what is else not to be overcome…’ and finish with the exquisite close to the loss of Proserpine. perhaps. than by being perused in the prose of the critic. not indeed how and why the characters arise. we may safely.take the lovely words of Beatrice to Virgil— ‘Io son fatta da Dio. And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story…’ Take of Milton that Miltonic passage: ‘Darken’d so. yet shone Above them all the archangel. tale. sua mercè. Absent thee from felicity awhile. whatever poetry may be laid before us. If we are thoroughly penetrated by their power. but his face Deep scars of thunder had intrench’d. the very highest quality. But if we are asked to define this 1 1 . single line— ‘In la sua volontade è nostra pace. have a mark. Both of these.

during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. that high poetic truth and seriousness are absent from his substance and matter. The romance—poems which took possession of the heart and imagination of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are French. And though we distinguish between the two characters. at any rate. and are in steadfast proportion one to the other. these are but dry generalities. is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its style and manner. therefore. as in Dante and Petrarch it brought forth. So far as high poetic truth and seriousness are wanting to a poet’s matter and substance. by the style and manner of that poetry. again. I will. Made by himself. is due to its poetry of the langue d’oil. we shall find. Neither will my limits allow me to make any full application of the generalities above propounded. The superior character of truth and seriousness. but in the hope of bringing out. follow rapidly from the commencement the course of our English poetry with them in my view. guiding ourselves by Aristotle’s profound observation that the superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness ([Greek]). is given by their diction. to what we have said. its productions in the langue d’oil and its productions in the langue d’oc. we may be sure. not clearing it. even yet more. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. will a high poetic stamp of diction and movement be wanting to his style and manner. is absent from a poet’s style and manner. and to bring forth. is indissolubly connected. and as our native poetry formed itself. ‘the pride of French literature. by their movement. Of the two divisions of that poetry. Let us add. what is in itself evident. and. and of establishing an important principle more firmly by their means. Only one thing we may add as to the substance and matter of poetry. their whole force lies in their application. The mark and accent are as given by the substance and matter of that poetry. And I could wish every student of poetry to make the application of them for himself.mark and accent in the abstract. But the predominance of French poetry in Europe. yet they are nevertheless vitally connected one with the other. of southern France. that to the style and manner of the best poetry their special character. the poetry of the langue d’oc. for we should thereby be darkening the question. the poetry of France had a clear predominance in Europe. some significance in them. Once more I return to the early poetry of France. In the twelfth century the bloom of this romance-poetry was earlier and stronger in England. We may add yet further. and of all other poetry which is akin to it in quality. this: that the substances and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing. at the court of our Anglo-Norman kings. classics. the application would impress itself upon his mind far more deeply than made by me. so far also. their accent. the two accents. in its origins. in an eminent degree. in the space which remains to me. than in France itself.—the first literature of modern Europe to strike the true and grand note. also. in the matter and substance of the best poetry. that seedtime of all modern language and literature. is of importance because of its effect on Italian literature. ‘they are.’ as Southey justly says. nor have we anything which can be placed in competition with 1 2 1 3 1 4 . of superiority. But it was a bloom of French poetry. So stated. our answer must be: No. In proportion as this high stamp of diction and movement. the poetry of northern France and of the tongue which is now the French language. The two superiorities are closely related. it formed itself out of this. of the troubadours. truth and seriousness. with which our own poetry.

that the honour which has come to make stay in France may never depart thence!’ Yet it is now all gone. Only by means of the historic estimate can we persuade ourselves not to think that any of it is of poetical importance. far more generally than he is read now. Chaucer has not their helplessness. Christian of Troyes. but so too did Christian of Troyes and Wolfram of Eschenbach. God grant it may be kept there. Et que li lius li abelisse Tant que de France n’isse L’onor qui s’i est arestée!’ ‘Now by this book you will learn that first Greece had the renown for chivalry and letters: then chivalry and the primacy in letters passed to Rome. however. Chaucer’s power of fascination. as in that of Burns. His language is a cause of difficulty for us. this French romance-poetry of which the weight of substance and the power of style are not unfairly represented by this extract from Christian of Troyes. and language. free. ‘la parleure en est plus delitable et plus commune a toutes gens. He is a genuine source of joy and strength. and I think in quite as great a degree. He will be read. it is a difficulty to be unhesitatingly accepted and overcome. for even of that stanza which the Italians used. the basis and suggestion was probably given in France. which is flowing still for us and will flow always. wrote his Treasure in French because. getting words. Que Gresse ot de chevalerie Le premier los et de clergie. an unchallenged predominance. but so also. of all intelligent command of it. clear yet kindly view of human life. is enduring.’ In the same century. and now it is come to France. taught his trade by this poetry. If we ask ourselves wherein consists the immense superiority of Chaucer’s poetry over the romance-poetry—why it is that in passing from this to Chaucer we suddenly feel ourselves to be in another world. of France.’ Themes were supplied from all quarters. he 1 5 1 6 1 7 . But in the fourteenth century there comes an Englishman nourished on this poetry. simple. and that the place may please it so well. in the romance-poets. and which Chaucer derived immediately from the Italians. but the romance-setting which was common to them all. in chivalry and letters. his poetical importance does not need the assistance of the historic estimate. metre from this poetry. The Italian Brunetto Latini. His superiority in substance is given by his large. he says. was French. we shall find that his superiority is both in the substance of his poetry and in the style of his poetry. Et de la clergie la some. it is real. as time goes on. as follows:— ‘Or vous ert par ce livre apris. at the height of the Middle Age. and which gained the ear of Europe. the master of Dante. This constituted for the French poetry. rhyme. the thirteenth. Chaucer (I have already named him) fascinated his contemporaries. In Chaucer’s case. Qui ore est en France venue. literature. is the language of Burns.them. the French romance-writer. formulates the claims.—so unlike the total want. Diex doinst qu’ele i soit retenue. Puis vint chevalerie à Rome. his native country.

has gained the power to survey the world from a central. is too little if we have not the strain of Chaucer’s verse well in our memory. outside the poets whom I have named as the special inheritors of Chaucer’s tradition. and at another time it is his fluid movement. and as by way of kinde I should have deyd. But Jesus Christ. he makes an epoch and founds a tradition. The refinement of our numbers means something far more than this. A nation may have versifiers with smooth numbers and easy rhymes. that merely one line like this — ‘O martyr souded 9 in virginitee!’ has a virtue of manner and movement such as we shall not find in all the verse of romance—poetry. and justify all the rapture with which his successors speak of his ‘gold dew-drops of speech. and yet may have no real poetry at all.’ And again: ‘He is a perpetual fountain of good sense. he is our ‘well of English undefiled. The right comment upon it is Dryden’s: ‘It is sufficient to say.’ Johnson misses the point entirely when he finds fault with Dryden for ascribing to Chaucer the first refinement of our numbers. We have only to call to mind the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Will that his glory last and be in minde. his divine fluidity of movement. however. according to the proverb. A single line.’ It is by a large. let us take a stanza. yea. many hours ago. and Chaucer’s poetry has truth of substance. In Spenser. The virtue is such as we shall not find.’ because by the lovely charm of his diction. sound representation of things. I feel disposed to say that a single line is enough to show the charm of Chaucer’s verse. as I have given examples to show the virtue of the great classics. the lovely charm of his movement. I trow. the story of the Christian child murdered in a Jewry— ‘My throte is cut unto my nekke-bone Saidè this child. Of his style and manner. I must yet find room for an example of Chaucer’s virtue. And the virtue is irresistible. we have only to read Wordsworth’s first three lines of this stanza after Chaucer’s— ‘My throat is cut unto the bone. in all English poetry. perhaps. Shakespeare. it is difficult to speak temperately. free. that here is God’s plenty. And for the worship of his mother dere Yet may I sing O Alma loud and clere. at one time it is his liquid diction of which in these poets we feel the virtue. the fluid movement of Chaucer. has truth of substance. It is from The Prioress’ Tale. Milton. longè time agone. Said this young child.—but this is saying nothing. Chaucer is the father of our splendid English poetry. and by the law of kind I should have died. a truly human point of view. Keats. Bounded as is my space.’ 1 8 1 9 .’ Wordsworth has modernised this Tale. as ye in bookès finde. and says that Gower also can show smooth numbers and easy rhymes. yea. this high criticism of life. and to feel how delicate and evanescent is the charm of verse. we can follow the tradition of the liquid diction. if we think first of the romance-poetry and then of Chaucer’s divine liquidness of diction. that poetry. They are irresistible.

For my present purpose I need not dwell on our Elizabethan poetry. the greatness of the great poets. shrewdness. all the romance-poetry of Catholic Christendom. A voice from the slums of Paris. but we are to adopt a real. again. Other poets with a like liberty do not attain to the fluidity of Chaucer. into a disyllable by adding to them. is that their virtue is sustained. but it has not this high seriousness. has at its happy moments (as. freedom. Burns himself does not attain to it. it transcends and effaces all the English poetry contemporary with it. in its natural and necessary union with poetic truth of style. Dante’s has it. But its apparition in Villon. It is the [Greek]. this virtue of giving us what we can rest upon will be more and more highly esteemed. the voice of poor Villon out of his life of riot and crime. Shakespeare’s has it. for instance. and therewith an important part of their virtue. we praise him. his view of things and his criticism of life. then. The accent of such verse as ‘In la sua volontade è nostra pace…’ is altogether beyond Chaucer’s reach. And there is no doubt what that something is. and is admirably served by it. and corresponding to his truth of substance he has an exquisite virtue of style and manner. Still. He has not their accent. bird. and with the increasing demands of our modern ages upon poetry. of Chaucer as a poet there must be this limitation. have known how to attain his fluidity without the like liberty. the high and excellent seriousness. which poetry must have before it can be placed in the glorious class of the best. but we feel that this accent is out of the question for him. It is this chiefly which gives to our spirits what they can rest upon. upon a liberty. His poetry transcends and effaces. of making words like neck. However we may account for its absence. It is true that Chaucer’s fluidity is conjoined with this liberty. The substance of Chaucer’s poetry. With him is born our real poetry. is fitful.The charm is departed. easily and without effort. not a historic. such as Burns too enjoyed. a licentious dealing with language. Of such avail is poetic truth of substance. And yet Chaucer is not one of the great classics. he lacks the high seriousness of the great classics. benignity. something is wanting. or on the 2 0 2 1 2 2 . Possibly. the power of their criticism of life. He has poetic truth of substance. It is often said that the power of liquidness and fluidity in Chaucer’s verse was dependent upon a free.—Dante. such as Shakespeare or Keats. I say. therefore. and words like cause. rhyme. And yet. and in men like Villon. which Aristotle assigns as one of the grand virtues of poetry. it transcends and effaces all the English poetry subsequent to it down to the age of Elizabeth. estimate of poetry. It was dependent upon his talent. but we ought not to say that it was dependent upon it. such as is now impossible. to the poetry of Chaucer. What is wanting to him is suggested by the mere mention of the name of the first great classic of Christendom. Chaucer is not one of the great classics. the main fact for us to bear in mind about Chaucer is his sterling value according to that real estimate which we firmly adopt for all poets. fifty or sixty years after Chaucer. the immortal poet who died eighty years before Chaucer. To our praise. It may be said that it was necessarily out of the reach of any poet in the England of that stage of growth. though he has not high poetic seriousness. into a disyllable by sounding the e mute. in the last stanza of La Belle Heaulmière 10) more of this important poetic virtue of seriousness than all the productions of Chaucer. who have a talent akin to Chaucer’s. Poets. has largeness. Homer’s criticism of life has it.

the real estimate? Wordsworth and Coleridge. but the authority of Wordsworth and Coleridge does not weigh much with the young generation. together with our whole eighteenth century which followed it.continuation and close of this poetry in Milton. at such an estimate without offence. And perhaps the best way is to begin. a prose such as we would all gladly use if 2 3 2 4 2 5 2 6 . wishing to praise Chaucer’s numbers. and down even into our own times. here. And what man of letters would not shrink from seeming to dispose dictatorially of the claims of two men who are. When we find Milton writing: ‘And long it was not after. expressing himself in this preface thus: “Though truth in her very nakedness sits in so deep a pit. on all sides. struggling with wants. at any rate. the stereotyped phrase of approbation for good verse found in our early poetry has been. that it even approached the verse of Dryden. and the question is. whether it will be found to coincide with the real estimate. in poetry.’ Cowley could see nothing at all in Chaucer’s poetry. and one of them. The real estimate. curbed in my genius. that he. praised its matter admirably. but that it is obsolete and inconvenient.’—we pronounce that such a prose is intolerable.’—then we exclaim that here at last we have the true English prose. which represents them as such.’ Addison. but of its exquisite manner and movement all he can find to say is that ‘there is the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it. liable to be misconstrued in all I write. if we are to gain the full benefit from poetry. a man. has universal currency. as we have seen. both of them. We all of us profess to be agreed in the estimate of this poetry. I cast about for some mode of arriving. though not perfect. I have undertaken to translate in my declining years. in plenty and at ease. Dryden heartily admired it. which is natural and pleasing. Dryden regards as not seriously disputable the opinion ‘that the sweetness of English verse was never understood or practised by our fathers. With the next age of our poetrydivergency and difficulty begin. and even to have made advance. compares them with Dryden’s own. of such energetic and genial power? And yet. beyond all its predecessors. Are Dryden and Pope poetical classics? Is the historic estimate. the date being out of her darkness in this morning of our poet. he shall now gird his temples with the sun. sincerely believed itself to have produced poetical classics of its own. who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things. The age of Dryden. ought himself to be a true poem. and there are many signs to show that the eighteenth century and its judgments are coming into favour again. and Johnson. And all through the eighteenth century. Dryden. we must have the real estimate of it. with cordial praise. When we find Chapman. Are the favourite poets of the eighteenth century classics? It is impossible within my present limits to discuss the question fully. and which has been so long established that it cannot easily give way. and Shakespeare and Milton as our poetical classics. I hope yet those few here will so discover and confirm that. such masters in letters as Dryden and Pope. Pope. denied it. two men of such admirable talent. But when we find Dryden telling us: ‘What Virgil wrote in the vigour of his age. that from Gades to Aurora and Ganges few eyes can sound her.’—we pronounce that such a prose has its own grandeur. and. our greatest. as it is easy to begin. Addison. when I was confirmed in this opinion. oppressed with sickness. An historic estimate of that poetry hasestablished itself. we all of us recognise it as great poetry. in the present case. the Elizabethan translator of Homer. as is well known.

But do you ask me whether such verse proceeds from men with an adequate poetic criticism of life. without some neglect and impairment of the religious life of the soul. though they may in a certain sense be masters of the art of versification. Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry.’ I answer: Admirable for the purposes of the inaugurator of an age of prose and reason. A fit prose was a necessity. insight.we only knew how. The needful qualities for a fit prose are regularity. Fed on the lawns and in the forest ranged. without that high seriousness. must of necessity. it is the poetry of the builders of an age of prose and reason. like their prose. is a powerfulpoetic application? Do you ask me whether the poetry of these men has either the matter or the inseparable manner of such an adequate poetic criticism. whether it has the accent of ‘Absent thee from felicity awhile…’ or of ‘And what is else not to be overcome…’ or of ‘O martyr souded in virginitee!’ I answer: It has not and cannot have them. but it was impossible that a fit prose should establish itself amongst us without some touch of frost to the imaginative life of the soul. For the purposes of their mission and destiny their poetry. 2 7 2 8 . was got rid of. whether they work in prose or in verse. uniformity. It was impossible that this freedom should be brought about without some negative excess. of our age of prose and reason. no doubt. they are classics of our prose. And as with religion amongst us at that period. of our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century. freedom. uniformity. whose destiny it may be to bring their nation to the attainment of a fit prose. So. so it was also with letters. the freedom was achieved. benignity? Do you ask me whether the application of ideas to life in the verse of these men. The men of letters. We are to regard Dryden as the puissant and glorious founder. too. immortal and unchanged. precision. the preoccupation. take it almost where you will.’ I answer: Admirable for the purposes of the high priest of an age of prose and reason. the time had likewise come when our nation felt the imperious need of freeing itself from the absorbing preoccupation which religion in the Puritan age had exercised. is not good? ‘A milk-white Hind. balance. or even. and these chicks my own. balance. But an almost exclusive attention to these qualities involves some repression and silencing of poetry. Pope as the splendid high priest. take it almost where you will. But after the Restoration the time had come when our nation felt the imperious need of a fit prose. is admirable. Do you ask me whether Dryden’s verse. and Banstead Down Thence comes your mutton. give a predominating. is not good? ‘To Hounslow Heath I point. has poetic largeness. an almost exclusive attention to the qualities of regularity. precision. and the spiritual history of the eighteenth century shows us that the freedom was not achieved without them. an undoubtedly baneful and retarding one if it had continued. Still. from men whose criticism of life has a high seriousness. often a powerful application. Yet Dryden was Milton’s contemporary. Do you ask me whether Pope’s verse. Though they may write in verse.

to the poems in our own language. when it is not a partial countryman who reads him. and Scotch manners. have attained to an independent criticism of life. but in those poems we have not the real Burns. Scotch religion. the real Burns either. he lived. Burns is the first case we have had where the bias of the personal estimate tends to mislead. through perpetually studying and enjoying them. above all. And now. and Scotch manners is against a poet. a repulsive world: even the world of hisCotter’s Saturday Night is not a beautiful world. But in spite of the disturbing pressures of personal partiality. he has a tenderness for it. often he does triumph over his world. 2 9 3 0 3 1 3 2 . Sylvander. we are met. and he had not the free and abundant use of them. the position of Gray is singular. because we can read them easily. or his name and fame would have disappeared long ago. and Scotch manners. The point of view and the manner are not self-sprung in him. In this tender mood he reads pieces like the Holy Fair or Halloween. for in itself it is not a beautiful world. not for him. A Scotchman’s estimate is apt to be personal. I have been at Duncan Gray to dress it in English.Gray is our poetical classic of that literature and age. Burns’ world of Scotch drink. He has not the volume or the power of poets who. after Gray. Let us boldly say that of much of this poetry. Gray had the use of them at times. He is the scantiest and frailest of classics in our poetry. he caught them of others. we are met by the great name of Burns. We enter now on times where the personal estimate of poets begins to be rife. But he lived with the great poets. is often a harsh. I think that my ideas are more barren in English than in Scotch. ‘Mark ruffian Violence. coming in times more favourable. distain’d with crimes. As guileful Fraud points out the erring way. Nor is Clarinda’s love-poet. But. as we draw towards the end of the eighteenth century. but he is a classic. he can bear it.’ We English turn naturally. While subtle Litigation’s pliant tongue The life-blood equal sucks of Right and Wrong!’ Evidently this is not the real Burns. of national partiality. caught their poetic manner. a sordid. and has little importance for us. but let us observe how and where. Scotch religion. with the Greeks. A Scotchman is used to this world of Scotch drink. Scotch religion. and no one can deny that it is of advantage to a poet to deal with a beautiful world. But this world of Scotch drink. let us try to reach a real estimate of the poetry of Burns. a poetry dealing perpetually with Scotch drink. but all I can do is desperately stupid. Scotch religion. By his English poetry Burns in general belongs to the eighteenth century. and demands a word of notice here. he meets its poet halfway. No doubt a poet’s criticism of life may have such truth and power that it triumphs over its world and delights us. Rousing elate in these degenerate times. in Burns. View unsuspecting Innocence a prey. But he tells us himself: ‘These English songs gravel me to death. The real Burns is of course in this Scotch poems. and where the real estimate of them is not reached without difficulty. whereas Addison and Pope never had the use of them. I have not the command of the language that I have of my native tongue. and he caught their poetic point of view for regarding life. Burns may triumph over his world. let us look at him closely. In fact. and Scotch manners.

duke. and a’ that. Their dignities. Guid faith he mauna fa’ that! For a’ that. 3 3 3 4 . a pride o’ worth. I waive the quantum o’ the sin.’ There is a great deal of that sort of thing in Burns. and it is unsatisfactory.’ Or in a higher strain— ‘Who made the heart. Are higher rank than a’ that. but because it has not that accent of sincerity which bacchanalian poetry. He knows each chord. There is something in it of bravado. But never tempt th’ illicit rove.’ Here they find his grand. its various tone. It kindles wit. who so often set morality at defiance. equality. the great poet. not because it is bacchanalian poetry. here— ‘Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair Than either school or college. poetically unsound. genuine. therefore. and a’ that. And petrifies the feeling. something which makes us feel that we have not the man speaking to us with his real voice. Tho’ naething should divulge it. it waukens lair. It pangs us fou o’ knowledge. and a’ that. something. convivial. dignity. as in the famous songFor a’ that. very often has. on drinking deep. of men. its various bias. and a’ that— ‘A prince can mak’ a belted knight. to do it justice. Each spring. genuine touches. With still more confidence will his admirers tell us that we have the genuine Burns. ’tis He alone Decidedly can try us. It never fails. The pith o’ sense. Then at the balance let’s be mute. A marquis.Many of his admirers will tell us that we have Burns. To kittle up our notion By night or day. We never can adjust it. when his strain asserts the independence. The hazard o’ concealing. But an honest man’s aboon his might. Be’t whisky gill or penny wheep Or only stronger potion. when this puissant genius. But och! it hardens a’ within. and still more. falls moralising— ‘The sacred lowe o’ weel-placed love Luxuriantly indulge it. delightful.

—the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity. his admirers will say.’ Or in a better strain yet. there is the application of ideas to life! There is. a strain. Xenophon tells us.’ There is criticism of life for you. whose mighty scheme These woes of mine fulfil. And the compensation for admiring such passages less. We arrive best at the real estimate of Burns. and (need I say?) a master of language. from missing the perfect poetic accent in them.What’s done we partly may compute. That’s the true pathos and sublime Of human life. its power. No. and the virtue of matter and manner which goes with that high seriousness is wanting to his work. born of absolute sincerity. surely. as in those four immortal lines taken by Byron as a motto for The Bride of Abydos. Had we never loved sae blindly. comes short of the high seriousness of the great classics. in the Farewell to Nancy. but not the accent or the poetic virtue of the highest masters. when the sheer poet in him speaks. made by a man of vigorous understanding. in the poet’s treatment of such matters as are here in question. The accent of high seriousness. unsurpassable— ‘To make a happy fireside clime To weans and wife. will be that we shall admire more the poetry where that accent is found. Here firm I rest. by conceiving his work as having truth of matter and truth of manner. undoubtedly. it is not— ‘Thou Power Supreme. or never parted. Is this accent felt in the passages which I have been quoting from Burns? Surely not. they must be best 3 5 3 6 3 7 3 8 . the rest. we must perceive that we have not in those passages a voice from the very inmost soul of the genuine Burns. but which have in them a depth of poetic quality such as resides in no verse of Byron’s own— ‘Had we never loved sae kindly. Those laws fix as an essential condition. Burns.’ But a whole poem of that quality Burns cannot make. high seriousness. of all the teaching of Socrates. like Chaucer. Never met. But for supreme poetical success more is required than the powerful application of ideas to life. And the application is a powerful one. the admirers of Burns will say to us. he is not speaking to us from these depths. he is more or less preaching. is verbiage. The doctrine of the last—quoted lines coincides almost exactly with what was the aim and end. is what gives to such verse as ‘In la sua volontade e nostra pace…’ to such criticism of life as Dante’s. At moments he touches it in a profound and passionate melancholy. if our sense is quick. is ironic. His genuine criticism of life. I think. it must be an application under the conditions fixed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. But know not what’s resisted. We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

But perhaps it is by the perfection of soundness of his lighter and archer masterpieces that he is poetically most wholesome for us. where his manner is flawless. and a perfect poetic whole is the result.—here we have the genuine Burns. richer.Because they are Thy will!’ It is far rather: Whistle owre the lave o’t! Yet we may say of him as of Chaucer.—of the pathos of human nature. in Burns. his poetic genius triumphs over it. the pathos. as they come before him. The world of Chaucer is fairer.— truly poetic therefore. boundless swiftness. into an overwhelming sense of the pathos of things. but a poet with thorough truth of substance and an answering truth of style. where his largeness and freedom serve him so admirably. at the same time.—in things like the address to the mouse whose home he had ruined. nor with a verse rising to a criticism of life and a virtue like theirs. But seas between us braid hae roar’d Sin auld lang syne…’ where he is as lovely as he is sound. We all of us have a leaning towards the pathetic. The Jolly Beggars. in Burns. that of life and the world.—of that beautiful spirit building his many-coloured haze of words and images ‘Pinnacled dim in the intense inane’— no contact can be wholesomer than the contact with Burns at his archest and soundest. reckless energy. for verse like— ‘We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn From mornin’ sun till dine. yet the piece is a superb poetic success. his great difference from Chaucer. and may be inclined perhaps to prize Burns most for his touches of piercing. more significant than that of Burns. in things like Duncan Gray. of whom the real estimate must be high indeed. are. Side by side with the ‘On the brink of the night and the morning My coursers are wont to respire. and his manner of rendering what he sees is to match. and will be. But we must note. to place this from Tam Glen 3 9 . seem artificial and tame beside it. the manner of Burns has spring. Whistle and I’ll come to you. of Goethe’s Faust. and power which make the famous scene in Auerbach’s Cellar. also. my Lad. free. but when the largeness and freedom of Burns get full sweep. It has a breadth. as in Tam o’ Shanter. Burns is by far the greater force. there is bestiality. sometimes almost intolerable. the benignity of Chaucer deepens. Instead of the fluidity of Chaucer’s manner. Here. and which are only matched by Shakespeare and Aristophanes. giving us a poetry sound to the core. benignant. of non-human nature. nor with the excellent [Greek] of the great classics. or still more in that puissant and splendid production. as so many of us have been. and to benignity infinite pathos. his world may be what it will. But the Earth has just whispered a warning That their flight must be swifter than fire…’ of Prometheus Unbound. truth. by a fiery. how salutary. shrewd. In the world of The Jolly Beggars there is more than hideousness and squalor. The freedom of Chaucer is heightened. Auld Lang Syne (this list might be made much longer). his view is large. though he has perhaps less charm. how very salutary. pathos. Tam Glen. For the votary misled by a personal estimate of Shelley. Not a classic. and also in those poems and songs where to shrewdness he adds infinite archness and wit.

— ‘My minnie does constantly deave me And bids me beware o’ young men. 543. she says. the first poet we come to of whose work the estimate formed is evidently apt to be personal. to correct this estimate. it is enough to have taken the single case of Burns. and that to provide it is becoming a vast and profitable industry. Published in 1880 as the General Introduction to ‘The English Poets. At any rate the end to which the method and the estimate are designed to lead. ‘Then began he to call many things to remembrance. happy. But wha can think sae o’ Tam Glen?’ But we enter on burning ground as we approach the poetry of times so near to us— poetry like that of Byron. old man. as we hear. but personal with passion. [back] Note 3. ‘Ah. Currency and supremacy are insured to it. H. Was it that with men born to misery ye might have sorrow?’—‘Iliad.—all the lands which his valour conquered.’—‘Iliad. Ward.’ edited by T. [back] Note 4. unhappy pair. Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world. not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice. that such readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature. and Wordsworth—of which the estimates are so often not only personal. But it never will lose currency with the world.—they wailed. if they do lead to it.’ xxxiii. ‘I wailed not. 40. and thou too. 443–445. and Charlemagne his liege lord who nourished him. it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. and immortal. and from leading to which. it never will lose supremacy.—the benefit of being able clearly to feel and deeply to enjoy the best. using the poetry of the great classics as a sort of touchstone. [back] 4 0 4 1 . and masses of a common sort of literature.’—‘Chanson de Roland. they long since in Earth’s soft arms were reposing.’—‘Inferno. and to have suggested how we may proceed. ‘Nay. in former days wast. why gave we you to King Peleus. and to exhibit it in use so far as to put any one who likes in a way of applying it for himself. of supreme importance. Note 1. let me say it once more at parting. I have sought to point out a method which will help us in making them so.’ xxiv. 39. in poetry. so of stone grew I within. to deceive me. [back] Note 5. [back] Note 6. as we had previously corrected by the same means the historic estimate where we met with it. in spite of monetary appearances.’ xvii.—is an end. They flatter. but by something far deeper. ‘So said she. For my purpose.—by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity. 939–942. to a mortal? but ye are without old age. the truly classic. and the men of his lineage. We are often told that an era is opening in which we are to see multitudes of a common sort of readers. with its succession of celebrated names and celebrated poems.’ iii. [back] Note 2. Shelley. offers a good opportunity to us for resolutely endeavouring to make our estimates of poetry real. they get their whole value. and pleasant France. A collection like the present.

‘Of such sort hath God. that your misery toucheth me not.’—‘Paradiso. neither doth the flame of this fire strike me. [back] Note 9.’—‘Inferno. made me.com . fixed fast. thanked be His mercy. ‘In His will is our peace. Shakespeare · Bible · Saints · Anatomy · Harvard Classics · Lit.’ iii. [back] Note 8. soldered.Note 7. The last stanza of the ballad runs thus— [back] CONTENTS · BOOK CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD PREVIOUS NEXT þÿ Search Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore. In Villon’s ballad. 91–93. 85. The name Heaulmière is said to be derived from a head-dress (helm) worn as a mark by courtesans.’ ii. History · Quotations · Poetry © 2011 Bartleby. The French soudé. a poor old creature of this class laments her days of youth and beauty. [back] Note 10.

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