« PreviousContinue »
Poetry is the expression of passionate sentiment. At the earlier periods of civilization, when the imagination is the ac. tuating principle of the multitude, and the objects of passion are those which relate wholly to the imagination, poetry and eloquence will be found to have the most power as tire means of exciting popular feeling with respect to contemporaneous events. The orations of Demosthenes were addressed to a nation less advanced in civilization than that which Cicero harangued ; but the actual effect of the Grecian's eloquence was probably not greater than that produced by a North American Indian's address to his tribe. At a more advanced period of civilization, when knowledge becomes more generally diffused, ihe stronger feelings are less easily excited. Men have learned to define their wants, to suppress from necessity or policy their emotions, to calculate, to fear, and to balance present interest against the indefinite objects which lead on the warrior to death and glory. The poet must then change his method with his object. Instead of seeking to move the feelings by exciting the imagination, he will more generally succeed in addressing the imagination through the feelings. It will be upon cultivated minds only that eloquence or poetry will then be adapted to operate, and by other and more refined art than sufficed to set in motion the ideas of the vulgar. Yet, how, with respect to events of present interest, shall the poet avail himself of considerations more impressive than those which the reality has already suggested, or succeed in placing the subject in a light more interesting to the fancy He must strike in with the feeling of the moment, and if possible carry on this feeling to a degree of passion beyond what the event itself seemed to demand ; and he must appear to be himself actuated by the enthusiasm which he seeks to impart;an enthusiasm, which, if not obviously justified by the cocasion, will infallibly appear ridiculous. But how seldom do events occur in the concerns of nations, the causes, the attendant circumstances, or the issue of which, are sufficiently dignified in a moral respect, or sufficiently creditable to human nature, to allow of their being expatiated on with honest enthusiasm !
Events, indeed, in the sense of mere occurrences, of a most momentous nature, have rapidly succeeded one another of late, too vast for imagination to comprehend the details. But it must be remembered, that poetry interests never as the simple record of events, but as it exhibits human feelings and develops human passions, and holds up the living portrait of our nature, as an object of complacent sympathy,
The writers of most of the poems which appear on public occasions,-ode, elegy, or sonnet,--betray an utter ignorance of the nature and purpose of poetry.
The oceasion on which
they write, has evidently set their ideas in motion without directing them into any particular channel; and their verses are insipid because they are wholly artificial, warmed by no glow of passion, and prompted by no definite impulse. Loyalty devoid of affection, patriotism destitute of virtue, triumph without joy, and hope without confidence;—what can be expected froin the inspiration of such feelings, but cold adulation, unmeaning boasts, empty predictions, and common place sentiment? A man way be a true poet, and yet, if, on the particular subject which he undertakes, he does not feel as a poet,-if this characteristic does not predominate over the spirit of a partizan or of a censor, he may write high sounding blank verse, with the author of “Liberty," or compose spirited and energetic odes, like Akenside, but he will not give birth to productions of perinaneut interest as poetry.
No living author, we believe, is more competent to appreciate, or has shewn bimself more able to surmount these disadvantages in treating of contemporary events, than the Poet Laureate. Upon him it properly devolves to redeen), if possible, the character of poems written on national occasions. No man appears so habitually to regard every subject that presents itself to his mind, with the eye and the heart of a poet, the imaginative eye that discriminates and appropriates in all things the fair and the good, and the heart warmly alive to the best interests of human kind,-as Mr. Southey. No writer impresses us more strgogly with the conviction that the opinions he avows, are bis genuine sentiments, and the warmth he discovers is unaffected earnestness; and this conviction, even where we do not think and feel in unison with him, strengthens in a considerable degree the impression of what he writes.
We will confess than when Mr. Southey's poem was first announced, we were not without apprehensions that it would partake of too martial a character. We feared, lest identifying too closely the downfal of Bonaparte with the triumph of the general cause of Europe, he should have been led to adopt a strain of exultation in reference to the Glorious Victory, at variance with those better feelings of horror and indignation with wbich he would regard war in the abstract. Mr. Southey indeed never descends to common-place, and we might, therefore, have safely pr..sumed that he would not be betrayed into any heroical descriptions of the battle itself, in the death and glory style ; and that he would not even attempt to tell in poetry what must always be far more affecting in simple narrative. Mr. Southey has judged wisely with respect to such details.
This were the historian's, not the poet's part;
Who to the thoughtful mind and pious heart
Comes with her offering from this awful theme;
in unambitious song declare.
It is not with any view of bringing our two greatest living poets into direct comparison with each other, that we have coupled a publication of Mr. Wordsworth's with that of his friend." It is interesting, however, to observe the characteristic difference between the two authors. Mr. Wordsworth, always metaphysical, loses himself perpetually in the depths of abstraction on the simplest subject; and frequently employing words as the arbitrary signs of recondite and mystical meanings, exhibits a singular inequality of style, varying from Miltonic majesty of thought and diction, to apparent poverty and meanness. It is only at intervals that he comes within reach of the sympathy of ordinary readers. We never think of claiming kindred with Mr. Wordsworth as a man of the same nerve and texture and heart's blood with ourselves. He looks on nature with other than human senses. He appears to regard God and man through the medium of a philosophy taught in no secular and in no sacred schools. Mr. Southey, on the contrary, is never to be mistaken for any other than a husband, a father, a friend ;-a man whose sympathies all link him to his country and his fellow-men; whose errors whether poetical or political, proceed from the warmth of feeling or the force of prejudice, and are never the deliberate sins of a perverse intellect, or the indications of dubious principles. Moral objects seem in his mind to hold the place of metaphysical ones, and he takes too much interest in the passing scenes of the real world, to cultivate the habit of severe abstraction. Whatever he writes, is at least interesting. It bears the stamp of character,—of the man and of the poet. Wordsworth can interest. He has written some whole poems, and there are passages in all his poems, that are fitted with exquisite skill to find their way to the heart. But in much of his loftiest poetry he is any thing but interesting. When he aiins to teach, he fails to please. He aspires to sit in Milton's chair ; but the spirit whose nightly visitation Milton enjoyed, was not the spirit of mere poetry. The spirit of Milton has not rested upon Mr. Wordsworth, unless it be in some of his noble sonnets, in which he more than rivals the great puritan champion of liberty. Southey and Wordsworth have some obvious peculiarities of diction in common, but the re
mblance is very superficial. Wordsworth's affectation lies re in the thoughts than in the manner. If Southey be at -time chargeable with a fault of this kind, it will be found fined to the expression ; his thoughts are always natural, e poems of the one are altogether so diferent from those of other, that it is not conceivable that Wordsworth could have aten Madoc or Roderick, or Southey, the Excursion. Wordsth displays at times an intellectual grandeur and a depth of nos, peculiarly his own. Southey excels in force of dramatic ception, in the development of character, and in the expres
of the tender affections. Wordsworth's poetry, if we may llowed so trite a comparison, reminds us of a mountain tor
issuing from some unknown solitude, and rolling its rarely gable waters through barren and uninhabited regions, over s and shallows, now lingering round some green and sunny - now thundering in precipitous grandeur, now tamely diffu
its waters over a wide spread channel. Southey's is the oty stream, eccentric, but clear, rapid, and beautiful, that = the imaged heavens on its surface, and the e earth, and flows and murmurs for man. e have described the productions of both these original
freely, as though they were not living authors, whom it is bounden duty, as critics, to treat with sparing praise and Cary censure. We have spoken of them as we feel, and as elieve, in a few years, their readers will generally feel, when shall live only in their works, and their critics shall be foren. But it is time that we proceed to the business of reviewing.
e cannot approve of the avowed object of Mr. Wordsworth’s cation, whatever credit be due to him for the patriotism to h it owes its existence. When he speaks of Great Britain gʻ distinguished herself above all other countries for some e past,' by a course of action so worthy of commemoration, ish to know more definitely to what course of action he
; and as we are always fearful of being imposed upon by actions, what portion of the nation is intended by Great in,—the cabinet, the army, or the people. To whom are we cribe that great moral triumph, the splendour of which ll the present distresses are able to obscure? It is too - for Mr. W. to expect that the national wisdom' which highly eulogizes, will sanction that unmingled admiration of easures of the present Government, which, in the height 5 exultation, he seems desirous of producing; as if the of moral greatness and of disinterested patriotism, were essed on all their councils for the last ten years, and one purpose had been the simple spring of all their policy !! his is not all. Mr. Wordsworth adds,
• Nor is it at the expense of rational patriotism, or in disregard of sound philosophy, that the author hath given vent to feelings tending to encourage a martial spirit in the bosoms of his countrymen, at a time when there is a general outcry against the prevalence of these dispositions (The nation would err grievously, if she suffered the abuse which other states have made of military power, to prevent her from perceiving that no people ever was, or can be independent, free or secure, much less great, in any sane application of the word, without martial propensities, and an assiduous cultivation of military virtues.'
We shall not stop to dispute with Mr. Wordsworth : we should just as soon encounter Dr. Johnson in argument. Were we obliged to admit that the assertion receives too melancholy countenance from bistoric fact, it is execrable in principle. It sets at defiance all attempts to introduce the meliorating tendencies of the Gospel into the policy of governments, and takes for granted that the maxims of Christian morality are wholly nugatory and inapplicable to national transactions. It is not worth while to point out the bearing of the military virtues on the civil character of a people. Mr. Wordsworth considers apprehensions in reference to that point, as arising from the delu
sive influence of an honourable jealousy.' Upon this subject he has the satisfaction of being of coincident sentiinents with the right honourable Lord Castlereagh. But now for the poetry,
The ode composed on the morning of the day appointed for general thanksgiving, is marked with all the peculiarities of Mr. Wordsworth's genius. Few readers will be able to follow in the track of thought, or to enter into the sentiments of the Author, nor shall we attempt to give a commentary upon so desultory and irregular a production. No poetry could be further removed from a popular style, than that in which this ode is cast; except in an occasional stanza of the following kind.
• Preserve, O Lord. within our hearts
The memory of thy favour,
And loses its sweet savour!
For these, and for our errors,
And sins that point their terrors,
But thy most dreaded instrument