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ALLEGED MONOTONY OF HEROIC COUPLETS
Wordsworth and Coleridge and Scott, were not rhetori. cally brilliant; their rhetoric was ineffective; they were simply dull; and we can hardly say that they failed as poets because they tried to be rhetoricians. They would probably have been dull in any case.
Another way of accounting for the eighteenth-century barrenness is to ascribe it to the monotony of the Kversification. W Macaulay speaks as if every aspiring poet thought couplets the only permissible form. Pope used only the couplet, and, it is often said, brought it to such mechanical perfection that any versifier after him could turn out smooth, and finished, and melodious couplets with as much ease as a machine cuts wood into blocks of a given size. Pope imposed restrictions upon himself ; such as that each couplet must end with a break in the sense, that an extra syllable must be admitted only in one place, and that the metrical pauses must fall only in certain places. The eighteenth-century poets followed him till the world became weary of heroic couplets.
This theory also will not bear examination. Couplets are not necessarily monotonous ; witness Chaucer's “Knight's Tale," Marlowe's “Hero and Leander," Keats's “"
Endymion,” Swinburne’s “Tristram and Iseult.” Monotony in the case of the couplet does not arise from the poet putting himself under strict conditions. We do not find Pope's couplets monotonous, if we are interested in the subject. He leaves himself room enough for variety within his limits.
The poems of Hoole, and Hayley, and Mickle, and Mason, and Darwin are monotonous in rhythm, not because they wrote couplets, but because they wrote bad couplets, and would have been equally monotonous if they had written in any other stanza. No doubt writing in a strictly fettered rhythm imposes a greater strain upon the poet ; but if he has power to stir our feelings profoundly, the regularity of the rhythm, keep
ing the passion of his theme within bounds, gives him a stronger hold upon us. If there is no intense life in what he has to say to us, there is of course nothing to moderate; and he will not interest us any the more whatever gymnastic feats he performs in the way of rhythm, any more than a musician can hold us spellbound by flourishes from top to bottom of the scale.
Besides, the eighteenth century poets did not, as a matter of fact, enslave themselves to the couplet as the only permissible form.
It was not slavish submission to the ancients, nor to the heroic couplet, nor to the demand for rhetorical brilliancy, that kept so much of the poetry at a low level. We are only scratching on the surface of an explanation when we adopt any such theory. Nor will it do to say that the eighteenth-century was an age of prose ; that its mission was to form the prose style of English literature. We wish to know why it was an age of prose-why it adopted this mission. Nor will it do to say that it held a false theory of poetic diction. We wish to get at the feeling that made them satisfied with their conventional diction as the right thing.
We must look away from such details if we are to understand the eighteenth century, and look at poetic productions as wholes. Take the works of the leaders of the great poetic revival of this century-Wordsworth, Scott, Byron. In what broad respects do they differ from all the works of the eighteenth century ? The form of their poems, in a large sense of the word, is new, and their vein of feeling is new. They treat new themes in a new way, and with a new spirit. Ab Above all, they give serious expression to their own personal emotions. Consider the new form of the “ Lay of the Last Minstrel,” the first genuinely popular poem, interesting to all classes, between the time of Queen Anne and the nineteenth century-a metrical romance regularly constructed, with perfect unity of action,
DEFECTS OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY POETRY
incidents all helping forward the progress of the story through various complications to a dénouement. No
had ever been written before ; it was a new form in poetry-classical regularity of form, combined with romantic freedom of incident. Then the spirit of the poem—the serious epic treatment of the necromancing lady of Branksome Hall, the Goblin page, the wizard, and the bold moss-trooper. We have nothing like this in the eighteenth century. In Pope's time such personages would either have been burlesqued or treated with affected respect, such as a grown-up person would use toward fairies and hobgoblins in telling stories about them to a child. Taken as a whole, in form and spirit, the “Lay” was a new thing in literature. The
a same may be said of “Childe Harold.” Here also we find a new kind of epic, such as the general writers on epic poetry had never contemplated, the hero of which is not a mythical king like Prince Arthur, or a personified virtue moving in Faeryland like Spenser's Red Cross Knight, or Guyon, or Britomart, but a modern man moving in modern scenes. Wordsworth also is new in form as well as in spirit. No poet before him had dared to shut himself up in the country and choose, as the subject of his verse, his own personal emotions and reflections as aroused by the moving spectacle of sky and mountain and glen, and the homely life of ordinary rustics. He wrote a kind of pastoral poetry that had not been legislated for by the technical lawgivers of the art.
The serious expression in new forms of intense and generous personal emotion is a broad characteristic of the nineteenth-century revival. Now we can understand why the poets of the eighteenth century failed in the artistic expression of serious and generous feeling. The main defects of their poetry can be traced to one source—the character of the audience for whose judgment they had respect, by whose ideals they were con
trolled, who were to them the arbiters of taste. The standard of taste in the time of Queen Anne, and till near the end of the century, was a self-consciously aristocratic and refined society, self-conscious of their superior manners and superior culture, and disposed to treat the ways of the vulgar with amused contempt. This, I think, can be shown to be at the root of the striv. ing after wit and the respect for established models, and the false theory of poetic diction in serious poetry. Fear of being vulgar, fear of being singular—these were the real nightmares that sat upon eighteenthcentury poetry.
INFLUENCE OF IDEAS ON POETRY-SPIRIT OF THE AGE-INFLU
ENCE OF SOCIETY ON POPE-GAY'S BALLADS
I am not sure that you all followed what I said in my last lecture about the influences that formed the poetic ideals of the eighteenth century. By the poetic ideals of a generation I mean the ideas prevalent among those interested in poetry as to what poetry should be-the sentiments that they wish to find in poetry, the intellectual, or moral, or emotional cravings for which they seek satisfaction in poetry. But, you may ask, How can this be said to make poetry? Is it not the poet who makes the poetry ? · Yes ; but he makes it in harmony with—or, if he is a defiant man, in antagonism to-the
— poetic ideals of the men with whom he mixes and for whom he writes. You have heard of the spirit of the age-an intangible something that sets its mark upon all the works of a generation of men : their books, their architecture, their dress, their commercial enterprises, their institutions. What I mean by the poetic ideal is the working of this spirit upon poetry. I am inclined to think myself that people sometimes speak of this spirit of the age in too unqualified terms, as if every thing came under its influence. Now, many things escape its influence, as you recognize when you speak of things or persons being behind the age ; it is only the most distinctive products of the age that feel its shaping, its generative force. And besides, there may be more than one spirit in a generation, each with its own range of influence, handed down, it may be, from