Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

past times, and kept alive by sympathy with them, or engendered by the peculiar circumstances of the circle of people whom it pervades. Go into churches of widely different sects, for example, and you seem to breathe different atmospheres—a different spirit pervades them ; the “full force and joint result ” of ornament and ritual and sermon is somehow different. You might find it hard, if you fixed on details, to say where the difference lies ; the same sermon that is preached in one might have been preached in the other; the same hymns might have been sung ; yet we feel under the influence of a different spirit. And further, these various churches have probably less in common with each other, though they mix in the same age, than they have with the churches of past ages, each of them perpetuating a traditional spirit of its own, and perhaps making it a point of honor to keep that unchanged.

The same holds in poetry. A poet writes under the influence of a certain spirit, a certain social medium, which shapes and colors what he writes. To discover this we must look not only at the general character of his age, but also at the character of his immediate audience, of the circle in which he moves. We must study his relations with them, whether they are relations of barmony, as in the case of Pope, or relations of antagonism, as in the case of Byron. And we can't expect to get at this subtle spirit by studying isolated details, and arguing about them. My object in last lecture was to impress this fact upon you in the case of eighteenth-century poetry. There is a something in the spirit of eighteenth-century poetry which the critics of this century, broadly speaking, do not like. They complain that the eighteenth century is barren of true poetry. And they often set to work to account for this by fastening on details of form, and diction, and imagery, and metre. Some say the barrenness is due to subservience to ancient rules, others to an exclusive am

INFLUENCE OF SOCIETY ON POETRY

49

[ocr errors]

bition after witty expression, others to a slavish attachment to one kind of metre.

Now, in the first place, I think they exaggerate the barrenness of the century. It is often spoken of as if there were no good poetry then, whereas It was only comparatively deficient in certain kinds. And, in the second place, we do not satisfactorily account for the deficiency in certain kinds if we look at details by themselves. We must look at them in connection with the spirit of the society for which Pope wrote.v, The spirit of this society accounts not only for much that was in Pope's poetry, but also for much that was in the two following generations, because the traditions of this society were maintained after Pope's time, its spirit was transmitted as the dominant spirit in literature till the end of the cen. tury. There were revolts against it in the poetry of Thomson and Dyer, and Gray and Collins, and Burns and Cowper, but, on the whole, it maintained its hold. Its supremacy was not, indeed, shaken till Wordsworth and Byron raised the standard of rebellion, and the majority at once in fact, and gradually in open avowal, went over to them. My

The society that imposed the laws of taste in poetry in Pope's time was, as I said, an aristocratic society, self-consciously so, as it could hardly fail to be when high and low, rich and poor, were marked off from each other by such conspicuous differences of dress and manners as they moved about in their daily lifeIt was not only self-consciously but superciliously aristocratic. Sympathy with the simple feelings of unfashionable folk was rare in those days. Now, in such a society

ya one ruling motive-except, of course, among persons of natural hardihood or assured position in it—is fear of vulgarity, resulting in a disposition to treat as vulgarve whatever is done by people outside the pale of fashion. Many details might be urged against this view, but I think it must be allowed that this is a very prevalent motive,

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Let us see, then, how this prevalent motive would operate on poetry, supposing the poet to be under its influence. It would affect both his choice of subjects and his manner of treating them. Nature, Pope said, is “at once the source and test of art.” But Nature is a vague term, which each person interprets as meaning his own nature, and that must always be interpenetrated by the spirit of a man's social surroundings, the spirit prevalent among his companions. The Nature from which Pope chose his themes was either human nature as he saw it in fashionable society, or human nature so treated as not to offend their susceptibilities. Pope's conception of Nature did not lead him to go, like Wordsworth, to simple country-people for bis subjects, and for his diction to “the natural language of man in a state of intense emotion.” “True wit,” he said,

"

by wit meaning poetic expression,-is “Nature to advantage dressed." This casual metaphor in the

Essay on Criticism ” takes us nearer to the centre of Pope's ideal of poetic expression, which was also the ideal of his age, than any other single passage in his writings.

Let us take an example of what a refined contemporary of his, writing in the Guardian about Philips's “Pastorals," considered the dressing of Nature to advantage:

“ I will get add another mark, which may be observed very often in the above-named poets, which is agreeable to the character of shepherds, and nearly allied to superstition: I mean the use of proverbial sayings. I take the common similitudes in pastoral to be of the proverbial order, which are so frequent that it is needless and would be tiresome to quote them. I shall only take notice upon this head, that it is a nice piece of art to raise a proverb above the vulgar style, and still keep it easy and unaffected. Thus the old wish, 'God rest his soul,' is finely turned :

a

[blocks in formation]
[ocr errors]

“Then gentle Sidney liv'd, the shepherd's friend,

Eternal blessings on his shade attend.' So easy a metamorphosis as this Pope would have despised, for the poetic dress of nature is esteemed according to the poet's originality and ingenuity in constructing it. Pope, on the contrary, would have required such an expression as only a man of genius could devise after much toil. In a “ Treatise on the Art of Sinking in Poetry,"-one of the miscellanies published conjointly by Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot,- you will find that Pope ridicules simple expressions and the raising of language above the vulgar style, enforcing his opinion by specimens of bathos culled from the poets of the time ; e.g.: “ Who knocks at the door ?” becomes when raised above the vulgar:

For whom thus rudely pleads my loud-tongued gate,

That he may enter ?or Theobald's elevation of “Open the letter” into the sounding line, “ Wax ! render up thy trust.”

If you look at Pope's poetry closely, you find that though he avoided easy elevations he did think it necessary to use language which now seems affected and insincere. In this you see him influenced by the spirit of his age. In his “ Messiah," published in the Spectator (May 14, 1712), and considered by critics of the time to be a very fine poem and an improvement on Isaiah, whose prophecy we think grand in its simplicity, we clearly see this influence at work. For example, in Isaiah (xli. 19) we have : “I will set in the desert the firtree, and the pine, and the box-tree together," while Pope describes the change as follows:

Waste, sandy valleys, once perplex'd with thorn,

The spicy fir and shapely box adorn.” For Isaiah's phrase "the suckling child ” Pope has got “the smiling infant,” and the whole poem is full of

[ocr errors]

similar examples. So, too, we find many examples of bad taste in bis translation of Homer, for Pope considered it necessary through the whole of that work to dress Homer to advantage for the fashionable society of Queen Anne's time.

That society would have ridiculed Achilles weeping by the side of Thetis, and accordingly Pope “elevates" the passage thus :

“Far in the deep recesses of the main,
Where aged Ocean holds his watery reign,
The goddess-mother heard. The waves divide ;
And, like a mist, she rose above the tide :
Beheld him mourning on the naked shores ;
And thus the sorrows of his soul explores.'

[ocr errors]

Pope has not rendered the touching simplicity which Homer achieves without infringing, to our modern ideas, on the dignity of his heroic characters. In the case of minor poets of the time this elevation of diction is not always achieved with the same taste that Popemaster of language--showed. In the translation of the “Odyssey,” in which Pope was assisted by two coadjutors, the magnifying of the incidents is less skilfully managed and the affectation becomes more apparent. We may cite for this purpose that passage in the sixth book of the “Odyssey ” where Odysseus discovers Nausicaa and her maidens at the stream. The affectation in the poetical translation is apparent when we compare it with the prose version by Butcher and Lang : “ Then they took the garments from the wain in their hands, and bore them to the black water, and briskly trod them down in the trenches, in busy rivalry. Now when they had washed and cleansed all the stains, they spread all out in order along the shore of the deep, even where the sea, in beating on the coast, washed the pebbles clean. Then, having bathed, and anointed them well with olive oil, they took their mid-day meal on the

« EdellinenJatka »