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ODE TO EVENING
booksellers had little employment; and as he had but scanty means of subsistence except by his pen,
gave way in the struggle for existence; he bore up for a little against clouds that he felt to be gathering on his reason, was confined for some time in a madhouse, and died, at the age of thirty-nine, in the year of Barns's birth, 1759. Collins is best known by his Ode on "The Passions,"
“ but incomparably his finest and most distinctive work is the “Ode to Evening.” The superior popularity of “The Passions” is easily explained. It might be recited at a penny reading, and every line of its strenuous rhetoric would tell ; every touch would be at once appreciated. But the beauties of the “Ode to Evening” are of a much stronger kind, and the structure of it is infinitely more complicated :
“ If aught of oaten stop, or pastoral song,
Like thy own solemn springs,
Now air is hush’d, save where the weak-ey'd bat,
Or when the beetle winds
“ As oft he rises 'midst the twilight path,
Now teach me, maid compos'd,
“Whose numbers stealing through thy darkening vale,
As musing slow, I hail
“While Spring shall pour his showers, as oft he wont,
While Summer loves to sport
“While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves,
Affrights thy shrinking train,
“So long, regardful of thy quiet rule,
Thy gentlest influence own,
It gains nothing from being read aloud. It is a poem to be taken into the mind slowly ; you cannot take possession of it without effort. Give a quiet evening to it ; return to it again and again ; master the meaning of it deliberately part by part, and let the whole sink into your mind softly and gradually, and you will not regret the labor. You will find yourselves in possession of a perpetual delight, of a music that will make the fall of evening forever charming to you. Difficulty is not necessarily a virtue in a poem, but neither is it necessarily a defect. The poet who fixes a rare and evanescent mood in harmonious rhythm and imagery, thus making it a permanent possibility for the human race, cannot always build his new and delightful home for the imagination out of common materials, and the workmanship with which he adorns it may be curious and intricate. Such a pleasure-house is often built up by abstruse workings of the imagination, in regions far above the prosaic level, and the spirit must shake off its natural slothfulness before it can rise with the poet and enter into and take possession of the home that he has made for it.
A distinction has been drawn between the poet and the orator. The poet, it has been said, is essentially an egotist, expressing what he feels without caring how it may affect others; whereas the orator is essentially a sympathetic man, always considering the effect of his expression upon others; striving to look at what he says
COLLINS AND GRAY COMPARED
from their point of view, or, as Mr. Gladstone once put it, receiving from his audience in a vapor what he gives back to them in a flood. I confess that I don't attach much value to such distinctions. They are always half truths. Nearly every thing that has been said by poets in the way of general truth about poetry is not even quarter truth, because each puts his own practice as if it were a universal rule. All poets express their own emotions, more or less, and all poets are more or less influenced by their audience. Still the degree in which they are self-centred, or liable to be disturbed by outside influence, constitutes a marked difference in
a character, and, properly qualified, this distinction between the poet and the orator serves to illustrate the difference between Collins and Gray. It is this difference that Mr. Swinburne has in his mind when he says that, “ as a
as a lyric poet, Gray is unworthy to sit at the feet of Collins,” and that “there was but one man in the time of Collins who had in him a note of pure lyric song, a pulse of inborn music irresistible and indubitable”-namely, Collins himself. Comparatively speak. ing, Collins sang to gratify his own feelings, beginning when the impulse was on him, and leaving off when he was satisfied ; Gray considered in what mood his song would find his audience, how he could seize their atten. tion, how sustain and increase it, and how leave them deeply impressed at the end. Gray, in short, wrote with a deliberate eye to the effect to be produced on his reader.
Even in the “Elegy,” which reads like a spontaneous outburst of feeling, this is apparent if you look at the construction of it. You will find a regular symmetrical division in it, an arrangement of facts such that the reader, though he passes from one train of thought to another, is not kept too long in one mood, not wearied by reflections in the same vein. The variety is studied and carefully proportioned. Gray deliberately suppressed one stanza, because to have put it in would have made too long a parenthesis :
“There scattered oft, the earliest of the year,
By hands unseen are show'rs of violets found ;
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.”
The stanza is beautiful in itself ; some have gone so far as to say that it contains purer poetry than any of the stanzas that were retained ; but Gray decided that it would be out of proportion, and sacrificed it.
In the “Eton College," again, the change from emotion to emotion, the balance of the parts, the pathetic humor of the conclusion, which recalls and binds together and suffuses the whole, must strike every-body who reflects for a moment on the construction of the poem. The effect of the whole, and of each part as contributing to the whole, has been elaborately calculated, elaborately, and yet with such vividness of emotional insight that there is no trace of labor. Stanza follows stanza as if by spontaneous growth, and the concluding reflection arises as if by irresistible suggestion.
It has been made a point of distinction between Gray and the lyric poets of this century, Wordsworth and Byron more particularly, that in their lyrics they express purely personal emotion, feelings peculiar to themselves. They take us into confidence, as it were, about their own concerns, and invite our sympathy, which we cannot give unless we sympathize with their characters. Gray, on the other hand, suppresses himself, and strives to interpret emotions that all men must feel in presence of the subject of his verse. This is certainly true of the “Elegy "and the “Ode on Eton College." These are not expressions of individual feeling, like Byron's “Farewell to England," or some of Wordsworth's “ Solitary Reaper"; they express melancholy and humorous reflections common to all mankind, as
JOHNSON CONTRASTED WITH GRAY
common as the fact of death and the heedless enjoyment of the present by the young.
But it is dangerous to generalize about poets. The emotions to which lyrical expression is given in the “Progress of Poesy” and the “Bard” are as purely individual as the most singular of Wordsworth's meditations on rustic life. Johnson's criticisms of these wonderful wonders of wonders, as he called them, are savage and unsparing. Sometimes this is attributed to personal jealousy. It is a superficial view, and unjust to the great critic. It is true that Johnson manifests a good-humored contempt for Gray's character. We can easily understand this when we consider the circumstances of the two men. Gray was a Fellow of a College in Cambridge, precise, finicking, and reserved in manner. The dignified little man had few intimates ; he was a great reader, a scholar of marvellously wide range, reputed the most learned man in Europe. But, as Johnson saw and said, he did very little with his learning. Five or six poems was not a great result of so much reading. We can easily understand that the indefatigable producer under difficulties, the sturdy, strenuous, companionable giant of Bolt Court, Fleet Street,-a very different locality from Peterhouse, Cambridge,-would have little sympathy with such a man. Beneath Gray's reserved exterior there was great depth of feeling; and with all his minute scholarship he was a man of large and comprehensive views. Constitutional melancholy and self-distrust seem to have been the secrets of his small amount of production. But this was not known fully to the world till after his death. He never spoke out during his life. Any apparent injustice done him by Johnson was due to a want of knowledge that was not possible to Johnson when he wrote. And as regards the Odes, we can understand Johnson's want of sympathy without ascribing any part of it to personal jealousy. They appeal really to scholars