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best poems evince a power of diction that is no more rivalled by his contemporaries than is his poetic insight. But his capital merit is, that he has done more for the sanity of his generation than any other writer.
"Laodamia" is almost entitled to that eminence in his literary performance which Landor gave it when he said, that "Wordsworth had now written a poem which might be fitly read in Elysium, and the gods and heroes might gather round to listen." I count that and the "Ode on Immortality" as the best.
Wordsworth has a religious value for his thoughts; but his inspirations are casual and insufficient, and he persists in writing after they are gone. No great poet needs so much a severely critical selection of the noble numbers from the puerile into which he often falls. Leigh Hunt said of him, that "he was a fine lettuce with too many outer leaves."
Byron's rare talent is conspicuously partial. He has not sweetness, nor solid knowledge, nor lofty aim. He had a rare skill for rhythm, unmatched facility of expression, a firm, ductile thread of gold. His rhymes do not suggest any restraint, but the utmost freedom, as the rules of the dance do not fetter the good dancer, but exhibit his natural grace. In his isolation he is starved for a purpose; and finding no material except of romance, - first, of corsairs, and Oriental robbers and harems, and, lastly, of satire, he revenges himself on society for its supposed distrust of him, by cursing it, and throwing himself on the side of its destroyers. His life was wasted; and its only result was this brilliant gift of song with which he soothed his chosen exile. I do not know that it can retain for another generation the charm it had for his contemporaries; but the security with which he pours these perfectly modulated verses to any extent, without any sacrifice of sense for the sake of metre, surprises the reader.
Tennyson has incomparable felicity in all poetic forms, surpassing in melody also, and is a brave, thoughtful Englishman, unmatched in rhythmic power and variety. The thoroughness with which the fable has been thought out, as in the account of the supreme influence of Arthur on his knights, is only one of his triumphs. The passion of love in his "Maud" found a new celebration, which woke delight wherever the English language is known; the "Dirge of Wellington" was a more magnificent monument than any or all of the histories that record that commander's life. Then the variety of his poems discloses the wealth and the health of his mind. Nay, some of his words are poems.
The selections from American writers are necessarily confined to the present century; but some of them have secured a wide fame. Some of them are recent, and have yet to earn their laurels. I have inserted only one of the remarkable poems of Forceythe Willson, a young Wisconsin poet of extraordinary promise, who died very soon after this was written. The poems of a lady who contents herself with the initials H. H. in her book published in Boston (1874) have rare merit of thought and expression, and will reward the reader for the careful attention which they require. The poem of "Sir Pavon and Saint Pavon," by another hand, has a dangerous freedom of style, but carries in it rare power and pathos.
The imagination wakened brings its own language, and that is always musical. It may or may not have rhyme or a fixed metre ; but it will always have its special music or tone. Whatever language the bard uses, the secret of tone is at the heart of the poem. Every great master is such by this power, Chaucer and Shakspeare and Raleigh and Milton and Collins and Burns and Byron and Tennyson and Wolfe. The true inspiration always brings it. Perhaps it cannot be analyzed; but we all yield to it. It is the life of the good ballads; it is in the German hymns
which Wesley translated; it is in the "Marseillaise" of Rouget de Lisle; it gave their value to the chants of the old Romish and of the English Church; and it is the only account we can give of their wonderful power on the people. Poems may please by their talent and ingenuity; but, when they charm us, it is because they have this quality, for this is the union of nature with thought.
R. W. E.