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POETRY AND PROSE,
EIGHTH ERA OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.
FROM THE DEATH OF JOHNSON IN 1784 A.D. TO THE DEATH OF
SCOTT IN 1832 A.D.
SOME NOTES ON POETRY AND CRITICISM.
Poetry and prose.
Use of figures.
WAEN we turn from Milton's “Paradise Lost” to Macaulay's “ History of England,” we perceive at once a difference in the language of the two. The one we call poetry; the other, prose. And when we recollect that we do not talk, at least most of us do not talk, to our friends in the same style as that in which Milton describes the Council of Infernal Peers, or Macaulay the Relief of Londonderry, we perceive that language assumes a third, its lowest form, in the conversation that prevails around our dinner tables, or upon our pleasant country walks. Of the three shapes that language takes — poetry, literary prose, colloquial prose-poetry is, undoubtedly, the chief.
Taking English poetry in the common sense of the word, as a peculiar form of language, we find that it differs from prose mainly in having a regular succession of accented syllables. In short, it possesses metre as its chief characteristic feature. Every line is divided into so many feet, composed of short and long syllables arranged according to certain laws of prosody. With a regular foot-fall the voice steps or marches along the line, keeping
time like the soldier on drill, or the musician among his bars. In many languages syllables have a quantity, which makes them intrinsically long or short; but in English poetry that syllable alone is long on which an accent falls. Poets, therefore, in the use of that license which they have, or take, sometimes shift an accent, to suit their measure. The inversion of the order of words, within certain limits, is a necessary consequence of throwing language into a metrical form. Poetry, then, differs from prose, in the first place, in having metre; and, as a consequence of this, in adopting an unusual arrangement of words and phrases. The object of inverting the order, however, is often not so much to suit the metre as to give additional emphasis or rhetorical effect.
But we find more than this in poetry, else poetry and verse are one and the same thing. That they are not, we know to our cost, when we are compelled to wade through some of those productions which throng our booksellers' windows at times,—without, all mauve and gleaming gold-within, all barrenness and froth.
We must have, in addition to the metrical form, the use of uncommon words and turns of expression, to lift the language above the level of written prose. Shakspere, instead of saying, as he would, no doubt, have done in telling a ghost-story to his wife, “The clock then striking one," puts into the mouth of the sentinel, Bernardo, “ The bell then beating one." When Thomson describes the spring-ploughing, the ox becomes a steer, the plough is the shining share, and the upturned earth appears in his verse as the glebe. The use of periphrase (the round-about mode of expression) here comes largely to the poet's aid. Birds are children of the sky, songsters of the grove, tuneful choirs, &c. ; ice is a crystal floor, or a sheet of polished steel. These are almost all figurative forms, and it is partly by the abundant use of figures that the higher level of speech is gained.
Yet there is something beyond all this. Smoothly the metre may flow on, without a bitch or hinderance-brilliantly the tropes may cluster in each shining line-lofty as a page of the “Rambler” may be the tone of the faultless speech-yet, for all, the composition may fall short of true poetry. There is a something,
THE ESSENCE OF POETRY.
an essence, which most of us can feel when present, or at once detect the lack of, which is yet entirely indefinable.
We are as little able to define the essence of poetry as to describe the fragrance of a rose, or the nature of that mysterious fluid which shows itself in a flash of lightning and draws the needle towards the north. Let us be content to enjoy the sweet effect of that most subtile cause, which has baffled the acutest thinkers in their attempts to give it “ a local habitation and a name.” Lying, as it does, in the thought, we can no more express it in words than we can assign a shape or colour to the human soul. It is the electric fluid of the soul, streaming always through the world of thought and speech and writing, flashing out occasionally into grand thunder-bursts of song and the lightning play of true genius. Some minds are highly charged with the brilliant essence -positive minds, an electrician would call them: others are negative to the last degree. Some minds, as good conductors, can easily receive and give out the flow of thought; very many have no conducting power at all, being incapable alike of enjoying the pleasures of poetry, or of communicating those pleasures to other minds.
All poetry, so far as its form goes, may be classed, for purposes of convenience, under three heads—Epic, Dramatic, and Lyric. Blair defines the Epic poem to be “ a recital of some illustrious enterprise in a poetic form.” To this it may be added that the epic poem is generally composed in the highest form of verse that the prosody of the language possesses--in a word, in the heroic measure of the tongue. Milton's “ Paradise Lost” is undoubtedly the great epic of the English tongue, founded upon one of the loftiest themes that could employ any pen, and written in that stately blank-verse, that noble iambic pentameter, which holds the place in our tongue that is held in Greek and Latin by the hexameter of the “Iliad" and the “ Æneid.”
Dramatic poetry assumes the form that we commonly call a play, breaking into the two branches,—Tragedy and Comedy. We can easily single out a great example here amongour English authors; for one name—that of Shakspere-stands far above the crowd of
THREE FORMS OF POETRY,
his brother dramatists. Without being at all strictly true, there is a good deal of sense in a familiar mode of distinguishing tragedy from comedy-namely, that a tragedy completes its plot with the death of the principal characters, while a comedy is sure to end in their marriage. The tragedy, like the epic poem, generally adopts the leading measure of the tongue; the language of prose better suits the lower level of comedy, which depicts the scenes of every-day life rather than the great sufferings or great crimes that form the proper material for a tragic poem. A tragedy, in its usual form, contains five acts, each act consisting of a variable number of
The third, or central act, is the natural place for the crisis of the plot; and the fifth for the catastrophe, or wind-up smash of the whole. Thus, in “Hamlet," the play-scene and the fencingscene are so arranged, that we have a central point as well as a final point of interest; and in “ Julius Cæsar,” the murder at the Capitol and the battle of Philippi are placed upon the same artistic principle. By writers of the Artificial school much attention is paid to preserving the three unities of action, place, and time. The need of making all the incidents tend to one great centre of the plot, and thus preserving the unity of action, is very manifest; for nothing is more confusing than the attempt to carry on several plots within the same play. But the need of sticking always to one place, and of confining the time supposed to pass in the dramatic story to the few hours actually spent in the representation of the play, does not so manifestly appear, when we find our greatest dramatist continually violating both of these unities without in the least marring the effect of his magnificent creations.
Of Lyric poetry, which is composed chiefly of songs and short poems, such as might be set to music, the works of Robert Burns afford our finest example. Thomas Moore, too, in his “ Irish Melodies" has given us some splendid lyrics ; but there is in these considerably more of the artificial than we find in the sweet fresh verses of the Ayrshire peasant.
We have used the word “school” in speaking of poetry. It is applied, as well in literature as in art, to a set of men whose works
VARIOUS SCHOOLS OF POETRY.
are founded on a certain known principle, which appears in all as a distinctive feature. Thus we have that Metaphysical or Unnatural school, of which the poet Donne was head-boy; we have the Artificial or French school, represented by Dryden and Pope; the Transition school, of which Thomson, Gray, and Collins are good specimens; the Lake school, deriving its name from the fact that its founders, Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge, lived for the most part among the lakes of northern England; and the German school, of which Tennyson and Longfellow are the modern exemplars. These are the “schools” to which most frequent reference is made by critics.
We close this rambling chapter with another note. Two metaphysical words, objective and subjective, have been much used of late in reference to the poetic treatment of a theme. The former expresses chiefly the picturing of outward life, as perceived by the senses of the observer, or realized by his fancy: of this style, Scott is one of the greatest masters. The latter denotes that kind of poetry which gives, instead of the outward scene, the various thoughts and feelings excited by it in the poet's mind. For example, let a deserted house be the subject. The objective poet paints the moss-grown steps—the damp-stained walls--the garden tangling with a wilderness of weeds—the rusty hinges of the door -the broken or dirt-incrusted panes of the closed windows; while the subjective poet broods over the probable history of its scattered tenants, or, attracted by a solemn resemblance, conjures up the image of a human body—this house of clay we all inhabit -deserted by its immortal inmate—its eyes, “those windows of the soul," closed and sealed up in the long sleep of death.