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The progress of the nation page 12


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About this time two publications occurred, whish produced long and violent controversies - those of the pretended " Poems of Rowley," by Chatterton, and "Ossian's Poems," by Macpherson. Chatterton, who was the articled clerk of an attorney at Bristol, a mere youth, pretended that he had discovered Rowley's poems in the muniment room of the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. These poems, written on yellow parchment, and in a most antiquated style, by a boy of sixteen, were palmed upon the world as the genuine productions of one Thomas Rowley, and took in Horace Walpole and other literary antiquaries, very wise in their own conceit. As the productions of a boy of that age these poems are marvellous, and nothing besides which Chatterton, in his short, neglected life, produced approached them in merit. This, too, was the case with Macpherson, who professed to have collected the poems of Ossian, an old bard of Morven, in the Highlands, and simply translated them into English. He was warmly accused of having written them himself; but as Chatterton, so McPherson’s, steadily denied the authorship of the poems thus introduced, and as in Chatterton's case, so in Macpherson, no other compositions of the professed collector ever bore any relation to these in merit. There can now be very little doubt that Macpherson founded his Ossianic poems on real originals to some extent; but that Chatterton, if he received Rowley's poems from Rowley, did so by inspiration.

For some time after the revival of true poetry, the old forms still hung about what in spirit was new. The last of the old school of any note may be said to have been Dr. Johnson and Dr. Darwin. Johnson was too thoroughly drilled into the dry, didactic fashion of the artificial past, he was too bigotedly self-willed to be capable of participating in the renovation. In fact, he never was more than a good versifier, one of that class who can win prizes for university themes on the true line and square system of metrical composition. His " London," a mere paraphrase of the third book of "Juvenal," and "The Vanity of Human Wishes" are precisely of that stamp. Johnson lived at the time of Chatterton's appearance, but lie completely ignored him, and he ridiculed the simplicity of the poems introduced by bishop Percy by absurd parodies on them, as -

I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand;
And there I met another man,
With his hat in his hand.

And,

If the man who turnips cries,
Cries not when his father dies,
'Tis a sign that he had rather
Have a turnip than his father.

As for the poems of Ossian, he made a violent attack upon them in his " Tour to the Western Isles."

Dr. Darwin assumed the hopeless task of chaining poetry to the car of science. He was a physician of Derby, and, like Sir Richard Blackmore, " rhymed to the rumbling of his own coach wheels; " for we are told that he wrote his verses as he drove about to his patients. His great poem is the " Botanic Garden," in which he celebrates the loves of the plants and "his " Economy of Vegetation," in which he introduces all sorts of mechanical inventions. Amongst the rest he announces the triumphs of steam in sonorous rhymes -

Soon shall thy arm, unconquered Steam! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car:
And he celebrates the compass in equally imposing heroics
Hail, adamantine steel'. magnetic lord:
King of the prow, the ploughshare, and the sword!
True to the pole, by thee the pilot guides
His steady helm amid the struggling tides;
Braves, with broad sail, the immeasurable sea;
Cleaves the dark air, and asks no star but thee!

This style of verse was thought very magnificent by Anna Seward, of Lichfield, who was intimate with Darwin when he lived there in his earlier career, and who herself was a poetess of some pretension. Miss Seward, however, showed better judgment in being amongst the first to point out the rising fame of Southey and Scott. The verse of Darwin brought Pope's metre to the highest pitch of magniloquence; and the use of the caesura gives it a perfectly Darwinian peculiarity. It has escaped remark that the versification of Campbell, in his " Pleasures of Hope," was palpably formed on the Darwin model: the same pompous invocations, the same sounding march of measure, the same abundant use of the caesura. The resemblance of style in the two poets is so perfect, that to one who had not read them before, passages from either writer would appear as from the same hand.

Thus, Darwin: -

Roll on, ye stars! exult in youthful prime,
Mark with light curves the printless steps of time;
Near and more near your heaving cars approach,
And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach; -
Flowers of the sky! ye, too, to age must yield,
Frail as your silken sisters of the field!
Star after star from heaven's high arch shall rush;
Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush.
Headlong, extinct, to one dark centre fall,
And death, and night, and chaos mingle all!
Till o'er the wreck, emerging from the storm,
Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form,
Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,
And soars and shines, another and the same.
Take then a passage, the first which comes, from Campbell: -
Oh! deep enchanting prelude to repose,
The dawn of bliss, the twilight of our woes!
Yet half I hear the parting spirit sigh,
It is a dread and awful thing to die!
Mysterious worlds, untravelled by the sun,
Where Time's far-wandering tide has never run;
From your unfathomed shades, and viewless spheres,
A warning comes, unheard by other ears
'Tis Heaven's commanding trumpet, long and loud,
Like Sinai's thunder, pealing from the cloud!
While Nature hears, in terror-mingled trust,
The shock that hurls her fabric to the dust;
And, like the trembling Hebrew, when he trod
The roaring waves, and called upon his God,
With mortal terrors clouds immortal bliss,
And shrieks and hovers o'er the dread abyss!

The poets of this period who most retained the robes of the past, without disguising the divine form within, were Crabbe and Cowper. The poetry of Crabbe, all written in the metre of Pope, is, nevertheless, instinct with the very soul of nature. It chooses the simplest, and often the least apparently lofty or agreeable topics, but it diffuses through these, and at the same time draws from them, a spirit and life that are essentially poetry. Nothing at the time that it appeared could look less like poetry. The description of a library, the dirty alleys, the pothouses, the sailors, and monotonous sea-shores in and about a maritime borough, struck the readers of the assumed sublime with astonishment and dismay. Can this be poetry? they asked. But those who had poetry in themselves - those in whom the heart of nature was strong, replied, Yes, the truest poetry. It is a torch, twisted of apparently very ordinary materials - the mere worn-out, tarred rope of some sea-boat; but it is guiding! you through the darkest channels of the human heart, and lighting up the murkiest purlieus of human life. Aye, what mysteries of iniquity that unpretending language unfolds, what mysteries of deepest pathos it pours forth! Nature smiles as the rude torch flickers past, and shows its varied forms in its truest shape. In his "Tales of the Hall" Crabbe entered on scenes which are commonly deemed more elevated; he came forward into the rural village, the rectory, and the manor-house; but everywhere he carried the same clear, faithful, analytical spirit, and read the most solemn lessons from the histories and the souls of men. Crabbe has been styled the Rembrandt of English poetic painting; but he is not merely a painter of the outward, he is the prober of the inward at the same time, who, with a hand that never trembles, depicts sternly the base nature, and drops soothing balm on the broken heart. Crabbe is an example of that humility recommended by our Saviour. He took the lowest place in the assembly of the poets, and the united voice, of the masters of that assembly called him up higher, and placed him amongst themselves, Cowper combined in his verse the polish of Pope with the freedom and force of Churchill. He possessed the satirical strength of Churchill, with a more gentle and Christian spirit. In Cowper broke forth the strongest, clearest sense which had distinguished any writer in prose or verse for generations. He painted nature like a lover, but with the truth of a great artist, and be flagellated the vices of society in the very highest quarters with unshrinking boldness; at the same time, with equal intrepidity, he advanced the assertions of a perfect faith in the religion of the Gospel, in the face of the hardest and most disdainful scepticism of the age. To the diplomatists, who vainly imagined that they guided human affairs, he demonstrated a higher and more real Director: -

They trust in navies, and their navies fail, -
God's curse can cast away ten thousand sail!
They trust in armies, and their courage dies:
In wisdom, wealth, in fortune, and in lies:
But all they trust in withers, and it must,
When He commands m whom they place no trust.

It was a curious fact, that whilst Cowper was haunted by the most agonising terrors of a nervous temperament, even to despair, his poetry breathes the most consolatory tone. Whilst his mind was often wandering in insanity, there in no composition so sane and so sound in intellectual substance as his. Though seldom indulging in high flights of imagination, yet his verse frequently rises into a richness and nobility of voice nearly equal to the prophetic - as in the following lines on the future: -

All creatures worship man, and all mankind
One Lord and Father. Error has no place;
That creeping pestilence is driven away;
The breath of Heaven has chased it. In the heart
No passion touches a discordant string,
But all is harmony and love. Disease
Is not; the pure and uncontaminate blood
Holds its due course, nor fears the frost of age.
One song employs all nations, and all cry,
"Worthy the Lamb, for he was slain for us!"
The dwellers in the vales and on the rocks
Shout to each other: and the mountain tops
From distant mountains catch the flying joy,
Till nation after nation, taught the strain,
Earth rolls the rapturous Hosanna round.
Behold the measure of the promise filled;
See Salem built, the labour of a God!
Bright as a sun the sacred city shines:
All kingdoms, and all princes of the earth
Flock to that light; the glory of all lands
Flows into her; unbounded is her joy,
And endless her increase. Thy rams are there,
Nebaioth, and the flocks of Kedar there:
Praise is in all her gates; upon her walls,
And in her streets, and in her spacious courts,
Is heard salvation. Eastern Java there
Kneels with the native of the farthest West;
And Ethiopia spreads abroad the hand,
And worships. Her report has travelled forth
Into all lands. From every clime they come
To see thy beauty, and to share thy joy,
O Sion! an assembly such as earth
Saw never, such as Heaven stoops down to see.
Thus heavenward all things tend. For all were once,
Perfect, and all must be at length restored.
So God has greatly purposed.

The " Lines on his Mother's Picture " exhibit the deep feeling of Cowper, and the ballad of " John Gilpin " the genuine mirth which often bubbled up in a heart so racked and tried with melancholy.

Contemporary with Cowper was Mrs. Tighe, the author of " Psyche," an allegorical poem, in which the beauty of the sentiment made acceptable that almost exploded form of composition. But there were at this period a number of writers who had much more false than true sentiment. The euphuism of the reign of queen Elizabeth broke forth in another fashion. A kind of poetical club was formed at Batheaston, the residence of lady Miller, near Bath. She and her guests, amongst whom was Miss Seward, wrote verses, which they published under the title of " Poetical Amusements." A still more flaunting school set themselves up amongst the English at Florence, one of whom, a Mr. Robert Merry, dubbed himself " Delia Crusca," whence the clique became called the " Delia Cruscan School." Amongst the members of it figured Mrs. Piozzi, the widow of Thrale, the brewer, Boswell, Johnson's biographer, Mary Robinson, the younger Colman, and Holcroft, the dramatist, with others of less name. They addressed verses to each other in the most florid and extravagant style under the names of " Rosa Matilda," " Laura Maria," " Orlando," and the like. The fashion was infectious; and not only were the periodicals flooded by such silly mutual flatteries, but volumes were published full of them. Gifford, the editor of the " Quarterly Review," and translator of " Juvenal," attacked this frenzy in a satire called the " Baviad," and continued the attack in the " Maeviad," which, however, was more particularly a censure on the degraded condition of the drama. This put an end to the nuisance, and Gifford won great fame by it; though, on referring to his two celebrated satires, we are surprised at their dulness, and are led to imagine that it was their heaviness which crushed these moths of literature. Gifford, who had been originally a shoemaker, had himself a great fame in his day, which must have been based on his formidable position as editor of the " Quarterly Review;" for though his productions are very well for a shoemaker, we cannot find a single trace of genius in them.

But whilst Gifford was thus demolishing an outbreak of bad taste, a much more remarkable evidence that those who lay claim to good taste frequently have it not was given by the appearance of several new plays and other documents attributed to Shakespeare. The chief of these was " Kynge Varrtygerne," a tragedy, edited by Samuel Ireland. Numbers of persons of high name and pretensions, as Dr. Parr, Boswell, Pye, the laureate, Chalmers, the editor of an edition of " British Poets," Pinkerton, a writer of all sorts of things, &c., became enthusiastic believers and admirers of these pretended discoveries. They turned out to be impudent forgeries by the son of the editor, named William Henry Ireland, and are, in reality, such trash, that they are a melancholy proof of how little value, from some learned persons, is the adoration of Shakespeare. Malone, in an "Enquiry" into the authenticity of these writings, in 1796, completely exposed their spuriousness. Pinkerton, one of their most zealous advocates, himself perpetrated a similar forgery of a volume of Scottish poems, issued as ancient ones. He enjoyed the particular patronage of Horace Walpole.

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