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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Volksthuemlichkeit of the Homeric poems


Yet

even in this critical department, German literary historians credit England with the initiative. Hettner[15] mentions three English critics, in particular, as predecessors of Herder in awakening interest in popular poetry. These were Edward Young, the author of "Night Thoughts," whose "Conjectures on Original Composition" was published in 1759: Robert Wood, whose "Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer" (1768) was translated into German, French, Spanish, and Italian; and Robert Lowth, Bishop of Oxford, who was Professor of Poetry at Oxford delivered there in 1753 his "Praelectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum," translated into English and German in 1793. The significance of Young's brilliant little essay, which was in form a letter addressed to the author of "Sir Charles Grandison," lay in its assertion of the superiority of genius to learning and of the right of genius to be free from rules and authorities. It was a sort of literary declaration of independence; and it asked, in substance, the question asked in Emerson's "Nature": "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" Pope had said, in his "Essay on Criticism,"[16] "follow Nature," and in order to follow Nature, learn the rules and study the ancients, particularly Homer. "Nature and Homer were the same." Contrariwise, Young says: "The less we copy the renowned ancients, we shall resemble them the more. . . Learning . . . is a great lover of rules and boaster of famed examples . .
. and sets rigid bounds to that liberty to which genius often owes its supreme glory. . . Born _originals_, how comes it to pass that we die _copies_?. . . Let not great examples or authorities browbeat thy reason into too great a diffidence of thyself. . . While the true genius is crossing all public roads into fresh untrodden ground; he [the imitative writer], up to the knees in antiquity, is treading the sacred footsteps of great examples with the blind veneration of a bigot saluting the sacred toe." Young asserts that Shakspere is equal in greatness to the ancients: regrets that Pope did not employ blank verse in his translation of Homer, and calls Addison's "Cato" "a piece of statuary."

Robert Wood, who visited and described the ruins of Balbec and Palmrya, took his Iliad to the Troad and read it on the spot. He sailed in the track of Menelaus and the wandering Ulysses; and his acquaintance with Eastern scenery and life helped to substitute a fresher apprehension of Homer for the somewhat conventional conception that had prevailed through the classical period. What most forcibly struck Herder and Goethe in Wood's essay was the emphasis laid upon the simple, unlettered, and even barbaric state of society in the heroic age: and upon the primitive and popular character (_Urspruenglichkeit, Volksthuemlichkeit_) of the Homeric poems.[17] This view of Homer, as essentially a minstrel or ballad-maker, has been carried so far in Professor Newman's translations as to provoke remonstrance from Matthew Arnold, who insists upon Homer's "nobility" and "grand style."[18] But with whatever exaggeration it may have latterly been held, it was wholesomely corrective and stimulating when propounded in 1768.

Though the final arrival of German romanticism, in its fullness, was postponed too late to modify the English movement, before the latter had spent its first strength, yet the prelude was heard in England and found an echo there. In 1792 Walter Scott was a young lawyer at Edinburgh and had just attained his majority.

"Romance who loves to nod and sing With drowsy head and folded wing, To _him_ a painted paroquet Had been--a most familiar bird-- Taught _him_ his alphabet to say, To lisp his very earliest word."[19]


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