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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Thus mixing the lyric and epic styles


This kind of mensuration reminds one of the disputes between French critics as to whether the unity of time meant thirty hours, or twenty-four, or twelve, or the actual time that it took to act the play; or of the geometric method of the "Saturday papers" in the _Spectator_. Addison tries "Paradise Lost" by Aristotle's rules for the composition of an epic. Is it the narrative of a single great action? Does it begin _in medias res_, as is proper, or _ab ovo Ledae_, as Horace has said that an epic ought not? Does it bring in the introductory matter by way of episode, after the approved recipe of Homer and Vergil? Has it allegorical characters, contrary to the practice of the ancients? Does the poet intrude personally into his poem, thus mixing the lyric and epic styles? etc. Not a word as to Milton's puritanism, or his _Weltanschauung_, or the relation of his work to its environment. Nothing of that historical and sympathetic method--that endeavor to put the reader at the poet's point of view--by which modern critics, from Lessing to Sainte-Beuve, have revolutionized their art. Addison looks at "Paradise Lost" as something quite distinct from Milton: as a manufactured article to be tested by comparing it with standard fabrics by recognized makers, like the authors of the Iliad and Aeneid.

When the Queen Anne poetry took a serious turn, the generalizing spirit of the age led it almost always into the paths of ethical and didactic verse. "It stooped to truth and moralized its song," finding its favorite occupation in the sententious expression of platitudes--the epigram in satire, the maxim in serious work. It became a poetry of aphorisms, instruction us with Pope that

"Virtue alone is happiness below;"

or, with Young, that

"Procrastination is the thief of time;"

or, with Johnson, that

"Slow rises worth by poverty depressed."

When it attempted to deal concretely with the passions, it found itself impotent. Pope's "Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard" rings hollow: it is rhetoric, not poetry. The closing lines of "The Dunciad"--so strangely overpraised by Thackeray--with their metallic clank and grandiose verbiage, are not truly imaginative. The poet is simply working himself up to a climax of the false sublime, as an orator deliberately attaches a sounding peroration to his speech. Pope is always "heard," never "overheard."

The poverty of the classical period in lyrical verse is particularly significant, because the song is the most primitive and spontaneous kind of poetry, and the most direct utterance of personal feeling. Whatever else the poets of Pope's time could do, they could not sing. They are the despair of the anthologists.[30] Here and there among the brilliant reasoners, _raconteurs_, and satirists in verse, occurs a clever epigrammatist like Prior, or a ballad writer like Henry Carey, whose "Sally in Our Alley" shows the singing, and not talking, voice, but hardly the lyric cry. Gay's "Blackeyed Susan" has genuine quality, though its _rococo_ graces are more than half artificial. Sweet William is very much such an opera sailor-man as Bumkinet or Grubbinol is a shepherd, and his wooing is beribboned with conceits like these:

"If to fair India's coast we sail, Thy eyes are seen in diamonds bright, Thy breath is Afric's spicy gale, Thy skin is ivory so white. Thus every beauteous prospect that I view, Wakes in my soul some charm of lovely Sue."


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