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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

And the brothers Joseph and Thomas Warton


The

first critical edition of the minor poems was published in 1785, by Thomas Warton, whose annotations have been of great service to all later editors. As late as 1779, Dr. Johnson spoke of these same poems with an absence of appreciation that now seems utterly astounding. "Those who admire the beauties of this great poem sometimes force their own judgment into false admiration of his little pieces, and prevail upon themselves to think that admirable which is only singular." Of Lycidas he says: "In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting. . . Surely no man could have fancied that he read 'Lycidas' with pleasure, had he not known its author." He acknowledges that "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" are "noble efforts of imagination"; and that, "as a series of lines," "Comus" "may be considered as worthy of all the admiration with which the votaries have received it." But he makes peevish objections to its dramatic probability, finds its dialogues and soliloquies tedious, and unmindful of the fate of Midas, solemnly pronounces the songs--"Sweet Echo" and "Sabrina fair"--"harsh in their diction and not very musical in their numbers"! Of the sonnets he says: "They deserve not any particular criticism; for of the best it can only be said that they are not bad."[8] Boswell reports that, Hannah More having expressed her "wonder that the poet who had written
'Paradise Lost' should write such poor sonnets," Johnson replied: "Milton, madam, was a genius that could cut a colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry stones."

The influence of Milton's minor poetry first becomes noticeable in the fifth decade of the century, and in the work of a new group of lyrical poets: Collins, Gray, Mason, and the brothers Joseph and Thomas Warton. To all of these Milton was master. But just as Thomson and Shenstone got original effects from Spenser's stanza, while West and Cambridge and Lloyd were nothing but echoes; so Collins and Gray--immortal names--drew fresh music from Milton's organ pipes, while for the others he set the tune. The Wartons, indeed, though imitative always in their verse, have an independent and not inconsiderable position in criticism and literary scholarship, and I shall return to them later in that connection. Mason, whose "English Garden" has been reviewed in chapter iv, was a small poet and a somewhat absurd person. He aped, first Milton and afterward Gray, so closely that his work often seems like parody. In general the Miltonic revival made itself manifest in a more dispersed and indirect fashion than the Spenserian; but there was no lack of formal imitations, also, and it will be advisable to notice a few of these here in the order of their dates.

In 1740 Joseph Warton, then an Oxford undergraduate, wrote his blank-verse poem "The Enthusiast, or the Lover of Nature." The work of a boy of eighteen, it had that instinct of the future, of the set of the literary current, not uncommon in youthful artists, of which Chatterton's precocious verses are a remarkable instance. Composed only ten years later than the completed "Seasons," and five years before Shenstone began to lay out his miniature wilderness at the Leasowes, it is more distinctly modern and romantic in its preference of wild nature to cultivated landscape, and of the literature of fancy to the literature of reasons.

"What are the lays of artful Addison, Coldly correct, to Shakspere's warblings wild?"

asks the young enthusiast, in Milton's own phrase. And again

"Can Kent design like Nature?. . . Though he, by rules unfettered, boldly scorns Formality and method, round and square Disdaining, plans irregularly great?. . .


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