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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Elegiac quatrains on the model of Shenstone and Gray


Not only the poets who have been named, but many obscure versifiers are witnesses to this Miltonic revival. It is usually, indeed, the minor poetry of an age which keeps most distinctly the "cicatrice and capable impressure" of a passing literary fashion. If we look through Dodsley's collection,[14] we find a _melange_ of satires in the manner of Pope, humorous fables in the manner of Prior, didactic blank-verse pieces after the fashion of Thomson and Akenside, elegiac quatrains on the model of Shenstone and Gray, Pindaric odes _ad nauseam_, with imitations of Spenser and Milton.[15]

To the increasing popularity of Milton's minor poetry is due the revival of the sonnet. Gray's solitary sonnet, on the death of his friend Richard West, was composed in 1742 but not printed till 1775, after the author's death. This was the sonnet selected by Wordsworth, to illustrate his strictures on the spurious poetic diction of the eighteenth century, in the appendix to the preface to the second edition of "Lyrical Ballads." The style is noble, though somewhat artificial: the order of the rhymes conforms neither to the Shaksperian nor the Miltonic model. Mason wrote fourteen sonnets at various times between 1748 and 1797; the earlier date is attached, in his collected works, to "Sonnet I. Sent to a Young Lady with Dodsley's Miscellanies." They are of the strict Italian or Miltonic form, and abound in Miltonic allusions and wordings. All but four of Thomas Edwards' fifty sonnets, 1750-65, are on Milton's model. Thirteen of them were printed in Dodsley's second volume. They have little value, nor have those of Benjamin Stillingfleet, some of which appear to have been written before 1750. Of much greater interest are the sonnets of Thomas Warton, nine in number and all Miltonic in form. Warton's collected poems were not published till 1777, and his sonnets are undated, but some of them seem to have been written as early as 1750. They are graceful in expression and reflect their author's antiquarian tastes. They were praised by Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Lamb; and one of them, "To the River Lodon," has been thought to have suggested Coleridge's "To the River Otter--"

"Dear native stream, wild streamlet of the west--"

as well, perhaps, more remotely Wordsworth's series, "On the River Duddon."

The poem of Milton which made the deepest impression upon the new school of poets was "Il Penseroso." This little masterpiece, which sums up in imagery of "Attic choice" the pleasures that Burton and Fletcher and many others had found in the indulgence of the atrabilious humor, fell in with a current of tendency. Pope had died in 1744, Swift in 1745, the last important survivors of the Queen Anne wits; and already the reaction against gayety had set in, in the deliberate and exaggerated solemnity which took possession of all departments of verse, and even invaded the theater; where Melpomene gradually crowded Thalia off the boards, until sentimental comedy--_la comedie larmoyante_--was in turn expelled by the ridicule of Garrick, Goldsmith, and Sheridan. That elegiac mood, that love of retirement and seclusion, which have been remarked in Shenstone, became now the dominant note in English poetry. The imaginative literature of the years 1740-60 was largely the literature of low spirits. The generation was persuaded, with Fletcher, that

"Nothing's so dainty sweet as lovely melancholy."


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