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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Only slightly influenced by Tennyson himself


Perhaps

these last words may not unfairly hint at a defect--if not _the_ defect--of this refined, this accomplished, but this often disappointing poetry. Quite early, in the preface before referred to, the poet had run up and nailed to the mast a flag-theory of poetic art to which he always adhered as far as theory went, and which it may be reasonably supposed he always endeavoured to exemplify in practice. According to this "all depends on the subject," and the fault of most modern poetry and of nearly all modern criticism is that the poets strive to produce and the critics expect to receive, not an elaborately planned and adjusted treatment of a great subject, but touches or bursts of more or less beautiful thought and writing. Now of course it need not be said that in the very highest poetry the excellence of the subject, the complete appropriateness of the treatment, and the beauty of patches and passages, all meet together. But it will also happen that this is not so. And then the poet of "the subject" will not only miss the happy "jewels five words long," the gracious puffs and cat's paws of the wind of the spirit, that his less austere brother secures, but will not make so very much of his subjects, of his schemes of treatment themselves. His ambition, as ambition so often does, will over-reach itself, and he will have nothing to show but the unfinished fragments of a poetical Escurial instead of the finished chantries and altar-tombs which a less formal architect is able to boast.

style="text-align: justify;">However this may be, two things are certain, the first that the best work of Matthew Arnold in verse bears a somewhat small proportion to the work that is not his best, and that his worst is sometimes strangely unworthy of him; the second, that the best where it appears is of surpassing charm--uniting in a way, of which Andrew Marvell is perhaps the best other example in English lyric, romantic grace, feeling, and music to a classical and austere precision of style, combining nobility of thought with grace of expression, and presenting the most characteristically modern ideas of his own particular day with an almost perfect freedom from the jargon of that day, and in a key always suggesting the great masters, the great thinkers, the great poets of the past. To those who are in sympathy with his own way of thinking he must always possess an extraordinary attraction; perhaps he is not least, though he may be more discriminatingly, admired by those who are very much out of sympathy with him on not a few points of subject, but who are one with him in the Humanities--in the sense and the love of the great things in literature.

The natural and logical line of development, however, from the originators of the Romantic movement through Keats and Tennyson did not lie through Matthew Arnold; and the time was not yet ripe--it can perhaps hardly be said to be ripe yet--for a reaction in his sense. He was, as has been said, a branch from Wordsworth, only slightly influenced by Tennyson himself, than whom indeed he was not so very much younger. The direct male line of descent lay in another direction; and its next most important stage was determined by the same causes which almost at the middle of the century or a little before brought about Prae-Raphaelitism in art. Both of these were closely connected with the set of events called the Oxford Movement, about which much has been written, but of which the far-reaching significance, not merely in religion but in literature, politics, art, and almost things in general, has never yet been fully estimated. As far as literature is concerned, and this special part of literature with which we are here dealing, this movement had partly shown and partly shaped the direction of the best minds towards the Middle Ages, which had been begun by Percy's _Reliques_ in a vague and blind sort of way, and which had been strengthened, directed, but still not altogether fashioned according to knowledge, by Scott and Coleridge.


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