Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

was quite so absolutely free-from the incurable weakness which impairs all the merits of Southey's verse: its facile, thin perpetual prolixity of narrative, of rhetoric, and of reflection; its utter want of select or precise or distinctive expression for ideas which moreover might in most case have been as well expressed in prose as quiet and as pure. The changeless amble of his blank verse, never breaking even into a trot, might almost make us regret even that dissonant jolt which Byron substituted for the long easy canter of the Spenserian stanza under the guidance of its original master's serene and skilful hand. That he writes incomparably better English than Byron's is perhaps, if the admirers of a Titanic or Cyclopean style will allow of the modest suggestion, a point not wholly unworthy of notice or regard in estimating the comparative rank and station of an English writer. The gift of poetic or creative imagination had been withheld by nature from either competitor with a perfectly absolute impartiality. There is just as much of it in Childe Harold as in "Thalaba,' and there is just as little of it in Roderick as in "The Corsair.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Mr. Arnold with a brilliant and ingenious humor which it would almost be impertinence to praise, has assigned the distinctive qualities of different writers to the character and influence of the social rank or class in which they respectively were born. I have before now ventured to enter my protest against the paradoxical union of Byron's name with Shelley's as a representative of the nobler qualities traditionally attributed to an aristocracy. Chivalry in Chivalry in the deepest and highest sense was the key-note of Shelley's whole character: Byron, generous and brave as he could show himself on special occasion, simply did not know what chivalrous feeling meant his sense of honor was rather less fine than Sir John Falstaff's. I am not referring to his treatment, whatever it may have been, of the various Caroline Lambs and Jane Clermonts who uttered in public or in private such highpitched notes of ululation and imprecation over his alleged atrocities: I am decidedly inclined to doubt whether anything much worse befell them at his hands than they richly and amply deserved.

was

Even if the brutalities and villainies imputed by these distressed damsels or matrons to the lover whose favors had been withdrawn from them could be verified in every point, they would not weigh so heavily against his pretensions to be taken for a type of the class in which honor or loyalty is the supreme principle or final expression of duty, as would his derelictions from this rule of honor, his acts of treason to that common instinct of ordinary loyalty, in his relations with friends whose claim on his good faith was simple and indisputable by the laws of any social code whatever. Byron, in such matters, sometimes as much beneath the conventional average level of gentle or noble manhood as Shelley was always above it : and the case could hardly be put more strongly or more truthfully. A typical aristocrat, however lawless and reckless in his mode of life or habit of expression, will not exactly play at chuckfarthing with his word of honor, or throw the dirt of his impertinence at ladies who happen to have married his rivals in literary celebrity. He may do many things no less morally wrong than these but these are things that he most emphatically and assuredly will not do. An infinitely less important though certainly a significant and amusing sign of the same inborn vulgarity was the uneasy mixture of brag and fidgec-the two most essentially plebeian moods of mind that can be imagined-which would seem to have always distinguished his displays of pride on the subject of ancestral honors. A man who can show quarterings with princes-whatever may be the value of that accidental distinction-does not usually talk and write, as Byron so constantly did, in the very tone which might be expected from a capitalist of unknown grandparents, who had just purchased a brand-new pedigree of literally fabulous antiquity. No to each and all of Mr. Arnold's recent claims on behalf of his unfortunate client, truth, with all the evidence in hand, is constrained to reply in the memorable phrase of Lord Jeffrey

:

[ocr errors]

This will never do.' If we want a type of patrician character, good or bad or worse or better, we must not look to Byron. But still following up the suggestion of Mr. Arnold-we might, I

think, find in Southey an almost perfect type of a class which has often fared somewhat hardly at his critical hands. Good and true and honest in every relation of life, exemplary for justice and admirable for kindness in his dealings with every one who did not offend his prejudice or disturb his self-complacency, it might most truly have been said of Southey "that after the most straitest sect of their religion he lived a Pharisee." The last letter, for example, that he ever addressed to Shelley, breathes, in every word of every phrase, the veriest insolence of selfrighteousness. One of the truest and loyalest of grateful friends and helpful benefactors, he was as thorough a sample of the English middle-class in the solid all-sufficient narrowness of his rigid self-esteem as was Carlyle of all that is best and all that is worst in the typical character of the good or the bad peasant of fiction or of fact-brave, honest, affectionate, laborious, envious, ungrateful, malignant, and selfish. But apparently not always quite selfish and demonstrably not always quite honest.

:

In such a man as Shelley it would of course be absurd to see a typical representative of any class. Born in.a manger or a palace, reared in a carpenter's shop or a prince's castle, such an one must always be an equally exceptional figure on the roll of famous men. It is difficult at first to see why it should be so difficult as apparently it is for most judges to consider a figure of this kind with any degree of equanimity. But it, is evident that if on the, one hand certain recent writers have been whirled by the enthusiasm of righteous reverence into the extravagance of apostolic adoration which bids them preach him to all men as a sort of poetic Messiah, wounded in the house of his friends, despised and rejected of men in his own generation in all things like as the greatest of other poets are, but without sin (to speak of) in person or in verse-on the other hand there are not yet wanting judges who deny even such claims on his behalf as would afford him any place at all in the front rank of poets and of men. Those who, like the present writer, desire above all things to preserve in all things the golden mean of scrupulous moderation, will content themselves with

taking account of a few indisputable facts rather than of many disputable opinions.

Mr. Arnold has spoken with exemplary contempt of Lord Jeffrey's style and principles of criticism; but whenever he speaks of Shelley, he borrows. from the old Edinburgh fencing-school the rusty foil of that once eminent reviewer, to show off against his object of attack the every same tricks of fence. which Jeffrey made use of, with a skill and strength of hand at least equal to his pupil's, against the struggling reputation of Wordsworth. This can do no manner of harm to Shelley, but it must of necessity affect our estimate of the value of his assailant's opinion on the subject of other men's poetry. Wordsworth, to Lord Jeffrey, was merely the poet of idiot boys, preaching peddlers, bibulous wagoners, and the mendicant class in general: his poetry was typified in Alice Fell's torn cloak-" a wretched, wretched rag indeed." But Lord Jeffrey did not add that "those who extol him as the poet of rags, the poet of clothes-tubs, are only saying that he did not, in fact, lay hold upon the poet's right subject-matter." He would have known that outside the all-miscreative brain" of a critical jester these erroneous persons had and could have no existence that those who extolled Wordsworth, though the scope of their admiration might or might not include the poems which dealt with such matters, extolled him as the poet of things very different from these. And Jeffrey's imitator in this trick of criticism cannot surely affect to imagine that

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

those who extol him as the poet of clouds, the poet of sunsets"-if any there be whose estimate of his poetry is based exclusively or mainly on their value for such attributes of his geniusare in any truer or fitter sense to be accepted as representatives of Shelley's real admirers, than are those sickly drivellers over the name of another great poet, the fulsome worshippers of weakness whose. nauseous adoration Mr. Arnold has so justly rebuked, to be fairly accepted as representatives of those who, share his admiration for the genius of Keats. These, I must be allowed to say, are the sort of critical tricks which recoil upon the critic who makes use of

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

them for a showy and hazardous instant. dream of denying that until the benefi-. Those to whom, as to the humble writer cent influence of Coleridge and Wordsat present engaged in rash controversy worth had wrought its full effect upon with the most distinguished English- the two greatest among the younger men man of his time," the name of Shelley of their time, Shelley, in the first stage seems to be indisputably the third-if of his apprenticeship to verse, might not the second-on the list of our have been accurately described or degreatest poets, no more extol him as fined as Hayley in the spangles of a exclusively or principally the poet of harlequin, and Keats as Rosa Matilda in clouds and sunsets than Mr. Arnold ex- a shopboy's jacket. This is even more tols Wordsworth as the poet of rags and certain, if possible, than that Keats aftertatters or Keats as the poet of underbred ward showed himself equal-if not, at and weakly sensuousness. Not that we his very best, superior-to Wordsworth, do not prefer the nebulosity of Shelley in poetry pure and simple; or that Shelat his cloudiest to the raggedness of ley, if neither he nor any man that ever Wordsworth at his raggedest or the lived could outsoar the highest flights sickliness of Keats at his sickliest: but of Coleridge's transcendent song, did this is a point quite beside the main far more work of the highest kind in question. Averting our fac s from the eight or nine years than Coleridge in clouds and sunsets whose admirers give upward of forty; and that in point of so much offence to Mr. Arnold, what manly conscience and moral emotion, we see in his own judgment on Shelley elevation of nature and fortitude of and Byron might be symbolically de- mind, the gulf is not wider between scribed as a sunset of critical judgment Dryden and Milton, between Horace in a cloud of hazy paradox. It is a and Sophocles, than between Coleridge singular certainty that on the subject of and Shelley. This, however, may be Shelley this noble poet and brilliant considered insufficient proof that he critic has never got beyond what may be was other, after all, than a dreamer of called the Johnny Keats' stage of dreams, a dweller among the intangible criticism. The Shelley of his imagina- and visionary creations of a gentle, fittion has exactly as much in common ful, disorderly, moonstruck sort with the author of the Ode to Liber- mind. But it is evident that in Shelley ty" as the Keats of Gifford's or Wil- the reasoning faculty was comparatively son's had in common with the author of ripe before the imaginative or creative the "Ode to a Nightingale." The power had outgrown its greenest and main features of the phantom's charac- sourest stage of crudity. I certainly do ter are apparently these enthusiastic not propose to set up his early philopuerility of mind, incurable unsound- sophical or political essays as models of ness of judgment, resistless excitability, original or profound reflection, of unof emotion and helpless inability of in- timely maturity in reasoning or subtle telligence, consumptive wakefulness of conclusiveness of combination in the fancy and feverish impotence of reason, recast and rearrangement of other men's a dreamy amiable uselessness and a positions; nor probably did the boys sweetly fantastic imbecility in a word, themselves who compiled that luckless the qualities of a silly angel. I venture, little pamphlet mistake their "Necessity in the face of a very general opinion, to of Atheism" for a final and exhaustive doubt whether such a poet as this ever piece of ratiocination but as a neat existed but I do not doubt at all that and compact summary of a very simple arever further from any resem- gument it is surely far from discreditable blance to such a type than Percy Bysshe to their intelligence and as an answer Shelley. He wrote very silly stories at to many far cruder and shallower forms school, and villainously bad verses at of appeal or objection on behalf of college but it is not on this undeniable more popular assumptions, it is in its rather than exceptional fact that the way and in its degree neither ineffective theory of his inspired idiocy-for that is nor insufficient. More juvenile echoes really what it comes to--has ever, to of more facile conclusions on the other my knowledge, been grounded. Only the side of the question might have earned hysterical school of critics would deny or for the young champions of orthodoxy

none was

[ocr errors]

:

:

of

the admiring patronage of applause for precocious rectitude of spiritual intuition and premature command of speculative thought. Shelley's subsequent Essay on Deism is surely a work of remarkable precocity and promise for a man tɔo young to have taken his degree; remarkable alike for its grave and sedate command of irony sustained through the whole course of the oblique and doubleedged argument, and for its steady grasp and manipulation of the subject from the serious and covert point of view which it was the young controversialist's design at once to indicate and to veil. In politics, Shelley looked steadfastly forward to the peaceful and irreversible advance of Republican principle, the gradual and general prevalence of democratic spirit throughout Europe, till the then omnipotent and omnipresent forces of universal reaction should be gently but thoroughly superseded and absorbed. Wordsworth could apparently see nothing between existing Georgian or Bourbonian society and a recrudescence, of revolutionary chaos but the maintenance of such divine institutions as rotten boroughs and capital punishment. I do not ask which poet held the nobler and more inspiriting views of the immediate future: I asked which of the two showed himself the befogged, befooled, self-deluded, unpractical dreamer among the clouds and sunsets of his chosen solitude and his chosen faith, and which approved himself the man of insight and foresight, the more practical and the more rational student of contemporary history, alike in its actual pageant of passing phenomena and in its moral substance of enduring principles and lessons? I know nothing more amusing and amazing than the placid imperturba ble persistency with which the conservative or reactionary class is prone to claim and assume of all things in the world -the credit of being at any rate the practical party, as opposed to the dreamy and visionary herd of hotbrained young poets and crack-brained old enthusiasts. For example, it was, if I rightly remember, in the fifth or sixth year of the empire of cutpurses and cut-throats, that a young freshman of eighteen or nineteen was courteously invited to give his opinion on the French

+

and Italian questions of that year in a gathering of distinguished as well as grave and reverend seniors, and on his modest avowal that he did venture to believe in the principles and teaching of men who ventured to believe in the realization of Italian unity, and to disbelieve in the durable solidity of the fortune which had seated Jonathan Wild the Less on the imperial throne of France, found without the slightest touch of surprise that such an ingenious confession of wrong-headed boyish perversity was received with a kindly smile of amusement, and a kindly particular exhortation to retain as long as he could find it possible to retain these enthusiastic illusions so natural to his age. And in effect, even in face of the crushing refutation which has since been supplied by the practical and unanswerable evidence of historic facts, he has not seen reason to forego them even at the present day. Mr. Arnold has chosen a subject for special praise-indeed, as the crowning and redeeming point of interest in an otherwise cominonplace if not unworthy character-Byron's aspirations after a republic, his expressed conviction that the king-times are fast finishing," his full and whole-hearted acceptance of the assured prospect that " there will be blood shed like water, and tears like mist, but the peoples will conquer in the end." Mr. Arnold can scarcely, I should imagine, be readier than I to give all due credit and all possible sympathy to the writer of these wise and noble words: but he seems to overlook the fact that if this feature in Byron's character is deserving of such credit and such sympathy, in Shelley's, whose whole nature was pervaded and harmonized by the inspiration of this faith, it is ten fold more worthy of reverence and regard. Mr. Arnold is fond of scriptural and especially of Pauline illustrations: it is probably the influence. of his example which brings to my mind the difference between the chief captain of Jerusalem and of Jerusalem and the apostle his prisoner. With a great sum had Claudius Lysias obtained the freedom of a Roman citizen: but Paul was free born. Byron had attained to his faith in the future of republican Europe and the fall of existing institutions at a heavy cost of personal disappointment, dissatisfac

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

66

66

tion, and irritation with his own circumstances and experiences: but Shelley was born so high" it was in the inevitable and unalterable essence of his nature to dally with the wind, and scorn the sun.' For all that on Mr. Arnold's own showing deserves praise in Byron, Shelley deserves prafse incomparably more exalted and unqualified. But Mr. Arnold, in a passage which if the argument would allow me to pass it over I should really be reluctant to transcribe, affirms that "Byron threw himself upon poetry as his organ; and in poetry his topics were not Queen Mab, and the Witch of Atlas, and the Sensitive Plant, they were the upholders of the old order, George the Third, and Lord Castlereagh, and the Duke of Wellington, and Southey, and they were the canters and tramplers of the great world, and they were his enemies and himself." If I wanted an instance of provincial and barbarian criticism, of criticism inspired by a spirit of sour unreasonableness, a spirit of bitterness and darkness, I should certainly never dream of seeking farther than this sen tence for the illustration required. It is almost too contemptibly easy to retort in kind by observing that when Shelley threw himself upon poetry as his organ, his topics were not Hours of Idleness, and Hints from Horace, and the Waltz, they were the redemption of the world by the martyrdom of righteousness, and the regeneration of mankind through Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance''; and they were the heroism of Beatrice and the ascension of Adonais, and they were the resurrection of Italy and of Greece, and they were the diviest things of nature, made more divine through the interpretation of love infallible and the mastery of insuperable song. But so to retort, though the reply would be as perfectly legitimate as the parody is exactly accurate, were to answer a perverse man of genius according to his perversity; and I will rather content myself with a serious indication of this astonishing criticism as matter for serious regret not, assuredly, on Shelley's account; nor, even, perhaps on Byron's. But if Mr. Arnold is somewhat erratic and eccentric in the display of his preference for Byron as a poet, how may we decorously characterize the insular

[ocr errors]

46

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

or individual eccentricity of his preference for Shelley as an essayist and correspondent? Except for a few short things and single stanzas, his original poetry is less satisfactory than his translations, for in these the subject-matter was found for him "-as for instance in the Cyclops of Euripides and the Homeric poem on an infant cattle-stealer ; topics, it is obvious, far above the reach of the man who could rise no higher on his own account than the author of the Cenci.' Nay, I doubt whether his delightful Essays and Letters, which deserve to be far more read than they are now, will not resist the wear and tear of time better, and finally come to stand higher, than his poetry." I will follow Mr. Arnold's lead, in the selection of a French phrase to pass sentence on this judgment it is not merely "saugrenu,' it is simply "inqualifiable." Shelleyor Shakespeare, for that matter-is hardly more superior to Byron in poetry than in prose is Byron to Shelley. Shelley's letters are in general very nice,' as women say-very ingenuous, and rather ladylike; the letters of a candid and amiable young person who tries steadily to see for himself, without any great faculty of insight or capacity for getting away from his own subjective line of vision. Byron's are full of violence, insolence, bluster, affectation, hypocrisy, pretension, bullying egotism and swaggering nonsense: but no less certainly and unmistakably are they the letters of a man with a great gift for writing, a man of commanding genius, of indisputable and insuppressible powers. There are no doubt passages in them which are merely foolish or feeble or vulgar, as in Shelley's there are passages and touches of exquisite truth and felicity, of admirable feeling and good sense and delicacy; but the general characteristics of either correspondence are such as have just been indicated. Byron's letters would be worth reading, had they been written by the obscurest of dilettante dabblers in politics or literature: if at every turn there is something to provoke irritation or repulsion, at every other turn there is at the same time something to excite admiration or amusement. boly, I should have thought, or at least only a very few specialists who have

No

« AnteriorContinuar »