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we should not pass into the society of a dwarfish and dwindling race. It is a proud feeling, too, that there is shining upon us not only those rays which travel down from former generations, but the light of the living genius of our own. I have been zealous to display the vast spaces of our English poetry; and especially to show how that domain has been, in successive eras, acquired, whenever a poet of original powers has arisen to discover and reclaim the unknown and neglected region. Remember how we have seen one territory after another thus appropriated and added to our imaginative literature. There was a time when the language was almost without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of its literature. The rude inventions of a barbarian minstrelsy appeared; but soon came Chaucer, the great poet of the fourteenth century. Like the Ancient Mariner, " he was the first that ever burst into that silent sea." It is only necessary to recur to the progress of the English Muse to learn how wrong is the notion which leads to the belief that the dominion of poetry has reached its utmost confines. The poorest pedantry is that which, not unfrequently, has taught implicit, passive obedience to the authority of a few models, and bound down genius to the servile toil of reiterated imitation. This cannot be : the universe is infinitely wide; and the highest proof is when it holds on high a light which reveals to the world realms which had been unknown as belonging to the sovereignty of imagination. It is the highest attribute of original powers to enlarge the sphere of human sensibility. Think, for instance, how the light of Spenser's imagination at once disclosed to view the untravelled latitudes of his marvellous allegory,—how
there soon came the discovery of what may be called the world of Shakspeare,—and how all to whom the spirit and the sounds of our sublimest poetry are dear have been borne, by the imagination of Milton, through regions radiant with angelic light, through the happy home on the infant and sinless earth, and through the dark and dismal dwellings of the lost spirits. It is grand to find our language made subservient to such uses, and ennobling to contemplate the powers with which the most gifted of our race are endowed, employed to enlarge the compass of human thought. In the history of any department of knowledge, it is easier to recognise how this has been accomplished by those whose approved fame time has sanctioned, than to understand and appreciate similar services rendered by contemporary genius. Nor is this strange. Fame is a slow, and often a reluctant, gift. There is a constitutional frailty in us which explains why it is so. The actual presence is an obstacle to that honour which should be rendered to prophet and poet in his own country or his own generation. This must needs be so in poetry above all. When a poet of truly original powers arises, his very originality can be shown only by extending the light of his genius to regions of thought and feeling unillumined before. Now, too often this is regarded not so much as an enlargement of our ancient and best possession, but an encroachment upon them, and therefore to be resisted. Old landmarks are changed, and time is not taken to inquire whether the change has increased or contracted the territory. Settled literary opinions and tastes, carelessly acquired at first, are disturbed; and this, it seems to me, is one solution of the antagonist reception which every original poet of the higher order of genius is doomed to encounter from the world. It is a warfare that he must wage, –a conquest to be effected, -happily if controlled by the meek spirit of magnanimity. In criticism, candour, with its comprehensive sympathies, is as rare as bigotry is frequent; and therefore the world has never yet been quick to welcome the greatest poets that have blessed it. The seclusion of Stratford, and the deeper seclusion of the grave, had long closed over Shakspeare before a thousandth part of his genius was known. The pure and gentle heart of Edmund Spenser wasted beneath neglect and the frustrated hope of his unfinished poem. The indomitable spirit of Milton calmly knew how little he had to expect from his contemporaries. So it has ever been. What else is the reason of that tradition which, when all else that is personal respecting the father of poetry has perished, has come down to us upon the cloudy wings of three thousand years,—the tradition that Homer was a beggar? It has been finely said, “What a glorious gift God bestows upon a nation when he gives them a poet!" It might be added, with a sadder truth, that, when the poet enters upon his mission of gladdening and purifying and spiritualizing the hearts of men, the world is ready with the insult, the scoff, the ridicule, and all the weapons of a stupid and ignorant enmity. There is a blindness blinder than the mole's; there is a deafness deafer than the adder's: it is the blindness, the deafness of literary bigotry !
The character of the poetry, which forms the subject of the present lecture has been peculiarly the subject of controversy,-advocated by an earnest, affectionate, and grateful sense of admiration, and assailed by misapprehension, contempt, and a rancorous and reckless hatred. It is not my intention to deal with my subject in a spirit of controversy, for two reasons. I have not done so in any part of the course. I have neither attacked nor defended any one of the poets in a controversial spirit; and surely it could not be worth while to assume the tone of polemics now, when just about to part with you. In the second place, it would be a form of discussion wholly unworthy the poet. The time has gone by for it. The poetry has wrought out its own vindication,--one of the noblest victories, in the annals of literature, of truth and the magnanimous self-possession which is its best attendant, over error, with all its alliance of vulgarity and violence and bitterness. Criticism did its worst; but the citadel on which it beat had its foundation deep set in the rock of nature; and we have lived, and—what is more precious to think of-the poet himself has lived, to see the waters of that insolent tide gradually trickling down; and now all that is left--the froth, the foam, the dirt, heaved up from the bottom, and the drift-wood on the surface--are fast floating out of sight.
There has been expended a great deal of comparative criticism between the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron. During this whole course I have refrained from entering upon comparisons between the poets, because it is a mode of criticism as unsatisfactory as it is easy. There would not be the least difficulty in placing them in comparison and in contrast, and in describing the true relation between the minds and the aspirations of these two poets; but it would be an uncalled-for deviation from the habit of my lectures. To any who are disposed to measure their worth by comparisons rather than independently,
let me only suggest for reflection one significant forewarning of the abiding judgment of posterity,—the final award of fame:—the fact, indisputable by any one, that every succeeding year has worn away some crumbling portion of Lord Byron's splendid popularity, while the majestic splendour of Wordsworth's poetry has steadily been rising to a loftier stature amid the permanent edifices of the great poets of the English language.
It is with some reserve that I allude to the personal history of a living poet; but so truly has the course of Wordsworth's life corresponded with the spirit of his poetry,--so intimate the communion,--that I may avail myself of the autobiographical allusions in his works, and some other authentic materials. The earliest date attached to any of his pieces is the year 1786,-more than half a century ago; and now, when he has passed the solemn limit of seventy years, his imagination--that faculty which age so often quenches—is held in undiminished vigour. It has been a life devoted to the cultivation of the art for its best and most lasting uses a self-dedication as complete as any the world has ever witnessed. Among the great English poets, Edmund Spenser perhaps alone presented a career of as sedulous cultivation, equally the existence of one as entirely a poet. It is one of the causes which have given such perfect symmetry to the various periods of Wordsworth’s existence,-a realization of one of his imaginative wishes, that fine aspiration in the first words with which he meets the reader. It is the hope of a fulfilment of that grand law of our moral being which seeks to preserve the sympathy between the successive eras of life,--a law worthy of reflection ; for it is a happiness to look back