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Advantage of connecting critical with historical considerations
Spenser and his age-Spirit of the French Revolution-Contrast between the American and the French Revolutions-Its influence over thought and action-Coleridge's “France”-Nature of lyrical poetry-Early developments of Coleridge's genius-His philosophy -His critical papers—His consciousness of his own poetical endowment-His boyhood at Christ's Church Hospital-Monody on Chatterton-His love of nature-Ode on Dejection—Translations of Schiller's tragedies—“ The Ancient Mariner
-“Christabel”-Its metrical beauty–His epitaph.
IN tracing the progress of English poetry from its early eras, I have sought in this course of lectures so to connect critical with historical considerations as to give, I trust, some assistance in forming an idea of the intellectual and moral altitude of each of the illustrious poets whose characters we have been contemplating. This has been attempted under a conviction that it was part of the duty which is resting upon me; for I regarded the process as wellnigh essential to a true appreciation of the genius of the poets. How, for instance, could there be a just, or at least an adequate, sense of the glory of that matchless allegory, “The Fairy Queen," if the student were not drawn to some knowledge of the age in which Spenser flourished ?-if I may apply such a word to a life closing early and in neglect and sorrow. Extraneous as history is to literature, it is the framework which is important to give due effect to the portraiture of men who have earned distinction in the annals of letters. It is thus that the proportions and colours are better realized. Fancy, for one moment, some one perusing the wonderful poem just alluded to,—that majestic fragment of Spenser's imagination; fancy it read with some confused and false notion that it was a production of the times of Charles II.,that detested and opprobrious period of English history, which all the language of loathing I could heap upon it was not strong enough to stigmatize: and what a feeling of incongruity would come over the reader as he found himself following the spotless moral poet through the limitless land of Fairy! The poet, thus ignorantly misplaced, would seem as if he had alighted upon the wrong planet. But when you appropriate Spenser to his own age, that thoughtful and adventurous age, philosophical and chivalrous, of whose representative men it might be said, as it was said of one of them, that they were so contemplative you could not believe them active, and so active you could not believe them contemplative place the poet, I say, in that age, and how true, how natural, is his position, and what a light is reflected on the character of his inspirations! Or, again, how almost inexplicable would be the production of the "Paradise Lost” in a generation unworthy of it, did we not consider the mighty, ordeal through which Milton's mind had been passing in the times of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate! and how inadequately would the reader judge of the poetry of Pope,
did he not remember the characteristics of those times, an age peculiarly of wits and freethinkers ! Poetic inspiration is, indeed, one light, for it is light derived from heaven; but, like the starlight, it has its many magnitudes, its various phases in the cloudless ether or in the haze of the horizon
“The stars pre-eminent in magnitude,
It has been my aim to show the poetry of each age shining in its own region of time and its own atmosphere; but, on bringing the course down to what may be considered contemporary literature, there is less occasion for historical illustration. One influence, however, requires to be noticed. I refer to the general agitation of Europe consequent to the French Revolution. The closing years of the last century were years of change. Things which had endured for ages were perishing, not by slow gradations of decay, but by quick and unlooked-for violence. Time-honoured institutions were not suffered to attain the limit of their natural existence and then to sink under the gradual accumulation of years, but were swiftly swept away by a new force. The clenched hand of prescriptive tyranny was forced to quit its grasp; and,
more than that, if it had been the fond traditional belief of other generations that
“Not all the water in the rough rude sea
it was found that the outpoured blood from the severed neck of an anointed king could wash the balm from off his brow. The people in one of the central monarchies of Europe had suddenly started up, and, casting away respect to gray-haired prerogative, boldly questioned the authority of the power which so long had trampled on them. Men began to ask why the bounties of heaven should be accumulated, reserved, and wasted for the bloated and ingrate luxury of the few, while the many were pining, hungry and heart-stricken. The sympathies of Christendom were enlisted : the pulse of other nations began to beat quicker. The French Revolution assumed the aspect of a general European revolution. Ancient opinions and rules of life were abandoned, and new modes of thought and feeling began to predominate. The political revolution became an intellectual and moral one; for so entire was the subversion of old institutions, that in reconstructing society men were of necessity led to speculate on its very elements and on the principles and destiny of human nature,--speculations which, from a revolutionary forsaking of the old paths, unhappily fostered a selfsufficient and faithless philosophy.
And here let me notice where seems to me to lie the important difference between the French Revolution and the great British and American Revolutions, besides the difference in the genius and temperament of the two nations. In the latter the struggle was to vindicate and secure old principles; to guard the Constitution; not to manufacture new schemes of government; to save the good old cause, as it was styled. In the American Revolution, for instance, the war was in truth a mighty constitutional dispute. It was a question of law; and the claim of our fathers was simply for old British rights,-rights as ancient as the Great Charter; and it was this that made them so strong, so consistent, so indomitable. They were seeking nothing new—at first, not even independence, which was not aspired to till it became an indispensable means for the security of their end,-civic freedom. Indeed, the mother-country had thrust her children away from her, and, ridding herself of a parent's responsibility, had given them many of the privileges of manhood. When afterwards she wished to call them back again to her lap, they were too stout to come there, and they claimed to be British men, entitled to ancient British rights. The Revolution was characterized by the composure of men acting with a consciousness of having the right with them. How free from all excess and licentiousness ! how pure, in the memory of after-times, alike from reproach and regret! It was a strife actuated and impregnated with a spirit of magnanimity,—a sense of duty and law-of religious responsibility. I speak of the American Revolution only for the sake of the contrast with that of France, which was much more stimulant to the minds of men, and, consequently, to literature. The French Revolution was no contest of the Constitution or of law, for both were swept away, and every thing was to be remodelled, in fact, made anew. New creeds of liberty were taught, new doctrines of the rights of man; the human heart was anatomized; Christianity, with its blessed day of sanctity