Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

What poet has ever put more beauty into three or four short lines than we find here: —

"... Daffodils,

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath."

"Nature," it is affirmed, "is not drained, and is yet potent for marvels;" yet who may dare hope for another Shakespeare? As we hang entranced upon the music of England's singing-birds, — the richest, fullest choir in any land the sun shines upon, — we may hear, with evernew delight, Milton, her silver-throated lark, fluting unabashed at celestial altitude, and showering all her pearlsown meadows with the gracious rain of his song; but nearer and dearer is the lay of Shakespeare, — her winsome robin, a-tilt among rosy orchard blooms, and warbling in the gay sunshine his " wood-notes wild." Soothed by "a sober certainty of waking bliss," we listen gratefully to his ever-varying song, full, rich, and tender, yet clear and familiar as the drone of the cricket beside our hearth. Milton niched in cathedral walls, amid gorgeous gloom and divine minster strains, is enshrined for all time. But Shakespeare we set among our Penates; his shrine is in our hearts and homes. We find him " a creature not too bright and good for human nature's daily food," but

fit —

"For every day's most quiet use
By sun and candle-light."

He is our story-teller, our jester, our preacher, our doctor (homoaopathic too, for has he not said to us, through the great Thane of Cawdor, —

"Throw physic to the dogs; 111 none of it"),

our teacher, our poet, our brother, and our friend, — our Shakespeare! Age cannot wither nor custom stale his infinite variety. "Let men then acknowledge his great office; let civilization know and not forget its authors and ornaments."

CHAPTER IX.

POETRY OF THE COMMONWEALTH AND THE
BESTORATION.

"TA TIRING the forty years comprehended in the period of \_J the Commonwealth and the reigus of Charles II. arid James II., there was less change in the taste and literature of the nation than might have been anticipated, considering the mighty events which had agitated the couutry, and must have deeply influenced the national feelings, — such as the abolition of the ancient monarchy of England and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Authors were still a select class, and literature, the delight of the learned, had not yet become food for the multitude.

"The spirit of chivalry, even before the death of Elizabeth, had begun to yield to more practical and sober views of life; and the long period of peace under James nourished the spirit of inquiry now rapidly spreading among the people, fostering the reasoning faculties and mechanical powers rather than the imagination."

Daring the reign of Charles I. — a prince of taste and accomplishments — the style of the Elizabethan era was partially revived, though its lustre extended but little beyond the court and the nobilitj-. During the Civil War and the Protectorate, poetry and the drama were buried under the strife and anxiety of contending factions. Cromwell, whose boast was that he would "make the name of an Englishman as great as ever that of a Roman had been," — a wish which, in England's splendid naval victories and unquestioned foreign supremacy, seemed almost realized, — had neither time nor inclination to patronize poetry. If, as Carlyle affirms, " he that works and does some poem, not he that says one, is worthy the name of poet," Cromwell was himself a poet, and shaped the grandest epic of all time.

The severity and exclusiveness of Puritanism, that unwisely sought to put down all works of imagination in England, the lovers of art must forever deplore; yet it cannot be denied that this was but a natural and necessary revolt against the luxury and immorality of the age. "These men," as Carlyle expresses it, "knew in every fibre, and with heroic daring laid to heart, that it is good to fight on God's side and bad to fight on the Devil's side." No wonder, then, that to them the drama was anathema maranalha, and playwrights but pandercrs to the national appetite for abominations; for with all our admiration for the dramatic genius that has immortalized the Elizabethan age, we must admit that the builders of the old English drama, — Shakespeare excluded, — though in their loftier flights they soared like "Jove's proud bird," wide-eyed and unabashed, to salute the sun, did not scruple to become mere barn-yard fowl, lowering to the level of the pit and catering to the ignoble taste of the gross and the depraved, thus debasing their finest plays by passages which good morals must forever ignore. An age that delighted in bear-baiting and bull-fighting as polite recreation cannot altogether be judged by our own standard of decorum; yet when we read that Shirley's "Gamester" —the plot of which was taken from a corrupt Italian novel and given to the author by King Charles himself—was acted at court, and that the king said it was "the best play he had seen for seven years" (a play of which Macaulay has said, " It is difficult to say whether it indicates a lower standard of courtesy and purity in the poet or in the audience who endured it"), we must allow that when gentles and commons had alike become thus vitiated, Puritanism, though far from Attic in its savor, was undoubtedly the only salt that could save alreadytainted England from utter social corruption.

Yet this public degeneracy had not infected the whole atmosphere of genius, since to this period belongs one of the proudest triumphs of English poetry. In the reign of Charles II., — a king who, though by birth and education better fitted than Cromwell for a patron of the arts, was rendered by a perverted taste and an indolent, sensual disposition as injurious to art and literature as to the public morals, — in this reign, which has been termed "the age of servitude without loyalty, and sensuality without love, of dwarfish talents and gigantic vices, the paradise of cold hearts and narrow minds, the golden age of the coward, the bigot, and the slave," Milton produced his divine epic; thus proving that" Virtue could see to do what Virtue would, by her own radiant light," and that "Infinite Goodness has never for a long time left a nation without some good and great mind to guide and illuminate the onward course of humanity."

In the times of Charles I. and of the Commonwealth our modern English poetry first evinced a disposition to imitate the French poetry, the distinguishing characteristic of which (and indeed of French art generally) is "the art of making art itself seem nature." The French school of poetry is characterized by a decided preference for what is brilliant rather than what is true and deep, and while it does not altogether eschew conceits and false thoughts, is still in subordination to the principles and laws of good writing, and always reduces conceit to fair rhetorical shape. Waller, Carew, Lovelace, and Suckling, who all began to write about this time, first exemplified in our lighter poetry, by the French neatness in the

« ZurückWeiter »