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"no nature." If this be so, our examination of that pastoral need not detain us long.
STANLEY. It is true there is little new to be said about “Lycidas," and just as little with regard to the verdict which Dr. Johnson has passed upon it. Moreover, we have already expressed our views pretty freely with regard to the form of the poem; and HARTLEY, if I remember rightly, affirmed that it was only because “ Lycidas” did not possess the requisites of a true pastoral, that he found it worthy of admiration; that it would not have been a good poem, if it had not been a bad pastoral.
HARTLEY. A somewhat exaggerated statement, but correct in the main. "Lycidas " is a noble diamond with a false setting.
TALBOT. Read Johnson's criticism, STANLEY, before you make any remarks upon the poem. I remember it but imperfectly
STANLEY. Here it is then, in extenso. Behold in it a masterpiece of criticism, which has only one fault; it is utterly untrue.
“One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is · Lycidas,' of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. What beauty there is, we must therefore seek in the sentiments and images. It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion ; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel.' When there is leisure for fiction there is little grief. In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth ; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral ; easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting ; whatever images it can supply are long ago exhausted ;
and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind. When Cowley tells of Harvey, that they studied together, it is easy to suppose how much he must miss the companion of his labours, and the partner of his discoveries ; but what image of tenderness can be excited by these lines ?-
“We drove afield, and both together heard,
We know that they never drove afield, and that they had no flocks to batten ; and though it be allowed that the representation
may be allegorical, the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought, because it cannot be known when it is found. Among the flocks, and copses and flowers, appear the heathen deities ; Jove and Phæbus, Neptune and Æolus, with a long train of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies. Nothing can less display knowledge or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone, without any judge of his skill in piping ; and how one god asks another god what has become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell.
He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy ; he who thus praises will confer no honour. This poem
has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths, such as ought never to be polluted with such irreverent combinations. The shepherd likewise is now a feeder of sheep, and afterwards an ecclesiastical pastor,
superintendent of a Christian flock. Such equivocations are always unskilful; but here they are indecent, and at least approach to impiety, of which, however, I believe the writer not to have been conscious. Such is the
of reputation justly acquired, that its blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could have fancied that he read “Lycidas' with pleasure, had he not known the author.”
So ends this celebrated criticism ; but, before saying a word respecting it, let me refresh your memory by reading the poem to which it refers.
[Stanley took down the volume and read “Lycidas" with great energy and feeling. When he had concluded the poem, our discussion was continued by Hartley, who spoke as follows. ]
HARTLEY. A noble poem truly! There is a fine harmony in the versification; the rural descriptions are as distinct as they are beautiful; and, if there be a lack of invention, there is as much as the subject demanded; for it is not creative power, so much as feeling and imagery, which such a poem requires.
Talbot. Some feeling there may be in the poem, but there is no pathos; and one can well believe that Milton had quite overcome his grief before he wrote it. The rhythm is to my ear absolutely perfect, especially towards the close of the poem. Indeed, from the line,
“Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past," Milton appears most thoroughly Miltonic, and he needs no higher praise. I agree with Johnson in his denunciation of the mythology introduced into the poem ; but, beyond this, I differ from him altogether. Not only is the poem fine as a whole, but it also contains many lines of rare beauty. The “pansy freaked with jet,” strikes me as being a peculiarly happy description of the flower ; “cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,” is perhaps equally felicitous, and the familiar passage on fame is as beautiful as it is popular.
“ Were it not better done, as others use,
Or with the tangles of Neæra's hair?
But now, STANLEY, give us your deliverance, as the Scotch say, on Dr. Johnson's criticism.
STANLEY. There are several of Johnson's assertions which can only be met by counter-assertions. for example, he commences his remarks on Lycidas by saying that the "diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing,” one feels inclined simply to deny his statement, and to appeal to the verdict of every man of taste and education; but when Johnson states in the next paragraph that “in this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new,” he gives us a specimen of his poetical criticism which should be met in a less summary manner. Certainly, if there is neither nature nor art in “Lycidas,' Johnson commits a solecism in terming it a poem. Indeed, it would be difficult to say with what branch of nondescript literature it could be classed. If we look a little further, we shall see that according to Johnson, nature implies truth, and art implies novelty. Nature is a very wide term, and is seldom used with precision in poetical criticism; but I think we may agree with Johnson that there cannot be nature without truth, or truth without nature. His next statement, that novelty is essential to art, is not so clear. On the contrary, I would affirm that there may be a high degree of art, without any conception on the part of the artist that is absolutely new. There may be art in his expression, in the arrangement of his materials, in the force with which he wields the pencil or the pen. Novelty an essential of art! why, those of our poets who work with the most apparent art, and who possess the smallest share of poetical inspiration, are just those whose poems present us with the minimum amount of novelty, just those who startle and thrill us the least with any creative imagination, although they may delight us by the display of subordinate powers. And now I turn to the next sentence :-“ Its form is that of a pastoral ; easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting”-not disgusting, I conclude, because of its form, since in the
Rambler,” Johnson says of the pastoral that “there is scarcely any species of poetry which has allured more readers, and that "it is generally pleasing," but disgusting because it is easy and vulgar." Now, I confess that I
66 know not what to make of that term "
easy." “ True ease in writing comes by art, not chance ;" but “in this poem there is no art,” so that Pope's idea of ease in writing, could not have entered Johnson's mind when he used the word "
Does he mean familiar ? If so, Shakspeare and Johnson are at variance. Remember what Polonius says to Laertes
“ Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar," a distinction which will apply as well to a poem as to a person. Or does he mean that kind of lightness and freedom of versification, in which many clever rhymesters, and some poets, have proved themselves masters--the “ easiness," to use his own word, which he praises in Swift, and which is so striking a characteristic of the comic effusions of Hood, and Barham, and Praed. This, however, will not tally