Imágenes de páginas
[blocks in formation]

It is impossible to define precisely, and often difficult to define at all, a period of literature. The political divisions commonly adopted are approximations, in many cases of the roughest kind. When we begin to ask what are the limits of the Elizabethan period, or of the period of Queen Anne, we find that the divisions which criticism can establish in literature by no means synchronise with the time covered by the reigns of those sovereigns. Nevertheless, it requires but little reflection to show that expressions of this kind, though never exact, generally convey a substantial truth. The movement of time is an abstract expression which means the movement of the human spirit in all its manifestations; and the movement of time is best marked by political events. Thus, when, with reference to literature, we speak of the age of Pericles or of Elizabeth, or of the period of the French Revolution, we mean that there was in those ages a movement in literature bearing conspicuously the impress of its connexion with the history of the time. No one can doubt that the marvellous literary activity of Athens in the fifth century B.C. was intimately connected with the events which made the city politically so prominent and so powerful; nor is it possible to deny that the great outburst of poetic genius in England in the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries was an expression of a heightened and intensified national life. Naturally therefore, and not inappropriately, those periods of literature have been associated with the most prominent names of the time in politics. It is equally clear that the greatest historical event since the Reformation had a profound influence upon literature, and that, for a period

of at least seventy years, what men wrote, outside France only less than within it, was coloured by the French Revolution. Even before the Revolution was accomplished, we see its shadow projected over the thoughts, aspirations and artistic conceptions of men. A good defence might be made on these lines of the traditional association between the political revolution and the literature produced about the same time. The tendency of late has been to insist too much upon the almost inevitable divergence between the chronological limits of a literary movement and of a political period. The literary “ age of Elizabeth " extends far beyond the reign of Elizabeth. The name, therefore, is not wholly satisfactory; but it is better to have even an inaccurate name which implies the connexion of literature with the widest human life than one which tends to confine the view to the contents of books alone.

In a similar way posterity will probably justify the name of the Victorian period as applied to the English literature of some two-thirds or three-quarters of the nineteenth century. The connexion of the literature of this time with history is no doubt less obvious than it was during the two preceding generations, and perhaps it does not go so deep; but it too is real. The great movement to democracy, the progress of physical science, and the advance in material comfort have all left their mark both upon the poetry and the prose of recent times. And a new name is necessary.

We must recognise that sometime between 1825 and 1835 the period of the Revolution came to an end. If any particular year is to be fixed upon, perhaps 1832, the date of the death of Goethe in Germany and of Scott in England, is the best. A glance at the death-roll of men of letters about that date shows what a startling clearance had been made for the new generation. In a poem dated November, 1835, Wordsworth laments how swiftly brother has followed brother" from sunrise to the sunless land”. Hogg, the immediate subject of the verses, Scott, Coleridge, Lamb, Crabbe, and—an addition characteristic of the time-Mrs. Hemans had all passed away within little more than three years. If we look a little farther back the catalogue becomes still more striking. Keats died in 1821, Shelley in the following year, Byron in 1824, and Blake in 1827. The one great survivor, Wordsworth himself, had already done his work; and what Arnold mourned in 1850 as "the last poetic voice” was practically dumb long before the grave closed over him. Landor, Southey, Campbell and Moore were lesser men, and they too were nearly exhausted. Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, they betrayed, years before their death, the exhaustion of the great poetic“motif” of their youth. If we consider poetry alone we may say that, for England, the period closes with the death of Byron. It was not without reason that to so many there was an almost immeasurable significance in the removal of that stormful personality.

He taught us little ; but our soul
Had felt him like the thunder's roll.

To Mrs. Carlyle it seemed as if “the sun had fallen from the heavens”. The young Tennyson felt that "the whole world was at an end," "that everything was over and finished for every one—that nothing else mattered," and stole away in secret to carve on the stone the words, “Byron is dead”. Whoever has studied the Poems by Two Brothers will easily believe that these expressions came from the heart. The youthful authors certainly paid to Byron the homage of imitation. And in the poetry which immediately followed his death there is some excuse for such expressions, exaggerated as they seem now. It is marked by a feebleness and triviality in striking contrast to the abundant if not always well-directed energy of the period which was just coming to a close.

But the end of an old period is a different matter from the beginning of a new one. For the latter event it is not essential that the old leaders should die off, but it is essential that

essential that younger men, animated by a different spirit, should arise. And they did arise, in numbers and of power quite sufficient to stamp the new generation with their own characteristics. During those years Carlyle, Macaulay, Elizabeth Barrett, afterwards Mrs. Browning, Edward Bulwer, afterwards Lord Lytton, Tennyson, and Robert Browning made their first appearance.

Two of these writers, Tennyson and Browning, have indelibly impressed the poetry of their era. To them attaches not only the interest of extraordinarily great work, but of exceptionally long careers. Running a literary course, the one of more than sixty years, the other of fifty-six, they cannot fail to betray, in the very changes through which they pass, some of the most potent influences at work in their time. Their greatness, however highly it may be appraised, did not alter the fact that what

they thought and what they wrote were in large measure determined for them by the circumstances and ideas of the time in which they lived. This fact, which ought to be evident, has to some extent been obscured by the indiscriminating way in which it has become customary to speak of the greatest authors, Shakespeare in particular, as “not of an age, but for all time”. It is true that poets, philosophers, artists, statesmen, and great men of all sorts, if they are only great enough, are for all time; but it is equally true that even the greatest of them are of their own age first of all. We need ask no better illustration of the fact than is found in Shakespeare. His literary form, the atmosphere of his poetry, many of his characteristic interests, are Elizabethan. It was customary with poets in his day to write sonnets in series ; and he has left a series of sonnets. The drama was the most popular form of literature; and he wrote mainly dramas. Subjects from English history possessed a special interest for his audience and had a special fascination for writers of the time; and he wrote English historical plays. The fact, therefore, that Shakespeare is “for all time," does not prevent his being, in a very real sense,“ of an age". It will be strange indeed if Tennyson and Browning do not prove to be of their age as well as Shakespeare; and it will be no derogation from their greatness to inquire how far they are so.

There will be general agreement that those two, Tennyson and Browning, represent at its best the poetry of the period just closed or closing. Some, perhaps, would add that they are not only the greatest, but that there is no rival or third to them. When however we remember that only a short time ago not a few would have demurred to assigning to Browning so lofty a position, we may reasonably hesitate before we put even those men on an eminence so solitary. There may be others who have been misjudged, as Browning was, or inadequately appreciated. To me it seems that there is among the Victorians one other, and only one, so emphatically great that whether or not he be judged equal to those two, he must be named along with them. I allude to Matthew Arnold, who, though inferior to Browning and Tennyson in compass, and perhaps in some respects in power, is so exquisite within his range that he can be placed nowhere except in the first rank. He was younger than the others, he died earlier, and he had practically ceased to write poetry many years before his death. The period of his

[ocr errors]


CAMP DAVIA 5 activity is therefore brief. The other two stretch beyond him at both ends, and in the bulk of their work far surpass him. The interest of their development is also necessarily greater. But if a poet is to be judged by what he has done best, Arnold must stand very high.

Those three, then, I take to be the greatest and best repre- — sentatives of Victorian poetry. I propose to attempt a critical estimate of them. In doing so I shall in the first place follow the chronological sequence of their works. Frequently the best possible comparison is between a man in his youth and the same man in his maturity or in old age; and in any case it is not easy to miss instruction in following the succession of a man's works. As regards Browning and Tennyson, the chronological method is, on account of the length of time between their first and last publications, unusually promising. In the case of Arnold it may be expected to yield less valuable results. This chronological study will occupy the first part of the book. In the concluding chapters I propose to lay special emphasis on the relation of the poets to the spirit and thought of the time. It is only thus, by careful reference, first to their own development, and secondly to the time in which they lived, that I can hope to understand them. The world is greater than its greatest

It reflects from a thousand angles a thousand rays back upon him, and in their light enables the ordinary observer, with patience and industry, to comprehend much that would otherwise baffle him. I neither purpose to make, nor am I capable of making, excursions into all the fields of human activity. My object is rather to use the general results of politics, philosophy, religion and science, as clues to the underlying thought of the poets, or as points of view from which to regard them.

The years immediately succeeding the close of the terrible struggle with Napoleon were marked all over Europe by weariness, want and depression. The first exultation of victory was succeeded everywhere by a sense of failure. The revolutionary republic and the empire that had sprung from it were crushed ; but the old order in politics was by no means restored or capable of being restored. On the other hand, those who had looked to the Revolution for the regeneration of society were forced to recognise that what they had expected could not be, or at least could not be fully and as they had expected it. It has been the task of two generations to work out that portion of


« AnteriorContinuar »