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lish poetry through six hundred years or so would take a large volume instead of a few pages, but it may be possible to give you a simple outline that you can easily carry about in your memory without confusing a very important thing, which is the appreciation of poetry, with a very unimportant thing, which is the learning of dry facts about it.
The first great poet, then, who wrote in the English language as we know it to-day, was Geoffrey Chaucer, who is sometimes called the father of English poetry. In his verses, which show a mastery of words that has never been excelled, he told stories that are among the best that have ever been told. When a little later on you begin to read them for yourselves, you will find them full of beauty and amusement, for Chaucer's humour was as great as his passion. Then for nearly two hundred years, although poetry never died, and was sometimes served by such admirable poets as Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, there was no very rich period, and Chaucer remained a great and solitary figure in the art. It was not until towards the end of the sixteenth century, or something over three hundred years ago, that a large group of poets began to work together towards making English poetry the thing of which we should be prouder than of anything else that England has given to the world. It was then that Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare walked about the streets of London, and wrote the poems and plays that have grown even more wonderful as the years have gone by, until to-day they seem as much a part of an Englishman's life as his rivers and counties. With these great ones were a host of others – it would be easy to name twenty
who shared the inspiration and added to the glory of what we call the Elizabethan age.
From that time the full tide of English poetry has moved on unchecked down to our own day. It is difficult, and not very useful, to say exactly after Elizabeth's time where one period of poetry ended and another began, but the next great poet after Shakespeare to stand out in supremacy was John Milton, who was born about the time that Shakespeare died. The Elizabethans had been tremendously interested in the daily life about them, and even in their most tragic passions there is a certain intimacy of detail that makes us remember that they were men like ourselves, puzzled and anxious and brave and excitedly happy by turns. But Milton, who was blind for a long term of his life, making his greatest poems out of his meditation upon God's dealings with the world and men that he had created, seemed to move in a serene, almost untroubled mastery of thought, and that is why he is so consoling a poet to go to when we find life and the affairs of men most difficult and unintelligible. He gives us then something of his own noble imagination with which to rise above the narrow ways of our lesser vision. And just when this poet was creating the sublimest world in all poetry, where gods and angels and devils embodied the highest imaginings that the human mind could conceive, others, notably Robert Herrick, were writing exquisite lyrics of the country side and the simple fortunes of men.
Alexander Pope and John Dryden, the poets who followed Milton, were the masters of a period in poetry when a curious weakness of the age expressed itself, naturally enough, in the work of the poets. In life what we call good manners are the superficial token of fine character, and when there is no fine character behind them, they become false and silly, not being really good manners at all, but imitation good manners. Now it would be quite unjust to say that there was no fine character in the age of Pope and Dryden, or that there is no nobility in the work of these poets and their fellows, but it is a fact that people at that time did often make the mistake of supposing that good manners were a sufficient occupation in themselves, instead of realising that they could never exist at all unless they were merely the incidental result of fine character. And so they often gave themselves up to trivialities of life, and in their worship of good manners were apt to get no farther than foolish and affected manners, and this confusion in some measure reflected itself in the poetry of the time. But while we find in the work of such poets as Pope, a mechanical correctness of form and a conventionality of thought that is sometimes tiresome, we must remember that we have only to make a little allowance for this to discover that they, too, are carrying on the great tradition of poetry with personal and enduring genius.
Coming now to the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, to which we are led from Pope by men such as Thomas Gray and William Blake through a time not very rich in poetry, we have a second great flowering of English song, as wonderful almost as that other one of Elizabethan days. Here we find William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, with others whose names are hardly less famous. These men, it need not be said, wrote each in his own strongly distinctive way, but they all worked, under some common impulse and without realising that they were working to the same end, towards taking poetry back from the conventional habits of an artificial society to the simplicity of nature and the fundamental emotions of life. They belonged to an older country than the Elizabethans, and the fierce tragic passion of the earlier poets seems perhaps to give way to a deep and wistful but always splendidly courageous tenderness in these later men, but the inspiration of poetry runs as strongly as ever and there is no weariness, nothing but magnificently renewed vigour.
And then came the poets of yesterday, poets whom your fathers and grandfathers can remember as being alive — Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning,
Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the rest, all of them increasing the riches of English poetry down to our own time. Nor, as you will have found in reading these books, did the making of poetry stop yesterday. It still goes on to-day, and there are poets writing now whose names you will remember when you are old men and women, as those other names have been remembered by our fathers before us. And when they too have gone, poetry will find new imaginations in which to work its never-dying will.