« AnteriorContinua »
the air, and was wafted up and down into lone and into populous places, resisting the popular taste, modifying opinions which it did not change, and soon came to be felt in poetry, in criticism, in plans of life, and at last in legislation. In this country, it very early found a strong hold, and its effect may be traced on all the poetry both of England and America.
But notwithstanding all Wordsworth's grand merits, it was a great pleasure to know that Alfred Tennyson's two volumes were coming out in the same ship; it was a great pleasure to receive them. The elegance, the wit, and subtlety of this writer, his rich fancy, his power of language, his metrical skill, his independence on any living masters, his peculiar topics, his taste for the costly and gorgeous, discriminate the musky poet of gardens and conservatories of parks and palaces. Perhaps we felt the popular objection that he wants rude truth, he is too fine. In these boudoirs of damask and alabaster, one is farther off from stern nature and human life than in Lalla Rookh and "the Loves of the Angels." Amid swinging censers and perfumed lamps, amidst velvet and glory we long for rain and frost. Otto of roses is good, but wild air is better. A critical friend of ours affirms that the vice, which bereaved modern painters of their power, is the ambition to begin where their fathers ended; to equal the masters in their exquisite finish, instead of in their religious purpose. The painters are not willing to paint ill enough: they will not paint for their times, agitated by the spirit which agitates their country; so should their picture picture us and draw all men after them; but they copy the technics of their predecessors, and paint for their predecessors' public. It seems as if the same vice had worked in poetry. Tennycompositions are not so much poems as studies in poetry, or sketches after the styles of sundry old masters. He is not the husband who builds the homestead after his own necessity, from foundation stone to chimney-top and turret, but a tasteful bachelor who collects quaint stair cases and groined ceilings. We have no right to such superfineness. We must not make our bread of pure sugar. These delicacies and splendors are then legitimate when they are the excess of substantial and necessary expenditure. The best songs in English poetry are by that heavy, hard, pedantic poet, Ben Jonson.
Jonson is rude, and only on rare occasions gay. Tennyson is always fine; but Jonson's beauty is more grateful than Tennyson's. It is a natural manly grace of a robust workman. Ben's flowers are not in pots, at a city florist's, ranged on a flower-stand, but he is a countryman at a harvest-home, attending his ox-cart from the fields, loaded with potatoes and apples, with grapes and plums, with nuts and berries, and stuck with boughs of hemlock and sweet briar, with ferns and pond lilies which the children have gathered. But let us not quarrel with our benefactors. Perhaps Tennyson is too quaint and elegant. What then? It is long since we have as good a lyrist; it will be long before we have his superior. "Godiva" is a noble poem that will tell the legend a thousand years. The poem of all the poetry of the present age, for which we predict the longest term, is " Abou ben Adhem" of Leigh Hunt. Fortune will still have her part in every victory, and it is strange that one of the best poems should be written by a man who has hardly written any other. And "Godiva" is a parable which belongs to the same gospel. "Locksley Hall" and "the Two Voices" are meditative poems, which were slowly written to be slowly read. "The Talking Oak," though a little hurt by its wit and ingenuity, is beautiful, and the most poetic of the volume. "Ulysses" belongs to a high class of poetry, destined to be the highest, and to be more cultivated in the next generation. "none" was a sketch of the same kind. One of the best specimens we have of the class is Wordsworth's "Laodamia," of which no special merit it can possess equals the total merit of having selected such a subject in such a spirit.
Next to the poetry the novels, which come to us in every ship from England, have an importance increased by the immense extension of their circulation through the new cheap press, which sends them to so many willing thousands. So much novel reading ought not to leave the readers quite unaffected, and undoubtedly gives some tinge of romance to the daily life of young merchants and maidens. We have heard it alleged, with some evidence, that the prominence given to intellectual power in Bulwer's romances had proved a main stimulus to mental culture in thousands of young men in England and America. The effect
on manners cannot be less sensible, and we can easily believe that the behavior of the ball room, and of the hotel has not failed to draw some addition of dignity and grace from the fair ideals, with which the imagination of a novelist has filled the heads of the most imitative class.
We are not very well versed in these books, yet we have read Mr. Bulwer enough to see that the story is rapid and interesting; he has really seen London society, and does not draw ignorant caricatures. He is not a genius, but his novels are marked with great energy, and with a courage of experiment which in each instance had its degree of success. The story of Zanoni was one of those world-fables which is so agreeable to the human imagination, that it is found in some form in the language of every country, and is always reappearing in literature. Many of the details of this novel preserve a poetic truth. We read Zanoni with pleasure, because magic is natural. It is implied in all superior culture that a complete man would need no auxiliaries to his personal presence. The eye and the word are certainly far subtler and stronger weapons than either money or knives. Whoever looked on the hero, would consent to his will, being certified that his aims were universal, not selfish; and he would be obeyed as naturally as the rain. and the sunshine are. For this reason, children delight in fairy tales. Nature is described in them as the servant of man, which they feel ought to be true. But Zanoni pains us, and the author loses our respect, because he speedily betrays that he does not see the true limitations of the charm; because the power with which his hero is armed, is a toy, inasmuch as the power does not flow from its legitimate fountains in the mind; is a power for London; a divine power converted into a burglar's false key or a highwayman's pistol to rob and kill with.
But Mr. Bulwer's recent stories have given us, who do not read novels, occasion to think of this department of literature, supposed to be the natural fruit and expression of the age. We conceive that the obvious division of modern romance is into two kinds; first, the novels of costume or of circumstance, which is the old style, and vastly the most numerous. In this class, the hero, without any particular character, is in a very particular circumstance; he is greatly in want of a fortune or of a wife, and usually of both, and
the business of the piece is to provide him suitably. This is the problem to be solved in thousands of English romances, including the Porter novels and the more splendid examples of the Edgeworth and Scott romances.
It is curious how sleepy and foolish we are, that these tales will so take us. Again and again we have been caught in that old foolish trap; - then, as before, to feel indignant to have been duped and dragged after a foolish boy and girl, to see them at last married and portioned, and the reader instantly turned out of doors, like a beggar that has followed a gay procession into a castle. Had one noble thought opening the chambers of the intellect, one sentiment from the heart of God been spoken by them, the reader had been made a participator of their triumph; he too had been an invited and eternal guest; but this reward granted them is property, all-excluding property, a little cake baked for them to eat and for none other, nay, a preference and cosseting which is rude and insulting to all but the minion.
Excepting in the stories of Edgeworth and Scott, whose talent knew how to give to the book a thousand adventititious graces, the novels of costume are all one, and there is but one standard English novel, like the one orthodox sermon, which with slight variation is repeated every Sunday from so many pulpits.
But the other novel, of which Wilhelm Meister is the best specimen, the novel of character, treats the reader with more respect; a castle and a wife are not the indispensable conclusion, but the development of character being the problem, the reader is made a partaker of the whole prosperity. Every thing good in such a story remains with the reader, when the book is closed.
A noble book was Wilhelm Meister. It gave the hint of a cultivated society which we found nowhere else. It was founded on power to do what was necessary, each person finding it an indispensable qualification of membership, that he could do something useful, as in mechanics or agriculture or other indispensable art; then a probity, a justice, was to be its element, symbolized by the insisting that each property should be cleared of privilege, and should pay its full tax to the State. Then, a perception of beauty was the equally indispensable element of the association, by which
each was so dignified and all were so dignified; then each was to obey his genius to the length of abandonment. They watched each candidate vigilantly, without his knowing that he was observed, and when he had given proof that he was a faithful man, then all doors, all houses, all relations were open to him; high behavior fraternized with high behavior, without question of heraldry and the only power recognised is the force of character.
The novels of Fashion of D'Israeli, Mrs. Gore, Mr. Ward, belong to the class of novels of costume, because the aim is a purely external success.
Of the tales of fashionable life, by far the most agreeable and the most efficient, was Vivian Grey. Young men were and still are the readers and victims. Byron ruled for a time, but Vivian, with no tithe of Byron's genius, rules longer. One can distinguish at sight the Vivians in all companies. They would quiz their father, and mother, and lover, and friend. They discuss sun and planets, liberty and fate, love and death, over the soup. They never sleep, go nowhere, stay nowhere, eat nothing, and know nobody, but are up to anything, though it were the Genesis of nature, or the last Cataclasm,- Festuslike, Faust-like, Jove-like; and could write an Iliad any rainy morning, if fame were not such a bore. Men, women, though the greatest and fairest, are stupid things; but a rifle, and a mild pleasant gunpowder, a spaniel, and a cheroot, are themes for Olympus. I fear it was in part the influence of such pictures on living society, which made the style of manners, of which we have so many pictures, as, for example, in the following account of the English fashionist. "His highest triumph is to appear with the most wooden manners, as little polished as will suffice to avoid castigation, nay, to contrive even his civilities, so that they may appear as near as may be to affronts; instead of a noble high-bred ease, to have the courage to offend against every restraint of decorum, to invert the relation in which our sex stand to women, so that they appear the attacking, and he the passive or defensive party."
We must here check our gossip in mid volley, and adjourn the rest of our critical chapter to a more convenient
VOL. IV. NO. III.