Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

valour. Indeed, the barbarities inflicted on that miserable race, by those whom we are sometimes taught to admire, would exceed belief, if they were not attested by the clearest proofs. At Rome, slaves, when too old for work, were often sent to an island in the Tiber, and left there to perish. On the slightest offence, they were frequently thrown into fishponds, exposed to wild beasts, or sentenced to die upon the cross. And in the same spirit of contempt for humanity, and veneration for the privileged orders, parents had power to imprison their children or put them to death, and wives were left, without protection, to the brutal ferocity of their husbands.

With how different feelings are the rights of humanity regarded in these happier seasons! Slavery is abolished throughout the Christian kingdoms of Europe, and, with few exceptions, equal justice is administered to all. There is no grief which does not meet with pity, and few miseries which do not excite the attempt to relieve them. Men are found of sensibilities keen even to agony, who, tremblingly alive in every fibre to wretchedness, have yet the moral heroism to steel their nerves to the investigation of the most hideous details of suffering, with no desire of applause or wish for reward,'except that which success itself will give them. Within a few short years, what great moral changes have been effected! The traffic in human beings, which was practised without compunction or disgrace, and defended in parliament as a fair branch of commerce, is now made a felony, and those who are detected in pursuing it would almost be torn in pieces by popular fury. The most cruel enactments against freedom of thought and of discussion have been silently repealed, while scarcely a voice has been raised to defend or to mourn them. And, above all, a moral elevation has been given to the great mass of the rising generation, by the provision for their instruction, of which no time, or change, or accident can deprive them.

There is a deep-rooted opinion, which has been eloquently propounded by some of the first critics of our age, that works of imagination must necessarily decline as civilization advances. It will readily be conceded, that no individual minds can be expected to arise, in the most refined periods, which will surpass those which have been developed in rude and

L

barbarous ages. But there does not appear any solid reason for believing, that the mighty works of old time occupy the whole region of poetry—or necessarily chill the fancy of these later times by their vast and unbroken shadows. Genius does not depend on times or on seasons, it waits not on external circumstances, it can neither be subdued by the violence of the most savage means, nor polished away or dissipated among the refinements of the most glittering scenes of artificial life. It is "itself alone." To the heart of a young poet, the world is ever beginning anew. He is in the generation by which he is surrounded, but he is not of it; he can live in the light of the holiest times, or range amidst gorgeous marvels of eldest superstition, or sit "lone upon the shores of old romance," or pierce the veil of mortality, and "breathe in worlds to which the heaven of heavens is but a veil." The very deficiency of the romantic, in the actual paths of existence, will cause him to dwell in thought more apart from them, and to seek the wildest recesses in those regions which imagination opens to his inward gaze. To the eye of young joy, the earth is as fresh as at the first— the dew-drop is lit up as it was in Eden—and "the splendour in the grass, the glory in the flower," yet glitters as in the spring-time of the world.

The subjects in which genius rejoices, are not the vain and the transitory, but the true and the eternal, which are the same through all changes of society and shifting varieties of fashion. The heavens yet " tell the glory of God;" the hills, the vales, and the ocean, do not alter, nor does the heart of man wax old. The wonders of these are as exhaustless as they are lasting. While these remain, the circumstances of busy life—the exact mechanism of the social state—will affect the true poet but little. The seeds of genius, which contain within themselves the germs of expanded beauties and divinest sublimities, cannot perish. Wheresoever they are scattered, they must take root, striking far below the surface, overcropped and exhausted by the multitude of transitory productions, into a deep richness of soil, and, rising up above the weeds and tangled underwood which would crush them, lift their innumerable boughs into the free and rejoicing heavens.

The advancement of natural science and of moral truth do not tend really to lessen the resources of the bard. The more we know, the more we feel there is yet to be known. The mysteries of nature and of humanity are not lessened, but increased, by the discoveries of philosophic skilL The lustre which breaks on the vast clouds, which encircle us in our earthly condition, does not merely set in clear vision that which before was hidden in sacred gloom; but, at the same time, half exhibits masses of magnificent shadow, unknown before, and casts an uncertain light on vast regions, in which the imagination may devoutly expatiate. A plastic superstition may fill a limited circle with beautiful images, but it chills and confines the fancy, almost as strictly as it limits the reasoning faculties. The mythology of Greece, for example, while it peopled earth with a thousand glorious shapes, shut out the free grace of nature from poetic vision, and excluded from the ken the high beatings of the soul. All the loveliness of creation, and all the qualities, feelings, and passions, were invested with personal attributes. The evening's sigh was the breath of Zephyr—the streams were celebrated, not in their rural clearness, but as visionary nymphs—and ocean, that old agitator of sublimest thoughts, gave place, in the imagination, to a trident-bearing god. The tragic muse almost "forgot hersejf to stone," in her lone contemplations of destiny. No wild excursiveness of fancy marked their lighter poems—no majestical struggle of high passions and high actions filled the scene—no genial wisdom threw a penetrating, yet lovely, light on the silent recesses of the bosom. The diffusion of a purer faith restored to poetry its glowing affections, its far-searching intelligence, and its excursive power. And not only this, but it left it free to use those exquisite figures, and to avail itself of all the chaste and delicate imagery, which the exploded superstition first called into being. In the stately regions of imagination, the wonders of Greek fable yet have place, though they no longer hide from our view the secrets of our nature, or the long vistas which extend to the dim verge of the moral horizon. Well, indeed, does a great living poet assert their poetic existence, under the form of defending the science of the stars:

"For Fable is Love's world, his home, liis birth place;
Delightedly dwells he 'rnong fays and talismans,

And spirits; and delightedly believes

Divinities, being himself divine.

The intelligible forms of ancient poets,

The fair humanities of old religion,

The power, the beauty, and the majesty,

That had their haunts in dale or piny mountain,

Or forest, by slow stream or pebbly spring,

Or chasms and watery depths! all these have vanish'd,

They live no longer in the faith of reason!

But still the heart doth need a language, still

Doth the old instinct bring back the old names;

And to yon starry world they now are gone,

Spirits or gods, that us'd to share this earth

With man as with their friend; and to the lover

Yonder they move, from yonder visible sky

Shoot influence down; and, even at this day,

'Tis Jupiter who brings whate'er is great,

And Venus that brings every thing that's fair!"*

The poet is the inheritor of the imaginative treasures of all creeds which reason has now exploded. The dim gigantic shadows of the north—the gentle superstitions of the Greeks —the wild and wondrous prodigies of the Arabian enchantment—the dark rites of magic, more heart-stirring than all— have their places in the vast region of his soul. "When we climb above the floating mists which have so long overspread humanity, to breathe a purer air, and gaze on the unclouded heavens, we do not lose our feeling of veneration for majestic errors, nor our sense of their glories. Instead of wandering in the region of cloud, we overlook it all, and ^behold its gorgeous varieties of arch, minaret, dome, or spire, without partaking in its delusions.

But we have no need of resort to argument, in order to show that genius is not gradually declining. A glance at its productions, in the present age, will suffice to prove the gloomy mistake of desponding criticism. We will sketch very lightly over the principal living authors, to illustrate this position—satisfied that the mere mention of their names will awaken, within our readers, recollections of delight, far more than sufficient triumphantly to contravene the theory of those who believe in the degeneracy of genius.

* Colridge's translation ot Schiller's Wallenstein.

And first—in the great walk of poesy—is Wordsworth, who, if he stood alone, would vindicate the immortality of his art . He has, in his works, built up a rock of defence for his species, which will resist the mightiest tides of demoralizing luxury. Setting aside the varied and majestic harmony of his verse—the freshness and the grandeur of his descriptions^—the exquisite softness of his delineations of character —and the high and rapturous spirit of his choral songs—we may produce his "divine philosophy" as unequalled by any preceding bard. And surely it is no small proof of the infinity of the resources of genius, that, in this late age of the world, the first of all philosophic poets should have arisen, to open a new vein of sentiment and thought, deeper and richer than yet had been laid bare to mortal eyes. His rural pictures are as fresh and as lively as those of Cowper, yet how much lovelier is the poetic light which is shed over them! His exhibition of gentle peculiarities of character, and dear immunities of heart, is as true and as genial as that of Goldsmith, yet how much is its interest heightened by its intimate connexion, as by golden chords, with the noblest and most universal truths! His little pieces of tranquil beauty are as holy and as sweet as those of Collins, and yet while we feel the calm of the elder poet gliding into our souls, we catch farther glimpses through the luxuriant boughs into "the highest heaven of invention." His soul mantles as high with love and joy, as that of Burns, but yet "how bright, how solemn, how serene," is the brimming and lucid stream! His poetry not only discovers, within the heart, new faculties, but awakens within, its untried powers, to comprehend and to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom.

Not less marvellously gifted, though in a far different manner, is Coleridge, who, by a strange error, has been usually regarded as belonging to the same school, partaking of the same peculiarities, and upholding the same doctrines. Instead, like Wordsworth, of seeking the sources of sublimity and of beauty in the simplest elements of humanity, he ranges through all history and science, investigating all that has really existed, and all that has had foundation only in the strangest and wildest minds, combining, condensing, developing, and multiplying the rich products of his research with marvellous facility and skill; now pondering fondly over

« ПредишнаНапред »