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after all, the things, as I have said, are mere vers de société. True; but such as no Englishman in his own time, or for a hundred years after, if ever, has matched ; such as our literature could not dispense with now; in one way or another irresistible !
Well, and a poet then? Forty years ago I put the question to myself, and seemingly had no doubt of the fit
Without thought or passion no writer can long keep his rank among poets; and Prior had neither.' The latter part of that verdict I am not inclined to dispute. His poems contain little more thought than is needed to save them from vacuity, and no passionateness, except such as may attend irony. But they possess a quality which vindicates their title to be poetry nevertheless; and that is, atmosphere. In it they live and breathe ; it travels down the current of time with them ; and it ensures them an independent being. It is a quality which at once veils and reveals. It affords space for the singer's idea to move about, define, amplify; and for the reader's fancy as well. Associations house themselves within. It is like a Spaniard's cloak, a comrade, a confidant, something of a home, an universal provider. Rather thin in texture it may be; but it is elastic, agreeable, and companionable. On the whole, while within its influence, I am ready to believe that the inmate of the tomb in the Abbey deserved the honour, though, as a rule, it is better for a poet to have been put than to put himself there.
The Poems of Matthew Prior (Johnson's Poets, vols. xxxii, xxxiii, and xxxiv. London, 1790).
1 The Conversation. A Tale.
3 An English Ballad—on the Taking of Namur by the King of Great Britain, 1698, st. 4.
The Thief and the Cordelier. A Ballad, st. 5. 5 Boswell's Johnson, vol. vii, pp. 10–11. Murray, 1835. 6 The Female Phaeton, st. 8. 7 A Lover's Anger. 8 An Ode, st. 3. • Cupid Mistaken. 10 An English Padlock, vv. 76-81 11 A Better Answer to Cloe Jealous, st. 7. 12 To a Child of Quality, Five Years Old, st. 4. 13 To the Honourable Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley, when a Child. 14 The Garland, stanzas 8–9.
DR. JONATHAN SWIFT
How either include, or exclude Swift ? He wished, thought, knew, declared himself to be a poet. He owned, and displayed many of a poet's qualities. Versifying was as natural to him as breathing. His imagination was extraordinarily, extravagantly, ready and lively. Whatever the topic, it searched every dusty hole and corner. For the purposes of criticism, almost invariably cruel, it exhausted the utmost capabilities of caricature. With the propensity, or in spite of it, the man himself seemed to have been designed for a poet in feeling, as in intellect. His heart was at bottom warm and loving, misunderstood as it has been by writers who might have been expected to know better. Never was a wiser and more constant friend. When he raged it was with a poet's intensity; and his caprices, his piques, his attachments, were a poet's too.
From the happy afternoon on which, a child, I was led by my father to read Gulliver, my affections have always gone out to Swift. In my later investigations of history, by predilection I chose tracks on which I could meet his familiar figure. Everywhere, unless when, for an unwilling instant, I chanced upon his verse, I was sensible of the poet in him. Never did it occur to me to consider him as a writer of poetry. I should have been glad still to waive discussion altogether of the question whether work of his attain to that rank, or not. But he himself autocratically insists upon an answer. I have now been scrutinizing afresh the volumes of his metrical compositions, that I may
have a right to reply. The result is that I will not deny, and cannot definitely affirm, but—almost resentfully-hope.
Manifestly he can chronicle with dramatic power; as, for example, a Modern Lady's day or night, until unlucky Madam, in tears,
With empty purse, and aching head,
Steals to her sleeping spouse to bed." In fits of more or less righteous wrath his rhymes lash, till the blood flows, antagonists, secular or ecclesiastical, bishops, lawyers, soldiers, even fellow men of letters in the opposite camp. Nay, he has a store of charming cajoleries for friends and allies ; for Peterborough, who
Shines in all climates like a star,
In senates bold, and fierce in war; for Pope,
A genius for all stations fit,
Whose meanest talent is his wit ; for the late Lord Treasurer, in the Tower, who
Nor stoops to take the staff, nor lays it down,
Just as the rabble please to smile or frown.5 As a maid-of-all-work for the sweeping-out of the lumberroom of a mind occupied in general with affairs really serious, no Muse was ever more useful than the great Dean's. Rarely indeed does it seem to have occurred to himself that poetry is among the gravest, the noblest, of all affairs ; that its ministers, set apart and consecrated, are under an obligation to offer up heart and brain on its altar.
Had Swift been incapable of flights beyond the Furniture of a Woman's Mind, or a ballad narrating how the renowned highwayman,
Clever Tom Clinch, while the rabble was bawling,
Rode stately through Holborn to die in his calling,? literature might have accepted such bitter-gay whimsicalities
from him as it greeted playful trifles from Prior, with the smiling thankfulness they merit. It might respectfully have recognized hints of a loftier spirit in the sarcastic outbursts against a Marlborough, a Walpole. But
facit indignatio versus, not poetry. Lovers of that would have marked, and passed on. They have a real right to feel aggrieved when, in the heap of leaflets, squibs, and sportive nothings, they come upon pieces like the autobiographical elegy-I had almost written, autopsy-On the Death of Dr. Swift. We are forced to suspect that its author had more than
a kind of knack at rhyme ; that it was a poet's heart, `and not a wit's gall, which accounted it the hardest penalty of his exile to have to
spend his life's declining part ; Where folly, pride, and faction sway,
Remote from St. John, Pope, and Gay; and his chief solace to cling, under a show of not caring, to a hope that, when his friends should hear of his death :
Poor Pope will grieve a month, and Gay
To bite his pen, and drop a tear.11 Such glimpses within reveal to us much more than an egotist labouring to condense into five hundred lines his own epitaph.
In verse still more intimate, the epistle to Stella Visiting me in my Sickness, we are permitted something of insight into his true relations to the one woman he cared for, andnobody knows why-sacrificed. It shows us a poet's understanding of female worth--the courage, the wit and sense :