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If to far India's coast we sail,
Thy eyes are seen in di'monds bright,
Thy skin is ivory so white.
Let not my pretty Susan mourn ;
William shall to his dear return.
The sails their swelling bosom spread ;
They kiss’d, she sigh’d, he hung his head.
Adieu ! she cries; and wav'd her lily hand.11 Excellent ! yet by the merit itself testifying how near Gay came to inspiration without being inspired. Songs like this, and the airs of the Opera, even Trivia and the rest of its kind, are so good as to be continually crying out upon him for the contrast between capability and performance. Delightful, intellectually indolent 'lapdog', as he has been fondly called, he always shunned the particular species of exertion which might have turned the versifier into a poet. He was willing to do much of a high sort of what I must reluctantly call hack work—The Fan, Rural Sports, Fables, and the like. He would not, or he could not, set his fancy on fire. Nor was he, with his nature, likely to try, when without exposing his gifts to so crucial an ordeal, he was assured of admiration and affection. He was content, as was his own age also ; and as it happens, posterity has been ready to continue something of the same
kindness to his memory. A little less self-satisfaction, or a little more self-dissatisfaction ; and literature might have boasted in John Gay a second Herrick.
The Poems of Gay (Johnson's Poets, vols, xxxvi and xxxvii), 1790. 1 Rural Sports, Canto i, vv. 265-8. ? The Fan, Book I, vv. 127-30 and 235-6. 3 Trivia, Book I, v. 62, and Book II, vv. 59-60. · The Beggar's Opera, Act i, Sc. 1, Mrs. Peachem. 5 Ibid., Act ii, Sc. 2, Macheath. 6 A Receipt for Stewing Veal. ? Molly Mog; or, The Fair Maid of the Inn. 8 Acis and Galatea. A Serenata. Air.
Ibid., Air. 10 Ballad. 11 Sweet William's Farewell to Black-eyed Susan.
NOBODY, I suppose, in these days would by choice read Young. His seven Satires have lost the attraction they once exercised through their transparent allusions. As poems they remind too much of Pope, their model, without, though very far from being good-humoured, the zest of the sharp snappings of his vengeful fancy. The Last Day is remarkable chiefly for noise, and the Force of Religion for tedious sentimentality. Of his other considerable productions, the Paraphrase of Part of the Book of Job might impress persons not conversant with the sublime prose of the Authorized Version. In Reflections on the Public Situation of the Kingdom there is as much of the poetical as the title indicates. The Ode on the Death of Queen Anne is as dead as she. As for the deplorable Ocean and Resignation, one in seventy stanzas, the other in four hundred and five, both testify only to the author's utter want of comprehension of the 'spirit ’ of their form, which he believes himself to have 'hit'.
The work on which his reputation depends, Night Thoughts, remains. Several reasons are on the surface for the neglect which has overtaken that formerly illustrious publication. He himself speaks of his exhortations as
Truths which at Church, you might have heard in prose.' A natural comment is, why not then have been satisfied by preaching them there? The remonstrances with gay Lorenzo on undisclosed misdeeds of his pour down like
a rain of buffets by a muscular evangelist, who is acutely sensible that
A God all mercy is a God unjust.? Never was the gospel of Christ delivered with less of persuasive sweetness. Somehow also, it must be added, a suspicion will beset the student of a deficiency in sincerity. Not even has the metre, monotonously heavy, if correct, any variety or vivacity to compensate for dearth of the same in the sense.
Yet how condemn as false pretenders to the name of poetry, productions acclaimed by their own and several later generations ? As I have remarked elsewhere, the educated judgement of the age in which a poem appeared is entitled to high respect. A writer's contemporaries read between the lines. They can most easily appreciate his intentions, and the degree in which he has carried them into effect. They have measured by their own standard of taste, which, for all that we know, may be better than
That another period cares less, does not tell equally as evidence of inferiority.
Thus the liking in Young's day for rhetoric in verse may fairly be set off against the modern distaste for it. The charge of being rhetorical is not indeed ever necessarily damning, as it is a common fashion to assume. Reprobation on that ground would warn off the British Parnassus some eminent poets. Rhetoric so called, in poetry as in prose, may be seasonable as well as unseasonable, worthy as well as unworthy. Not a few of Young's outbursts may be rhetorical, but have a robust beauty besides, and beyond a doubt are spirited and impressive. Take, for instances, his lament for the beloved step-daughter he styles Narcissa :
Sweet harmonist! and beautiful as sweet!
And left unharmonious ! 3 And, again, the impassioned rebuke of Roman Catholic bigotry for its refusal of a grave to her in consecrated earth at Lyons :
Denied the charity of dust, to spread
Glows my resentment into guilt ? What guilt
An angel's dust ? 4 Contemporaries applauded, and rightly. Pathos, and still reasonably, they found in his fond complaint of his dying wife's pretence of cheerful hope :