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tempted to draw comparisons. No student of poetry can avoid observing that certain writers tower above the rest. I am not speaking of particular poems. A poem may be great by virtue of the prominence of some special quality : sublimity, as Paradise Lost; passion, as the Cenci; holiness, as The Retreat; weirdness, as The Raven ; tenderness, as My Mother's Picture ; intensity, as The Tiger ; atmosphere, as The Eve of St. Agnes; perfection of workmanship, as Shakespeare's Sonnets. The greatness I mean is a property of men as poets. It belongs to the authors of some of the pieces I have instanced, if not to all. I had begun indeed with a plan for confining my survey to some nineteen. Finally, while occasionally I have disregarded exact chronology, and have grouped authors with reference to analogies in literary character, I decided to abandon altogether assessments of comparative merit. All are peers if endued with the true poetic spirit, in whatever quantity. The Great themselves will have more justice done them, standing among their contemporaries, than in an unconnected gathering of luminaries torn from their native orbits.
My apprehension at first was that I might allow myself to contrast, marshal, even to measure out space with regard to rank in the hierarchy. Of such invidious distinctions I had a superstitious dread. I need not have been anxious. Genius beheld in the midst of its own proper and natural circumstances is invested with a halo too bright to permit a gaze once directed upon it to wander elsewhere, till a fresh name has been duly called. The proportion of room occupied in my pages has no positive relation to my estimate of merit ; much or little has been requisitioned mainly according to the more or less of difficulty in gauging character and quality.
To one charge I must plead guilty. I confess, but with a sincere sense that I had no alternative. It is true that often in my quotations I have made omissions. My apology is twofold. In the first place, the laws of space forbade quotation in full. In the second, the purpose for which I quoted permitted, and even encouraged, curtailment. My motive in quoting at all was to explain my admiration of a writer or his work; to try to prove the inspiration. When, as of necessity frequently, the inspiration has ceased, the reason for taking up space otherwise required ended too. At the same time I hope to be believed when I declare that abridging was always a grief to me, and a violence to my instinct of propriety. I have constantly felt that I had to stand in a penitent's white sheet after perpetrating such an act, though I had no option but to repeat the offence.
If the effect have ever been to set a poet or his verse in too favourable a light, I accept rebuke so entirely without pain that I exult as at the performance of a good deed. Should, by some mischance, the freedoms taken by me have had the opposite consequence of marring a fine touch, I unfeignedly lament. It has been my object throughout to look for achievement, not for failure; to dwell on beauties, rather than on flaws. Did I suspect that I had been unfair to the least of the seventy-two, whether by omission, or by commission, I should be most unhappy. I have consistently inclined to regard high-, not low-water mark. My single endeavour has been to make clear to myself, if possible, the presence of inspiration. That is the quality I have sought, and endeavoured with all my power to bring to light. I have rejoiced in it when found. For the most part I have gone on my way in silence, when I have not succeeded in discovering it, or have come upon the traces
of it faded or tarnished. If I have indicated poets, or poems, where it is wanting, my object has been to concentrate regard upon those it glorifies. Where I have been unable to agree with a favourable contemporary view, I have differed with hesitation and doubt as to my own. Only in two or three instances have I presumed to condemn altogether.
In general, my surmise is that I am more likely to be held guilty of exaggerated admiration than of censorious severity. I expose myself to the charge almost deliberately, and by no means unwillingly. Let anybody commune with, live with, genuine poetry; I defy him to refrain from eulogy, which to others not under the spell will seem fantastic. Inspiration acts upon poets like laughing gas.
It has a peculiarity of its own, that mere sympathy communicates the delirium. Perhaps I am rather vain of the liability to a passion of enthusiasm, and invite participation.
ALL springtide. Spring in the suddenness of its succession to winter. Frost and nipping winds at one moment, and, the next, fresh leafage and bright flowers. And the fragrance ! Nothing in the history of literature precisely matches the phenomenon. Mightier Dante himself, incomparable among moderns till Shakespeare, was not so astoundingly meteoric. His advent was accompanied by a chorus of singers almost as admirable in form, though not in matter. As poetry attended, so it survived, him. Similarly with Shakespeare himself. He had forerunners, rivals, and followers. Geoffrey Chaucer stands alone ; for ancient Gower cannot be named in the same breath; he was old before he was young. No teachers existed in this island for old famous Chaucer',
in whose gentle spright The pure well-head of poesie did dwell; the ‘loadstarre of our language'; of 'excellencie and wonderful skill in making', as witness Spenser, Lydgate, Kirke. No series of disciples handed on the torch.
The mere mass of his writings is vast; and they were the diversions of an ambassador, soldier, and captive, Controller, perhaps architect, of royal palaces, and a busy courtier, husband of a maid of honour to Queen Philippa—the sister of Catherine Swinford. In addition to the Canterbury Tales and many minor pieces, he produced the Romaunt of the Rose, Troilus and Cressida, The Court of Love, Booke of the Dutchesse, House of Fame, Dream, and Legend of Good Women. It is verse by wholesale, though no excess
of food for the imagination to last a people a century and a half, with no better than Skelton's chopped straw till very near the end to replenish the manger. A large amount is chaff for us, both stories and sentiments ; not for the fourteenth century, which knew neither Plutarch, nor much of Greek and Roman mythology. The versions of Seneca's moralities and Cato's are weariness to the bones. But there is metal worth delving for amid the prolixities. What wealth of fancy, for example, in the House of Fame! that
What a store of history, so far as it was accessible to his age, there ; in the Legend of Good Women ; everywhere !
Then, the Tales. Considered severally a proportion of them too may be set down as tedious. As a whole, all, and not least the good Parson's exhaustive sermon, are appropriate, almost necessary, for the presentation of a complete social picture. There is coarseness among them, often humorous, often witty, as in the Wife of Bath's ; oftener unmixed grossness, still characteristic, and needing no apology to the poet's contemporaries, though he himself humbly asks : May Crist for his grete mercy foryeve me the sinne of many a song and many a lecherous lay.' 2
But take others, the Squire's 'wondrous tale half told' of Camball and of Algarsife, the Franklin's of Aurelius Arviragus and Dorigene, above all, the Knight's of Palamon and Arcite, and the Clerke's of Griselda the Patient, the Martyr. They require no extenuation in the face of the twentieth century, any more than in that of their own. The fluctuations of the mortal love-duel at Athens above all are a masterpiece of poetic art.