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Outlines of English and American Literature|
The Revival of Romantic Poetry
by Long, William J.
|Every age has had its romantic poets--that is, poets who sing the dreams
and ideals of life, and whose songs seem to be written naturally,
spontaneously, as from a full heart [Footnote: For specific examples of
formal and romantic poetry see the comparison between Addison and
Wordsworth below, under "Natural vs Formal Poetry", Chapter VII]--but in
the eighteenth century they were completely overshadowed by formal
versifiers who made poetry by rule. At that time the imaginative verse
which had delighted an earlier age was regarded much as we now regard an
old beaver hat; Shakespeare and Milton were neglected, Spenser was but a
name, Chaucer was clean forgotten. If a poet aspired to fame, he imitated
the couplets of Dryden or Pope, who, as Cowper said,
Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
And every warbler has his tune by heart.
Among those who made vigorous protest against the precise and dreary
formalism of the age were Collins and Gray, whose names are commonly
associated in poetry, as are the names of Addison and Steele in prose. They
had the same tastes, the same gentle melancholy, the same freedom from the
bondage of literary fashion. Of the two, William Collins (1721-1759) was
perhaps the more gifted poet. His exquisite "Ode to Evening" is without a
rival in its own field, and his brief elegy beginning, "How sleep the
brave," is a worthy commemoration of a soldier's death and a nation's
gratitude. It has, says Andrew Lang, the magic of an elder day and of all
Thomas Gray (1716-1771) is more widely known than his fellow poet, largely
because of one fortunate poem which "returned to men's bosoms" as if sure
of its place and welcome. This is the "Elegy Written in a Country
Churchyard" (1750), which has been translated into all civilized tongues,
and which is known, loved, quoted wherever English is spoken.
To criticize this favorite of a million readers seems almost ruthless, as
if one were pulling a flower to pieces for the sake of giving it a
botanical name. A pleasanter task is to explain, if one can, the immense
popularity of the "Elegy." The theme is of profound interest to every man
who reveres the last resting place of his parents, to the nation which
cherishes every monument of its founders, and even to primitive peoples,
like the Indians, who refuse to leave the place where their fathers are
buried, and who make the grave a symbol of patriotism. With this great
theme our poet is in perfect sympathy. His attitude is simple and reverent;
he treads softly, as if on holy ground. The natural setting or atmosphere
of his poem, the peace of evening falling on the old churchyard at Stoke
Poges, the curfew bell, the cessation of daily toil, the hush which falls
upon the twilight landscape like a summons to prayer,--all this is exactly
as it should be. Finally, Gray's craftsmanship, his choice of words, his
simple figures, his careful fitting of every line to its place and context,
is as near perfection as human skill could make it.
Other poems of Gray, which make his little book precious, are the four
odes: "To Spring," "On a Distant Prospect of Eton College," "The Progress
of Poesy" and "The Bard," the last named being a description of the
dramatic end of an old Welsh minstrel, who chants a wild prophecy as he
goes to his death. These romantic odes, together with certain translations
which Gray made from Norse mythology, mark the end of "classic" domination
in English poetry.