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Outlines of English and American Literature
Minor Poets of Romanticism
by Long, William J.

There were other poets who aided in the romantic revival, and among them William Cowper (1731-1800) is one of the most notable. His most ambitious works, such as The Task and the translation of Homer into blank verse, have fallen into neglect, and he is known to modern readers chiefly by a few familiar hymns and by the ballad of "John Gilpin."

Less gifted but more popular than Cowper was James Macpherson (1736-1796), who made a sensation that spread rapidly over Europe and America with his Fingal (1762) and other works of the same kind,--wildly heroic poems which, he alleged, were translations from Celtic manuscripts written by an ancient bard named Ossian. Another and better literary forgery appeared in a series of ballads called The Rowley Papers, dealing with medieval themes. These were written by "the marvelous boy" Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), who professed to have found the poems in a chest of old manuscripts. The success of these forgeries, especially of the "Ossian" poems, is an indication of the awakened interest in medieval poetry and legend which characterized the whole romantic movement.

In this connection, Thomas Percy (1729-1811) did a notable work when he published, after years of research, his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). This was a collection of old ballads, which profoundly influenced Walter Scott, and which established a foundation for all later works of balladry.

Another interesting figure in the romantic revival is William Blake (1757-1827), a strange, mystic child, a veritable John o' Dreams, whom some call madman because of his huge, chaotic, unintelligible poems, but whom others regard as the supreme poetical genius of the eighteenth century. His only readable works are the boyish Poetical Sketches (1783) and two later volumes called Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (1794). Even these contain much to make us question Blake's sanity; but they contain also a few lyrics that might have been written by an elf rather than a man,--beautiful, elusive lyrics that haunt us like a strain of gypsy music, a memory of childhood, a bird song in the night:

  Can the eagle see what is in the pit,
    Or wilt thou go ask the mole?
  Can wisdom be put in a silver rod,
    Or love in a golden bowl?

In the witchery of these lyrics eighteenth-century poetry appears commonplace; but they attracted no attention, even "Holy Thursday," the sweetest song of poor children ever written, passing unnoticed. That did not trouble Blake, however, who cared nothing for rewards. He was a childlike soul, well content

  To see the world in a grain of sand,
    And a heaven in a wild flower;
  Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
    And eternity in an hour.


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