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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.