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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
“Poems,” by Alexander Smith. London: Bogue. 1853. Fraser’s Magazine, October, 1853.
On reading this little book, and considering all the exaggerated praise and exaggerated blame which have been lavished on it, we could not help falling into many thoughts about the history of English poetry for the last forty years, and about its future destiny. Great poets, even true poets, are becoming more and more rare among us. There are those even who say that we have none; an assertion which, as long as Mr. Tennyson lives, we shall take the liberty of denying. But were he, which Heaven forbid, taken from us, whom have we to succeed him? And he, too, is rather a poet of the sunset than of the dawn — of the autumn than of the spring. His gorgeousness is that of the solemn and fading year; not of its youth, full of hope, freshness, gay and unconscious life. Like some stately hollyhock or dahlia of this month’s gardens, he endures while all other flowers are dying; but all around is winter — a mild one, perhaps, wherein a few annuals or pretty field weeds still linger on; but, like all mild winters, especially prolific in fungi, which, too, are not without their gaudiness, even their beauty, although bred only from the decay of higher organisms, the plagiarists of the vegetable world. Such is poetry in England; while in America the case is not much better. What more enormous scope for new poetic thought than that which the New World gives? Yet the American poets, even the best of them, look lingeringly and longingly back to Europe and her legends; to her models, and not to the best of them — to her criticism, and not to the best of that — and bestow but a very small portion of such genius as they have on America and her new forms of life. If they be nearer to the spring than we, they are still deep enough in the winter. A few early flowers may be budding among them, but the autumn crop is still in somewhat shabby and rain-bedrabbled bloom. And for us, where are our spring flowers? What sign of a new poetic school? Still more, what sign of the healthy resuscitation of any old one?
“What matter, after all?” one says to oneself in despair, re-echoing Mr. Carlyle. “Man was not sent into the world to write poetry. What we want is truth. Of the former we have enough in all conscience just now. Let the latter need be provided for by honest and righteous history, and as for poets, let the dead bury their dead.” And yet, after all, man will write poetry, in spite of Mr. Carlyle: nay, beings who are not men, but mere forked radishes, will write it. Man is a poetry-writing animal. Perhaps he was meant to be one. At all events, he can no more be kept from it than from eating. It is better, with Mr. Carlyle’s leave, to believe that the existence of poetry indicates some universal human hunger, whether after “the beautiful,” or after “fame,” or after the means of paying butchers’ bills; and accepting it as a necessary evil which must be committed, to see that it be committed as well, or at least as little ill, as possible. In excuse of which we may quote Mr. Carlyle against himself, reminding him of a saying of Goethe once bepraised by him in print: “We must take care of the beautiful, for the useful will take care of itself.”
And never, certainly, since Pope wrote his Dunciad, did the beautiful require more taking care of, or evince less capacity for taking care of itself; and never, we must add, was less capacity for taking care of it evinced by its accredited guardians of the press than at this present time, if the reception given to Mr. Smith’s poems is to be taken as a fair expression of “the public taste.”
Now, let it be fairly understood, Mr. Alexander Smith is not the object of our reproaches: but Mr. Alexander Smith’s models and flatterers. Against him we have nothing whatsoever to say; for him, very much indeed.
Very young, as is said, self-educated, drudging for his daily bread in some dreary Glasgow prison-house of brick and mortar, he has seen the sky, the sun and moon — and, moreover, the sea, report says, for one day in his whole life; and this is nearly the whole of his experience in natural objects. And he has felt, too painfully for his peace of mind, the contrast between his environment and that of others — his means of culture and that of others — and, still more painfully, the contrast between his environment and culture, and that sense of beauty and power of melody which he does not deny that he has found in himself, and which no one can deny who reads his poems fairly; who reads even merely the opening page and key-note of the whole:
For as a torrid sunset burns with gold
Up to the zenith, fierce within my soul
A passion burns from basement unto cope.
Poesy, poesy, I’d give to thee
As passionately my rich laden years,
My bubble pleasures, and my awful joys,
As Hero gave her trembling sighs to find
Delicious death on wet Leander’s lip.
Bare, bald, and tawdry, as a fingered moth
Is my poor life; but with one smile thou canst
Clothe me with kingdoms. Wilt thou smile on me?
Wilt bid me die for thee? Oh fair and cold!
As well may some wild maiden waste her love
Upon the calm front of a marble Jove.
Now this scrap is by no menus a fair average specimen of Mr. Smith’s verse. But is not the self-educated man who could teach himself, amid Glasgow smoke and noise, to write such a distich as that exquisite one which we have given in italics, to be judged lovingly and hopefully?
What if he has often copied? What if, in this very scrap, chosen almost at random, there should be a touch from Tennyson’s “Two Voices?” And what if imitations, nay, caricatures, be found in almost every page? Is not the explanation simple enough, and rather creditable than discreditable to Mr. Smith? He takes as his models Shelley, Keats, and their followers. Who is to blame for that? The Glasgow youth, or the public taste, which has been exalting these authors more and more for the last twenty years as the great poets of the nineteenth century? If they are the proper ideals of the day, who will blame him for following them as closely as possible — for saturating his memory so thoroughly with their words and thoughts that he reproduces them unconsciously to himself? Who will blame him for even consciously copying their images, if they have said better than he the thing which he wants to say, in the only poetical dialect which he knows? He does no more than all schools have done, copy their own masters; as the Greek epicists and Virgil copied Homer; as all succeeding Latin epicists copied Virgil; as Italians copied Ariosto and Tasso; as every one who can copies Shakespeare; as the French school copied, or thought they copied, “The Classics,” and as a matter of duty used to justify any bold image in their notes, not by its originality, but by its being already in Claudian, or Lucan, or Virgil, or Ovid; as every poetaster, and a great many who were more than poetasters, twenty years ago, used to copy Scott and Byron, and as all poetasters now are copying the very same models as Mr. Smith, and failing while he succeeds.
We by no means agree in the modern outcry for “originality.” Is it absolutely demanded that no poet shall say anything whatsoever that any other poet has said? If so, Mr. Smith may well submit to a blame which he will bear in common with Shakespeare, Chaucer, Pope, and many another great name; and especially with Raphael himself, who made no scruple of adopting not merely points of style, but single motives and incidents, from contemporaries and predecessors. Who can look at any of his earlier pictures, the Crucifixion for instance, at present in Lord Ward’s gallery at the Egyptian Hall, without seeing that he has not merely felt the influence of Perugino, but copied him; tried deliberately to be as like his master as he could? Was this plagiarism? If so, all education, it would seem, must be a mere training in plagiarism. For how is the student to learn, except by copying his master’s models? Is the young painter or sculptor a plagiarist because he spends the first, often the best, years of his life in copying Greek statues; or the schoolboy, for toiling at the reproduction of Latin metres and images, in what are honestly and fittingly called “copies” of verses. And what if the young artist shall choose, as Mr. Smith has done, to put a few drawings into the exhibition, or to carve and sell a few statuettes? What if the schoolboy, grown into a gownsman, shall contribute his share to a set of “Arundines Cami” or “Prolusiones Etonienses?” Will any one who really knows what art or education means complain of them for having imitated their models, however servilely? Will he not rather hail such an imitation as a fair proof, first of the student’s reverence for authority — a more important element of “genius” than most young folks fancy — and next, of his possessing any artistic power whatsoever? For, surely, if the greater contains the less, the power of creating must contain that of imitating. A young author’s power of accurate imitation is, after all, the primary and indispensable test of his having even the capability of becoming a poet. He who cannot write in a style which he does know, will certainly not be able to invent a new style for himself. The first and simplest form in which any metrical ear, or fancy, or imagination, can show itself, must needs be in imitating existing models. Innate good taste — that is, true poetic genius — will of course choose the best models in the long run. But not necessarily at first. What shall be the student’s earliest ideal must needs be determined for him by circumstance, by the books to which he has access, by the public opinion which he hears expressed. Enough if he chooses, as Raphael did, the best models which he knows, and tries to exhaust them, and learn all he can from them, ready to quit them hereafter when he comes across better ones, yet without throwing away what he has learnt. “Be faithful in a few things, and thou shalt become ruler over many things,” is one of those eternal moral laws which, like many others, holds as true of art as it does of virtue.
And on the whole, judging Mr. Alexander Smith by this rule, he has been faithful over a few things, and therefore we have fair hope of him for the future. For Mr. Smith does succeed, not in copying one poet, but in copying all, and very often in improving on his models. Of the many conceits which he has borrowed from Mr. Bailey, there is hardly one which he has not made more true, more pointed and more sweet; nay, in one or two places, he has dared to mend John Keats himself. But his whole merit is by no means confined to the faculty of imitation. Though the “Life Drama” itself is the merest cento of reflections and images, without coherence or organisation, dramatic or logical, yet single scenes, like that with the peasant and that with the fallen outcast, have firm self-consistency and clearness of conception; and these, as a natural consequence, are comparatively free from those tawdry spangles which deface the greater part of the poem. And, moreover, in the episode of “The Indian and the Lady,” there is throughout a “keeping in the tone,” as painters say, sultry and languid, yet rich and full of life, like a gorgeous Venetian picture, which augurs even better for Mr. Smith’s future success than the two scenes just mentioned; for consistency of thought may come with time and training; but clearness of inward vision, the faculty of imagination, can be no more learnt than it can be dispensed with. In this, and this only it is true that poeta nascitur non fit; just as no musical learning or practice can make a composer, unless he first possess an innate ear for harmony and melody. And it must be said that it is just in the passages where Mr. Smith is not copying, where he forgets for awhile Shelley, Keats, and the rest, and is content to be simply himself, that he is best; terse, vivid, sound, manly, simple. May he turn round some day, and deliberately pulling out all borrowed feathers, look at himself honestly and boldly in the glass, and we will warrant him, on the strength of the least gaudy, and as yet unpraised passages in his poems, that he will find himself after all more eagle than daw, and quite well plumed enough by nature to fly at a higher, because for him a more natural, pitch than he has yet done.
True, he has written a great deal of nonsense; nonsense in matter as well as in manner. But therein, too, he has only followed the reigning school. As for manner, he does sometimes, in imitating his models, out-Herod Herod. But why not? If Herod be a worthy king, let him be by all means out-Heroded, if any man can do it. One cannot have too much of a good thing. If it be right to bedizen verses with metaphors and similes which have no reference, either in tone or in subject, to the matter in hand, let there be as many of them as possible. If a saddle is a proper place for jewels, then let the seat be paved with diamonds and emeralds, and Runjeet Singh’s harness-maker be considered as a lofty artist, for whose barbaric splendour Mr. Peat and his Melton customers are to forswear pigskin and severe simplicity — not to say utility and comfort. If poetic diction be different in species from plain English, then let us have it as poetical as possible, and as unlike English; as ungrammatical, abrupt, involved, transposed, as the clumsiness, carelessness, or caprice of man can make it. If it be correct to express human thought by writing whole pages of vague and bald abstract metaphysic, and then trying to explain them by concrete concetti, which bear an entirely accidental and mystical likeness to the notion which they are to illustrate, then let the metaphysic be as abstract as possible, the concetti as fanciful and far-fetched as possible. If Marino and Cowley be greater poets than Ariosto and Milton, let young poets imitate the former with might and main, and avoid spoiling their style by any perusal of the too-intelligible common sense of the latter. If Byron’s moral (which used to be thought execrable) be really his great excellence, and his style (which used to be thought almost perfect) unworthy of this age of progress, then let us have his moral without his style, his matter without his form; or — that we may be sure of never falling for a moment into his besetting sins of terseness, grace, and completeness — without any form at all. If poetry, in order to be worthy of the nineteenth century, ought to be as unlike as possible to Homer or Sophocles, Virgil or Horace, Shakespeare or Spenser, Dante or Tasso, let those too-idolised names be erased henceforth from the calendar; let the “Ars Poetica” be consigned to flames, and Martinus Scriblerus’s “Art of Sinking” placed forthwith on the list of the Committee of Council for Education, that not a working man in England may he ignorant that, whatsoever superstitions about art may have haunted the benighted heathens who built the Parthenon, nous avons changé tout cela. In one word, if it be best and most fitting to write poetry in the style in which almost every one has been trying to write it since Pope and plain sense went out, and Shelley and the seventh heaven came in, let it be so written; and let him who most perfectly so “sets the age to music,” he presented by the assembled guild of critics, not with the obsolete and too classic laurel, but with an electro-plated brass medal, bearing the due inscription, “Ars est nescire artem.” And when, in twelve months’ time, he finds himself forgotten, perhaps decried, for the sake of the next aspirant, let him reconsider himself, try whether, after all, the common sense of the many will not prove a juster and a firmer standing-ground than the sentimentality and bad taste of the few, and read Alexander Pope.
In Pope’s writings, whatsoever he may not find, he will find the very excellences after which our young poets strive in vain, produced by their seeming opposites, which are now despised and discarded; naturalness produced by studious art; sublimity by strict self-restraint; depth by clear simplicity; pathos by easy grace; and a morality infinitely more merciful, as well as more righteous, than the one now in vogue among the poetasters, by honest faith in God. If he be shocked by certain peculiarities of diction, and by the fondness for perpetual antitheses, let him remember, that what seems strange to our day was natural and habitual in Pope’s; and that, in the eyes of our grandchildren, Keats’s and Shelley’s peculiarities will seem as monstrous as Pope’s or Johnson’s do in ours. But if, misled by the popular contempt for Pope, be should he inclined to answer this advice with a shrug and a smile, we entreat him and all young poets, to consider, line by line, word by word, sound by sound, only those once well-known lines, which many a brave and wise man of fifty years ago would have been unable to read without honourable tears:
In the worst inn’s worst room, with mat half-hung,
The floor of plaster, and the walls of dung,
On once a flock-bed, but repaired with straw,
With tape-tied curtains never meant to draw,
The George and Garter, dangling from that bed,
Where tawdry yellow strove with dirty red,
Great Villiers lies. Alas! how changed from him,
That life of pleasure, and that soul of whim!
Gallant and gay, in Cliveden’s proud alcove,
The bower of wanton Shrewsbury and love;
Or just as gay, at Council, in a ring
Of mimic statesmen, and their merry king,
No wit to flatter, left of all his store!
No fool to laugh at, which he valued more.
There, victor of his health, of fortune, friends,
And fame, this lord of useless thousands ends.
Yes; Pope knew, as well as Wordsworth and our “Naturalisti,” that no physical fact was so mean or coarse as to be below the dignity of poetry — when in its right place. He could draw a pathos and sublimity out of the dirty inn chamber, such as Wordsworth never elicited from tubs and daffodils — because he could use them according to the rules of art, which are the rules of sound reason and of true taste.
The answer to all this is ready nowadays. We are told that Pope could easily be great in what he attempted, because he never attempted any but small matters; easily self-restraining, because his paces were naturally so slow; above all, easily clear, because he is always shallow; easily full of faith in what he did believe, because he believed so very little. On the two former counts we may have something to say hereafter. On the two latter, we will say at once, that if it be argued, as it often is, that the reason of our modern poetical obscurity and vagueness lies in the greater depth of the questions which are now agitating thoughtful minds, we do utterly deny it. Human nature, human temptations, human problems, are radically the same in every age, by whatsoever outward difference of words they may seem distinguished. Where is deeper philosophic thought, true or false, expressed in verse, than in Dante, or in Spenser’s two cantos of “Mutabilities”? Yet if they are difficult to understand, their darkness is that of the deep blue sea. Vague they never are, obscure they never are, because they see clearly what they want to say, and how to say it. There is always a sound and coherent meaning in them, to be found if it be searched for.
The real cause of this modern vagueness is rather to be found in shallow and unsound culture, and in that inability, or carelessness about seeing any object clearly, which besets our poets just now; as the cause of antique clearness lies in the nobler and healthier manhood, in the severer and more methodic habits of thought, the sounder philosophic and critical training, which enabled Spenser and Milton to draw up a state paper, or to discourse deep metaphysics, with the same manful possession of their subject which gives grace and completeness to the “Penseroso” or the “Epithalamion.” And if our poets have their doubts, they should remember, that those to whom doubt and inquiry are real and stern, are not inclined to sing about them till they can sing poems of triumph over them. There has no temptation taken our modern poets save that which is common to man — the temptation of wishing to make the laws of the universe and of art fit them, as they do not feel inclined to make themselves fit the laws, or care to find them out.
What! Do you wish, asks some one, a little contemptuously, to measure the great growing nineteenth century by the thumb-rule of Alexander Pope? No. But to measure the men who write in the nineteenth century by a man who wrote in the eighteenth; to compare their advantages with his, their circumstances with his: and then, if possible, to make them ashamed of their unmanliness. Have you young poets of this day, your struggles, your chagrins? Do you think the hump-backed dwarf, every moment conscious at once of his deformity and his genius — conscious, probably, of far worse physical shame than any deformity can bring, “sewed up in buckram every morning, and requiring a nurse like a child”— caricatured, lampooned, slandered, utterly without fault of his own — insulted and rejected by the fine lady whom he had dared to court in reality, after being allowed and allured to flirt with her in rhyme — do you suppose that this man had nothing to madden him — to convert him into a sneering snarling misanthrope? Yet was there one noble soul who met him who did not love him, or whom he did not love? Have you your doubts? Do you find it difficult to make your own speculations, even your own honest convictions, square with the popular superstitions? What were your doubts, your inward contradictions, to those of a man who, bred a Papist, and yet burning with the most intense scorn and hatred of lies and shams, bigotries and priestcrafts, could write that “Essay on Man”? Read that, young gentlemen of the Job’s-wife school, who fancy it a fine thing to tell your readers to curse God and die, or, at least, to show the world in print how you could curse God by divine right of genius, if you chose, and be ashamed of your cowardly wailings.
Alexander Pope went through doubt, contradiction, confusion, to which yours are simple and light; and conquered. He was a man of like passions with yourselves; infected with the peculiar vices of his day; narrow, for his age was narrow; shallow, for his age was shallow; a bon-vivant, for his age was a gluttonous and drunken one; bitter, furious, and personal, for men round him were such; foul-mouthed often, and indecent, as the rest were. Nay, his very power, when he abuses it for his own ends of selfish spite and injured vanity, makes him, as all great men can be (in words at least, for in life he was far better than the men around him), worse than his age. He can out-rival Dennis in ferocity, and Congreve in filth. So much the worse for him in that account which he has long ago rendered up. But in all times and places, as far as we can judge, the man was heart-whole, more and not less righteous than his fellows. With his whole soul he hates what is evil, as far as he can recognise it. With his whole soul he loves what is good, as far as he can recognise that. With his soul believes that there is a righteous and good God, whose order no human folly or crime can destroy; and he will say so; and does say it, clearly, simply, valiantly, reverently, in his “Essay on Man.” His theodicy is narrow; shallow, as was the philosophy of his age. But as far as it goes, it is sound — faithful to God, and to what he sees and knows. Man is made in God’s image. Man’s justice is God’s justice; man’s mercy is God’s mercy; man’s science, man’s critic taste, are insights into the laws of God himself. He does not pretend to solve the great problem. But he believes that it is solved from all eternity; that God knows, God loves, and God rules; that the righteous and faithful man may know enough of the solution to know his duty, to see his way, to justify God; and as much as he knows he tells. There were in that diseased sensitive cripple no vain repinings, no moon-struck howls, no impious cries against God: “Why hast thou made me thus?” To him God is a righteous God, a God of order. Science, philosophy, politics, criticism, poetry, are parts of His order — they are parts of the appointed onward path for mankind; there are eternal laws for them. There is a beautiful and fit order, in poetry, which is part of God’s order, which men have learnt ages ago, for they, too, had their teaching from above; to offend against which is absolutely wrong, an offence to be put down mildly in those who offend ignorantly; but those who offend from dulness, from the incapacity to see the beautiful, or from carelessness about it, when praise or gain tempts them the other way, have some moral defect in them; they are what Solomon calls fools: they are the enemies of man; and he will “hate them right sore, even as though they were his own enemies”— which indeed they were. He knows by painful experience that they deserve no quarter; that there is no use giving them any; to spare them is to make them insolent; to fondle the reptile is to be bitten by it. True poetry, as the messenger of heavenly beauty, is decaying; true refinement, true loftiness of thought, even true morality, are at stake. And so he writes his “Dunciad.” And would that he were here, to write it over again, and write it better!
For write it again he surely would. And write it better he would also. With the greater cleanliness of our time, with all the additional experience of history, with the greater classical, æsthetic, and theological knowledge of our day, the sins of our poets are as much less excusable than those of Eusden, Blackmore, Cibber, and the rest, as Pope’s “Dunciad” on them would be more righteously severe. What, for instance, would the author of the “Essay on Man” say to anyone who now wrote p. 137 (for it really is not to be quoted) of the “Life Drama” as the thoughts of his hero, without any after atonement for the wanton insult it conveys toward him whom he dares in the same breath to call “Father,” simply because he wants to be something very fine and famous and self-glorifying, and Providence keeps him waiting awhile? Has Pope not said it already?
Persist, by all divine in man unawed,
But learn, ye dunces, not to scorn your God!
And yet no; the gentle goddess would now lay no such restriction on her children, for in Pope’s day no man had discovered the new poetic plan for making the divine in man an excuse for scorning God, and finding in the dignity of “heaven-born genius” free licence to upbraid, on the very slightest grounds, the Being from whom the said genius pretends to derive his dignity. In one of his immortal saws he has cautioned us against “making God in man’s image.” But it never entered into his simple head that man would complain of God for being made in a lower image than even his own. Atheism he could conceive of; the deeper absurdity of Authotheism was left for our more enlightened times and more spiritual muses.
It will be answered that all this blasphemy is not to be attributed to the author, but to the man whose spiritual development he intends to sketch. To which we reply that no man has a right to bring his hero through such a state without showing how he came out of the slough as carefully as how he came into it, especially when the said hero is set forth as a marvellously clever person; and the last scene, though full of beautiful womanly touches, and of a higher morality than the rest of the book, contains no amende honorable, not even an explanation of the abominable stuff which the hero has been talking a few pages back. He leaps from the abyss to the seventh heaven; but, unfortunately for the spectators, he leaps behind the scenes, and they are none the wiser. And next; people have no more right even for dramatic purposes, to put such language into print for any purpose whatsoever, than they have to print the grossest indecencies, or the most disgusting details of torture and cruelty. No one can accuse this magazine of any fondness for sanctimonious cant or lip-reverence; but if there be a “Father in Heaven,” as Mr. Smith confesses that there is, or even merely a personal Deity at all, some sort of common decency in speaking of Him should surely be preserved. No one would print pages of silly calumny and vulgar insult against his earthly father, or even against a person for whom he had no special dislike, and then excuse it by, “Of course, I don’t think so: but if anyone did think so, this would be a very smart way of saying what he thought.” Old Aristotle would call such an act “banauson”— in plain English, blackguard; and we do not see how it can be called anything else, unless in the case of some utter brute in human form, to whom “there is no cœnum, and therefore no obscœnum; no fanum, and therefore no profanum.” The common sense of mankind in all ages has condemned this sort of shamelessness, even more than it has insults to parental and social ties, and to all which raises man above the brute. Let Mr. Smith take note of this, and let him, if he loves himself, mend speedily; for of all styles wherein to become stereotyped the one which he has chosen is the worst, because in it the greatest amount of insincerity is possible. There is a Tartarus in front of him as well as an Olympus; a hideous possibility very near him of insincere impiety merely for the purpose of startling; of lawless fancy merely for the purpose of glittering; and a still more hideous possibility of a revulsion to insincere cant, combined with the same lawless fancy, for the purpose of keeping well with the public, in which to all appearances one of our most popular novelists, not to mention the poet whose writings are most analogous to Mr. Smith’s, now lies wallowing.
Whether he shall hereafter obey his evil angel, and follow him, or his good angel, and become a great poet, depends upon himself; and above all upon his having courage to be himself, and to forget himself, two virtues which, paradoxical as it may seem, are correlatives. For the “subjective” poet — in plain words, the egotist — is always comparing himself with every man he meets, and therefore momentarily tempted to steal bits of their finery wherewith to patch his own rents; while the man who is content to be simply what God has made him, goes on from strength to strength developing almost unconsciously under a divine education, by which his real personality and the salient points by which he is distinguished from his fellows, become apparent with more and more distinctness of form, and brilliance of light and shadow, as those well know who have watched human character attain its clearest and grandest as well as its loveliest outlines, not among hankerers after fame and power, but on lonely sickbeds, and during long unknown martyrdoms of humble self-sacrifice and loving drudgery.
But whether or not Mr. Smith shall purify himself — and he can do so, if he will, right nobly — the world must be purified of his style of poetry, if men are ever, as he hopes, to “set his age to music;” much more if they are once more to stir the hearts of the many by Tyrtæan strains, such as may be needed before our hairs are gray. The “poetry of doubt,” however pretty, would stand us in little stead if we were threatened with a second Armada. It will conduce little to the valour, “virtus,” manhood of any Englishman to be informed by any poet, even in the most melodious verse, illustrated by the most startling and pan cosmic metaphors. “See what a highly-organised and peculiar stomach-ache I have had! Does it not prove indisputably that I am not as other men are?” What gospel there can be in such a message to any honest man who has either to till the earth, plan a railroad, colonise Australia, or fight his country’s enemies, is hard to discover. Hard indeed to discover how this most practical, and therefore most poetical, of ages, is to be “set to music,” when all those who talk about so doing persist obstinately in poring, with introverted eyes, over the state of their own digestion — or creed.
What man wants, what art wants, perhaps what the Maker of them both wants, is a poet who shall begin by confessing that he is as other men are, and sing about things which concern all men, in language which all men can understand. This is the only road to that gift of prophecy which most young poets are nowadays in such a hurry to arrogate to themselves. We can only tell what man will be by fair induction, by knowing what he is, what he has been.
And it is most noteworthy that in this age, in which there is more knowledge than there ever was of what man has been, and more knowledge, through innumerable novelists, and those most subtle and finished ones, of what man is, that poetry should so carefully avoid drawing from this fresh stock of information in her so-confident horoscopes of what man will be.
There is just now as wide a divorce between poetry and the common-sense of all time, as there is between poetry and modern knowledge. Our poets are not merely vague and confused, they are altogether fragmentary — disjecta membra poetarum; they need some uniting idea. And what idea?
Our answer will probably be greeted with a laugh. Nevertheless we answer simply, What our poets want is faith.
There is little or no faith nowadays. And without faith there can be no real art, for art is the outward expression of firm coherent belief. And a poetry of doubt, even a sceptical poetry, in its true sense, can never possess clear and sound form, even organic form at all. How can you put into form that thought which is by its very nature formless? How can you group words round a central idea when you do not possess a central idea? Shakespeare in his one sceptic tragedy has to desert the pure tragic form, and Hamlet remains the beau-ideal of “the poetry of doubt.” But what would a tragedy be in which the actors were all Hamlets, or rather scraps of Hamlets? A drama of Hamlet is only possible because the one sceptic is surrounded by characters who have some positive faith, who do their work for good or evil undoubtingly while he is speculating about his. And both Ophelia, and Laertes, Fortinbras, the king, yea the very grave-digger, know well enough what they want, whether Hamlet does or not. The whole play is, in fact, Shakespeare’s subtle reductio ad absurdum of that very diseased type of mind which has been for the last forty years identified with “genius”— with one difference, namely, that Shakespeare, with his usual clearness of conception, exhibits the said intellectual type pure and simple, while modern poets degrade and confuse it, and all the questions dependent on it, by mixing it up unnecessarily with all manner of moral weaknesses, and very often moral crimes.
But the poet is to have a faith nowadays of course — a “faith in nature.” This article of Wordsworth’s poetical creed is to be assumed as the only necessary one, and we are to ignore altogether the somewhat important fact that he had faith in a great deal besides nature, and to make that faith in nature his sole differentia and source of inspiration. Now we beg leave to express not merely our want of faith in this same “faith in nature,” but even our ignorance of what it means. Nature is certain phenomena, appearances. Faith in them is simply to believe that a red thing is red, and a square thing square; a sine qua non doubtless in poetry, as in carpentry, but which will produce no poetry, but only Dutch painting and gardeners’ catalogues — in a word, that lowest form of art, the merely descriptive; and into this very style the modern naturalist poets, from the times of Southey and Wordsworth, have been continually falling, and falling therefore into baldness and vulgarity. For mere description cannot represent even the outlines of a whole scene at once, as the daguerreotype does; they must describe it piecemeal. Much less can it represent that whole scene at once in all its glories of colour, glow, fragrance, life, motion. In short, it cannot give life and spirit. All merely descriptive poetry can do is to give a dead catalogue — to kill the butterfly, and then write a monograph on it. And, therefore, there comes a natural revulsion from the baldness and puerility into which Wordsworth too often fell by indulging his false theories on these matters.
But a revulsion to what? To the laws of course which underlie the phenomena. But again — to which laws? Not merely to the physical ones, else Turner’s “Chemistry” and Watson’s “Practice of Medicine” are great poems.
True, we have heard Professor Forbes’s book on Glaciers called an epic poem, and not without reason: but what gives that noble book its epic character is neither the glaciers nor the laws of them, but the discovery of those laws: the methodic, truthful, valiant, patient battle between man and nature, his final victory, his wresting from her the secret which had been locked for ages in the ice-caves of the Alps, guarded by cold and fatigue, danger and superstitious dread. For Nature will be permanently interesting to the poet, and appear to him in a truly poetic aspect, only in as far as she is connected by him with spiritual and personal beings, and becomes in his eyes either a person herself, or the dwelling and organ of persons. The shortest scrap of word-painting, as Thomson’s “Seasons” will sufficiently prove, is wearisome and dead, unless there be a living figure in the landscape, or unless, failing a living figure, the scene is deliberately described with reference to the poet or the reader, not as something in itself, but as something seen by him, and grouped and subordinated exactly as it would strike his eye and mind. But even this is insufficient. The heart of man demands more, and so arises a craving after the old nature-mythology of Greece, the old fairy legends of the Middle Age. The great poets of the Renaissance both in England and in Italy had a similar craving. But the aspect under which these ancient dreams are regarded by them is most significantly different. With Spenser and Ariosto, fairies and elves, gods and demons, are regarded in their fancied connection with man. Even in the age of Pope, when the gods and the Rosicrucian Sylphs have become alike “poetical machinery,” this is their work. But among the moderns it is as connected with Nature, and giving a soul and a personality to her, that they are most valued. The most pure utterance of this feeling is perhaps Schiller’s “Gods of Greece,” where the loss of the Olympians is distinctly deplored, because it has unpeopled, not heaven, but earth. But the same tone runs through Goethe’s classical “Walpurgis Night,” where the old human “twelve gods,” the antitypes and the friends of men, in whom our forefathers delighted, have vanished utterly, and given place to semi-physical Nereides, Tritons, Telchines, Psylli, and Seismos himself.
Keats, in his wonderful “Endymion,” contrived to unite the two aspects of Greek mythology as they never had been united before, except by Spenser in his “Garden of Adonis.” But the pantheistic notion, as he himself says in “Lamia,” was the one which lay nearest his heart; and in his “Hyperion” he begins to deal wholly with the Nature gods, and after magnificent success, leaves the poem unfinished, most probably because he had become, as his readers must, weary of its utter want of human interest. For that, after all, is what is wanted in a poetical view of Nature; and that is what the poet, in proportion to his want of dramatic faculty, must draw from himself. He must — he does in these days — colour Nature with the records of his own mind, and bestow a factitious life and interest on her by making her reflect his own joy or sorrow. If he be out of humour, she must frown; if he sigh, she must roar; if he be — what he very seldom is — tolerably comfortable, the birds have liberty to sing, and the sun to shine. But by the time that he has arrived at this stage of his development, or degradation, the poet is hardly to be called a strong man, he who is so munch the slave of his own moods that he must needs see no object save through them, is not very likely to be able to resist the awe which nature’s grandeur and inscrutability brings with it, and to say firmly, and yet reverently:
Si fractus illibatur orbis,
Impavidum ferient ruinæ.
He feels, in spite of his conceit, that nature is not going his way, or looking his looks, but going what he calls her own way, what we call God’s way. At all events, he feels that he is lying, when he represents the great universe as turned to his small set of Pan’s pipes and all the more because he feels that, conceal it as he will, those same Pan’s pipes are out of tune with each other. And so arises the habit of impersonating nature, not after the manner of Spenser (whose purity of metaphor and philosophic method, when he deals with nature, is generally even more marvellous than the richness of his fancy), as an organic whole, but in her single and accidental phenomena; and of ascribing not merely animal passions or animal enjoyment, but human discursive intellect and moral sense, to inanimate objects, and talking as if a stick or a stone were more of a man than the poet is — as indeed they very often may be.
These, like everything else, are perfectly right in their own place — where they express passion, either pleasurable or painful, passion, that is, not so intense as to sink into exhaustion, or to be compelled to self-control by the fear of madness. In these two cases, as great dramatists know well enough, the very violence of the emotion produces perfect simplicity, as the hurricane blows the sea smooth. But where fanciful language is employed to express the extreme of passion, it is felt to be absurd, and is accordingly called rant and bombast: and where it is not used to express passion at all, but merely the quiet and normal state of the poet’s mind, or of his characters, with regard to external nature; when it is considered, as it is by most of our modern poets, the staple of poetry, indeed poetic diction itself, so that the more numerous and the stranger conceits an author can cram into his verses, the finer poet he is; then, also, it is called rant and bombast, but of the most artificial, insincere, and (in every sense of the word) monstrous kind; the offspring of an effeminate nature-worship, without self-respect, without true manhood, because it exhibits the poet as the puppet of his own momentary sensations, and not as a man superior to nature, claiming his likeness to the Author of nature, by confessing and expressing the permanent laws of Nature, undisturbed by fleeting appearances without, or fleeting tempers within. Hence it is that, as in all insincere and effete times, the poetry of the day deals more and more with conceits, and less and less with true metaphors. In fact, hinc illæ lachrymæ. This is, after all, the primary symptom of disease in the public taste, which has set us on writing this review — that critics all round are crying: “An ill-constructed whole, no doubt; but full of beautiful passages”— the word “passages” turning out to mean, in plain English, conceits. The simplest distinction, perhaps, between an image and a conceit is this — that while both are analogies, the image is founded on an analogy between the essential properties of two things — the conceit on an analogy between its accidents. Images, therefore, whether metaphors or similes, deal with laws; conceits with private judgments. Images belong to the imagination, the power which sees things according to their real essence and inward life, and conceits to the fancy or phantasy, which only see things as they appear.
To give an example or two from the “Life Drama:”
His heart holds a deep hope,
As holds the wretched West the sunset’s corse —
Spit on, insulted by the brutal rains.
The passion-panting sea
Watches the unveiled beauty of the stars
Like a great hungry soul.
Who left upon the mountain-tops of Death
A light that made them lovely.
Arising from dark waves which plucked at her.
And hundreds, nay, thousands more in this book, whereof it must be said, that beautiful or not, in the eyes of the present generation — and many of them are put into very beautiful language, and refer to very beautiful natural objects — they are not beautiful really and in themselves, because they are mere conceits; the analogies in them are fortuitous, depending not on the nature of the things themselves, but on the private fancy of the writer, having no more real and logical coherence than a conundrum or a pun; in plain English, untrue, only allowable to Juliets or Othellos; while their self-possession, almost their reason, is in temporary abeyance under the influence of joy or sorrow. Every one must feel the exquisite fitness of Juliet’s “Gallop apace, ye fiery-footed steeds,” etc., for one of her character, in her circumstances: every one, we trust, and Mr. Smith among the number, will some day feel the exquisite unfitness of using such conceits as we have just quoted, or any other, page after page, for all characters and chances. For the West is not wretched; the rains never were brutal yet, and do not insult the sun’s corpse, being some millions of miles nearer us than the sun, but only have happened once to seem to do so in the poet’s eyes. The sea does not pant with passion, does not hunger after the beauty of the stars; Death has no mountain-tops, or any property which can be compared thereto; and “the dark waves”— in that most beautiful conceit which follows, and which Mr. Smith has borrowed from Mr. Bailey, improving it marvellously nevertheless — do not “pluck at the moon,” but only seem to do so. And what constitutes the beauty of this very conceit — far the best of those we have chosen — but that it looks so very like an image, so very like a law, from being so very common and customary an ocular deception to one standing on a low shore at night?
Or, again, in a passage which has been already often quoted as exquisite, and in its way is so:
The bridegroom sea
Is toying with the shore, his wedded bride;
And in the fulness of his marriage joy
He decorates her tawny brow with shells,
Retires a pace, to see how fair she looks,
Then proud, runs up to kiss her.
Exquisite? Yes; but only exquisitely pretty. It is untrue — a false explanation of the rush and recoil of the waves. We learn nothing by these lines; we gain no fresh analogy between the physical and the spiritual world, not even between two different parts of the physical world. If the poetry of this age has a peculiar mission, it is to declare that such an analogy exists throughout the two worlds; then let poetry declare it. Let it set forth a real intercommunion between man and nature, grounded on a communion between man and God, who made nature. Let it accept nature’s laws as the laws of God. Truth, scientific truth, is the only real beauty. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.”
Now, be it remembered that by far the greater proportion of this book consists of such thoughts as these; and that these are what are called its beauties; these are what young poets try more and more daily to invent — conceits, false analogies. Be it remembered, that the affectation of such conceits has always marked the decay and approaching death of a reigning school of poetry; that when, for instance, the primeval forest of the Elizabethan poets dwindled down into a barren scrub of Vaughans, and Cowleys, and Herberts, and Crashawes, this was the very form in which the deadly blight appeared. In vain did the poetasters, frightened now and then at their own nonsense, try to keep up the decaying dignity of poetry by drawing their conceits, as poetasters do now, from suns and galaxies, earthquakes, eclipses, and the portentous, and huge and gaudy in Nature; the lawlessness and irreverence for Nature, involved in the very worship of conceits, went on degrading the tone of the conceits themselves, till the very sense of true beauty and fitness seemed lost; and a pious and refined gentleman like George Herbert could actually dare to indite solemn conundrums to the Supreme Being, and believe that he was writing devout poetry, and “looking through nature up to nature’s God,” when he delivered himself thus in one of his least offensive poems (for the most sacred and most offensive of them we dare not quote, lest we incur the same blame which we have bestowed on Mr. Smith, and sing of Church festivals as —)
Marrow of time, eternity in brief,
Compendiums epitomised, the chief
Contents, the indices, the title-pages
Of all past, present, and succeeding ages,
Sublimate graces, antedated glories;
The cream of holiness.
Of future blessedness,
The florilegia of celestial stories,
Spirit of Joys, the relishes and closes
Of angels’ music, pearls dissolved, roses
Perfumed, sugar’d honeycombs.
That manner, happily for art, was silenced by the stern truth-loving common sense of the Puritans. Whatsoever else, in their crusade against shams, they were too hasty in sweeping away, they were right, at least, in sweeping away such a sham as that. And now, when a school has betaken itself to use the very same method in the cause of blasphemy, instead of in that of cant, the Pope himself, with his Index Prohibitus, might be a welcome guest, if he would but stop the noise, and compel our doting Muses to sit awhile in silence, and reconsider themselves.
In the meanwhile, poets write about poets, and poetry, and guiding the age, and curbing the world, and waking it, and thrilling it, and making it start, and weep, and tremble, and self-conceit only knows what else; and yet the age is not guided, or the world curbed, or thrilled, or waked, or anything else, by them. Why should it be? Curb and thrill the world? The world is just now a most practical world; and these men are utterly unpractical. The age is given up to physical science; these men disregard and outrage it in every page by their false analogies. If they intend, as they say, to link heaven and earth by preaching the analogy of matter and spirit, let them, in the name of common prudence, observe the laws of matter, about which the world does know something, and show their coincidence with the laws of spirit — if indeed they know anything about the said laws. Loose conceits, fancies of the private judgment, were excusable enough in the Elizabethan poets. In their day, nature was still unconquered by science; medieval superstitions still lingered in the minds of men and the magical notions of nature which they had inherited from the Middle Age received a corroboration from those neoplatonist dreamers, whom they confounded with the true Greek philosophers. But, now that Bacon has spoken, and that Europe has obeyed him, surely, among the most practical, common sense, and scientific nation of the earth, severely scientific imagery, imagery drawn from the inner laws of nature, is necessary to touch the hearts of men. They know that the universe is not such as poets paint it; they know that these pretty thoughts are only pretty thoughts, springing from the caprice, the vanity, very often from the indigestion of the gentlemen who take the trouble to sing to them; and they listen, as they would to a band of street musicians, and give them sixpence for their tune, and go on with their work. The tune outside has nothing to do with the work inside. It will not help them to be wiser, abler, more valiant — certainly not more cheerful and hopeful men, and therefore they care no more for it than they do for an opera or a pantomime, if as much. Whereupon the poets get disgusted with the same hard-hearted prosaic world — which is trying to get its living like an industrious animal as it is — and demand homage — for what? For making a noise, pleasant or otherwise? For not being as other men are? For pleading “the eccentricities of genius” as an excuse for sitting like naughty children in the middle of the schoolroom floor, in everybody’s way, shouting and playing on penny trumpets, and when begged to be quiet, that other people may learn their lessons, considering themselves insulted, and pleading “genius”? Genius! — hapless byword, which, like charity, covers nowadays the multitude of sins, all the seven deadly ones included! Is there any form of human folly which one has not heard excused by “He is a genius, you know — one must not judge him by common rules.” Poor genius, to have come to this! To be, when confessed, not a reason for being more of a man than others, but an excuse for being less of a man, less amenable than the herd to the common laws of humanity, and therefore less able than they to comprehend its common duties, common temptations, common sins, common virtues, common destinies. Of old the wise singer did by virtue of feeling with all, and obeying with all, learn to see for all, to see eternal laws, eternal analogies, eternal consequences, and so became a seer, vates, prophet; but now he is become a genius, a poetical pharisee, a reviler of common laws and duties, the slave of his own private judgment, who prophesies out of his own heart, and hath seen nothing but only the appearances of things distorted and coloured by “genius.” Heaven send the word, with many more, a speedy burial!
And what becomes of artistic form in the hands of such a school? Just what was to be expected. It is impossible to give outward form to that which is in its very nature formless, like doubt and discontent. For on such subjects thought itself is not defined; it has no limit, no self-coherence, not even method or organic law. And in a poem, as in all else, the body must be formed according to the law of the inner life; the utterance must be the expression, the outward and visible antetype of the spirit which animates it. But where the thought is defined by no limits, it cannot express itself in form, for form is that which has limits. Where it has no inward unity it cannot have any outward one. If the spirit be impatient of all moral rule, its utterance will be equally impatient of all artistic rule; and thus, as we are now beginning to discover from experience, the poetry of doubt will find itself unable to use those forms of verse which have been always held to be the highest — tragedy, epic, the ballad, and lastly, even the subjective lyrical ode. For they, too, to judge by every great lyric which remains to us, require a groundwork of consistent self-coherent belief; and they require also an appreciation of melody even more delicate, and a verbal polish even more complete than any other form of poetic utterance. But where there is no melody within, there will be no melody without. It is in vain to attempt the setting of spiritual discords to physical music. The mere practical patience and self-restraint requisite to work out rhythm when fixed on, will be wanting; nay, the fitting rhythm will never be found, the subject itself being arhythmic; and thus we shall have, or, rather, alas! do have, a wider and wider divorce of sound and sense, a greater and greater carelessness for polish, and for the charm of musical utterance, and watch the clear and spirit-stirring melodies of the older poets swept away by a deluge of half-metrical prose-run-mad, diffuse, unfinished, unmusical, to which any other metre than that in which it happens to have been written would have been equally appropriate, because all are equally inappropriate. Where men have nothing to sing, it is not of the slightest consequence how they sing it.
While poets persist in thinking and writing thus, it is in vain for them to talk loud about the poet’s divine mission, as the prophet of mankind, the swayer of the universe, and so forth. Not that we believe the poet simply by virtue of being a singer to have any such power. While young gentlemen are talking about governing heaven and earth by verse, Wellingtons and Peels, Arkwrights and Stephensons, Frys, and Chisholms, are doing it by plain practical prose; and even of those who have moved and led the hearts of men by verse, every one, as far as we know, has produced his magical effects by poetry of the very opposite forum to that which is now in fashion. What poet ever had more influence than Homer? What poet is more utterly antipodal to our modern schools? There are certain Hebrew psalms, too, which will be confessed, even by those who differ most from them, to have exercised some slight influence on human thought and action, and to be likely to exercise the same for some time to come. Are they any more like our modern poetic forms than they are like our modern poetic matter? Ay, even in our own time, what has been the form, what the temper, of all poetry, from Körner and Heine, which has made the German heart leap up, but simplicity, manhood, clearness, finished melody, the very opposite, in a word, of our new school? And to look at home, what is the modern poetry which lives on the lips and in the hearts of Englishmen, Scotchmen, Irishmen? It is not only simple in form and language, but much of it fitted, by a severe exercise of artistic patience, to tunes already existing. Who does not remember how the “Marseillaise” was born, or how Burns’s “Scots wha ha’ wi’ Wallace bled,” or the story of Moore’s taking the old “Red Fox March,” and giving it a new immortality as “Let Erin remember the days of old,” while poor Emmett sprang up and cried, “Oh, that I had twenty thousand Irishmen marching to that tune!” So it is, even to this day, and let those who hanker after poetic fame take note of it; not a poem which is now really living but has gained its immortality by virtue of simplicity and positive faith.
Let the poets of the new school consider carefully Wolfe’s “Sir John Moore,” Campbell’s “Hohenlinden,” “Mariners of England,” and “Rule Britannia,” Hood’s “Song of the Shirt” and “Bridge of Sighs,” and then ask themselves, as men who would be poets: Were it not better to have written any one of those glorious lyrics than all which John Keats has left behind him? And let them be sure that, howsoever they may answer the question to themselves, the sound heart of the English people has already made its choice; and that when that beautiful “Hero and Leander,” in which Hood has outrivalled the conceit-mongers at their own weapons, by virtue of the very terseness, clearness, and manliness which they neglect, has been gathered to the limbo of the Crashawes and Marinos, his “Song of the Shirt” and his “Bridge of Sighs” will be esteemed by great new English nations far beyond the seas, for what they are — two of the most noble lyric poems ever written by an English pen. If our poetasters talk with Wordsworth of the dignity and pathos of the commonest human things, they will find them there in perfection; if they talk about the cravings of the new time, they will find them there. If they want the truly sublime and the awful, they will find them there also. But they will find none of their own favourite concetti; hardly even a metaphor; no taint of this new poetic diction into which we have now fallen, after all our abuse of the far more manly and sincere “poetic diction” of the eighteenth century; they will find no loitering by the way to argue and moralise, and grumble at Providence, and show off the author’s own genius and sensibility; they will find, in short, two real works of art, earnest, melodious, self-forgetful, knowing clearly what they want to say, and saying it in the shortest, the simplest, the calmest, the most finished words. Saying it! — rather taught to say it. For if that “divine inspiration of poets,” of which the poetasters make such rash and irreverent boastings, have indeed, as all ages have held, any reality corresponding to it, it will rather be bestowed on such works as these, appeals from unrighteous man to a righteous God, than on men whose only claim to celestial help seems to be that mere passionate sensibility, which our modern Draco once described when speaking of poor John Keats, as an infinite hunger after all manner of pleasant things, crying to the universe: ‘Oh that thou wert one great lump of sugar, that I might suck thee!’”
Our task is ended. We have given as plainly as we can our reasons for the opinion which this magazine has expressed several times already, that with the exception of Mr. Allingham, our young poets are a very hopeless generation, and will so continue unless they utterly repent and amend. If they do not choose to awaken themselves from within, all that is left for us is to hope that they may be awakened from without, or by some radical revulsion in public taste be shown their own real value and durability, and compelled to be true and manly under pain of being laughed at and forgotten. A general war might, amid all its inevitable horrors, sweep away at once the dyspeptic unbelief, the insincere bigotry, the effeminate frivolity which now paralyses our poetry as much as it does our action, and strike from England’s heart a lightning flash of noble deeds, a thunder peal of noble song. Such a case is neither an impossible nor a far-fetched one; let us not doubt that by some other means if not by that, the immense volume of thought and power which is still among us will soon find its utterance, and justify itself to after ages by showing in harmonious and self-restrained poetry its kinship to the heroic and the beautiful of every age and clime. And till then, till the sunshine and the thaw shall come, and the spring flowers burst into bud and bloom, heralding a new golden year in the world’s life, let us even be content with our pea-green and orange fungi; nay, even admire them as not without their own tawdry beauty, their clumsy fitness; for after all, they are products of nature, though only of her dyspepsia; and grow and breed — as indeed cutaneous disorders do — by an organic law of their own; fulfilling their little destiny, and then making, according to Professor Way, by no means bad manure. And so we take our leave of Mr. Alexander Smith, entreating him, if these pages meet his eye, to consider three things, namely, that in as far as he has written poetry, he is on the road to ruin by reason of following the worst possible models. That in as far as the prevailing taste has put these models before him, he is neither to take much blame to himself, nor to be in anywise disheartened for the future. That in as far as he shall utterly reverse his whole poetic method, whether in morals or in æsthetics, leave undone all that he has done, and do all that he has not done, he will become, what he evidently, by grace of God, can become if he will, namely, a lasting and a good poet.
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