« AnteriorContinuar »
the public acquainted with himself as with his works; they have all displayed, though in a greater or less degree, both egotism and spleen. "The vision and the faculty divine" have given them a clearer perception of their own merits and grievances, and they have confidentially imparted their personal sorrows and animosities to all the world. We cannot sympathize with these theatrical exposures of private feeling; we have no more respect for a discontented poet than for that monstrous creation of the French romantic school, the femme incomprise. There is no good reason to believe that the bard is more luckless or aggrieved than his unpoetical fellowmortals; the sorest grievance, the bitterest persecution, which he has to dread, is indifference and neglect. He can only learn, at the worst, that the public does not care a fig about him or his poetry either. And do not let him be too hasty to attribute this neglect, if unhappily he should experience it, to any sinister influences or unfair dealing. There is no
conspiracy in the case; people are not leagued and banded together in a secret association for the sole purpose of burying him and his works in oblivion. Even the malice of the critics, those gorgons and chimeras dire, whose only function is to worry and affright unhappy authors, can never harm him. A man is never written down except by himself. Criticism has no force whatever, except so far as it is a reflection of public opinion, an embodiment of public taste; if it be prejudiced or unfair, it is for that very reason innocuous, the public perceiving its untrustworthy character quite as soon as the intended victim.
The egotistical and self-exaggerating spirit, which leads to these indiscreet disclosures of one's private concerns, has been fostered, if not created, by a common, but unfounded, belief respecting the nature and functions of a poet. That lying old proverb, poeta nascitur, is the great source of the The popular notion is, that poets are a distinct race, a peculiar species, not yet described in works of natural history, though they have nothing in common with ordinary mortals except a double portion of their sorrows. They are always born out of due time, and always fall on evil tongues and evil days. They sit apart, wear long robes, play on the harp or the lyre, and continually invoke nine allegorical maiden ladies. Cassandra-like, they are for ever uttering true prophecies, which nobody listens to. Their favorite
haunts are the tops of Mount Helicon and Parnassus; they drink nothing but water, which must be drawn either from Aganippe or the Castalian fount; and they never ride abroad except on a fiery winged horse, which will allow nobody but a poet to mount him.
Now this is all fabulous, and is in truth so monstrous a fiction, that it would never have gained any credence, even with the unlearned, if the poets had not been constantly repeating it for the last three thousand years. They have told the story so often, that they have apparently come to believe it themselves. There is hardly one of the number who does not even now prate about his special inspiration, and declare that he has a "mission " to perform, a message to deliver to an unbelieving generation. How well fitted they are to teach others appears from the notorious fact, that they have not common sense enough for the management of their own concerns, or for the regulation of their own households. They are a shabby race, usually out at the elbows, who quarrel with their wives, neglect their children, and never pay their landladies. It would be a kindness to the greater part of the fraternity to have them put under guardianship. The only gleam of common sense which poor Coleridge ever showed was in asking Mr. Cottle to find a retreat for him in some private madhouse. Burns certainly would have lived longer in a hospital for incurables than he did as an exciseman, and it would have argued a kinder and more judicious appreciation of his case to place him there than to sentence him to gauge ale-firkins.
"Great wits to madness sure are near allied,"
is the frank confession of one who was a poet himself, though he showed more sagacity and shrewdness than any of his brethren.
This belief in special inspiration, in a sort of divine afflatus which poets inhale instead of ordinary atmospheric air, and which privileges them to write bad verses, and to commit all manner of foolish and disreputable actions in private life, without criticism, restraint, or punishment, ought to be exploded altogether. The world is quite sick of the eccentricities of genius, whether they are displayed in rhyme or conduct. The nineteenth century is too shrewd and practical, too fond of order and economy, to tolerate such enormities any longer.
It has empowered critics and constables to take care of mad poets, it has provided houses of correction and insane hospitak for their reception. A jury of reviewers is appointed to sit upon each case, and if they bring in a verdict of non compos, the luckless bård must compose his future Tristia, not by the shores of the distant Euxine, inter Sauromatas Getasque, but within the walls of Bedlam :
"Perdiderint cum me duo crimina, carmen et error."
He may write over the door of his cell the inscription which the unhappy Ovid prepared for his own tombstone, while expecting to die in exile:
"Hic ego qui jaceo, tenerorum lusor amorum,
The world is fast coming round to the opinion, that a poet does not differ from any other mortal except by some accident, which, at an early period, turned his attention to making verses instead of cobbling shoes. Hans Sachs united the two occupations with great applause, and the influences of the lapstone correcting those of the Muses, he remained sane all his life. "True genius," said the gruff old moralist, "is a mind of large general powers accidentally determined in a particular direction." One is no more born a poet than punster. The same natural gifts, which some trifling event in his early days had induced him to consecrate to poetry, might have made him a great orator, a great statesman, or even a great general. Cæsar, Alfred, and Napoleon achieved the mingled honors of the pen and the sword. If Shakspeare had been caught young, we doubt not that he would have made a better Lord Chancellor than Sir Christopher Hatton. The grandest and most fertile imagination that was ever lost to poetry was that of Lord Bacon; the author of the Novum Organon and the Advancement of Learning, if circumstances had made him a runaway boy and a dependent upon the theatres, might have written Hamlet and Macbeth. Milton and Jeremy Taylor might have bartered their respective vocations without loss to the world, if they had been changed in their cradles; the former might have enacted Pym or Hampden, if stern fortune had not made him a blind schoolmaster, just as cruel men put out the eyes of a bulfinch, to teach it to sing. "Mute, inglorious Miltons" rest in every churchyard.
We do not say that every bantling is a possible Burns, or
an unfledged Wordsworth, though he might become a tolerable Hayley, or make as good a Conquest of Canaan as Timothy Dwight. All grubs are not metamorphosed into butterflies, to sport their gay colors in the sunbeam, though they usually change into some sort of winged insect, at least as tolerable as the flies which were one of the plagues of Egypt. Unquestionably, to be a poet one needs to have keen sensibilities and a strong imagination, which in part come by nature, as Dogberry thought reading and writing did; still, in either case, habit and the schoolmaster do something for the cultivation of these bright natural parts. To be convinced of this, one need only compare the first essays of bardlings with their matured endeavours. It is difficult to detect the germs of Paradise Lost in the epitaphs on Hobson, the university carrier, or even in the translations from the Psalms, from which it is a relief to turn to Sternhold and Hopkins. Pope, at fifteen, wrote a tragedy, an epic poem, and panegyrics on all the princes of Europe," and thought himself the greatest genius that ever was"; but the advice of the sensible Atterbury doomed these Juvenilia to the flames. If Byron's Hours of Idleness had shared the same fate, the world would have been no loser, though the Edinburgh Review would then never have stung him into writing satire.
The mischief is, that the training which fits one for the service of the Muses usually unfits him for acting like a man of sense in the ordinary relations of life. The Pythoness must be drunk or mad before she will utter her oracles, and those who visit the shrine too often make the hideousness of her grimaces and the extravagance of her demeanour the test of her inspiration. The poet nurses his sensibilities, till he begins to smart and agonize at every pore," or is ready to die of a rose in aromatic pain."
"If nature thundered in his opening ears,
And stunned him with the music of the spheres,
How would he wish that Heaven had left him still
The solitude in which he indulges breeds strange fancies; the passions that he refuses to curb become whips and scorpions that goad him into madness. A morbid craving for sympathy leads him to expose his errors and sufferings to the world, and "he pours the blaze of his reputation over the scandals of his life." He claims the reputation of a martyr, when he de
serves only the contemptuous pity with which we regard the wreck of the profligate and the spendthrift, or the premature exhaustion and paralysis of the drunkard and the debauchee. Coleridge had recourse to opium as a source of keen and voluptuous sensations, and Byron sought to retrieve his flagging inspiration with gin.
It is a sad story, the life of too many a frail and erring son of genius, and the contemplation of it rebukes our petulance, and reduces the light strain to seriousness. Compassion and sympathy come, when we look not for them, to draw a veil over his frailties, and to check the stern censure of the moralist. In pity for him, and in gratitude for the fruits of his better hours, we would willingly forget his errors and short-comings, and perpetuate the memory only of his excellences. But it is unreasonable and absurd to hold up his eccentricities and faults, not merely for compassionate regard, but as examples for imitation, and as proofs of his genius. These do not indicate, but detract from, his poetical faculty; they are bad enough when original, and they become intolerable if copied. Imitators are like monkeys; they are usually mischievous, instead of frolicsome, in their mimicry. They waste, spoil, and tear, instead of faithfully repeating the exemplar. Vice at second hand is always caricatured; it is not merely wicked and hideous, but contemptible. We sadly believe that Burns, Byron, and Shelley have done more harm by their lives, by throwing the mantle of genius over waywardness and wickedness, than they have accomplished of good by their writings. They are beacons whose gleams are welcome to the mariner only as they warn him of the rocks and shoals, and not the auspicious lights which cheer and guide his entrance into a quiet haven.
It is not the mind that is touched to the finest issues which succumbs most readily to temptation, or falls the easiest prey to devastating passions. Truly great poets, with all their fineness and delicacy of organization, and all their acuteness of sensibility, are still masters of their subjects and themselves. They are grandly unconscious of the magnitude of the work they do, and never waste their fine powers in morbid delineations of self or in splenetic quarrelings with society. Their minds, as Carlyle remarks, are not introspective, but frank, joyous, and open to all external influences, and hence the objective character of all they write. The meagreness of Shakspeare's biography, that standing wonder when contrasted with