« AnteriorContinuar »
THE NEW YORK
Entered according to Ac of Congress, in the year 1865,
By BUNCE AND HUNTINGTON,
In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern
Distri&t of New York.
THE object which I had in view while coilecting the
materials of this volume was, to present the English Poets in their most poetical moods; not as the makers of long, sustained poems, which most of them are not, but as the singers of short, sweet, unpremeditated lyrics. I use the word Lyric rather than Song, because it best describes the selections which follow, and because I take it to be a purer, as it certainly was an earlier, manifestatio:1 of the element which underlies the Song. Songs, as we understand them, are of comparatively recent growth. There are no songs, modernly speaking, in SHAKESPEARE and the Elizabethan dramatists, but lyrics in abundance. The difference between these lyrics and our songs is manifest: the one being a simple, unstudied expression of thought, sentiment, or passion ; the other its expression according to the mode of the day. The lyrist sang to a tune within him :
(“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are swecter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on !")
The song-writer composes with a strict regard to conventional rhythms and metres, counting his verses on his fingers, and remembering the lessons of his music-teacher. The thought, the sentiment of the former depends upon the whim of the moment ; that of the latter, upon the thesis which he intends to prove. Reason predominates in the one, Imagination in the other.
The early periods of English Poetry are rich in the Lyrical-element—almost as rich as in the Dramatic, with which it frequently flourished-springing from its excessive vitality, like the myriad wild-flowers which light up the depths of tangled woods. “The little lyrics,” says Barry Cornwall, “ which are scattered, like stars, over the surface of our old dramas, are sometimes minute, trifling, and
fine; in fact, the finest things of the kind which our language possesses. There is more inspiration, more air and lyrical quality about them, than in songs of ten times their pretension. And this, perhaps, arises from the dramatic faculty of the writers; who, being accustomed, in other things, to shape their verse so as to suit the characters and different purposes of the drama, naturally extend this care to the fashion of the songs themselves. In cases where a writer speaks in his own person, he expends all his egotism upon his lyrics; and requires that a critic should be near to curtail his misdeeds. When he writes as a dramatist, he is, or ought to be, the critic himself. He is not, so to speak, at all implicated in what is going forward in the poem; but deals out the dialogue like an indifferent bystander, seeking only to adjust it to the necessities of the actors. He is above the struggle and turmoil of the battle below, and
Sees, as from a tower, the end of all.'
It is, in fact, this power of forgetting himself, and of imagining and fashioning characters different from his own, which constitutes the dramatic quality. A man who can set aside his own idiosyncrasy, is half a dramatist.”
The lyrics of what we rather loosely call the Elizabethan Poets,—a classification which frequently embraces their successors in the reign of James the First,-are, it seems to me, the finest specimens of poetry, “pure and simple,” in the whole range of English Literature. Their chief characteristic is naturalness,—real or apparent, it is not easy, in all cases, to decide which. What we call Art (which is often but another name for artifice), appears never to have crossed the minds of their singers, at least while they were singing; to listen to them is like listening to the song of the lark.
The poets of Charles the First's time-accomplished, courtly gentlemen that they were—delighted in the Lyric, which, however, had begun to lose its early simplicity : it was graceful, it was elegant, but it was studied, mannered, affected.
“ The hour Of glory in the grass, of freshness in the flower,” had passed away. What it was in the reign of Charles the Second, and later, the reader may see for himself, in the specimens of that period which I have given, and which are the best that I could find, indifferent as, I fear, many of them are.
The Eighteenth Century was almost destitute of Lyrics, though it abounded in what were by courtesy called Songs, most of which appear to have been composed by that celebrated Myth, “A Person of Quality,” and his, or her, immediate connections
“The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease.”
Peace to their ashes! I could not find it in my heart to disturb them, entombed as they are in the ponderous collections of Johnson, Anderson, and CHALMERS. Barren as the last century was in poetry of a high order, its close witnessed the revival of the Lyrical-element, which may be traced, I think, to two causes,—the publication of Bishop Percy's “ Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” and the songs of Burns—a born poet, if there ever was one, who ruled as supremely over his “scanty plot of ground” as SHAKESPEARE over his Universe.