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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1700/Poetry and Civilization

From The Spectator.


Lord Macaulay thought he had proved that as civilization grew, poetry must decline. But that, we take it, is a delusion of the same type as those which beset men as they grow old, and make them dream that it is the world at large which is losing its vivacity and freshness, and not their own individual life. We can, to some extent, understand the fear which Mr. Ruskin and others cherish that civilization and its mechanism are dangerously invading the field of true art. It is quite true, we take it, that the sphere of art is the sphere of free and pliant life, and that the factory, the engine, the machine, and all that the factory, the engine, and the machine produce, in bearing the impress of a strict and iron rule, exclude the free creative beauty which is the very life of art. But the same fear has really no application to poetry. Its sphere is so wide that as long as the will is free and the affections of man are fresh, there need be no fear in the world for any narrowing of the sphere of poetry. In the minutest crevices between the most rigid mechanism of life, poetry can grow as easily as the flower between the angles of a wall, or a swallow, destined to range the seas and migrate to the delights of an African winter, in the grim niches of a London chimney. The fears which periodically send a shiver through society lest the fountains of poetry be dried up, are only the hallucinations of men whose own imaginations are growing cold, and unable to enter into the vividness of the last breath that has stirred the hearts of men. In the growing complexity of life, there is, we think, a reason why poetry is likely to treat subjects of less massiveness and sublimity than of old, or, when it deals with subjects of a massive and sublime order, why it should be very apt to go back to the old days when life was large and simple, and no longer broken up into so many minute cells of separate interest and significance. But no one can really look carefully into the literature of the day, and doubt that it is not the want of poetic subjects, but only the rarity of the minds fitted to treat those subjects poetically which limits our poetry; nor, again, that there have been few periods, — except those rare periods of poetical productiveness, when nations have seemed to discover in themselves a new energy and freedom and a new gift of speech for translating it into words, — when there have been, even relatively to the increasing number of the inarticulate masses, so many endowed with some poetic gifts, and able so to sing, that men delight to hear them, and live more genuinely for hearing them.

Here, for instance, lies before us a new illustration of the adaptation of the present age for poetry, whenever it can produce a living interpreter of its wants and feelings and perceptions. We refer to a little volume[1] of poems by Edward Dowden, which has just appeared, and which, we venture to say, no true critic will read through without discovering in it, in greater or less degree, according to the measure of his own faculty, the criteria of true poetry, nor yet without acknowledging that it is poetry which has sprung straight out of the very surface of modern thoughts and emotions. Mr. Dowden is, we believe, himself a fine critic. At all events, he is deeply saturated with all the currents of thought most familiar to our modern critics. Poetically, we should speak of him as formed in the school of Wordsworth, amongst whose very finest sonnets some of Mr. Dowden's might well be classed, without the separate origin of the authorship being discovered by any one who judged by internal evidence only. But this is not surprising, for Wordsworth has entered thus vitally into all the more thoughtful minds of our day. His mode of appreciating nature has educated modern England, till it has become almost a mark of alien culture not merely not to understand his poems, but not to speak his peculiar language. Again, Mr. Dowden has entered deeply into all the speculative questions which are of far later origin than the Wordsworthian age. "Darwinism" haunts him in his poetic reverie; he has sounded the weakness of democracy, and yet has a secret admiration for the naked power of the people's will; he studies the attitudes of Eastern fanaticism with the same kind of deep speculative interest with which he describes the gambols of the swallows; with the true modern eye for what is characteristic whether of spiritual or natural states, he paints with equal care the spinning dervish and the prim fledgings of the swallow's nest; again, from the intensity of that deep and dreamy devotion which is natural to a metaphysical age, he carries us into the strait and frigid conventionalism of the modern young lady's savoir-faire; and last, though not least, with the delight of the present day of complex interests in the large and simple subjects of ancient legend, he treats a certain number of the great classical themes in the mode most natural to a modern who appreciates perfectly the antique point of view, but reflects it with all the special emphasis of one who at heart contrasts it with a very different modern view, of which the ancient world knew nothing. In all these various regions Mr, Dowden shows a true poetic touch, which we do not say will win him a permanent place in English literature, — for that he must do more and loom larger on the mind of the present distracted generation than this little volume would accomplish for him, — but which we do venture to say is of the kind to win him such a place, if he can produce more volumes as pure and rare and delicate in flavor as this is. Take, for instance, this delicate sonnet on "Ascetic Nature," suggested by a most characteristic Irish scene: —

Passion and song, and the adornèd hours
Of floral loveliness, hopes grown most sweet,
And generous patience in the ripening heat,
A mother's bosom, a bride's face of flowers,
— Knows nature aught so fair? Witness, ye powers
Which rule the virgin heart of this retreat
To rarer issues, ye who render meet
Earth, purged and pure, for gracious heavenly dowers!
The luminous pale lake, the pearl-grey sky,
The wave that gravely murmurs meek desires,
The abashed yet lit expectance of the whole,
— These and their beauty speak of earthly fires
Long quenched, clear aims, deliberate sanctity, —
O'er the white forehead lo! the aureole.

No one not a true poet could have written that line, "The abashed yet lit expectance of the whole." It is a line condensing a whole world of observation and emotion into one exquisite phrase. How true, too, is the appreciation of the most perfect phase of Irish scenery in this sonnet, — that subdued and pale, not to say pallid lustre, which seems to borrow something from "the melancholy ocean," but much more from the self-refraining nature which will not merge in the creature the fulness of the heart that should be given to the Creator. Again, would not Wordsworth himself have felt his heart bound with the same kind of proud exultation which he felt when he had written such a sonnet as the grand one on Toussaint l'Ouverture for instance, if he had conceived the following, concerning the fear that when the heart has gained all in gaining God, it may lose him again by the mere intrinsic feebleness of its own wasting powers? —

Life's Gain.

"Now having gained Life's gain, how hold it fast?
The harder task! because the world is still
The world, and days creep slow, and wear the will,
And Custom, gendering in the heart's blind waste,
Brings forth a winged mist, which with no haste
Upcircling the steep air, and charged with ill,
Blots all our shining heights adorable,
And leaves slain Faith, slain Hope, slain Love the last."
O shallow lore of life! He who hath won
Life's gain doth hold nought fast, who could hold all,
Holden himself of strong, immortal powers.
The stars accept him; for his sake the sun
Has sworn in heaven an oath memorial:
Around his feet stoop the obsequious hours.

These four last lines, in the exaltation of their claim that God and all his creatures conspire to strengthen the man who has won the eternal for his own, may fairly be placed — nor will they lose by the comparison — with the grand lines in which Wordsworth assured the negro patriot of the powers which would sustain him even in the "deep dungeon's earless den:" —

Live and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee — air, earth, skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.

Again, to show how Mr. Dowden appreciates the world of limitation and convention which is bred of modern frivolity and fashion, take the fine sonnet alluding to the anger felt by David against Michal for laughing at the Oriental passion of his dance before the ark: —

David and Michal (2 Samuel vi. 16).

 But then you don't mean really what you say
To hear this from the sweetest little lips,
O'er which each pretty word daintily trips
Like small birds hopping down a garden way,
When I had given my soul full scope to play
For once before her in the Orphic style
Caught from three several volumes of Carlyle,
And undivulged before this very day!
O young men of our earnest school confess
How it is deeply, darkly tragical
To find the feminine souls we would adore
So full of sense, so versed in worldly lore,
So deaf to the eternal silences,
So unbelieving, so conventional.

Or for the mixture of sympathy with nature and the humor of its glance at human society of the religiously conventional kind, take the following graceful verses entitled, "In the Cathedral Close:" —

In the dean's porch a nest of clay
With five small tenants may be seen,
Five solemn faces, each as wise
As though its owner were a dean;

Five downy fledglings in a row,
Packed close as in an antique pew
The schoolgirls are whose foreheads clear
At the Venite shine on you.

Day after day the swallows sit
With scarce a stir, with scarce a sound,
But dreaming and digesting much,
They grow thus wise and soft and round.

They watch the canons come to dine,
And hear the mullion-bars across,
Over the fragrant fruit and wine,
Deep talk about the reredos.

Her hands with field-flowers drench'd, a child
Leaps past in wind-blown dress and hair,
The swallows turn their heads askew, —
Five judges deem that she is fair.

Prelusive touches sound within,
Straightway they recognize the sign,
And, blandly nodding, they approve
The minuet of Rubenstein,

They mark the cousins' schoolboy talk,
(Male birds flown wide from minster bell),
And blink at each broad term of art,
Binomial or bicycle.

Ah! downy young ones, soft and warm,
Doth such a stillness mask from sight
Such swiftness? can such peace conceal
Passion and ecstasy of flight?

Yet somewhere 'mid your Eastern suns,
Under a white Greek architrave
At morn, or when the shaft of fire
Lies large upon the India wave,

A sense of something dear gone by
Will stir, strange longings thrill the heart
For a small world embowered and close,
Of which ye some time were a part.

The dew-drench'd flowers, the child's glad eyes,
Your joy unhuman shall control,
And in your wings a light and wind
Shall move from the maestro's soul.

The passages we have given are but specimens, and we will venture to say by no means exceptional specimens, of the poetry in Mr. Dowden's charming little volume. In fact nothing we have given approaches in intensity some of the "New Hymns for Solitude," or in picturesqueness some of the modern studies from the antique, say, for instance, the very fine lines on Helen or on Andromeda. But what we have given is, we take it, quite sufficient to dispel the fear of anyone who should be sufficiently faint-hearted to apprehend that modern civilization has any tendency to extinguish poetry, — nay, that it does not create at least as many poetical points of view as it tends to hide. A highly complex world will certainly be relatively deficient in massive and simple situations and groups, but it will be relatively abundant in those spiritual attitudes of the soul out of which the poetical impulse flows at least as freely as out of grand situations and heroic forms.

  1. Henry S. King & Co.