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Experience? And what sort of reception have these forced? Even the triumph, the crowning light, the glory that are Keats's, came too late for Keats. By what costly and tragic sacrifices is not this process of "forcing" recognition often attended! Surely it would be better for the world as well as for the singer; a much happier condition for the world; if it should learn to meet the poet's insight with an answering insight, quicker and more comprehensive than it generally displays.
A great deal has been said about the inspiration of the time and the influence of surroundings, in their effect on poetic production. A tendency has been growing, to prove philosophically that the best in art cannot be created under certain existing circumstances; and we even hear something about a Dichterdämmerung or "twilight of the poets," in America. Out of such a philosophy must come, in the end, not merely twilight but stagnation also, and death. The genesis of the greatest poetry involves, first of all, an unbounded although silent and devout confidence, in the mind of the artist, that he can rise to the loftiest heights of thought or feeling, on wings of the most musical expression. He must believe implicitly that he will one day reach those upper spaces, if left to his own manner of flight. If we are constantly telling him that the state of the atmosphere is such as absolutely to prevent any one's rising above a certain plane; or that careful research has disclosed a fatal weakness in the wing-power of the present generation; or that the measurements of his throat demonstrate that he never can give more than a small volume of sound; if we are always doing this, we shall be doing what we can to destroy that native faculty of self-reliance and joyous inspiration, which makes him a poet. The mysterious levitation that enables him to rise above the general run of men, depends precisely upon this power. There is something morbid in the self-scrutiny, the instropection, the faint-hearted questioning, with which critics of our day persuade the poet
to enfeeble his gift of levitation. Moreover, no system of reasoning upon the conditions needed for supremely good poetizing has ever made it possible to predict the rise of a commanding genius, or to prevent the advent of one amid circumstances which, at the moment, must have appeared as discouraging as any that can be imagined. Such a system may, however, as I have tried to show, bring to bear a spirit adverse to the creative mood, and so lessen the chance for survivals of the fittest, in literature.
The circumstances nearly always appear discouraging to those who have to face them. Every age or period must have presented drawbacks enough, considered from the point of view of those who lived in it. Of this truth the individual history of genius, with few exceptions, furnishes terribly vivid evidence. One after another, the poets have been hampered, thwarted, opposed, by poverty or hard and prosaic employments; or by popular indifference, ridicule, ill-will. They have been made to feel that they came too late, or else that they came too early. They have been involved in all sorts of trouble, which would seem, in theory, ruinous to every artistic striving. Even where the harsher and more sordid necessities have been provided for, there remain the inflictions of malice and the uncertain, varying nature of their relations with the public. Wordsworth's waiting for intelligent and popular approval is the most striking instance of one sort of chilling trial to which the poet is subjected; and some of the favorites of our day have had to pass through long terms of probation, during which they have won scanty foretaste, or none, of the honors that awaited them. Tennyson, unnoticed on the publication of his first book, retreated into a ten years' silence; Longfellow, although easy of appreciation by the masses and, in his usual experience, an exception to the usual hard lot of the song-maker, grew somewhat slowly into his full renown. His most original, his distinctively American work, the Hiawatha, was for a long time laughed at and parodied with
more energy than was given to its praise. Remarkable, also, is the career of Robert Browning, in its record of misjudgment by the public, and unsparing sarcasm of attack, with scornful derision, by the critics; meeting always from Robert Browning the answer of persistent and sturdy composition. according to his own mind. Without going into the question of how far the attack was challenged or the misjudgment merited, it is enough to observe here that everything which he brings forth must now be read by people of the finer intelligence, and—whatever burst of exasperation it may cause at first gradually comes to be discussed in a respectful tone.
These few cases, like others which need not be cited, tend to show that poets, in their development, do not depend upon the favoring influences of a particular period, so largely as some historians of literature would have us think. Certainly, if Wordsworth had formulated the current influences around him, and had then made up his mind that the era was too disadvantageous for him, English literature would have missed one of its deepest revolutionary and reconstructive forces. Certainly, too, Wordsworth, going upon a theory of dependence on surroundings, would have had ample reason, in the outlook of his time, to conclude that it was not worth while for him to write.
But when, instead of trying to estimate the opportunities and the promise of the present, we review epochs long closed, the problem becomes so much simpler that we are able freely to compare one epoch with another. Thus, by contrasting the riches and the poverty of literature in different times and places, we arrive naturally at the conception of certain periods as having been more benign. Our difficulty is, that we generalize too broadly from this conception, and get to thinking that we know more of the matter than we really do. We fall into the way of attributing to a taste for poetry and a sympathy with poets, which we suppose to have been keener, more general and more active than the taste of to-day, an
immense efficacy in stimulating great poetry; an efficacy beyond its real scope.
If, as a question of stream and source, it were true that the height to which a poem might attain is governed by the appreciation it seemed likely to receive; then this assumed supreme importance of the popular taste would be the answer to our problem. But, fortunately, the source of the best poetry does not lie in the applause of crowds: it is in the ideality of the individual singer. None the less, his utterance is meant for others; it is inevitable that he should hope for some response from those who listen. There should be a delight to him, far beyond the poor pleasure of vanity, in knowing that his verse has borne to them what it first brought to himself-the stirring influence of high imagination; joy, courage, comfort, the good of noble emotion, the purification of true pathos. Let us remember this; and remember to value accordingly the service of men and women who, in spite of discouragement, continue to hold up before us visions of the ideal, pictures of nature mirroring earth and heaven; men and women who thrill us with stories or plays of passion that make the heart beat faster, and ought to make it beat truer.
To speak frankly, I am not of those who, in commending some beautiful example of modern song-eminent, it may be, for a single well-defined quality-feel constrained always to make the reservation that it is the best of its kind "after Shakespeare;" as if no reach of human genius could ever outspan Shakespeare, or even equal him in a single direction and within brief compass. Much of the popular indifference to poetry, in our day, comes indirectly, I think, from this servile attitude towards writers of the past, which has been taken up meekly by writers of the present and ratified by the public. If subservience, without question or qualification, to the absolute lordship of that which has gone before be orthodox, I must confess to heresy; and my impression is that a great many, were they to utter their honest thought, would
join me in dissent. There is no need of belittling Tennyson, Landor, Browning or Swinburne, in order to magnify their mighty predecessors; any more than there is need of decrying those, in order to give grandeur to the later men. They are all stars in our firmament. What matter if one appear smaller, or shine with a differently colored ray? It may happen to be set further from us in space; or it may actually be smaller; but the quality of its light is still, possibly, just as precious. To apply mere earth-measurement to them is impossible we must, if we would regard them with impartial comprehensiveness, use the lucid eyes and the large calculations of astronomy. There is scarcely a poet who does not pour us a measure of dross with his gold. Even in Shakespeare-the very part of him which is generally admitted to be his true body-may be found an occasional admixture of triviality, doggerel or bombast, out of place and out of character, which would not be tolerated in a modern poet of high standing. "If I speak enthusiastically," says Principal Tulloch, "of Shakespeare, and of the well-nigh divine wisdom of many of his plays, do I thereby receive all that Shakespeare wrote as elevating or good? . . . . Shakespeare in ordinary speech stands for the unity of genius which his works represent."* Similarly, there are dull or feeble passages in some of our best modern poets, the like of which will not be permitted to poets of the future, although these last may be expected to reveal other faults, in turn.
There is an inborn inclination among readers, aided by critics and commentators, to form sects, to proclaim dogmas and contend for them with a sort of religious ardor. But if we are to give to questions of poetic inspiration and artistic splendor a quasi religious cast, then it seems to me that the point for faith to seek is, precisely, belief in the poets of our
* Movements of Religious Thought. By John Tulloch, Principal of St. Andrew's University. 1885.