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THE ELEMENT OF ART IN EIGHTEENTH CENTURY POETRY
In a review, in 1892, of Austin Dobson's first volume of Eighteenth Century Vignettes, Lionel Johnson declared that he himself was among the genuine lovers of the eighteenth century. "To its votaries and devotees it is the enchanted, the golden, the incomparable age: our dearest friends lived in it, and our best books were written in it. We know that the ages of Shakespeare and of Milton were greater far than the age of Addison and of Pope, of Johnson and of Burke, of Berkeley and of Gray, of Fielding and of Richardson: we acknowledge the exceeding glory of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats; but for pure and genuine pleasure we turn most often and most gladly to the age of the golden mean. Glover's Leonidas does not depress us; we can stomach Beattie on Truth; Home's Douglas and Mason's Caractacus are positively our delights. In the meanest last-century book there is something of urbanity, atticism, grace, composure, ease; some felicity of arrangement or charm of manner: the hireling pens of pamphleteers, the pensioned Grub-Street Muses, have a pleasant way of seeming scholarly and grave, or bright and witty. Critics and controversialists, whose whole aim was a brutal bludgeoning or filthy bespattering of their opponents, yet kept about them some air of taste and art. The vile thing was done with a certain
happy congruity, a certain dextrous and able grace. For myself, let me confess that the literature of the last century has few dull places: deistical treatises, Christian evidences, third-rate essayists, Odes to Solitude, I can enjoy them all. In a word, the bad writing of the last century is more tolerable than that of any other century; it shows more of the craftsman, the artist, the master of composition and design." 1
These eulogistic remarks probably belong to the whimsical school of literary criticism; at any rate, they will appear so to the uninitiated, who will suspect Lionel Johnson of having written with his tongue in his cheek. But here, as often, the jaunty and unabashed paradox turns out to be the plain truth. For the fundamental point in any intelligent and adequate appreciation of eighteenth century poetry, is the recognition in that period of a fine and pervasive sense for art. It is true, this is hard doctrine, especially in our AngloSaxon world; when we think of English poetry, we think of the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, with the Age of Neo-Classicism, a barren desert, lying between them. The Romantic movement caused a more violent break in our cultural traditions than it did in Latin countries, especially France. Our prejudices and tastes, in literature as in life, are strongly Romantic. Only by study and readjustment can most of us come to understand what constitutes the enduring value of the English Classical Age. The purpose of this introduction is to assist the reader in this readjustment, by examining some of the theories and traditions of eighteenth century poetry.
There is a preconception quite common among lovers
1 By permission from Lionel Johnson's Reviews and Critical Papers (1921), published by E. P. Dutton & Company.
of poetry, a preconception supposed to have the high sanction of Matthew Arnold, that since the eighteenth century was a period of prose and reason, the verse of that time is only metrical prose and really not poetry at all. This preconception is based on two errors, one of fact and one of theory. In the first place, there is\ far more emotion in our Classical poetry than would be inferred from this criticism of it. To illustrate, no one understands Pope who thinks only of the Essay on Man and ignores the Elegy to an Unfortunate Lady and Eloisa to Abelard; still further, no one understands Pope as satirist who does not feel the intensity of the emotion in the lines on Atticus and in the conclusion of the Dunciad. Nevertheless, it is true that there is a larger proportion of intellectual verse in our Classical period than in either the Renaissance or the Romantic period. The theoretical problem is whether or not such verse is true poetry. One sometimes hears that "intellectual poetry" is a contradiction in terms, in as much as poetry, like the other arts, is "the language of the emotions." The best way to test such a limitation of the subject matter of art is to apply it. To illustrate somewhat at random: it would at once rule out most Greek sculpture, much of Bach's music, many admired passages in Shakespeare and Browning, the art of Whistler, most architecture, and those indispensable fine arts which beautify our domestic interiors. Obviously, the theory must be wrong.
A more comprehensive and serviceable conception of art is to be found in that development of German æsthetics called the theory of "einfühlung." According to this theory, art, as art, appeals primarily to the imagination. Form is the distinguishing quality of art, and art form is a satisfaction of the imagination.
The imagination flows into and fills, so to speak, the form of the artistic object, and lives for the moment within the limits of this artistic form. Thus the imagination balances itself in the form of the Greek temple, aspires with the lines of a beautiful vase or a beautiful chair, feels the vastness, intricacy and satisfying completeness of the Divine Comedy, and pulsates in the rhythm of a poetical line. This theory of art form as offering the satisfaction of a free and disinterested play of the imagination, cannot of course be attributed, with its psychological subtlety, to the critics and poets of the eighteenth century. But it is an excellent hypothesis for the student who wants to recapture, by sympathetic comprehension, the experience of eighteenth century readers and writers of poetry. It stresses form, as did the Classic age. It permits of all the variety of subject matter found in Classic verse. It helps us to understand the aims and ideals of the Classic poets, sympathize with their emphasis, and perhaps even to see some sense in the narrow rules of their critics.
If we may assume then, for the present, this modern theory that the enjoyment of art is first of all an imaginative enjoyment of form, let us try it as a clue to eighteenth century taste in poetry. Let us begin with the individual line of verse.
The word "numbers" is the most common synonym of the time for poetry. It falls with singular unpleasantness upon the ear of the modern reader. It suggests to him that the skill of the Classical poet was mechanical skill in counting to ten. But the word "numbers" had a different denotation and a different connotation in the eighteenth century. As a critical term it was inherited from the Renaissance, and ulti
Gildon also pays his respects to the Criticaster, the "meer Piece-Broker of Parnassus," who he says "reaches no farther than Words and Sentences; dealing in the very Scraps of Poetry; a Couplet, an Expression is the utmost he pretends to. But for a Design, or complete Poem, to meddle with it, he accounts Pedantry, or Imposition."
In this emphasis on design the Classicists looked to the ancients for their authority. "Invention," says John Hughes, "was among the Antients universally look'd upon to be the principal part of poetry." And he quotes Plutarch as follows: "Neither the Numbers, nor the ranging of the Words, nor the Elevation and Elegance of the Stile, have so many graces as the artful contrivance and Disposition of the Fable." Likewise Pope recalls that Aristotle called the "Fable" the "Soul of Poetry." "Invention," says Pope, "is the very foundation of Poetry. It is the Invention that in different degrees distinguishes all great Genius's." It is illuminating to see in what order Pope discusses the aspects of Homer's genius: first the fable, then the characters, the speeches, the sentiments, the descriptions, images and similes, where he continues: "If we descend from hence to the Expression, we see the bright Imagination of Homer shining out in the most enliven'd Forms of it. We acknowledge him the the Father of Poetical Diction, the first who taught that Language of the Gods to men. His expression is like the coloring of some great Masters, which discovers itself to be laid on boldly, and executed with Rapidity." To Pope, poetical diction, though it be the language of the gods, was not so divine as the more essential beauty of design, the beauty of the whole work of art.