Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 10. Sir Henry Taylor; Philip van Artevelde

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 10. Sir Henry Taylor; Philip van Artevelde

Henry (afterwards Sir Henry) Taylor offers one of the interesting poetic idiosyncrasies which are pretty strongly marked off from others, but which, somehow, fail to mark for themselves, and in the circle of their own performances, a definite and enduring achievement. That his main work was dramatic may partly, but will not wholly, account for this. That the enormous influence of the Elizabethan drama on the romantic revival should provoke direct imitation of itself was almost a matter of course; and it belongs to other divisions of this work to tell how all the poets—from Wordsworth, the most undramatic of all great writers, to Scott, the most dramatic of all men who have written bad dramas—tried it and how almost all, except Shelley, who might have been thought least likely to succeed, failed. But, with all of them, drama, fortunately, was a byword. With Taylor (for even his remarkable lyrical faculty was essentially germane to the Elizabethan school of drama), the dramatic form was all-pervading and all-powerful. People have forgotten most things of his save Philip van Artevelde, which, to most, is now itself not much more than a name; but Edwin the Fair and St. Clement’s Eve (if not, also, Isaac Comnenus) ought to be read, and will hardly be read once by those who can taste them at all. Still, Philip van Artevelde, no doubt, is his diploma-piece and not merely that. It failed on the stage; though, if the apparently growing taste for psychological plays were some day to unite itself with a taste for literature, the case might be altered. But, for a time, it had great vogue with readers of worth; and Taylor, perhaps may be thought to have been the most unfortunate of all these “intermediates” in being pushed from his stool, almost before he was fairly settled on it, by Tennyson, who used quite different forms and methods, and by Browning, who partly used the same, but added many others and wielded them with much greater power. As a dramatic poem, Philip van Artevelde stands very high. It is entirely free from the iciness which, being mistaken for something Greek (Greek tragedy cold!), at first attracted people in the almost exactly (though much more short-lived) contemporary Ion of Thomas, afterwards Sir Thomas, Noon Talfourd. The part of Elena is, perhaps, nearer than that of any heroine in any modern English play (putting Shelley’s Beatrice aside) to something great; and there are in it, as also in the other plays, almost innumerable passages of real poetic thought expressed in really poetic words. But Taylor had the fault—common to both Wordsworth and Southey, of whom he was a kind of disciple—of want of concentration in writing; he lacked action and narrative power; and it was seldom that he either would or could give vent to his lyric gift. The present writer has never seen an adequate selection from Taylor, though one may exist. It would be as scrappy as England’s Parnassus itself; but it would certainly show the author’s right to a place on the sacred hill.

Some of Taylor’s few but remarkable lyrics give evidence of a sort of underground vein which was rarely tapped (and which may be sought in vain in Talfourd). Such are the famous, or should-be famous, “Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife,” in Philip van Artevelde and the song of Thorbiorga in Edwin the Fair and divers passages in the scanty, and now, perhaps, rarely read, Minor Poems. They connect him with the rest of the group mentioned above, and with one or two others who are all, or almost all, more definitely lyrical in main substance, and who strangely anticipate not merely Tennyson and Browning, but, even still more, the spasmodics, the pre-Raphaelites and other poets such as the late John Davidson, who have touched the present day. These are the men who, while feeling strongly the “antecedent” influences, as they may be termed—Elizabethan, German and miscellaneous—though not, as yet, much touched by the purely medieval, derive more directly from Coleridge, Shelley and Keats, especially from the first two; men who showed already, though in a crude and half embryonic form, the strong tendency of the nineteenth century towards occasional and, therefore, lyrical verse; and who, while underlying all the objections (quantum valeant) of Wordsworth to The Ancient Mariner, possess something of the merits which even Wordsworth allowed to that exceptionable work of his yokefellow.