Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 5. Irish Melodies; Lalla Rookh

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

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 5. Irish Melodies; Lalla Rookh

One thing no competent and fair-minded enemy has ever denied him—an almost unique faculty of marrying words to music and music to words. Part of this skill, it may be said, has little or nothing to do with poetical merit, but another part of it has; and Moore has rarely received sufficient credit for the remarkable skill with which he effects strictly prosodic variations. But the still more purely poetical value, excluding even prosodic considerations, of the best of his songs in Irish Melodies, in National Airs and in half a dozen other collections has been strangely belittled by some good judges. Grant that to transfer Ben Jonson’s scorn from prose to verse, some of the most popular, such as The Minstrel Boy and The Last Rose of Summer, and a good many others are somewhat “flashy things,” only prejudice or that lack of freshness of taste which transfers its own faults to the things distasted, or sheer insensibility, can deny a true, if not the rarest or finest, poetic touch to Oft in the stilly night (however little fond one may be of forms like “stilly”), At the mid hour of night when stars are weeping (a wonderful rhythm), I saw from the beach and others yet which might be named almost by dozens. The notes to Lalla Rookh (which nobody need read) are said to bore a generation which thinks it knows everything already; and the verse-tale of this particular kind is wholly out of fashion. Yet, there are some who, after knowing the poem almost by heart in youth and reading it at different times later, have still found “The Veiled Prophet” a much more interesting person to read about than some others of their youthful acquaintances; while, in the way of light, sweet, meringue-like verse, “Paradise and the Peri” is still not easily to be beaten.

Moreover, even Moore’s lightest verse can only be neglected at no small loss. Our fathers well knew The Fudge Family in their French and English experiences, and The Two-Penny Post Bag and the cloud of minor satiric trifles; and scores of delectable tags which enliven other peoples’ work were borrowed from them. The felicitous impertinence, neither ill-natured nor ill-bred, which Moore had at command is, perhaps nowhere better shown than in the famous or should-be famous suggestion as to Rokeby (put quite properly in a publisher’s mouth) that Scott

  • Having quitted the Borders to seek new renown
  • Is coming by long quarto stages to town,
  • And beginning with Rokeby (the job’s sure to pay)
  • Means to do all the gentlemen’s seats by the way.
  • But there are a thousand examples of it nearly or quite as good, and it attaches itself to matters political, social, ecclesiastical and miscellaneous in a way that ought to amuse, and could not seriously annoy, anyone who has not a rather regrettable proportion of the dunce or of the prig or of both in his composition. This mediocrity, really not ungolden and not of the kind that the Latin sentence blasts, is the note of all Moore’s verse—sentimental or jocular. If it offends exclusive lovers of the sublime, they must be offended; but there is a fortunate possibility of being able to appreciate Shakespeare or Shelley, Milton or Keats, at the greatest perfection of any or all, and yet to find a pastime of pleasure, now and then, in Moore’s abundant store of sentiment that, if sometimes more or less superficial, is never wholly insincere, and in his satire which, if never lethal, is always piquant.

    The three poets just discussed, while, in at least two cases, they deserve their place at the head of this chapter by a certain comparative “majority” in real worth, and in all three by prescription, have, also, an independent historical right to it. They all (it was the reason of Byron’s selection of them for his battle-royal of poets) affected, in different ways, the older or classical school. We may now turn from them to a larger and younger group who, partly, no doubt, because of their being younger, belong decidedly to the other school or division. They represent the generation born between the birth-years of Keats and Tennyson; and it has sometimes been proposed to make of them a definite batch or squad of intermediates between the first and definitely Georgian romantic group from Wordsworth to Keats himself and the definitely Victorian poetry (harbingered before strictly Victorian times, but carried out in them) by Tennyson, the Brownings and their followers. There is, perhaps, some better excuse for this than a mere rage for classification. To exercised critical judgments, a certain transitional character does certainly pervade all or most of this company. They were not in a position, as Tennyson and Browning were if they chose, to imbibe the influence of all their great elders just mentioned, before they themselves wrote, or at least published, anything. The strong places of pedagogy and of criticism were still, in their youthful time, largely, if not universally, occupied by what their own French contemporaries disrespectfully called perruques. If there had been any man of absolutely first-rate genius among them, this state of things might not merely have provoked revolt—which it did—but have brought about the complete victories afterwards achieved by their own juniors. But they all belonged to the new crusade, and, if none of them quite reached Jerusalem, they did notable things somewhere about Antioch.

    We may list them alphabetically as follows: Beddoes, Hartley Coleridge, Darley, Hood, Richard Henry (fantastically Hengist) Horne, Praed, Sir Henry Taylor, Thomas Wade, C. J. Wells and Charles Whitehead. Their births date from that of Darley, in the same year with that of Keats, to Wade’s, ten years later, and group themselves symmetrically in a single decade, on either side of the parting of the centuries. They have all felt strongly the literary influences which helped to determine the work of the greater group before them—the recovery of older (especially Elizabethan) English literature; the discovery of foreign; the subtle revival of imagination that is not confined to “ideas furnished by the senses”; the extension of interest in natural objects and the like. If whatever influence may be assigned to the French revolution and the great war is less immediate with them, it has, in their case, the strength of retrospect and the fresh impetus of the unsettled state of politics, society and thought, which the revolution and the war left behind them. But there is still about them a great deal that is undigested and incomplete; and no one of them has a genius, or even a temperament, strong enough to wrest and wrench him out of the transition stage.