The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 64. Summary

It would be a pity to leave this chorus vatum, comprising more than a century of persons and extending, in point of time of poetical production, over more than seventy years, without some general remarks, which need be neither forced nor perfunctory, and which certainly need not indulge in the rhetorical, fioriture too often recently associated with criticism. Colour on colour, whether it be bad heraldry or not, is bad history. We have regimented our poets, to some extent, as to classes differenced by subject, by sex and other considerations; but it has been freely acknowledged that the greater number are rebels to any such process. It does not, however, follow that they are a mere throng, or that the general poetical production of the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century (and, in some cases, a little of the twentieth) affords no symptoms to the systematic student of literary history. It may, therefore, be briefly considered from this point of view.

A theory—or, if that be too dignified a term, at least a notion—glanced at above suggests that the commanding and protracted influence of the two greatest poets of the period, Tennyson and Browning, especially that of Tennyson, has not, on the whole, been favourable; and an extension of this idea might urge something similar, as regards the later time, with respect to Swinburne and Rossetti. It was, however, also hinted, on the former occasion, that this theory will not stand examination. In order that it might do so, it would be necessary to establish the fact that the lesser poetry of 1840–1900 was, generally and individually, worse than the lesser poetry of the period immediately preceding it. Now this, as it may be hoped the dispassionate examination of these two periods, in chapters of some length, has shown, is far, indeed, from being the case. In the second place, granting, for a moment, and for the sake of argument merely, that there was such deterioration, it would have to be established that it was due to these influences—a more difficult task still. The influence of Tennyson may have been apparently disastrous on such a writer as Lewis Morris; but to say that Tennyson’s influence produced the badness, or, rather, the nullity, of Lewis Morris’s verse would be not so much uncritical as purely absurd. Perhaps those who hold the view referred to may contend that it is not so much definite imitation that they mean as a certain overawing and smothering influence—that the lesser poets of the period felt like Cassius in regard to Caesar, as petty men in the presence of the colossus Tennyson, and dared not show their real powers. To this, again, it can be answered that there is no evidence of it whatever, and that, if they did so feel, they must have been a feeble folk from whom no great poetry could be expected in any circumstances.

Brushing all this, and other fantasies, aside and “taking the ford as we find it,” there is, beyond all question, in this long period and among this crowd of lesser singers, an amount of diffused poetry which cannot be paralleled in any other age or country except, perhaps, in our own land and language between 1580 and 1674. At no period, not even then, has the standard of technical craftsmanship been so high; at none has there been anything like such variety of subject and, to a rather less extent, of tone. Nor can we exactly charge against these writers, as, it was claimed, we might against the “intermediates” of the earlier century, an uncertainty of step or object—an obviously transitional character. If a fault can be found with this poetry generally—and it is a fault which, as the detailed criticism offered above should show, presses lightly on some, though heavily on others—it is a want at once of spontaneity and of concentration, which results in a further want of individuality. And this may be regarded as due, not to the imitation of this or that contemporary poet, but to a too general literariness—to what has been called “the obsession of the printed book.” These poets, as a rule, have read rather too much; and, if the reading has polished their form, it has sometimes palled and weakened their spirit.

We may extend the ungracious task of the devil’s advocate a little further, partly returning upon and collecting points hinted at already. In, perhaps, no period of poetry has there been, even allowing the proper average for gross bulk of production, so large a number of first books of verse which have excited the hopes even of experienced and somewhat sceptical critics, only to disappoint the hopes and confirm the scepticism by subsequent failure—or, at any rate, failure to improve. At no time—this point, no doubt, is, in many cases, pretty closely connected with the last—has there been such a dissipation, in the waste and evaporating waters of mere journalism or journey-work, of powers which might well have ripened into more generous and lasting wine of poetry. And, even in the case of those who have never left their first loves, there has seldom been produced such a bulk of what we have here several times in individual cases, unconcentrated work—poetic negus, as one might designate it—sweet and spiced and pleasant to the taste and fairly comforting, but watered and sophisticated. Undoubtedly, these things are very largely due to those very circumstances which have just been mentioned—to the positive inability of a large proportion of the poets concerned to indulge that engrossing and exclusive disposition of the muse which has been often noticed; perhaps to some general conditions of the time—social, political, religious and other; certainly to that over-literariness which has been admitted. Yet, these allowances and explanations are still allowances and explanations only. They do not remove or alter the fact.

Nevertheless, these poets have given us a pretty extensive paradise of sometimes very dainty delights to wander in and feed upon; and it should be not impossible to play the Parkinson to some of its classes of flower and fruit—the Paterson to its main roads and places. The whole region is dominated by the two general principles of the earlier romantic movement, the increased and ever increasing appeal to the senses of the mind; the ingemination of varied sound; and the multiplication of varied form and colour. A second notable thing, connected closely with the first, is the prevalence of lyric in the widest sense, including sonnets, ballads, odes, short poems of more or less single situation, emotion or thought, and the like, in whatever form. The closet drama and the long poem are, of course, attempted and even sometimes with a certain popularity, if only for a time; but never with entire success to the satisfaction of critical judgment by any poet surveyed in this chapter. “Songs and sonnets,” in the old acceptation, are your later nineteenth-century poet’s only—or, at least, his chief and principal—wear an ware. Further, there are curious strains or veins of poetic manner which emerged at the beginning and continue to manifest themselves until, practically, the end. One is the “spasmodic,” which has never been without representatives, for better for worse, from Bailey to Davidson. The style most opposite to this is the quietly classical, having its most powerful exponent outside our list in Matthew Arnold, but represented not unworthily in that list itself. A most prominent feature is that revival and extension of aureate language which was one of the main objects of the pre-Raphaelites, and has never had, not even in Rossetti sixty years since, a more audacious practitioner than Francis Thompson, who died but the other day. We have noted, too, in the last twenty or thirty years, a kind of what has been called “violence”—a development in one direction of the spasmodic association itself with the so-called “realist” tendencies of the time. The artificial forms practised by no mean poets for a considerable period must, also, keep their place, whatever it be, in history.

But the attraction and the charm of poetry—though it is a vulgar error to suppose that they are in the least injured or lessened, palled or withered, by applying to them historical and analytic considerations—are, after all, independent of these. “Is there good and delightful poetry here?” that is the question; and it can be most unhesitatingly answered “There is.” A new Johnson or Anderson or Chalmers, containing all the works of all the poets noticed in this chapter would be a vast collection—one would have to be, or to employ, a very skilful and industrious “caster-off” to estimate its extent. It would certainly far exceed the twenty-one volumes of Chalmers and might come near the scores or hundreds of the Parnaso Italiano. Some volumes or parts of volumes (which need not be again indicated) would be seldom disturbed and rapidly left alone again by the few disturbers. But, on the whole, an astonishing amount of poetic pleasure would be available in the collection—some of it for all, and all of it for some, who care for poetry. This chapter, perhaps, is already too long; but it may be permitted to lay a little final stress on the remarkable absence, in the period and production considered as a whole, of monotony. The very excess of “literariness” which has been admitted escapes this condemnation (easily applicable to some other times), because of the immense extent of the literature from which suggestion has been taken. Classical literature, and medieval, foreign of all nations and languages in modern times—history, religion, philosophy, art of all times and kinds—have been drawn upon, as well as the never-ending resources of nature and of life. Neither, it may be confidently affirmed, despite the admissions which have been required, has this vast variety of subject and of form failed to meet an at least fairly corresponding diversity of talent and even of genius in the poets dealing with it.