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describes the Christian life, and the abuses of religion under the authority of the Pope. It is to the honour of poetry that among the first efforts of her power over a partially civilized people she should fearlessly utter the dictates of truth, unbought and undismayed by arbitrary princes, and selfish priests. "The mind,” says Mr. Campbell, speaking of Langlande, “is struck with his rude voice, proclaiming independent and popular sentiments, from an age of slavery and superstition, and thundering a prediction in the ear of papacy, which was doomed to be literally fulfilled at the distance of nearly two hundred years. His allusions to cotemporary life afford some amusing glimpses of its manners.”.
The earliest English poet whose remains are still preserved to popular readers is Geoffrey Chaucer. He died in 1400. It would not be suitable to the design of this little sketch to descant upon a poet whose works few young persons would have the patience to read. But matured readers with a little pains may make the obsolete language of Chaucer intelligible. The very lively pictures which his writings afford of the manners and sentiments peculiar to his time, and which abound in them, are interesting to minds that love to look far back into the dim region of the past, and behold there, stars of mind that shine for ever and ever.
Civil wars and religious persecutions during two centuries after the death of Chaucer silenced the muse in England. Some obscure names of this period attached to poetry may be drawn from oblivion by the antiquaries, but the poetical feeling and genius of England are regarded by Mr. Campbell to have been at that time almost extinct.
In the fifteenth century printing was introduced into Britain. The desire of knowledge is excited in the public mind by the means of obtaining it, and it would seem that divine providence has adjusted the productiveness of genius, to the estimation in which talent is held. Whenever the people become eager for instruction or for entertainment, Wisdom is heard crying in the streets,
and the sweet strains of Poetry seem to mingle in the common air that we breathe. In the sixteenth century the Scriptures were given freely to the people of England, learning was cultivated, and poetry revived ; and as society was improved, genius was developed and honoured. Of this influence of society upon poetic genius, Mr. Campbell says:
“Poets may be indebted to the learning and philosophy of their age, without being themselves men of eru. dition or philosophers. When the fine spirit of truth has gone abroad, it passes insensibly from mind to mind, independent of its direct transmissions from books; and it comes home in a more welcome shape to the poet, when caught from his social intercourse with his species, than from solitary study."
Lord Surrey lived in the reign of Henry VIII, and was the inventor of blank verse. In the reign of queen Elizabeth, and of her successor, James I. lived Shakspeare, Ben Jonson and Spenser. Spenser, the author of the Faery Queen, is now very much praised, and very little read. His subject is partly allegorical, and partly in representation of persons of his own age; and on account of this confusion and obscurity in his poetry, it may be, that Spenser is more studied by poets than by general readers. Jonson is hardly more popular, but “every body's Shakspeare” now in universal estimation wears, and will wear in the eyes of all posterity, his laurels fresh and green as ever. Shakspeare's appearance as a dramatist can be traced back to 1589, and the Faery Queen was published in 1590.
English Poetry comprehends the Drama.—Mysteries, Moralities, and Interludes, are names of the dramatic re. presentations known in England previous to Shakspeare's time. The Mysteries were religious shows exhibited under the sanction of the ministers of religion to the people. The Resurrection of Lazarus, and the Sepulture of our Lord, were among these representations : they were in fashion in England four hundred years, and went out of vogue in the middle of the sixteenth century. Surely, not only taste but piety has made great advances in the community of the English language (if such an expression is allowable) since such subjects could be acceptable under the form of public amusements.
The Moralists dramatized moral subjects, and sometimes represented discoveries in science. An Interlude on the nature of the four elements, and The Tracts of America lately discovered and the manners of the natives, is recorded among the last of these entertainments.
Greek and Latin tragedies were translated into English as soon as 1566. During the last twenty years of the sixteenth century, play-writers by profession became common, but their names and works have now, for the most part, become insignificant. Ben Jonsons's plays exhibit much learning and wit—they are still read, but are not exhibited upon the stage. Among his works are specimens of that poetic and tasteful drama, the Masque. Milton's Comus is a masque, and Percy's Masque, by Mr. Hillhouse, which was written about 1820 in America, is a masquc..
Poetic translation commenced in England about 1560, The poetry of Virgil, Ovid, and soon afterwards of Homer, were translated into English verse near this time. Dr. Johnson commences his Lives of the Poets with the life of Cowley, and classes him with Donne, Waller, and some other poets who had lived during the preceding century: these were the metaphysical poets. Their works exist in old books, but they are only known to very curious readers.
Shakspeare stands at the head of English poets, and next in eminence is the divine Milton: Milton died in 1674, at the age of 62. In his early life Milton felt that he was born for posterity and all time, and in the consciousness of his great endowments, his elevated mind was little disturbed by the neglect of his contemporaries. For almost a century after the publication of his minor works, they were little known: and Paradise Lost, which appeared in print in 1669, after its author had become blind to external things, attracted little of the admiration which it has since called forth.
Among British poets next to Milton, in the order of time, comes Dryden. Gray describes Milton and Dryden in these lines :
* * * «He, that rode sublime Upon the seraph wings of Ecstacy, The secrets of th' Abyss to spy.
He pass’d the flaming bounds of Place and Time,
Hark, his hands the lyre explore!
Dryden's plays and poems are not much read, though Alexander's Feast still retains its popularity, and almost eyery school-boy can repeat it. Dryden died in 1690.
Pope died in 1744. For a whole century Mr. Pope was perhaps the most popular of English poets; and though his moral and religious sentiments were censured by the rigidly righteous, still they passed into the principles and common talk of most readers. “As Pope says," is a phrase which is often prefixed in conversation to a multitude of pointed remarks which are found in Mr. Pope's writings, and that are readily applied by almost every mind to the práctical wisdom of daily life. " Whate'er by nature is in worth denied
She gives in large recruits of needful pride." “ Trust not thyself—thy own defects to know Make use of every friend, and every foe.”
“ True wit is nature to advantage dressed
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." 66'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all." “ Man, like the generous vine, supported, lives
The strength he gains is from the embrace he gives.” - Reason's whole pleasure, all the joys of sense,
Lie in three words, Health, Peace, and Competence."
Such are a few of those couplets which are become almost common-place, but which express important principles with admirable simplicity and plainness.
The force and independence of Mr. Pope's sentiments, the purity of motives from which his principles spring, and to which they tend, the delightful harmony of his versification, and sometimes, the beauty of his descriptions, have made him the almost universal favourite that he is among English readers. Within a few years a controversy has been carried on, among some distinguished poets and critics, concerning the pre-eminence of Pope as a poet. But the argument is not interesting to young readers ; however, those who feel any veneration for the author of that beautiful version of the Lord's prayer“ Father of All,” &c.—will be pleased to know, that among those who exalted the fame of that eminent person were the late Lord Byron, and Thomas Campbell.
Among the contemporaries of Pope, were several poets much in fashion during their lives, and some of whose works are yet popular. Of these Addison, Swift, Gay, and Parnell deserve to be mentioned. The respective. characters of these writers, and their works, may be learned from sources more ample than this brief notice of English poetry and poets.
After the death of Pope, Thomson, Collins, Shenstone, Akenside, Gray, and Goldsmith, were much and deseryedly admired as English poets. Goldsmith, the last in the order in which they are mentioned, died in 1774; but the genius of each, differing, as they do, from