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MODERN ENGLISH LITERATURE.
It must be conceded, that there never was a time when so great a number of men of extraordinary genius flourished together in this island ; — as many may have existed, and perhaps there may be always an equal quantity of latent capacity ; – but since the circumstances of no previous period of human history have been altogether so calculated to awaken, inspirit, and perfect every species of intellectual energy, it is no arrogant assumption in favour of the living, no disparagement of the merits of the dead, to assert the manifest superiority of the former in developed powers — powers of the rarest and most elevated kind in poetry, — the noblest of the arts, and that which is brought earliest to the consummation of excellence, as it depends not upon the progress of science, but on sensibility to that which is at all times in itself equally striking in the grandeur, beauty, and splendour of external nature, with corresponding intensity of feeling towards whatsoever things are pure, lovely, and of good report in the mind of man, or in the scenes and circumstances of domestic life.
In poetry, late as it is in the age of the world, and after all the anticipations in every field that could furnish subjects for verse within the last three thousand years, — the present generation can boast of at least six names that may be ranked with any other six (averaging the measure of genius on both sides) not only of our own country, but of any other that were contemporaries, independent of a far greater number of highly accomplished writers, such as in every refined and lettered period must abound men who are rather poets by choice than by destiny, and who, if they had been either kings or beggars, would not have been poets at all, because in the one case they would have been above, and in the other below, the temptation and pleasure of courting the Muses. Southey, Campbell, Wordsworth, Scott, Moore, and Byron, — these, under any circumstances, from the original bias of their minds, must have been poets : had they been born to thrones, they would have woven for themselves chaplets of bays more glorious than the crowns which they inherited ; had they been cast in the meanest stations of civilised society, they would have been distinguished among their peers, and above them, by some emanation of that “ light from Heaven” which no darkness of ignorance in untutored minds could utterly extinguish or always hide.
· It must be further acknowledged by all who have justly appreciated the works of these authors, (which are exceedingly dissimilar in those respects wherein each is most excellent,) that the great national events of their day have had no small influence in training their genius, leading them to the choice of subjects, and modifying their style. So far, then, these circumstances have been sources of inspiration ; but there is a drawback with regard to each, that, yielding to the impatient temper of the times in their eager pursuit of fame, they have occasionally aimed at the temple on the mountain top, not by the slow, painful, and laborious paths which their immortal predecessors trod, and which all must tread who would be sure of gaining the eminence, and keeping their station when they have gained it, — but they have rather striven to scale the heights by leaping from rock to rock up the most precipitous side, forcing their passage through the impenetrable forests that engirdle it, or plunging across the headlong torrents that descend in various windings from their fountains at the peak. Thus they have endeavoured to attract attention and excite astonishment, rather by prodigious acts of spontaneous exertion, than to display gradually, and eventually to the utmost advantage, the well directed and perfectly concentrated force of their talents. In a word, it may be doubted whether one of the living five (for Byron is now beyond the reach of warning) has ever yet done his very best in a single effort worthy of himself (I mean in their longer works), by sacrificing all his merely good, middling, and inferior thoughts, which he has in common with every body
else, and appearing solely in his peculiar character,that character of excellence, whatever it may be, wherein he is distinct from all the living and all the dead; – the personal identity of his genius shining only where he can outshine all rivals, or where he can shine alone when rivalry is excluded. Till each of the survivors has done this, it can hardly be affirmed that he has secured the immortality of one of his great intellectual offspring : — there is a vulnerable part of each, which Death with his dart, or Time with his scythe, may sooner or later strike down to oblivion.*
The unprecedented sale of the poetical works of Scott and Byron, with the moderate success of others, proves that a great change had taken place both in the character of authors and in the taste of readers, within forty years. About the beginning of the French Revolution scarcely any thing in rhyme, except the ludicrous eccentricities of Peter Pindar, would take with the public: a few years afterwards, booksellers ventured to speculate in quarto volumes of verse, at from five shillings to a guinea a line, and in various instances were abundantly recompensed for their liberality. There are fifty living poets (among whom it must not be forgotten, that not a few are of the better sex — I may single out four; Mrs. Joanna Baillie, Mrs. Hemans, Miss Mitford, and L. E. L.) whose labours have proved profitable to themselves in a pecuniary way, and fame in proportion has followed the more substantial reward. This may appear a degrading standard by which to measure the genius of writers and the intelligence of readers, but, in a commercial country at least, it is an equitable one; for no man in his right mind can suppose that such a rise in the market demand could have taken place, unless the commodity itself had become more precious or more rare, or the taste of the public for that kind of literature had been exceedingly improved. Now poetry, instead of being more rare, was tenfold more abundant when it was most in request; it follows, therefore, that the demand was occasioned by a change equally creditable to the superior talents of those who furnished, and the superior information of those who consumed, the supply.
* In reading the foregoing passage at the Royal and London Institutions, the Author distinctly remarked, that as he could not be supposed to speak invidiously of any one of the great poets implicated in the qualified censure, he did not think any other apology necessary either to themselves or their admirers there present, except that, deeming such censure applicable to contemporaries in general, he had named those only who could not be injured in their established reputation, or their honourable feelings, by the frankness of friendly criticism; and who could therefore afford to be told of faults which they had, in a small degree, in common with a multitude of their inferiors, who have the same in a much higher.
The market, however, has much fallen within these last ten years, and the richest dealer long ago invested his capital in other funds, much to his own emolument and the satisfaction of more customers than any author living besides himself can boast. Lord Byron did worse; but I am not the judge of his morality here. I shall only remark upon him in his literary character, that had he always selected materials for