Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003
Francis Jeffrey (1773—1850)
Francis Jeffrey, a Scot, rose to become Lord Jeffrey, a judge and a member of Parliament. He is best known in literature as one of the founders and editors of The Edinburgh Review, which endured robustly from 1802 until 1929. In its early years, the magazine often published reactionary attacks against the Romantic poets. One of Jeffrey’s colleagues, Henry Peter Brougham, wrote the article which caused Lord Byron to write his early satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Jeffrey himself is known for his disparagement of Wordsworth and others among the “Lake Poets.” Jeffrey gained immortality by the opening sentence of his review of Wordsworth’s The Excursion: “This will never do!”
A passage in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers connects Francis Jeffrey with the notorious seventeenth-century George Jeffreys (1648—1689), the original “Hanging Judge.” (The so-called Bloody Assizes of 1685 were held at Dorchester, where today the Wessex Hotel operates the Judge Jeffreys Restaurant.) “Health to immortal Jeffrey!” Byron says, “once in name, / England could boast a judge almost the same.”
Jeffrey was generally admired among people with Whig or liberal sympathies. Charles Dickens named his third son Francis Jeffrey Dickens (1844—1886).
The essay here, first published in 1828 in the Edinburgh Review, was the lead-in to a review of Edwin Atherstone’s The Fall of Nineveh: A Poem. Jeffrey, near the end of his editing and reviewing career, was embarking on work in law and politics, at which he was to be very successful. He may have wanted to contribute a valedictory conspectus on his way out (he retired in 1829). Magazines, such as the Edinburgh Review, flourished throughout the nineteenth century and were the main outlets of political, literary, and even philosophical thought. They reached a huge audience; Jeffrey’s articles were read by as many as 50,000 people. In time, Jeffrey came to be slighted for his extreme partisanship and relative shallowness. But he was eloquent and energetic, and his part in the creation and early development of periodical journalism will guarantee him a place in literary history.
THE STATE OF MODERN POETRY (1828, EXCERPT)
We have been rather in an odd state for some years, we think, both as to Poets and Poetry. Since the death of Lord Byron there has been no king in Israel; and none of his former competitors now seem inclined to push their pretensions to the vacant throne. Scott, and Moore, and Southey, appear to have nearly renounced verse, and finally taken service with the Muses of prose:—Crabbe, and Coleridge, and Wordsworth, we fear, are burnt out:—and Campbell and Rogers repose under their laurels, and, contented each with his own elegant little domain, seem but little disposed either to extend its boundaries, or to add new provinces to their rule. Yet we cannot say either that this indifference may be accounted for by the impoverished state of the kingdom whose sovereignty is thus in abeyance, or that the interregnum has as yet given rise to any notable disorders. On the contrary, we do not remember a time when it would have been a prouder distinction to be at the head of English poetry, or when the power which every man has to do what is good in his own eyes, seemed less in danger of being abused. Three poets of great promise have indeed been lost, “in the morn and liquid dew of their youth”—in Kirke White, in Keats, and in Pollok; and a powerful, though more uncertain genius extinguished, less prematurely, in Shelley. Yet there still survive writers of great talents and attraction. The elegance, the tenderness, the feminine sweetness of Felicia Hemans—the classical copiousness of Milman—the facility and graceful fancy of Hunt, though defrauded of half its praise by carelessness and presumption—and, besides many others, the glowing pencil and gorgeous profusion of the author more immediately before us.
There is no want, then, of poetry among us at the present day; nor even of very good and agreeable poetry. But there are no miracles of the art—nothing that marks its descent from “the highest heaven of invention”—nothing visibly destined to inherit immortality. Speaking very generally, we would say, that our poets never showed a better or less narrow taste, or a juster relish of what is truly excellent in the models that lie before them, and yet have seldom been more deficient in the powers of creative genius; or rather, perhaps, that with an unexampled command over the raw materials of poetry, and a true sense of their value, they have rarely been so much wanting in the skill to work them up to advantage—in the power of attaching human interests to sparkling fancies, making splendid descriptions subservient to intelligible purposes, or fixing the fine and fugitive spirit of poetry in some tangible texture of exalted reason or sympathetic emotion. The improvement in all departments is no doubt immense, since the days when Hoole and Hayley were thought great poets. But it is not quite clear to us, that the fervid and florid Romeos of the present day, may not be gathered, in no very long course of years, to the capacious tomb of these same ancient Capulets. They are but shadows, we fear, that have no independent or substantial existence—and though reflected from grand and beautiful originals, have but little chance to maintain their place in the eyes of the many generations by whom those originals will yet be worshipped—but who will probably prefer, each in their turn, shadows of their own creating.
The present age, we think, has an hundred times more poetry, and more true taste for poetry, than that which immediately preceded it,—and of which, reckoning its duration from the extinction of the last of Queen Anne’s wits down to about thirty odd years ago, we take leave to say that it was, beyond all dispute, the most unpoetical age in the annals of this or any other considerable nation. Nothing, indeed, can be conceived more dreary and sterile than the aspect of our national poetry from the time of Pope and Thomson, down to that of Burns and Cowper. With the exception of a few cold and scattered lights—Gray, Goldsmith, Warton, Mason, and Johnson—men of sense and eloquence occasionally exercising themselves in poetry out of scholar-like ambition, but not poets in any genuine sense of the word—the whole horizon was dark, silent, and blank; or only presented objects upon which it is now impossible to look seriously without shame. These were the happy days of Pye and Whitehead—of Hoole and of Hayley—and then, throughout the admiring land, resounded the mighty names of Jerningham and Jage, of Edwards, of Murphy, of Moore, and of others whom we cannot but feel it is a baseness to remember.
The first man who broke “the numbing spell” was Cowper,—(for Burns was not generally known till long after,)—and, though less highly gifted than several who came after him, this great praise should always be remembered in his epitaph. He is entitled, in our estimation, to a still greater praise; and that is, to the praise of absolute and entire originality. Whatever he added to the resources of English poetry, was drawn directly from the fountains of his own genius, or the stores of his own observation. He was a copyist of no style—a restorer of no style; and did not, like the eminent men who succeeded him, merely recall the age to the treasures it had almost forgotten, open up anew a vein that had been long buried in rubbish, or revive a strain which had already delighted the ears of a more aspiring generation. That this, however, was the case with the poets who immediately followed, cannot, we think, be reasonably doubted; and the mere statement of the fact, seems to us sufficiently to explain the present state of our poetry—its strength and its weakness—its good taste and its deficient power—its resemblance to works that can never die—and its own obvious liability to the accidents of mortality.
It has advanced beyond the preceding age, simply by going back to one still older; and has put its poverty to shame only by unlocking the hoards of a remoter ancestor. It has reformed merely by restoring; and innovated by a systematic recurrence to the models of antiquity. Scott went back as far as to the Romances of Chivalry: and the poets of the lakes to the humbler and more pathetic simplicity of our early ballads; and both, and all who have since adventured in poetry, have drawn, without measure or disguise, from the living springs of Shakespeare and Spenser, and the other immortal writers who adorned the glorious era of Elizabeth and James.
It is impossible to value more highly than we do the benefits of this restoration. It is a great thing to have rendered the public once more familiar with these mighty geniuses—and, if we must be copyists, there is nothing certainly that deserves so well to be copied. The consequence, accordingly, has been, that, even in our least inspired writers, we can again reckon upon freedom and variety of style, some sparks of fancy, some traits of nature, and some echo, however feeble, of that sweet melody of rhythm and of diction, which must linger for ever in every ear which has once drank in the music of Shakespeare; while, in authors of greater vigour, we are sure to meet also with gorgeous descriptions and splendid imagery, tender sentiments expressed in simple words, and vehement passions pouring themselves out in fearless and eloquent declamation.
But with all this, it is but too true that we have still a feeling that we are glorying but in secondhand finery and counterfeit inspiration; and that the poets of the present day, though they have not only Taste enough to admire, but skill also to imitate, the great masters of an earlier generation, have not inherited the Genius that could have enabled them either to have written as they wrote, or even to have come up, without their example, to the level of their own imitations. The heroes of our modern poetry, indeed, are little better, as we take it, than the heroes of the modern theatres—attired, no doubt, in the exact costume of the persons they represent, and wielding their gorgeous antique arms with an exact imitation of heroic movements and deportment—nay, even evincing in their tones and gestures, a full sense of inward nobleness and dignity—and yet palpably unfit to engage in any feat of actual prowess, and incapable, in their own persons, even of conceiving what they have been so well taught to personate. We feel, in short, that our modern poetry is substantially derivative, and, as geologists say of our present earth, of secondary formation—made up of the debris of a former world, and composed, in its loftiest and most solid parts, of the fragments of things far more lofty and solid.
The consequence, accordingly, is, that we have abundance of admirable descriptions, ingenious similitudes, and elaborate imitations—but little invention, little direct or overwhelming passion, and little natural simplicity. On the contrary, every thing almost now resolves into description,—descriptions not only of actions and external objects, but of characters, and emotions, and the signs and accompaniments of emotion—and all given at full length, ostentatious, elaborate, and highly finished, even in their counterfeit carelessness and disorder. But no sudden unconscious bursts, either of nature or of passion—no casual flashes of fancy, no slight passing intimations of deep but latent emotions, no rash darings of untutored genius, soaring proudly up into the infinite unknown! The chief fault, however, is the want of subject and of matter—the absence of real persons, intelligible interests, and conceivable incidents, to which all this splendid apparatus of rhetoric and fancy may attach itself, and thus get a purpose and a meaning, which it never can possess without them. To satisfy a rational being, even in his most sensitive mood, we require not only a just representation of passion in the abstract, but also that it shall be embodied in some individual person whom we can understand and sympathize with—and cannot long be persuaded to admire splendid images and ingenious allusions which bear upon no comprehensible object, and seem to be introduced for no other purpose than to be admired.
Without going the full length of the mathematician, who could see no beauty in poetry because it proved nothing, we cannot think it quite unreasonable to insist on knowing a little what it is about; and must be permitted to hold it a good objection to the very finest composition, that it gives us no distinct conceptions, either of character, of action, of passion, or of the author’s design in laying it before us. Now this, we think, is undeniably the prevailing fault of our modern poets. What they do best is description—in a story certainly they do not excel—their pathos is too often overstrained and rhetorical, and their reflections mystical and bombastic. The great want, however, as we have already said, is the want of solid subject, and of persons who can be supposed to have existed. There is plenty of splendid drapery and magnificent localities—but nobody to put on the one, or to inhabit and vivify the other. Instead of living persons, we have commonly little else than mere puppets or academy figures—and very frequently are obliged to be contented with scenes of still life altogether—with gorgeous dresses tossed into glittering heaps, or suspended in dazzling files—and enchanted solitudes, where we wait in vain for some beings like ourselves, to animate its beauties with their loves, or to aggravate its horrors by their contentions.
The consequence of all this is, that modern poems, with great beauty of diction, much excellent description, and very considerable displays of taste and imagination, are generally languid, obscure, and tiresome. Short pieces, however, it should be admitted, are frequently very delightful—elegant in composition, sweet and touching in sentiment, and just and felicitous in expressing the most delicate shades both of character and emotion. Where a single scene, thought, or person, is to be represented, the improved taste of the age, and its general familiarity with beautiful poetry, will generally ensure, from our better artists, not only a creditable, but a very excellent production. What used to be true of female poets only, is now true of all. We have not wings, it would seem, for a long flight—and the larger works of those who pleased us most with their small ones, scarcely ever fail of exhibiting the very defects from which we should have thought them most secure—and turn out insipid, verbose, and artificial, like their neighbours. In little poems, in short, which do not require any choice or management of subject, we succeed very well; but where a story is to be told, and an interest to be sustained, through a considerable train of incidents and variety of characters, our want of vigour and originality is but too apt to become apparent; and is only the more conspicuous from our skilful and familiar use of that inspired diction, and those poetical materials which we have derived from the mighty masters to whose vigour and originality they were subservient, and on whose genius they waited but as “servile ministers.”