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Mrs Oliphant, ‘Of the Younger Poets’, The Victorian Age of English Literature

Mrs Oliphant, ‘Of the Younger Poets’, The Victorian Age of English Literature

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when they belong to Girton; so are the children, except those precocious beings

who lisp in Greek. The audience which is left him is perhaps the one which he

would have preferred, just as Dr. Isaac Watts would no doubt have preferred his

audience of the chapels and nurseries; but it is a limited audience, and not that of

the greatest poets.

It would be difficult, however, to find a man who made a more prominent

appearance on the stage of general literature in his time. His essays, critical and

otherwise, kept him very distinctly before the world; and this, and other partlyartificial reasons, raised his name to such a point of general knowledge and

acquaintance that a selection of his poems was made and published in his

lifetime, an honour which falls to few poets. These we may take as his own

selection of what he thought most likely to live. And we find among them the

two poems on which most of those who esteem him most highly are willing to

rest his fame,— ‘Thyrsis’ and the ‘Scholar Gipsy,’ both of them comparatively

short, and so much more individual than most of his poetical works as to touch a

chord of sympathy wanting in many of the others. The extreme diffuseness of

much of this poetry is indeed one of the faults which will always keep it outside

the popular heart. There is something in the flow of even rhyme, page after page,

long, fluent, smooth, looking as if it might go on forever, which appalls the

reader. Life is not long enough, as the word goes, for ‘Empedocles on Etna.’ Mr.

Browning in his ‘Cleon’ has given us the spirit and fine concentrated essence of

a philosopher of antiquity in a few pages. In the hands of Mr. Arnold this

revelation takes almost a book and with how much less success! The same thing

may be said of other poems, of which even the conception appears to be taken

from an elder poet, but so amplified as to turn a fine suggestion into weariness.

Wordsworth put his ‘Yarrow’ and ‘Yarrow Revisited’ (which indeed are not on

the highest level of his poetry) into poems which a child might learn by heart

without difficulty; but when Mr. Arnold visits the scene of Obermann again and

again, each pilgrimage is so flooded with endless streams of verse that the

attention of the reader is drowned and carried away like a straw on the tide. The

same is the case in the poems called ‘Switzerland,’ and addressed to a certain

Marguerite, which probably would never have been thought of had not

Wordsworth dedicated a lovely string of little lyrics to Lucy, lines not only of the

greatest beauty, but so brief that they lodge where they fall in the willing

memory, and cannot be forgotten. The lesser singer draws out his much lighter

theme into link after link of unmemorable verse. That the elder poet should

influence the younger even to the point of actual suggestion is a thing perfectly

natural and sanctioned by all the tenets of the time, which demand indeed that one

should be the descendent and outcome of the other. Perhaps it is also a law of

development that the successor should be more lengthy in proportion as he is less


1 ‘ladies

who have a knowledge of love’.

326 THE 1890S

To return, however, to the special poems which we have selected as the most

living and individual of Matthew Arnold’s poetry, both the ‘Scholar Gipsy’ and

‘Thyrsis’ are full of the atmosphere of Oxford and of youth. They are indeed

rather two different parts of the same poem than independent inspirations, though

the latter embodies rather the regretful looking back of the elder man upon those

early scenes, than the actual musings of the young one. Their music and

freshness and reality interest all readers; yet we can more readily imagine these

poems to be conned over and repeated to each other, with that enthusiasm which

adopts and dwells upon every word, by those who ‘wear the gown,’ than by any

other class. The scenery of the academic city with all its spires and towers, the

centre of all thought, the fresh and fragrant hillsides and dewy fields surrounding

it: the mild mystery of the wandering scholar, a musing and pensive shadow to

be half seen by dreaming eyes about all those familiar haunts, are set before us with

many beautiful touches. The vision is entirely harmonious with the scene; there

is no conflict in it, or force of opposing life, no tragedy, no passion. The shade of

the Scholar Gipsy is not one that expiates any doom. He roams about the places

he loved, pondering the past, amid all the soft reflections of the evening, dim,

pensive, but not unhappy, a wanderer by choice, fulfilling the gentle dream of

fate that pleased him best. When that visionary figure gives place to the more real

one of Thyrsis who is gone, and all the landscape fills with the brighter vision of

the friend who but now was here, and the vacancy which he will never fill again,

a warmer interest, yet the same, envelops the hillside and the fields. Yet there is

no passion even of grief in the lament. Thyrsis is not mourned like Lycidas or

Adonais. He is gone, yet he is there, and there too is still the dewy, dim and

fragrant nature, the evening and the prevailing softness of the clouds—‘One tree

yet crowns the hill, One Scholar travels yet the loved hillside’—All is calm and

pensive, a sorrow of the mind, a wistful regret. The two poems naturally hang

together, two parts of one elegy, mildly mournful, nothing like despair in either,

the friend shading into the more distant vision, the shadow becoming more distinct

in the friend, and both full of charm—the atmosphere of the evening, the breath

of Nature, the City close at hand with all its teeming young life—and wandering

figures here and there, roaming as Thyrsis roamed in his time, keeping up the

long continuance, which is never more dreamy nor more persistent than in such a

place, where the generations follow each other so quickly, with so little interval

between. These are poems of Oxford, of a phase of life which has become very

prominent in recent times—but also of a purely vague emotion, a visionary

sentiment which touches no depths.



George Saintsbury, ‘Corrected Impressions’, Collected Essays

and Papers

1895, ii, 266–75

Saintsbury (1845–1933), who wrote about so many literary matters and

literary men, was to write the first full, or at least book-length, study of

Arnold, a rather breezy life-and-letters, in 1899. The essay included here,

which touches first on Arnold’s stature as a critic, offers the essential

viewpoint of the longer study and expresses Saintsbury’s reluctant

admiration. He finds Arnold’s prose less than satisfying, the more so

because Arnold’s ‘powers’ are so evident, but he feels that Arnold has

improved the tone of English criticism. His argument suggests at first the

superiority of the verse, and for Saintsbury it is superior. But it is also

badly flawed. Saintsbury’s remarks on ‘Resignation’ are typical: ‘It is not

faultless; it has lapses, flatness, clichés, but it is one of the greatest lyric

dirges in English.’

Among the subjects of these papers there is hardly one in regard to whom I can

speak in the tone of ‘How it struck a contemporary,’ to the same extent as I can

with regard to Mr Matthew Arnold. Not of course that I can claim to have been a

contemporary of Mr Arnold’s in the strict sense; for he had taken his degree before

I was born, and was an author before I was able to spell. But I can lay claim to

having seen the birth of his popularity, its whole career till his death, the

stationary state which preceded and succeeded that death, and something like a

commencement of the usual depreciation and spoliation which so surely follows.

For Mr Arnold’s reputation made no very early or general way with the public,

however high it may have been with his private friends, and with a small circle

of (chiefly University) readers of poetry. A University Professorship has not very

often been the occasion of attracting public attention to a man in England; but it

may be said with some confidence that the remarkable Lectures on Translating

Homer were the first which drew to Mr Arnold the notice of the world. He was

then nearly forty, and he was several years over that Age of Wisdom when the

French Eton and still more the Essays in Criticism fascinated the public with a

double mannerism of speech and thought in prose, and set it inquiring about the

author’s verse.

Most young men of twenty who had any taste for English letters when the Essays

appeared fell in love with them, I believe, at once and desperately, with the more

or less natural consequence of getting used to them, if not positively disliking

them, afterwards. My own admiration for them was, to the best of my

remembrance, a good deal more lukewarm at first; and though it has never got

any colder since, and has, I think, a little increased in temperature, it never has

been, and I do not think it ever will be, at boiling point. I may give some reasons

for this later, for the moment let us be historical.

328 THE 1890S

It was undoubtedly one of those happy coincidences which, according to the

optimist, happen to all of us who really deserve them, that just after the reading

public had awakened to the sense that there was a very piquant and remarkable

writer of English prose wrapped in the coat of one whom it had hitherto regarded,

if at all, as a composer of elegant, but rather academic verse, the great political

change of 1867 happened, and a reign of sharp social and political changes

began. I do not think myself that the revolution of 1868–1874 has ever been fully

estimated, and I have always thought it half an advantage and half a disadvantage

that I was myself resident out of London during the whole of that time. The

looker-on sees the drift of the game more clearly, but he appreciates the motives

and aims of those who take part in it less fully than the players. During these

years Mr Arnold seemed to have a great part before him. Everything (following

his father’s famous definition of Liberalism) ‘was an open question,’ and the

Apostle of Culture with his bland conviction, first, that most things were wrong

in England, and, secondly, that he was born to set them right, and with a

singularly stimulating and piquant style to help him, had an unusually clear field.

As a matter of fact, Mr Arnold did help to produce a considerable effect on the

public. But it was an effect chiefly negative as far as that public was concerned,

and it cannot be said to have been altogether happy as regards himself. To the

finest flowers of his production, such as the delightful whimsy of Friendship’s

Garland, little attention was paid: the good public, Populace, Philistines, and

Barbarians alike, could not make out what the devil Mr Arnold was driving at.

His formulas, after pleasing for a while, were seen to be rather empty things; his

actual politics, if he had any (a point on which I have always entertained doubts),

appeared to be totally unpractical; and he had not the chance which Mr Mill and

Mr Morley enjoyed or suffered, of showing whether a sojourn in the House could

practicalise them. Unluckily too for him, he allowed his energies to drift almost

wholly into the strange anti-theological kind of theology which occupied him for

nearly ten years, which at first brought on him much odium and never attained for

him much reputation, which appears to me, I confess, to have palpably stiffened

and dulled his once marvellous lissomeness and brilliancy of thought, and which

is now abandoned to cheap beginners in undogmatism alike by the orthodox and

the unorthodox of some mental calibre.

Then for another ten years Mr Arnold settled slowly back again, under the

disadvantages just referred to, into his proper line of poet, literary and

miscellaneous essayist, and mild satirist of society. Once in verse, in the

exquisite lines entitled Westminster Abbey (I would they had had a better subject,

not than the Abbey, but than Dean Stanley), once or twice in prose, as in the

famous charge on the Shelleyites and other things, the Apostle of Sweetness and

Light appeared at his very best; and perhaps he was never, except in the

wondrous muddle-headedness of the Irish Essays, far below it. But in all the

works of this time, though the positive dulness of the phase of which St Paul and

Protestantism is perhaps the Nadir never reappeared, there is, to me at least, a

sense of two drawbacks. There is a failing fineness of power in a man whose

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Mrs Oliphant, ‘Of the Younger Poets’, The Victorian Age of English Literature

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