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FOR JULY, 1816.
Art. I. 1. The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo. By Robert Southey, Esq. Poet Laureate, Member of the Royal Spanish Academy, and of the Royal Spanish Academy of History. 12mo. pp. 232. 8 Plates. Price 10s. 6d.-Longman and Co. 1816.
2. Thanksgiving Ode, January 18, 1816. With other Short Pieces, chiefly referring to recent Public Events. By William Wordsworth. 8vo. pp. 10, 52. Price 4s.-Longman and Co. 1816.
T ought to occasion no surprise, that modern poets have rarely succeeded in the attempt to please or to interest, when subjects of present political concern have been their theme. Seldom, very seldom are the feelings awakened by public events, of a nature to blend with the emotions of taste, or to admit of that pleasing exaggeration which it is the business of the poet to produce. The poet himself, in venturing upon a political theme, finds it difficult to exercise the power of abstraction sufficiently to enable him to select and combine the appropriate materials for poetry, and still more difficult to carry the enthusiasm of a cultivated mind into subjects, the familiar details of which are often mean, painful, or disgusting.
The time was, when the wreath of the victor was entwined by the hand of the bard; and when the poet alternately wielded the sword, and recited in rude melody the songs of heroes. But those times are gone by, we trust for ever. We do not believe that the poet exists, who could succeed in making war, as a present event, interesting to the imagination. As to deeds of other times,-battles fought before the invention of gunpowder,-wars which have left us no legacy of taxes, the burthens and the griefs of which we have never had to feel; -these it is very possible to render poetical enough; and by that sympathy with which genuine poetry inspires us, we may be so far transported in imagination to those times, as to adopt for the moment the characteristic feelings of its heroes and warriors. But stronger sympathies than those awakened by the poet, connect us with present events, and they are such as preclude the indulgence of the fancy in scenes of modern war. VOL. VI. N. S.
Poetry is the expression of passionate sentiment. At the earlier periods of civilization, when the imagination is the actuating principle of the multitude, and the objects of passion are those which relate wholly to the imagination, poetry and eloquence will be found to have the most power as the means of exciting popular feeling with respect to contemporaneous events. The orations of Demosthenes were addressed to a nation less advanced in civilization than that which Cicero harangued; but the actual effect of the Grecian's eloquence was probably not greater than that produced by a North American Indian's address to his tribe. At a more advanced period of civilization, when knowledge becomes more generally diffused, the stronger feelings are less easily excited. Men have learned to define their wants, to suppress from necessity or policy their emotions, to calculate, to fear, and to balance present interest against the indefinite objects which lead on the warrior to death and glory. The poet must then change his method with his object. Instead of seeking to move the feelings by exciting the imagination, he will more generally succeed in addressing the imagination through the feelings. It will be upon cultivated minds only that eloquence or poetry will then be adapted to operate, and by other and more refined art than sufficed to set in motion the ideas of the vulgar. Yet, how, with respect to events of present interest, shall the poet avail himself of considerations more impressive than those which the reality has already suggested, or succeed in placing the subject in a light more interesting to the fancy? He must strike in with the feeling of the moment, and if possible carry on this feeling to a degree of passion beyond what the event itself seemed to demand; and he must appear to be himself actuated by the enthusiasm which he seeks to impart ;an enthusiasm, which, if not obviously justified by the occasion, will infallibly appear ridiculous. But how seldom do events occur in the concerns of nations, the causes, the attendant circumstances, or the issue of which, are sufficiently dignified in a moral respect, or sufficiently creditable to human nature, to allow of their being expatiated on with honest enthusiasm!
Events, indeed, in the sense of mere occurrences, of a most momentous nature, have rapidly succeeded one another of late, too vast for imagination to comprehend the details. But it must be remembered, that poetry interests never as the simple record of events, but as it exhibits human feelings and develops human passions, and holds up the living portrait of our nature, as an object of complacent sympathy.
The writers of most of the poems which appear on public occasions,-ode, elegy, or sonnet,-betray an utter ignorance of the nature and purpose of poetry. The occasion on which
they write, has evidently set their ideas in motion without directing them into any particular channel; and their verses are insipid because they are wholly artificial, warmed by no glow of passion, and prompted by no definite impulse. Loyalty devoid of affection, patriotism destitute of virtue, triumph without joy, and hope without confidence ;-what can be expected from the inspiration of such feelings, but cold adulation, unmeaning boasts, empty predictions, and common place sentiment? A man way be a true poet, and yet, if, on the particular subject which he undertakes, he does not feel as a poet,-if this characteristic does not predominate over the spirit of a partizan or of a censor, he may write high sounding blank verse, with the author of "Liberty," or compose spirited and energetic odes, like Akenside, but he will not give birth to productions of permanent interest as poetry.
No living author, we believe, is more competent to appreciate, or has shewn himself more able to surmount these disadvantages in treating of contemporary events, than the Poet Laureate. Upon him it properly devolves to redeem, if possible, the character of poems written on national occasions. No man appears so habitually to regard every subject that presents itself to his mind, with the eye and the heart of a poet,the imaginative eye that discriminates and appropriates in all things the fair and the good, and the heart warmly alive to the best interests of human kind,-as Mr. Southey. No writer impresses us more strongly with the conviction that the opinions he avows, are bis genuine sentiments, and the warmth he discovers is unaffected earnestness; and this conviction, even where we do not think and feel in unison with him, strengthens in a considerable degree the impression of what he writes.
We will confess than when Mr. Southey's poem was first announced, we were not without apprehensions that it would partake of too martial a character. We feared, lest identifying too closely the downfal of Bonaparte with the triumph of the general cause of Europe, he should have been led to adopt a strain of exultation in reference to the Glorious Victory,' at variance with those better feelings of horror and indignation with which he would regard war in the abstract. Mr. Southey indeed never descends to common-place, and we might, therefore, have safely presumed that he would not be betrayed into any heroical descriptions of the battle itself, in the death and glory style; and that he would not even attempt to tell in poetry what must always be far more affecting in simple narrative. Mr. Southey has judged wisely with respect to such details.
This were the historian's, not the poet's part;