« НазадПродовжити »
through, flashing out unexpected vistas, and illuminating the humdrum pathway of our daily thought with a radiance of momentary consciousness that seems like a revelation. If it be the most delightful function of the poet to set our lives to music, yet perhaps he will be even more sure of our maturer gratitude if he do his part also as moralist and philosopher to purify and enlighten; if he define and encourage our vacillating perceptions of duty; if he piece together our fragmentary apprehensions of our own life and that larger life whose unconscious instruments we are, making of the jumbled bits of our dissected map of experience a coherent chart. In the great poets there is an exquisite sensibility both of soul and sense that sympathizes like gossamer sea-moss with every movement of the element in which it floats, but which is rooted on the solid rock of our common sympathies. Wordsworth shows less of this finer feminine fibre of organization than one or two of his contemporaries, notably than Coleridge or Shelley; but he was a masculine thinker, and in his more characteristic poems there is always a kernel of firm conclusion from far-reaching principles that stimulates thought and challenges meditation. Groping in the dark passages of life, we come upon some axiom of his, as it were a wall that gives us our bearings and enables us to find an outlet. Compared with Goethe we feel that he lacks that serene impartiality of mind which results from breadth of culture; nay, he seems narrow, insular, almost provincial. He reminds us of those saints of Dante who gather brightness by revolving on their own axis. But through this very limitation of range he gains perhaps in intensity and the impressiveness which results from eagerness of personal conviction. If we read Wordsworth through, as I have just done, we find ourselves changing our mind about him at every other page, so
uneven is he. If we read our favorite poems or passages only, he will seem uniformly great.
And even as regards 6 The Excursion" we should remember how few long poems will bear consecutive reading. For my part I know of but one,
the Odyssey. None of our great poets can be called popular in any exact sense of the word, for the highest poetry deals with thoughts and emotions which inhabit, like rarest sea-mosses, the doubtful limits of that shore between our abiding divine and our fluctuating human nature, rooted in the one, but living in the other, seldom laid bare, and otherwise visible only at exceptional moments of entire calm and clearness. Of no other poet except Shakespeare have so many phrases become household words as of Wordsworth. If Pope has made current more epigrams of worldly wisdom, to Wordsworth belongs the nobler praise of having defined for us, and given us for a daily possession, those faint and vague suggestions of other-worldliness of whose gentle ministry with our baser nature the hurry and bustle of life scarcely ever allowed us to be conscious.
He has won for himself a secure immortality by a depth of intuition which makes only the best minds at their best hours worthy, or indeed capable, of his companionship, and by a homely sincerity of human sympathy which reaches the humblest heart. Our language owes him gratitude for the habitual purity and abstinence of his style, and we who speak it, for having emboldened us to take delight in simple things, and to trust ourselves to our own instincts. And he hath his reward. It needs not to bid
“ Renowned Chaucer lie a thought more nigh
A little nearer Spenser”; for there is no fear of crowding in that little society with whom he is now enrolled as fifth in the succession of the great English Poets.
IF the biographies of literary men are to assume the bulk which Mr. Masson is giving to that of Milton, their authors should send a phial of elixir vitoe with the first volume, that a purchaser might have some valid assurance of surviving to see the last. Mr. Masson has already occupied thirteen hundred and seventy-eight pages in getting Milton to his thirty-fifth year, and an interval of eleven years stretches between the dates of the first and second instalments of his published labors. As Milton's literary life properly begins at twenty-one, with the “Ode on the Nativity,” and as by far the more important part of it lies between the year at which we are arrived and his death at the age of sixty-six, we might seem to have the terms given us by which to make a rough reckoning of how soon we are likely to see land. But when we recollect the baffling character of the winds and currents we have already encountered, and the eddies
* The Life of John Milton: narrated in Connection with the Politi. cal, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his Time. By DAVID MASSON, M. D., LL. D., Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Edinburgh. Vols. I., II. 1638-1643. London and New York : Macmillan & Co. 1871. 8vo. pp. xii, 608.
The Poetical Works of John Milton, edited, with Introduction, Notes, and an Essay on Milton's English, by DAVID MASSON, M. A., LL. D., Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Edinburgh. 3 vols. 8vo. Macmillan & Co. 1874.
may at any time slip us back to the reformation in Scotland or the settlement of New England; when we consider, moreover, that Milton's life overlapped the grand siècle of French literature, with its irresistible temptations to digression and homily for a man of Mr. Masson's temperament, we may be pardoned if a sigh of doubt and discouragement escape us. We envy the secular leisures of Methusaleh, and are thankful that his biography at least (if written in the same longeval proportion) is irrecoverably lost to us. What a subject would that have been for a person of Mr. Masson's spacious predilections ! Even if he himself can count on patriarchal prorogations of existence, let him hang a print of the Countess of Desmond in his study to remind him of the ambushes which Fate lays for the toughest of us. For myself, I have not dared to climb a cherry-tree since I began to read his work. Even with the promise of a speedy third volume before me, I feel by no means sure of living to see Mary Powell back in her husband's house ; for it is just at this crisis that Mr. Masson, with the diabolical art of a practised serial writer, leaves us while he goes into an exhaustive account of the Westminster Assembly and the political and religious notions of the Massachusetts Puritans. One could not help thinking, after having got Milton fairly through college, that he was never more mistaken in his life than when he wrote,
“How soon hath Time, that subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year ?"
Or is it Mr. Masson who has scotched Time's wheels ?
It is plain from the Preface to the second volume that Mr. Masson himself has an uneasy consciousness that something is wrong, and that Milton ought somehow to be more than a mere incident of his own biography.
He tells us that, “whatever may be thought by a hasty person looking in on the subject from the outside, no one can study the life of Milton as 'it ought to be studied without being obliged to study extensively and intimately the contemporary history of England, and even incidentally of Scotland and Ireland too. Thus on the very compulsion, or at least the suasion, of the biography, a history grew on my hands. It was not in human nature to confine the historical inquiries, once they were in progress, within the precise limits of their demonstrable bearing on the biography, even had it been possible to determine these limits beforehand; and so the history assumed a co-ordinate importance with me, was pursued often for its own sake, and became, though always with a sense of organic relation to the biography, continuous in itself.” If a hasty person " be one who thinks eleven years rather long to have his button held by a biographer ere he begin his next sentence, I take to myself the sting of Mr. Masson's covert sarcasm. I confess with shame a pusillanimity that is apt to flag if a “to be continued” do not redeem its promise before the lapse of a quinquennium. I could scarce await the “ Autocrat” himself so long. The heroic age of literature is past, and even a duodecimo may often prove too heavy (okov vûv Bpórol) for the descendants of men to whom the folio was a pastime. But what does Mr. Masson mean by “continuous”? To me it seems rather as if his somewhat rambling history of the seventeenth century were interrupted now and then by an unexpected apparition of Milton, who, like Paul Pry, just pops in and hopes he does not intrude, to tell us what he has been doing in the mean while. The reader, immersed in Scottish politics or the schemes of Archbishop Laud, is a little puzzled at first, but reconciles himself on being reminded that this fair-haired young man is the protagonist of the drama. Pars minima est ipsa puella sui.