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A Scottish poem or romance of this date, or perhaps earlier, which has been entitled “ The Mourning Maiden,” possesses more refinement of sentiment and truth of feeling than we are prepared to expect. And it was a considerable time before this, that the 6 Clerk of Tranent” had written the “ Romance of Sir Yawine, or Gawin," one of three romances, of which Sir Gawin forms the hero. At as early a period, another of the “ Northern Makers,” “ Gude Maister Robert Henrysoune,” a schoolmaster of Dunfermline, has, in Robine and Makyne, left us one of the most sprightly dramatic pastorals in the language : It was also the first. Some of the finest of the old Scottish ballads must have been written anterior to this date. “Tak’ your auld cloak about ye" is quoted by Shakspeare, and was probably of long standing then. But this most interesting portion of ancient national literature is foreign to the design of this limited work, and cannot here be investigated.
Original genius of the very highest order is more rare than the return of those " wandering lights” which, after travelling for centuries through the wide and boundless dominions of air, revisit the earth for an instant, and again disappear ; unlike in this, that the certain reappearance of genius can neither be calculated nor foretold. Those masterspirits, who, more like incarnations of pure ima. gination than mortals of ordinary capacity, have, at different periods, arisen in opposite quarters of the globe, to prove the immeasurable distance that may exist between human intellects, have been “ few and far between,” as if Nature, possessing but a scanty store of such precious material, wished to be impartial in its distribution, and chary of its use.
Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
It is not surprising that no great genius should have arisen in England between Chaucer and the reign of Elizabeth. We may at once say, that none was born ; for there was nothing in the condi. tion of society in that interval that could have checked, much less have extinguished, the genius of Spenser or of Shakspeare. They were of that robust constitution which must have flourished in vigour under the most adverse circumstances like the chance-blown seed, which, fastening on some Gothic ruin, will grow into a flower of beauty surpassing its kind, dally with the wind, and mock the storm, and, with the slightest root in earth, draw nourishment from the air, the dews, and the sunshine. Genius is an essence far too subtle to be subjected to known laws. It has thriven in dungeons, and refused to strike root in palaces, been copious of production amid the fa. tigue and bustle of camps and cities, and languished in the retreats of learned leisure. This, indeed, applies to genius of that rare and predomin. ating kind, which has so seldom been manifested in any circumstances, and which surmounts all bonds_existing in the great poet wherever he may be cast, more as a part of him than his acted upon by all external influences, yet not only drawing its choicest materials from its own bosom, but even fabricating the tools with which it is to give harmony, and grace of proportion, and richness of colouring, to its productions ; for even the Art of poetry, as it is called — all that gives smoothness, grace, and finish, depends less on external cir. cumstances than may be supposed. We have no English more choicely idiomatic than that of Chaucer-no poetic language more flowing, luxuriant, sweet, and delicate, than that of Spenser ; yet they possessed neither English books of any worth, dictionaries, nor Arts of Poetry, from which they could derive either a refined or a copious phraseology. The exquisite tenderness, and de. lightful simplicity of expression, of those old bal. lads, which seem to breathe the feelings of poetry in the glow of its first love, have never again been equalled ; and even in frolic grace, and Anacreontic vivacity, some of the older English lyrics have seldom been surpassed in what we call our polished times. In the first great period of English poetry, the expression, the diction, the music, the structure of the verse-all we mean by style and art in execution-were as much the creation of our greatest poets, as were their fictions, thoughts, and images. The one was without prototype, the other without model. The rich, swelling, linked-sweetness of Spenser's stanza, and the majestic flow of Milton's blank verse, are the very echo of their thoughts both peculiar—both original. The thunders of the
Bellow through the vast and boundless deep ;
the romantic and varied music of the " lovely lay" chanted by the other, with all its magic turns, and breaks, and languishing cadences, blends in one harmonie,” in which Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree.
The music to which these great poets have chosen to set their thoughts and feelings, their magic numbers, and their “ winged words,” are as wonderful as their genius, and as true to it as the echo to the voice. While the language of the ordinary poets and rhymists of the most polished times does but coldly and tamely, though smoothly, repeat the inward sentiment, it is by their skill romantically echoed back and re-echoed, till the ear, trained to listen, drinks in a redoubled pleasure from the de. licious ravishment of sounds which sink at once into the soul and the sense. Thus, the triumph of art in the first poets if this be art_equals their powers of creative genius. They acknowledged no ordinary rule ;-they pleaded to no known tribunal of criticism ;-yesterday is the same with them as to-day ;-their thoughts were not fashioned like other men's
but they were such as did
Voluntary move harmonious numbers.
This was the secret of their Art of poetry :-unhappily it is incommunicable.
Though it is not wonderful that no great poet arose, it is surprising that the powerful impulse given by Chaucer, and the many favouring circumstances of the reign of Edward III., not merely failed in floating the national genius rapidly onward, but that through the whole of the fifteenth century it should apparently have made a dead pause. But it will be found, that the growth, diffusion, and refinement of national literature depend on causes very different from those which operate on great individual genius, and that the number of cultivated men possessed of a competent share of liberal knowledge and graceful talents for poetry, depends almost exclusively on the condition of the society in which they move. Now, the state of society in England in the fifteenth century was peculiarly unfavourable to the nurture and development of poetical genius. The wars of the houses of York and Lancaster involved the nation in continual distraction. The spirit of religious persecution, then first let loose, fastened on the noblest victims; and a vindictive crusade was preached