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ON ENGLISH POETRY.
(WITH NOTICES OF JOHNSON'S LIVES OF THE POETS.) Monotony of Pope's verse—The revival of a truer spirit of Poetry
Chatterton-Merit of Cowper-Dr. Johnson's literary dictatorshipHis “Lives of the Poets”—Sir Egerton Brydges's criticism on them -Cowper's judgment of them-Johnson's incapacity for poetical criticism-Johnson's judgments on Gray—"London"_“Vanity of Human Wishes”—Percy's “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry”– The character of this poetry—Robert Burns-His boyhood—Early trials Mossgeil Farm-The freshness of his poetry-Its universality -Wordsworth's lines—The Mountain-Daisy-The Field-mouseCotter's Saturday Night-Tam O'Shanter-Mary Campbell-Morality of Burns's poetry-The bard's epitaph-Wordsworth's Lines to the Sons of Burns.
my last lecture I was constrained to pass, somewhat too hastily, from the poetry of Pope to that of Cowper, thus bringing the earlier portion of the eighteenth century in too close contact with its later period. It has been my aim, throughout this course of lectures, to make it, as far as possible, comprehensive not only of the exposition of the individual poets selected, but of the progress of English poetry in its successive ages, as it has been modified by the influence of genius and the spirit of the times. I propose, therefore, in order not to deviate now from the plan as presented to my own mind at the outset, to endea
vour to supply, in a very general way, the chasm in my last lecture between Pope and Cowper. Before proceeding to the chief subject of the present lecture, I wish to dispose in as short a space of some of the omitted subjects. The influence of Pope's poetry, or rather that school of poetry which began with Dryden and was completed by Pope, was unquestionably injurious on all the writers who came within its reach. It reduced poetry to mere versification, and thus, in the hands of pupils who were deficient in the natural powers of the masters, it became mechanical,-a thing of sound, and little else. Besides, the ear was habituated but to one fashion of sound; for Dryden and Pope had spent almost their whole effort upon one form of verse,—the rhyming couplet of the ten-syllable line. They had set English poetry to one tune in the position of its pauses and the balanced succession of the notes, so that every puny versifier could give, if not the same music, at least a very good echo of it. It became a kind of hand-organ operation, in which one hand could grind out the sounds nigh as well as another. Besides this levelling faculty, listening almost exclusively to one fashion of metrical sounds, the ear lost its power of receiving other metres. With the incessant, unrelieved tinkling of the heroic rhyming couplet, the sense of poetical music grew deaf to the richer and varied harmonies in which the elder poets had taken such delight and exhibited such manifold power both in the language and in themselves. The melody of Shakspeare's admirable dramatic blank verse, and the equally appropriate epic blank verse, and the variety of versifications in his smaller poems, ceased to be appreciated; and, when Pope is extolled as having brought verse to perfection, it is forgotten