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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 1. Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome

IN taking up, and endeavouring to complete, the chapters on poets who, though not in general opinion attaining to the first rank, have, at one time or another, enjoyed some considerable amount of esteem or who, in that calculus of criticism which disregards popularity, have deserved such esteem, the method pursued will be, as it has been on former occasions, systematised, to some extent, though avoiding arbitrary classification. The number of verse-writers who fall to be mentioned, as representing the middle and later generations of the last century, is very great: and, even after careful sifting and the relegation of some to the bibliography and others to silence altogether, will amount to a round hundred. But it is not necessary to present them in a mere throng or in simple catalogue, alphabetical or chronological, though, after some grouping, the last named method may become necessary.

We may take, first, three very remarkable, though, in themselves, most dissimilar, representatives of the curious class which, attaining, for a time, and not always losing, popularity of the widest kind, is demurred to by critics and sometimes succumbs totally, sometimes partially, to the demurrers. These are Macaulay, Martin Farquhar Tupper and Philip James Bailey. The last named will lead us, naturally enough, to a fairly definite group of which, in a way, he was the leader: the so-called “spasmodics” of the mid-nineteenth century. That name or nickname, invented by Aytoun, will, in the same fashion, introduce a numerous, and, in some cases, excellent, class of satiric and humorous writers, in whom the century, until quite its close, was specially rich. As a contrast, the equally remarkable section of “sacred” poets, headed by Keble and Newman, may succeed these; and then we may take up the great body of verse-writers of the other sex, though their “prioresses,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, are denied us. One or two smaller groups may present themselves for treatment together; but the bulk of our subjects, though sometimes admitting what may be called linked criticism, will have to follow mainly in chronological order.

The case of Macaulay’s poetical work is a very peculiar and a very instructive one in the history both of poetry and of criticism; in fact, in the history, properly so-called, of literature generally. The poems included in The Lays of Ancient Rome, though partly printed at earlier dates, were collected and issued at a time when poetry had, for years, sunk out of the popular esteem which it had enjoyed during the first quarter of the century; and was only, for the younger generation, rising again at the call of Tennyson. Criticism was in a very similar position —the almost simultaneous deaths of Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb having left no prominent representatives of it except the scattered utterances of Coleridge’s son and the senescence of Leigh Hunt, the rather untrustworthy and eccentric survivals of “Christopher North” and De Quincey and a numerus of very inferior and haphazard reviewers who had not yet felt the influence of the new examples of criticism to be set in the fifties by George Brimley and Matthew Arnold.

This combination of long disuse of appetite with an almost entire want of guidance in taste goes far to explain, though, except in Macaulay’s case, it is required to excuse, in very different degrees, the immense, and by no means ephemeral, popularity of The Lays of Ancient Rome, Festus and Proverbial Philosophy, far asunder as are the positive poetic merits of these books. In the case of The Lays, the public was fortunate in what it received and, whatever may have been said by later criticism, was justified in its reception thereof. That, in his singularly constituted, and, perhaps, never yet quite adequately mapped-out, mind, Macaulay had secret places, where lay concealed springs of poetry of purer kinds than that which he allowed to flow freely in The Lays, is proven, as finally as fortunately, by the exquisite classicism of Epitaph on a Jacobite, which Landor could not have bettered, and the romantic strangeness of The Last Buccaneer, which suggests an uncanny collaboration of Macaulay’s two contemporaries Praed and Beddoes. But his Lays themselves are far finer poetry than Matthew Arnold and some other critics have been willing to allow. They belong, indeed, to a wide-ranging class of verse which includes masterpieces like Gray’s Elegy and things certainly not masterpieces like The Minstrel and the poems of Mrs. Hemans, not to mention, for the present, more modern examples—a class which seems deliberately to set itself to give the public just the sort of poetry which it can well understand and nothing more. In the better examples of this poetry—to which The Lays, though they may not attain to the height of Gray, most certainly belong—there is no sacrifice of poetry itself. Anybody who denies that name to the larger part of The Battle of the Lake Regillus and the best part of The Prophecy of Capys, with not a little elsewhere, had best be met by the silence, the smile and the not too obvious shrug, which are suitable to Ephraim when he has irrevocably announced his junction with idols. And they have the special merit (belonging to the best of their class) that liking for them acquired, as it is probably most often acquired, early, will mature into liking for greater poetry still. The Lays, in a certain, and only a certain, sense, may be milk for babes; but good milk is a great deal better than tainted meat and unsound wine. The babes can go on to relish such meat and wine as the author also showed that he knew how to produce when he wrote how the broken heart by the Arno thought of “the lovelier Tees” and how

  • the crew with eyes of flame, brought the ship without a name
  • Alongside the last Buccaneer.