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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

§ 32. Lord Houghton; T. Gordon Hake

We must now turn from groups aggregated according to subject, style, sex and other joint characteristics to the large number of individual poets who do not seem to lend themselves, without arbitrary classification, to such grouping. In their case, chronological order is almost the only one possible; though arrangement by decades may be convenient.

The first batch thus to be formed consists of men the eldest of whom were born in the same year with Tennyson, while none of them was younger than Browning. Tennyson’s contemporaries were two poets as much contrasted in every possible way as could well be—Richard Monckton Milnes, known, during the latter part of his life, as lord Houghton, and Thomas Gordon Hake, glanced at above. Milnes, always widely known in society and, to some extent, in politics, was, also, at one time, almost a popular poet. Lord Houghton (who also possessed an admirable prose style, and whose services in editing Keats were important in quality and still more important in time) was not a poet of the “big bow-wow” tone, but he was neither a twitterer nor a yelper. A critic’s attitude towards Strangers Yet and The Brookside now, and for the greater part of the last twenty years, may be compared, from the higher and wider historic standpoint, with its counterpart, the attitude of eighteenth-century critics towards “the metaphysicals.” If, as they saw nothing but “false wit,” “awkward numbers” and so forth, in the one case, he sees nothing but sentimentality and “jingle,” in the other, then we can class him and find him wanting. These two famous, or once famous, songs and other poems by the same author belong to their own division of poetry only. But that division is not the lowest, and these themselves rank high in it.

The contrast just made might almost have been supplied, so far as kinds of poetry go, without exploring further than Houghton’s own contemporary, Hake, who sought for depth even at the cost of obscurity, for strangeness at the cost of broken music and for quaint thought and expression at the cost of attraction and grace, risking, also, the charge of posturing and jargon-making. He never could have been a popular poet, and neither when the somewhat younger spasmodics caught the public ear, for a time, with verse not wholly dissimilar, nor when the work of poets nearly a generation younger than himself, such as Dante Rossetti, created a taste for poetry still more like his own, did he become so. His best things—Old Souls, The Palmist and great part of Maiden Ecstasy—have what has been called a “fortified” character: they require, save in the case of exceptionally qualified or exceptionally exercised persons, either to be taken by storm or sapped with elaborate approaches. Now, about poetry of this kind, there is not only this difficulty but another, and an even more dangerous one—that composition of it tempts imitation of a merely specious kind and measure. For the last half century a great deal of verse has been written suggesting the speech which an acute critic of the last generation, G. S. Venables, put in Carlyle’s mouth—

  • I will be strange and wild and odd,
  • but not possessing root of thought or fruit of beauty enough to support and to carry off the strangeness and wildness and oddity. This is not quite true of Hake: but it might seem to be true.