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ii. Individual authors and texts
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I can now at length see that Sophocles is the most perfect. Yet he never
rises to the sublime simplicity of Ỉschylus—simplicity of design, I
mean—nor diffuses himself in the passionate outpourings of Euripides.
From the 1811–12 Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton15
When I read the song of Deborah, I never think that she is a poet,
although I think the song itself a sublime poem: it is as simple a
dithyrambic production as exists in any language; but it is the proper
and characteristic effusion of a woman highly elevated by triumph,
by the natural hatred of oppressors, and resulting from a bitter sense
of wrong: it is a song of exultation on deliverance from these evils, a
deliverance accomplished by herself. When she exclaims, “The
inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I,
Deborah, arose, that I arose a mother in Israel,” it is poetry in the
highest sense: we have no reason, however, to suppose that if she
had not been agitated by passion, and animated by victory, she
would have been able so to express herself; or that if she had been
placed in different circumstances, she would have used such
language of truth and passion.
From his marginalia on the Bible, Psalms 50 (c. 1826–29) 16
What can Greece or Rome present, worthy to be compared with the
50th Psalm, either in sublimity of the Imagery or in moral elevation?
(CM, 1: 430)
From the Table Talk May 9 183017
Think of the sublimity, I should rather say the profundity, of that
passage in Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live? And I
answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.” I know nothing like it.
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From ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ (1790–1834)18
Thee, Chatterton! these unblest stones protect
From want, and the bleak freezings of neglect.
Too long before the vexing Storm-blast driven
Here hast thou found repose! beneath this sod!
Thou! O vain word! thou dwell’st not with the clod!
Amid the shining Host of the Forgiven
Thou at the throne of mercy and thy God
The triumph of redeeming Love dost hymn
(Believe it, O my Soul!) to harps of Seraphim.
Yet oft, perforce (’tis suffering Nature’s call),
I weep that heaven-born Genius so should fall;
And oft, in Fancy’s saddest hour, my soul
Averted shudders at the poison’d bowl.
Now groans my sickening heart, as still I view
Thy corse of livid hue;
Now Indignation checks the feeble sigh,
Or flashes through the tear that glistens in mine eye!
Is this the land of song-ennobled line?
Is this the land, where Genius ne’er in vain
Pour’d forth his lofty strain?
Ah me! yet Spenser, gentlest bard divine,
Beneath chill Disappointment’s shade,
His weary limbs in lonely anguish lay’d.
And o’er her darling dead
Pity hopeless hung her head,
While ‘mid the pelting of that merciless storm,’
Sunk to the cold earth Otway’s famish’d form!
Sublime of thought, and confident of fame,
From vales where Avon winds the Minstrel came.
Light-hearted youth! aye, as he hastes along,
He meditates the future song,
How dauntless Ỉlla fray’d the Dacyan foe;
And while the numbers flowing strong
In eddies whirl, in surges throng,
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Exulting in the spirits’ genial throe
In tides of power his life-blood seems to flow . . .
O spirit blest!
Whether the Eternal’s throne around,
Amidst the blaze of Seraphim,
Thou pourest forth the grateful hymn,
Or soaring thro’ the blest domain
Enrapturest Angels with thy strain,—
Grant me, like thee, the lyre to sound,
Like thee with fire divine to glow;—
But ah! when rage the waves of woe,
Grant me with firmer breast to meet their hate,
And soar beyond the storm with upright eye elate!
Ye woods! that wave o’er Avon’s rocky steep,
To Fancy’s ear sweet is your murmuring deep!
For here she loves the cypress wreath to weave;
Watching with wistful eye, the saddening tints of eve.
Here, far from men, amid this pathless grove,
In solemn thought the Minstrel wont to rove,
Like star-beam on the slow sequester’d tide
Lone-glittering, through the high tree branching wide.
And here, in Inspiration’s eager hour,
When most the big soul feels the mastering power,
These wilds, these caverns roaming o’er,
Round which the screaming sea-gulls soar,
With wild unequal steps he pass’d along,
Oft pouring on the winds a broken song:
Anon, upon some rough rock’s fearful brow
Would pause abrupt—and gaze upon the waves below.
Poor Chatterton! he sorrows for thy fate
Who would have prais’d and lov’d thee, ere too late.
Poor Chatterton! farewell! of darkest hues
This chaplet cast I on thy unshaped tomb;
But dare no longer on the sad theme muse,
Lest kindred woes persuade a kindred doom:
For oh! big gall-drops, shook from Folly’s wing,
Have blacken’d the fair promise of my spring;
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And the stern Fate transpierc’d with viewless dart
The last pale Hope that shiver’d at my heart!
Hence, gloomy thoughts! no more my soul shall dwell
On joys that were! no more endure to weigh
The shame and anguish of the evil day,
Wisely forgetful! O’er the ocean swell
Sublime of Hope I seek the cottag’d dell
Where Virtue calm with careless step may stray;
And, dancing to the moon-light roundelay,
The wizard Passions weave an holy spell!
O Chatterton! that thou wert yet alive!
Sure thou would’st spread the canvass to the gale,
And love with us the tinkling team to drive
O’er peaceful Freedom’s undivided dale;
And we, at sober eve, would round thee throng,
Would hang, enraptur’d, on thy stately song,
And greet with smiles the young-eyed Poesy
All deftly mask’d as hoar Antiquity.
Alas, vain Phantasies! the fleeting brood
Of Woe self-solac’d in her dreamy mood!
Yet will I love to follow the sweet dream,
Where Susquehannah pours his untamed stream;
And on some hill, whose forest-frowning side
Waves o’er the murmurs of his calmer tide,
Will raise a solemn Cenotaph to thee,
Sweet Harper of time-shrouded Minstrelsy!
And there, sooth’d sadly by the dirgeful wind,
Muse on the sore ills I had left behind.
(CPW, 1: 125–31)
On his own poetry
From a letter to an unknown correspondent, November 181919
In a copy of verses entitled “A Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale
of Chamouny” I described myself under the influence of strong
devotional feelings gazing on the Mountain till as if it had been a
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Shape emanating from and sensibly representing her own essence
my soul had become diffused thro’ “the mighty Vision,” and there
As in her natural Form, swelled vast to Heaven.
Mr. Wordsworth, I remember, censured the passage as strained and
unnatural, and condemned the Hymn in toto (which nevertheless I
ventured to publish in the “Sibylline Leaves”) as a specimen of the
Mock Sublime. It may be so for others; but it is impossible that I
should find it myself unnatural, being conscious that it was the
image and utterance of Thoughts and Emotions in which there was
no Mockery. Yet on the other hand I could readily believe that the
mood and Habit of mind out of which the Hymn rose, that differs
from Milton’s and Thomson’s and from the Psalms, the source of all
three, in the Author’s addressing himself to individual objects actually present to his Senses, while his great Predecessors apostrophize
classes of things, presented by the memory and generalized by the
Understanding—I can readily believe, I say, that in this there may be
too much of what the learned Med’ciners call the Idiosyncratic for
true Poetry. For from my very childhood I have been accustomed to
abstract and as it were unrealize whatever of more than common
interest my eyes dwelt on; and then by a sort of transference and
transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the
Object—and I have often thought, within the last five or six years,
that if ever I should feel once again the genial warmth and stir of the
poetic impulse, and referred to my own experiences, I should venture on a yet stranger and wilder Allegory than of yore—that I should
allegorize myself, as a rock with it’s summit just raised above the surface of some Bay or Strait in the Arctic Sea “while yet the stern and
solitary Night Brook’d no alternate Sway”—all around me fixed and
firm me-thought as my own Substance, and near me lofty Masses,
that might have seemed to “hold the moon and stars in fee,” and
often in such wild play with meteoric lights, or with the Shine from
above which they made rebound in sparkles or disband in off-shoots
and splinters and iridescent needleshafts of keenest Glitter, that it
was a pride and a place of Healing to lie, as in an Apostle’s Shadow,
within the Eclipse and deep substance-seeming Gloom of “these
dread Ambassadors from Earth to Heaven, Great Hierarchs” and tho’
obscured yet to think myself obscured by consubstantial Forms,
based in the same Foundation as my own. I grieved not to serve
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them—yea, lovingly and with gladsomeness I abased myself in their
presence: for they are, my Brothers, I said, and the Mastery is their’s
by right of elder birth and by right of the mightier strivings of the
hidden Fire that uplifted them above me—
(CLE, 1: 261–2)
From a School Exercise, 179020
To the Greek Poets Milton owed his boundless harmony, and from
them he learnt to equal or excell his great instructors: nor did his
sublime genius boast less originality, because he had been early
taught “to read and to admire the Chian Bard”. And equal excellencies might have been attained in different walks of Genius from the
variety of literature lost—from those ample sources, which Virgil and
Horace so largely and so happily used, Boileau and Pope might have
soared yet more high, and this age have boasted its illustrious imitators of Authors now unknown.
(SWF, 1: 8–9)
From the 1811–12 Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton21
This gentleman, on Monday last, drew the attention of his little
intellectual audience to M ILTON, whom he called the first poet of
Christianity. . . . He described the SUBLIME in Milton, and read some
beautiful passages, accompanied by strictures on what was indispensable to the true sublime; and these qualities he illustrated by placing
in contrast some striking instances of the false sublime. . . . He selected
an instance of what was called the sublime, in DARWIN, who imagined
the creation of the universe to have taken place in a moment, by
the explosion of a mass of matter in the womb, or centre of space.
In one and the same instant of time, suns and planets shot into
systems in every direction, and filled and spangled the illimitable
void! He asserted this to be an intolerable degradation—referring, as
it were, all the beauty and harmony of nature to something like the
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bursting of a barrel of gunpowder! that spit its combustible materials
into a pock-freckled creation! He described the sublime as contradistinguished from the beautiful. Beauty consisted in the relation of
parts to the whole. The sublime was an image of which you neither
see the wholeness, nor the parts. Here the lecturer read Milton’s
description of the form of Satan, floating in the sea, as an instance of
the true sublime; and described the image impressed on the mind, in
language and figure so fugitive and evanescent, that he became the
poet he described—hurrying his thoughts over our minds so as only
just to enable us to see that they were, ere they were not. We had
glimpses of them, but could not, and would not grasp them.
(Lects 1808–19, 1: 401–2)
From his notes on Paradise Lost (c. 1818)22
Sublimity is the pre-eminent characteristic of the Paradise Lost. It is
not an arithmetical sublime like Klopstock’s, whose rule always is to
treat what we might think large as contemptibly small. Klopstock
mistakes bigness for greatness. There is a greatness arising from
images of effort and daring, and also from those of moral endurance;
in Milton both are united. The fallen angels are human passions,
invested with a dramatic reality.
The apostrophe to light at the commencement of the third book is
particularly beautiful as an intermediate link between Hell and
Heaven; and observe, how the second and third book support the
subjective character of the poem. In all modern poetry in Christendom there is an under consciousness of a sinful nature, a fleeting
away of external things, the mind or subject greater than the object,
the reflective character predominant. In the Paradise Lost the sublimest
parts are the revelations of Milton’s own mind, producing itself and
evolving its own greatness; and this is so truly so, that when that
which is merely entertaining for its objective beauty is introduced, it
at first seems a discord. . . .
Milton is not a picturesque, but a musical, poet; although he has
this merit, that the object chosen by him for any particular foreground always remains prominent to the end, enriched, but not
encumbered, by the opulence of descriptive details furnished by an
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exhaustless imagination. I wish the Paradise Lost were more carefully
read and studied than I can see any ground for believing it is, especially those parts which, from the habit of always looking for a story
in poetry, are scarcely read at all,—as for example, Adam’s vision of
future events in the 11th and 12th books. No one can rise from the
perusal of this immortal poem without a deep sense of the grandeur
and the purity of Milton’s soul, or without feeling how susceptible of
domestic enjoyments he really was, notwithstanding the discomforts
which actually resulted from an apparently unhappy choice in marriage. He was, as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man;
but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in
religion or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit
and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching
it with this record of his own transcendent ideal.
From a letter to Robert Southey, November 179423
’Tis past one o’clock in the morning. I sat down at twelve o’clock to
read the “Robbers” of Schiller. I had read, chill and trembling, when
I came to the part where the Moor fixes a pistol over the robbers who
are asleep. I could read no more. My God, Southey, who is this
Schiller, this convulser of the heart? Did he write his tragedy amid
the yelling of fiends? I should not like to be able to describe such
characters. I tremble like an aspen leaf. Upon my soul, I write to you
because I am frightened. I had better go to bed. Why have we ever
called Milton sublime? that Count de Moor horrible wielder of heartwithering virtues? Satan is scarcely qualified to attend his execution
as gallows chaplain.
(CLE, 1: 96–7)
‘To the Author of “The Robbers”’ (?1794)24
SCHILLER! that hour I would have wish’d to die.
If thro’ the shuddering midnight I had sent
From the dark dungeon of the Tower time-rent
That fearful voice, a famish’d Father’s cry—
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Lest in some after moment aught more mean
Might stamp me mortal! A triumphant shout
Black Horror scream’d, and all her goblin rout
Diminish’d shrunk from the more withering scene!
Ah! Bard tremendous in sublimity!
Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood
Wandering at eve with finely-frenzied eye
Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood!
Awhile with mute awe gazing I would brood:
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstasy!
(CPW, 1: 72–3)
From the Table Talk, February 16, 1833
The young men in Germany and England who admire Lord Byron,
prefer Goethe to Schiller; but you may depend upon it, Goethe does
not, nor ever will, command the common mind of the people of Germany as Schiller does. Schiller had two legitimate phases in his intellectual character:—the first as author of the Robbers—a piece which
must not be considered with reference to Shakspeare, but as a work of
the mere material sublime, and in that line it is undoubtedly very
powerful indeed. It is quite genuine, and deeply imbued with Schiller’s
own soul. After this he outgrew the composition of such plays as the
Robbers, and at once took his true and only rightful stand in the grand
historical drama—the Wallenstein;—not the intense drama of passion,—he was not master of that—but the diffused drama of history,
in which alone he had ample scope for his varied powers. The Wallenstein is the greatest of his works; it is not unlike Shakspeare’s historical
plays—a species by itself. You may take up any scene, and it will please
you by itself; just as you may in Don Quixote, which you read through
once or twice only, but which you read in repeatedly.
From his notebook, 1808–11 25
There are men who can write most eloquently, and passages of deepest
pathos & even Sublimity, on circumstances personal & deeply exciting
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their own passions; but not therefore poets—Mothers—Deborah’s
Song—Nature is the Poet here—but to become by power of Imagination another Thing—Proteus, a river, a lion, yet still the God felt to
be there/—Then his thinking faculty & thereby perfect abstraction
from himself—he writes exactly as if of an other planet, or as describing the movement of two Butterflies—
(BL Add. MS 47, 523 f5v–6)
* * *
Merciful Wonder-making Heaven! What a man was this Shakespear!
I know no better epithet than that given by a Greek Monk of the
lower Empire to some other Monk—µυριΟνΟυς, myriad-minded.—
(BL Add. MS 47, 512 f123v)
* * *
In the preceding Lecture we have examined with what armour
cloathed & with what titles authorized Shakespere came forward, as a
poet, to demand the throne of Fame, as the dramatic poet of
England; we have now to observe . . . and retrace the excellencies
which compelled even his Contemporaries to seat him on that
Throne, altho’ there were Giants in those days, contending for the
same honor—hereafter we shall endeavor to make out the title of the
English Drama, as created by & existing in Shakespere, & its right to
the Supremacy of Dramatic Excellence, in general.— . . . I have
endeavored to prove that he had shewn himself a poet, previously to
his appearance, . . . a dramatic poet—& that had no Lear, No Othello,
no Henry the Fourth, no Twelfth Night, appeared, we must have
admitted that Shakespere possessed the chief if not all the requisites
of a Poet—namely, deep Feeling & exquisite sense of Beauty, both as
exhibited to the eye in combinations of form, & to the ear in sweet
and appropriate melody (with the except: of Spenser, he is &c)—.
That these feelings were under the command of his own Will—that in
his very first productions he projected his mind out of his own
particular being, & felt and made others feel, on subjects no way
connected with himself, except by force of Contemplation—& that
sublime faculty, by which a great mind becomes that which it
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meditates on.—To this we are to add the affectionate Love of Nature
& Natural Objects, without which no man could have observed so
steadily, or painted so truly & passionately the 〈very〉 minutiæest
beauties of the external world—
Next, we have shewn that he possessed Fancy, considered as the
faculty of bringing together & c & c.—“Full gently now she” & c/Still
mounting, we find undoubted proof in his mind of . . . Imagination
or the power by whyich one image or feeling is made to modify many
others, & by a sort of fusion to force many into one—that which after
shewed itself in such might & energy in Lear, where the deep
anguish of a Father spreads the feeling of Ingratitude & Cruelty over
the very Elements of Heaven—. Various are the workings of this
greatest faculty of the human mind—both passionate & tranquil—in
its tranquil & purely pleasurable operation it acts chiefly by
producing . . . out of many things, as it would have appeared in the
description of an ordinary mind, described slowly & in . .. unimpassioned succession, a oneness/even as Nature, the greatest of Poets,
acts upon us when we open our eyes upon an extended prospect—
Thus the flight of the Adonis from the enamoured Goddess in the
dusk of the Evening—
Look! how a bright star shooteth from the Sky,
So glides he in the night from Venus’ Eye—.
How many Images & feelings are here brought together without
effort & without discord—the beauty of Adonis—the rapidity of his
flight—the yearning yet hopelessness of the enamoured gazer—and a
shadowy ideal character thrown over the whole—/or it acts
by . . . impressing the stamp of humanity, of human feeling, over
inanimate Objects—The Pines shorn by the 〈Sea〉 wind & seen in
Lo! here the gentle Lark—
and lastly, which belongs only to a great poet, the power of so carrying on the Eye of the Reader as to make him almost lose the consciousness of words—to make him see every thing—& this without
exciting any painful or laborious attention, without any anatomy of
description, (a fault not uncommon in descriptive poetry) but with
the sweetness & easy movement of nature—