Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


Poetic Interpretation


There is nothing in the world, whether in nature animate or inanimate, or in the phenomena of human life, which has not connected with it some sense of beauty, either in itself or in its relation to the whole of life. Only those who have been gifted in some degree with the bright instinct which we call poetic feeling, can at all times be brought to see this; and those who have received this gift in such a high degree that they cannot be at peace with themselves or find any rest in the enjoyment of life, until they have made known to mankind the beautiful things they have seen and felt; these are the men whom we call poets.

Every phenomenon in life, every emotion and every thought produces a distinct impression of its own upon the soul of the poetic observer. The impression produced by a Mayday sunrise is very different from that produced by an October sunset. The feeling left upon the soul by the contemplation of a full-blown rose is not the same as the sense which it gathers from the beauty of a bunch of sedge. The latter is perhaps not less beautiful than the former, but the essence of its beauty is different.

Every feeling thus produced has what may be called its musical accompaniment—its own peculiar harmonic value, and in every poetic soul lies hidden an answering harmony, which may be aroused either by the presence of the impression itself, or by the more potent interpretation of the poet. The poetic soul is like a vast musical instrument, every chord in which represents the perfect musical value of some one of these separate impressions. Most of these innumerable chords have never been sounded; but there they will lie, as long as the soul remains, awaiting the touch of emotion either from within or from the hand of the interpreting poet.

The poet‘s reproduction of any impression must be effected not by a vivid picture only or by a merely accurate description, but also by such a subtle arrangement of word and phrase, such a marshalling of verbal sound, as may exactly arouse, through the listening ear, the strange stirring of the soul, involved in every beautiful emotion, which we feel to be akin to the effect of music. If the poet should undertake to reproduce the impressions of the summer sunrise, the October sunset, the rose and the bunch of sedge, not only must the pictures be different, but the tones must be different too. The perfect poet would be one in whose soul should be found the perfect answering harmony to every natural or spiritual phenomenon. He would be one who should go about the world gathering the impressions of life, not with sight and thought only, but with the inner ear of the intently listening soul. In creating his pictures of life he would weave into each of them its own peculiar harmony so perfectly that we should have no doubt whatever as to its degree of truth, but we should know it instantly for what it is. This of course has never been completely done, and no man has ever been a perfect poet.

The perfect poet, it may be said, would have no set style. He would have a different one for everything he should write, a manner exactly suited to the subject, for the style involves to a certain extent what I have been speaking about, the musical accompaniment. But almost every original poet has had his own easily recognizable method of imagination and expression, that which we call his style; for almost every poet has been dominated by some one special thought, feeling or musical instinct, which has overshadowed every other, and left an unalterable mark upon his imagery and his phraseology. This would not be the case with the perfect poet. He would not consent to be permanently influenced by any single impulse, however noble, but would arrive unerringly at the perfect rendering of everything. Often the single dominating instinct, guided by the longing for truth, impels the poet invariably to a choice of subjects of a kind exactly consonant with his mood, as in the case of Poe or Ros[s]etti, or he may endeavor to apply a peculiar form of imagination and musical feeling to a variety of subjects, and in such an effort he becomes invariably untrue.

Special purposes and special instincts have produced great poets but not perfect ones. For the perfect poet would not necessary be great. Many things beside the capacity to reproduce every beautiful impression in all its poetic truth, go to the making of a great poet. He must have noble thought, lofty purposes and great fertility, and these things in their worth and majesty far outweigh the charm[,] glorious as it is, which we sometimes find in poets of a lesser calibre as men, but gifted with a finer instinct and a more various susceptibility. Keats was not as great a poet as Wordsworth, but he was a more perfect one.

Style has generally been in the way of all poets in their efforts at exact poetic interpretation; indeed just in so far as they have subjected the ear and the imagination to the governance of settled method and tone, have they failed to render the pure and absolute impression produced by the phenomena of material nature and the movement and emotion of human life. Their work may be supremely noble and beautiful like Spenser[’]s, or passionately alluring like Swinburne[’]s, but not many passages can be pointed to as fair interpretations of the things which they are intended to represent.

Of all poets of the present century Keats, it seems to me, was the most perfect. He was governed by no theory and by no usurping line of thought and feeling. He was beyond all other men disposed to surrender himself completely to the impression of everything with which his brain or his senses came in contact. He died very young and before he had had time to work upon many things; but everything that his imagination handled came from it in a shape so nearly perfect, that whenever we have contemplated any one of those exquisite creations we have been almost compelled to say—this is indeed its absolute beauty and this is its absolute harmony.

Of the eight best known poems of Keats seven are almost faultless. The first and longest, Endymion, is the only one, in which the tones are not quite sound. But this was the work of an inexperienced and over-abundant youth, too eager to wait for the perfect musical fulfilment of its imaginings, content to set each thing down incompletely as it came, and then hurry on to the next. In "Lamia" we observe at once the advance to developement. Here he had caught and mastered before he began the full harmonic complement of his subject, with all its action, its imagery, its beauty and its emotion. He did not, as many poets have done, endeavor to apply to a new creation an already well-used style and tone, which had served for a hundred other subjects. He knew that it must have a tone of its own, and that only by yielding to the answering echo of that tone in his own heart could the reader live for a moment with him in the full and beautiful reallity [sic] of the things he had created. His theme was a semi-mythological tale of Corinth, and he told it like an inspired Corinthian. The painting is Greek. The harmony is Greek; and our imaginations involuntarily assume the Greek pose as we follow the flow of the story, watching the beautiful Lamia turning into the beautiful woman, passing from the bright and noisy stream of traffic between Cenchreae [sic] and Corinth to observe the meeting of Lamia and Lycius, threading the streets of the twi-light city with their joyous activity, their luxurious plenty, and the murmur of their soft and fluent tongue, dwelling in that mysterious marble palace of languor and delight, holding a place at Lycius[’] bridal banquet with its sparkling merriment and teeming luxury, till in the end we are chilled to the heart by the gathered horror of the piteous catastrophe. All these things we feel as beautiful reallities [sic], not through the action and the imagery alone, but through the subtle music of the verse. The tone of that joyous Corinth is everywhere woven into it, but over all hangs the terrible fate of the story, the shadow of the cynic Apollonius, austere and saturnine. This too runs in an undercurrent through the melody, giving to the complete poem a tone, which could be assumed by nothing else, and without which the thing would be a body without a soul or a body but half alive.

So much for "Lamia"; then consider the complete change of tone in Hyperion. No other English poet ever had such an ear as Keats. He seems to be intently listening as he writes, listening at the heart of his subject, transcribing rather than creating his song. In Hyperion again the subject is Greek, but it is of the older mythology. We are among the elder Gods, discomfited and dethroned, gigantic primeval shapes, huddled together, or wandering in impotent gloom and desolation. The soft luxurious music of "Lamia" with its undersong of tragic anticipation would never do for this. Nothing would do for it but what the poet found—a tone that was deep and full and solemn, with a sound in it sometimes huge, hollow, Cyclopean[,] almost ponderous. The syllables fall at times like the footsteps of Enceladus, and even the timid complaining of Clymene is deeper and fuller, and bears in it a huger gloom, than the laments of earthly women. Listen to this from the description of Thea, the "tender spouse of gold Hyperion", who comes to the aged Saturn in his bowed despair, touches his wide shoulders and speaks to him—

But Oh! how unlike marble was that face:
How beautiful if sorrow had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than beauty’s self.
There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear
Was with its storèd thunder laboring up.

That is the tone—surely worthy of the Titan Gods! so large and solemn. The poet thus describes the place where the followers of Saturn meet in gloomy consultation.

It was a den where no insulting light
Could glimmer on their tears; where their own groans
They felt, but heard not, for the solid roar
Of thunderous waterfalls and torrents hoarse,
Pouring a constant bulk, uncertain where.
Crag jutting forth to crag, and rocks that seemed
Ever as if just rising from a sleep,
Forehead to forehead held their monstrous horns;
And thus in thousand hugest phantasies
Made a fit roofing to this nest of woe.

Listen to the tremendous fall of the syllables in those wonderful lines describing how Enceladus broke in upon the trembling lamentation of Clymene.

So far her voice flowed on, like timorous brook
That, lingering along a pebbled coast,
Doth fear to meet the sea: but sea it met,
And shuddered; for the overwhelming voice
Of huge, Enceladus swallowed it in wrath:
The ponderous syllables, like sullen waves
In the half-glutted hollows of reef-rocks,
Came booming thus, while still upon his arm
He leaned; not rising, from supreme contempt.

At last Enceladus arouses the wrath and courage of the Gods; and as the final words of that vast utterance fall from his lips, a light gleams in upon the faces around him. It is the pallid splendor of Hyperion, the only one of the primeval deities still left in the possession of his sovereignty. Thus his coming is described[:]

               Suddenly a splendor like the morn
Pervaded all the beetling gloomy steeps,
All the sad places of oblivion
And every gulf, and every chasm old,
And every height, and every sullen depth,
Voiceless, or hoarse with loud-tormented streams:
And all the everlasting cataracts,
And all the headlong torrents far and near,
Mantled before in darkness and huge shade,
Now saw the light and made it terrible.
It was Hyperion.

The poet is painting Titans and his harmony is Titanic. Sentence after sentence it falls upon the ear and satisfies us. It is the poetic truth. It satisfies us not by the grouping[,] the action, the imagery, the thought[,] alone, but by the melody which is to these things as the living soul. Consider again these marvellous lines[:]

There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear
Was with its stored thunder laboring up[.]

All these lines might be changed, or a single pause might be removed. The thought, the image would perhaps be the same; but the harmony would no longer belong to the idea, and the beautiful truth would be destroyed or mutilated. A perfect poetic utterance is like a human body of perfect physical beauty showing the life of the beautiful soul within in the movement of every feature, every limb, every muscle, every nerve. If a simple finger be paralysed or shrunken, the splendid harmony is disturbed, and the expression of the soul is made incomplete. So it is with the perfect poetic utterance. If a single living word is changed for a dead one—one that is dead in its place—the harmony is shattered; the musical soul no longer perfectly expresses itself. Let us take a few more examples from Keats, for even his small bulk of work is a storehouse of poetic perfections. "The Eve of St. Agnes," for instance; that wondrous poem that weaves about us irresistibly the strange ringing charm of mediæval phantasy, touching the ear in every syllable with the imaginative flavor of things old and long by-gone—the story of a lover who met his mistress once by a quaint device on a wintery St. Agnes Eve, when there was wind and sleet without and revelry within and enemies on every hand—wooed and won her and carried her away with him into the storm and the night. The music and imagery of the very first lines are enough to make one shiver. They are the musical expression of the thought of numbing cold, combined with the mediæval wichery [sic] of the theme[.]

    St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
    The owl, for all his feathers, was acold;
    The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
    And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
    Numb were the beadsman‘s fingers while he told
    His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
    Like pious incense from a censor old,
    Seemed taking flight for heaven without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

The vivid harmony of these other lines, when the lovers make their way down the darkling stairway—

    In all the house was heard no human sound.
    A chain-drooped lamp was flickering by each door;
    The arras, rich with horseman, hawk and hound,
    Fluttered in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor[.]

And the last stanza with its tone of ancientness and of lives and dreams that have been ages buried in the tomb.

    And they are gone; aye, ages long ago,
    These lovers fled away into the storm.
    That night the baron dreamt of many a wo,
    And all his warrior guests, with shade and form
    Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
    Were long be-nightmared. Angela the old
    Died palsy-twitched, with meagre face deform;
    The beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought-for slept among his ashes cold.

Turn then to the "Ode to a Nightingale." Read it over and over. Gather into the ear the whole of its sad deep yearning tone—the pure outpouring of that mood of melancholy, so strange an interweaving of joy and sorrow, when the poetic soul flags and falls from its dream, for a moment well-nigh broken and sore wearied with the iron necessities of this earthly life, yet finding in the very strength of its glorious desire a kind of shadowy joy, a mournful delight, whereby even the bitterness of its situation is transfigured and made to wear the semblance of something grand and poetic. The poet wishes that he might become like the nightingale, and with her "Fade away into the forest dim"

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
    What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies;
        Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
            And leaden-eyed despairs;
    Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
        Or new love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

The tone of this stanza is the tone of the whole. The poet describes such things as might breed despair, but there is none of the strident accent of despair. They should not make men fail, but they are nevertheless mournful. He has therefore found for his thoughts their own proper music—a music that is deep and sorrowful, but too beautiful to be desperate.

In the "Ode to [sic] a Grecian Urn" we find another complete change in the harmony. It is the expression of the attitude to the poet’s mind in the intense contemplation of some work of antique art, something calmly and perfectly beautiful; and the tone of the verse, so quiet and at the same time so ecstatic, is the pure musical expression of wrapt and enchanted reverie[.]

Oh Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
    Thou silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
    When old age shall this generation waste,
        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other wo
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
    "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

"Dost tease us out of thought as doth eternity." There is in that the tone of the whole poem. It is a beautiful commentary on those other well-known words of Keats "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever." The smallest thing that is perfectly beautiful in form and hue, may seem at first glance to satisfy us, but in a little while, we find that we can never fill our souls with the entire sense of its beauty and perfection. It is something that is eternal and illimitable. Our finite mind cannot contain it. Lift and expand as it may, it is still conscious that there are breadths and heights even in this little thing that it can never reach. It will "tease us out of thought as doth eternity."

Oh Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought.

Can we not hear in every syllable of these two blameless lines the clear yet dreamy utterance of the purest surrenderment to the spirit of serene beauty, that mood of contemplation, which is so still, so passionless and yet so strangely full—the emotion of perfect rest.

I have illustrated my subject so abundantly from Keats, because he seems to me to have been the most perfect of later poets. His work is a storehouse of musical perfections. Next to Keats in the truth of poetic interpretation stands Wordsworth, who in his moods of inspiration was the most spontaneous of all our later poets, and in the loftiness of his nature was the greatest. Wordsworth’s subjects, especially those in which he was successful, were humble. Very young people do not care for them. He never flatters or allures the imagination; and it is his glory that he has rendered the quiet musical feeling of very homely things with such a touching truth, that they grow in favour with us as we grow in years and in the knowledge of life. Often when we weary of the flowerier utterances of those who deal with more splendid scenes and more romantic passions, we turn the work of this wise poet, with an ineffable sense of health and rest.

Wordsworth’s work is very uneven; but it seems to me that the very fact that a few of his poems stand out in such fine and glorious contrast to the rest, is the strongest evidence of the genuine spontaneity of his gift. A great lyric poem is a thing which is written if one may so speak it in a dream. The emotion comes upon the poet and almost before he is conscious of it, the thing stands there on paper before him. It is done and he knows not how it was done. It has passed from him as the perfume from a flower. Wordsworth must have been hardly conscious of the great disparity of his work. He wrote steadily and serenely[.] Sometimes the great passion came over him, and he created things that were rarely beautiful, thrilled with the brightest life and tuned with the most accurate music. But he did not wait for these moments. He had a theory by the light of which he labored on incessantly, believing that every thought, that entered his mind, and was dear to him, might be run out into lines and stanzas, and so made to stand for a poem. His theory however was noble, and to aim at the highest level, with a partial failure is greater than to attain to an absolute perfection in a lower one. Wordsworth aimed at the loftiest, now and then he succeeded, and in his success he was the noblest of later English poets. Yet even in his best passages the rendering of the subtle melody of his idea is never perfect. He had not the imperious ear of Keats, who could not have rest[ed] till he had caught and mastered the fullness of every harmony. Wordsworth’s finest utterances are always a little broken. They weaken and fall somewhere; but there is enough of them in every case to make us feel most vividly the beauty and truth of the conception[.] They awaken without doubt the answering harmony in our own souls. Such poems as " Michael," "The Leechgatherer," "Ruth," seem to him who reads them for the first time quite unmusical; only after long acquaintance do we learn that they not only have a harmony but that it is exquisitely true. After having once learned to take delight in the quiet tones of Wordsworth, we begin to value at their true worth many things which had before so unreasonably mastered us.

One of Wordsworth’s finest poems is "The Leech-gatherer," or as it is otherwise entitled "Resolution and Independence." The opening stanzas convey very perfectly the poetic impression of a blithe bright morning after a night loud with rain and storm[.]

    There was a roaring in the wind all night;
        The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
    But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
        The birds are singing in the distant woods;
        Over his own sweet voice the stock-dove broods;
    The jay makes answer as the magpie chatters
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

    All things that love the sun are out of doors;
        The sky rejoices in the morning’s birth;
    The grass is bright with rain-drops; on the moors
        The hare is running races in her mirth.

"And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters." How simple and how perfect? Have we not a hundred times felt those words, though we have never expressed them? In the description of the aged and lonely leech-gatherer, wandering about the moors, there are several examples of the curiosa felicitas of expression noted by Coleridge, and of the most faithful and delicate musical interpretation[.]

        I saw a man before me unawares
    The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs[.]
                            …Not all alive nor dead,
    Nor all asleep, in his extreme old age:
    His body was bent double, feet and head
    Coming together in their pilgrimage,
    As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage
    Of sickness felt by him in times long past,
A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.

    Himself he propp’d, his body, limbs, and face,
        Upon a long grey staff of shaven wood;
    And still as I drew near with gentle pace,
        Beside the little pond or moorish flood,
        Motionless as a cloud the old man stood;
    That heareth not the loud winds when they call,
And moveth altogether, if it move at all.

There is something, not in the ideas alone, but in the very choice and grouping of the syllables, in these strange lines, which causes us to feel irresistibly that we are in very truth face to face with an object of extreme feebleness, bent with the burden of an almost lifeless old age. They have a keen, strange force together with a curious dragging effect in the tone, that is altogether unique and lingers in the ear with a growing assertion of its mysterious truth.

As a total change we may turn to the little poems on the "Small Celandine." A little flower is no doubt a small subject for great poetry; yet is not the frailest thing that is sweetly beautiful worthy of a song? At any rate Wordsworth thought so, and honored the Small Celandine with two of the most charming efforts of his genius. Indeed after wandering through the loose and redundant verbiage of such poems as "The Thorn" and "Goody Blake," so extravagant in their homeliness, we are almost startled by the musical sweetness and compact cutting of these rare stanzas. They express, with a delicate brightness, and loving sincerity of music, the poet’s happy contemplation of a little starlike blossom, which was to him not only a harbinger of spring, but the emblem of many humble things that are of more value than their gaudier neighbors[.]

E’er a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the thrush
Has a thought about its nest,
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we’ve little warmth or none[.]
Prophet of delight and mirth,
Scorned and slighted upon Earth!
Herald of a mighty band,
Of a joyous train ensuing,
Singing at my heart’s command,
In the lanes my thoughts pursuing,
I will sing, as doth behove,
Hymns in praise of what I love!
                 .        .        .
Soon as gentle breezes bring
News of winter’s vanishing,
And the children build their bowers,
Sticking kerchief plots of mould
All about with full-blown flowers,
Thick as sheep in shepherd’s fold!
With the proudest thou art there,
Mantling in the tiny square[.]

These are only three stanzas out of fourteen, all of them exquisite; but they perfectly represent the tone.

As an example of an unsuccessful attempt at poetic interpretation. I may quote from Wordsworth’s "Thorn".

Like rock or stone, it is o’ergrown
    With lichens to the very top,
And hung with heavy tufts of moss,
    A melancholy crop:
Up from the earth these mosses creep
And this poor Thorn they clasp it round
So close, you’d say that they were bent
With plain and manifest intent
    To drag it to the ground;
And all had joined in one endeavor
To bury this poor thorn forever[.]

The picture intended to be painted in these lines is a strong one, but the ear at once informs us that the attempt has failed. It awakens no answering harmony in the soul. It has in fact no harmony at all, either true or false. The best examples of false harmonies are to be found in Byron, whose musical range was very narrow. The opening lines of the third canto of The Corsair, so magnificent and stately, but so untrue and so really unsympathetic, are a striking example.

One of the most interesting of Wordsworth’s poems is that which begins "She was a phantom of delight." Its lofty masculine tone of noble praise, its serious, rapid, concise descriptive movement remind us wonderfully of Tennyson—so much so that one is led to imagine that Tennyson might have caught the keynote of his style from the reading of this poem. There are the lines in "Isabel" which seem like a richer echo of the music of Wordsworth’s grander and simpler ones. The final stanza will be enough to quote.

And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller betwixt life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength and skill;
A perfect woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a spirit still, and bright
With something of an angel light.

Turn then to that other poem, also without a title, beginning "Three years she grew in sun and shower." This is the musical expression of sympathy with a more impassioned spirit. He is describing not the calm-minded noble woman of the former poem, but a figure glowing with the spirit of poetry, the light of a mind akin to his own. The measure is therefore no longer keen cut and stately, but swift and vehement[,] ringing with a sweeter and wilder intonation. This is the musical difference in the poet[’]s interpretation of the two characters. Listen to the passionate melody, the flash of imagination in these lines—

"The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
        In many a secret place,
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face[.]"

In "Michael" and a great many parts of the Prelude and the Excursion we find a tone, which is the purest rendering imaginable of whatever musical sense attaches to those pictures and emotions of homely rustic life, which were dearer to Wordsworth’s heart than any more complex developement [sic] of human society could ever be. In his best treatment of these simple things he indulges in no pomp. His lines are direct and homely in their music; but there is in them a noble dignity which is due to all nature in her simple elements. What a sense of healthful content and rustic industry there is the following lines from the description of Michael[’]s cottage[.]

Down from the ceiling, by the chimney‘s edge,
Which in our ancient uncouth country style,
Did with a huge projection overbrow
Large space beneath, as duly as the light
Of day grew dim, the housewife hung a lamp,
An aged utensil which had performed
Service beyond all others of its kind.
Early at evening did it burn and late,
Surviving comrade of uncounted hours,
Which, going by from year to year, had found
And left the couple neither gay, perhaps,
Nor cheerful, yet with objects, and with hopes,
Living a life of eager industry.
And now when Luke was in his eighteenth year,
There by the light of this old lamp they sat,
Father and son, while late into the night
The housewife plied her own peculiar work,
Making the cottage through the silent hours
Murmur as with the sound of summer flies

Some very noble examples of poetic interpretation are to be found in Wordsworth’s sonnets. It seems strange at first thought that a poet whose utterance was often so loose and irregular, at times even garrulous, should have succeeded so well in a species of verse, requiring in the highest degree the artistic instinct for beautiful form, and the musical instinct for the most delicate and at the same time the largest harmonies; yet this looseness and irregularity in his methods was to a great extent a matter of principle with him, not of feeling, and it was no doubt often with a sense of fine comfort that he betook himself in easier hours to the sonnet, humouring the bright artistic instinct, which was certainly his, and which must have been always hungering within him. Some of his sonnets are the best in the English language. They are rhythmically finer than Shakespeare’s or Milton’s. His prefatory sonnet on the sonnet is perhaps from an artistic point of view the most perfect work of the kind ever written in our tongue. It could hardly be improved. It is so well known that I need not quote it. Let me rather draw attention to one of the beautiful sonnets on sleep. I will give it in full. The sense and melody of the first lines are curiously interpretive of that strange uncertain condition between sleep and waking, when we lie for hours haunted by innumerable images that pass before the mind in blind unreasoning succession, persuading us to the sleep, that is ever upon us, but never comes.

A flock of sheep that leasurely pass by,
One after one; the sound of rain, and bees
Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds, and seas,
Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky,
I’ve thought of all by turns; and still I lie
Sleepless; and soon the small birds’ melodies
Must hear, first uttered from my orchard trees;
And the first cuckoo’s melancholy cry.
Even thus last night, and two nights more, I lay,
And could not win thee, Sleep! by any stealth:
So do not let me wear to-night away:
Without thee what is all the morning’s wealth?
Come, blessed barrier betwixt day and day,
Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health!

I have illustrated my subject altogether from Keats and Wordsworth because they furnish the most perfect and most abundant examples. No other of our later poets has had such an exquisite ear for all delicate harmonies as Keats, and no other has had such an eager and loving one for the sweet and simple harmonies of free healthy nature as Wordsworth. Next to these, I believe, comes Matthew Arnold. His "Forsaken Merman" with its strange haunting pathos, the grand endings of "Mercerinus" and "Sohrab and Rustum," many passages in "Empedocles on Etna" and various other poems are matchless interpretations of things that echo with a pure and solemn music. Tennyson though a splendid poet and a noble nature is by no means so faithful a poetic interpretor [sic]. Through all his work there is the grasp of a settled system of phrase and melody. The style is powerful and noble, but it does not always accurately interpret. The poet’s ear is not sufficiently simple and ingenuous. Shelley failed often for a somewhat similar reason. Into every picture that he drew, into every thought that he expressed, he wrought the strange unreal color and the wild spiritual music, natural to his own beautiful but fantastic imagination. It is not actual nature that he interprets, but Shelley[’]s wonderful re-creation of it. In all such pictures of life as are vehement, intense, passionately imaginative and tender, Robert Browning is a wonderful master; but he is to[o] rapid, too rough, and has too much of a fixed way of talking about things to have a complete musical range. He is not one of the patient listeners for all of nature’s secret harmonies. Rossetti interpreted some things, that were in consonance with his own life-long mood, strangely well. Coleridge succeeded perfectly in two poems, "Christobel [sic]" and the "Rhyme [sic] of the Ancient Mariner" but in the rest of his work he seems to have been laboring in the dark, far away from his natural bent.

Byron expressed admirably enough one of his own moods, that of romantic and melancholy self-contemplation. Swinburne is without varie[ty][,] being absorbed and carried away by a single strain of riotous melody which he applies to everything. Such things as can be expressed in his manner he has interpreted as no other man has ever interpreted them, or ever will[.]

Perhaps the world shall some day have a poet who will interpret tenderly passionat[e] dreams like Keats, simple and lofty ones like Wordsworth, strong and passionate pictures of life like Browning, etherial imaginings like Shelley, grave and manly thought like Tennyson, and everything else with the best truth of the special poet who has handled it best. But we shall not look for such a poet for many a long [age] [.]