It will be necessarily more difficult to trace the origin of poetry in a nation than that of the other arts to which I have referred, inasmuch as the vehicle in which poetry is existent not being durable, it is almost impossible to preserve specimens of it during successive ages.
Of ancient British poetry we possess no remains, and no distinct account. We have, however, still extant, several pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, compositions in which are more or less marked by alliteration, by a mixture of regular and irregular cadence, by abrupt transitions, by a frequent omission of the particles, and by an artificial inversion of words and phrases. It was not until a late period that compositions of this class were set into regular rhyme.
The English language prior to the time of Edward I. appears to have been in a very crude state; but some improvement is discernible in the next reign. Specimens of early composition in poetry in this country have been cited in a previous chapter.
To Chaucer principally our language owes the foundation of its still enduring constitution, as well as the whole body of our poetry much of its peculiar and characteristic spirit. He is by general consent styled the father of English poetry. The numerous extracts from his productions and those of Spenser afforded in the previous chapters, and the comments upon them, preclude the necessity of now enlarging upon their many and characteristic merits. Following Chaucer, Spenser yet further advanced the art of poetry in this country as regards its refinement, and the exhibition of its capabilities, and displayed in his productions the highest genius and beauty and imaginative power. Shakespeare, by his immortal productions, has evinced to the full of what high efforts the art of poetry is capable, as also the adaptation of the English language for such undertakings.
The sublime production of Milton rivals the noblest achievements in epic composition effected by pictorial art. In the survey of the history of poetry in England, we may, however, observe, what I have already remarked with respect to painting that the middle age of its progress is the era of its highest eminence in epic grandeur. In the case alike of painting sculpture poetry and also eloquence, indeed, of the arts in general, the character of the art both changes with and reflects that of the particular time in which the art was practised. Hence the whole style and cast of the poetry of the period of Queen Elizabeth, was very different to what we find in the poetry of the period of Queen Victoria. We have not only no poet of the genius of Shakespeare in our day, but no poet who possesses his spirit, his fire, his originality, his passion, or his imagination. These are the characteristics of a ruder age, and are seldom to be found in one of high refinement and luxury. The grandeur and sublimity of Milton are still less in accordance with the effeminacy of modern taste. These loftier characteristics, indeed, appear to have been gradually giving way to refinement, and to a certain degree of grace and beauty as well, it must be admitted, ever since the comparatively rude clays when Milton flourished. The poets who here came after him have been far less bold and imaginative, but have possessed more polish, and the versification has been more smooth and elegant. Foremost amongst these Pope and Dryden deserve to be mentioned, whose performances have added so richly to our literary stores.
In our own time the poets who have chiefly commanded the attention of the public have been distinguished alike by the grace and refinement and general correctness of their compositions; while here and there, in certain of their productions, passages of vigour and originality worthy of the brightest days of the art are to be traced, evincing that, as already remarked in a previous chapter,* genius and poetic feeling belong to no one age exclusively beyond another. But to the works of living artists in either department no allusion is of course here intended to be made.