“The curfew tolls the knell of parting
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me”
Then we listen to the droning flight of the beetle, to the drowsy tinklings from a distant fold, to the moping owl in an ivy-mantled tower. Each natural object, either directly or by contrast, reflects the mind of man. Nature serves as a background for the display of emotion.
Gosse says in his Life of Gray: “The Elegy has exercised an influence on all the poetry of Europe, from Denmark to Italy, from France to Russia. With the exception of certain works of Byron and Shakespeare, no English poem has been so widely admired and imitated abroad.”
[Illustration: STOKE POGES CHURCHYARD (SCENE OF GRAY’S ELEGY).]
The Conflict between Romanticism and Classicism.—The influences of this period were not entirely in the direction of romanticism. Samuel Johnson, the literary dictator of the age, was unsparing in his condemnation of the movement. The weight of his opinion kept many romantic tendencies in check. Even authors like Gray were afraid to adopt the new creed in its entirety. In one stanza of his Hymn to Adversity we find four capitalized abstractions, after the manner of the classical school: Folly, Noise, Laughter, Prosperity; and the following two lay figures, little better than abstractions:—
“The summer Friend, the flattering Foe.”
These abstractions have little warmth or human interest. After Gray had studied the Norse mythology, we find him using such strong expressions as “iron-sleet of arrowy shower.” Collins’s ode on The Passions contains seventeen personified abstractions, from “pale Melancholy” to “brown Exercise.”
The conflict between these two schools continues; and many people still think that any poetry which shows polished regularity must be excellent. To prove this statement, we have only to turn to the magazines and glance at the current poetry, which often consists of words rather artificially strung together without the soul of feeling or of thought.
The Growth of Prose Fiction.—Authentic history does not take us back to the time when human beings were not solaced by tales. The Bible contains stories of marked interest. Beowulf, the medieval romances, the Canterbury Tales, and the ballads relate stories in verse.
For a long time the knight and his adventures held the place of honor in fiction; but the time came when improbable or impossible achievements began to pall. The knight who meets with all kinds of adventures and rescues everybody, is admirably burlesqued in Don Quixote by the Spanish author Cervantes, which appeared at the beginning of the seventeenth century. This world-famous romance shows by its ridicule that the taste for the impossible adventures of chivalry was beginning to pall. The following title to one of the chapters of Don Quixote is sufficiently suggestive: “Chapter LVIII.—Which tells how Adventures came crowding on Don Quixote in Such Numbers that they gave him No Breathing Time.”