The notice of Macaulay’s Lays further illustrates his interesting theories of poetry.
It is the remarkable fate of Sterling, leaving behind him no work of permanent distinction—to have been the subject of two biographies by persons of far greater importance than his—Archdeacon Hare and Thomas Carlyle. The editorial foot-note affixed to the following review, in which Mill describes him as “one of our most valued contributors” provides further evidence of what his contemporaries expected of “Poor Sterling.” “A loose, careless looking, thin figure,” says Carlyle, “in careless dim costume, sat, in a lounging posture, carelessly and copiously talking. I was struck with the kindly but restless swift-glancing eyes, which looked as if the spirits were all out coursing like a pack of merry eager beagles, beating every bush.... A smile, half of kindly impatience, half of real mirth, often sat on his face.”
Sterling wrote poetry, essays, and stories, largely inspired by capricious enthusiasms. The son of an editor of The Times, he was, for a short time owner of The Athenaeum, and also a curate under Hare.
Since Carlyle’s “extraordinary elegy, apology, eulogium” is itself a classic, particular interest attaches itself to Sterling’s generous estimate of the man destined to make him immortal.
J.S. MILL ON TENNYSON
[From The Westminster Review, January, 1831]
Poems, chiefly Lyrical. By ALFRED TENNYSON. Wilson, 12 mo. 1830.
It would be a pity that poetry should be an exception to the great law of progression that obtains in human affairs; and it is not. The machinery of a poem is not less susceptible of improvement than the machinery of a cotton mill; nor is there any better reason why the one should retrograde from the days of Milton, than the other from those of Arkwright....
The old epics will probably never be surpassed, any more than the old coats of mail; and for the same reason; nobody wants the article; its object is accomplished by other means; they are become mere curiosities....
Poetry, like charity, begins at home. Poetry, like morality, is founded in the precept, know thyself. Poetry, like happiness, is in the human heart. Its inspiration is of that which is in man, and it will never fail because there are changes in costume and grouping. What is the vitality of the Iliad? Character; nothing else. All the rest is only read out of antiquarianism or of affectation. Why is Shakespeare the greatest of poets? Because he was one of the greatest of philosophers. We reason on the conduct of his characters with as little hesitation as if they were real living human beings. Extent of observation, accuracy of thought, and depth of reflection, were the qualities which won the prize