Lectures on the English Poets eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 304 pages of information about Lectures on the English Poets.
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[8] Burns.—­These lines are taken from the introduction to Mr.
Wordsworth’s poem of the LEECH-GATHERER.
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LECTURE VII.  ON BURNS, AND THE OLD ENGLISH BALLADS.

I am sorry that what I said in the conclusion of the last Lecture respecting Chatterton, should have given dissatisfaction to some persons, with whom I would willingly agree on all such matters.  What I meant was less to call in question Chatterton’s genius, than to object to the common mode of estimating its magnitude by its prematureness.  The lists of fame are not filled with the dates of births or deaths; and the side-mark of the age at which they were done, wears out in works destined for immortality.  Had Chatterton really done more, we should have thought less of him, for our attention would then have been fixed on the excellence of the works themselves, instead of the singularity of the circumstances in which they were produced.  But because he attained to the full powers of manhood at an early age, I do not see that he would have attained to more than those powers, had he lived to be a man.  He was a prodigy, because in him the ordinary march of nature was violently precipitated; and it is therefore inferred, that he would have continued to hold on his course, “unslacked of motion.”  On the contrary, who knows but he might have lived to be poet-laureat?  It is much better to let him remain as he was.  Of his actual productions, any one may think as highly as he pleases; I would only guard against adding to the account of his quantum meruit, those possible productions by which the learned rhapsodists of his time raised his gigantic pretensions to an equality with those of Homer and Shakspeare.  It is amusing to read some of these exaggerated descriptions, each rising above the other in extravagance.  In Anderson’s Life, we find that Mr. Warton speaks of him “as a prodigy of genius,” as “a singular instance of prematurity of abilities”:  that may be true enough, and Warton was at any rate a competent judge; but Mr. Malone “believes him to have been the greatest genius that England has produced since the days of Shakspeare.”  Dr. Gregory says, “he must rank, as a universal genius, above Dryden, and perhaps only second to Shakspeare.”  Mr. Herbert Croft is still more unqualified in his praises; he asserts, that “no such being, at any period of life, has ever been known, or possibly ever will be known.”  He runs a parallel between Chatterton and Milton; and asserts, that “an army of Macedonian and Swedish mad butchers fly before him,” meaning, I suppose, that Alexander the Great and Charles the Twelfth were nothing to him; “nor,” he adds, “does my memory supply me with any human being, who at such an age, with such advantages, has produced such compositions.  Under the heathen mythology, superstition and admiration would have explained all, by bringing Apollo on earth; nor would the God ever have descended with more credit

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