The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shak’d like a coward.”
—and Hotspur’s interpretation (slightly petulant, to be sure), “Why, so it would have done at the time if your mother’s cat had but kittened, though you yourself had never been born.” I protest that I reverence poetry and the poets: but at the risk of being warned off the holy ground as a “dark-browed sophist,” must declare my plain opinion that the above account of the poet’s birth and native gifts does not consist with fact.
Yet it consents with the popular notion, which you may find presented or implied month by month and week by week, in the reviews; and even day by day—for it has found its way into the newspapers. Critics have observed that considerable writers fall into two classes—
Two lines of Poetic Development.
(1) Those who start with their heads full of great thoughts, and are from the first occupied rather with their matter than with the manner of expressing it.
(2) Those who begin with the love of expression and intent to be artists in words, and come through expression to profound thought.
The Popular Type.
Now, for some reason it is fashionable just now to account Class 1 the more respectable; a judgment to which, considering that Virgil and Shakespeare belong to Class 2, I refuse my assent. It is fashionable to construct an imaginary figure out of the characteristics of Class 1, and set him up as the Typical Poet. The poet at whose nativity Tennyson assists in the above verses of course belongs to Class 1. A babe so richly dowered can hardly help his matter overcrowding his style; at least, to start with.
But this is not all. A poet who starts with this tremendous equipment can hardly help being something too much for the generation in which he is born. Consequently, the Typical Poet is misunderstood by his contemporaries, and probably persecuted. In his own age his is a voice crying in the wilderness; in the wilderness he speeds the “viewless arrows of his thought”; which fly far, and take root as they strike earth, and blossom; and so Truth multiplies, and in the end (most likely after his death) the Typical Poet comes by his own.
Such is the popular conception of the Typical Poet, and I observe that it fascinates even educated people. I have in mind the recent unveiling of Mr. Onslow Ford’s Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford. Those who assisted at that ceremony were for the most part men and women of high culture. Excesses such as affable Members of Parliament commit when distributing school prizes or opening free public libraries were clearly out of the question. Yet even here, and almost within the shadow of Bodley’s great library, speaker after speaker assumed as axiomatic this curious fallacy—that a Poet is necessarily a thinker in advance of his age, and therefore peculiarly liable to persecution at the hands of his contemporaries.