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The days of the great worthies had gone down in a twilight of conventionalism, and the spontaneity and creative force of the old Art had given way to the feeble, debased spirit of the new.
Apart from this unwholesome impulse reaching over our early colonial days, we note the perpetual crisis hanging over them, bringing unrest, fever, and weariness; the different languages and peoples awaiting their slow assimilation; the phrensy of fanaticism displacing a loving faith; and, finally, the widely-spread moral epidemic of skepticism, bred from our French alliance, and lodged in all the high places of the land.
Given a problem involving so many perplexed questions, such subtle relations and possibilities, so many portents of disaster with so little of promise, we may well inquire whether history has elsewhere recorded a more brilliant and rapid solution.
The Puritan element was intrinsically unpoetical. It was intensely polemic and practical. We need not call in question the soundness of its moral purposes even if we are driven to confess the rudeness of its early culture. To the Puritan, the Beautiful was recognized in none of its spiritual relations: the Beautiful was rather a sorceress—an unwholesome mirage of experience that called for the Exorcist. Its verses, therefore, were as rugged and forbidding as were the domestic and social polity whence they sprung.
Later, when Patriotism, under the fervent fires of the Revolution, found a voice in song, her verses, for the most part, were feeble echoes of the English Heroic rhyme, and wanting, so far as Art-form is concerned, in every element of individuality.
Still less remains to be said respecting the poetry of the Middle and Southern Colonies. Apart from a few faint echoes of the Chivalrous and Amatory poetry of England and the Continent, scarcely a trace survives.
Within the memory of many now living, therefore, may be fixed the virtual boundary of our earliest devout poetry.
The religious poetry of England reaches over more than three hundred years : ours, over
not much more than half a century. A few general considerations will discover and establish their true relations, and exhibit their main points of contrast.
After a painstaking survey, of the whole field, we are driven to the conclusion that the Christian Faith seems incidental rather than intrinsic—an accidental mood, rather than an informing spirit quickening more or less vividly our American poetry. Few of our poets are distinctively or altogether religious. There are volumes of poems written by Christian men and women without a disclosure of the Christian Faith: without either the light or heat of its presence. Again, in other directions, Faith takes the shape of sentiment or of ethical speculation hardly level with the aspirations of Cleanthes or Pythagoras.
Where the older school of English poetry is strongest, ours is weakest: where they are rich, we are poor.
Historic Christianity, — the Super-natural fact of a present Christ building up a new and inner life,-seems, as yet, at work at the surface, at the circumference of our national consciousness, while the Gnostic spirit lies entombed at its heart. So that we have too often the Boreal chill, when we seek noon-day warmth ; a tender facility for symbolizing among blossoms and birds and brooks, with only a scholarly and æsthetic sense of the Gospels : so that we find, in the main, the Christianity of our general poetry shadowy and spectral, felt rather as a Philosophy than a Belief.
The later period of our poetry, however, gives promise of something more earnest and evangelic.
To make the point clearer—the multitude of the English poets carry with them an atmosphere of genuine Faith. Spencer and Shakespeare are as unequivocally Christian, in Allegory and Drama, as are Milton and Wordsworth in Epic and Sonnet and Ode. In all their work, in larger or less degree, wrought the common Faith.
There was no line of definition fixed between the devout and the secular poet. While some few were given altogether to sacred verse, fewer were either altogether secular or unchristian. Indeed, if the parallel were pursued far enough in the opposite direction, we would sometimes find Faith and Secularity in almost profane intimacy; where, with us, we meet habitually an estrangement almost as shocking to the moral sense.
A Christian poet need not always write Hymns or even devout verses; yet the leaven of Faith should, in some degree, be felt in whatever he writes.
Again, our religious poetry lacks that deep Historical back-ground of Ecclesiastical architecture and tradition—that rich Liturgical usage and feeling which lend so many grave and varied splendours of ripeness, mystery, colour, and tone, to the English school. It is wanting, too, in the congruity and unity that in a large degree flow from these broad influences. Neither do we behold that steady glow of style, born of high polish and consummate discipline, cherished in the University life.
But we have caught from Nature more than she has hitherto vouchsafed since the days of