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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 MARY ANN EVANS, as her father recorded in his diary, was born at Arbury Farm, at five o'clock in the morning of 22nd November 1819. [She called herself Marian.] Her father, Robert Evans, was son of George Evans, a builder and carpenter in Derbyshire. The family had migrated thither from Northop in Flintshire. Robert Evans was brought up to his father's business, and improved his position by remarkable qualities. He possessed great vigour both of mind and body, and was one of the men to whom love of good work is a religion. Once, when two labourers were waiting for a third to enable them to carry a heavy ladder, he took the whole weight upon his own shoulders, and astonished them by carrying it to its destination without help. He had also the keen eye of a skilful workman, and was especially famous for a power of calculating with singular accuracy the quantity of timber in a standing tree. He acquired the highest character for integrity and thorough devotion to his employers' interests. His extensive knowledge in very varied practical departments, as his daughter says, "made his services valued through several counties. He had large knowledge of mines, of plantations, of various branches of valuation and measurement--of all that is essential to the management of large estates." He was regarded as a unique land-agent, and was able by giving his own services to save the special fees usually paid by landowners for expert opinions. His education had been imperfect, and this led to some self-distrust and "submissiveness in his domestic relations." The last peculiarity is reflected in the character of Mr. Garth in Middlemarch; and Mr. Garth and Adam Bede are obviously in some degree representative of the same type--one, it is to be feared, which has not become commoner since his time. About 1799 Robert Evans was agent to Mr. Francis Newdigate of Kirk Hallam in Derbyshire, under whom he also held a farm. In 1806, upon the death of Sir Roger Newdigate, Francis Newdigate inherited a life interest in the Arbury estate in Warwickshire, and Evans accompanied him thither in his old capacity. Colonel Newdigate, son of Francis, was much impressed by the merits of his father's agent, and through the colonel's influence Evans became agent to various other great landowners in the district. As became his position, Robert Evans was a sturdy Tory. He shared the patriotic sentiment of the days of Nelson and Wellington, and held that a revolutionary fanatic was a mixture of fool and scoundrel. "I was accustomed," says his daughter, "to hear him utter the word 'Government' in a tone that charged it with awe and made it part of my effective religion in contrast with the word 'rebel,' which seemed to carry the stamp of evil in its syllables, and, lit by the fact that Satan was the first rebel, made an argument dispensing with more detailed inquiry." "Government," for practical purposes, meant the great landowners, who had good reasons for returning his respect. One of them requires a moment's notice.
2 Sir Roger Newdigate, [See The Cheverels of Cheverel Manor, by Lady Newdigate-Newdegate, 1898.] the previous owner of Arbury, was a typical specimen of the more cultivated country gentleman of his day. In early life he had made the "grand tour," and had brought back ancient marbles and architectural drawings. He afterwards accepted the active duties of his position. He represented the University of Oxford for thirty years (1750-1780) as a high Tory. He was an owner of collieries and a promoter of canals. He built a school and a poorhouse for the parish in which Arbury Park is situated--Chilvers-Coton, near Nuneaton. He rebuilt Arbury House, which stood on the site of an ancient priory, in the "Gothic style" and adorned it with works of art and family portraits by Romney and Reynolds. His name at least is familiar to all Oxford men by the prize poem which he founded just before his death. The conditions prescribed by him for the competition show as much sense as can be expected from the founder of a prize poem. There were to be no compliments to himself, and the length of the poems was to be limited to fifty lines. Horace and King David, as he remarked, had succeeded in confining their noblest compositions within that length, and the quality of the future prize poems would probably not be such as to make us desire more of them than of the psalms or odes. Sir Roger died thirteen years before the birth of Evans's daughter; but certain family stories in which he was concerned were handed down to her, and, as we shall see, suggested one of her most finished pieces of work. Robert Evans's first wife, Harriet Poynton, had been for "many years," as her epitaph says, "the friend and servant of the family of Arbury." She had married Evans in 1801, and died in 1809, leaving two children. In 1813 Evans married a woman of rather superior position, Christiana Pearson, by whom he had three children--Christiana, Isaac, and Mary Ann--Christiana being about five, and Isaac about three years older than the youngest child. In March 1820, when Mary Ann was four months old, the Evanses moved to Griff, "a charming red brick, ivy-covered house on the Arbury estate." It was to be the child's home for the first twenty-one years of her life.
3 The impressions made upon the girl during these years are sufficiently manifest in the first series of her novels. Were it necessary to describe the general characteristics of English country life, they would enable the "graphic" historian to give life and colour to the skeleton made from statistical and legal information. The Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and The Mill on the Floss, probably give the most vivid picture now extant of the manners and customs of the contemporary dwellers in the midland counties of England. There is a temptation to press the likeness further. It is a favourite amusement of readers to identify characters in novels with historical individuals. They sometimes seem to think that the question whether (for example) Caleb Garth "was" Robert Evans can be answered by a simple Yes or No, like the question whether Junius was Philip Francis. In reality, of course, it is generally impossible to say precisely how far the portrait may have been studied from a single model, or modified intentionally, or by blending with more or less conscious reminiscences of other originals. George Eliot (as it will be convenient to call her hereafter from her name in letters), like all good novelists, generally avoided direct delineation of individuals; while, on the other hand, it is probable enough that she was sometimes following the facts more closely than she was herself aware. It is enough to say here that her mother had a "considerable dash of the Mrs. Poyser vein in her"; that her mother's family more or less stood for the Dodsons in the Mill on the Floss; that her relations to her brother resembled those of Maggie to Tom Tulliver in the same novel; and that when describing Celia and Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch she was more or less recalling her relations to her elder sister Christiana. There is one person, however, whom a novelist can hardly help revealing directly or indirectly; and in the case of George Eliot the revelation is unequivocal. There is no doubt, as we shall see, that the Mill on the Floss is substantially autobiographical, not, of course, a statement of facts, but as a vivid embodiment of the early impressions and the first stages of spiritual development. The scanty framework of fact may be partly filled up from this source.
4 It is proper, however, at the present day to begin from the physical "environment " of the organism whose history we are to study. The Warwickshire landscape is not precisely stimulating: and if the county can boast of the greatest name in English literature, it must be remembered that Shakespeare had the good fortune to migrate to the centre of intellectual activity at an early period. Though the central watershed of England passes through the country, it has no mountain ridges, and the streams crawl off through modest undulations to more picturesque districts. In her twenty-first year George Eliot speaks of a little excursion in which she has (for the first time apparently) "gazed on some--albeit the smallest--of the 'everlasting hills,'" and has admired "those noblest children of the earth--fine healthy trees." She has seen, too, a fine parish church and Lichfield Cathedral. Through her childhood she had to put up with canals instead of rivers; and saw no wilder open spaces than the decorous lawns of Arbury Park. Far away in the north, the Brontë children--of whom Charlotte, the eldest, was her senior by three years--were spending their strange childhood in Haworth, learning to worship Nature on the Yorkshire moors, and to idealise the sturdy, crabbed, North-countrymen into Rochesters and Heathcliffs. We may speculate if we please upon the effects which might have followed if the habitats of the two families could have been exchanged. If we may trust their portrayers, the fat midland pastures were hardly more different from the Yorkshire moors than the stolid farmers of Warwickshire from the rough population of the West Riding.
5 "Our midland plains," said George Eliot, "have never lost their familiar expression and conservative spirit for me; yet at every other mile, since I first looked on them, some sign of world-wide change, some new direction of human labour, has wrought itself into what one may call the speech of the landscape." The scenery, a monotonous succession of little ups and downs, is of the kind which owes its interest to its subordination to human society. In George Eliot's writings, there are proofs enough of sensibility to natural beauty, but the scenery is a background to the actors; and there is no indication of such a passion for her native district as Scott felt for his "honest grey hills." The "midland plains" were "conservative," because they spoke of ancient order and peace; and the opening pages of Felix Holt describe the scenery and explain its significance. The traveller of those days, seated by the side of one of Mr. Weller's colleagues, whirling at the amazing speed of ten miles an hour across the plain whence the waters flow to the Avon and the Trent, had yet time to read many indications of English life in the characteristic landscape. He saw broad meadows with their long lines of willows marking the water-courses; and cornfields divided by the straggling hedgerows, economically wasteful but beautiful with their bushes of hawthorn and dog-roses. He came upon remote hamlets, abodes of dirt and ignorance, each knowing of the world which lay beyond its "own patch of earth and sky " only by intercourse with "big, bold, gin-breathing tramps." But at times also he passed through "trim cheerful villages," where the cottage gardens bloomed with wall-flowers and geraniums, and the blacksmith and the wheelwright were plying their cheerful trades. Solid farmers were jogging past from their comfortable homesteads, where quaint yew-tree arbours were backed by the great cornstacks. At intervals appeared the squires' statelier mansions, embowered in the patrician trees of his park, and hard by the gray churches with sleep-compelling pews were the parsonages where the squire's younger son was quartered, not yet prescient of the "movement," and free at least from "too much zeal." In such districts the eighteenth century calm lingered pleasantly, and the ideal types represented by Sir Roger de Coverley and the Vicar of Wakefield, or by Squire Western and Trulliber, might still be recognized. A Sir Roger Newdigate had acquired a taste, and here and there clerical calm was being ruffled by Evangelical or Methodist agitation. But the district was one of "protuberant optimists, sure that Old England was the best of all possible countries, and that if there were any facts which had not fallen under their own observation they were facts not worth observing." The traveller, it is true, might soon come upon a very different scene. The coach would emerge from the deep-rutted lanes into a village "dingy with coal-dust, noisy with the shaking of looms," or "would rattle over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trade-union meetings." The land around him was blackened with coal-pits, and the population was by no means convinced that all change must be for the worse; and yet these busy scenes seemed "to make but crowded nests in the midst of the large-spaced, slow-moving life of homestead and far-away cottages and oak-sheltered parks." In the quiet agricultural region, squire and parson, and the whole social machinery of which they represented the mainspring, could still be accepted as part of the unalterable system of things. The villager was too ignorant even to conceive the possibility of change; and if the farmer grumbled over the ruinous results of peace, he retained his traditional reverence for the old families, and looked with horror upon proposals for the intrusion of railways or manufacturing demands for free trade. If the upper social stratum was aware that in the great towns there were Radicals demanding the abolition of the House of Lords and the confiscation of Church property, it inferred that the demon of revolution had not been completely exorcised, but could still hope that, with the help of the great Duke, the evil spirit might be confined to his proper region, and the British Constitution be upheld as the pride and envy of the world.
6 In due time George Eliot was to pourtray various phases of the society around her, including the Radical as well as the fine old Tory. In her childhood, of course, she took the colouring of her surroundings. To the infant the arrangements of its nursery are as unalterable as the laws of the solar system and the existence of any other order inconceivable. Her world was the fireside of Griff; and if she had glimpses of the outside, the views of Mr. Robert Evans represented ultimate truth, or were taken as indisputable assertions of matter of fact. He was fond of his little girl, and took her for occasional outings in his gig, or on expeditions to neighbouring country towns. The family circle was small. Soon after her birth, her mother's health became weak; the elder girl, Christiana, was sent to school; and Mary Ann with her brother spent part of every day at a dame-school close to their own gates. She did not show any remarkable precocity, though she was both a thoughtful and a very affectionate and sensitive child. Her brother became naturally the first object of her devotion, and devotion to some one was throughout her life a marked need of her nature. While still five years old, she went through the experiences more or less idealized in the Mill on the Floss, and more historically commemorated in the series of sonnets called Brother and Sister. She tells in the poems how she rambled with him through the meadows; across the rivulet hidden by tangled forget-me-nots; through the rookery and by the "brown canal," where the barges seemed to bring intimations of an unknown world beyond. In the copse, there were traces of the "mystic gypsies," where Mr. Petulengro perhaps had encamped, though when she actually met him--if the narrative in the Mill on the Floss be authentic history--he was a less romantic being than we should judge from his behaviour in Lavengro. Then, too, she had the wonderful adventure of catching a perch by mistake, which suggests the inevitable moral, namely, that "luck was with glory wed." The early hero-worship of the little girl running like a puppy after the slightly bigger brother is simply and touchingly described. "School parted us," she says; and she never found that childish world again.

   'But were another childish world my share,
   I would be born a little sister there.'
7 Her brother was sent to school when she was five years old; and as her mother was still in bad health, she was sent to join her sister at a school kept by a Miss Lathom at Attleboro, a village only a mile or two distant from Griff. She continued there for three or four years, spending her Sundays at home. Her chief memory of this part of her life was the difficulty of getting a seat near the fireplace in cold weather. Her health was low, it seems, and she suffered from the nightly terrors which haunt delicate children, and which she has ascribed to Gwendolen Harleth. "All her soul," she said, "became a quivering fear." The other pupils, however, made a pet of their small companion, and she was not unhappy. She began to read such books as then came in the way of children. In one of them, called The Linnet's Life, she afterwards wrote a few words, stating that it was the first present from her father which she could remember, and recording her early delight in its pages. She remembered, too, her absorption in Aesop's Fables, and laughed heartily over the pleasure she had taken in the humour of "Mercury and the Statue Seller." A stray volume of Joe Miller supplied her with anecdotes wherewith to astonish her family. In those days children were less distracted by miscellaneous scraps of print, and could pore over the same thumbed and dogs-eared favourites. In her eighth or ninth year she was sent to a larger school, kept by a Miss Wallington at Nuneaton. Here there were some thirty boarders, and she became especially intimate with Miss Lewis, the principal governess. Her passion for reading developed rapidly. A stray Waverley came in her way; and when that was returned to its owner before she had finished it, she began writing out the story for herself, till her elders got it back for her. She was fascinated by an extract from Lamb's Captain Jackson even in an almanac; and among her favourite books were Defoe's History of the Devil, Pilgrim's Progress, and Rasselas. By this time it was beginning to be understood that there was something remarkable about the child. She excited the admiration of the home-circle by acting charades with her brother during the holidays; and if not a decided "prodigy," was clearly capable of absorbing such intellectual influences as could be found in Warwickshire. In her thirteenth year she was transferred to a school at Coventry. It was kept by two ladies named Franklin, daughters of a Baptist minister, who had for many years preached in a chapel at Coventry. He lived in a house "almost exactly resembling that of Rufus Lyon in Felix Holt." Lyon's character and some of his little personal peculiarities were also suggested by this original. George Eliot was always grateful to the daughters for the excellence of their teaching. She was at once recognized as the most promising of their pupils. Her themes were kept for the private edification of her teachers, instead of being read in the class like those of her comrades. She had good masters in French and German and music. She was sometimes called upon to display her musical skill before visitors, as the best performer in the school; and obeyed with ready good humour, though suffering agonies of shyness. The love of music generally shows itself at an early age, but she had apparently some difficulty in yielding to the passion. Three years after leaving school, she attended an oratorio at Coventry, and says in a letter that she thinks it will be her last. She declares that she has "no soul for music," and is a "tasteless person." She therefore is not qualified to discuss the question of the "propriety or lawfulness of such exhibitions of talent." For herself, she would not regret if music were strictly confined to purposes of worship; and cannot think that "a pleasure that wishes the devotion of all the time and powers of an immortal being to the acquirement of an expertness in so useless ... an accomplishment can be quite pure and elevating in its tendency." The religious theory is, as we shall see, characteristic; but it is singular that a woman who was to find one of her greatest delights in music, and who was already skilled in the art, should think herself devoid of the capacity. Two years later, indeed, she was moved to "hysterical sobbing" by another oratorio. She was always diffident and easily discouraged; and these reflections may mean merely an attack of low spirits. Perhaps the want of "soul" meant only the absence of a specific aptitude for the musician's calling; or, possibly, the singing at Coventry was out of tune. [Mr. W. A. White of New York has kindly shown me a letter to another friend in which George Eliot speaks of the same oratorio. It might be urged, she admits, that such exhibitions show "the beautiful powers of the human voice when carried to the highest point of improveability." But such reasoning would compel us to admit "opera-dancing, horse-racing, and even intemperance."]
8 George Eliot left school finally at the end of 1835. Her mother was failing in health, and died in the summer of 1836, after a long illness, during which she was nursed by her daughters. In the following spring the elder daughter, Christiana, married Mr. Edward Clarke, a surgeon in Warwickshire, and Mary Ann undertook the charge of her father's household at Griff. She set her mind to the work, and became, it is said, an "exemplary housewife." She also exerted herself in promoting various charitable works, and continued to study Italian, German, and music. Her brother was now beginning to take a share in their father's business; and found his chief relaxation from hard work in hunting--an amusement which was not in his sister's line. He had also become a High Churchman, whereas she was strongly Evangelical. Although, therefore, the family was bound by ties of warm affection, she found little sympathy in her favourite occupations. She lived in intellectual solitude, conscious of abilities for which she could find no definite outlet, and with no one in her immediate circle capable of guiding or even appreciating her pursuits. When long afterwards an autobiography was suggested to her, she replied: "The only thing I should much care to dwell on [in regard to this period] would be the absolute despair I suffered from of ever being able to do anything. No one could ever have felt greater despair, and a knowledge of this might be a help to some other struggler." On the other hand, she added with a smile, "it might only lead to an increase of bad writing."
9 The account of George Eliot's school days may perhaps suggest that the state of female education in Warwickshire was not altogether so bad as energetic modern reformers are apt to assume. There is, it is true, something of a quaint old-fashioned colouring about the system. Her comrades at Miss Franklin's thought that she was competent "to get up something in the way of a clothing club"; and beyond that limited prospect, they may possibly have dared to hope that she might develop into a Mrs. Chapone or Miss Carter--capable of writing letters "upon the improvement of the human mind," or possibly, in time, of translating Epictetus. She was not, indeed, competent to take a first-class in a University examination, or to enter any career for which such honours qualified the nobler sex; and yet, if we really believed what we are so often told, that the test of a good education is not the stock of knowledge acquired, but the stimulus given to mental activity, the schooling seems to have been successful enough. Her intellectual curiosity was roused, though not yet fixed upon any definite object. From the correspondence which she kept up with her early governess, Miss Lewis, it seems that she read a great deal of miscellaneous literature during sixteen years at Griff. My mind, she says in 1839, presents "an assemblage of disjointed specimens of history, ancient and modern; scraps of poetry picked up from Shakespeare, Cowper, Wordsworth, and Milton; newspaper topics; morsels of Addison and Bacon, Latin verbs, geometry, entomology, and chemistry; Reviews and metaphysics--all arrested and petrified and smothered by the fast-thickening everyday accession of actual events, relative anxieties, and household cares and vexations. How deplorably and unaccountably evanescent are our frames of mind, as various as forms and hues of the summer clouds!" For a girl of nineteen, both the style and the variety of intellectual interests indicated are remarkable. A genius, it may be suggested, can thrive anywhere; and so long as it is not absolutely fettered, can derive nourishment from any set of materials that may come in its way. There is, however, a special characteristic of George Eliot which already appears. A strong imaginative impulse is generally developed early; it is an overmastering faculty which forces its possessor into activity often before knowledge or serious thought has accumulated; draws romances, epic poems, and dramas from children in their teens; and suggests that not only the material surroundings, but even the storage of intellectual accomplishments is but an accidental stimulus to the innate creative power. Charlotte and Emily Brontë, for example, informed the world around them with so much passion and imagination, that we fancy that any other circumstances would have served for an incentive to powers only waiting to be set at liberty. George Eliot, diffident in character, and reflective as much as imaginative in intellect, developed slowly, and was for many years ignorant of her own truest powers. She had a full share of the feminine docility, which is so charming to teachers--especially of the other sex. Women really enjoy lectures, strange as the taste appears to the male at all ages. Even a clever boy generally regards his schoolmaster as a natural enemy, and begins as a rebel. The girl takes the master at his own valuation, or something more, and has an innocent belief that lessons give really desirable information. George Eliot was clearly of this way of thinking; and though she must have been aware of possessing unusual ability, she was anxious to bow submissively to the best instructors. At Griff or in her circle at Coventry no very brilliant intellectual light was shining, nor did even a very clear understanding prevail as to the real lights of contemporary thought. People had not taken to reading the last German authorities; and had vague enough impressions as to the course of European speculation. Miss Lewis and the Miss Franklins were ardent Evangelicals; and the Evangelical school of the day, though not given to philosophy, representing at least the most socially active party in the Church, was so far attractive to her intellectually. It meant at any rate a protest against stagnation. Then, moreover, through life she had very deep religious sentiments, and for the present associated them with the Evangelical dogma. She was greatly impressed by the wife of her father's younger brother, Mrs. Samuel Evans, a Methodist preacher, of whom I shall presently have to speak again. "I shall not only suffer, but be delighted to receive the word of exhortation," she writes to her aunt in 1839, "and I beg you not to withhold it." The most curious of her letters in these years is one to Miss Lewis, discussing with a quaint gravity the ethics of reading fiction. She is good enough to admit that certain standard works must be read--Scott, for example, and Don Quixote--otherwise one would not understand common allusions. Shakespeare, too, is inevitable, though one must be as nice as the bee "to suck nothing but honey from his pages." A teacher, too, may consider it desirable to read fiction by way of tasting for her pupils. But it is dangerous to make trial on oneself of a cup because it is suspected of being poisonous. She herself has suffered from the poison. Her early reading of novels, lent by kind friends, led her to castle-building, which she apparently thinks a pernicious habit. No one, of course, "ever dreamed of recommending" novels to children; but men and women are but children of a larger growth. They cannot be sure at any age of resisting the evil influences. Nothing can be learned from novels which cannot be better learned from history and when she is driven to tears by the impossibility of learning more than a fraction of realities, can she "have any time to spend on things that never existed"? It is plain that in those days aesthetic prophets had not begun to expound the two relations of art and morality; and many young ladies of nineteen at the present day would consider themselves competent to open the eyes of this didactic young person. Her views changed in good time; but the moral earnestness which prompted these rather crude remarks was a permanent characteristic. Meanwhile, if her scruples hindered her from acquiring a wide knowledge upon the novels of the day, she was spending her time to better purpose in the miscellaneous reading already noticed. Wordsworth, it may be observed, was an early favourite to whom she remained faithful through life, and appealed to her as, shortly before, he had appealed, though still more strongly, to J. S. Mill. She was much impressed, too, by Young's Night Thoughts, an edifying work which in later years she criticized with the severity of a revolted disciple. Her studies naturally took a theological direction. She begins with Hannah More and Wilberforce, and is presently interested by the controversies aroused by the Oxford movement. She cannot make up her mind as to the solution. She reads an essay on "Schism" by Professor Hoppus of the London University, and the Evangelical Milner's Church History. She compares their views with those of The Portrait of an English Churchman, by W. Gresley, an early champion of "Tractarianism," and finds that the Tracts themselves show a "confused appreciation of the great doctrine of justification." They approach too nearly to the Church marked by the "prophetical epithets" of "the scarlet beast" and the "Mystery of Iniquity." The authors, it is true, are zealous, learned, and devoted, but "Satan is too crafty to commit his cause into the hands of those who have nothing to recommend them to approbation." She is pleased, however, by the Lyra Apostolica and the "sweet poetry" of the Christian Year. She is presently much impressed by the work upon Ancient Christianity and the Oxford Tracts, by Isaac Taylor, "one of the most eloquent, acute, and pious of writers." She has "gulped it in a most reptile-like fashion," but must "chew it thoroughly to facilitate its assimilation with her mental frame." She is attracted, too, by the "stirring eloquence " of The Great Teacher, written by John Harris, a popular writer of the time, with liberal tendencies, who was afterwards principal of an Independent College. These studies, it must be remembered, represent her state of mind before the completion of her twenty-first year. She was soon to come under new influences. Meanwhile she was already ambitious enough to propose to make a practical application of her reading, and planned a "chart" of ecclesiastical history, with columns showing the dates of the principal personages, events, schisms, and so forth, with perhaps one for the fulfilment of the prophecies. Happily a chart was published by some one else which extinguished hers, and she turned to other studies. A different result of her meditations was a poem, which, though not her first attempt at poetry, was the first published. It is a farewell to the world, of which this is a specimen:

   "Books that have been to me as chests of gold,
   Which, miserlike, I secretly have told,
   And for them love, health, friendship, peace have sold,

   Blest Volume! whose clear truth-writ page once known
   Fades not before heaven's sunshine and hell's moan,
   To thee I say not, of earth's gifts alone,

   Then shall my new-born senses find new joy,
   New sounds, new sights, my ears and eyes employ,
   Nor fear that word that here brings sad alloy,
10 The editor of the Christian Observer, in which the lines appeared (January 1840), adds a note to the effect that in heaven we shall be able to do without the Bible. The verses, however, if suspected of this trifling heresy, show religious feeling much more distinctly than poetical power, in which they resemble most sacred poetry.

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