W. K. Clifford (1845-1879), an exceptionally able mathematician who taught at University College, London, and a thinker of rare promise, was a pioneer in the appreciation of an aspect of Songs before Sunrise. Like Swinburne, he admired Mazzini. In his lecture ‘Cosmic Emotion’ (Nineteenth Century, October 1877, ii, 411-29; reprinted in Lectures and Essays, ed. Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock, London, 1879)—‘an emotion which is felt in regard to the universe or sum of things viewed as a cosmos or order’—the young idealist illustrated his views from Songs before Sunrise. In the following extract notes giving Clifford’s references to volumes of poetry have been renumbered, and citation of particular poems has been added.
We arrive thus at a common principle, which at once distinguishes good actions from bad in the internal world, and which has created the external world, so far as it is living. This principle is, then, a fit object for cosmic emotion if we can only get rid of the vagueness of its definition. And it has this great advantage, that it does not need to be personified for poetical purposes. For we may regard the result of this mode of action, extended over a great length of time, as in some way an embodiment of the action itself. In this way the human race embodies in itself all the ages of organic action that have gone to its evolution. The nature of organic action, then, is to personify itself, and it has personified itself most in the human race.
But before we go further two things must be remarked. First, the very great influence of life in modifying the surface of the earth, so great as in many cases to be comparable to the effects of far ruder changes. Thus we have rocks composed entirely of organic remains, and climate changed by the presence or absence of forests. Secondly, although we have restricted our cosmos to the earth in space, and to the history of life upon it in time, there is no necessity to maintain the
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Publication information: Book title: Algernon Swinburne: The Critical Heritage. Contributors: Clyde K. Hyder - Editor. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1995. Page number: 170.
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