Prose or Poetry
IT IS arguable that the novelists rather than the poets of the nineteenth century are the real beneficiaries of the great Romantic endowment. Certainly the novel, and not the long poem, was to become the dominant literary form of the century, and the novel went on to success in a field in which poetry virtually ceased to compete--the relationship between the individual imagination and the problems and complications of society. Those who deplore the plight of contemporary poetry often ignore the fact that many of the former functions of the poet have been taken over by the novelist: the change is simply one of form.
Nor would Coleridge and Wordsworth, who always refused to make any qualitative distinction between prose and poetry, have been disconcerted by this change, one imagines. The technical requirements made verse more exacting, that was all, and the forms and technique of verse were not equal to the immense expansion of the imagination into regions which it would take prose fiction to settle and colonise. If their Romantic responsibilities were a source of difficulty and inhibition to many Victorian poets, they were to novelists like George Eliot a challenge and a joy. And the mechanism of the novel gave ample scope for dealing with them. But in verse the Romantics developed no new form; they drew heavily on the eighteenth century and on Milton,