and illustrates but one mode of thought. The work and the intellec tual workman, are to be classed accord. ing to what is predominant in the composition. Even the poet is not compelled to write all poetry, and to have no other end in view but what is distinctive of his art. He may seek to instruct as well as to please he may record facts as well as invent fictions he may urge precept with the moralist, or assist in the exposition of schemes of philosophy; but still, whatever his subject, whatever the class of readers he addresses, his first and prominent design-the end by which he is to fulfil all other ends-is to delight, to move, to animate, and Occupy the heart. Unless successful here, it matters not by what name he calls his composition, or in what form he casts it, he is no poet; but this accomplished, the addition of didactic matter, or didactic purpose, will work no forfeiture of his title.

It will not be inferred, because the poet has this object of excitement in view, that therefore his verse, when completed, will answer no purpose but that of temporary excitement. The poet is often the highest of all teachers, and leaves behind the most enduring instruction. How can he deal with great topics agitate strong passions -provoke to deep reflection and not be a great teacher? But then, so far as he is a poet, his tuition lies in this, that he places before us events or topics of surpassing interest, of power to rouse the mind, to subdue it or enkindle. He teaches as the painter and the sculptor teach, when they present to us scenes and forms breathing a thousand reflections into the beholder. He teaches us as nature and the world teach. Milton, in his great epic, proposes "to justify the ways of God to man." What graver design?-what purpose more profound? But this purpose is not peculiar to him; he shares it with every divine who either writes or preaches. He is a poet because he performs his lofty task by disclosing to us the very regions of Heaven and Paradise, Chaos and Tartarus by peopling these regions with beings fitted to the climes in which they are seen to move-by making us thrilling spectators of the eventful history transacted in these regions, and by those beings, so wonderfully portrayed, imagined, created by his

genius. When he would teach in any other mode than this-when he would advance his great argument by direct appeals to reason when a desire to convince the understanding becomes predominant in the composition-even Milton, greatest master of his art as he undoubtedly is, loses for a while the character of poet, and lies exposed to the censure of speaking in the manner of a "school divine."

This, then, is the main distinction of poetry, that its own end is answered in its very beauty, or the vivid interest of some kind which it excites. This is the characteristic of every species-whether it be the lyric, which gives us the very rapture of the hour; or the didactic, wherein a subject not peculiarly exciting, and therefore not peculiarly fitted for the poet, is made to engage us by the apt examples, and felicitous expressions, and collateral topics, with which he illustrates and adorns it; or whether it be the dramatic, in which the artist conceals himself from view, and pushes before us, in complete lineaments, and vivid with speech and action, the various characters of mankind; or whether, finally, the epic, wherein, as from the very chair of poetry, the man endowed with all the learning of his age, and with heart expanded to his theme, rescues some great event with all its burning passions from the lapse of time, and tells it out to the world and to all posterity.

This peculiarity in the end of poetry will be found to lie at the basis of all which distinguishes it as a mode of writing. It is immediately connected with its form of composition; the pleasure-giving writer adds to his language the studied melody of verse➡➡ adds the measured cadence of metre, or the recurrence of rhyme. This leads him to the construction of that refined poetic diction, whose character it is, that it presents no debasing or disagreeable association of ideas; and in the selection of language, it induces him to avoid scientific, technical, or merely erudite expressions, and cling in preference to that vernacular dialect which carries with it more pathos, as it is more closely allied to the wants and passions of men. It is this, too, which accounts for his more abundant use, than any other writer, of a figurative style, of imagery, and allusion. All men employ metaphors and simi

les, but the prose writer more frequently to illustrate a meaning, while the allusions of the poet are more frequently employed to deepen an impression. His object is to increase the sentiment, whatever it may be love, or terror, or admiration-which is due to the subject of his verse, by mingling with it a sentiment of the like nature derived from some other source. Thus, to take the simplest of all examples, a rose and the young damsel who gathers it are two very different objects; the one cannot aid us in understanding the other; but both originate the feeling of beauty in an eminent degree, and therefore the poet, from time immemorial, has mingled them together in his strain. He contrives that they should reflect their beauty on each other. Even impressions that are but remotely analogous are made to assimilate, as when the stability of the inanimate rock is introduced to the mind in connexion with the moral constancy of some redoubtable hero. To this play of imagination there is no limit. Objects the most distant and various, animate and inanimate, spiritual and material, of nature, art, or history, are all brought together to serve the occasions of the poet. They are assembled by a word-they contribute to the desired effect-they are dispersed in an instant. They are presented in just one aspect, and that often only for a moment, the very propriety of their introduction frequently depending on this evanescent manner of their appearance. The poet's eye, in that glance of his from earth to heaven, catches at the remotest objects, seizing them in that one attitude in which they harmonize. We must follow it with something of the same quickness, for if we look long and slowly at the images presented to us, an incongruous or absurd effect may sometimes be produced; as we may have had occasion to observe, when some bungling or malicious critic has first spoiled the poet's allusion, by bringing it out in grosser characters than it would bear, and then held up to ridicule his own damaged and distorted copy.

This peculiarity in the end of poetry not only justifies the musical form of its composition, and thus, its imaginative style of writing, but accounts, also, for an especial license given to it in the very thought or sentiment

which it invests with music and imagery. We often hear it remarked of a certain strain of thought, that it is fit for poetry, but out of place elsewhere. Now, how is this? Do those who use this language intend to insult the poet with a privilege to be irrational? Hardly so. But the poet is an artist who, working in language as other artists work in stone or metal, has it for his professed object to embody in his verse the various forms of human thought. If, therefore, a sentiment is natural, pleasing, and commonly felt-if it takes a recognised place among the moods, or even the caprices of humanity-it is a fair topic for poetry, though its reasonableness may not admit of very severe examination. We oblige the poet, in the sen timents he utters, to adhere to reality rather than to reason. He is bound to describe us accurately; we do not make him responsible for the rationality of all our sentiments. What if, in the ardour of his imagination, he forgets, or seems to forget, some very sober and undoubted truth, the oblivion will be pardoned him if it be the natural result of his imaginative mood. In such cases it is the poet's knowledge not to know. Science, for example, teaches us to regard all the events of the material world as linked together in an unfailing series of cause and effect-the most vagrant and subtle of the elements are reduced, we know, beneath the control of a severe and immutable legislation -the very wind may no longer blow as it lists-and the clouds themselves, that used to be the very playthings of chance, are fashioned and freighted as the law directs, and are piloted to their destination along a destined course. All nature is bound down on her ceaseless and inevitable wheel. But what if the poet will take a quite different view of the moving but inanimate scene? What if he grows indignant at the bondage, at the perpetual toil and servitude, imposed upon all nature? What if he will loose her, and have her free, and will assign to the elements a spontaneous movement, like that of man? What if the summercloud pauses at her own leisure on the mountain-top, or the "river wanders at her own sweet will?”—the sentiment, though it would be quite astounding and ridiculous from the man of science, falls with grace from the

lips of the poet, to whom we commit our weakness as well as our wisdom. He is also freed, in a great measure, from that obligation of consistency with himself, which is imposed on all other writers. If the sentiments he expresses are contradictory-if one ode, or one elegy, be utterly at variance with its predecessor-yet, if in each instance he expounds what we ourselves have thought, or felt, or can be made to feel, he escapes without censure. In discoursing on human life, we should hold it discreditable in the graver moralist, if in one page of his writings he should depict our existence as a fruitless toil or weary idleness, as a scarce mitigated grievance, replete with pain and disappointment, and yet in some future page break forth in exclamations of delight at this admirable state of being, so happily devised, so full of activity, so gay with hope, so rich in affections! But the poet is allowed, after this very fashion, "to change his hand and check the measure." Of such conflicting representations as these, neither can, of course, express what is generally and permanently true of human life, but both portray an actual and veritable condition of our changeful minds. Both, therefore, belong to the poet. The very truth he seeks is to be found in this versatility of thought; he is pledged to the follies, he must be faithful to the inconsistencies, of mankind.

We may here, perhaps, be asked why-if poetry is to be described as that species of literature which has intellectual pleasure and excitement for its very purpose-why the novelwhich is certainly written for our amusement, and cannot often be accused of having any other object in view-should not be classed under the head of poetry? To us it seems that the novel is not only divested of the form of verse, and is not only less select in the objects presented by it to the imagination, but that it depends for its power over us on a species of interest incompatible with what is most peculiar and refined in the substance itself of poetry. The interest of a novel depends on a strong excitement of our curiosity. We are carried from event to event with breathless haste, and our agitation continually increases to know the results of those entangled and con

flicting circumstances in which we ourselves seem, for the time, to be involved. If the work has not this predominant interest of a story, it may be a good book for many purposes, but it is no novel. Now, this excite. ment of a keen impetuous curiosity, cannot possibly be united either with that deep impassioned thought, or with that subtle play of fancy, which are the main boast and glory of the poet. If the novelist pause to reflect and refine-if he would throw the mind back upon itself, or task it with discursive efforts of the imagination—we grow impatient, and our impatience is just in proportion to the success with which he had engaged us in that busy, stirring, complicated scene, which, like another real life, he was creating around us. He cannot expect, after having thus disturbed the repose of his reader, to have him in that "still and quiet time," when the mind is free to take those varied and delicate movements which, in such quick succession, the verse of a master spirit is capable of impressing on it. When the poet undertakes to conduct us along the course of some narrative, we have no such haste or trepidation. If we find ourselves borne with violence, it is on the wings of passion; we are not tormented by a craving curiosity in the plot, which is tempered and subdued, and made subordinate to other modes of excitement. When we travel with the minstrel we have abundant leisure on our hands; we have no place to reach, or are in no haste to reach it; we pause, we loiter, we wander, wherever and as long as he pleases. The very music of his verse delays and detains the spirit. We linger as we listen, and rather fear to go too fast than are impatient to proceed. The novel, therefore, appears to be marked out from the poem, not only by its prosaic form, and a coarser selection of topics, but by its dependence on a species of interest incompatible with that mood of reflection so necessary to the enjoyment of poetic thought. But here, as in all such distinctions, the two provinces are seen to be separate, but it is utterly impossible to draw the boundary line between them. In the poem, the interest of a narrative may so predominate that the work shall be little more than a tale in verse; while in the novel that interest may be so subdued, and the page so

fraught with feeling and imagination,
that the composition, though it loses
its merit as a tale, becomes a poem in
all but the absence of metrical form.
Reflection is almost the perpetual
attitude of the poet. He is full, in-
deed, of passion; but, instead of con..
ducting to active effort, it lies involved
in thought. There have, doubtless,
been strains of poetry inspired by the
vivid direct impulse of passion; but
these must have been few and brief.
The natural mood of the poet is that
of intense reflection. Even when he
pours forth his personal and bitter la-
mentations, he rather recalls his an-
guish than immediately suffers under
it; his grief is a reminiscence while
he writes; it is not the present tyran-
ny of his bosom.
Those thoughts

that voluntary move Harmonious numbers,"

are not the sudden and violent out

ful a celebrity in their day. The enthusiasm of the times makes them poetry. Such strength of passion, like the supernatural force of Samson, disparages all noble arms; it needs not the polished steel of the artificer; the first trivial thing that comes to hand serves it as well.

And here, we apprehend, lies the explanation of whatever there is of truth in the often-quoted and oftendisputed remark of Dr Johnson on the inferior nature of devotional poetry -a remark which is sometimes too rashly and too absolutely contradicted. There is no unfitness, we allow, in the theme itself, for the sentiment of Chris. tian piety has inspired some of the most elevated strains of poetry; nor is the writer so peculiarly situated with regard to this sentiment, that he is unable to exercise his mind with freedom upon it, or to surround it with poetic associations. But there is this peculiarity in the case, that strains of a very humble character in respect to human genius, are, in this order of poetry, sustained in existence and reputation by the strength of feeling to which they are addressed, so that an air of mediocrity is given to the entire class. When verse is employed as an instrument to excite devotion, it meets with a feeling too strong for the poet -a feeling too imperative and obligatory, to rise and fall with the scale of literary merit. The humblest verse is raised to the level of the most sublime-nay, above that level. It is with the sacred hymn as it was in olden times with the sacred pictureits character as a work of art is entirely lost sight of in the piety of its subject.

pourings of passion. Melody may be described as the grace of speech, and, like the grace of action, requires self-control, and gains half its charms from the expression of that self-government. And how could the poet, unless his heart were free as it is full, take that wide survey of his knowledge - which is necessary to the successful practice of his art? The same temper of mind which is brought to the production, should be brought also in some measure to the perusal of poetry. Nor is this heady and impatient curiosity of the novel, to which we have been alluding, the only interference to the due enjoyment of this intellectual luxury. If the mind, it is worth observing, be already possessed and overmastered by the very passion the poet would excite, it is no longer fit audi- Thus have we attempted, in a very ence for his higher and more compli- humble manner, to describe the discated strains. Of what avail to such tinguishing characteristics of poetry, a one are the delicate touches of his and have traced them to a peculiarity art? They are not felt, they are not in the ostensible end which this species appreciated; or rather, whatever he of writing has in view. We have not says on the too favoured theme, is felt contrived to raise any thing mysterious without measure, and without distinc- about the nature of the poetic, nor tion is applauded. The passion has have wrapped our meaning, as we outrun the poet; it makes superfluous easily might have done, in terms which all his moving tropes and fine and would have given it an air of profundsubtle associations, and gives equal ity, by reason of their sheer obscurity. effect to the coarsest material. It is The qualities which distinguish the thus we often find but little merit in poet, are such as all writers, and innational hymns, which yet are re-deed all men, possess, but not in equal sponded to by all classes of society, even the highest, and in those revolútionary songs which have had so fear


Poetry and prose, when the terms are intended to relate to any thing more than the form of com

position, mark a difference of degree, not of kind; and a difference of degree, moreover, which is broad and obvious. This we add, because an altogether fruitless perplexity may be raised, by asking whether this or that verse-maker is to be called a poet. It is a perplexity, in fact, out of which, in some instances, there may be no escape whatever, because the words prose and poetry are not fitted to de signate minute differences in those qualities of authorship to which they refer, but apply only to broad distinctions, palpable and interesting to all men. In proportion to the capability of the poet's subject to sustain high passions and high thoughts-in proportion to his own power to think and feel, and to collect around him all auxiliary topics, and to use the resources of language and of melody, which last is never to be forgotten, and has an influence over us greater than we generally suspect-in such proportion will he be worthy of his high title. If less fortunate in his theme-if less gift ed with imaginative powers-he may still share the honours of the laurel. But to decide in every case which may be suggested, whether the prosaic element has preponderated or not -to fix the exact minimum of poetry which shall pass muster in the ranks to determine when that mediocrity, so detestable to gods and men, loses even the sad claim of mediocrity; this is impossible, and happily of no manner of interest. It is a problem of the same nature as that ancient piece of sophistry, wherein you are told to take grain after grain from a heap of sand, and are asked at each removal whether the quantity that remains is still to be called a heap. Of course, you must arrive by this process at a point where the name is no longer applicable; but as the term heap is not a measure for an exact number of grains, it is impossible to fix upon the exact moment in the process when the name is lost, and is no longer appropriate. Whether the problem be of grains of poetry or grains of sand, it has the same sort of difficulty, and about the same importance.

In setting down the muster-roll of poets, it should not be forgotten that we are judging for mankind, not merely for ourselves, and that we ought, therefore, to cultivate a catholicity of taste. For our own part, we

dislike all talk of schools of poetry, where the one is extolled to the ceaseless disparagement of the other. He who admires Wordsworth and Coleridge, admires not more wisely because he depreciates Pope and Dryden. We would have none of the laureate fraternity neglected-none who stands high in his own order. Not, indeed, that every writer who has happened to survive, by accident of chronological position or other caprice of fortune, will therefore invite or repay perusal. There is a certain class of authors whose works are to be found built in and incorporated, as it were, in those massive collections of poetry which keep their station on the earth by mere weight and bulk. Authors whose names, though never mentioned by the lips of living admirers, are still seen to take their turn on title pages, and the gold lettering of the long row of volumes-uncouth names and unmusical, such as Garth, and Sprat, and Blackmore-these no man thinks of disturbing. Scarcely can their memories be said to survive, but to suffer a slow and lingering oblivion. Their works are preserved, indeed, but much as mummies are preserved; they bear no aspect of life; they are but mementoes of the dead, and frauds upon the tomb. If the spirits of these departed poets, for poets they must be called for lack of any other name, still wander amongst us, it is only in shame and sorrow, because these sad remains-this dust they have left behind them-has not been honestly interred. Such unhappy authors, who have ceased to live but to whom the grave denies its repose, it is charity to pass unquestioned; let their ghosts glide by in silence and unspoken to, that they may the sooner rest in peace. But of names which by any large section of society are held in affectionate remembrance, it is always worth while to investigate the claim to celebrity. Wherever the popular voice continues to applaud, there is distinguished merit of some kind-merit which in its own order still remains unsurpassed, and which, therefore, ought to be duly acknowledged and honoured.

This brief description of the nature of poetry, discloses to us at once the part which is to be allotted to it in the great work of mental cultivation. Appealing as it does to passion, and regarding always the beauty of its

« VorigeDoorgaan »