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Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colours, and painted more to the life in his imagination, by the help of words, than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe. In this case, the poet seems to get the better of nature: he takes, indeed, the landscape after her, but gives it more vigorous touches, heightens its beauty, and so enlivens the whole piece, that the images which flow from the objects themselves appear weak and faint, in comparison of those that come from, the expressions. The reason, probably, may be, because, in the survey of any object, we have only so much of it painted on the imagination as comes in at the eye; but in its description, the poet gives us as free a view of it as he pleases, and discovers to us several parts, that either we did not attend to, or that lay out of our sight when we first beheld it. As we look on any object, our idea of it is, perhaps, made up of two or three simple ideas; but when the poet represents it, he may either give us a more complex idea of it, or only raise in us such ideas as are most apt to affect the imagination.
It may be here worth our while to examine how it comes to pass that several readers, who are all acquainted with the same language, and know the meaning of the words they read, should nevertheless have a different relish of the same descriptions. We find one transported with a passage, which another runs over with coldness and indifference; or finding the representation extremely natural,. where another can perceive nothing of likeness and conformity. This different taste must proceed either from the perfection of imagination in one more than in another, or from the different ideas that several readers affix to the same words. For, to have a true relish and form a right judgment of a description, a man should be born with a good imagination, and must have well weighed the force and energy that lie in the several words of a language, so as to be able to distinguish which are most significant and expressive of their proper ideas, and what additional strength and beauty they are capable of receiving from conjunction with others. The fancy must be warm, to retain the print of those images it hath received from out
ward objects, and the judgment discerning, to know what expressions are most proper to clothe and adorn them to the best advantage. A man who is deficient in either of these respects, though he may receive the general notion of a description, can never see distinctly all its particular beauties; as a person with a weak sight may have the confused prospect of a place that lies before him, without entering into its several parts, or discerning the variety of its colours in their full glory and perfection.
N° 417. SATURDAY, JUNE 28, 1712.
ON THE PLEASURES OF THE IMAGINATION.
How a whole set of ideas hang together, &c. A natural cause assigned for it. How to perfect the imagination of a writer. Who among the ancient poets had this faculty in its greatest perfection. Homer excelled in imagining what is great; Virgil in imagining what is beautiful; Ovid in imagining what is new. Our countryman, Milton, very perfect in all these three respects.
Quem tu, Melpomene, semel
Non illum labor Isthmius
Clarabit pugilem, non equus impiger, &c.
Et spissæ nemorum comæ,
Fingent Æolio carmine nobilem.-HOR. 4 Od. iii. 1.
He on whose birth the lyric queen
Of numbers smil'd, shall never grace
The Isthmian gauntlet, or be seen
The master of th' Æolian song.—ATTERBURY.
E may observe, that any single circumstance of what we have formerly seen often raises up a whole scene of imagery, and awakens numberless ideas that before slept in the imagination; such a particular smell or colour is able to fill the mind, on a sudden, with the picture of the fields or gardens where we first met with it, and to bring up into view all the variety of images that
once attended it. Our imagination takes the hint, and leads us unexpectedly into cities or theatres, plains or meadows. We may farther observe, when the fancy thus reflects on the scenes that have passed in it formerly, those which were at first pleasant to behold appear more so upon reflection, and that the memory heightens the delightfulness of the original. A Cartesian would account for both these instances in the following manner:
The set of ideas which we received from such a prospect or garden, having entered the mind at the same time, have a set of traces, belonging to them in the brain, bordering very near upon one another; when, therefore, any one of these ideas arises in the imagination, and consequently dispatches a flow of animal spirits to its proper trace, these spirits, in the violence of their motion, run not only into the trace to which they were more particularly directed, but into several of those that lie about it. By this means, they awaken other ideas of the same set, which immediately determine a new dispatch of spirits, that in the same manner open other neighbouring traces, till at last the whole set of them is blown up, and the whole prospect or garden flourishes in the imagination.. But because the pleasure we receive from these places far surmounted, and overcame the little disagreeableness we found in them, for this reason there was at first a wider passage worn in the pleasure traces, and, on the contrary, so narrow a one in those which belonged to the disagreeable ideas, that they were quickly stopt up, and rendered incapable of receiving any animal spirits, and consequently of exciting any unpleasant ideas in the memory.
It would be in vain to inquire whether the power of imagining things strongly proceeds from any greater perfection in the soul, or from any nicer texture in the brain of one man than of another. But this is certain, that a noble writer should be born with this faculty in its full strength and vigour, so as to be able to receive lively ideas from outward objects, to retain them long, and to range them together upon occasion, in such figures and representations, as are most likely to hit the fancy of the reader. A poet should take as much pains in forming his imagination, as a philosopher in cultivating his understanding. He must gain a due relish of the works of nature, and be
thoroughly conversant in the various scenery of a country life.
When he is stored with country images, if he would beyond pastoral, and the lower kinds of poetry, he ought to acquaint himself with the pomp and magnificence of courts. He should be very well versed in every thing that is noble and stately in the productions of art, whether it appear in painting or statuary; in the great works of architecture which are in their present glory, or in the ruins of those which flourished in former ages.
Such advantages as these help to open a man's thoughts, and to enlarge his imagination, and will therefore have their influence on all kinds of writing, if the author knows how to make right use of them. And among those of the learned languages who excel in this talent, the most perfect in their several kinds are perhaps Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. The first strikes the imagination wonderfully with what is great, the second with what is beautiful, and the last with what is strange. Reading the Iliad, is like travelling through a country uninhabited, where the fancy is entertained with a thousand savage prospects of vast deserts, wide uncultivated marshes, huge forests, misshapen rocks and precipices. On the contrary, the Eneid is like a well-ordered garden, where it is impossible to find out any part unadorned, or to cast our eyes upon a single spot that does not produce some beautiful plant or flower. But when we are in the Metamorphoses, we are walking an enchanted ground, and see nothing but scenes of magic lying around us.
Homer is in his province, when he is describing a battle or a multitude, a hero or a god. Virgil is never better pleased than when he is in his elysium, or copying out an entertaining picture. Homer's epithets generally mark out what is great; Virgil's what is agreeable. Nothing can be more magnificent than the figure Jupiter makes in the first Iliad, nor more charming than that of Venus in the first Æneid.
Η καὶ κυανέησιν ἐπ ̓ ὀφρύσι νεῦσε Κρονίων,
ILIAD. i. 528.
He spoke, and awful bends his sable brows;
VIRG. Æn. i. 406.
Thus having said, she turn'd and made appear
Which, flowing from her shoulders, reach'd the ground,
In length of train descends her sweeping gown,
And by her graceful walk the queen of love is known.
Homer's persons are most of them godlike and terrible; Virgil has scarce admitted any into his poem who are not beautiful, and has taken particular care to make his hero so.
Purpureum, et lætos oculis afflârat honores.
VIRG. Æn. i. 594.
And gave his rolling eyes a sparkling grace,
And breath'd a youthful vigour on his face.-DRYDEN.
In a word, Homer fills his readers with sublime ideas, and, I believe, has raised the imagination of all the good poets that have come after him. I shall only instance Horace, who immediately takes fire at the first hint of any passage in the Iliad or Odyssey, and always rises above himself when he has Homer in his view. Virgil has drawn together, into his Æneid, all the pleasing scenes his subject is capable of admitting, and in his Georgics has given us a collection of the most delightful landscapes that can be made out of fields and woods, herds of cattle, and swarms of bees.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, has shewn us how the imagination may be affected by what is strange. He describes a miracle in every story, and always gives us the sight of some new creature at the end of it. His art consists chiefly in well-timing his description, before the first shape is quite worn off, and the new one perfectly finished; so that he every where entertains us with something we