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and it must apply to every variety of poem, whether
, glowing with all the colours of Shakespere, or naked as from the hands of Crabbe. The unadorned works, indeed, of such a stern painter as Crabbe have been the rocks upon which many trim definitions have split; and witty and humorous pieces form another such reef. The wanderings and shortcomings of definitions are not wonderful, however; nor need we wonder at the ravings of those who, instead of defining, have been carried away into wild description. As Longinus thought to write sublimely on the sublime, as Addison wrote wittily about wit, as Horace, Vida, Boileau, Roscommon, Pope, and others have written poems on the poetic art, it is at present the fashion with some to indite a prose poem whenever the subject to be handled is poetry; quite forgetting that a poem without verse can be no more than the movement of a watch without the dialplate. In the following sheets there will assuredly be no such highflying; but, as it is not so easy to sail clear of other errors, I dare only hope to be on the right track.
Before attempting to define, however, we must know precisely what it is that we are going to define. Poetry may be packed between the covers of a book, but we know that it had its being and home within the poet's bosom before he thus embodied it in words and gave it an outward dwelling-place on paper. He felt it, and then he spoke out in words of fire. Now, although we may
be unable to give such or any utterance to our feelings, we may be sure from reason beforehand, and are doubly sure from trial afterward, that the poet, as such, has no more, and no other, and not always even stronger feelings than ourselves; and that therefore what marks out the poet, commonly so called, is not simply loftier feelings or brighter visions, but power to give these forth, and to make others see what he has seen, and feel what he has felt. We may not have to boast of the accomplishment of verse; our muse may be Tacita, the silent one, , beloved of Numa; but those feelings of the poet which precede expression are shared with us and with all men. This truth may be gathered partly from the very use of words. We speak of the romance of childhood, of a romantic adventure, of the poetry of life in general : thus also Keats, making mention of what is in plain English the rapture of a kiss, says that the lips poesied with each other. As heat is found in all bodies, poetry dwells with quickening power in every man's soul; but only here and there, not always, however, where it may be hottest, it breaks out into visible fire. Here, then, are two things instead of one to be defined; first, that frame of the mind wherein poetry is felt; next, that mood of mind wherein it is uttered-poetry, and the art of poetry. This distinction will henceforward be observed, at least, wherever there is need of accuracy; and I therefore beg leave to call the feeling poetry, and to call the expression of it in words poesy, or song. But
it will be seen that to answer what is commonly understood by the question, What is poetry? we have only to do with the former, namely, with the feeling of poetry, however it may have arisen, whether unaware and from the unknown depths of our own soul, or by reading the pages of a book, or by gazing on the broadside of nature; and that to answer the other question, or what is the state of the mind giving birth to song, belongs rather to the whole art of composition or utterance than to this one corner of it. For poetry is uttered in other ways than by speech; as in visible forms, in musical sounds, in dumb show; in any, or in all together.
Now, in entering upon the wide field that here stretches before us, we are met in the very gateway by the fact that both the dreamer and the thinker, the singer and the sayer, have declared the immediate aim of poesy to be pleasure. They are at war on many another point, but here they are at one.
It is the pleasure of a truth, says Aristotle; it is that of a lie, says Bacon; but both feel and admit that, whatever other aims poesy may have in view, pleasure is the main thing. Whatsoever we do has happiness for its last end, but with poesy it is the first as well as the last. This is not all, however; the tie is much closer. Poesy is not only meant for pleasure, but is founded on pleasure, and is the embodiment of all our happiness, past, present, and to come. It is built on, and of, and in, and for happiness. “It is the record,” as Shelley has it, “ of the best and
happiest moments of the best and happiest minds." True, it often deals with sorrow, but none of our sorrows are without a ray of comfort; and as black in the sunshine appears brighter than white in the shade, so that oftentimes we cannot tell black from white, there is often a luxury in grief with which we would not part for anything short of the highest bliss. Some have gone so far as to say that the pleasure wrung
from sorrow is the greatest of all; as Shelley, that it is “sweeter far than the pleasure of pleasure itself.” Without going so far, Bishop Butler, in his sermon on Compassion, says, that we sympathize oftener and more readily with sorrow than with joy; and Adam Smith maintains that our sympathy with grief is generally a more lively sensation than our sympathy with joy. If these statements be true, they of course afford the very strongest reasons why poesy should deal with
But they may well be doubted; for it is a characteristic of pleasure, as will in due time be shown more fully, that we do not think of it, while, on the other side, we do think of our pains; we count every minute of while
years of happiness are unaware gliding over our heads; and we are thus very liable to make a false reckoning of the values of our pleasurable and painful feelings and fellow-feelings. Be they right or wrong, however, there is here at any rate no call for such extreme views : it is reason enough why poesy should treat of sorrow that we know so little of weal
except through woe-a fact so well understood that it has passed into proverbial wit, as when Erskine wrote to Lady Payne, “He never knew pleasure who never knew pain.” Moreover, it always treats of a sorrow that can sing, and whenever the grief begins to harrow, it ceases to be fit for
song Here, then, is the upshot of all, that poesy, on the one hand, is the record of pleasure, and, on the other, is intended to produce pleasure in the reader's mind. The poetic feeling, therefore, which has been thus recorded by the poet, and so produced in the reader, is pleasure. It is pleasure, but what kind of pleasure ? This cannot be settled, and we cannot go a step farther, until we know somewhat the nature of enjoyment; and to this examination we now turn.