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With a reference to this distinction, the licences of poetry may be conceived to be determinable; either as deviations from that state of things, abstractedly considered, which obtains in nature, or from that mode of practice which is generally observed in art, not less by the poet himself, than by such artists as imitate the same objects with him.
A single observation, however, will be sufficient to shew, that neither of these principles can be taken as the foundation of a theory which will be adequate to define or illustrate that subtle quality of composition which I have undertaken to investigate. One example will, in fact, sufficiently evince that some licence may be used where there is no deviation from any such standard; beyond which circumstance, we need not seek any additional proof of the insufficiency of the principle under consideration.
For let us suppose, as a possible case, that the poet has occasion to represent some fact which history describes as improbably atrocious and unnatural, and that suitably to what was likely to occur, he describes it as merciful or upright; it is evident that in thus misrepresenting a known circumstance, he takes a liberty with truth, which is only justifiable by licence; and yet in this process, so far may he be from deserting that standard which is assumed in the present hypothesis, that his conduct may be at once more conformable to nature, and more consistent with his general practice, as well as with that of every artist who may undertake to describe the same circumstance.
In a word, the apparent force of both hypotheses may be not merely explained away; but both may be reduced under the more comprehensive principle which was originally laid down, as being exposed to no similar objection. The fact is, that both art and nature. may form constituent parts of science, the true standard by which every deviation is to be estimated which is admitted as a licence: for we have already seen, that what is generally prescribed in the former, gives rise to that system of rules, which constitute the laws of grammar and criticism; and that what generally obtains in the latter, furnishes history and physiology with their respective subjects. These sciences include no small portion of the materials of a poet; and it will probably be found, that it is only as each assumes a scientifick form, that it constitutes a standard, by which the liberties taken in poetical delineation inay be at all determined. Thus, however different the present principle may be thought from that which was fundamentally laid down as true, they are, in fact, identical. And this circumstance, by affording a striking evidence of the comprehensiveness of the theory which I commenced with establishing, since it includes one which is itself not narrow or circumscribed, appears to offer as decisive a proof as may be easily suggested, of the exclusive truth of the former.
If this conclusion may be now taken as established, we require little more in order to perfect the developement of the terms under consideration, than to point out the object by which a poet is led to deviate from what is true in science. And this
be done with sufficient precision, from a maxim advanced by Aristotle, in the close of his “ Poeticks," where he undertakes the refutation of some charges urged against poets; and which, though it may not appear to designate the nature of licence, at least fully justifies its adoption, while at the same time it specifies the end which ought to be sought in every deviation from science. “The practice of the poet in feigning any thing," says the critick,” which is impossible according to science, is justified when he attains the specified end, of making the general effect of the composition itself, or any of its parts, more striking.”
From these considerations, and from this authority, we may venture to define Poetick Licence as follows; That liberty whereby a poet, in order to render his compositions more striking, allowably deviates from what is considered true in science.
Although, for reasons which have been already specified, we are sufficiently justified in offering this definition as comprehensive and clear, it must be allowed, that in order to render it logically adequate, it is necessary to establish the converse of what is here advanced; and to shew, not merely that whatever is a deviation from science will be a li. cence, but that whatever is a licence will be a deviation from science.
Even granting this object attained, we must proceed far beyond the limits of a definition, in order to accomplish all that is proposed in the present
Πρώτον μεν γαρ, αν τα προς αυτην την τηχνην αδυνατα πεποιηται, ημαρτηται· αλλ' ορθως εχει, ει τυγχανει το τελος τε αυτης. Το δε τελος ειρηται· οιον, ει 8τως εκπληκτικώτερον η αυτο, η αλλο TO1€ uepos. De Poet. $ 46.
As the standard is various and dif. ferent, from which the poet claims a power of departing, the nature of those licences by which he assumes such a liberty must be very indefinitely marked out by a general reference to science; and as the quality of being striking is relative, and admits of a different modification, according to the several species of composition in which it is attained, it forms but a vague standard for determining the extent which may be tolerated in poetick licence.
The readiest expedient which offers for supplying these defects, and obviating these exceptions to the comprehensiveness of the subjoined investigation, seems to lie in a copious induction made with the express object of proving, that in every licence some scientitick truth is violated, and some striking ettert attained. In prosecuting which, it will be attended with little comparative difficulty to examine how far every deviation may be prosecuted, without abusing the power by which it is tolerated.
That no objection may be raised to the induction on which I hope to ascertain these punts as partial or limiter, it seems advis able to constier poetry in every liglit in