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Genuine Poetry, as full of Kse and Instruction, as of Delight.
Aug. 22, 1815. In the defence of Poetry, its strong holds are too often abandoned; and its merits are foolishly placed on some of its minor and incidental appendages. It is assumed to be a mere Art of Amusement, and consequently degraded beneath that which conveys instruction. Then its detractors insist triumphantly on the motto, Prodesse quam delectare, and, shrugging up their ridiculous shoulders, think themselves profound, and wise !
These half-witted prosers are ignorant, that real poetry is most distinguished as the vehicle of instruction of the highest kind. It paints the most brilliant associations of the mind; the noblest emotions of the heart; and the most amiable and virtuous moral impressions, which are the mingled result of intellect and native sensibility. Whether these, or even the most ingenious discoveries of any particular branch of what is called Science, are most conducive to the improvement and happiness of the generality of mankind, will admit of little doubt. “We are perpetually moralists,” says Johnson, "we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter
are voluntary, and at leisure: physiological learning S is of such rare emergence, that one may know ano
ther half his life, without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostatics, or astronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears. Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools, that supply most axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials for conversation; and these purposes are best served by Poets, Orators, and Historians.”d
Of the same opinion was the great Lord Bacon, a man whose true and profound genius in real science cannot be questioned. “I find,” says he, “some particular writings of an elegant nature, touching some of the affections, as of anger, of comfort, upon adverse accidents, of tenderness of countenance, and other. But the poets, and writers of histories, are the best doctors of this knowledge; where we find painted forth with the life, how affections are kindled and incited, and how pacified and restrained: and how again contained from act and farther degree: how they disclose themselves; how they work; how, they vary; how they gather, and fortify; how they are enwrapped one within another; and how they do fight and encounter one with another, and other the like parti
Life of Milton.
cularities; amongst the which this last is of special use in moral and civil matters.”
“So then it appeareth,” he adds in another place, “that Poesy serveth, and conferreth to magnanimity, morality, and delectation; and therefore it was ever thought to have some participation of divineness, because it doth raise and erect the mind, by submitting the shews of things to the desires of the mind; whereas reason doth humble and bow the mind to the nature of things”e
The human mind is endowed with degrees of richness so numerous and extended, that Nature must appear to it in every variety, from the mere nakedness of materiality to a scene peopled with invisible spirits, and aërial inhabitants. It is the business of the Poet, to hold a mirror to the powers which are thus implanted in us; to encourage the brilliant; to assist the dim; and to awaken the dull. For what is life without these illusions ? And how little above the brute beasts of the field, he, who can only behold that, which exists in actual and substantial form, before his eyes! To teach us with what sentiments to survey the beautiful prospects of the Creation; to embody the fleeting visions of light, which are permitted occasionally to glance across the darkened vallies we are destined to tread, is neither lightly performed, nor unimportant in its end !
The disgrace, or trifling name, which, in the
• See Dr. Johnson's noble description of “the business and requisites of a Poet," in the tenth chapter of Rasselas.
judgment of the superficial, attaches to Poetry, be
longs only to a mistaken opinion of its nature, occaK sioned by the bad taste, or mean genius, of some of its
fashionable professors. The true Poet, as Johnson
says, “must write as the interpreter of Nature, and S the legislator of mankind; and consider himself, as
presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations; as a being superior to time and place.”
The originality of distortion; and the false glare of B unnatural combinations, is, indeed, a puerile ambition,
which deserves the stigma of trifling with the human faculties.
But to exalt the fancy, and to ameliorate the heart, is a far different task. Let us, for instance, I take “ Gray's Elegy.” Every reader of a feeling and
cultivated mind must have experienced at times, when he visited a country church-yard, many of the sentiments and reflections, which that inimitable composition expresses: yet he has known them, perhaps, indistinctly and feebly; and been unable to grasp, much less to communicate, them. If Gray's Stanzas come within his memory, or his reach, he becomes, with the aid of such a director, master of every idea; impresses every image clearly on his intellect; and obtains, by reflection, all the beautiful radiance of the Poet's genius. Is this an useless or undignified act? To impart the fire of heaven to dull and half-warmed clay? To illume the glimmering twilight of the human soul? To teach the groveling to aspire; the
languid to feel; and the heavy to dance with hope and joy?
Whatever poetry wants a foundation in truth, that is, in the natural and unforced associations of the mind, wants, in my opinion, a main charm, nay, si the most vital attraction, of the art. This, perhaps, is the first of the numerous merits of Shakespeare. In all his wild fancies, he does but race the quickest, and the strongest, in the native gambols of the brain. All his fairy fictions, all the playful visions of the “Mid- I summer Night's Dream,” are but popular superstitions, lighted into a blaze by the touch of his radiant imagination.
Real poets, then, are the best instructors of all the inmost qualities, and most secret movements, of the human bosom. It is their business, as it is their delight, to paint their noblest, and their softest affections; to animate, or melt, others with those lofty or pathetic thoughts, to which the varied affairs, the noble struggles, and deep misfortunes of life continually give occasion; to soothe the perturbations of regret, anger, and disappointment by the charms of verse; to refine the mind to the most exquisite of enjoyments; and to cheer Solitude with wiser and more splendid company, than assemblies of wit, or rich and crowded courts.
If Poets are accused of ignorance of life, of inattention to the human character, of want of practical wisdom, the accusation must arise from a stupid blindness in the accuser to the requisites of a Poet.