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In Boswell's “ Johnson," we find a record of the following conversation :-“I related a dispute between Goldsmith and Mr Robert Dodsley, one day when they and I were dining at Tom Davies' in 1762. Goldsmith asserted that there was no poetry produced in this age. Dodsley appealed to his own collection, and maintained that though you could not find a palace like Dryden's 'Ode on St Cecilia's Day,' you had villages composed of very pretty houses, and he mentioned particularly the 'Spleen. Johnson-I think Dodsley gave up the question. He and Goldsmith said the same thingonly he said it in a softer manner than Goldsmith did; for he acknowledged that there was no poetry—nothing that towered above the common mark. You may find wit and humour in verse, and yet no poetry. “Hudibras,' has a profusion of these-yet it is not to be reckoned a poem. The Spleen 'in ‘Dodsley's Collection,' on which he chiefly rested, is not poetry.”
Of course this dictum of the illustrious sage must be swallowed cum grano salis ; especially as we find from what immediately follows, that his idea of the nature of poetry was extremely vague, nay, entirely negative. Boswell in continuation, inquires, “ Does not Gray's poetry, Sir, tower above the common mark ?” Johnson—"Yes, Sir, but we must attend to the difference between men in general, who cannot do if they would, and what every man may do if he would. Sixteen-string Jack* towered above the common mark.” Boswell—“Then, Sir, what is poetry?” Johnson—“Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all KNOW what light is, but it is not easy to TELL what it is."
Not to speak of the unworthy and contemptible sneer at Gray, we are sorry to find Johnson guilty of such transparent sophistry. Light acts upon the senses naturally, necessarily, irresistibly, and, unless in the case of diseased organs, on all alike. Poetry is a subtle, spiritual essence, to be discerned only by a subtle, spiritual faculty. All men do not know what poetry is, since, probably, the majority of readers are deceived by its mere semblance, and prefer tinsel and trash to the divinest strains of genius. Nor is it so difficult after all to tell what poetry is. It may not, perhaps, be susceptible of rigid definition ; but it can be, and has been, described with great approximate accuracy, and the various descriptions given of it, taken together, catch almost every one of its angles, and reflect almost every ray of its glory. One critic, or rather poet-it is Ebenezer Elliot--calls it "impassioned truth.” With another it is the act of mental “creation," and the poet is a maker, as, indeed, the word months implies. With a third, it is the perception of the ideal through the actual, producing in the recipient a wild yet musical cry, like that with which of old the ghost-seer recognised an apparition, or the prophet was aware of the presence of a supernatural messenger. With another it is “ the highest eloquence of fancy and feeling," or, more fully, “that uneasy, exquisite sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself, but strives to link itself to some other object of kindred beauty or grandeur- to enshrine itself in the highest forms of fancy, and to relieve the aching sense of pleasure or pain by endeavouring to express it in the boldest manner, and by the most striking examples of the same quality in other instances.” Such descriptions of poetry—and we could easily have added others -point to all its essential elements, and remind us instantly of the quality which, whether in verse or in prose, in painting or in music, in art or in nature, was felt by us to be poetical, and which created that enthusiastic joy—that sense of mental liberation--that forgetfulness of self—and that perception of something at once natural and new which true poetry always awakens in prepared spirits, and which feelings are almost identical with the emotion with which we welcome a noble prospect from a mountain-summit, or with which we Donati's Comet, with its blood-red eye, and the burning, boundless eye-lash of its tail, stretching away into immensity. It is thus quite possible to“ tell” what poetry is, but this, of course, does not settle the question whether the “Spleen” be a poem. We incline to think that if it be not, as a whole, a poem, it sparkles, at least, with some genuine poetry. Think, for example, of such expressions as these :
* “Sixteen-string Jack," a noted highwayman, who, amidst other fopperies, wore on the knees of his breeches, a bunch of sixteen strings.
“In deep seas it oversets
By a fierce hurricane of debts ;” or
“I in no soul consumption wait
On the spare diet of a smile;'
“ Though pleased to see the dolphins play,
I mind my compass and my way.” Or let our readers take his account of Glover, and answer our question, if, whatever they may think of its truth, it does not transcend rhetoric, and approach poetry :
• Inspired with sacred art,
Aright, and sanctify their rage." We are far from wishing to exalt Green to the topmost summits of Parnassus, but surely the critic who praised Blackmore, and Pitt, and “Rag Smith " might have spared a word and a smile for the many poetical and brilliant thoughts to be found in the “Spleen.” Green's chief power, however, lay not in imagination, nor perhaps even in art, so niuch as in keen, strong sense, which he has the power, too, of shaping into the most condensed couplets and sharp-edged lines. In corroboration of this, we remember that nearly a third of his short poem is floating through literature in such oft-quoted
lines as —
“ Fling but a stone the giant dies."
“ Witlings, brisk fools, cursed with half-sense,
“ Such a face-
Brown fields their fallow Sabbaths keep,”
Pope, when he read the “Spleen,” said “there was a great deal of originality in it.” There are, here and there, indeed, traces of resemblance to “ Hudibras " and to “ Alma," but on the whole, Green has a brain, an eye, and a tongue of his own -a brain piercing if not profound-an eye clear if not comprehensive—and an utterance terse and vigorous, if not grand and lyrical. Perhaps his piece entitled “The Grotto” has more of the purely poetical in it than any of the rest. In his verses on Barclay's “ Apology for the Quakers,” he discovers the sceptical and uncertain state of his religious views. He says to that fine, bold follower of George Fox
“Well-natured, happy shade! forgive;
I think but cannot live.
I live by pulling off the hat.”
“ Eloquent Want, whose reasons sway,
And make ten thousand truths give way.” Altogether Green's little productions give us the impression that he was a man worthy of greater fame than he has acquired, and of a better age than that in which he was destined to live, and early to die.
He had very strong powers of thought and observation, much misdirected honesty of aim, lively wit, and a vein of fancy which implied a very considerable portion of poetical genius.
GREEN'S POETICAL WORKS.
AN EPISTLE TO MR CUTHBERT JACKSON.
The want of method pray excuse,
The child is.genuine, you may trace
School-helps I want, to climb on high,
1 Gildon's Art of Poetry.