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ESSAYS ON THE GENIUS OF THE BRITISH POETS.
IF, however, every thing in “ Para• the first place, they are placed beyond dise Lost” were real, it would still ex- the cognizance of our senses: in the secite but little interest, because we could cond, if they were such enormous masses never sympathize with the characters of animated being as they are described described in it, however convinced we by Milton, they would only create termight be of their existence. We are so If then they do not terrify us, it formed by nature, that we can sympa- is simply because we feel a conviction thize with nothing of which our senses that they are not what they are described can take no cognizance. They are as to be; but this conviction, as I have almach the media of oar feelings as they ready observed, destroys the interest, are of our ideas, and therefore all our and consequently renders them unfit inpleasures must be referred to them as struments for poetical agency; so that their original sources, because our plea- in whatever point of view we consider sures themselves are only modifications them, they can never excite that genial of feeling. The pleasures of imagina- rapture and enthusiasm which is the tion indeed, do not proceed directly from soul of poetry. There is, indeed, an these sources, but they can, like our unskilful mixture of gods and men in ideas of reflection, be ultimately traced the Iliad, but yet the human species are to them. An object, however, may be those which are chiefly engaged; and such as we can take cognizance of, and even Homer's gods are more interesting yet excite no sympathy; for many of the than Milton's angels; because we find objects which are submitted to our senses them always in company with our own excite no emotion whatever, except on species, endeavouring to promote or rethose particular occasions when they are tard their designs. Besides, we know connected with other objects, or when that Milton himself never believed his we are ourselves placed under certain angels to be what he described them to influences. But there are certain objects be; whereas we suppose Homer to have that never please us, whatever influences believed implicitly in every thing he rewe may be subject to at the moment, lates. Neither did he attach the same unless the mind be actually disordered. idea to his gods that we do to angels. These objects are such as infinitely ex- The gods of the ancients were not proceed us in might and power, and which perly immaterial beings, for they always possess a nature entirely different from supposed them to possess something of
We love to see strength, materiality; but we have been taught energy, rapidity, and mental fortitude; from our earliest infancy to divest spirit but it is certain that whatever we love of every thing material. Milton, then, most, becomes indifferent, and sometimes evidently engaged in a subject which disgusting to us, when carried to excess. did not come home to the feelings of If Homer, therefore, had endowed any human nature. We endure his characof his characters with the strength of ters merely because we know them to an elephant, or the rapidity of an arrow, be the creations of fancy ; but experihe would never stir up those passions ence shews us, that mere imagination in us which are inspired by the presence imparts only light and airy pleasures, of Ajax, Achilles and Hector. Even even where its images are taken from mental fortitude can excite no sympathy objects with which we are perfectly acwhen it approaches to insensibility. The quainted. Pope's “ Ode to St. Cecilia's beings described in the “Paradise Lost," Day," has never been so much admired have therefore, none of the conditions as Dryden's; though I could never disthat could render them agreeable. In cover that any writer or critic has
. By the Author of the “Critical Dissertation on the Nature and Principles of Taste," reviewed in our Number for March, 1822.
accounted for the cause. If we read it they have then all the appearances of from beginning to end, we can find no life and reality. I do not mean, howpassage or sentiment which we would ever, that all images should appear wish to change. If, then, we can find equally prominent, but each should
apno fault, why do we prefer Dryden's to pear as conspicuous as its situation in it? Our preference, however, is right, the group will allow.
After passion and shews the reliance which should is once excited, poetic allusions, and realways be placed on the judgment of mote imagery may afterwards be occathe public; for it always decides justly, sionally introduced with great proprithough it cannot always assign a cause ety, because they serve to connect the for its decision. The cause, however, capital parts, and to relieve us from the will appear manifest enough, when we enervating influence of more ardent come to perceive, that what is founded pleasures, and more impassioned deon obvious fiction, or, in other words, lights. If these observations be true, what is evidently the creation of fancy it is obvious that Pope acted very injuor imagination, never excites our sym- diciously in keeping back the interest of pathies so strongly as what carries along the poem as long as he could; and eveu with it all the appearances of truth and then refusing to let us know who the reality. In Pope's Ode, all the charac- characters were towards whom he wishters are feigned, or if Orpheus and ed to excite our sympathies. Orpheus Eurydice had any real existence, at least is never spoken of by name till we come we have every reason to doubt of it. within four lines of the end, and is They would, however, be extremely in- merely called, “ the poet," “ the husteresting ; because whether real or not, band," but if we would know who the they are represented as such, and afford poet or the husband is, we must go to no sensible evidence of being otherwise, our mythological dictionary, and find were it not that a great part of the poem
out who the musician was who went to is gone over before either of them is in- hell and made the stone of troduced ; and even then their names
Sisyphius stand still, are not mentioned, and no person can Ixion rest upon his wheel, tell whom the poet alludes to, except he And the pale spectres dance! be already acquainted with their history. Neither are we told who the object of Pope seems to have thought, that the art his affections was, till he is on the point of concealing their names, and intro
of leaving hell. We are merely informducing them by general terms and allu- ed, that sions to their history, which could only be known to the learned, would appear
Love, strong as Death, the poet led
To the pale nations of the dead. more ingenious, and better contrived, than the vulgar mode of introducing But we are kept in ignorance of the them at once by their proper names.
fond idol of his attachment as long as But in this he was mistaken; for ideas possible; and it would seem that Pope of association produce little effect in po
would not have informed us of it, even etry till a deep interest is first excited, at his departure from hell, if he could and this interest can be excited only by have avoided it. This study of conwhat is palpably placed before our
cealment will, no doubt, amuse the rea
eyes. The poet must never commence by al
der, because it shews ingenuity; and if luding to images with which he sup
the object of the poet be merely to amuse, poses us already acquainted; for what
he does well to have recourse to it; but ever celerity of mind we may possess,
it will never excite passion, and passion it requires some time to go in search of alone is the soul of poetry. Instead of them, and recal them to our memory; beginning at once, as he ought to have and while we are thus engaged, our at
done, with Orpheus and Eurydice, Pope tention is necessarily divided between
commences his Ode by a common place what we read, and what the poet sends
address to the Nine. "No other Being, us in pursuit of; so that the mind de
either human or divine, appears till he rives little pleasure from either. Poetic has gone through nearly half the Ode, images, to produce a strong impression, except Music, Melancholy, Morpheus, must consequently be placed before us, Sloth, Envy, War, and Faction. These, and not hid behind a veil; and the more every person knows to be mere allegoconspicuous they appear, the more pow
rical beings, with whom we cannot poserful will be their impression, because sibly sympathize, because we know them
to be mere fictions of the poet. Through these lines, they should have rendered out the rest of the Ode, we have no- him immortal. They do not present us thing but “shady forms," • Sisyphus, with airy images, or “ shady forms,” “ death,'
"“ ghosts,” “ fairies,” &c. for but describe, what we know to be true, whom we feel as little concern as for the the rapid succession of feelings, pasletters which compose their names, till sions, emotions and sympathies, excited we come to Orpheus and Eurydice them- in our breasts by a corresponding series selves, who would be still inore inter- of external impressions. Dryden comesting than they are, if we could only mences his Ode at once with “ Philip's prevail on ourselves to believe that they warlike son,” and leaves the “ Nine" to were real personages; for every thing be invoked by children. I doubt not, is interesting only in proportion as it indeed, but a youth would prefer Pope's appears to be real. The pleasure which Ode to Dryden's, because it is more airy we derive, therefore, from the perusal and amusing ; and amusement is all that of the greater part of this poem, is youth seek after. They are as yet stranmerely what is created by the ingenuity gers to the stronger energies and pasof the poet, whom we cannot help ad- sions of human nature; and
consequentmiring for his invention, and the skill ly they cannot sympathize with them. with which he has grouped such airy, A youth cannot feel the variety of pasunsubstantial forms. But it is one thing sions which agitated the bosom of Alexto admire the poet, and another to be ander during the royal feast; and thereinterested by the poem ; for without this fore, so far from being affected by them, interest, it appears to us merely, as a he views them with indifference; or, gilded bauble. How different is the in- perhaps, laughs them to scorn; but he terest excited by Dryden's Ode. All can travel with pleasure through the the characters are real, or at least, we airy regions of romance, and inhale believe them to be so. Jupiter and Bac- ambrosial fragrance as he wanders with chus, it is true, are introduced ; but we Pope, find them in company with Philip, the
By the streams that ever flow; conqueror of Greece, Alexander, the
By the fragrant winds that blow conqueror of the world, Timotheus, the O'er the Elysian flowers; chief of musicians, and Darius, the By those happy souls who dwell most interesting of them all, because In yellow meads of Asphodel, the most unfortunate. Who can read Or Amaranthine bowers. the following lines, without that con- Indeed the charms of imagination are flict of contending emotions which pos- so captivating, when judiciously intersessed the soul of Alexander himself.
mingled with the realities of life; and Soothed with the sound, the king grew vain, light and airy a character, that even
the pleasures which they afford are of so Fought all his battles o'er again ; And thrice he routed all his foes, and thrice philosophers themselves have been sehe slew the slain.
duced into an opinion, that they are The master saw the madness rise,
the most agreeable and impassioned
still an opinion universally received.
But if its pleasures be really of the
highest character, why are descriptive By too severe a fate
poems the most uninteresting of all Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen,
others when they are not intermixed Fallen from his high estate,
with incidents and situations taken from And weltering in bis blood;
real life. The truth is, that imaginaDeserted at his utmost need,
tion is like sugar, which pleases us when By those his former bounty fed;
mixed with relishes less agreeable than On the bare earth exposed he lies,
itself, but which soon satiates us when With not a friend to close his eyes.
taken alone. It is the same with imaWith dowpcast look the joyless victor sat, gination: it pleases us for a moment, Revolving in bis altered soul
and satiates us the moment after, unless The various turns of fate below:
it be intermixed with incidents taken And now and then a sigh he stole, from real life. But even the pleasure And tears began to flow.
which it imparts for the first moment Had Dryden never written more than never rises to passion. It possesses Eur. Mag. Vol. 81. May 1822,
charms, however, of the most delight wants only to instruct, he will always ful and enchanting kind; but they nei- find prose a more convenient vehicle of ther enchant nor delight, except when communicating his knowledge to the they are unexpectedly met with in de- world. scriptions of scenes and occurrences Perhaps it may be argued, that as the supposed to be real; for, as I have ob- Iliad of Homer'is as much a work of served in my Essay on " the Criterion imagination as the Paradise Lost of of Poetical Preeminence, imagina- Milton; all distinctions are, consetion when properly regulated, throws quently, mere castles in the air. But it its charms over the whole circle of the might as well be contended, that he who arts and sciences; and clothes the most attempted to distinguish between a moabstract subject in the magic vesture of narchical and a republican government its own enchantment."
was a fool, because the one was as much It is obvious, then, that a poem, such a government as the other. Instead of as the “ Paradise Lost,” which is not replying to such an objection, I would only from beginning to end a mere fic- merely ask those who make it, whether tion of imagination, but which also ma- they do not imagine that every thing in nifests itself to be such to every reader, Dryden's Ode to Music is real, while can give no lasting interest, and excite they are reading it, and that every thing no passion. It is no argument to say, in Pope's is fictitious; or, at least, exthat it is founded on the scriptures, un- tremely doubtful; and whether they are less it be admitted, at the same time, not more moved by what they imagine that it can please only those who have to be real, than by what they know to faith in things not submitted to the be fictitious? If they admit this, I recognizance of the senses; for the scrip- quire no more, because all I wish to tures themselves unequivocally declare, prove is, that whatever appears real, no that the doctrines which they teach are matter whether it be so or not, is a too sublime for human comprehension; source of higher pleasure, of greater that no man can see God and live ; and interest, of more ardent feelings, and of that we now see as in a glass, darkly.
glass, darkly. deeper passion than what appears to be Indeed, if they taught us any other doc- the mere offspring of imagination, should trine, it would be impossible to credit it even afterwards turn out to be true. them without forfeiting reason altoge- All the productions of taste are, indeed, ther, because we have a demonstrative called works of imagination ; but this conviction, that we know nothing of only shews the necessity under which immaterial being. But even granting we are placed of comprising different that all men believed in the scrip- species under one genus. tures, it is still obvious that faith is an To remove, however, all obscurity or act of the understanding; for if it be confusion of ideas that can possibly a mere impulse of feeling, we require arise from calling all the productions
, neither priests nor preachers to con- of taste, works of imagination, I beg vince us of the truth of its doctrines. If leave to say, that poetic descriptions may faith be an act of the understanding, it be divided into four classes: firstcannot be a source of poetical pleasures; such descriptions of human life and of for I have already shewn, and I could human passions as have all the apadduce the highest authority in support of what I then advanced, that nothing
pearance of truth and reality ; second
-descriptions of human life and pasis more destructive of poetic rapture sions which, from various circumthan the least appearance of reasoning, stances in the description, prove them discussion, deliberation, or any act of to be purely fictitious; third-dethe mind which does not appear to ema
scriptions of external nature that have nate instinctively from our immediate all the appearance of truth and reality; feelings. Hence it is, that too much fourth descriptions of external naacquired learning is frequently danger- ture that are obviously feigned. All ous to the poet, because it generates a these classes of poetic descriptions are habit of reasoning, of which we cannot referred to the imagination by an exeasily divest ourselves, even when our tension of the term; but in a more rigid object is not to convince the understand- and confined sense, ideas of imaginaing, but to please the heart; and if this tion are mere images or pictures of be not always, at least it should be al. things which are not present to our ways the object of the poet; for if he view when we are actually describing
them, which are taken entirely from our historian by the same canons of critiown conceptions; and which are pre- cism; and while ever the former presented in such a manner, that the rea- serves the sensible appearances of truth, der instinctively perceives that their his pictures affect us as powerfully as prototypes in nature never existed ; and if they were taken from real life. that consequently they are purely fic- The“ Paradise Lost,” then, possesses titious. When, therefore, I say that mere this radical defect, that human feelimagination imparts only light and airyings and passions, which are the soul pleasures, I confine myself to imagina- of poetry, so seldom enter into it, that tion, understood in this sense alone; or, it is impossible to say, whether Milin other words, to the second and fourth ton was at all acquainted with the classes of poetic descriptions. It is in human heart. The stronger passions the first class of descriptions alone, that of our nature are never met with in we can expect to find that soul and spi- Adam and Eve. The sentiments put rit of poetry on which I have so much into their mouths are too moral and insisted, because every passion which philosophic, and so void of passion and agitates and disturbs the breast of ano- transport of any kind, that Milton could ther, raises a corresponding emotion in have described them as he did, had he our own. The description of external been a perfect Stoic. Even when they nature, even when the picture is taken quarrel with each other at the end of from actual observation, and painted the ninth book, and where he consewith the greatest fidelity and truth, can quently had an opportunity of making never excite in the human breast the them speak the language of genuine rapture and enthusiasm which poetry is passion, each of them runs into a cold capable of exciting, when it contines strain of philosophic arguments to jusitself to the delineation of mental pas- tify himself. In fact, the very manner sions and affections. Thompson has de- in which Adam is introduced when he scribed external nature with the great- commenced the quarrel, proves that he est elegance and poetic beauty; but had not a spark of real passion in his what part of his Seasons delights us breast, or, more probably, that he who most, -his pictures of external nature, introduced him knew not what passion or his incidental descriptions of human was, and consequently was not qualified life? I believe no reader would besi- to describe it in others. Adam and Eve tate in replying to this question, or be are described, throughout the“Paradise mistaken in his reply. His Autumn is, Lost” as passionately fond of each other: perhaps, the most beautiful of his Sea- at least they tell each other so, though sons; but what is there in the Autumn it is certain that the language in which that excites such tender emotions as they deseribe it, bears not the native Palemon's joy in discovering Lavinia impress of genuine affection; and seems to be the daughter of his dear friend, less the spontaneous effusions of real Acasto.
attachment, than the studied expresAnd art thou then Acasto's dear remains !
sions of dissembled indifference. WhenShe whom my restless gratitude has sought them seems to be acting the lover, but
ever they address one another, each of So long in vain? O heavens! the very same. The softened image of my noble friend; in doing so they appear to affect a pasAlive his every look; bis every feature
sion which they do not feel. They are More elegantly touched.
strangers to the language which love
instinctively inspires; they are stranIt ill beộts thee, Oh it ill befits
gers to that tenderness and want of reAcasto's daughter, his whose open stores, serve which are its inseparable attendThough vast, were little to his ample heart, ants; and they address each other with The father of a country, thus to pick as much formality as can possibly be The very refuse of those harvest fields, observed in the modern circles of faWhich from his bounteous friendshiplenjoy. shionable life. If, however, they really
The description of human life and felt that attachment for each other which passions is, therefore, the highest spe- they profess, it is certain that we could cies of description in poetry; and the recognize it even in their quarrel ; but more it appears to be taken from real life, surely when we are told, that the more powerful is its effect. Appear- Adam, estranged in look and altered style, ance however, is all that is requisite to speech, intermitted, thus to Eve renewed, create this deep interest in the mind, we cannot possibly bring ourselves to for we do not examine the poet and the believe, that he ever felt any real affec