« ZurückWeiter »
decently educated people can discover no difference between the Rhymester and the Poet, and when they hear poetry spoken of as one of the loftiest exertions of the human intellect, they are very apt to cast up their eyes in wonder. They confound the mechanism of poetry with the spirit. But, if poetry be so mean a thing as to consist in the mere jingling of rhymes, how is it that there are so few genuine poets, and so many pretenders; and that the notion has so long prevailed, that Poeta nascitur, non fit ? It is generally allowed that no care or labour will make a poet, though mere industry and a good capacity may secure success in any other art or profession. Genius of the highest and rarest order is essential to the true Poet.
Bentham says, that poetry is a mere amusement. Prejudice apart, says he, the game of Pushpin is of equal value with the art of poetry. He even adds an implication that it is of superior value, for Pushpin gives pleasure to a greater number of persons, and is more innocent. Every body can play at Pushpin-Poetry is relished only by a few. Poetry is classed by Bentham, under the general head of “the arts and sciences of amusement,” with Ornamental Gardening, and “ amusements of all sorts." The utility of poetry and other " amusements," as far as pleasure only is concerned, is liberally enough admitted, with the pleasant addition (to soothe the irritated idolaters of Homer, Shakespeare and Milton), that they are “ excellent substitutes for drunkenness, slander and the love of gaming* !”
The despisers of poetry have generally shown that they did not understand it. The fault was in themselves. Mr. Locke has spoken almost as contemptuously of poetry as Jeremy Bentham has done. Mr. Molyneux wrote to Locke, and expressed his opinion that all our poets (except Milton) were mere ballad-makers compared to Sir Richard Blackmore. There is,” replied Locke," as I with pleasure find, a strange harmony throughout between your thoughts and mine." of the man who could think that Shakespeare and Spenser were mere ballad-makers compared to Blackmore we may fairly say, that he was utterly ignorant of the nature of poetry, and therefore quite unfit to judge of its utility or of its rank as an art.
Aristotle, in his Treatise on “ The Poetic,” has observed that “ Poetry is a more philosphical and excellent thing than History. For poetry is chiefly conversant with general truths; history with particular.” In his introduction to the translation of Aristotle's works, Mr. Taylor expresses his particular regret at the loss of the second and third books of the Treatise on Poetry; " because,"
there can be no doubt of Aristotle's having treated in one of those books of the purification of the mind from depraved affections, and of the correction of the manners, as the principal and proper end, according to the ancients, of right poetical imitation." He adds, however, that “ there is still extant a most admirable account of the different species of poetry by Proclus, the Cory. phæus, next to Plato and Aristotle, of all true philosophers." In the translation of this work of Proclus there is the following passage. “ For of Poetry one kind has the highest subsistence, is full of divine good, and establishes the soul in all the causes of things." Plato, according to Proclus, banished poetry from his commonwealth, not from any disrespect to the art itself, but from an apprehension that young people might misunderstand it (as Bentham did even in his old age), and fail to make a distinction between what is allegorical and what is not. Plato is said to have very "properly preferred poetry in its loftiest character to every other human art*.” “He evidently testifies that human affairs become more perfect and splendid when they are delivered from a divine mouth, and that true erudition is produced in the auditors of such poetry.” “The Muse," says Socrates, “makes men divine ; and from these men thus inspired, others catching the sacred power, form a chain of divine enthusiasts."
* Certainly poets that write thus, Plato never neans to banish. His own practice shows that he excluded not all. He was content to hear Antimachus recite bis poem, when all the herd had fed him; and he himself wrote both tragedies and other pieces.- Feltham's Resolves.
But let us see what are the opinions of the most eminent English writers on the same subject. The epithet divine is constantly applied to this art, not only by the ancients, but by the most profound philosophers amongst the moderns. Lord Bacon has said, that Poetry has something divine in it*. Sir William Temple has written an Essay on Poetry, in which he observes " that it proceeds from a celestial fire, or divine inspiration." He maintains that “ the great honor and request, wherein it has always been held, have not proceeded only from the pleasure and delight, but likewise from the usefulness and profit of poetical writings.” The chief end of Dramatic Poetry,” he say, in another place, seems to have been instruction under the guise of fables.” He has given, as it were by anticipation, a pleasant hit at the Utilitarians—" I know very well, that many, who pretend to be wise by the forms of being grave, are apt to despise both poetry and music as toys and trifles too light for the use or entertainment of serious men. But whoever find themselves wholly insensible to these charms would, I think, do well to keep their own counsel, for fear of reproaching their own temper, and bringing the goodness of their nature, if not of their understanding, into question."
I am apt to believe,” says the same writer, “ so much of the true genius of poetry, that I know not whether of all the numbers of mankind that live within the compass of a thousand years, for one man that is born capable of making such a poet as Homer or Virgil, there may be a thousand born capable of making as great generals of armies, or ministers of state, as any the most renowned in story."
It appeareth that poetry 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 shows of things to the desires of the mind; whereas reason doth humble and bow the mind unto the nature of things.-Lord Bucon.
What does even the stern and severe satirist, the Dean of St. Patrick, say of poetry?
“ Not empire to the rising sun
By valour, conduct, fortune won ;
Let me cite a beautiful passage from Sir Philip Sidney.
“ The Poet doth, as if your journey should be through a fair vineyard, at the very first give you a cluster of grapes, that full of that taste you may long to pass farther. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margin with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness; but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportions, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well enchanting skill of musick—and with a tale, forsooth; he cometh unto you with a a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.” -“ Even those hard-hearted, evil men, who think virtue school name, and despise the austere admonitions of the philosopher, and feel not the inward reason they stand upon, yet will be contented to be delighted ; which is all the good fellow Poet seems to promise ; and so steal to see the form of goodness ; which seen they cannot but love, ere themselves be aware, as if they took a MEDICINE OF CHERRIES.”
This reminds me of the celebrated simile in the beginning of the Jerusalem Delivered, (imitated from Lucretius.)
“ Thou knowest the world with eager transport throng
Where sweet Parnassus breathes the tuneful song ;
“I think,” says the learned Feltham, " that a grave poem is the deepest kind of writing.”
“ The study of poetry,” it is remarked by Burke, “ is the study of human nature; and as this
is the first object of philosophy, poetry will always rank first amongst human compositions.” Dr. Johnson observes, that poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling in imagination to the help of reason. He makes Imlac, in the tale of Rasselas, relate, that “wherever he went he found that poetry was esteemed as the highest learning, and regarded with a veneration somewhat approaching to that which man would pay to the Angelic nature.”
Cowley has warmly said, that “there is not so great a lie to be found in any poet as the vulgar conceit of men, that lying is essential to good poetry." Poetry has been finely described as
“ Truth severe in fairy fiction dressed." Godwin in his " Thoughts on Man,” speaks of the immortality of the poet, whose works are always fresh, in contrast with the fate of the natural and experimental philosopher. “New discoveries and experiments come, and his individual terms and phrases and theories perish. This,” he continues, “is strongly calculated to repress the arrogance of the men of science, and the supercilious contempt they are apt to express for those who are engrossed by the pursuits of imagination and taste.” The reason of the poet's immortality and his independence of all changing fashions and opinions is, that his element is the human heart; and until man's internal nature is changed, a truly great poet, such as Shakespeare for example, will continue to maintain his empire, while the language in which he writes exists.
Rapin asserts that “the great end of poetry is to instruct, which is performed by making pleasure the vehicle of that instruction.” "It was said of Euripides,” says Dr. Johnson, “ that every word was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works might be collected a system of civil and economical prudence.”
How easy it would be to multiply to almost any extent these quotations in support of the opinion, that poetry is not a childish