« AnteriorContinuar »
tiffs and potentates, the latter have languished in poverty, and died in despair. Will any man deny that the poems of Milton, as productions of genius, are equal to the pictures of Rubens? Yet the artist's pencil supported him in princely splendour; — the poet's muse could not procure, what even his enemies would have furnished to him, gratuitously, in a dungeon, bread and water. Poets might be permitted to say, that music, painting, and sculpture may be appreciated in this world, and recompensed by the things of it, but poetry cannot ; its price is above wealth, and its honours are those which sovereigns cannot confer. But they are generally posthumous. Like Egyptian kings, however praised while living, it is on the issue of their trials after death that the most exalted have pyramids decreed to them; and it is then that even the most admired and feared may be condemned to obloquy, and abandoned to oblivion.
Poetry compared with Eloquence, History, and
Philosophy. In reference to other species of literature, it is not my purpose to present them in any lengthened, much less any disparaging, contrast with poetry. Eloquence, history, philosophy, must consider poetry as their sister by blood (not merely by alliance, as in the case of music, painting, and sculpture,) rather than their rival, -elder, indeed, than all, yet in perpetual youth; the nurse of each, yet more beautiful than either of them in her loveliest attire. The most perfect models of eloquence may be found in the writings of the epic and dramatic poets ; also the most authentic facts of history, embellished not beyond truth, but agreeable to truth; and the purest morals of philosophy, set forth with lights and shadows which transform them from pretended mysteries, and pompous truisms, into clear, permanent, and influential realities. *
The first of these assertions will probably be admitted, - that eloquence has frequently been presented to as great (if not greater) advantage, in verse as in prose; ancient oratory, in comparison with ancient poetry, has exercised small influence over the minds, manners, and characters of succeeding ages. Cicero, all perfect as he is, in his own unrivalled style of prose, as numerous as the richest verse, - and Demosthenes himself, of the effects of whose speeches as “ fulmined” from the living voice over the heads of audiences that could criticise every syllable, even when Philip was at the gates, - we must necessarily form very imperfect ideas from reading them in a dead language, addressed only to the eye, for the sounds, whatever be our pronunciation, are little more than imaginary; - Cicero and Demosthenes have exercised no such power over posterity as Homer and Virgil have done, though the diction of these lies under yet a heavier impracticability of modern utterance, from the loss of the true use of quantity, as well as articulation, in the antique tongues.
* Milton's splendid view of the intellectual glories of ancient Greece may be advantageously quoted here : • There shalt thou hear and learn the secret power
Of harmony, in tones and numbers hit
Paradise Regained, book iv.
In history, as a matter of fact, whether creditable to the eccentricity of human taste or not, it will hardly be disputed, that Xenophon and Thucydides have failed to command the attention, which (not without a cause lying deep in our very nature) has been won by Anacreon and Horace. But even on its own ground, history, in some respects, as the transmitter of knowledge concerning the past, is compelled to vail to poetry. Not that the records of actual events can be so properly conveyed in verse (though bards in all nations were the first chroniclers) as they may be, through all their remembered details, in prose; but, since all memorials must be necessarily imperfect, and more or less mixed up with error, -by the latter we may be absolutely deceived, taking the statements for pure truth ; while, by the former, we must be left proportionately in ignorance of some
things needful to be known, to form a correct judgment of great and complicated transactions. Now the defects and errors of poets concerning subjects of history are not in themselves liable to mislead, because the details are never exhibited as literal verities, but avowedly as things which might have happened under certain circumstances, in cases where what really did happen is no longer known. This is exemplified by the narrative poems of the Siege of Troy, and the Voyages of Ulysses and Æneas, events of which no other history exists; and though few will doubt that for much of the romance in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Æneid, there was no foundation in truth, nobody will mistake the palpable fictions for facts. In history, on the other hand, it is difficult, nay, impossible, to distinguish between facts and fictions, when both rest upon the same authority, and there happens to be nothing in the nature of things to enable us to separate the one from the other, both being in the abstract alike probable. But this would lead us into too wide a field of discussion, at present. It may, however, be safely assumed, that a large proportion of ancient history, especially that of the early periods, is as fabulous as the mythology of the gods, which usually precedes the traditions of the men that first made and then worshipped them.
Poetry, in one sense, builds up the ruins of history, fallen otherwise into irrecoverable dilapidation. From the epic, dramatic, satiric, didactic, and even from the lyric remains of the Greeks and Romans, we learn more than history, were it sevenfold more. perfect than it is in the records of great men and great deeds, could ever have communicated concerning the state of society in old times and in famous lands. From the former we derive almost all that we know of ancient manners, customs, arts, sciences, amusements, food, dress, and those numberless small circumstances which make up the business and leisure, the colour, form, and character of life. Poetry, in a word, shows us men, not only as kings and legislators, warriors and philosophers, tyrants and slaves, actors and sufferers upon the public stage, —but men in all their domestic relationships, as they are in themselves, as they appear in their families, and as they influence their little neighbourhoods. Nay, even in the palace, the hall of justice, the field of battle, the academic grove, poetry exhibits man in portraiture, - more like himself individually (so as his fellows in all ages may personally sympathise with him), than history can show him in any of the artificial groups amidst which he appears in his assumed character,-a mask among masks.
Take poetry and history upon the same favourite ground, - war. Homer may not have recorded the actual events at the siege of Troy, and the disasters of Greece in consequence of the anger of Achilles ; but, with all his noble exaggeration of the strength, speed, prowess, and other qualities of his heroes, the splendour of their arms, and the sumptuousness of their state, he has undoubtedly delineated from the life the people of his own and the age before him ; so that we learn more concerning the warriors, minstrels, sages, ladies, and all classes of human society,