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LECTURES ON POETRY.
THE PRE-EMINENCE OF POETRY AMONG THE
SIR Philip SIDNEY begins his Defence of Poesie in the following manner :-6 When the right virtuous E. W. and I were at the emperor's court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of Gio. Pietro Pugliano - one that, with great commendation, had the place of an esquire in his stable; and he, according to the fertileness of the Italian wit, did not only afford us the demonstration of his practice, but sought to enrich our minds with the contemplation therein, which he thought was most precious. But with none, I remember, mine ears were at any time more loaden, than when (angered with our slow payment, or moved with our learnerlike admiration) he exercised his speech in praise of
his faculty. He said, soldiers were the noblest of mankind, and horsemen were the noblest soldiers. He said, they were the masters of war, and the ornaments of peace; speedy goers, and strong abiders; triumphers both in camps and courts : nay, to so unbelieved a point he proceeded, as that no earthly thing bred so much wonder to a prince as to be a good horseman; skill in government was but pedanteria in comparison. Then would he add certain praises, by telling what a peerless beast the horse was; the only serviceable courtier without flattery : the beast of most beauty, faithfulness, courage, and such more, that; if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse. But thus much, with his no few words, he drove into me, - that self-love is better than any gilding to make that seem gorgeous wherein ourselves are parties. Wherein, if Pugliano's strong affection and weak arguments will not satisfy you, I will give you a nearer example of myself, who (I know not by what mischance, in these my not old years and idlest times,) having slipt into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you, in defence of that my un-elected vocation; which if I handle with more good-will than good reasons, bear with me, since the scholar is to be pardoned that followeth in the steps of his master."
Thus far Sir Philip Sidney.
Without assuming or disclaiming any personal application of the foregoing apologue, the writer of the following strictures believes that he could not more fitly have introduced them to the liberal and enlightened auditory before whom he is permitted to read them ; who will thus be prepared both to ex. pect, and, he trusts, to pardon, no small measure of extravagance in them.
The General Claims of Poetry to Pre-cminence.
Poetry is the eldest, the rarest, and the most excellent of the fine arts. It was the first fixed form of language; the earliest perpetuation of thought: it existed before prose in history, before music in melody, before painting in description, and before sculpture in imagery. Anterior to the discovery of letters, it was employed to communicate the lessons of wisdom, to celebrate the achievements of valour, and to promulgate the sanctions of law. Music was invented to accompany, and painting and sculpture to illustrate it.
I have ventured to say that poetry is the rarest of the fine arts; and in proof, I need only appeal to the literature of our own country, in which will be found the remains of more than five hundred writers of verse, renowned in their generation, of whom there are not fifty whose compositions rise to the dignity of true poetry; and of these there are scarcely ten who are familiarly known by their works at this. day. The art of constructing easy, elegant, and even spirited verse, may be acquired by any mind of moderate capacity, and enriched with liberal knowledge; and those who cultivate this talent may occa
sionally hit upon some happy theme, and handle it with such unaccustomed delicacy or force, that for a while they outdo themselves, and produce that which adds to the public stock of permanent poetry. But habitually to frame the lay that quickens the pulse, flushes the cheek, warms the heart, and expands the soul of the hearer, — playing upon his passions as upon a lyre, and making him to feel as though he were holding converse with a spirit; this is the art of Nature herself, invariably and perpetually pleasing, by a secret and undefinable charm, which lives through all her works, and causes the very stones, as well as the stars, to cry out
“ The hand that made us is divine."
The power of being a poet in this sense, is a power from Heaven ; wherein it consists, I know not; but this I do know, that there never existed a poet of the highest order, who either learned his art of one, or taught it to another. It is true that the poet communicates to the bosom of his reader the flame which burns in his own; but the bosom thus enkindled cannot communicate the fire to a third. In the breast of the bard alone, that energy of thought which gives birth to poetry is an active principle; in all others it is only a passive sentiment. That alone is true poetry, which makes the reader himself a poet for the time while he is under its excitement; which, indeed, constrains him to feel, to see, to think
- almost to be what the poet felt, saw, thought, and was, while he was conceiving and composing his work. And this theory is confirmed by the fact, that though original genius is wonderfully aided in its developement and display by learning and refinement, yet among the rudest people it has been found, like native gold and unwrought diamond, as pure and perfect in essence, though encrusted with baser matter, as among the most enlightened nations. With the first, however, it is seldomer seen, not being laboriously dug from the mine, purified in the furnace, or polished on the wheel, but only occasionally washed from the mountains, or accidentally discovered among the sands.
It is a remarkable coincidence, that, with the exception of ancient Rome, the noblest productions of the Muses have appeared in the middle ages, between gross barbarism and voluptuous refinement, when the human mind yet possessed strong traits of its primeval grandeur and simplicity ; but divested of its former ferociousness, and chastened by courteous manners, felt itself rising in knowledge, virtue, and intellectual superiority. The poems of Homer existed long before Greece arrived at its zenith of glory, or even of highly advanced civilisation. Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto, in Italy; Ercilla in Spain; Camoens in Portugal; as well as our own Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton; flourished in periods far inferior to the present in wealth, luxury, general intelligence, and literary taste; yet in their respective countries their great poems have not since been equalled, nor is it probable that they will here. after be surpassed by any of their successors.
To the peculiar good fortune which, in their respective countries, and independent of their abstract