« ZurückWeiter »
trifle, fitted exclusively for mere amusement; that it is not naturally opposed to truth either physical or moral, and that it is something better than a game at Pushpin, and intended for a higher purpose than that of passing away an idle hour or saving us from“ drunkenness and slander !"
Some writers have endeavoured to show that Bentham could not, consistently with his system, avoid classing Poetry under the same head with Pushpin and other sorts of amusements that are good substitutes for drunkenness and slander. "Nobody,” say they, “ finds fault with the Naturalist who includes men and monkeys in the same order of being.” This looks plausible ; but it is mere sophistry. If there were the same connection between Poetry and Pushpin that there is between man and the monkey, the justification might be admitted. A monkey is perhaps in the same scale of being as a man, though man is at the top of the scale. But there is no kind of relation between Poetry and Pushpin. Philosophy and Pushpin are just as much connected. What would the disciples of Bentham say to any one who should couple in the same manner Utilitarianism and Pushpin ?
It has been urged, as something like a triumphant answer to the present charge against Bentham of an unjust depreciation of works of imagination, that he was himself very fond both of poetry and music in his hours of relaxation from severer studies. But what does this prove? Did he not entertain himself in the same way with cards and dancing, and “ other sorts of amusement?" If he had really pierced beyond the externals of poetry, he would have treated it in his deliberate writings with greater reverence, and not have spoken with an almost blasphemous contempt of an art which has been described as divine" by some of the greatest intellects that this world has known. Do those who speak of poetry in the style of Bentham understand what is meant by the epithet divine, applied to no other works save those of the imagination, the most godlike faculty we possess ? It will
be long, I suspect, before men of mind will transfer their idolatry of poetical genius to such an author as Bentham. He may be esteemed and honoured by many as an able and philosophical writer, but it would sound strange even to Utilitarian ears to speak of him in those enthusiastic terms which the critics apply to Shakespeare. “ The world of spirits and nature," (says Augustus Schlegel,) " have laid their treasures at his feet; in strength a demi-god, in profundity of view a prophet, in all-seeing wisdom a protecting spirit of a higher order, he lowers himself to mortals as if unconscious of his superiority, and is as open and unassuming as a child.” “ The magnitude of his genius," says Thomas Campbell, "puts it beyond all private opinion to set defined limits to the admiration which is due to it.” Shakespeare was a poet whom nature made," says Sherlock, “ and then broke the mould.” “ I restrain my expressions of admiration," says Morgan, “lest they should not seem applicable to mortal man.” “ He has been universally idolized,” exclaims Sir Walter Scott, “ and when I come to his honoured name I am like the rich man who hung up his crutches at the shrine, and was obliged to confess that he did not walk better than before. It is indeed difficult to compare him to any other individual. The only one to whom I can compare him, is the wonderful Arabian Dervise, who dived into the body of each, and in that way became familiar with the thoughts and secrets of their hearts."
It is strange that any one should express a doubt as to the moral result of the productions of this wondrous poet, whose knowledge of the human heart was of so extraordinary a nature that men look upon his capacity as something supernatural. There is scarcely any person of polite education, in our own country at least, who does not owe something to his mighty genius. He is a teacher of the manliest and the gentlest virtues. His wisdom has diffused itself through the whole body of English
literature, and has become as familiar to his countrymen as household words. He who has a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare's works, and is really able to appreciate their moral and intellectual beauty, must be no ordinary man. The divine spirit and miraculous intelligence of the poet must mingle with and elevate his thoughts, amidst the crowd and hum of men and in the majestic solitudes of nature.
“ Homer,” says Bentham, the first of poets : where shall we place him among the moralists ?" The answer to this is, that Homer was probably the greatest moralist of his own age. He taught mankind the virtues of generosity, bravery, temperance, magnanimity, fortitude, tenderness and friendship. Pope notices the opinion of Longinus, that Homer was remarkable for the grandeur and excellence of his sentiments. He also alludes to the "innumerable instances" which Dupont, in his Gnomologia Homerica, has given of a resemblance between the sentiments of Homer and those of the Scriptures.
“Poetry," observes the Edinburgh Review in a very able and interesting article on the life and writings of Dr. Currie,“ does more for man than wine has ever been said to do. It is the best and noblest of drams. It brightens his countenance and makes glad his heart. It gives him wings and lifts him out of the dirt ; and leads him into green valleys; and carries him up to high places, and shows him at his feet the earth and its glories. The man read Homer as Homer ought to be read, who said that every body looked to him a foot higher.” The poets of the Bible have always been esteemed good moralists, even by those who do not believe the Scriptures to be the word of God. “The best security,” says Campbell, “ that we possess, for the probability of the poet's talents being employed in the support of virtue, is in the nature of Poetry itself. Impurity is an anomalous mixture in its character.” As the painter or sculptor naturally selects the
loveliest objects in external nature, so, I think, is the poet naturally led to dwell on the finest traits of our moral being. That individual poets or painters have taken an opposite course only proves the obliquities of their particular tastes, and ought not to be brought against the character of their arts. Are all writers in prose immaculate ? To suppose that an art so divine as that of poetry, so associated with the deepest feeling and the loftiest thoughts--an art of which the spirit infuses itself as it were into our converse with the Creator and the universe, is confined in its results to mere pleasure, and that pleasure bearing an affinity to the amusement derived from a game at Pushpin, is an absurdity that could only be excused in a drunkard or a fool. When a philosopher talks in this way, he deserves no mercy.
Who will dispute the morality of Milton, the main purpose of whose grand and glorious Epic is to “justify the ways of God to man?” Genuine poetry is, generally speaking, not only essentially true, but essentially moral. It is not to be denied that some poets, forgetful of their high calling, have abused their powers, and have compelled the Muse to enter upon an evil bye-path, and to link her native glory with vile and uncongenial associations. In this case the poet, and not his art, should be the subject of reprehension. But, as Dr. Channing has observed, true poetry cannot long be divorced from what is good and pure; and the writings of the most immoral poets exhibit the struggles of the ethereal spirit of poetry to escape from its unnatural connection with sensual images or mental degradation. The immoral parts are generally mere prose in verse, while the more poetical passages consist of those appeals to our best affections, those descriptions of the loveliness of external nature, or those glimpses of a state too glorious for complete revelation to mortal eyes, in which poetry delights and in which it most readily proves its power over the human heart. It is therefore no argument against poetry, that the art has been misapplied by the artist*. Painting might be depreciated with equal justice, by holding up to contempt the vul. garities of the sign-painter or the caricaturist, and omitting all reference to the higher and holier imagination of a Raphael. We should judge of an art not by its meanest exhibitions, but its greatest triumphs ; as we estimate the strength of the eagle, not by its lowest but its loftiest flight. It is difficult to conceive any thing more truly unphilosophical than Bentham's notions on this particular subject. A school boy would hardly be guilty of so gross an error as that into which Bentham falls, when he identi. fies the external with the internal character of poetry, the letter with the spirit. The one may be mere falsehood, while the other is the divinest truth. Bentham must have confounded in his own mind the meanest verse with the sublimest poetry, before he could have brought himself to speak with flippant contempt of an art by which Homer, Shakespeare and Milton have made them. selves immortalt. These are spirits of which men of intellect are proud to show their admiration. To profess a deep and ardent sense of their genius is to prefer a claim to the possession of superior taste and judgment. But it will be said, that all poets are not equally worthy of admiration. This is a palpable truism. But if there are many bad poets, are there not as many bad philosophers? If there are mean writers in verse, are there not mean writers in prose? Neither verse nor prose are to be condemned, merely because they are applied by wicked or ignorant writers to evil or foolish purposes. The faults of the poet are not the faults of his art.
Do not the enemies of a Free Press justify their opposition to that mighty blessing much in the same way as the Utilitarians justify their opposition to Poetry ? Both are admirable instruments of good, that are liable to be turned to evil purposes.
+ Milton has himself observed, that we should neglect the common rhymers, and by the study of poetry of the highest order learn " what religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of poetry both in divine and human things."