« ForrigeFortsett »
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; wh by the
rmier, 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 liappened 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 the public stage, -but men in all their domestic relationships, -as they are in themselves, as they appear in their fami. lies, 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 sympathize with him), than history can show him in any of the artificial groups amid 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 disas. ters 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, from the Iliad and the Odyssey alone, than from the most faithful, intelligent, and least ronjantic of the historians of the same and succeeding periods, before the fashions of those strange tinies were passed away. Poetry is thus the illuminator of history, the paths of which,
in early times, would have been dark indeed, with out this “light from heaven.”
In regard to philosophy and jurisprudence, it may be remarked, that Pythagoras, Solon, Lycurgus, and Socrates himself, occasionally employed poetry to dictate laws, with oracular authority, and to enforce morals with the sanction of a language like that of the gods. Plato was the most poetical of writers in prose, because, it has been said, he could not excel Homer in verse, and at the head of one or the other species of literature he had determined to be; thus acknowledging the pre-eminence of that which he did not adopt, by making that which he did approach as near to it as possible. It is true, that he would banish poets from his commonwealth; first, however, crowning them with bays. But there were immunities under his system of polity which rendered it no disgrace for the divinest of human arts to be forbidden; and in his other works he does honour to himself, by giving to it the honour due. I palliate not the abominations of pagan poetry, many of them too revolting to be named; but these were the perversions of what in itself is most excellent, and in proportion to its excellence most pernicious when perverted. But pagan poetry, with all its sins, has survived pagan philosophy with all its merits.
Permanence of Poetry. Poetry, the most perfect form of literature, which is all that I contend for in this essay, is also the most enduring; the relics of ancient verse considerably exceed, in proportion to the bulk of the original materials, those of ancient prose, especially in ethics. Most of the philosophers are but names, and their systems traditions, at this day. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca alone have survived in sufficient bulk, to show what they were; giants in intellect, but babes in knowledge of the best things (the pure spiritual principles that teach the love of God and the love of man), in comparison with the humblest Christian who can read his Bible, and know, from its influence upon his heart, his conscience, and his life, that it is true. Had all the writings of Greek and Roman moralists been preserved, they would but have exhibited the impossibility of man by searching to find out God, without a distinct revelation from himself. They would have been, in many respects, splendid piles of error, on which eloquence, argument, all the power, penetration, and subtilty of minds of the highest order were expended in comparatively vain speculations; resembling their temples,-prodigies of human art, science, taste, elegance, sublimity,-all that could show the immortality of man even in his mortal works, but dedicated to false gods, to idols,-the wisest among them not knowing that an idol, whether ideal or material, the idol of the sage or of the clown, is nothing in the world. Now, in the systems alluded to, whatever was false and evil was laid down as true and good, and being mingled with whatever was really good and true, became of more perilous malignity than the extravagances and atrocities of poetry, which too often did not even pretend to regard good manners; yet of which the greater part, preserved from the devastations of time, abounding, as it does, with faults and errors, contains lessons without number and unequalled in form and beauty, whereby the mind may be enlarged, the noblest passion's moved towards the noblest objects, and the imagination chastened by morality, clear, simple, practical, and radiantly contrasted with the complex, subtle, dark, bewildering notions of most of the philosophers.
Here I conclude this rhapsody, as some may deem it, on the pre-eminence of poetry; asking only for it that indulgence which I should be most willing to grant, for myself, to any champion of music, painting, sculpture, eloquence, history, or philosophy, who, in this place or any other theatre where liberal sentiment may be freely expressed, should plead for the pre-eminence of his favourite art over mine,
WHAT IS POETICAL.
The nature, or rather the essence, of poetry, I cannot define, and shall therefore not attempt it; but I think that I may illustrate the subject, and show, at least, what is poetical, hy examples, which (if I succeed in making mine understood) anybody may multiply at pleasure, and employ them as tests of whatever assumes to be poetry, by its structure, style, or colouring.
That which is highest, purest, loveliest, and most excellent to the eye or to the mind, in reference to any object, either of the senses or the imagination, is poetical. Poetry presents the most comprehensive view of all its subjects, in their fairest shape, and most natural symmetry, after having divested them of whatever is little, mean, or unattractive ; softening asperities, blending discordances, sinking superfluities, harmonizing all parts, and placing the whole in such connexion, due distance, and convenient light, as shall at once satisfy the understanding with what is revealed, excite the imagination towards that which is hidden, and prompt the curiosity to follow out all that is implied and consequential. For it is not alone the glowing images, the bold conceptions, the felici. tous language, and the sublime, terrific, or delightful emotions, with which the author captivates, enchains,