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AN ESSAY

ON

POETRY AND MUSICK.

PART II.

OF THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY.

HAVING finished what I intended to say on the general nature of poetry, as an imitative art, I proceed to consider the INSTRUMENT which it employs in its imitations; or, in other words to explain the general nature of POETICK LANGUAGE. For language is the poet's instrument of imitation, as sound is the musician's, and colour the painter's. My conclusions on this part of the subject will be found to terminate in the principles already laid down.

Words in poetry are chosen, first, for their sense; and, secondly, for their sound. That the first of these grounds of choice is the more excellent, nobody can deny. He who in literary VOL. VI.

A

matters prefers sound to sense, is a fool. Yet sound is to be attended to, even in prose; and in verse demands particular attention. I shall consider poetical language, first, as SIGNIFICANT; and, secondly, as SUSCEPTIBLE OF HARMONY.

CHAPTER I.

Of Poetical Language, considered as significant.

IF, as I have endeavoured to prove; poetry be imitative of nature, poetical fictions of real events, poetical images of real appearances in the visible creation, and poetical personages of real human characters; it would seem to follow, that the language of poetry must be an imitation of the language of nature. For nothing but what is supposed to be natural can please; and language, as well as fable, imagery, and moral description, may displease, by being unnatural. What then is meant by natural language? This comes to be our first inquiry.

SECTION I.

An idea of Natural Language.

THE term natural language has sometimes been used by philosophers to denote those tones of the human voice, attitudes of the body, and configurations of the features, which, being naturally expressive of certain emotions of the soul, are universal among mankind, and every where understood. Thus anger, fear, pity, adoration, joy, contempt, and almost every other passion, has a look, attitude, and tone of voice, peculiar to itself; which would seem to be the effect, not of men imitating one another, but of the soul operating upon the body; and which, when well expressed in a picture or statue, or when it appears in human behaviour, is understood by all mankind, as the external sign of that passion which it is for the most part observed to accompany. In this acceptation, natural language is contradistinguished to those articulate voices to which the name of speech has been appropriated; and which are also universal among mankind, though different in different nations; but derive all their meaning from human compact and artifice, and are not understood except by those who have been instructed in the use of them. But in this inquiry the term natural language denotes that use of speech, or of artificial language, which is suitable to the speaker and to the occasion. “ Proper words in “ proper places," is Swift's definition of a good style; and may with equal propriety, serve for a definition of that style, or mode of language, which is here called natural, in contradistinction, not to artificial (itself being artificial) but to unnatural; and which it is the poet's business to imitate. I say, to imitate: for as poets (for a reason already given) copy nature, not as it is, but in that state of perfection, wherein consistently with verisimilitude, and with the genius of their work, it may be supposed to be; and are there fore said to imitate nature, that is, to give a view of nature similar to, but somewhat different from the reality: so, in forming poetical language, they must take for their model human speech, not in that imperfect state wherein it is used on the common occasions of life, but in that state of perfection, whereof, consistently with verisimilitude, it may be supposed to be susceptible.

But, as we cannot estimate the perfection or imperfection of poetical imagery, till we know the natural appearance of the thing described; so neither can we judge of this perfection of human speech, till we have formed some idea of that quality of language which we express by the epithet natural. That some modes of language are more natural than others, and that one mode may be natural at one time which at another would be unnatural, must be evident even to those who never studied criticism. World soft words, for example, be natural in

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