« PreviousContinue »
be endured as rhymes on this side of the Tweed; but yet the slight sprinkling of Scottish in the context, with the overpowering tenderness of the sentiments themselves, render these discords tolerable, or rather compel them to be forgotten in such association.
Finally, this composite dialect adds exquisite quaintness to humorous, and a simple grace to ordinary forms of speech, while it renders grand and terrific imagery more striking and dreadful. It is hardly a language of this world in the witching scene in “ Tam O'Shanter," that miracle of the muse of Burns, in which all his talents are brought into play, on a subject most gross and abominable, yet in the passage alluded to preternaturally awful and mysterious, so long as he maintains his gravity in describing the obscene and horrid rites of the "secret, black, and midnight hags,” within the walls of Auld Kirk Alloway, Satan himself being bag-piper to their dancing.
“Coffins stood round, like open presses,
gray hairs yet stack to the heft.”
The elision of the final l in the last rhymes of this extract is singularly expressive of the horror that clips the breath of the speaker, while he imagines himself the spectator of " deeds without a name.” Such criticisms may seem frivolous to some incurious persons : but every poet at least will know how to estimate the value of licenses like these, to do what he pleases with words, and make words do what they are bidden. But with all these immunities the writers of Scottish verse are so limited in their ranges of subjects, and the compass of their song, that their pieces must of necessity be brief, and their themes nearly confined to humour, pathos, and familiar description. A great work, like an epic poem, could not be achieved in so lawless a dialect.
Capabilities of Languages. Limited, however, as poetic license may be in a severe and uncompromising language like ours, the man of original genius will never be at a loss to adapt its resources to his exigencies, and so to assimilate the medium of communication with the character of his own mind as to give to his most recondite conceptions such perfect development that no version in a foreign idiom shall equal in effect the sounds and syllables which he has selected for them. What indeed should the poet do, if he had not virtue in himself to mould according to his will the language in which his thoughts are to live ? as the fish in the convoluted shell shapes its dwelling by the motion of its body within.
“Will you play upon this pipe ?” says Hamlet to Guildenstern. -"I cannot, I know no touch of it, my lord,” replies the courtier.—“'Tis as easy as lying, retorts the satirical prince; “ govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb; give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent bausic; look ye, these are the stops."-"But these cannot I command to any utterance of barmony; I have no skill,” is the humble confession of the other. Thus the melodies of the pipe must be the result of the piper's employment of its capabilities, which each who tries will variously bring out. It is a small thing that the fiddle is a genuine Cremona, and the warranted workmanship of Straduarius ; every hand that draws a bow across it will produce every note unlike every other performer, according to his skill in fingering, and the “music in his soul,"—from the crude scraping of “some blind crowder in the streets,” to the tones of anguish or ecstasy which Paganini, with touches like the first beams of sunlight on the statue of Memnon, elicits from the strings; or extorts when he strikes and they shriek as though he were putting live sufferers to the sword.
What the pipe and the viol are to the minstrel, his native tongue is to the poet. The finest instruments are dumb till those harmonies are put into them, of which they can be no more than the passive conductors. Language, in like manner, is a dead letter till the spirit within the poet himself breathes through it, gives it voice, and makes it audible to the very mind. The powers of any language, therefore, are put to proof just in proportion to the powers of the author himself who composes in it. Shakspeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, Burke, Johnson, and Junius, among numberless others, have each done with our English what none ever did before him; and there are abundant capabilities in it yet undiscovered. What great master shall next bring a few miore of them forth with equal conspicuity? Nor need they be far sought; they lie along the highway of literature; they are the granite materials of which the road is made. Lord Byron affected the frequent use of quaint, obsolete, and outlandish terms; and by this artifice, no doubt, he occasionally rendered his style both gorgeous and venerable. But his chief strength lay in a despotic command over the
most ordinary forms of speech. He has done more for common words than Dryden himself did; and the energy with which he employs them is the most remarkable, as well as the most exemplary, characteristic of his style in his best productions,—such as the third and fourth cantos of “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.”
Without any reference to the merits or faults of the following stanzas, they will strikingly exhibit the power of high pressure which the noble writer could put in force to multiply thoughts with words, and so condense them that scarcely one of the latter could be withdrawn without extinguishing one of the former. In the storm on the Lake of Geneva he thus breaks out:
Sky, mountains, rivers, winds, lake, lightnings !-Ye,
“Could I imboay and unbosom now
That which is most within me-could I wreak
I conclude with an admirable illustration of this ill-understood subject, by a critic of no ordinary tact, which may be found in an article on “Todd's Milton," in the Quarterly Review, No. XXXVI. :
“Let us not hear a polished language blamed for the defects of those who know not how to put it forth. It must be wielded by the master before its true force can be known. The Philippics of Demosthenes were pronounced in the mother tongue of every one of his audience; but who among them
could have answered him in a single sentence like his own? Who among them could have guessed what Greek could do, though they had spoken it all their lives, till they heard it from his lips? The secret of using language is, to use it from a full mind."
VARIOUS CLASSES OF POETRY.
LORD Bacon distinguishes poetry under three heads : Narrative, Dramatic, and Parabolic. To these may be added a fourth, Miscellaneous, comprehending one half of the verse that is written, and which can hardly be said to come under any denomination less general. Without particular reference to these distinctions, I shall briefly notice several of the principal classes of poetry, according to the limits which must not here be exceeded.
Narrative poetry embraces all the varieties of metrical story-telling, from the lofty epic to the lowly ballad. In these (according to the license of fiction) the author, knowing every thing that he chooses to know, and being privy to the inmost thoughts as well as the outward acts of his heroes-discloses to his reader (like one invisible being holding converse with another) the entire circumstances of all the events, single or in series, which he feigns or borrows. He thus makes his fable, as it is called, more complete through all its bearings than any series of facts can be rendered, from the necessary imperfection of human testimony, the difficulty of discover,