« PreviousContinue »
of Cambay, in Hudibras, is “asp, and basilisk, and toad.” But this is not the place to dwell upon the miseries and the sins of unfortunate poets; with nothing but their proverbial poverty have we to deal at present.
It is acknowledged that great honours and emoluments have been bestowed on some of the tribe. Pindar knew the value of his talents in gold, and he exacted it. Virgil and Horace flourished within the precincts of a court; others of meaner note, in modern times, might be mentioned: but, after all, munificent patronage is yet rarer than transcendent talents. In the age of Augustus there were many poets, and but one Mæcenas; Augustus himself was not a second. It is well for poetry, and no worse for poets, in the main, that the age of patronage is past; that the Parnassian slave-trade is abolished: would that we were able to add, that Parnassian slavery itself was done away,--that spontaneous bondage of poets themselves to folly, and vice, and pernicious fashion, for the hire of unrighteousness! With little to expect from the great, to the public the successful poet may look for his moderate but not inglorious reward.
It has been facetiousiy said that booksellers drink their wine out of the sculls of authors; and it has been declared, by one of the most illustrious of our country's writers,-himself a poet,--who had proved all the pangs of heart-sickness from hope deferred and hope disappointed, which he has so admirably expressed in a couplet of sterling English, excelling even the celebrated original in the third satire of Juvenal:
Haud facile emergunt, quorum virtutibus obstat
Res angusta domi.”
Vanity of Human Wisha.
To return,-it has been declared by Dr. Johnson that booksellers are the best patrons. Both sayings may be equally true, though neither of them is strictly so. It is as purely figurative to call a bookseller an author's patron as to say that he drinks his wine out of an author's scull. In reality-nay, it cannot in the common course of things be otherwise, -just in proportion as a writer's lucubrations bring profit to his bookseller, the bookseller will be liberal in remunerating his talents,--for the strongest reason in the world—to secure his own interest. That the market-price of the greatest works of literature, of poetry in particular, should be very incommensurate to the toil, the time, and the expense of thought required to perfect them, is a circumstance rather to be lamented than complained of, and rather to be endured with patience than lamented. The evil, if it be an evil, is irremediable; and however it may be alleviated by the mùltiplication of readers, and the taste for elegant and magnificent books, though the latter factitious taste is nearly obsolete, and volumes of compendious literature are now the rage,-yet must authors be for ever excluded from the hope of reaping equal pecuniary benefit from the offspring of their minds with first-rate professors of the sister arts. The world, which loves to wonder, wonders less at Madame Catalani receiving a prince's ransom for a few pulsations of breath,-by which she can throw a whole theatre into ecstasy; or the late Benjamin West hesitating to accept ten thousand pounds for a single picture, -than that Sir Walter Scott should have been paid five hundred for the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and from one to two, from two to three, and from three io four thousand pounds for so many other ballad-like romances in succession :prices unprecedented in poetical finance, and not likely to be given again till another Sir Walter shall arise to witch the world with noble penmanship.*
• The circumstances respecting Mr. Wost and Sir Walter Scott are
I will never degrade poetry so low as to admit, even for argument's sake, that the force of genius displayed in any of the five compositions alluded to is no greater than Catalani or West were required to put forth to obtain proportionate remuneration. It would be making sounds and colours equal to thoughts and feelings to allow this. For myself, I would rather have written “the last words of Marmion” for love (as the saying is), than have pocketed all the coin that has been poured out upon shopcounters, at box-lobby doors, and in concert-rooms, for setting, singing, playing, and selling them, from Berwick-on-Tweed to Penzance. Nor is this vain boasting; for to have written those few lines, I must have been possessed of the power of him who did write them; and then I could have envied no man the profit which he might professionally acquire from my labours. It is enough to make a poor poet burst his spleen, to read the memoirs of eminent musicians and painters, and contrast them with those of his more illustrious predecessors. While the former have been courted, enriched, and ennobled by pontiffs and potentates, the latter have languished in poverty, and died in despair. Will any man deny. that the poems of Milton, as productions of genius, are equal to the pictures of Rubens? Yet the artist's pencil supported him in princely splendour; the poet's muse could not procure, what even his enemies would have furnished to him, gratuitously, in a dungeon, bread and water.
Poets might be permitted to say, that music, painting, and sculpture may be appreciated in this world, and recompensed by the things of it, but poetry cannot; its price is abové wealth, and its honours are those which sovereigns cannot confer. But they are generally posthumous. Like Egyptian kings, however praised while living,
adopted from common report; but, however inoorrect they may be, the impression made on the public mind, on the presumption of their truth, is sufficient for the author's argument here.
it is on the issue of their trials after death that the most exalted have pyramids decreed to them; and it is then that even the most adniired and feared may be condemned to obloquy, and abandoned to oblivion.
Poetry compared with Eloquence, History, and
Philosophy. In reference to other species of literature, it is not my purpose to present them in any lengthened, much less any disparaging, contrast with poetry. Eloquence, history, philosophy, must consider poetry as their sister by blood (not merely by alliance, as in the case of music, painting, and sculpture), rather than their rival,-elder, indeed, than all, yet in perpetual youth; the nurse of each, yet more beautiful than either of them in her loveliest attire. The most perfect models of eloquence may be found in the writings of the epic and dramatic poets; also the most authentic facts of history, embellished, not beyond truth, but agreeable to truth; and the purest morals of philosophy, set forth with lights and shadows which transform them from pretended mysteries and pompous truisms, into clear, permanent, and influential realities. *
* Milton's splendid view of the intellectual glories of ancient Greece may be advantageously quoted here:
" There shalt thou hear and learn the secret power
or harmony, in tones and numbers hit
The first of these assertions will probably be admitted, -that eloquence has frequently been presented to as great (if not greater) advantage, in verse as in prose; ancient oratory, in comparison with ancient poetry, has exercised small influence over the minds, manners, and characters of succeeding ages. Cicero, all perfect as he is, in his own unrivalled style of prose, as numerous as the richest verse,-and Demosthenes himself,-of the effects of whose speeches as “sulmined" from the living voice over the heads of audiences that could criticise every syllable, even when Philip was at the gates, we must necessarily form very imperfect ideas from reading them in a dead language, addressed only to the eye, for the sounds, whatever be our pronunciation, are little more than imaginary; Cicero and Demosthenes have exercised no such power over posterity as Homer and Virgil have done, though the diction of these lies under yet a heavier impracticability of modern utterance, from the loss of the true use of quantity, as well as articulation, in the antique tongues.
In history, as a matter of fact, whether creditable to the eccentricity of human taste or not, it will hardly be disputed that Xenophon and Thucydides have failed to command the attention which (not without a cause lying deep in our very nature) has been won by Anacreon and Horace. But even on its own ground, history, in some respects, as the transmitter of knowledge concerning the past, is compelled to vail to poetry. Not that the records of actual events can be so properly conveyed in verse (though bards in all nations were the first
Thence to the famous orators repair,
Paradise Regained, book tv.