« PreviousContinue »
or surprises, both listeners and loiterers; it is not these alone which constitute the charm, and secure the dominion of poetry. No; it is principally that secret, undefined, and incommunicable art by which the author works at once upon the mind of the reader, and sets the reader's mind at work upon itself, with thick-coming fancies, of which those lent by the poet are but the precursors: so that the longer he dwells, and the oftener the man of right feeling returns to the strain that first transported him, after the novelty and effervescence are past, he will find his own fancy, his own affections, his own inteltigence, exercised anew, and not seldom in a new way, with the theme and its embellishments; which, being nature and truth (however figuratively invested), will no more weary contemplation than the most familiar scenes of the universe tire the sight. For, if there be one characteristic of poetry which exalts it above every other species of literature, as well as distinguishes it from the most refined of manual arts, it is this,that, whatever it may be in its essence, genuine poetry is, in its effect, the highest of all mental, imaginative, and passionate enjoyments, of which the whole process is independent of the senses. I hesitate not to affirm, that no external excitement whatever does necessarily contribute towards the pleasure derived from it, for even the metre is rather addressed to the mind than to the ear, and is, indeed, more frequently communicated through the eye (which, however, merely takes in the visible signs of the hidden meaning), than either by reading aloud, or hearkening to another who reads. I appeal to those present who are most skilled in the delicacies of rhythmical periods, whether any recitation of verse, by the most accomplished declaimer, can reach the enchantment of the numbers of true poetry, which a person of fine nerve and pure taste can conceive in the silence of thought, while he looks upon the page that records them. Do not the harmonies of Shak. speare himself ring more melodiously in remembrance than they were ever made to sound in reality from the lips of a Kemble or a Siddons ?
Truth a Test of Poetry. But I am to endeavour, by illustration of what is poetical, to enable those who choose to follow the same course of analogy, to judge for themselves of any composition in verse, whether it can justly lay claim to the former epithet. In the first place, the test of true poetry is the test of truth itself. Two Mongol-Tartar chiefs, from the borders of China, some years ago, came to St. Petersburgh to acquaint themselves with the learning and arts of Europeans; bringing this recommendation, that they were the best and most sensible men belonging to their tribe. Among other occupations they were engaged to assist a German clergyman, resident in that city, in a translation of St. Matthew's Gospel into their native tongue. This work was carried on for many months, and day by day they were accustomed to collate, with the minister, such portions of the common task as one, the other, or all three had com. pleted; in the course of which, they would often ask questions respecting circumstances and allusions, as well as doctrines and sentiments, contained in the book, which, to be faithful interpreters, they deemed right to understand well for themselves beyond the literal text. On the last day, when the version was presumed to be as perfect as the parties could render it, the two saisangs (or chiefs) sat silent but thoughtful, when the manuscript lay closed upon the table. Observing something unusual in their manner, their friend inquired whether they had any questions to ask. They answered, “None;" and then, to the delight and amazement of the good man,-who had carefully avoided, during their past intercourse, any semblance of wishing to proselyte
them,—they both declared themselves converts to the religion of that book. So they proved in the sequel, but with that part of the history, though exceedingly interesting, we have not to do at present. One remark which the elder made, and the younger confirmed, has caused this reference to them. He said, “We have lived in ignorance, and been led by blind guides, without finding rest. We have been zealous followers of the doctrines of Shakdshamani (the Fo of the Chinese), and have studied the books containing them attentively; but the more studied, the more obscure they appeared to us, and our hearts remained empty. But in perusing the doctrines of Jesus Christ, it is just the contrary; the more we meditate upon his words, the niore intelligible they become; and at length it seems as if Jesus were talking with us.”
Thus it is universally with truth and error. All falsehood is the counterfeit of truth, and superficially viewed may pass for the reality ; but in proportion as it is examined, its pretensions disappear, and the cheat becomes manifest. On the contrary, from our hasty, negligent, or imperfect perception of it, truth may sometimes be mistaken for imposture ; but when resolutely, patiently, honestly searched into, it gradually grows clearer, simpler, fuller, and at last perfect. The bodily eye coming out of long darkness into sudden light, relapses from infirmity, -I might say, in self-defence-into momentary blindness, but, soon accommodating itself to the splendour around, all becomes natural, agreeable, and right; while new discoveries of what was utterly hidden, or unsuspected, are made, from instant to instant, till the sight has recovered its strength and penetration to comprehend the whole scene and all its circumstances. Try poetry by this standard : that which wearies, on acquaintance, is false; that which improves is true.
The rule of 'Longinus, respecting the sublime, sanctions this mode of proof :-"He that hath a competent share of natural and acquired taste may easily distinguish the value of any performance from a bare recital of it. If he finds that it transports not his soul, nor exalts his thoughts,—that it calls not up into his mind ideas more enlarged than what the sounds convey, but, on the contrary, ils dignity lessens and declines,-he may conclude, that whatever pierces no deeper than the ear cannot be the true sublime. That, on the other hand, is grand and lofty, which the more we consider, the greater ideas we conceive of it; whose force we cannot possibly withstand, which sinks immediately deep, and makes such an impression on the mind as cannot easily be effaced: in a word, we may pronounce that sublime, beautiful, and true which permanently pleases, and takes generally with all sorts of men.”—Long. sect. 10. Smith's translation.
We conclude, then, that poetry must be true, natural, and affecting; nay, in its most artificial array, that of pure fiction, it must be the fiction that represents truth, and which is truth,-truth in the spirit, though not in the letter. The illustrations which I am about to produce will, I hope, show the poetical aspects of certain things,-sufficiently commonplace to be easily understood, yet capable of the highest ideality, by circumstance and association.
The Poetical in Objects of Sight. I begin with an ancient apologue. At Athens, I believe, on the completion of the temple of Minerva, a statue of the goddess was wanted to occupy the crowning point of the edifice. Two of the greatest artists produced what each deemed his masterpiece. One of these figures (to use an ambiguous phrase, for lack of a better) was the size of life, admirably designed and exquisitely finished; the other was of amazonian stature, and so boldly chiselled, that it looked more like masonry than sculpture. The eyes of all were attracted by the first, and turned away in contempt from the second. That, therefore, was adopted, and this rejected, almost with resentment, as though an insult had been offered to the judgment of a discerning public. In this, as in similar cases, those who were nearest to both were presumed to be the best connoisseurs of the merits of each; and as they pronounced very decisively against the one and in favour of the other, the multitude in the rear, who saw neither so much symmetry in the minor, nor so much deformity in the major, yielded to authority. The selected image was accordingly borne in triumph to the place which it was to occupy, in the presence of applauding thousands ; but as it receded from their upturned eyes,-all, all at once a-gaze upon it,—the thunders unaccountably died away, a general misgiving ran through every bosom, and when it was at length fixed, the mob themselves stood like statues, as silent and as petrified; for the miniature figure, being diminished to a point, was scarcely recognised, except as an unsightly protuberance,
Of course the idol of the hour was soon clamoured down, as rationally as it had been cried up; and its dishonoured rival, with no good-will, and no good looks, on the part of the chagrined populace, was reared in its stead. This, however, was no sooner done than the rude-hewn mass, that before scarcely appeared to bear even the human form, assumed the divinity which it represented, -being so perfectly proportioned to the dimensions of the building, and to the elevation on which it stood, that it seenied as though Pallas herself had alighted upon the pinnacle of her temple,
in person to receive the homage of her worshippers at its dedication.
Now that aspect of the giant-statue, at the due distance from which it was intended to be contemplated,--that aspect was the poetry of that object.