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FEW passages in the writings of Dr. Johnson have been more frequently quoted than that in which he argues that religious subjects are not capable of poetical treatment. He asserts and maintains this paradox with the utmost brilliancy of diction and ingenuity of reasoning. Yet the fallacies which pervade his discussion of the question are obvious ; and his arguments have been replied to so often and so completely, that to attempt a new refutation of them would be a work of supererogation. The Greek sophist, arguing against the possibility of motion, was sufficiently answered by one of his hearers rising and walking across the room. This volume
of English Sacred Poetry may, in like manner, be regarded as an adequate and practical disproof of Johnson's paradox.
The truth is, that all the various faculties of our being find ample scope in the great truths of revelation. The gospel addresses itself, not to one part of our nature only, but to all. For the intellect, it has truths whose heights and depths and lengths and breadths even angelic intelligencies can never fully explore. To the affections, it offers, not cold abstract dogmas, but a living and Divine Person, whom we love because He first loved us. To the stubborn and rebellious will, it speaks with the authority of a master, yet with the tenderness of a Father, constraining it to a cheerful submission to an obedience which is true freedom. Nor are the fancy and imagination overlooked as beyond its influence. Here the poet may find his grandest or his sweetest themes. The majesty or the grace of God kindled into rapture the souls of psalmists and prophets. “The innumerable company of angels” and “the spirits of just men made perfect” unite in ceaseless praises before the throne. And the church on earth delights to celebrate the Redeemer's glories “in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.” Never does poetry better attain its true dignity than when it aspires to lay its choicest garlands at the feet of Him for whom carth had no crown of thorns.
So far, then, from poetry being excluded from the service of religion, we should rather say that here “ the gist and faculty divine" finds its most fitting sphere and its noblest exercise. The words of Milton are as true as they are eloquent,
when he declares the proper office of the poet to be, “to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness; and what He works, and what He suffers to be wrought with high providence in His church ; to sing victorious agonies of saints and martyrs, the deeds and triumphs of just and pious nations doing valiantly, through faith, against Christ's enemies, to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and states from justice and God's true worship. Lastly, whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime; in virtue, amiable or grave
all these things to paint out and describe, teaching over the whole book of sanctity and virtue, through all the instances of example, with such delight to those especially of soft and delicious temper, who will not so much as look upon truth herself unless they see her elegantly dressed,—that whereas the paths of honesty and good life appear now to be rugged and difficult, though they be indeed easy and pleasant, they will then appear, to all men easy and pleasant, though they were rugged and difficult indeed."
Equally groundless was Cowper's expression of regret that our Sacred Poets have been so few.
Pity Religion has so seldom found
The following pages will show that our religious poets have been neither few nor faithless. And the diversity of their gifts and callings is even more remarkable than their number. Their ranks are
welled from every walk of life. The soldier, the