In this case it appears that the usual comparison between Poetry and Painting entirely fails: the artist who takes an accurate likeness of individuals, or a faithful representation of scenery, may not rank so high in the public estimation, as one who paints an historical event, or an heroic action; but he is nevertheless a painter, and his accuracy is so far from diminishing his reputation, that it procures for him in general both fame and emolument: nor is it perhaps with strict justice determined that the credit and reputation of those verses which strongly and faithfully delineate character and manners, should be lessened in the opinion of the Public by the very accuracy which gives value and distinction to the productions of the pencil.

Nevertheless, it must be granted that the pretensions of any composition to be regarded as Poetry, will depend upon that definition of the poetic character which he who undertakes to determine the question has considered as decisive; and it is confessed also that one of great authority may be adopted, by which the verses now before the Reader, and many others which have probably amused and delighted him, must be excluded: a definition like this will be found in the words which the greatest of Poets, not divinely

inspired, has given to the most noble and valiant

Duke of Athens

"The Poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

"Doth glance from Heaven to Earth, from Earth to "Heaven;

"And as Imagination bodies forth

"The forms of things unknown, the Poet's pen
"Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
"A local habitation, and a name."*

Hence we observe the Poet is one who, in the excursions of his fancy between heaven and earth, lights upon a kind of fairy-land in which he places a creation of his own, where he embodies shapes, and gives action and adventure to his ideal offspring; taking captive the imagination of his readers, he elevates them above the grossness of actual being, into the soothing and pleasant atmosphere of supra-mundane existence: there he obtains for his visionary inhabitants the interest that engages a Reader's attention without ruffling his feelings, and excites that moderate kind of sympathy which the realities of nature oftentimes fail to produce, either because they are so familiar and insignificant that they excite no determinate

*Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V. Scene 1.

emotion, or are so harsh and powerful that the feelings excited are grating and distasteful,

Be it then granted that (as Duke Theseus observes) such tricks hath strong Imagination,' and that such Poets are of imagination all compact ;' let it be further conceded, that theirs is a higher and more dignified kind of composition, nay, the only kind that has pretensions to inspiration; still, that these poets should so entirely engross the title as to exclude those who address their productions to the plain sense and sober judgment of their Readers, rather than to their fancy and imagination, I must repeat that I am unwilling to admit— because I conceive that, by granting such right of exclusion, a vast deal of what has been hitherto received as genuine poetry would no longer be entitled to that appellation.

All that kind of satire wherein character is skilfully delineated, must (this criterion being allowed) no longer be esteemed as genuine Poetry; and for the same reason many affecting narratives which are founded on real events, and borrow no aid whatever from the imagination of the writer, must likewise be rejected: a considerable part of the Poems, as they have hitherto been denominated, of Chaucer, are of this naked and unveiled cha

racter: and there are in his Tales many pages of coarse, accurate, and minute, but very striking description. Many small Poems in a subsequent age of most impressive kind are adapted and addressed to the common sense of the Reader, and prevail by the strong language of truth and nature they amused our ancestors, and they continue to engage our interest, and excite our feelings, by the same powerful appeals to the heart and affections. In times less remote, Dryden has given us much of this Poetry, in which the force of expression and accuracy of description have neither needed nor obtained assistance from the fancy of the writer; the characters in his Absalom and Ahitophel are instances of this, and more especially those of Doeg and Ogg in the second part: these, with all their grossness, and almost offensive accuracy, are found to possess that strength and spirit which has preserved from utter annihilation the dead bodies of Tate to whom they were inhumanly bound, happily with a fate the reverse of that caused by the cruelty of Mezentius; for there the living perished in the putrefaction of the dead, and here the dead are preserved by the vitality of the living. And, to bring forward one other example, it will be found that Pope himself has no

small portion of this actuality of relation, this nudity of description, and poetry without an atmosphere; the lines beginning, In the worst inn's worst room,' are an example, and many others may be seen in his Satires, Imitations, and above all in his Dunciad: the frequent absence of those Sports of Funcy,' and Tricks of strong Imagination,' have been so much observed, that some have ventured to question whether even this writer were a Poet; and though, as Dr. Johnson has remarked, it would be difficult to form a definition of one in which Pope should not be admitted, yet they who doubted his claim, had, it is likely, provided for his exclusion by forming that kind of character for their Poet, in which this elegant versifier, for so he must be then named, should not be comprehended.

These things considered, an Author will find comfort in his expulsion from the rank and society of Poets, by reflecting that men much his superiors were likewise shut out, and more especially when he finds also that men not much his superiors are entitled to admission.

But in whatever degree I may venture to differ from any others in my notions of the qualifications and character of the true Poet, I most cordially

« ElőzőTovább »