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THE

EDINBURGH MAGAZINE,

AND

LITERARY MISCELLANY.

JULY 1820.

ON THE CAUSES OF THE EXCELLENCE

OF EARLY POETRY.

assistance from the world of letters or of science, since it inhabits a far beta

ter world of its own. It is the only In examining the early literary his- faculty which seems to prefer darktory of almost every nation with which ness rather than light; or, when it we are acquainted, and in tracing the chooses to come forth from that secret rise of the various branches of human cell where it performs its incantations, knowledge, it will be found, that, a- it will condescend to study from no mong these, Poetry claims a priority other book than that great volume of origin. At periods when ignorance which Nature has spread before it. and barbarity have precluded all pro- Hence, since this faculty must needs gress in other walks of knowledge, be as vigorous, and have as wide a this divine art has made advances to field to expatiate in, amongst savage perfection which excite our astonish, tribes as with civilized nations, and ment even in the present advanced since it is itself the very soul of poecondition of society. The causes of try, it follows, that, with them, this this early progress of poetry are easily of poetry must be the first art which discoverable. They are to be found, in they cultivate, and onc, too, which is the first place, in that superior power likely to attain to no common perwhich is gained by the faculty of ima- fection. But another cause is to be gination amid those dark and disas- found in the imperfection of language. trous circumstances which seem to

Language, in the early periods of overwhelm all the other energies of the progress of every nation, is in a the mind. 2d, However paradoxical it very rude condition, and it is in this may at first appear, we may discover imperfection and apparent barrenness another cause in the imperfection and of the language that we shall find one barrenness of language in these early cause for the lofty and simple tone periods. 3dly, The occasions on which assumed by the poetry. The words these poetical effusions, amongst rude are few, it is true, but they are intribes, are generally composed, and variably expressive. They are dethe persons or audience to whom they scriptive of the strongest passions and are addressed, will be found to have a the deepest feelings of the human great influence in conferring upon heart; of patriotism and valour, of them that truth, nature, and energy, grief and joy, of triumph and despair, which we in vain look for in more mo- of love and hatred. In the ancient dern productions.

language of a rude people, we find no Amongst the faculties of the human mind, the imagination is not

* Such was the education of our Shake. only the most excursive, but the most

speare. It was in such like solitary musindependent. Reading, reasoning, ings that Burns imbibed the materials of and habits of patient thoughít, are ne- his future fame ; and it was from this recessary to the other powers. To it tired conversation with Nature that all that they are not only unnecessary, but in is good and great in their productions was some measure hurtful. It needs no primarily derived.

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redundancy of expletives, as in the mo- and prowess of his song-or a lover
dern tongues, no unnecessary expres- pleading to his mistress, or a mother
sions, no unmeaning synonymes. These singing her child to sleep, --who will
are not to be found, because those not expect (we speak of poetry in its
fantastic modes of life, and artificial very first state, and before rhyme or
and complicated ideas which arise measure was introduced) more truth
in the progress of civilization, and for and beauty in the expressions of these
which corresponding terms must be persons themselves, of the real mo-
invented, have not then made their ther or the real father, than in the
appearance. Amongst rude tribes, more laboured productions of some
therefore, even in their common dis. bookish poet; the one flowing free,
course, and still more in their war warm, and unpremeditated from the
songs, or their solemn harangues, the heart; the other proceeding, stiff,
speakers were actually compelled, cold, and laboured from the library
both by the limited number of words The last must partake of that conceit,
they had to select from, and by the that peculiar and characteristic man-
bold meaning attached to them, to ner which the prevailing taste of the
become nervous and metaphorical ; age may have introduced ; the other
and it is thus that, in the early pe- is written in the universal language
riods of society, the high-flown and of nature, tied and fettered by no
figurative style must have become as rule, peculiar to no particular age or
inuch a matter of necessity as the ef- country, but intelligible to every hu-
fect of taste or imagination. Chil- man heart. As illustrations of what
dren, from the same cause, their ig- is here stated as to the early, excel-
norance of common language, are of- lence of poetry, and the causes of this
ten driven to make use of beautiful and excellence, we cannot, it is evident,
highly poetical expressions. We are offer many examples. Much of
acquainted with a little boy of two
years of age, who, at sunset, asked if

* Every one, in the course of his own the sun at night went to his cloud- reading, will have noticed this excellence bed. This, which is a fine idea, arose in the early poetry of most nations. It is from the vocabulary from which he perhaps no where more remarkable than in selected his phrases being so limited in the ancient Welsh poems (whose authenits extent. A still more poetical expres- ticity has now become undisputed) of Mersion was used by a child when it saw him, Taleissin, and Aneurin, as well as in ice for the first time, and said, “it was other Welsh poems written at a later era. water asleep.” The same causes,

The first belong to the sixth' and seventh whose effects we can thus trace in centuries, the last to the twelfth and thirthe infancy of the individual, operate tion on these poems by Mr Sharon Turner.

teenth. We refer to the ingenious dissertaequally, or rather more powerfully, in the infancy of the species. Another

“ May the Being who made the splendours cause of the early cultivation of poe- The sun, and chilling moon, glorious ha

of the west, try, and the superior tone of Nature and pathos which it assumes in these May he that rules above in universal light,

bitations, rude periods, is to be found in the

generously grant me occasions which call it forth, and the The fulness of the glowing muse of Merdpersons to whom it is addressed.

him, Every one must be sensible, that when to sing the praise of heroes as Aneurin poetry is the natural product of the sang occasion,--when a song, for instance, In the day that he composed the Godois composed or sung, for the first time, din.” in the midst of the scenery it de- We cannot help adding here an extract scribes, and accompanied by the cir- from an ancient Welsh MS. quoted in Mr cumstances which form its subject, it Owen's Preface to Llywarch Hen. It is receives from this circumstance a

the prayer of Talhairn, a bard of the sixth stamp of vigour and of nature which or seventh century. will impart to it something of that thy protection strength; and in strength

"O God grant thy protection ; and in same spirit which an original always discretion ; and in discretion justice ; and possesses over a copy; and again, if in justice love; in love, to love God; and the song or poem is descriptive of in- in loving God, to love all things.” dividual passion, if it is, for instance, In this same book of bardism we find a a father rejoicing over the victories noble passage regarding Genius.

3 arrows.

the earliest poetry of every nation the banks, yet abstain from the fields. must have been lost in the darkness on the rising hills are the halls of and ignorance of those ages in which the departed; the high-roofed dwelit arose. But that the earliest lan- lings of the heroes of old.” guage of uncivilized man is poetical, We have mentioned the poetical lanand that the poetry thus formed is guage of the American Indians. In ilabounding in expressions of uncom- Justration of this we may quote a very mon eloquence and beauty, -all that beautiful anecdote which is preserved has been preserved to us of the ab- by M. de St Lambert. Were we to original poetry of those countries attempt to abridge it, some of its finwhich are now civilized, and many est pathetic features would be lost. fragments which travellers have col. It will be better to transcribe it as lilected amongst nations, at the pre- terally translated from the original. sent moment in a barbarous state, During the war a company of do most fully prove. Need we re- Indians attacked a small body of Brifer here to the poetry of our native tish troops and defeated them. Few Ossian,--to the figurative and strike of the British escaped, and those who ing eloquence in the harangues of the fell into their hands were treated with North American savages,-to the the greatest cruelty. Two of the Inodes and war songs of the Danish and dians came up to a young man and Scandinavian nations,— to the song of attacked him with great fury. Anothe Laplander as he turns his rein- ther Indian came up who was advanced deer to the cottage of his mistress, in years, and armed with a bow and or the lullaby of the Finland woman

The old man instantly drew as she sings to her sleeping infant ? his bow, but after having taken aim The examples of Ossian must be at the officer, he suddenly dropt the familiar to every reader. Perhaps point of his arrow, and interposed bethe following fine description of the tween him and his pursuers. They Celtic Paradise is not so.

retired with respect.

The old man “The Isle spread large before me like then took the officer by the hand, a pleasing dream of the soul, where soothed him into confidence by cadistance fades not on the sight: where resses, and having conducted him to nearness fatigues not the eye. It had his hut, treated him with a kindness its gently sloping hills of green, nor which did honour to his professions. did they wholly want their clouds. “ He made him less a slave than a But the clouds were bright and trans- companion, taught him the language parent: and each involved in its bo- of the country, and instructed him in som the source of a stream: a beau- the rude arts that are practised by the teous stream, which, wandering down inhabitants. They lived together in the steep, was like the faint notes of the most perfect harmony; and the the half touched harp to the distant officer, in the treatment he met with, ear. The valleys were open free to found nothing to regret, but that the ocean : trees loaded with leaves sometimes the old man fixed his eyes which scarcely waved to the light upon him, and after having regarded breeze, were scattered on the green him for some time with a steady and declivities and rising grounds. The silent attention, burst into tears. rude winds walked not on the moun- “ In the mean time the spring retain: no storm took its course through turned, and the Indians again took the sky—all was calm and bright: the field. The old man, who was the pure sun of autumn shone from still vigorous, set out with them, and the sky on the fields : he hastened was accompanied by his prisoner: not to the west for repose, nor was he They marched above 200 leagues aseen to rise in the east. He sits in his cross the forest, and came at length noon-day height, and looks oblique- to the plain where the British troops ly on the noble isle.”

were encamped. The old man shew“ In each valley is its slow-moving ed his prisoner the tents at a distance, stream. The pure waters swell over ' There,' said he,' are thy country

men, there are the enemy who wait

to give us battle. Remember that I “ The three requisites of Genius.” “ An have saved thy life: that I have taught eye to see Nature, a heart to feel it,—and thee to conduct a canoe: to arm thya resolution that dares follow it."

self with a bow and arrows; and to

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surprise the beaver in the forest. feel the full force of it, who will not
What wast thou when I first took be sensible that the whole conduct
thee to my hut? Thy hands were and language of the old Indian is full
those of an infant ; they could pro- of poetry.
cure thee neither subsistence nor safe- We have no doubt that another cause
ty. Thy soul was in utter darkness : of this metaphorical tone and high
thou wast ignorant of every thing wrought poetical expression, assumed
Thou owedst all things to me. Wilt by the first compositions of savage
thou go over to thy nation and take nations, is to be discovered in the
up the hatchet against us?' The of- prevalence of the language of signs
ficer replied, that he would rather lose amongst them in their earlier periods.
his own life than turn himself against In the first attempts towards any
his deliverer. The Indian bending thing like language, in their first ef-
down his head, and covering his face forts to make themselves understood
with his hand, stood some time silent. by each other, all savages have re-
Then looking earnestly at the pri- course to signs, to what Degerando
soner, he said in a voice which was at has termed the language of Analogy.*
once softened by tenderness and grief, If they are desirous of showing a

Hast thou a father?' My father,' friendly disposition, they have resaid the young man,

was alive when course to the symbols of those actions I left my country.' Alas,' said the which would be used by none but Indian, how wretched must he be.' those who were on terms of peace He paused a moment, and then add- and amity with each other. They ed, Dost thou know that I have been present either the branch of some a father-I am a father no more. I green tree, or come forward with saw my son fall in battle, he fell at fowers in their hands, which they my side,- he was covered with wounds hold out to those they wish to conciwhen he fell at my feet.' He pro- liate, or they bring in their rude chair nounced these words with the utmost of state, and invite their enemy to sit vehemence. His body shook with a

down in it. If they wish to express universal tremor. He was almost hostility, they brandish their hatchstifled with sighs, which he would not ets, and strike their breasts with their suffer to escape him. There was a palms, and throw their bodies into keen restlessness in his eyes, but no

attitudes of defiance or contempt. tears flowed to their relief. At length Such is the beginning of the language he became calm by degrees, and turn- of signs, and there can be little doubt, ing towards the east where the sun that previous to the language of exhad just risen, ‘Dost thou see,' said pression having attained any thing he to the young officer, dost thou like perfection, this language of signs see the beauty of that sky which must have made great progress, and sparkles with prevailing day, and hast they who are accustomed to observe thou pleasure in the sight? Yes,' the common performers of pantomime, replied the officer, 'I have pleasure to the dumb show of any great drain the beauty of so fine a day. I matic actor, or even to the graceful have none,' said the Indian, and his and expressive gestures of children, tears then found their way. A few will have some idea of the perfection minutes after he showed the officer a to which it must have been carried by Magnolia in full bloom.

Dost thou those who at first had nothing to supsee,' said he, 'that beautiful tree, and ply its place. Now, there can be dost thou look with pleasure on it?' little doubt, that in this universal and • Yes,' replied the officer, ' I look necessary prevalence of the language with pleasure on that beautiful tree.' of signs, we are to find one cause of

I have no longer any pleasure in the prevalence of metaphor, and the looking on it,' replied the Indian has- figurative and hyperbolical style in tily; and immediately added, “ Go, the spoken language, and early poetry return to thy father, that he may have of all nations. Metaphors and figures pleasure when he sees the sun rise in are, in fact, nothing else than the last the morning, and the trees blossom in the spring

* Degerando, Des Signes et de l'Art de It would be impertinent to offer Penser, c. v.-í

-Institution du Langage. any remarks on this beautiful picture. A most ingenious and eloquent chapter on There are few, very few, who will not the Formation of Language.

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