Page images

cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune ; 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 martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of pious nations, doing valiantly through faith against the enemies of Christ; 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, whatsoever hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that which is called fortune from without, or the wily subtleties and refluxes of man's thoughts from within; all these things with a solid and treatable smoothness to point out and describe.” With such thoughts of the poet's office, Milton goes on in a prophetic mood to covenant for the production, after some years, of "a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine ; like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite; not to be obtained by the invocation of dame memory and her syren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases."

Besides these authorities for the opinion that the highest poetry is a birth from the greatest intellectual energy, there are writers of our own day who have deemed its defence no unworthy task. The students of Coleridge's writings will recollect it as a favorite theme scattered among the fragments of his philosophy and criticism. Winning their way as the works of that gentle sage are, into many a thoughtful spirit, we shall content ourselves with one expression of the lofty estimate of poetic genius which he so faithfully cherished : “No man was ever yet a great poet without being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language." And how familiar is that other exquisite sentence growing, in which he tells us


has been to me its own * exceeding great reward;' it has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude, and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me.'

Another writer, lately among the living, devoted much of his

[ocr errors]

efforts to the same cause the discrimination of genuine poetry from that which claims kindred with it, with no better title than a tawdry rhetoric, or a technical and artificial polish. We allude to the late Sir Egerton Brydges, whose natural enthusiasm seems to have received an additional impetuosity from the disgust with which he regarded pretenders in poetry. He was as prodigal of bis thoughts as of his fortune, and his opinions are to be gathered not only from his larger works, but from a multitude of prefaces to the volumes of old English literature, to the recovery of which he so largely contributed. We propose to quote from several of these, perhaps somewhat at the cost of coherency, some detached passages on poetic genius, for few writers have more earnestly repudiated that vulgar fallacy, that the work of imagination is to falsisy, and that there is no distinction between the poet's creations and the fictions of a silly novelist :

True poetry is the illustration of truth, in its most sublime, most beautiful, or most affecting appearances, embodied to the mental eye! It is the gift and the duty of this inspired art not merely to represent the material form, but the internal movements, the sentiments which are associated with an image. This is the poet's creation : the spell that calls to life the materials with which he deals!.... Truth, eternal and grand truth, is the object; but it must be truth exhibited, not by reasoning, but by the lamp of imagination. .... The true poet seeks to exemplisy moral truths by the rays of an inventive imagination. There is implanted in him a spiritual being, which adds to the material world another creation, invisible to vulgar eyes."

“ We have nature before us, but not nature associated and embodied with intellectual and moral impressions and feelings. We require the aid of the great poet to do this for us... We want only things as they are, but in their fairest, best, and most affecting shapes and tints. We want to have the ideal associations, which come mistily upon us, rendered more distinct and impressive. We want to have the slumbering inscriptions of the soul wakened and made legible. Whatever does this, gives us the charm and the use of poetry. .... There are millions of associations of the moral and spiritual with the materiał world, which are constantly flitting in a more or less clear and luminous state across the human brain. These it is the business of poetical genius to detect, and bring into distinct and visible form: to embody them in elegant and vigorous language, and to add the harmony of rhythm."

“ A gifted spirit goes forth into the world, not merely to hold a mirror to it, but to throw a light upon it. Every one is not formed to read the inscriptions which are written, however clearly, on all the objects of creation. ....Genius walks forth arrayed in light, and throws forth its beams on every side. From whatever it touches, it drives away the shadow of obscurity. But its prime faculty lies in piercing and exposing the secret movements of the human heart: thus it knows best how to awaken sympathy, and to what point to direct its rays. It lives itself under the sunny blaze of truth ; and, therefore, has written a guide how to pursue the mazes of wisdom, and to trace those mystical characters of the human soul, which, when its lamp is cast upon them, start out into visible signs. This is the spell which the muse inspires.” ....

“ The object of the best poetry is to perform a much higher service than merely to please! It is its business to call into action the most sublime and most aflecting powers of our intellect, for the purpose of conveying the noblest lessons of moral instruction."

“ Poetry" (the sentence is aptly put into the mouth of Milton] “ teaches by embodyment of abstract ideas.”

We have thus arrayed the authority of illustrious minds, Bacon, Shakspeare, Spenser, Sydney, and Milton, with two deeply meditative writers of our own day, all with perfect harmony of opinion and feeling upholding the dignity and moral uses of poetry. Theirs was no timid faith in the reality of an endowment mightier than the understanding, and for which imagination, in its ordinary acceptation, is an inadequate term. This visionary faculty, which by its creative energy is foremost in the attainment of truth, may be unnamed as it is unexplained in the schools, but the common voice of man recognises its power, when with no feeling of profanity it calls it by the sacred name of inspiration.

In the passages which have been quoted, some expressions occur which lead our inquiry yet higher than the books of sages. When Lord Bacon speaks of “the world being inferior to the soul,” and of poetry “ submitting the shews of things to the desires of the mind,” — and when Sir E. Brydges tells us of the mystical characters — the slumbering inscriptions of the human soul," - in a word, when writers begin to theorize about the soul, ought we not to remember that there is another authority to be studied ? We are too apt to go on speculating on the soul of man, and to forget that from the inspired history of it simpli


city of heart might perhaps gather more of truth than a wiser head could extract from the sophistications of mere earthly sci

The high philosophic meditations on poetry, which we have cited, have led us on until the mind, rising a little higher from the impulse thus received, finds itself arrested by a mystery in human nature, that needs a stronger and clearer light than man's philosophy can strike to dispel it. All that we humanly know is, that the creations of poetry in all ages have found in the breast of man something congenial, though in the world around us we may search in vain for the archetypes of those creations. Wordsworth boldly and plainly tells us of

“the gleam, The light that never was, on sea or land,

The consecration, and the poet's dream," and yet it is undoubted, that all this is by our spiritual being recognised for its truth. To the poet's most enraptured strails, there issues from the recesses of man's heart, an echo— hollow the sound may be — but still an answer. We are aware that we are venturing to approach delicate ground, and that in the suburbs of vexed questions we must step cautiously. Philosoply can tell not one syllable respecting the history of the human soul : it is revealed truth alone that explains the mystery of its mingled majesty and servitude -- the secret of its aspirations so strangely blended with its frailties. It may appear grotesque to seek for illustrations of the principles of poetry from what is associated with knotty points of theology, but perhaps philosophy would often move with a firmer step if in humility it sought the guidance of revelation. Now it is not uncommon that isolated texts of scripture are looked on with the spirit of a Rabbinical superstition; and thence the state of man since the fall is fearfully exaggerated. The desperate wickedness of the heart is so magnified, that our first parents might be thought to have fallen from their high estate into the desperate condition of demoniacs. Let not our positions be perverted into any extenuation of the evil or the helplessness of our nature, of which there is abundant proof in the word of God, and in the self-condemning spirit in each mortal bosom. But in both there is also plain evidence that the sad punishment of the first of our race did not bring with it the annihilation of their original endowments. In the unqualified denunciations of human iniquity, is it not forgotten that the simple record of the Bible shows what does not accord with such doctrine ? When without prejudice we read that mournful narrative, what does it tell us was the first act what the first feeling of the man and the woman immediately after their disobedience? It manifested a nature, doubtless not of the original purity, and yet not of absolute wickedness. The first emotion was the sense of shame. Now shame is not the attribute of unqualified depravity :-- it is the characteristic of a mingled nature. They met their Maler neither with the unblushing brow of evil, nor with the fearlessness of innocence. Not alone the consciousness of guilt would have driven them into the shady covert, but they were saddened and abashed by the remanent sense of their faded glory. We see no other conclusion than that the fall did not extinguish the power of the human soul to recognise in its imaginings something better than this mortal state. Is it not indeed every day experience that shame is a mixed sentiment, neutral to the regions of innocence and vice, and may we not infer that, when

Th' angelic guards ascended, mute and sad, man's primeval character had indeed undergone a wretched change -- that the gifts of his nature were enfeebled, corrupted, and disorganized, but not wholly forfeited ? The soul had become a revolted colony of God. The tree from which the fruit was plucked was not the tree of the knowledge of evil alone. The glory of the heart was darkened, but not utterly quenched. Why, then, may we not believe that in every era of bumanity, poetry has been addressing its aspirations to that portion of the human heart which God's word tells us survived ? Nay, more, when the hapless pair stood trembling before the offended Deity, his voice poured into their hearts the breath of hope. In our wordy controversies, no heed is taken of the mercy that the promise was announced before the sentence, and the spirit was not too desolate for hope to enter. Thus we find, beside the remaining faculties of the soul, another element which poetry has never ceased to appeal to. Now when philosophers, like Bacon, speak of “the desires of the mind dissatisfied with the shews of things," because the world is inferior to the soul," the history of those from whom all humanity has been transmitted, explains the mystery. Our fallen nature, utterly forlorn in working its own redemption, lost not the capacity of some fitful aspirations for its native brightness ; fearful as was the penalty, it did not destroy the sense of former glory, and even in the darkness of the first wrath, the light of hope was kindled by the divine promise, as if to animate the scattered faculties of humanity. In

« PreviousContinue »