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10. No answer wheresoe'er I roam
From skies afar no guiding ray;
- Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–1872).
WILL'S COFFEE-HOUSE, NOVEMBER 23, 1709.
1. An ingenious and worthy gentleman, my ancient friend, fell into discourse with me this evening upon the force and efficacy which the writings of good poets have on the minds of their intelligent readers; and recoinmended to me his sense of the matter, thrown together in the following manner, which he desired me to communicate to the youth of Great Britain in my Essays. I choose to do it in his own words:
2. “I have always been of opinion," says he, “that virtue sinks deepest into the heart of man when it comes recommended by the powerful charms of poetry. The most active principle in our mind is the imagination; to it a good poet makes his court perpetually, and by this faculty takes care to gain it first.
Our passions and inclinations come over next, and our reason surrenders itself with pleasure in the end. Thus the whole soul is insensibly betrayed into morality by bribing the fancy with beautiful and agreeable images of those very things that in the books of the philosophers appear austere, and have at the best but a forbidding aspect. In a word, the poets do, as it were, strew the rough paths of virtue so full of flowers that we are not
sensible of the uneasiness of them. We imagine ourselves in the midst of pleasures, and the most bewitching allurements, at the time we are making progress in the severest duties of life.
4. “All men agree that licentious poems do, of all writings, soonest corrupt the heart. And why should we not be as universally persuaded that the grave and serious performances of such as write in the most engaging manner, by a kind of divine impulse, must be the most effectual persuasives to goodness?
5. “If, therefore, I were blessed with a son, in order to the forming of his manners, which is making him truly my son, I should be continually putting into his hand some fine poet. The graceful sentences, and the manly sentiments, so frequently to be met with in every great and sublime writer, are, in my judgment, the most ornamental and valuable furniture that can be for
young gentleman's head; nethinks they show like so much rich embroidery upon the brain.
6. “Let me add to this, that humanity and tenderness, without which there can be no true greatness in the mind, are inspired by the Muses in such pathetic language that all we find in prose authors towards the raising and improving of these passions is, in comparison, but cold or lukewarm at the best. There is besides a certain elevation of soul, a sedate magnanimity, and a noble turn of virtue, that distinguishes the hero from the plain, honest man, to which verse only can raise us. The bold metaphors and sounding numbers, peculiar to the poets, rouse up all our sleeping faculties, and alarm the whole powers of the soul, much like that excellent trumpeter mentioned by Virgil —
“None so renowned With breathing brass to kindle fierce alarms.””
7. “I fell into this train of thinking this evening, upon reading a passage in a masque writ by Milton, where two brothers are introduced seeking their sister, whom they had lost in a dark night and thick wood. One of the brothers is apprehensive lest the wandering virgin should be overpowered with fears, through the darkness and loneliness of the time and place. This gives the other occasion to make the following reflections, which, as I read them, made me forget my age, and renewed in me the warm desires after virtue, so natural to uncorrupted youth.
“I do not think my sister so to seek,
And Wisdom's self
-Sir Richard Steele (The Tatler, No. 98). (100)
Questions on the lesson :—What was the subject of conversation ? What did this gentleman believe caused virtue to sink deepest into the heart? To what principle in our mind does the poet appeal? What place does this principle occupy in our constitution? When the imagination is gained, what follows? What next? In short, how is the soul “betrayed into morality?” What binders the teaching of the philosophers? How does he represent the work of the poets in making the path of virtue more pleasant? In educating a son, what course did the speaker say he would adopt? What did he expect that the sentences, &c., of the poets would prove? What special virtues are named as inspired by poetry? How?
a masque: the Comus of Milton. So to seek, so much at a loss.
Unprincipled, does not mean here wanting in principle, i.e. profligate, but not acquainted with the first principles of virtue.
All to-ruffled, some read it all-to ruffled, which would mean entirely ruffled as in Judges ix. 53 all-to break, completely broke; to joined to ruffled intensifies the meaning. It was a prefix often used for that purpose.
The centre, i.e. of the earth.
THE VASTNESS OF THE UNIVERSE.
1. The aspect of the world, without any of the peculiar lights which science throws upon it, is itself fitted to convey to our minds a most impressive sense of the greatness of the power by which it is directed and governed. Let us think of the number of human beings who surround us on the globe and how the various conditions requisite for their life, nutrition and well-being, are all fulfilled. Consider, moreover, the way in which these conditions are modified in all the various countries of the world, by climate, temperament, and habit.
2. And then, vast as is the amount of the human population of the globe, yet man himself is but one among almost endless tribes of animals. The forest, the field, the desert, the air, the ocean all teem with creatures whose bodily wants are as carefully provided for as his.
3. The sun, the clouds, the winds all attend, as it were, on these organised beings—a host of beneficent energies, unwearied by time and succession, pervading every corner of the earth. How lofty and magnificent is the conception which this spectacle cannot but give of the Author of so vast a work, of the Ruler of so wide and rich an empire, of the Provider for so many and varied wants, the Director and Adjuster of such complex and jarring interests!
4. But when we take a more exact view of this spectacle, and aid our vision by the discoveries which have been made of the structure and extent of the universe, the impression is incalculably increased. The number and variety of animals, the exquisite skill displayed in their structure, the relations by which they are connected far exceed anything which we could have beforehand imagined. But the view of the universe expands also on