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THOUGHTS AND LANGUAGE OF POETRY.
MY DEAR JOHN,
I OBSERVED that my definition of a poem as " a metrical composition," &c. was, like most definitions, imperfect, for a poem was likewise to be considered as a high and vigorous effort of the imagination. In considering what is requisite to form a poet, both as to choice of subject, thought and language, I cannot do better than take for my text the well-known lines of Horace.....
"Ingenium cui sit, cui mens divinior atque os
"Creative genius and the power divine
There can be little doubt but the poet means by ingenium that strong power of mind which, as circumstances require, can form a fable, plot, or story, and ornament it with characters and circumstances; can create an imaginary land, and people it with imaginary beings; describe what he never saw, or add fancied embellishments to what he had seen.
The first and highest exercise of invention is in the choice and arrangement of the subject, and especially when that subject happens to be altogether fictitious. Yet judgment must here come in aid of fancy, and both must be united to form a perfect poet. There may be fancy without judgment; and in that case men write pretty
things, nay sometimes are brilliant; but they never accomplish what is truly great. It is impossible to be poctical without the subject admits of it; unless that is in itself interesting, all the pomp and ornaments of poetry and language will be lavished on it in vain. It would be making a statue of snow, and bestowing on it the art and genius and labour of a Phidias. If on the contrary the subject is well conceived, appropriate beauties will seem naturally to arise out of it, and the execution will be easy in proportion.
The man who attempted to turn the whole Bible into verse did not consider that the whole of the Bible is not poetical. Milton, on the contrary, seems to have chosen the only scriptural subject that afforded scope for imagination. The fall of our first parents was poetical in itself, and from an obscure passage in the Epistle of St. Jude, the vigorous fancy of Milton has formed the sublime episode of a war in heaven.
Trifling subjects, even in description, afford but little interest. A cowslip, a rose, or a snow-drop are beautiful objects; but the man who should write a long poem on any of them would seem to be trifling with his reader. I question, from this defect, whether "the Loves of the Plants" will live, though enriched with all the beauties of language, and with many new and brilliant thoughts. It was happily ridiculed in a burlesque poem, entitled "the Loves of the Triangles." I rejoice in the "Task" that produced such an effort from Mr. Cowper's genius; without its having been imposed he perhaps would not have written; but as it is, it must be rather considered as a farrago or collection of fine sentiments and episodes, than as a regular poem. Those subjects which excite most general interest will afford most pleasure, not only to the reader, but to the author himself; and be most prolific in excellencies and beauties. "Sentiments and descriptions (says Dr. Beattie) may be regarded as the pilasters, carvings, gildings, and other decorations of the poetical fabric; but human actions are the columns and rafters that give it stability and elevation."
Poetry has been called an imitative art, and so it may be considered in some degree. But though it is an imitation of nature, it must not be, like a Flemish painting, an imitation of nature in every particular. It should be (putting burlesque poetry out of the question for the present) an imitation of nature dignified and exalted, as far as the human imagination is capable of rising.
A fine poem may again be compared to a fine picture. It is to depict nature and hold her up to view; but there is no necessity to exhibit every thing in nature, or combine such actions as might possibly have existed together, though poetically inconsistent with each other. It is by not going beyond the bounds of probability, that in the intervals of some great event, a pert dialogue might take place between some of the lacquies of the palace, but no writer would introduce this into an epic poem.
What I observed in a former letter on the subject of amplification, is more strictly applicable to poetry than to any other kind of composition. The soul of poetry is detail, for it must ever be considered as a picture. The fairest mark indeed of a vigorous imagination is the power of displaying all the nice and discriminating fea tures of the human character and passions. It shews penetration to observe them, fancy in being able to depict them, and judgment in selecting and arranging them. Shakspeare surpasses all mankind in this excellence; and in Milton, though his subject may seem unfavourable to such a display, the most enchanting passages are of this kind. How minute, and yet how interesting is the following scene, where Adam finds Eve asleep with unusual discomposure in her looks after her alarming dream.....
"Now morn her rosy steps in th' eastern clime
$6 Lightly dispers'd, and the shrill matin song
"Of birds on every bough; so much the more
Mild, as when Zephyrus on Flora breathes,
Calls us; we lose the prime to mark how spring-
For the thoughts and ornamental part, poetry draws her resources from every quarter. In this view, if two men are equally gifted with the powers of fancy, he that knows most will be the best poet. The great reading of Milton serves constantly to enrich his poem, and keep alive the attention of his reader, by fine and vivid allusions and similies, and by occasional descriptions illustrative of his subject; and Shakspeare's rich mind derives embellishments from every thing in nature and art, by means of the slightest associations. There is a pretty thought in Don Quixote to this effect, which I formerly transcribed....
"La poesia, a mi paracer, es como una doncella tierna, y depoca edad, y en todo extremo hermosa, a quien tienen cuidado de enriqueceur, pulir & adorna otras muchas doncellas, que son todas las otras cientias, y ella ha de servir de todas, y todas se han de autorizar con ella."
"Poetry may be compared to a beautiful young female, attended by several other females, whose care and occupation it is to dress and adorn her; these she re
gularly employs in her service, while they on their part derive credit and estimation from her."
To prescribe rules for the production of beautiful thoughts in poetry, would subject the empiric who made the attempt to well merited ridicule. Something of this kind was however attempted some years ago in Byshe's Art of Poetry, where a kind of common-place book is exhibited of poetic ideas suited to a variety of subjects. The writer, however, who proceeded upon such a plan would be a plagiary and not a poet. It is extensive reading and observation that must treasure up a stock of materials, and it is genius alone that can form those fine, and fanciful, and striking combinations, that can enchant the reader. Unquestionably the taste, nay perhaps the imagination may be cultivated and improved; but this can only be done by reading most attentively the best models, discriminating, marking, and dwelling upon their beauties. Seneca, in one of his epistles, strongly recommends the reading over and over a few good books in preference to the busy and cursory perusal of many. To a young poet I am sure this is the soundest advice that can be given. The really good poets are few, and to these he ought to give such attention as to be master of their style of thinking, of every peculiar form in which they express themselves.
No critical rules can give genius. They are rather calculated to restrain and govern its eccentricities. They may prevent faults, but cannot invent beauties. Perhaps what I have observed on the sublime and pathetic may be of some use in pointing out the nature of these sources of fine thought; but what is the use of knowing from what country a valuable commodity is procured, unless you have the means of making it your own?
I shall therefore employ both my own time and yours better in pointing out some of the errors into which young writers are liable to fall, than in attempting to
"Write dull receipts how poems should be made."