« PreviousContinue »
mony of verse, by the beauty of imagery, by the ingenuity of the fable, by the exactness of imitation, he allures and interests the mind of the reader, he fashions it to habits of virtue, and in a manner informs it with the spirit of integrity itself.
But if from the Heroic we turn to the Tragic Muse, to which Aristotle indeed assigns the preference, because of the true and perfect imitation, we shall yet more clearly evince the superiority of poetry over philosophy, on the principle of its being more agreeable. Tragedy is, in truth, no other than philosophy introduced upon the stage, retaining all its natural properties, remitting nothing of its native gravity, but assisted and embellished by other favoring circumstances. What point, for instance, of moral discipline have the tragic writers of Greece left untouched or unadorned ? What duty of life, what principle of political economy, what motive or precept for the government of the passions, what commendation of virtue is there, which they have not treated of with fulness, variety, and learning? The moral of Æschylus (not only a poet, but a Pythagorean) will ever be admired. Nor were Sophocles and Euripides less illustrious for the reputation of wisdom ; the latter of whom was the disciple of Socrates and Anaxagoras, and was known among his friends by the title of the dramatic philosopher. In these authors, surely, the allurements of poetry afforded some accession to the empire of philosophy: nor indeed has any man arrived at the summit of poetic fame, who did not previously lay the foundation of his art in true philosophy.
But there are other species of poetry which also deserve to partake in the commendation; and first the Ode,
“With thoughts that breathe, and words that burn;" which, though in some respects inferior to what are called the higher species of poetry, yields to none in force, ardor, and sometimes even in dignity and solemnity. Its amazing power in directing the passions, in forming the manners, in maintaining civil life, and particularly in exciting and cherishing that generous elevation of sentiment on which the very existence of public virtue seems to depend, will be sufficiently apparent by only contemplating those monuments of genius which Greece has bequeathed to posterity. If we examine the poems of Pindar, how exquisite must have been the pleasure, how vivid the sensation to the Greek, whose ordinary amusement it was to sing, or hear them sung! For, this kind of entertainment was not confined to persons of taste and learning, but had grown into general use. When he heard his gods, his heroes, his ancestors received into the number of the gods, celebrated in a manner so glorious, so divine, would not his bosom glow with the desire of fame, with the most fervid emulation of virtue, with a patriotism, immoderate perhaps, This indeed appears to have been the original office and destination of poetry; and this it still so happily performs, that in all other cases it seems out of character, as if intended for this purpose alone. In other instances poetry appears to want the assistance of art, but in this to shine forth with all its natural splendor, or rather to be animated by that inspiration, which, on other occasions, is spoken of without being felt. These observations are remarkably exemplified in the Hebrew poetry, than which the human mind can conceive nothing more elevated, more beautiful, or more elegant; in which the almost ineffable sublimity of the subject is fully equalled by the energy of the language and the dignity of the style. And it is worthy observation, that as some of these writings exceed in antiquity the fabulous ages of Greece, in sublimity they are superior to the most finished productions of that polished people. Thus, if the actual origin of poetry be inquired after, it must of necessity be referred to religion. Of this origin poetry even yet exhibits no obscure indications, since she ever embraces a divine and sacred subject with a kind of filial tenderness and affection. To the sacred haunts of religion she delights to resort as to her native soil: there she most willingly inhabits, and there she flourishes in all her pristine beauty and vigor.
SUBLIMITY OF THE PROPHET ISAIAH. Whoever wishes to understand the full force and excellence of the figure of Personification, as well as the elegant use of it in the Hebrew ode, must apply to Isaiah, whom I do not scruple to pronounce the sublimest of poets. He will there find, in one short poem, examples of almost every form of the Prosopopeia, and indeed of all that constitutes the sublime in composition. I trust it will not be thought unseasonable to refer immediately to the passage itself, and to remark a few of the principal excellencies. 1
The prophet, after predicting the liberation of the Jews from their severe captivity in Babylon, and their restoration to their own country, introduces them as reciting a kind of triumphal song upon the fall of the Babylonish monarch, replete with imagery, and with the most elegant and animated personifications. A sudden exclamation, expressive of their joy and admiration on the unexpected revolution in their affairs, and the destruction of their tyrants, forms the exordium of the poem. The earth itself triumphs with the inhabitants thereof; the fir-trees and the cedars of Lebanon (under which images the parabolic style frequently delineates the kings and princes of the Gentiles) exult with joy, and persecute with contemptuous reproaches the humbled power of a ferocious enemy :
1 Isa. xiv. 427.
The whole earth is at rest, is quiet; they burst forth into a joyful shout Even the fir-trees rejoice over thee, the cedars of Lebanon: Since thou art fallen, no feller hath come up against us. This is followed by a bold and animated personification of Hades, or the infernal regions. Hades excites his inhabitants, the ghosts of princes, and the departed spirits of kings: they rise immediately from their seats, and proceed to meet the monarch of Babylon; they insult and deride him, and comfort themselves with the view of his calamity :
Art thou, even thou too, become weak as we? Art thou made like unto us?
Is then thy pride brought down to the grave? the sound of thy sprightly instruments ?
Is the vermin become thy couch, and the earth-worm thy covering ? Again, the Jewish people are the speakers, in an exclamation after the manner of a funeral lamentation, which indeed the whole form of this composition exactly imitates. The remarkable fall of this powerful monarch is thus beautifully illustrated :
How art thou fallen from heaven, 0 Lucifer, son of the morning!1
Art cut down from earth, thou that didst subdue the nations ! He himself is at length brought upon the stage, boasting in the most pompous terms of his own power, which furnishes the poet with an excellent opportunity of displaying the unparalleled misery of his downfall. Some persons are introduced, who find the dead carcass of the king of Babylon cast out and exposed : they attentively contemplate it, and at last scarcely know it to be his :· Is this the man that made the earth to tremble; that shook the kingdoms?
That made the world like a desert; that destroyed the cities? They reproach him with being denied the common rites of sepulture, on account of the cruelty and atrocity of his conduct; they execrate his name, his offspring, and their posterity. A solemn address, as of the Deity himself, closes the scene; and he denounces against the king of Babylon, his posterity, and even against the city which was the seat of their cruelty, perpetual destruction; and confirms the immutability of his own counsels by the solemnity of an oath.
How forcible is this imagery, how diversified, how sublime ! how elevated the diction, the figures, the sentiments! The Jewish nation, the cedars of Lebanon, the ghosts of departed kings, the Babylonish monarch, the travellers who find his corpse, and
1 This is, I think, the most sublime image I have ever seen conveyed in so few words. The apta ness of the allegory to express the ruin of a powerful monarch by the fall of a bright star from heaven, strikes the mind in the most forcible manner; and the poetical beauty of the passage is greatly heightened by the personification, “Son of the morning." Whoever does not relish such painting as this is not only destitute of poetical taste, but of the common feelings of humanity.
last of all Jehovah himself, are the characters which support this beautiful lyric drama. One continued action is kept up, or rather a series of interesting actions are connected together in an incomparable whole. This, indeed, is the principal and distinguished excellence of the sublimer ode, and is displayed in its utmost perfection in this poem of Isaiah, which may be considered as one of the most ancient, and certainly the most finished specimen of that species of composition which has been transmitted to us. The personifications here are frequent, yet not confused; bold, yet not improbable : a free, elevated, and truly divine spirit pervades the whole ; nor is there any thing wanting in this ode to defeat its claim to the character of perfect beauty and sublimity. If, indeed, I may be indulged in the free declaration of my own sentiments on this occasion, I do not know a single instance in the whole compass of Greek and Roman poetry, which, in every excellence of composition, can be said to equal, or even to approach it.
THOMAS WARTON. 1728-1790.
THOMAS WARTON, the learned author of the “ History of English Poetry," was born at Basingstokel in 1728, of a family remarkable for its talent. His father, Rev. Thomas Warton, was professor of poetry at Oxford, and died in 1745: and his brother Joseph was the author of the “ Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope." Thomas was educated at Cambridge, and early acquired distinction by the superiority of his poetical productions. In 1754 he published his “ Observations on the Faerie Queéne of Spenser," which at once established his reputation for true poetic taste, and for extensive and varied learning. In 1757 he was elected to the professorship of poetry in Pembroke College, the duties of which office he discharged with remarkable ability and success. In 1774 he published his first volume of “The History of English Poetry :" a second volume appeared in 1778, and a third in 1781. Into this very elaborate performance Warton poured the accumulated stores of a lifetime of reading and reflection: the survey he has given us of his subject is, accordingly, both eminently comprehensive in its scope, and rich and varied in its details: and as respects early English literature, it is a repository of information altogether unapproached in extent and abundance by any other single work of the same kind in the language. The work is, however, brought down to but very little beyond the commencement of the reign of Elizabeth, as he died while engaged in it, in May, 1790. It is deeply to be regretted that he had not carried the history of our literature through the reign of Elizabeth, as no one has presumed to continue the work; for to continue it with like success, would require the union of like powersa combination rarely given to man.2
1 In Southampton county, about 45 miles W. S. W. of London. 2 “His consummate taste and discriminating judgment may on all occasions be implicitly trusted " --St Egerton Brydges.