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The Comparative Rewards of Professors of the
Having thus endeavoured to prove, by no invidious comparisons, that poetry is the eldest, the rarest, and the most excellent of the fine arts, I may here touch upon another peculiarity not yet alluded to, being an extrinsic one, - in which each of the others bears away from her a prize “ for which they all contend,” though only of secondary, not to say sordid, value. Though the gift of poetry be the most beneficial to the world, it is the least profitable to the possessor. There has scarcely been a period, or a country, in which a poet could live by the fruits of his labours. This circumstance (in no respect dishonourable to the art) has been a snare by which multitudes of its professors have been tempted to dishonour both it and themselves, by courtly servility to royal and noble patrons; - by yet viler degradation in ministering to vulgar prejudices, and pandering to gross passions ; - or, with the garbage of low satire, feasting envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, monsters of malignity, whose daily food, like that of the king of Cambay, in Hudibras, is “ asp, and basilisk, and toad.” But this is not the place to dwell upon the miseries and the sins of unfortunate poets; with nothing but their proverbial poverty have we to deal at present.
It is acknowledged, that great honours and emoluments have been bestowed on some of the tribe. Pindar knew the value of his talents in gold, and he exacted it. Virgil and Horace flourished within the precincts of a court; others of meaner note, in modern times, might be mentioned ;- but, after all, munificent patronage is yet rarer than transcendent talents. In the age of Augustus there were many poets and but one Mæcenas ; Augustus himself was not a second. It is well for poetry, and no worse for poets, in the main, that the age of patronage is past; that the Parnassian slave-trade is abolished ;-would that we were able to add, that Parnassian slavery itself was done away, — that spontaneous bondage of poets themselves to folly, and vice, and pernicious fashion, for the hire of unrighteousness! With little to expect from the great, to the public the successful poet may look for his moderate but not inglorious reward.
It has been facetiously said, that booksellers drink their wine out of the skulls of authors; and it has been declared, by one of the most illustrious of our country's writers,- himself a poet,- who had proved all the pangs of heart-sickness from hope deferred, and hope disappointed, which he has so admirably expressed in a couplet of sterling English, excelling even the celebrated original in the third satire of Juvenalı
“ Haud facile emergunt, quorum virtutibus obstat
Res angusta domi." “ This mournful truth is every where confess'd, Slow rises worth by poverty depress’d.”
Vanity of Human Wishes. To return, - it has been declared by Dr. Johnson, that booksellers are the best patrons. Both sayings may be equally true, though neither of them is strictly so. It is as purely figurative to call a book. seller an author's patron as to say that he drinks his wine out of an author's skull. In reality-nay, it cannot in the common course of things be otherwise -just in proportion as a writer's lucubrations bring profit to his bookseller, the bookseller will be liberal in remunerating his talents, - for the strongest reason in the world, - to secure his own interest, That the market-price of the greatest works of lite rature, of poetry in particular, should be very incommensurate to the toil, the time, and the expense of thought required to perfect them, is a circumstance rather to be lamented than complained of, and rather to be endured with patience than lamented. The evil, if it be an evil, is irremediable; and however it may be alleviated by the multiplication of readers, and the taste for elegant and magnificent books, - though the latter factitious taste is nearly obsolete, and volumes of compendiouş literature are now the
res-yet must authors be for ever excluded from the hope of reaping equal pecuniary benefit from the offspring of their minds with first-rate professors of the sister arts. The world, which loves to wonder, wonders less at Madame Catalani receiving a prince's ransom for a few pulsations of breath,— by which she can throw a whole theatre into ecstasy; or the late Benjamin West hesitating to accept ten thousand pounds for a single picture, - than that Sir Walter Scott should have been paid five hundred for the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and from one to two, from two to three, and from three to four thousand pounds for so mar other ballad-like romances in succession ;- prices unprecedented in poetical finance, and not likely to be given again till another Sir Walter shall arise to witch the world with noble penmanship."
I will never degrade poetry so low as to admit, even for argument's sake, that the force of genius displayed in any of the five compositions alluded to is no greater than Catalani or West were required to put forth to obtain proportionate remuneration. It would be making sounds and colours equal to thoughts and feelings to allow this. For myself, I would rather have written “the last words of Marmion” for love (as the saying is), than have pocketed all the coin that has been poured out upon shopcompters, at box-lobby doors, and in concert-rooms, for setting, singing, playing, and selling them, from Berwick-on-Tweed to Penzance. Nor is this vain boasting; for to have written those few lines, I must have been possessed of the power of him who did write them; and then I could have envied no man the profit which he might professionally acquire from my labours. It is enough to make a poor poet burst his spleen, to read the memoirs of eminent musicians and painters, and contrast them with those of his more illustrious predecessors. While the former have been courted, enriched, and ennobled by pon
• The circumstances respecting Mr. West and Sir Walter Scott are adopted from common report ; but, however incorrect they may be, the impression made on the public mind, on the presumption of their truth, is sufficient for the author's argument here.
tiffs and potentates, the latter have languished in poverty, and died in despair. Will any man deny that the poems of Milton, as productions of genius, are equal to the pictures of Rubens? Yet the artist's pencil supported him in princely splendour; - the poet's muse could not procure, what even his enemies would have furnished to him, gratuitously, in a dungeon, bread and water. Poets might be permitted to say, that music, painting, and sculpture may be appreciated in this world, and recompensed by the things of it, but poetry cannot ; its price is above wealth, and its honours are those which sovereigns cannot confer. But they are generally posthumous. Like Egyptian kings, however praised while living, it is on the issue of their trials after death that the most exalted have pyramids decreed to them; and it is then that even the most admired and feared may be condemned to obloquy, and abandoned to oblivion.
Poetry compared with Eloquence, History, and
Philosophy. In reference to other species of literature, it is not my purpose to present them in any lengthened, much less any disparaging, contrast with poetry. Eloquence, history, philosophy, must consider poetry as their sister by blood (not merely by alliance, as in the case of music, painting, and sculpture,) rather than their rival, -elder, indeed, than all, yet in perpetual youth ; the nurse of each, yet more beautiful than either of them in her loveliest attire. The