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kingdom. When the mighty are put down from their seats, we gaze at the eminence whence they are fallen, as we should upon the cliff where an eagle at rest had been struck dead by lightning in our sight, - the very void being then more conspicuous than was the living presence. When death brings down such noble marks in the highest places, his power is felt by re-action upon the fears and forebodings of all classes downward in gradation. We are so accustomed to read, and speak, and think of death as a real personage, with his darts striking down, indiscriminately, persons of all ages, ranks, and conditions - one of whom is said to be pierced every moment, his shafts flying incessantly, and in all directions — that, without any violent effort of mind, we may consider him as an “archer,” indefatigable as well as “insatiate," who, in the course of nature, has never once missed a victim against whom he drew his bow, nor among tens of thousands of millions, which, since the creation, have been appointed to him for his prey, has he ever forgotten one; those whom he might seem to have left behind in his march of destruction, being from his lengthened forbearance most obviously exposed to his next aim; since the further they have escaped, the nearer have they been running into that danger which in the issue must be met.
Death is the chief hero of poetry, though life be its perpetual theme; and taking advantage of the strange affinity between pain and pleasure, to which reference has been made, the main subjects of verse have been selected from the sufferings of man in
every stage of his earthly existence, under every aspect of external circumstances, and through every form of society. The noblest lessons are taught in the school of adversity, and communicated by the examples of those who have learnt them there, to those who have not been so disciplined, in song rather than in history. Cowley says :
“ So when the wisest poets seek,
In all their liveliest colours, to set forth
" His murder'd friends and kindred he does see,
And from his flaming country flee;
With not less toil and labour can
If it be the business of tragedy, as Aristotle allows, to purify the soul by pity and terror, then out of the ills of the universe, may poetry of every kind extract balm to heal, or comfort to allay them. Thus, in a new and admirable sense, is the riddle of Samson
illustrated. In the carcase of the young lion, which roared against him, and which he rent as he would tear a kid, when he turned aside to see it, behold a swarm of bees and honey in it ! 66 Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Out of grief, misfortune, bereavement, the poet brings gladness, profit, consolation. There is no romance, no poetry in any of these things themselves to those who suffer (whatever there be to witnesses of them) till they are past. Sickness and death are cruel and fearful visitations; it is sickness removed, death averted, which makes health enjoyment, and escape renovation. The return to this lovely world, of him who has “ shrieked and hovered o'er the dread abyss,” that divides time and eternity, is more than life, -- it is life from the dead. Then, then, the romance and the poetry begin, where the awful realities end.
When Hezekiah was sick unto death, and a message from the prophet said, “ Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live:" then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, and pleaded hard, and wrestled in agony of supplication for a reprieve. “ And Hezekiah wept sore.” But when his prayer had been heard, his tears seen, and fifteen years were added to his life, then was his mourning changed into minstrelsy, and the fear and anguish which had previously overwhelmed his spirit gave way to transport. Then, likewise, he could expatiate with delighted reminiscence, and in the most delicate and touching strains, on those incidents of his extremity, which had been
66 I am
all horror and darkness while they were present. But in the joy of convalescence, he recalled the very circumstances and sentiments which had been struggling and despairing pangs in his heart before, and winged them with words that flew up to heaven's gate in notes of gratitude and praise :
“ The writing of Hezekiah, King of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered from his sick
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave; I am deprived of the residue of my years. I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living; I shall behold man no more, with the inhabitants of the world. Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent.” ***** oppressed; O Lord ! undertake for me.” * * * * “ Behold, for peace I had great bitterness; but Thou hast, in love to my soul, delivered it from the pit of corruption; Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. The grave cannot praise Thee; Death cannot celebrate Thee.” * * * “ The living, the living, he shall praise Thee, as I do at this day.” — Isaiah, xxxviii. 9-19.
The main themes of poetry might be summed up in a few phrases, or expanded into an Index to a Cyclopedia. I shall particularise two only in this place.
War; - the war of glory, in which ambition tramples down justice and humanity, to raise a single tomb for a favourite hero upon a Golgotha of nations - and war, - the war of freedom, in which death is preferred to chains, and victory is the emancipation or
the security of millions. War, also, assumes a thousand vulgar and atrocious forms; but these two alone are poetical ones.
War has been the chief burden of epic poetry in ages past, however perils and labours, sufferings and conflicts, by land and by water, may have been intermingled with battle and devastation, according to the subject which was to be dignified and adorned above the strain of history, by the embellishments of fiction, and the music of
But the poets who have succeeded in this highest and most difficult field, are those who selected their heroes, and their scenes of action, from the traditions rather than the chronicles of times long antecedent. The most splendid achievements of contemporaries can receive no additional lustre from being celebrated in heroic narrative. Truth repels the touch of fable as the contamination of falsehood, in cases where the matters of fact are so fully known, or so easily ascertained, that the common sense of mankind will receive nothing unauthenticated in reference to them. Lucan fell with his hero in the battle of Pharsalia, and Sir Walter Scott himself was vanquished by his on the plain of Waterloo. The fight on the latter must for ever rank among
the proudest examples of military ascendance; but, for a thousand years to come, it can hardly be seen (except by incidental glimpses, such as Lord Byron has caught of it in the Third Canto of “ Childe Harold,”) in an aspect fit for poetical aggrandisement. In lyric song, however, - as in the "Hohenlinden” of Campbell, and Wolfe's “Burial of Sir John Moore," - the glories even of modern warfare may be set