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traffic and correspondence !”-Of the Advancement of Learning, Book i.
In this commerce of literature,—the Scriptures and the writings of divines excepted,—the compositions of the poets are undoubtedly the most extensively and abidingly influential, because they have had, in youth at least, the greatest power over the greatest minds; when, more even than history and uninspired ethics themselves, they have tended to form the characters, opinions, and actions of those who lead or govern the multitude, whether as princes, warriors, statesmen, philosophers, or philanthropists. The compositions of the poets have also this transcendant advantage over all others, that they are the solace and delight of the most accomplished of the finer, feebler, better sex, whose morals, manners, and deportment, give the tone to society;- not only as being themselves (to speak technically) its most agreeable component parts, but because they are the mothers and nurses of the rising generation, as well as the sisters, lovers, and companions most acceptable to the existing one, at that time when the affections of both sexes are gentlest, warmest, liveliest, and most easily and ineffaceably touched, purified, tempered, and exalted. What owe we not, in Britain, at this day, to Alfred ?-Liberty, property, laws, literature; all that makes us as a people what we are, and political society what it ought to be. And who made Alfred all that he became to his own age, all that he is to ours ? She, who was more than a parent to him.
“ The words which his mother taught him,” the songs which his mother sang to him, were the germs
of thought, genius, enterprise, action, every thing to the future father of his country. We owe to poetry, - probably to rude, humble, but fervent, patriotic poetry,--all that we owe to Alfred, and all that he owed to his mother.
But poetry makes poets. To exemplify this generating quality of poetic influence, by which it is itself transmitted and increased with every era of advancing time, I shall refer to the known history, character, and writings of two individuals, born and brought up in circumstances of life, which were so little likely to awaken and nourish poetic feelings in their minds, that it may be safely assumed concerning them, had they been born and brought up under any other circumstances, higher or lower in social rank, less favourable or more to the developement of natural genius, they would have grown up into poets, as surely as they grew up into men. Neither of them was of the first order; the one, indeed (Henry Kirke White), being but of a moderate, the other (Robert Burns) of a rare standard ; but both of genuine poetic temperament.
Henry Kirke White.
Nothing is trifling or insignificant in childhood, when every thing conduces to form the bias of an immortal mind; and every occurrence that awakens a new emotion is the forerunner of everlasting consequences. Such was the incident mentioned by Henry Kirke White, that before he was six years old he was accustomed to hear a certain damsel sing the affecting ballad of 6 The Babes in the Wood,” and others,
alluded to in the following lines, written when he was little more than twice that age:
“ Many's the time I've scamper'd down the glade,
To ask the promised ditty from the maid,
« Beloved moment! then 't was first I caught
The first foundation of romantic thought.”
“ I hied me to the thick o'erarching shade,
And there on mossy carpet listless laid,
The heart of any child would be touched with such ditties, but while the rest returned to their play, the future poet alone would retire into solitude to muse upon them; and think, and feel, till he could feel and think no longer, over such a stanza as this in the rude old ballad, when the villain had left the children in the wood, under pretence of going to the town to bring them bread, for which they were crying:
66 These pretty babes, with hand in hand,
But never more could see the man,
Approaching from the town!”
These are lines which none but a poet by nature could make, and they are such lines as make poets. From the same juvenile composition we learn that Kirke White was early acquainted with Spenser and Milton. Describing his evening walks with a favourite school-fellow, he says, “ To gaze upon the clouds, whose colour'd pride
Was scatter'd thinly o'er the welkin wide,
In these, what forms romantic did we trace,
Any eye might build castles in the clouds, or discover towers and glaciers amidst the pomp of sunset; but the imagination of the poet alone, fired with the first perusal of Milton, would discern in them the battle array of the seraphim, and the war in heaven, when
« Forth rush'd, with whirlwind sound,
and especially that wonderful couplet, in which the approach of Messiah is described :
“ Attended with ten thousand, thousand saints,
He onward came :-far off his coming shone !" I have laid emphasis on the latter clause, in which, with five of the plainest words that our language contains," the poet blind yet bold” has struck out, condensed, and displayed, with unsurpassable effect, one of the most magnificent images to be found even in Paradise Lost:
“ Far off his coming shone !”
The memory of Henry Kirke White has been embalmed rather by the genius of his biographer (Dr. Southey) than his own. He was, unquestionably, a youth of extraordinary promise ; but it must be acknowledged, that he has left little which would have secured him more than a transient reputation, if his posthumous papers had fallen into other hands than those of the best-natured of critics and the most magnanimous of poets. There is no great infusion, in his most finished pieces, of fine fancy, romantic feeling, or fervid eloquence. Their distinguishing characteristics are good sense and pious sentiment, strongly enforced, and sometimes admirably expressed; indeed the cast of his thought was rather didactic, than either imaginative or impassioned. Nevertheless, some of his fragments of verse, penned occasionally on the backs of mathematical exercises at college, in fits of inspiration, show that the spirit was far from being quenched within him, after he had formally abandoned poesy as a pursuit ; but that, in sickness, solitude, and studies the most