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more fitly have introduced them to the liberal and enlightened auditory before whom he is permitted to read them ; who will thus be prepared both to expect, and, he trusts, to pardon, no small measure of extravagance in them.
The General Claims of Poetry to Pre-eminence.
Poetry is the eldest, the rarest, and the most excellent of the fine arts. It was the first fixed form of language; the earliest perpetuation of thought: it existed before prose in history, before music in melody, before painting in description, and before sculpture in imagery. Anterior to the discovery of letters, it was employed to communicate the lessons of wisdom, to celebrate the achievements of valour, and to promulgate the sanctions of law. Music was invented to accompany, and painting and sculpture to illustrate it.
I have ventured to say that poetry is the rarest of the fine arts; and in proof, I need only appeal to the literature of our own country, in which will be found the remains of more than five hundred writers of verse, renowned in their generation, of whom there are not fifty whose compositions rise to the dignity of true poetry; and of these there are scarcely ten who are familiarly known by their works at this day. The art of constructing easy, elegant, and even spirited verse, may be acquired by any mind of moderate capacity, and enriched with liberal knowledge; and those who cultivate this talent may occa
sionally hit upon some happy theme, and handle it with such unaccustomed delicacy or force, that for a while they outdo themselves, and produce that which adds to the public stock of permanent poetry. But habitually to frame the lay that quickens the pulse, flushes the cheek, warms the heart, and expands the soul of the hearer, — playing upon his passions as upon a lyre, and making him to feel as though he were holding converse with a spirit; this is the art of Nature herself, invariably and perpetually pleasing, by a secret and undefinable charm, which lives through all her works, and causes the very stones, as well as the stars, to cry out
66 The hand that made us is divine."
The power of being a poet in this sense, is a power
from Heaven ; wherein it consists, I know not; but this I do know, that there never existed a poet of the highest order, who either learned his art of one, or taught it to another. It is true that the poet communicates to the bosom of his reader the flame which burns in his own; but the bosom thus enkindled cannot communicate the fire to a third. In the breast of the bard alone, that energy of thought which gives birth to poetry is an active principle ; in all others it is only a passive sentiment. That alone is true poetry, which makes the reader himself a poet for the time while he is under its excitement; which, indeed, constrains him to feel, to see, to think
almost to be what the poet felt, saw, thought, and was, while he was conceiving and composing his work. And this theory is confirmed by the fact,
that though original genius is wonderfully aided in its developement and display by learning and refinement, yet among the rudest people it has been found, like native gold and unwrought diamond, as pure and perfect in essence, though encrusted with baser matter, as among the most enlightened nations. With the first, however, it is seldomer seen, not being laboriously dug from the mine, purified in the furnace, or polished on the wheel, but only occasionally washed from the mountains, or accidentally discovered among the sands.
It is a remarkable coincidence, that, with the exception of ancient Rome, the noblest productions of the Muses have appeared in the middle ages, between gross barbarism and voluptuous refinement, when the human mind yet possessed strong traits of its primeval grandeur and simplicity ; but divested of its former ferociousness, and chastened by courteous manners, felt itself rising in knowledge, virtue, and intellectual superiority. The poems of Homer existed long before Greece arrived at its zenith of glory, or even of highly advanced civilisation. Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto, in Italy; Ercilla in Spain; Camoens in Portugal; as well as our own Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton; flourished in periods far inferior to the present in wealth, luxury, general intelligence, and literary taste; yet in their respective countries their great poems have not since been equalled, nor is it probable that they will hereafter be surpassed by any of their successors.
To the peculiar good fortune which, in their respective countries, and independent of their abstract
merits, has secured imperishable pre-eminence to a few early and great names, more particular allusion will be made in another place.
Poetry is not only the earliest and rarest, but also the most excellent of the fine arts. It transcends all other literary composition in harmony, beauty, and splendour of style, thought, and imagery, as well as in the vivacity and permanency of its impressions on the mind; for its language and sentiments are so intimately connected, that they are remembered together; they are soul and body, which cannot be separated without death, - a death, in which the dissolution of the one causes the disappearance of the other; if the spell of the words be broken, the charm of the idea is lost. Thus nothing can be less adorned than the opening of “Paradise Lost;" the cadence of the verse alone redeems the whole from being plain prose in the first six lines : but thenceforward it rises through every clause in energy and grandeur, till the reader feels himself carried away by the impetuosity of that
66 adventurous song,
and experiences full proof of the poet's power to accomplish his purpose, so magnificently set forth in the crowning lines of the clause :
“ That to the height of this great argument,
I may assert eternal providence,
Now, let any man attempt to tell to another the subject of Milton's exordium. This he might do very correctly, and in very apt words; yet his prose interpretation would be no more to Milton's stately numbers, than the argument at the head of the first book is to the discussion of that argument in the
Poetry and Music,
Poetry transcends music in the passion, pathos, and meaning of its movements; for its harmonies are ever united with distinct feelings and emotions of the rational soul; their associations are always clear and easily comprehensible: whereas music, when it is not allied to language, or does not appeal to memory, is simply a sensual and vague, though an innocent and highly exhilarating delight, conveying no direct improvement to the heart, and leaving little permanent impression upon the mind. When, indeed, music awakens national, military, local, or tender recollections of the distant or the dead, the loved or the lost, it then performs the highest office of poetry, - it is poetry, as Echo in the golden mythology of Greece remained a nymph, even after she had passed away into a sound. But the first music must have been vocal, and the first words sung to notes must have been metrical. “ Blest pair of Syrens, Voice and Verse !” exclaims the greatest of our poets, (himself a musician, and never more a poet than when he chants the praises of the sister art, as he does in a hundred passages,)