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Jesus Christ, it is just the contrary; the more we meditate upon his words, the more intelligible they become; and at length it seems as if Jesus were talking with us."
Thus it is universally with truth and error. All falsehood is the counterfeit of truth, and superficially viewed may pass for the reality; but in proportion as it is examined, its pretensions disappear, and the cheat becomes manifest. On the contrary, from our hasty, negligent, or imperfect perception of it, truth may sometimes be mistaken for imposture; but when resolutely, patiently, honestly searched into, it gradually grows clearer, simpler, fuller, and at last perfect. The bodily eye, coming out of long darkness into sudden light, relapses from infirmity, - I might say, in self-defence, – into momentary blindness, but soon accommodating itself to the splendour around, all becomes natural, agreeable, and right; while new discoveries of what was utterly hidden, or unsuspected, are made, from instant to instant, till the sight has recovered its strength and penetration to comprehend the whole scene and all its circumstances. Try poetry by this standard ; that which wearies, on acquaintance, is false; that which improves, is true.
The rule of Longinus, respecting the sublime, sanctions this mode of proof: — “He that hath a competent share of natural and acquired taste may easily distinguish the value of any performance from a bare recital of it. If he finds that it transports not his soul, nor exalts his thoughts, - that it calls not up into his mind ideas more enlarged than what the sounds convey, but, on the contrary, its dignity lessens and
declines, - he may conclude, that whatever pierces no deeper than the ear cannot be the true sublime. That, on the other hand, is grand and lofty, which the more we consider, the greater ideas we conceive of it; whose force we cannot possibly withstand, which sinks immediately deep, and makes such an impression on the mind as cannot easily be effaced : in a word, we may pronounce that sublime, beautiful, and true, which permanently pleases, and takes generally with all sorts of men.” Long. sect. 10. Smith's translation,
We conclude, then, that poetry must be true, natural, and affecting; nay, in its most artificial array, that of pure fiction, it must be the fiction that represents truth, and which is truth, — truth in the spirit, though not in the letter. The illustrations which I am about to produce will, I hope, show the poetical aspects of certain things, — sufficiently common-place to be easily understood, yet capable of the highest ideality, by circumstance and association.
The Poetical in Objects of Sight. I begin with an ancient apologue. At Athens, I believe, on the completion of the temple of Minerva, a statue of the goddess was wanted to occupy the crowning point of the edifice. Two of the greatest artists produced what each deemed his masterpiece. One of these figures (to use an ambiguous phrase, for lack of a better,) was the size of life, admirably designed and exquisitely finished; the other was of Amazonian stature, and so boldly chiseled, that it
looked more like masonry than sculpture. The eyes of all were attracted by the first, and turned away in contempt from the second. That, therefore, was adopted, and this rejected, almost with resentment, as though an insult had been offered to the judgment of a discerning public. In this, as in similar cases, those who were nearest to both were presumed to be the best connoisseurs of the merits of each; and as they pronounced very decisively against the one and in favour of the other, the multitude in the rear,
who saw neither so much symmetry in the minor, nor so much deformity in the major, yielded to authority. The selected image was accordingly borne in triumph to the place which it was to occupy, in the presence of applauding thousands; but as it receded from their upturned eyes, — all, all at once a gaze upon it, - the thunders unaccountably died away, a general misgiving ran through every bosom, and when it was at length fixed, the mob themselves stood like statues, as silent and as petrified; for the miniature figure being diminished to a point was scarcely recognised, except as an unsightly protuberance.
Of course the idol of the hour was soon clamoured down, as rationally as it had been cried up; and its dishonoured rival, with no good will, and no good looks, on the part of the chagrined populace, was reared in its stead. This, however, was no sooner done, than the rude-hewn mass, that before scarcely appeared to bear even the human form, assumed the divinity which it represented,-being so perfectly proportioned to the dimensions of the building, and to the
elevation on which it stood, that it seemed as though Pallas herself had alighted upon the pinnacle of her temple, - in person to receive the homage of her worshippers at its dedication.
Now that aspect of the giant-statue, at the due distance from which it was intended to be contemplated, - that aspect was the poetry of that object. In the rough reality there existed the fine ideal of the sculptor's thought, though the ordinary eye being too near could not discern it, on the ground, till, being exhibited where the whole could be seen in its whole effect, (not piecemeal, or with any necessary imperfections,) the immeasurable superiority of the well adapted work over its faultless but inappropriate rival was immediately recognised. Poetry thus places its subjects, whatever be the theme, where all their beauty, grandeur, or excellence may be clearly discovered, and where, at the same time, all their homeliness and common-place associations are excluded. This is poetry to the eye. There is also poetry to
Hearken to it.
The Poetical in Sounds.
I submit the preamble to Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poesie :
“ It was that memorable day, in the first summer of the late war, when our navy engaged the Dutch, - a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed fleets which any age had ever seen disputed the command of the greater half of the globe, the commerce of nations, and the riches of the uni
While the vast floating bodies, on either side, moved against each other in parallel lines, and our countrymen, under the happy conduct of His Royal Highness, went breaking, by little and little, into the line of the enemies, the noise of the cannon from both navies reached our ears about the city, so that all men being alarmed with it, and in dreadful suspense of the event which we knew was then deciding, every one went, following the sound, as his fancy led him; and leaving the town almost empty, some took towards the Park, some cross the river, others down it; all seeking the noise in the depth of the silence.
Among the rest it was the fortune of Eugenius, Crites, Lisideus, and Neander to be in company together.”
I dwell not on the magnificent exordium of this passage, or the fullorgan harmony of period, the manly English, - I had almost said his own English English, so purely, so radically vernacular it is, - which distinguishes the style of Dryden; I dwell not on these, though, in all the writings of this great master, not less admirable in prose than in verse, there will hardly be found a paragraph of equal power and impression with this, and the context which I shall presently quote;-I dwell not on these, but I call the earnest attention of my audience to the simplest phrases in the whole, — “the noise of cannon from both navies reached our ears about the city.” The fulness of meaning expressed, and the unutterable meanings implied in these few and plain words, cannot be too much admired. “The force of (language)