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LECTURES ON POETRY.
THE FORM OF POETRY.
1 HAVE not pretended to define poetry; but if 1 have, in any moderate degree, succeeded in showing what is poetical in the various instances adduced, I cannot entirely have failed in what I designed, namely, to furnish a test whereby poetry itself may be detected wherever it exists in any species of literary composition. For it follows, that every subject which is not purely didactic or scientific, — the mathematics, for example, and these only in their principles and processes,- is capable of being treated poetically; or placed in such a light, and with such associations, natural or adventitious, as shall divest it of whatever is ordinary, gross, or mere detail, and clothe it with that ideal beauty, which is not the less real because it is only discernible at the nice distance, and in the peculiar point of view, which, by bringing out some latent excellence, or some happy incidence,
gives it a new and unexpected character. Hence, in conversation, in eloquence, in history, - indeed, in every kind of discourse, whether oral or written (at proper seasons),--the themes in hand may be poetically treated; that is, they may be exhibited in all their poetical relationships, and under those aspects may excite the corresponding emotions. But it is manifest, that such licence, in the several species of composition alluded to, and in fact in all prose, ought to be rarely employed; because poetical excitement is not required, and must be impertinent, when, instead of the passions being moved or the fancy delighted, the mind is to be instructed in abstract truths, informed of actual events, disciplined by close thinking, or entertained with moral, critical, or miscellaneous speculations. In novels and romances, poetic colouring, grouping, and invention, may be more frequently hazarded; but, even in these, the slightest excess is repulsive to good taste.
Verse and Prose.
In every language, barbarous or polished (I believe), there are two modes of utterance — speaking and singing; and two kinds of cadence in the collocation of syllables, corresponding to speech and song - prose and verse.
In the former, the rhythm or cadence is allowed to flow on, without interruption, into lengths and subdivisions of period, according to the requirements of the subject-matter; whereas in verse, whatever be the ductility or refractoriness of the thoughts, the strain is limited to cer
tain successions and recurrences of clauses, not only in melodious concatenation, but harmoniously calling and responding to each other. As in every language there have been found traces of these two distinct forms of articulate utterance; the one, from its freedom, plasticity, and plainness, adapted to the general purposes of verbal or literary intercourse; the other, confined to the special treatment of subjects in their poetical view, and peculiarly adapted to this by the music of numbers, the march of syllables, and the exuberance of ornament which these admit, that the thoughts themselves may be exalted as much above common-place notions as the cadences in which they are conveyed are more imposing than the irregular movements of ordinary discourse; prose and verse, from these circumstances, are sufficiently distinct. When, therefore, prose occasionally (as in the example lately quoted from Dryden) presents poetical associations, and awakens poetical feelings, it departs from its usual and politic practice, not improperly, for this is permissible and expedient on due occasions; but no good writer will be found frequently thus digressing. On the other hand, when verse employs the simplest mode of style to set forth objects that disdain embellishment, it departs in like manner from its usual and politic practice, — I will again say, not improperly, for this is permissible and expedient on due occasions; but no good writer will be found frequently thus digressing. In either case, the abuse of a legitimate privilege destroys the very character of the composition. Prose becomes poetical without the fire and spirit of
poetry; and verse becomes prosaic without the vigour and elasticity of prose. On either hand it is graceful, and even commendable, for masters in each kind of composition - and if duly qualified, they are expressly licensed by the Court of Apollo — to sally out in quest of game into the preserves of each other, expecting and allowing reprisals; but such sportsmen, in the fields of literature, must be content with a day's shooting now and then upon a strange manor, and not make a winter's campaign of a transient diversion ; otherwise, at the bar of criticism, they may be made ignominiously amenable for their trespasses.
Though I have not presumed to define poetry in the abstract, some conventional meaning, in which it it will be expedient hereafter to employ the term, is necessary here. Poetry, then, in the sense which I propose to have always in mind, is verse, in contradistinction to prose ; and this is the sense (define and dispute as we may respecting the ethereal quality itself) in which every body uses the word. Poetry, to be complete, must be verse; and all the wit of man cannot supply a more convenient definition. Every thing else which may be insisted on as essential to good poetry is not peculiar to it, but may, with due discretion and happy effect, be incorporated in prose. Poetry cannot be separated from verse without becoming prose; nor can prose assume the form of verse without ceasing to be prose altogether. It is true that, according to common parlance, poetry in this sense may be prosaic, that is, it may have the ordinary qualities of prose, though it still retain its peculiar vehicle,-metre; and prose may be poetical, that is,
it may be invested with all the customary attributes of verse, except that same peculiar and incommuni
metre. The change, however, is rarely to the advantage of either.
Yet when a writer of fine fancy and commanding powers of diction, (like Dryden, in the instance lately quoted,) from the nature and inspiration of his subject, almost unconsciously grows poetical, -the poetry of his thoughts, images, or facts, comes out as naturally as a blush or a smile over a beautiful countenance; his pathos, sublimity, or picturesque descriptions, are in season and in place; they produce their instant effect, and are gone, like the smile or the blush, while we are gazing upon them, leaving the general aspect unchanged.
Prosaic verse, every body knows, is what any body may write, and nobody will endure; nor, in a polite age, can it, under any circumstances, be rendered attractive. But poetical prose, though the dullest, heaviest, clumsiest kind of literature, has, in some notorious instances, found more favour. In French, indeed, from the absolute want of a genuine poetical diction, - neither the rhythm, the rhyme, nor the reason, it may be said, of the language, allowing
thoughts that breathe” to vent themselves in 6 words that burn,” — a florid prose style has been adopted with signal effect in the Télémaque of Fenelon, which no mastery of his native tongue could have made tolerable in French verse, any more than the most consummate mastery of our own could make tolerable to a good ear in English prose. I cannot stay to justify this remark, but I am sure that it is correct.