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LECTURES ON POETRY.
VARIOUS CLASSES OF POETRY.
LORD Bacon distinguishes poetry under three heads: Narrative, Dramatic, and Parabolic. To these may be added a fourth, Miscellaneous, comprehending one half of the verse that is written, and which can hardly be said to come under any denomination less general. Without particular reference to these distinctions, I shall briefly notice several of the principal classes of poetry, according to the limits which must not here be exceeded.
Narrative poetry embraces all the varieties of metrical story-telling, from the lofty epic to the lowly ballad. In these (according to the licence of fiction) the author-knowing every thing that he chooses to know, and being privy to the inmost thoughts as well as the outward acts of his heroes - discloses to his reader (like one invisible being holding converse
ing.comve the with another) the entire circumstances of all the events, single or in series, which he feigns or borrows. He thus makes his fable, as it is called, more complete through all its bearings, than any series of facts can be rendered, from the necessary imperfection of human testimony, the difficulty of discovering by contingent evidence more than has been verbally recorded of any thing that is past, and the impossibility of ever recovering the memory of what has once been lost — absolutely lost. For example,
- of the history of Rome, nothing more can be known at any future time, but what is extant at this hour in the relics of contemporary writers, or their successors, who have preserved what otherwise would have perished with the originals. Buried among the ruins of Herculaneum, or under the dust of centuries in monastic libraries, — documents containing intelligence, of which we are yet ignorant, may hereafter be brought to light; but that which is no longer registered on earth, though it may have decided the destinies of empires, is to us, in these later ages," the same as though it never had been.
The quantity of error, conjecture, and misrepresentation, which abound in the early chronicles of all nations, and are not easily separable from those of the most enlightened periods, cause history to be, at best, a dubious authority to follow in its precedents for the conduct of either statesmen or philosophers.
Leo X. conceived the magnificent idea of forming a model of the city of Rome, as it stood in its glory, from a survey of the ruins of its palaces, temples, and amphitheatres, as they remained at his own day; -according to the style of each relic filling up the
elevation of the original structure. This task he committed to Raphael, who ardently undertook it, but died on the threshold of that renovated Rome; which thereafter fell into less reparable decay than its ancient prototype. Mr. Roscoe informs us, that the great artist presented a memorial to the Pontiff on this project, accompanied by a drawing of an entire edifice, completed according to the rules which he had laid down for the development of the whole. * What Raphael's memorial and specimen were to Rome under Augustus, history and its illustrations are to any given series of events; being only more or less imperfect in proportion as the dilapidated foundations, solitary columns, and mouldering walls of ancient edifices, furnish models and materials for raising upon them theoretical superstructures to represent what they were, but which in reality are but what they might have been. I would not disparage the most valuable inheritance bequeathed to us by our fathers in the chronicles and traditions of those periods in which they lived. But such is the task of him who sits down to compile the annals of any people; out of their ruins, he has to build their
* Raphael, in this memorial, observes:– “Having been commissioned by your Holiness, to make a design of ancient Rome, so far as it can be discovered in what now remains, with all the edifices of which such ruins yet appear as may enable us infallibly to ascertain what they originally were, and to supply such parts as have been wholly destroyed by making them correspond with those that yet exist ; — I have used every possible exertion, that I might give you full satisfaction, and convey a perfect idea on the subject.”
monuments. And as “the poetical" of Greek and Roman architecture has alone survived, in fallen temples and palaces, while the mere “ prose,” in the masonry of vulgar dwellings, has been utterly obliterated, — so, in the most perfect history, wrecks of magnificence only are preserved ; and of these the principal portions have been so disfigured by fable, or embellished by romance, that the lessons of Time (the slowest of teachers, and who ought to be the surest, did not his memory so much fail him,) are defective in main parts of the argument from default of unadulterated or unmutilated facts; so that the inferences, however wise and salutary, to be derived from what is presented as the fruit of experience, are proportionately unimpressive and unsatisfactory. But Time is rather the preceptor of man, his coeval, than of men, his offspring. His schools are communities, which he instructs not so much by details, as by the gradual evolution of great results out of the infinite multiplicity of small circumstances that make up the business of individual life. With him, therefore, a lesson which takes less than a century in the delivery, is scarcely intelligible ; for the issue of a day may require an age to develope it. The battle of Waterloo in a few hours, not only put an end to the wars of the French Revolution, but was itself the first scene of a new drama in the theatre of Europe, which will probably employ the actors of many generations to carry on, before an equally decisive catastrophe shall again turn the current of history at a right angle (so to speak) from the course into which that victory of our countrymen diverted it.
Hence the lessons of poetic narrative may be rendered more perfect, as well as more interesting than those of the most authentic history, because the premises from which the former is to be drawn may be exactly fitted to the purpose of exemplifying and enforcing the instruction intended. “ The Iliad,” contained all that had been learned from the practice of war through all ages antecedent. In the “ Gerusalemme Liberata” of Tasso are summed up all the glories and horrors of the crusades. In “ Paradise Lost,” we have the theological history of the world. At the same time, it would be affectation to assume, that the few unrivalled epic poems have been composed, primarily, for any other reason than because the themes appeared to the authors capable of exercising their genius, and displaying their powers of invention and embellishment to the highest advantage. The conceit of Bossu, that the great masters of antiquity first fixed upon a moral, and then sought a story to illustrate it, is as pure a fiction as any to be found in the Odyssey itself. Virgil's Æneid has been especially insisted on in proof of this pedantic hypothesis; and we have been gravely told, that “there are two distinct objects to be kept in view in the conduct of a narrative poem, the one poetical, the other moral ; the poetical being the fictitious action, and the moral the real design of the poem. . Thus Virgil wrote and felt like a subject, not like a citizen. The real design of his poem was to increase the veneration of the people for a master, whoever he might be, and to encourage, like Homer, the great system of military despotism.” These are the notions of the republican