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ties, and hold in contempt — as allied to meanness, pusillanimity, and hypocrisy whatever is pure, lovely, and of good report in woman, or meek, self-deny, ing, self-sacrificing in man.
Dr. Johnson, in his Life of Waller, says:-"It has been the frequent lamentation of good men, that verse has been too little applied to the purposes of worship; and many attempts have been made to animate devotion by pious poetry: that they have seldom obtained their end is sufficiently known, and it may not be improper to enquire why they have miscarried. Let no pious ear be offended, if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. * * * * * * * * The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topics of devotion are few; and being few, are universally known: but, few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression. Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the mind than the things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts in nature which attract, and the concealment of those that repel the imagination: but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and such as it is, it is known already. From poetry the reader justly ex
pects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension, and the elevation of his fancy; but this is rarely to be hoped by Christians from metrical devotion. Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted ; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be improved. ** *** Of sentiments purely religious, it will be found that the most simple expression is the most sublime. Poetry loses its lustre and its power, because it is applied to the decoration of something more excellent than itself. All that pious verse can do, is to help the memory, and delight the ear; and for these purposes it may be very useful; but it supplies nothing to the mind. The ideas of Christian theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures, is to magnify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere.”
Having, in the Introductory Essay to a volume of Sacred Poetry *, minutely examined the long and, I may say, the celebrated argument, of which the foregoing is but an abstract, I shall not go into particulars here to prove the mistake under which the great critic labours; but I may briefly remark, that the more this dazzling passage is examined, the more indistinct and obscure it becomes (according to the true test of truth itself, as laid down in a former paper *); and in the end it will be found to throw light upon a single point only of the question, - a point on which there was no darkness before, namely, that the style of devotional poetry must be suited to the theme, whether that be a subject of piety, or a motive to piety.
* “ The Christian Poet, or Selections in Verse on Sacred Subjects,” by James Montgomery: published by W. Collins, Glasgow; and Whittaker, London.
Those who will take the trouble to examine the passage at length, will find that all the eloquent dictation contained in, it affects neither argumentative, descriptive, nor narrative poetry on sacred themes, as exemplified in the great works of Milton, Young, and Cowper. That man has neither ear, nor heart, nor imagination to know genuine poesy, and to enjoy its sweetest or its sublimest influences, who can doubt the supremacy of such passages as the Song of the Angels in the third, and the Morning Hymn of Adam and Eve in the fifth book of “Paradise Lost;" the first part of the ninth book of the “ Night Thoughts ;” and the anticipation of millennial blessedness in the sixth book of “ The Task;" yet these are on sacred subjects, and these are religious poetry. There are but four universally and permanently popular long poems in the English language,—“Paradise Lost,” « The Night Thoughts," 66 The Task,” and “ The Seasons.” Of these, the three former are decidedly religious in their character;
* See Lecture II.
and of the latter it may be said, that one of the greatest charms of Thomson's masterpiece is the pure and elevated spirit of devotion which occasionally breathes out amidst the reveries of fancy and the pictures of nature, as though the poet had caught sudden and transporting glimpses of the Creator himself through the perspective of his works; while the crowning Hymn, at the close, is unquestionably one of the most magnificent specimens of verse in any language, and only inferior to the inspired prototypes in the Book of Psalms, of which it is, for the most part, a paraphrase. - As much may be said of Pope's “ Messiah,” which leaves all his original productions immeasurably behind it, in combined elevation of thought, affluence of imagery, beauty of diction, and fervency of spirit.
It follows, that poetry of the highest order may be composed on pious thenies; and the fact that three out of the only four long poems which are daily reprinted for every class of readers among us, are at the same time religious,—that fact ought for ever to silence the cuckoo-note, which is echoed from one mockingbird of Parnassus to another,—that poetry and devotion are incompatible: no man in his right mind, who knows what both words mean, will admit the absurdity for a moment. I have already endeavoured to show*, that gorgeous ornament is no more essential to verse, than naked simplicity is essential to prose. There must, therefore, within the compass of human
* See Lecture III.
language, be a style suitable for “contemplative piety” in verse as well as in prose;—a style for penitential prayer, as well as for holy adoration and rapturous thanksgiving. If nothing can be poetry, which is not elevated above ordinary speech by “decorations of fancy, tropes, figures, and epithets,” many of the finest passages, in the finest poems which the world has ever seen, must be outlawed and branded with the ignominy of prose. It is true, that there is a vast deal of religious verse, which, as poetry, is utterly worthless; but it is equally true, that there is no small portion of genuine poetry associated with pure and undefiled religion, among the compositions even of our Hymn-writers. What saith Milton on “the height of this great argument ?” Hear him in prose, that wants nothing but numbers to equal it with any page in “ Paradise Lost.”
“These abilities are the inspired gifts of God, rarely bestowed; and are of power to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility; to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his church; to sing victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of pious nations doing valiantly through faith against the enemies of Christ; to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and states from justice and God's true worship. Lastly, whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime, in virtue amiable and