« PredošláPokračovať »
recipiency of a correct taste, but the quick sympathy of an active imagination, untrammelled by conventional or technical precepts; a natural sensibility; force and kindly affections; a vigorous and well-disciplined understanding; and a judicial composure dwelling above the clouded and fitful region of prejudice. Let me assure you that when I look forth to the magnificent theme which is before me,—the vast compass of English poetry and its lofty soarings, no one is more painfully impressed than he who is addressing you with the thought of how much is demanded for the faithful execution of that which he has undertaken.
I have already intimated an opinion that the noblest portion of a nation's literature is its poetry. I am well aware that this is a sentiment in which many minds will be reluctant to concur, and that not a few will utterly revolt at it. We live in an age whose favourite question is, What is the use? The inquiry is a rational one; and equally rational is the conclusion,-that what is useless is contemptible. But the notion of utility is very various, and we must be cautious that we are not condemning by a false standard. In the common business transactions of the world, men are very careful as to the weights and measures they are dealing with. The buyer of a yard of cloth, or a chest of tea, or a prescription of medicine, trusts to an accurate measurement as the means of giving him all that he is entitled to, and, in the last case, saving him from being drugged with more than his malady makes inevitable. Now, when you turn from the world of trade to the inner world of moral and intellectual operations, you will see men weighing and measuring out their judgments and their sentiments with all the confidence of logical deduction from their premises, not dreaming that often in those premises lies the fallacy of a false balance and a crooked rule. The mind, instead of being truly poised, is often perversely planted; and it has its makeweights in the shape of covert prejudices or prepossessions, and thence come distorted judgments and misdirected affections. Eminently is this the case in our estimate of utility, for the obvious reason that, men proposing to themselves different objects to be attained, a pursuit is applauded as useful, or despised as the reverse, just as it may happen to conduce to those ends respectively. Thus, things are judged by standards never meant for them,—a process as senseless as if one sought to measure by a balance or to weigh by a foot-rule. The aim of one man may be wealth; of another, power, political or military; of another, notoriety or fame; of another, ease, eating and drinking and sleeping; of another, knowledge or literary cultivation; of another, the social amelioration of mankind; or, of another, the enlargement of his whole being by the improve
ment of every talent which God has given him, and the further-looking hope of the promised happiness of an hereafter. Each one, by a process of reasoning, equal, too, in logical accuracy, reaches a conclusion of his own. And thus the art of book-keeping and the tables of interest are useful; and so is the art of cookery; and so is history, or politics, or the art of war; and so is poetry, and so is the Bible; all useful, each in its own-I need not add how differentway. But the moment you begin to apply to any one the standard / proper to another, then comes error, with confusion on confusion. Especially is this the case with regard to literature, and, most of all, to the higher department of imaginative composition. The question to be discussed in its most striking form comes directly to this :---What is the use of poetry? Now, when a question of this sort is made, the answer must depend very much on the temper and the tone in which it is propounded. If it come with a self-sufficient defiance of reply, with that scornful materialism which recognises no standard of value but what affects the outward man,-if it come from that quenchless spirit of traffic whose element is the market, and which concentrates the intensity of man's being to describe it in a familiar way—within that busy but small portion of the day comprehended between the hours of nine and three, making life a kind of bank-hour existence,—then, I say, the question may, like Pilate's, better remain unanswered; for the very faculties to be addressed are torpid or dead, no more able to take cognizance of the loftier aims of literature than the deaf to delight in music or the blind in colours. There is a wide gulf separating the cold, dark, and indurated heart of the sensual and the mercenary from the imaginative and the spiritual; and it is a vain and almost hopeless thing to try to send the voice across it. If ever the blindness of the clouded heart, purged away in any chance moment, catches a glimpse of the glory enveloping the mighty poets, it sees them only "as trees walking."
But the inquiry as to the use of poetry may come in a better shape, -the meek questioning of a docile doubt. It may be the craving of a heart yet pure from the pride of materialism in all its forms, and of a young imagination feeble in its apprehensions of imaginative truth; and then no pains should be spared to convince that poetry has, in the highest and truest sense, its use. Criticism has no more precious office than to give its aid "that men may learn more worthily to understand and appreciate what a glorious gift God bestows on a nation when he gives them a poet." A sense of the dignity of the subject we are approaching makes me solicitous to contribute something to the forma
tion of correct opinion. It is necessary to go to the root of what is erroneous, and to lay the foundation broadly and deeply for sound principles. Let us, in the first place, observe what is the mode of thinking prevalent in the estimate of poetical composition. I do not mean opinions expressed in the shape of deliberately-framed propositions, but a state of opinion which, while rarely venturing on such expressions, will yet betray itself in numberless indirect forms equally significant. If any one will be at the trouble of observing these, he can scarce fail to perceive signs of a low appreciation of the imaginative department of literature, whether considered in comparison or positively. It is betrayed either by absolute neglect, or by what is far more injurious, because more plausible and offensive, the habit of alluding to poetry as a mere matter of sentimental recreation, or, at best, a species of elegant trifling, congenial to effeminacy or immaturity of mind rather than to the robust and manly energy of a ripened intellect. I have little doubt that, in many minds, the first association called up by the word "poetry " is the effusion of that generous vanity which gratifies itself in a small way on the pages of albums and scrapbooks, and sometimes by a more adventurous flight, as high as the corner of a newspaper. Observe, too, how the title of poet is conferred-in apparent unconsciousness of any absurdity in such use of language-on any stripling, male or female, who accomplishes the feat of stringing together a few sentimental rhymes; and what is more sickening to see is the self-complacency with which the title is received and worn. But the false opinions of poetry stop not at a low estimate, for it is often seen to put on the form of contemptuous repugnance. It is shunned as fostering a dangerous, dreamy, visionary habit of mind, incompatible with the demands of active life. Now, against the folly involved in this egregious misappreciation of the worth of genuine poetry it is hard to argue, for it seldom occurs in the tangible form of distinct avowals. But that it exists, and is influencing the direction of mental pursuits, and affecting the habitual tone of thought and feeling, cannot be doubted by any one who will observe the neglect of poetical literature, or the supercilious spirit with which a poet's endowments are regarded in comparison with qualifications for other departments of intellectual occupation.
For this there must be some cause ;-something, too, which sustains so wide-spread an error. Half the refutation of fallacy will often be the mere discovery of its origin. There is confusion of mind on one point, which greatly contributes to the mistaken opinions under discussion. I allude to the very common and superficial error of identifying
JONSON'S PANEGYRIC ON POETRY.
poetry with verse. That verse the melody of metre and rhyme-is the appropriate diction of true poetry, its outward garb (for a reason I shall hereafter advert to), is perfectly true; but then it is nothing more than the outward form; it is the dress and not the body or the soul of poetry. Very far am I from entertaining those principles of criticism / which recognise as poetry imaginative composition divested of metrical expression, which I deem its natural and essential form. But then there may be the form without the appropriate substance. The idea of poetry comprehends verse: but there may be verse without a ray of poetry; and to suppose that dexterity in versifying implies the endowment of a poet's powers is much the same confusion of thought as to think that a military cloak makes a soldier, or an ecclesiastical vestment makes a priest. Thought, whether uttered in prose or verse, may undergo no change with the change of the outward fashion. When verse is mistaken for poetry, discredit is brought on the latter, because it is well known that the making of verses looking indeed very like poetry is within the power of the shallowest intellect. It may be the merest mechanism conceivable. There is a multitude of verses with no more of the lifeblood of poetry than there is life in the tattered garments dangling and fluttering on a stick to frighten the fowls of the air from a growing crop. To place the mere versifier in the same category with the genuine poet is the gross fallacy of giving to the butterfly, the bat, and the winged insect brotherhood with the dove and the eagle. It is a false affinity, from which true imagination has always revolted. The classical student will, on a moment's reflection, recall the feelings in this particular of more than one of the Roman satirists; but I know no passage of the kind finer than one in which that vigorous dramatist, Ben Jonson, at once spurns his false brethren and vindicates his own high calling in a strain that rises on the blast of a magnanimous indignation :
"I can approve
The state of Poesy, such as it is,
Blessed, eternal, and most true divine.
As she appears in many, poor and lame,
Set high in spirit with the precious taste
Crown'd with the rich traditions of a soul
Of none but grave and consecrated eyes.
Nor is it any blemish to her fame
That such lean, ignorant, and blasted wits,
With such applauses in our vulgar ears;
Or that their slubber'd lines have current pass
From the fat judgments of the multitude;
Should set no difference 'twixt these empty spirits
The reproach of the debasement of poetic inspiration to unworthy or corrupt uses is thus repelled by a later poet, when he proclaims that
powers to verse belong;
And they like demigods are strong
But some their function have disclaim'd,
"Nor such the spirit-stirring note
When the live chords Alcæus smote,
Woe! woe to tyrants!' from the lyre
Of fierce, vindictive song.
"And not unhallow'd was the page,
Let me here remark that the purpose of this course is not to encourage poetical composition. I have no such thought; but I am not without a hope that it may so far contribute to the appreciation of the poetic function as to prevent the puny ambition of weaving verses under the delusion that the production is poetry. It is a weak
* Wordsworth's "September."