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SYDNEY'S DEFENCE OF POETRY."
waste of time, requiring very little intellect, no feeling, and no imagination, and yet very apt to foster a habit of self-beguiling vanity. This course on the English Poets is to persuade not to the writing, but to the reading, of poetry. Where the rare inspiration does exist, it is a fire self-sustaining in the spirit to which it is given, and the stranger's hand can neither fan nor quench it. It has been finely remarked that there can be poetry in the writings of few men, but it ought to be in the hearts and lives of all.
This cause just noticed is not adequate fully to explain the phenomena of opinions under discussion. There must be some deeper and more abiding motive for the tendency to disparage the productions of imagination. The defence of poetry is no new topic. In entering on the illustration of this department of English Literature, I feel as if I could scarce venture to advance without vindicating the worth and dignity of the subject; and when I reflect that, very nearly three hundred years ago, there was given to the world a celebrated treatise on this very subject, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that there must be some cause, deep seated in the nature of mankind, and stronger than any temporary or local influence, which engenders mistaken notions respecting this department of imaginative literature. I cannot omit commending to the student of English literature the treatise alluded to,-"The Defence of Poetry, by Sir Philip Sydney,"-as well for its intrinsic merit, and as the production of the earliest good prosewriter in the language, as for the distinguished interest attaching to the personal character and history of the author,-the matchless model of a modern knight,—a soldier, a statesman, and a scholar, over whose early death on the field of battle a whole kingdom mourned, and of whom a literary antiquary has asserted that two hundred authors could be counted who have spoken his praises. "I have," are Sydney's words, "just cause to make a pitiful defence of poor Poetry, which, from almost the highest estimation of learning, has fallen to be the laughing-stock of children." He figuratively addressed his contemporaries "as born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus that they could not hear the planet-like music of Poetry; as having so earth-creeping minds that they could not lift themselves to the sky of Poetry." Some verses written by an obscure poet shortly after the "Defence" thus acknowledged the benefit it conferred :
"Good poets were in high esteem
Their virtue and their verse did seem
"With blunt, base people of small sense
But Sydney's book in their defence
"And sets them next divines in rank,
As members meet and fit
To strike the world's blind boldness blank,
But, after all, poetry must be its own vindication; and it is an interesting fact that, at the very time Sydney was composing his defence, Spenser and Shakspeare were revolving the elements of their great imaginings. The dulness Sydney complained of was the dark hour before the coming dawn. His plea touched the slumbering spirit of his nation, like the breath of morning, waking them to a day more glorious than ever shone on the human intellect.
I have alluded to Sir Philip Sydney's work, not only because its rank in English literature entitles it to passing notice, but because it shows a depreciation of the poetic art in various ages. I doubt not it is a prejudice as ancient as poetry itself, and that it will last while the world lasts, modified, indeed, as I shall endeavour presently to show, by the distinctive spirit of the times. The constitutional infirmity of man is his proneness to materialism. I use the word in its largest sense, to express the tendency to limit our aims and desires to results which are called practical because they are palpable and measurable; the overvaluing the world of sense, and the consequent undervaluing the world of spirit; the forgetfulness of the nobler part of our complex nature the inner life, because the calls for outward life are louder and unceasing. It brings, too, the inability to rise under the pressure of that narrow period enveloping each passing point of time which we call the present; and thus, just in proportion as the heart becomes materialized, does it go stumbling on in its blindness, borrowing no ray from past or future, each step with no more than its own light, and that not from the spiritual within, but the dim glimmering of the senses. One generation may be more imbruted in its sensuality than another,—one race more than another; as the same clime where breathed the Athenian fed the Spartan and the Bootian. But the common curse upon humanity is that it is of the earth, earthy. Whatever conflicts with this corruption is doomed to encounter neglect and obloquy. The functions of all true poetry are spiritual. Whatever form the prejudice may assume,—whether ignorant or contemptuous neglect or direct reprobation,-the solution of it is to be found in the contrariety between the works of pure imagination and a corrupt
SPIRIT OF OUR TIMES.
tendency of human nature; that which is material perpetually striving for ascendency over that which is spiritual. In the palmy days of Grecian mythology there were, I doubt not, those who deemed the acorns that fell from the mysterious oaks at Dodona moré precious than the inspirations uttered from those sacred groves.
This influence, common to all ages of the world, because constitutional to humanity, may be aggravated by other agencies in different ages of civilization. Our own has its marked characteristics,-its good and its evil tendencies. I should very inadequately discuss the subject under consideration, were I to omit to inquire in what the spirit of our times affects the appreciation of the works of imagination; whether the faculty embodies the creations on the canvas, or in marble, or in the noblest mould of inventive genius,-in language. The principles of this discussion have, it may be readily seen, an application to the province of the painter and the sculptor as well as to the most intellectual of the Fine Arts, which forms our subject. The age we live in claims to be in an uncommon degree enlightened. And what are the grounds of its pride? During the past thirty or forty years, advances have been made in the physical sciences transcending, as far as we have the means of comparison, anything achieved in the same department in any former period of the world. The results of this development are manifest in all the avenues of civilization; and so multitudinous are the combinations of material agencies, such the intellectual mastery over the blind elements, that no limit seems to be set in this respect to human expectation. The mind has scarce time to recover from its admiration of some invention or achievement by powers disclosed by mechanical science, before it is called away to some new exploit. It is but lately, for instance, that the continents of Europe and America have suddenly been, to all practical purposes, brought twice as near to each other as they ever were before. Again, within a year or so, we were told that a French chemist had gained the power of giving permanency to the fleeting reflections of a mirror: that was listened to with astonishment, and something of incredulity, which have now passed wholly away. And thus we seem to be living amid a succession of nine-days' wonders. To regard this state of things with regret or complaint would obviously be in a high degree irrational as well as unmanly. On the contrary, the prodigious progress of physical science and the attendant arts is a fit subject of congratulation, bringing, as it does, manifold amelioration in all that concerns our physical existence. Besides, I could not bring myself to indulge for one moment a sentiment of jealousy or disparagement of physical science; for often have I wit
nessed with admiration the single-hearted devotion of the man of science to the vast department of his investigations, single-hearted in his seeking after truth, and indignant at the utilitarian question which would limit the range of inquiry to obvious and immediate results. The genius of true poetry is not daunted by the speed of science. But there is an inquiry of grave import, which, in our exultation, we are apt to overlook. The peril incident to fallen humanity is forgotten,—that blessings come not unalloyed, and that, abused, they may be perverted into evils. It is fit, therefore, to ask whether the improvements upon which our age prides itself are so absolutely unqualified as to justify the rather contemptuous compassion for the unilluminated condition of our forefathers. Is it all profit and no loss? Are we quite safe in reposing upon our gains with a confidence that nothing of our treasures has imperceptibly been allowed to pass away? In noticing what I believe to be some of the characteristic errors and frailties of our times, I am anxious to speak with modesty; and therefore I quote the language of an author by whom it has been well remarked that, "in regard to the supposed superiority of the present age, the mistake arises in various ways. A part of knowledge, perhaps the least important, is put for the whole; no balance is struck between what is gained in one department and what is lost in another; the worthiness of the ends pursued is not considered in determining the value of the means; the economy of wealth is taken as the measure of national welfare; legislation passes for jurisprudence. So, again, the study of nature may have flourished, the study of mind may have drooped; the arts of life may have advanced, domestic wisdom may have lost ground; education may have been diffused, learning may have declined. All our gains are counted; but our losses are not set against them. And, again, personal comfort, convenience, or luxury, mental or bodily, is openly proposed, not only as the best, but as the only, object of intellectual pursuit; whereas, formerly, the search of truth was supposed to bring its own recompense. Thus, a lower end is substituted for a higher; and by overstating the claims of our fellow-creatures, once too much neglected in these studies, we forget the more sublime relation between the human spirit and the God who gave it."
These traits in the spirit of our times are characterized by another writer, in an eloquent and philosophical passage bearing more immediately on the subject I am discussing. "Men have been pressing forward for some time in a path which has betrayed by its fruitfulness, furnishing them constant employment for picking up things about their feet when thoughts were perishing in their minds. While mechanic
arts, manufactures, agriculture, commerce, and all those products of knowledge which are confined to gross, definite, and tangible objects, have, with the aid of experimental philosophy, been every day putting on more brilliant colours, the splendour of imagination has been fading. Sensibility, which was formerly a generous nursling of rude nature, has been chased from its ancient range in the wide domain of patriotism and religion, with the weapons of derision, by a shadow calling itself Good Sense; calculations of presumptuous expediency, groping its way among partial and temporary consequences, have been substituted for the dictates of paramount and infallible conscience, the supreme embracer of consequences; lifeless and circumspect decencies have banished the graceful negligence and unsuspicious dignity of virtue." It is scarcely necessary to remark that an age thus characterized must be in a great degree unimaginative, and its tendencies adverse to poetic culture. Look round upon society, and you behold on every side symptoms of restless curiosity, and the love of outward excitement stimulated to so high a pitch that the strenuous exercises of imagination and all spiritual thought are neglected as uncongenial, or despised as visionary. We live in turmoil; and the man who dares to pause but for brief meditation is in danger of being trodden down by the throng that is pressing forward. Philosophy must deal with handicrafts, with steam, with the crucible, with magnetism, with storms, with manufactures, with exports and imports and the currency; but, if it seek its ancient track,—the human spirit and all the immaterial life that it sustains, -the world turns away from it as from useless scholastic speculation. It may be tolerated as a piece of monastic harmlessness, but no more, in the necessities of over-active existence. In a state of opinion where such principles are dominant, poetry of a high order will in vain claim from the many the affectionate homage which its votaries render. In the strife between the antagonist elements of our complex being, the mastery is too often won by the sensual over the spiritual; and hence it is that man is said to live by sight rather than by faith,—a life adverse alike to all that is religious and all that is imaginative. A great poet, standing by the seaside, conscious of the influence of natural objects, and conscious, too, of the apathy of a worldly-minded generation, boldly recoils from the materialism and infidelity of a Christian age as more uncongenial than the fond aspirations even of Paganism.
INFLUENCE OF MATERIALISM ON POETRY.
"The world is too much with us. Late and soon,
We have given our hearts away,-a sordid boon!