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LORD BACON'S VIEW OF POETRY.
what to the eye seems lifeless, and actuates what to the eye seems torpid, combines and harmonizes what to the eye seems broken and disjointed, and infuses a soul with thought and feeling into the multitudinous fleeting phantasmagoria of the senses? To what end have we been so richly endowed, unless-as the prime object and appointed task of the reason is to detect and apprehend the laws by which the almighty Lawgiver upholds and ordains the world he has created-it be in like manner the province and the duty of the imagination to employ itself diligently in perusing and studying the symbolical characters wherewith God has engraven the revelations of his goodness on the interminable scroll of the visible universe ?"
But it is important to cite the highest possible authority; and I know not where I can better look for it than in that almost superhuman survey of human knowledge contained in the philosophy of Lord Bacon. Words of wisdom are there which cast their light on almost all the paths of mental inquiry; and on the present occasion I seek them with special earnestness, because of the superficial notion that the Baconian philosophy took thought of the domains of only physical investigation. It can, however, be shown that among the objects of inquiry to which he pointed attention was, how the imagination may be fortified and exalted; and his brief but celebrated passage on Poetry may be aptly repeated :—“The use of this feigned history hath been to give some shadow of satisfaction to the mind of man in those points wherein the nature of things doth deny it, the world being, in proportion, inferior to the soul; by reason whereof there is, agreeable to the spirit of man, a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness, and a more absolute variety, than can be found in the nature of things. Therefore, because the acts or events of true history have not that magnitude which satisfieth the mind of man, poesy feigneth acts and events greater and more heroical; because true history propoundeth the successes and issues of actions not so agreeable to the merit of virtue and vice, therefore poesy feigns them more just in retribution and more according to revealed providence; because history representeth actions and events more ordinary and less interchanged, therefore poesy endueth them with more rareness and more unexpected variations: so, as it appeareth, that poesy serveth and conferreth to magnanimity and delectation; and, therefore, it was ever thought to have some participation of divineness, because it doth raise and erect the mind by submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind; whereas reason doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things."
In these pregnant sentences, worthy of deep reflection, may be dis
covered the germs of the whole philosophy of poetry; and he who will follow as far as they light him in the paths of truth will leave far behind the questions and the cavils respecting the endowments of imagination. I have no desire to lead you into the tangles of metaphysics; but I beg your reflection on the passage cited, because it is the highest authority to be found in philosophy. The leading thought in this profound meditation of Bacon's, as I understand it, is that there dwells in the human soul a sense-a faculty-a power of some kind, call it by what name you may—which craves more than this world affords, and which gives birth to aspirations after something better than the events of our common life; and that the poet's function is to minister to this want. From the earliest records of literature, the creations of poetry in all ages have found a congeniality in the breast of man, though the world might be searched in vain for the archetypes of those creations. A great modern poet boldly tells us of
The loss of of our race.
The light that never was on sea or land,
and yet the heart takes those dreams home to itself for realities. Humanly speaking, this is mysterious in our nature. When a mind like Bacon's is brought to the contemplation, it penetrates to the centre of the mystery, and intimates that the solution is to be found only in the inspired record of the history of the human soul; that its mingled majesty and poverty, its aspiration and its destitution, are to be traced to the fall from primeval purity. There was a time when the human soul and the world in which it was dwelling were better mated; when the discord and incongruity described by Bacon had not begun :—
"Upon the breast of new-created earth
Man walk'd; and wheresoe'er he moved,
He heard upon the wind the articulate voice
Or through the groves gliding, like morning mist
innocence was the beginning of a new era in the history I have no desire to indulge in speculation on a subject
MILTON'S VIEW OF POETRY.
which has perplexed theology; enough is it to believe what we are taught by God's own word :-that the fall was a moral and physical revolution. But we are not taught, either by that oracle or by the study of the mind, that the primal glory was wholly quenched. The faculties of man, fearfully disordered and corrupted, had still some remnant of their original endowments; and, to the mind of the great English sage, the aspirations of poetry appeared as the struggles of a once pure but fallen humanity,—the strife of the mingled elements of our nature,— the image of the Deity in which man was created, and the dust into which his soul was breathed.
From Lord Bacon's magnificent exposition I must pass on to another great tribute paid to poetry. His was the thought of the philosopher calmly looking (as Cowley said of him) "from the mountain-top of his exalted wit." Let me, in the next place, offer to your consideration some of the expressions of the lofty ideas of a poet upon his own art. I do not wish to anticipate what I shall have to say hereafter in the course respecting the great English epic poet; but I need his authority for the worth of poetic wisdom, coming as it does with such weight from one who realized so gloriously his own high conceptions of his calling.
In the spirit of Milton, imagination brought an instinctive sense of its majesty, which bursts forth in its own sublime vindication,—probably the most eloquent annunciation of the functions of the imagination ever uttered.
“These abilities (by which the grandest poetry is produced), wheresoever they be found, are the inspired gift of God, and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit to unbind 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 or grave,—whatsoever hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that which is called fortune from without, or the wily subtilties and refluxes of man's thought from within,-all these things, with a solid and treatable smoothness, to point out and describe.”
With such thoughts of the poet's office, Milton went on in a prophetic mood to covenant for the production, after some years, of a work "not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours of wine, like
that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist or the trencher-fury of a rhyming parasite,—not to be obtained by invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughter,—but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases."
After this, need I seek to accumulate authorities? What more could be added to language radiant with the yet-distant splendour of the Paradise Lost? Leaving far beneath all the low and little estimates of poetry, it is worthy of meditation that both by Bacon and Milton the poet's function has a participation of divineness. This is in accordance with the testimony of time, as it may be discovered in language employed by various nations and in various ages. The classical student need not be reminded of the derivative sense of the title of poet,-a meaning more obvious in former days, when the old English word "maker" had not fallen into disuse. Alluding to another ancient tongue than that from which our word "poet" has been derived, a writer of the seventeenth century remarks,—
""T was surely prophetic that the name
and Cowper has the lines,
"In a Roman mouth the graceful name
A later poet, speaking of the greatest endowment of imagination, does not fear to style it
"The vision and the faculty divine;"
and the common voice of mankind recognises how sacred a thing is a true poet's power, when, without any sense of profanity, it calls it by the hallowed name of inspiration.
In this use of words there is a meaning; for never can words live for ages on the lips of men unless they have in them the life-sustaining principles of truth. It becomes therefore a grave inquiry in what sense the poet's employment is said to be in a region of divinity. It partakes of a divineness, to borrow Lord Bacon's phrase, both in its modes of action and in the ends it aims at. The poet's chief province is invention and imagination, the creative power of the human spirit, as described in an admirable passage of Shakspeare but too familiar to quote, bodying forth the shapes of things unknown. The boundless scope of poetic invention I hope to illustrate hereafter, when we come to survey
the creative energy in all its varied forms of our English poets, better than now by abstract description. Poetry, as the word originally signified, is creation, and in this (let it reverently be said) lies its divinity. It is creative;—not by step-by-step attainments of the reasoning faculties, but by processes which philosophy has not yet analyzed. I do not question that imagination, like the other intellectual powers, has its laws; but so rare is the endowment in its high degree that mental science has devised no theory explanatory of its mode of action. For instance, the visionary world that Shakspeare called into existence and peopled with creations is mysterious if the attempt is made to explain it apart from the action of the imagination. Even then, accustomed as men are to regard chiefly the more subordinate operations of the mind, it raises admiration to see how, taking names and events obscure by a remote antiquity, he has animated them with more of life and of truth than ever could have been gained from the chronicles or history. In God's providence over the human race, a great poet is given rarely, and therefore stands apart and above millions of his kind; and hence, when they behold him, not toiling with tedious and unsteady deductions, but scattering the light of truth from the fire kindled within his spirit, they give to that fire the name of "inspiration." But the divineness poetry partakes of is attributable also to its efficacy in accomplishing higher purposes than any other department of literature. The chief aim of all genuine poetry is to teach by imaginary examples and by the embodiment of abstract truths. The element in which poetry dwells is truth; and when imagination divorces itself from that relation, it declines into the neighbourhood of empty fictions or the dreams of lunacy. But there is a prevalent notion that imagination is the power that especially draws away from truth; and hence it is looked on with apprehensive distrust. Doubtless it is liable to grievous abuse; and so, let it be remembered, is every talent committed to man, for cultivation or for culpable neglect. But, when the inventions of poetic genius are confounded with falsehood, it is prejudice and vulgar error. It is a narrow conception of truth which confines it to what are called matters of fact,-events which have actually transpired, and which would exclude even the truths of exact science. There are truths of our inner life as well as of the outward,-spiritual and visionary,—of the imagination and the feelings as well as of the senses. The record of a criminal trial, with all the details of evidence fortified by the sanction of an oath, is matter-of-fact truth; and yet there is a higher and better truth-more of the essence of truth, and therefore more permanent-in the imaginative story of the conscience-stricken
TRUTH THE FOUNDATION OF POETRY.