Obrázky na stránke

“Great Pan, who wont to chase the fair,
And loved the spreading oak, was there ;
Old Saturn, too, with upcast eyes,
Beheld his abdicated skies ;
And mighty Mars, for war renown'd,
In adamantine armour frown'd;
By him the childless goddess rose,
Minerva, studious to compose
Her twisted threads; the web she strung,
And o'er a loom of marble hung;
Thetis, the troubled ocean's queen,
Match'd with a mortal next was seen,
Reclining on a funeral urn,
Her short-lived darling son to mourn ;
The last was he, whose thunder slew
The Titan race, a rebel crew,
That from a hundred hills allied,
In impious league, their King defied.”'


According to the view which I have given of the nature of wit, the pleasure we derive from that assemblage of ideas which it presents, is greatly heightened and enlivened by our surprise at the command displayed over a part of the constitution, which, in our own case, we find to be so little subject to the will. We consider wit as a sort of feat or trick of intellectual dexterity, analogous, in some respects, to the extraordinary performances of jugglers and rope-dancers; and in both cases, the pleasure we receive from the exhibition is explicable, in part, (I by no means say entirely,) on the same principles.

If these remarks be just, it seems to follow as a consequence, that those men who are most deficient in the power of prompt combination, will be most poignantly affected by it when exerted at the will of another; and therefore, the charge of jealousy and envy brought against rival wits, when disposed to look grave at each other's jests, may perhaps be obviated in a way less injurious to their character.

The same remarks suggest a limitation, or rather an explanation, of an assertion of Lord Chesterfield's, that "genuine wit never made any man laugh since the creation of the world.” The observation I believe to be just, if by genuine wit we mean wit wholly divested of every mixture of humour; and if by

[merged small][ocr errors]

laughter we mean that convulsive and noisy agitation which is excited by the ludicrous. But there is, unquestionably, a smile appropriated to the flashes of wit—a smile of surprise and wonder ; not altogether unlike the effect produced on the mind and the countenance by a feat of legerdemain, when executed with uncommon success.


The pleasure we receive from rhyme, seems also to arise partly from our surprise at the command which the poet must have acquired over the train of his ideas, in order to be able to express himself with elegance and the appearance of ease under the restraint which rhyme imposes. In witty or in humorous performances, this surprise serves to enliven that which the wit or the humour produces, and renders its effects more sensible. How flat do the liveliest and most ludicrous thoughts appear in blank verse ? And how wonderfully is the wit of Pope heightened by the easy and happy rhymes in which it is

expressed ?

It must not, however, be imagined, either in the case of wit or of rhyme, that the pleasure arises solely from our surprise at the uncommon habits of association which the author discovers. In the former case, there must be presented to the mind, an unexpected analogy or relation between different ideas, and perhaps other circumstances must concur to render the wit perfect. If the combination has no other merit than that of bringing together two ideas which never met before, we may be surprised at its oddity, but we do not consider it as a proof of wit. On the contrary, the want of any analogy or relation between the combined ideas, leads us to suspect, that the one did not suggest the other, in consequence of any habits of association, but that the two were brought together by study or by mere accident. All that I affirm is, that when the analogy or relation is pleasing in itself, our pleasure is heightened by our surprise at the author's habits of association when compared with our own. In the case of Rhyme, too, there is undoubtedly a certain degree of pleasure arising from the recurrence of the same sound. We frequently observe children amuse themselves with repeating over single words which rhyme together; and the lower people, who derive little pleasure from poetry, excepting in so far as it affects the ear, are so pleased with the echo of the rhymes, that when they read verses where it is not perfect, they are apt to supply the poet's defects, by violating the common rules of pronunciation. This pleasure, however, is heightened by our admiration at the miraculous powers which the poet must have acquired over the train of his ideas, and over all the various modes of expression which the language affords, in order to convey instruction and entertainment, without transgressing the established laws of regular versification. In some of the lower kinds of poetry; for example, in acrostics, and in the lines which are adapted to bouts-rimés, the merit lies entirely in this command of thought and expression, or, in other words, in a command of ideas founded on extraordinary habits of association. Even some authors of a superior class, occasionally shew an inclination to display their knack at rhyming, by introducing at the end of the first line of a couplet, some word to which the language hardly affords a corresponding sound. Swift, in his more trifling pieces, abounds with instances of this; and in Hudibras, when the author uses his double and triple rhymes, many couplets have no merit whatever but what arises from difficulty of execution.

The pleasure we receive from rhyme in serious compositions, arises from a combination of different circumstances which my present subject does not lead me to investigate particularly." I am persuaded, however, that it arises in part from our surprise at the poet's habits of association, which enable him to convey his thoughts with ease and beauty, notwithstanding the narrow limits within which his choice of expression is confined. One proof of this is, that if there appear any mark of constraint, either in the ideas or in the expression, our pleasure is proportionally diminished. The thoughts must seem to suggest each other, and the rhymes to be only an accidental circumstance. The same remark may be made on the measure of the verse. When in its greatest perfection, it does not appear to be the result of labour, but to be dictated by nature, or prompted by inspiration. In Pope's best verses, the idea is expressed with as little inversion of style, and with as much conciseness, precision, and propriety, as the author could have attained, had he been writing prose; without any apparent exertion on his part, the words seem spontaneously to arrange themselves in the most musical numbers.

in rhyme, occasionally indulge themselves in something very nearly approaching to it. [Thus Ovid :]

In Elegiac poetry, the recurrence of the same sound, and the uniforinity in the structure of the versification which this necessarily occasions, are peculiarly suited to the inactivity of the mind, and to the slow and equable succession of its ideas, when under the influence of tender or melancholy passions; and accordingly, in such cases, even the Latin poets, though the genius of their langnage be very ill fitted for compositions

“ Memnona si mater, mater ploravit Achillem,

Et tangant magnas tristia fata Deas;
Flebilis indignos Elegeia solve capillos,

Ab nimis ex vero nunc tibi nomen erit."

Many other instances of the same kind might be produced from the Elegiac verses of Ovid and Tibullus.

" While still a child, nor yet a fool to faine,

I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came." This facility of versification, it is true, may be, and probably is, in most cases, only apparent; and it is reasonable to think, that in the most perfect poetical productions, not only the choice of words, but the choice of ideas, is influenced by the rhymes. In a prose composition, the author holds on in a direct course, according to the plan he has previously formed ; but in a poem, the rhymes which occur to him are perpetually diverting him to the right hand or to the left, by suggesting ideas which do not naturally rise out of his subject. This, I presume, is Butler's meaning in the following couplet :

Rhymes the rudder are of verses

With which, like ships, they steer their courses." But although this may be the case in fact, the poet must employ all his art to conceal it; insomuch, that if he finds himself under a necessity to introduce, on account of the rhymes, a superfluous idea, or an awkward expression, he must place it in the first line of the couplet, and not in the second; for the reader, naturally presuming that the lines were composed in

[ocr errors]


the order in which the author arranges them, is more apt to suspect the second line to be accommodated to the first, than the first to the second. And this slight artifice is, in general, sufficient to impose on that degree of attention with which poetry is read. Who can doubt that, in the following lines, Pope wrote the first for the sake of the second ?

A wit's a feather, and a chief a rod;

An honest man's the noblest work of God." Were the first of these lines, or a line equally unmeaning, placed last, the couplet would have appeared execrable to a person of the most moderate taste. 1

It affords a strong confirmation of the foregoing observations, that the Poets of some nations have delighted in the practice of alliteration, as well as of rhyme, and have even considered it as an essential circumstance in versification. Dr. Beattie observes, that “ some ancient English poems are more distinguished by alliteration, than by any other poetical contrivance. In the works of Langland, even when no regard is had to rhyme, and but little to a rude sort of anapæstic measure, it seems to have been a rule, that three words, at least, of each line should begin with the same letter." A late author informs us, that, in the Icelandic poetry, alliteration is considered as a circumstance no less essential than rhyme. He mentions also several



[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

one of his epistles goes far to justify
the foregoing sarcasm.
Antoine, gouverneur de mon jardin d'Autueil,
Qui dirige chez moi l'if et le chèvrefeuille.]

3 “ The Icelandic poetry requires two things,-namely, words with the same initial letters, and words of the same sound. It was divided into stanzas, each of which consisted of four couplets; and each of these couplets was again composed of two hemistichs, of which every one contained six syllables; and it was not allowed to augment this num ber, except in cases of the greatest necessity."--See Van Troil's Letters on Iceland, p. 208.

De ton siècle brillant mes yeux virent la fin.
Je vis le jardinier de ta maison d'Autueil,
Qui chez toi, pour rimer, planta le chèvre-

feuille, &c. Notwithstanding the injustice towards Boileau in the general spirit of this performance, it must, I think, be acknowledged, that the following exordium of

« PredošláPokračovať »