Изображения страниц

inspired his lays. On two of its sides are inscribed stanzas taken from the Elegy; and it is inevitable to believe, that the “rugged elms,” the “yew-tree's shade," the “wood now smiling as in scorn," there described, are the same as form the picturesque features of the landscape. Besides this, there are expressions in the poem so minutely accurate as descriptive of the objects and sounds of rural nature, that nothing but actual observation could have suggested the nice selection of the precise epithets by which they are characteristically discriminated. These delicate touches will scarcely admit of being formally particularized; but, in “ the nodding beech

“ That wreathes its old fantastic root so high,” in “ the swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,” in the line describing the returning herd, and in the drowsy tinklings of the folded sheep falling upon the ear at intervals, so different from the quick busy tinkling of sheep in the field,—the lover of nature will not fail to recognise the marks of actual observation, as well as of exquisite taste. No poem is richer in specimens of the picturesque force of language.

The Odes of Gray display the same taste and feeling, but they are certainly in a more elevated strain of composition. There is little propriety in the neatly turned compliment which ascribes

A Pindar’s rapture [to] the lyre of Gray.”

Gray has written two poems, which he designates Pindaric Odes. These constitute nearly the whole of his resemblance to Pindar. The productions of genius, at periods in the history of society so remote, can seldom admit of being brought into comparison; and Pindar is of all ancient bards, perhaps, the most inaccessible to either rivals or imitators. The ori. ginal purpose of the Ode does not differ less than the style of the poetry, from that of modern lyrical composition. Designed, like the Drama, for public recitation, it was indebted for the kind of effect which it sought to produce, to its particular accommodation to the temper and genius of a mixed audience. Its character was strictly popular; and though the lapse of time, and the uncertainties of expression in a dead language, may throw an obscurity sometimes impenetrable over the compositions of the ancient bard, there can be no doubt that, as recited, the most abrupt and harsh transitions had none of their apparent violence, and that the most indistinct allusions were instantly caught by the hearers, as perhaps some of the most effective passages in the poem. The Ancient Ode, and the Ancient Drama, are distinguished chiefly by the greater simplicity of structure, and the less elaborate style which characterized the former species of composition. The sublimity of Pindar does not arise from a sustained dignity of thought or pomp of diction, but from the occasional grandeur of his conceptions, from the comparative elevation of his ethical, and, if such a term may be allowed, his theological sentiments ; in which respect he rose as far above the level of the heathen vulgar, as in the exuberant fertility, and wildness, and splendour of his genius, he excelled the rest of the Grecian minstrelsy. The modern poet who in these respects the most nearly resembled him, is Dante, who, in the moral attributes of his mind, towered not less eminently above his age, and was not less the boast and favourite of his fellow-countrymen. The poems of Dante are said to have excited so general an enthusiasm throughout Italy, that they were sung instead of the popular songs of the country, as the poems of Homer were recited by the rhapsodists; and, after his death, professors were appointed at several universities, expressly to lecture upon his Commedia. Both Pindar and Dante availed themselves of the popular fictions, the childish legends of superstition, as sources of impressive imagery, while it is evident that in the mind of the poet they were far from ranking among the objects of faith. Both wrote, bowever, for those with whom they passed for realities. It was not as fictions, but as truths, that they were introduced into their verses. Poetry, in those rude ages, summoned the imagination to listen to her fables as to religious verities; and faith mingled itself with curiosity and wonder. The reign of imagination is passed when we have outlived the credulity of childhood. The periods at which the poet has been able to exert the strongest sensible in

fluence, by acting upon the passions of mankind, have been those at which the credulity of childhood was carried forward into the matured powers of the man, and when what assumed the character of religion, was a superstition which aimed no further than to captivate and domineer over the fancy. Such was the age at which the Theban flourished. Traditions then held the place of bistories, and songs and poems, learned and recited with enthusiasm, served instead of books. With these the memory was filled; by these the intellectual character was greatly determined. When, therefore, the favourite poet of his nation came to recite some new composition before an audience thus educated to receive the full impression of his verse, that impression being aided by the musical accompaniment which formed so essential a circumstance of the Ode, it is easy to conceive that an effect must have been produced, to which nothing in our own days presents a parallel.

The fictions of the poet, however they may please the fancy by the elegance of invention, or by their allegorical beauty, no longer command the involuntary homage of the imagination, or for a moment agitate the passions. Nevertheless, a sort of reflected interest in some instances attaches to them. We know that they were once received with superstitious credulity, and by strong sympathy with those who did believe in them, we are capable of being made to feel as if they had an existence independent of our imagination. They have, indeed, an historical existence, as belonging to a system which once had upon men's minds all the power of reality; and conscious of an instinct answering to that from which the belief of those dark ages proceeded, we can at once, by transporting ourselves into their circumstances, realize the feelings which belonged to them, and please ourselves by sporting with the objects of their earnest terror and religious awe.

Something of this reflected kind of interest attaches, perhaps, to the Ode itself. Its alliance to music remains undissolved to the imagination, and a still more powerful charm results from the classic recollections which are connected with it. What but this power of association could impart to hundreds of imitations and translations any charm, even in the eyes of their authors? They are, in themselves, any thing rather than poetry, but they are like rade sketchings, which recall to those acquainted with the original, the objects of enthusiastic delight. But it is obvious that modern literature can have little in common, either in its purpose or its character, with the hymns and songs and recitals which breathed the first warm feelings of poetry in ruder ages. Modern poetry, so far as it appeals to the feelings at all, appeals to them as so essentially modified by the altered state of society, that the kind

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »