Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

Precept is assuredly not the only way by which knowledge may be communicated ; nor is it always the best. It may be communicated by example -often more effectually, and sometimes where precept will not operate. The folly of ambition and jealousy may surely be seen, not without advantage, in the dramas of Shakspeare. The double lesson which is taught by Lear, the beautiful fidelity of Imogen, the hate and prodigality of Timon, are truths from which we derive something. In these, and similar stories, we see the effect, a material part of instruction, where practical wisdom is to be inculcated, and one which mere precept unfortunately wants. Besides, after all, precept is only secondary knowledge, being itself derived from facts. It is only the inference which the observation of man has deduced from certain established premises : and why may it not be equally, or even more beneficial, to go at once to the fountain-head of knowledge,—to the fact, or to a true representation of the fact,-instead of contenting one's self with the wisdom which has been distilled and extracted, perhaps discoloured, by other minds? Again, there is a large class of persons, who will read a poem or go to a play, but who will not sit down to the perusal of a dry essay, or examine the merits of a logical argument, respecting some melaphysical or moral question. The mere desire of acquiring knowledge influences but a very limited portion of mankind; the desire to arrive at moral truth operates, we sear, upon even a less number; and where these impulses are wanting, something, we suspect, must be held out to allure the understanding to its own improvement, --something, in which there shall be sufficient of information to render the acquisition gratifying to the vanity, and enough of pleasure to satisfy the senses.

In history, the object is to teach through experience and example. But is not this also the case with fiction and poetry? If it be replied here that the two latter are illusory, we may relort the question of—is history much less so? What history, in fact, is there which is not replete with partiality, and in other respects fundamentally erroneous ? This must neces sarily be the case, and to a much greater extent than we can possibly be aware of. In the first place, it is a work composed either by a person who is himself living amongst and tainted by the prejudices of the age, or else by one who writes at a distant date, when he is without ocular proof or oral testimony, and is left to guess between the jarring or imperfect accounts of partial contemporaries. In order to there being a perfect historian, there must be an eye-witness, and an impartial man; and no person, with such qualities united, has hitherto appeared. It is curious, and a little instructive too, in this view of the subject, to see how so able a man as Hume could rail, in his private letters, at the partiality and deficiencies of historians, and afterwards write such an account as he has written of the degenerate house of Stuart. The truth is, that there is often as much of fiction in history as in poetry, without the sincerity of the fiction being apparent. It has been said, to be sure, that the characters of the former are “real," and therefore instructive," while those of the latter afford merely amusement. But are the characters of history sufficiently perfect to tempt us to imitation ? We sear not. Neither is the moral effect (except in very rare instances) so obvious as in the latter case, where the cause and the consequence,

the “bane and the antidote,” are both before us, displaying, for our edification, the natural progress of individual history,--the temptation, the crime, and the punishment. Fiction, it is true, is (as its name imports), in a cerlain sense, less “real” than history; that is lo say, it goes more beyond

common erery-day facts; and it is not without intention that it does so. It is like a lafty mark, which we cannot strike without discipline and exercise. Were it easy to touch, and only of the ordinary height, its object would altogether be lost.

Poetry, so far as it enervates the mind, is assuredly injurious. But it Sherally stimulates the mind; and whether it stimulates it to good or ill mais depend upon the individual qualities of the poets themselves. It may be argued, indeed, that there is no need of any impulse: but we suspect that the moral, like the physical constitution, requires stimulants at least as often as sedatives. That these stimulants almost invariably impel the mind to error for something like this is asserted), is a maxim founded upon, partial instances and replete with untruth. We deny that it is so. fact, so far as we can collect instances of poetry having been brought in to participate with politics, there have always been two bands of partisans, as well as two sides, to the question at issue. If there has been a phalanx of rhymers on the one side, there has always been a battalion of poets on the other. Some of the greatest names in our literature shine equally as patriots and poets, and most of them have belonged to writers who have done what they could to discountenance hypocrisy and ward off oppression, whether on the part of the king or the aristocracy. Let us recollect the characters of only three great men amongst our poets, Milton, Marvel, and Pope, and hasten to rescind so unqualified and unjust a judgment.

Il poetry be bad and useless in its principle, it must necessarily have been so always; for it is not subject to change, being founded on certain established principles which are beyond the influence of fashion, and caprice. In that event, the great works of Shakspeare must be set down as useless and bad, as well as all the parables of the Bible; all fiction, all dialogue (except such as has actually occurred), all illustration, all the satires of Juvenal and Pope, of Cow per and others, against vice and folly; many of the didactic writings of the poels; and all fables, even the most moral. So it appears to those who are merely logicians, and on whom an image makes less impression than an axiom. They deny the utility of poetry, by asserting that whatever of good it has produced, might have been produced equally well or better in prose. But this never has been done hitherto ; and it is by no means clear that the mind which has thrown out certain ideas in poetry, could have done as much in prose; for the impulse, which occasioned i! so to shape those ideas, would have been wanting. There are certain minds which naturally exercise themselves in poetry, and delight in it, and can only get at their best ideas by means of imagery and association, as others do by calm meditation or methodical inference. So also there seem to be corresponding intellects, which can only perceive the beauty of truth and virtue, or feel the wretchedness of guilt, when their imaginations had been roused by the power of poetry, or wrought upon by the stimulating example of fiction.

Considered even as an unobjectionable amusement, poetry keeps up our intercourse with hope and pleasure; it brightens the spirits, and improves and enlarges the heart. Though pent up in smoky rooms, and tasked to

• The converse of this proposition is frequently true. “Even our Saviour could as well have pven the moral common-places of uncharitableness and humbleness, as the divine narration of Lazarus and Dives; or of disubedience and mercy, as the heavenly discourse of the lost chili aud prious father, but that his thorough-searching wisdom knew that the estate of Dives burning in bed, and of Lazarus in Abraham's bosom, would more constantly, as it were, inhabit both the maory and the judgment."'--Sir P. Sydney's Defence of Poesy.

irksome employments, we yet live out of doors with the poets, among leave and flowers and balmy winds and azure skies. We wander through track less woods, beneath oaks and branching elms, “star proof.” We lie dowi by sparkling fountains, and listen lo the voice of murmuring rivers, ani forget our cares and ills, the pains of sickness, and poverty, and neglect, in the unchequered beauty of a delightful dream.

Neither is the relapse hurtful; for our visions are never (in the injurious sense) delusions. We do not believe in the actual existence of the thing which pass thus soothingly across the surface of our imagination. We feel thal they are resemblances, not falsehoods; and these are just sufficient to abstract us awhile from the realities, to which we return refreshed .by an excursion into the wilderness of thought; not fatigued and disap-** pointed, as we might have been, had we reckoned upon the permanency of the delight. They form, in fact, a wholesome cessation from our reasoning habits, like sleep, or a quiet landscape; but enjoyed when sleep will not come lo us, and when there is no beauty of landscape actually near, to relieve the fatigue of our brain, or induce pleasurable and gentle emotions.

But poelry has been always something more than a mere amusement. It is was through the channels of poetry that much of our knowledge originally :) came; and, as Sir Philip Sidney has said, “they go very near to ungrate- ! fulness who seek to deface that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first lightgiver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk, by little and little, enabled them to feed on tougher know--| ledge." It was the habit of association, which forms a principal part of the complex faculty of the imagination, that may be said to have led to various discoveries in science, and to have furnished Bacon with his luminous illustrations in philosophy. These advantages must not be forgotten : neither must the good effect of poetry upon the memory be passed over ; the more especially as Mr. Bentham himself has afforded us some evidence on that point. We cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of republishing the poetry of so formidable a coadjutor ; who has practically testified to the “ ulility” of verse, by actually composing three couplets; for the purpose, as he slates, of " lodging more effectually in the memory certain points on which the whole fabric of morals and legislation may seem to rest.

There is one more point which we would sain remark upon, before we quit this part of the subject. It is said thal, in the pursuit of the severer Sciences, certain ideas may at least be gained, to recompense the student for his labours; while it is insinuated, that no such compensation is yielded to the follower of Poctry. We must deny this altogether. It is as

In Mr. Benthanı's valuable book on Morals and Legislation, under chapter 4., which brars the title of " l'alue of a lot of PLEASURE or PAIN, how to be measured," he says, that to a person considered by himself the value of pleasure or pain, considered by itself, must be measured according to Isl, lis intensity ; 241, lis duration ; 3d, lis certainty or uncertainty, 4th, Its propinquity or remnoleness. And in a subsequent editiou he adds the following uole :-- Naz long after the publication of the first edition, the following enemoriter verses were framed, in the view of lodying more effectually in the memory these poin's on which the whole fábric of morals and legislation may seem lo rest:-

Intense, lony, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure,
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek, if private be iliy end :
If it be public, wide let them extend.
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view :
II pains must come, let them extend 10 few."

Edi 18:23. p. 49

much an “idea,” and an idea as valuable, to gain a knowledge of the movements of the human mind, -to see how it is affected by certain causes, and how it adapts itself to various contingencies,-to contemplate it when under extraordinary depression, or when lifted to a state of perilous excitement, -as to calculate the expense of provisions, the progress of population, the advantages of a division of labour, or the possible benefit (or otherwise) of certain political institutions. The object of poetry, as well as of prose, is to spread abroad the knowledge of our age, to transmit the accumulated wisdom of foregone ages to the world around us, and to the times to come. They are not two combatants in one arena, with weapons necessarily opposed to each other, in order to secure self-preservation, or some definite reward, which cannot be shared between them. They were both born and brought to light to dispel ignorance, and contend with tyranny and abuse, - to stand up, hand in hand, true champions and assertors of the Right,for the glory of truth and knowledge, and the undoubled benefitof all the human race.

Notwilhstanding these things, and notwithstanding all that has been selt and expressed on behalf of this eminent art, we are now called upon lo despise it! The world has lasted six thousand years : it has had, amongst its millions and millions of generations, some few who have soared above the rest, and become marks for the admiration of their fellows,—whose object has been undeniably good, and whose prodigious intellect is beyond question greaier than that of any writer of our existing time. These men have hitherto been held to be the benefactors of mankind. They have led them into the temple of philosophy, and there given them wholesome instruction. They have directed them to the exercise of every virtue ; and such as have obeyed their high lessoning have themselves become good and distinguished. They have held before these their followers the mirror of truth (of “truth severe, in fairy fiction dressed")--have placed before them illustrious examples. They have incited them to gallant deeds—have given them delight in peaceful times, and have soothed them in times of pain and sorrow. And now we are told that all this is nothing, or worse than nothing, -and by whom? By those who maintain that knowledge and moral training are the only true blessings of mankind!

There is assuredly much of what is vicious, and more of what is ridiculous, in the world; and all that is decidedly bad should of course be amended. But whether it be well to make a wreck of all that has so been long held valuable and graceful, in order to ensure a certain portion of doubtful good, is at lest worthy of consideration. The question iswhether Poetry and Art, whether all that touches our sympathies and operates upou our affections, should be rooted up and exterminaled, like some long-established evil, or wide-spread disease? For our own parts, we think not. We think that they should be permitted to remain; or rather, that they will and must remain, and flourish, in despite of all prophecies and opinions 10 the contrary. Can it, in truth, be ever otherwise, so long as hope and ambition, our love of the beautiful, and our sense of the sublime, remain integral portions of our nature?

We owe something, surely, to our imagination which has yielded us such frequent delight, as well as to our reason; and we owe yet more lo the grand and losty spirits who have trod the earth before us, and have died, leaving behind them the imperishable records of their glory. Those immorial writings, dictated by the Imagination to poets in their happiest hours, bear upon them the impress of an amazing intellec!, They bring

forward, for our instruction, all the varieties of man, setting forth, in the colours of truth, his virtues and vices, his strength, his weakness, his ohduracy, his pity, his inconsistencies, and follies of a hundred hues, which are nowhere else so completely marshalled and portrayed, and to show which, and the consequences of which, equally well, the whole region of literature may be traversed, and all the stores of history and philosophy ransacked and compared in vain. And is all this of so little value, that to have done it should entitle the doer to the contempt of his fellows? Is it indeed a fact, that Shakspeare and Homer, that Chaucer, Dante, Milton, and the rest, have lived for no purpose but to be an idle sound? Was all their wisdom, all their wit, indeed empty, contemptible and useless? Are the great moral pictures of Macbeth and Othello, of Satan, and Timon, and Lear, and all that illustrious array of characters, nothing—but only shadowy and unprofitable illusions? Is there nothing real in their texture-nothing of what is good or useful in their histories! Is the philosophic vein of Hamlet worn out or become base! And has his intellectual stature shrunk and fallen below that of every puny logician? Or-is it not, after all, that the opposing ideas of the utilitarians on these points are themselves groundless and illusory, -as inimical lo true reason as the most extravagant and distorted metaphors of the tawdry rhetorican, and as difficult to be reduced to practice as the wildest dreams of the poet?

ON THE LAWS WHICH INFLUENCE THE PROGRESS AND

DECLINE OF POETRY. *

The laws on which depend the progress and decline of poetry, painting, and sculpture, operate with little less certainty than those which regulate the periodical returns of heat and cold, of fertility and barrenness. Those who seem to lead the public taste are, in general, merely outrunning it in the direction which it is spontaneously pursuing. Without a just apprehension of the laws to which we have alluded, the merits and defects of Drynden can be but imperfectly understood. We will, therefore, slate what we conceive them to be.

The ages in which the master-pieces of imagination have been produced have by no means been those in which taste has been most correct. It seems that the crea:ive facully, and the critical faculty, cannot exist together in their highest perfection. The causes of this phenomenon it is not difficult to assign.

It is true, that the man who is best able to take a machine to pieces, and who most clearly comprehends the manner in which all its wheels and springs conduce to its general effects, will be the man most competent to form another machine of similar power. In all the branches of physical and moral science which admit of perfect analysis, he who can resolve will be able to combine. But the analysis which criticism can effect of poetry, is necessarily imperfect. One element must for ever elude its researches; and that is the very element by which poetry is poetry. In the description of nature, for example, a judicious reader will easily delect an incongruous

The Poetical Works of John Dryden. Edited by sir Walter Scott.-Vol. xlvii. p. 3. January,

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »