Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

A Defence of Poetry

PART I

According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental
action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be
considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought
to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon
those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing
from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within
itself the principle of its own integrity. The one is the [word
in Greek], or the principle of synthesis, and has for its objects
those forms which are common to universal nature and existence
itself; the other is the [word in Greek], or principle of analysis,
and its action regards the relations of things, simply as relations;
considering thoughts, not in their integral unity, but as the
algebraical representations which conduct to certain general results.
Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; imagination
is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately
and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination
the similitudes of things. Reason is to the imagination as the
instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow
to the substance.

Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be 'the expression
of the imagination': and poetry is connate with the origin of man.
Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal
impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing
wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to
ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human
being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise
than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony,
by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited
to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could
accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them,
in a determined proportion of sound; even as the musician can
accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre. A child at play
by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; and
every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relation
to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions which
awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression;
and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away,
so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the
duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the
cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child, these
expressions are, what poetry is to higher objects. The savage (for
the savage is to ages what the child is to years) expresses the
emotions produced in him by surrounding objects in a similar manner;
and language and gesture, together with plastic or pictorial imitation,
become the image of the combined effect of those objects, and of
his apprehension of them. Man in society, with all his passions and
his pleasures, next becomes the object of the passions and pleasures
of man; an additional class of emotions produces an augmented
treasure of expressions; and language, gesture, and the imitative
arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil
and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the
harmony. The social sympathies, or those laws from which, as from
its elements, society results, begin to develop themselves from
the moment that two human beings coexist; the future is contained
within the present, as the plant within the seed; and equality,
diversity, unity, contrast, mutual dependence, become the principles
alone capable of affording the motives according to which the
will of a social being is determined to action, inasmuch as he is
social; and constitute pleasure in sensation, virtue in sentiment,
beauty in art, truth in reasoning, and love in the intercourse of
kind. Hence men, even in the infancy of society, observe a certain
order in their words and actions, distinct from that of the objects
and the impressions represented by them, all expression being
subject to the laws of that from which it proceeds. But let us
dismiss those more general considerations which might involve an
inquiry into the principles of society itself, and restrict our
view to the manner in which the imagination is expressed upon its
forms.

In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural
objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain
rhythm or order. And, although all men observe a similar, they
observe not the same order, in the motions of the dance, in the
melody of the song, in the combinations of language, in the series
of their imitations of natural objects. For there is a certain
order or rhythm belonging to each of these classes of mimetic
representation, from which the hearer and the spectator receive
an intenser and purer pleasure than from any other: the sense
of an approximation to this order has been called taste by modern
writers. Every man in the infancy of art observes an order which
approximates more or less closely to that from which this highest
delight results: but the diversity is not sufficiently marked, as
that its gradations should be sensible, except in those instances
where the predominance of this faculty of approximation to the
beautiful (for so we may be permitted to name the relation between
this highest pleasure and its cause) is very great. Those in whom
it exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the
word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they
express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds,
communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort or reduplication
from that community. Their language is vitally metaphorical; that
is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and
perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent
them become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts
instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets
should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus
disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of
human intercourse. These similitudes or relations are finely said
by Lord Bacon to be 'the same footsteps of nature impressed upon
the various subjects of the world'; [Footnote: De Augment. Scient.,
cap. i, lib. iii.] and he considers the faculty which perceives
them as the storehouse of axioms common to all knowledge. In the
infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because
language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the
true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the
relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and
secondly between perception and expression. Every original language
near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the
copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the
works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of
the creations of poetry.

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible
order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the
dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the
institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the
inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a
certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true, that partial
apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is
called religion. Hence all original religions are allegorical, or
susceptible of allegory, and, like Janus, have a double face of
false and true. Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and
nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs
of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises
and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely
the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which
present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in
the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the
fruit of latest time. Not that I assert poets to be prophets in
the gross sense of the word, or that they can foretell the form as
surely as they foreknow the spirit of events: such is the pretence
of superstition, which would make poetry an attribute of prophecy,
rather than prophecy an attribute of poetry. A poet participates
in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to
his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical
forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons,
and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the
highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of
Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante's Paradise, would afford,
more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits
of this essay did not forbid citation. The creations of sculpture,
painting, and music, are illustrations still more decisive.

Language, colour, form, and religious and civil habits of action,
are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called
poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a
synonym of the cause. But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses
those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language,
which are created by that imperial faculty; whose throne is curtained
within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature
itself of language, which is a more direct representation of the
actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible
of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or
motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that
faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily
produced by the imagination and has relation to thoughts alone;
but all other materials, instruments and conditions of art, have
relations among each other, which limit and interpose between
conception and expression The former is as a mirror which reflects,
the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are
mediums of communication. Hence the fame of sculptors, painters,
and musicians, although the intrinsic powers of the great masters
of these arts may yield in no degree to that of those who have
employed language as the hieroglyphic of their thoughts, has never
equalled that of poets in the restricted sense of the term, as
two performers of equal skill will produce unequal effects from a
guitar and a harp. The fame of legislators and founders of religions,
so long as their institutions last, alone seems to exceed that of
poets in the restricted sense; but it can scarcely be a question,
whether, if we deduct the celebrity which their flattery of the
gross opinions of the vulgar usually conciliates, together with
that which belonged to them in their higher character of poets,
any excess will remain.

We have thus circumscribed the word poetry within the limits of that
art which is the most familiar and the most perfect expression of
the faculty itself. It is necessary, however, to make the circle
still narrower, and to determine the distinction between measured
and unmeasured language; for the popular division into prose and
verse is inadmissible in accurate philosophy.

Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both between each other
and towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order
of those relations has always been found connected with a perception
of the order of the relations of thoughts. Hence the language of
poets has ever affected a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence
of sound, without which it were not poetry, and which is scarcely
less indispensable to the communication of its influence, than the
words themselves, without reference to that peculiar order. Hence
the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a
crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour
and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the
creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed,
or it will bear no flower--and this is the burthen of the curse of
Babel.

An observation of the regular mode of the recurrence of harmony
in the language of poetical minds, together with its relation to
music, produced metre, or a certain system of traditional forms of
harmony and language. Yet it is by no means essential that a poet
should accommodate his language to this traditional form, so that the
harmony, which is its spirit, be observed. The practice is indeed
convenient and popular, and to be preferred, especially in such
composition as includes much action: but every great poet must
inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the
exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction
between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error. The distinction
between philosophers and poets has been anticipated. Plato was
essentially a poet--the truth and splendour of his imagery, and the
melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible
to conceive. He rejected the measure of the epic, dramatic, and
lyrical forms, because he sought to kindle a harmony in thoughts
divested of shape and action, and he forbore to invent any regular
plan of rhythm which would include, under determinate forms, the
varied pauses of his style. Cicero sought to imitate the cadence
of his periods, but with little success. Lord Bacon was a poet.
[Footnote: See the Filum Labyrinthi, and the Essay on Death
particularly]. His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which
satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom
of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which
distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader's mind,
and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element
with which it has perpetual sympathy. All the authors of revolutions
in opinion are not only necessarily poets as they are inventors,
nor even as their words unveil the permanent analogy of things
by images which participate in the life of truth; but as their
periods are harmonious and rhythmical, and contain in themselves
the elements of verse; being the echo of the eternal music. Nor are
those supreme poets, who have employed traditional forms of rhythm
on account of the form and action of their subjects, less capable
of perceiving and teaching the truth of things, than those who
have omitted that form. Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton (to confine
ourselves to modern writers) are philosophers of the very loftiest
power.

A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.
There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story
is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other connexion
than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the
creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human
nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself
the image of all other minds. The one is partial, and applies only
to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events
which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains
within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions
have place in the possible varieties of human nature. Time, which
destroys the beauty and the use of the story of particular facts,
stripped of the poetry which should invest them, augments that of
poetry, and for ever develops new and wonderful applications of the
eternal truth which it contains. Hence epitomes have been called
the moths of just history; they eat out the poetry of it. A story
of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that
which should be beautiful: poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful
that which is distorted.

The parts of a composition may be poetical, without the composition
as a whole being a poem. A single sentence may be a considered as
a whole, though it may be found in the midst of a series of unassimilated
portions: a single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable
thought. And thus all the great historians, Herodotus, Plutarch,
Livy, were poets; and although, the plan of these writers, especially
that of Livy, restrained them; from developing this faculty in
its highest degree, they made copious and ample amends for their
subjection, by filling all the interstices of their subjects with
living images.

Having determined what is poetry, and who are poets, let us proceed
to estimate its effects upon society.

Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure: all spirits on which it
falls open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with
its delight. In the infancy of the world, neither poets themselves
nor their auditors are fully aware of the excellence of poetry:
for it acts in a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above
consciousness; and it is reserved for future generations to contemplate
and measure the mighty cause and effect in all the strength and
splendour of their union. Even in modern times, no living poet ever
arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgement
upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed
of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of
the wise of many generations. A poet is a nightingale, who sits
in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds;
his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen
musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not
whence or why. The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were the
delight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that social
system which is the column upon which all succeeding civilization
has reposed. Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in
human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses
were awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector,
and Ulysses the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and
persevering devotion to an object, were unveiled to the depths in
these immortal creations: the sentiments of the auditors must have
been refined and enlarged by a sympathy with such great and lovely
impersonations, until from admiring they imitated, and from imitation
they identified themselves with the objects of their admiration.
Nor let it be objected, that these characters are remote from moral
perfection, and that they can by no means be considered as edifying
patterns for general imitation. Every epoch, under names more
or less specious, has deified its peculiar errors; Revenge is the
naked idol of the worship of a semi-barbarous age; and Self-deceit
is the veiled image of unknown evil, before which luxury and satiety
lie prostrate. But a poet considers the vices of his contemporaries
as a temporary dress in which his creations must be arrayed, and
which cover without concealing the eternal proportions of their
beauty. An epic or dramatic personage is understood to wear them
around his soul, as he may the ancient armour or the modern uniform
around his body; whilst it is easy to conceive a dress more graceful
than either. The beauty of the internal nature cannot be so far
concealed by its accidental vesture, but that the spirit of its
form shall communicate itself to the very disguise, and indicate
the shape it hides from the manner in which it is worn. A majestic
form and graceful motions will express themselves through the most
barbarous and tasteless costume. Few poets of the highest class
have chosen to exhibit the beauty of their conceptions in its
naked truth and splendour; and it is doubtful whether the alloy
of costume, habit, &c., be not necessary to temper this planetary
music for mortal ears.

The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests
upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce
the moral improvement of man. Ethical science arranges the elements
which poetry has created, and propounds schemes and proposes
examples of civil and domestic life: nor is it for want of admirable
doctrines that men hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive,
and subjugate one another. But poetry acts in another and diviner
manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it
the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.
Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes
familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all
that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian
light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once
contemplated them as memorials of that gentle and exalted content
which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it
coexists. The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our
own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful
which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man,
to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he
must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the
pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great
instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers
to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the
circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thought of
ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating
to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals
and interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food. Poetry
strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature
of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet
therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and
wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical
creations, which participate in neither By this assumption of the
inferior office of interpreting the effect in which perhaps after
all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a
glory in a participation in the cause. There was little danger that
Homer, or any of the eternal poets should have so far misunderstood
themselves as to have abdicated this throne of their widest dominion.
Those in whom the poetical faculty, though great, is less intense,
as Euripides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a
moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact
proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this
purpose.

Homer and the cyclic poets were followed at a certain interval
by the dramatic and lyrical poets of Athens, who flourished
contemporaneously with all that is most perfect in the kindred
expressions of the poetical faculty; architecture, painting, music
the dance, sculpture, philosophy, and, we may add, the forms of
civil life. For although the scheme of Athenian society was deformed
by many imperfections which the poetry existing in chivalry and
Christianity has erased from the habits and institutions of modern
Europe; yet never at any other period has so much energy, beauty,
and virtue, been developed; never was blind strength and stubborn
form so disciplined and rendered subject to the will of man, or
that will less repugnant to the dictates of the beautiful and the
true, as during the century which preceded the death of Socrates.
Of no other epoch in the history of our species have we records
and fragments stamped so visibly with the image of the divinity in
man. But it is poetry alone, in form, in action, or in language,
which has rendered this epoch memorable above all others, and the
storehouse of examples to everlasting time. For written poetry
existed at that epoch simultaneously with the other arts, and it is
an idle inquiry to demand which gave and which received the light,
which all, as from a common focus, have scattered over the darkest
periods of succeeding time. We know no more of cause and effect than
a constant conjunction of events: poetry is ever found to coexist
with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection
of man. I appeal to what has already been established to distinguish
between the cause and the effect.

It was at the period here adverted to, that the drama had its birth;
and however a succeeding writer may have equalled or surpassed
those few great specimens of the Athenian drama which have been
preserved to us, it is indisputable that the art itself never was
understood or practised according to the true philosophy of it,
as at Athens. For the Athenians employed language, action, music,
painting, the dance, and religious institutions, to produce a common
effect in the representation of the highest idealisms of passion
and of power; each division in the art was made perfect in its kind
by artists of the most consummate skill, and was disciplined into
a beautiful proportion and unity one towards the other. On the modern
stage a few only of the elements capable of expressing the image
of the poet's conception are employed at once. We have tragedy
without music and dancing; and music and dancing without the highest
impersonations of which they are the fit accompaniment, and both
without religion and solemnity. Religious institution has indeed
been usually banished from the stage. Our system of divesting the
actor's face of a mask, on which the many expressions appropriated
to his dramatic character might be moulded into one permanent
and unchanging expression, is favourable only to a partial and
inharmonious effect; it is fit for nothing but a monologue, where
all the attention may be directed to some great master of ideal
mimicry. The modern practice of blending comedy with tragedy,
though liable to great abuse in point of practice, is undoubtedly
an extension of the dramatic circle; but the comedy should be
as in KING LEAR, universal, ideal, and sublime. It is perhaps the
intervention of this principle which determines the balance in
favour of KING LEAR against the OEDIPUS TYRANNUS or the AGAMEMNON,
or, if you will, the trilogies with which they are connected; unless
the intense power of the choral poetry, especially that of the
latter, should be considered as restoring the equilibrium. KING
LEAR, if it can sustain this comparison, may be judged to be the
most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world;
in spite of the narrow conditions to which the poet was subjected
by the ignorance of the philosophy of the drama which has prevailed
in modern Europe. Calderon, in his religious AUTOS, has attempted
to fulfil some of the high conditions of dramatic representation
neglected by Shakespeare; such as the establishing a relation
between the drama and religion and the accommodating them to music
and dancing; but he omits the observation of conditions still
more important, and more is lost than gained by the substitution
of the rigidly-defined and ever-repeated idealisms of a distorted
superstition for the living impersonations of the truth of human
passion.

But I digress.--The connexion of scenic exhibitions with the
improvement or corruption of the manners of men, has been universally
recognized: in other words, the presence or absence of poetry in
its most perfect and universal form, has been found to be connected
with good and evil in conduct or habit. The corruption which has
been imputed to the drama as an effect, begins when the poetry
employed in its constitution ends: I appeal to the history of manners
whether the periods of the growth of the one and the decline of the
other have not corresponded with an exactness equal to any example
of moral cause and effect.

The drama at Athens, or wheresoever else it may have approached
to its perfection, ever co-existed with the moral and intellectual
greatness of the age. The tragedies of the Athenian poets are
as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin
disguise of circumstance, stript of all but that ideal perfection
and energy which every one feels to be the internal type of all that
he loves, admires, and would become. The imagination is enlarged
by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend
in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived;
the good affections are strengthened by pity, indignation, terror,
and sorrow; and an exalted calm is prolonged from the satiety of
this high exercise of them into the tumult of familiar life: even
crime is disarmed of half its horror and all its contagion by being
represented as the fatal consequence of the unfathomable agencies
of nature; error is thus divested of its wilfulness; men can no
longer cherish it as the creation of their choice. In a drama of
the highest order there is little food for censure or hatred; it
teaches rather self-knowledge and self-respect. Neither the eye
nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that which it
resembles. The drama, so long as it continues to express poetry, is
as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest
rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from the
simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with majesty
and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with
the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.

But in periods of the decay of social life, the drama sympathizes
with that decay. Tragedy becomes a cold imitation of the form of
the great masterpieces of antiquity, divested of all harmonious
accompaniment of the kindred arts; and often the very form
misunderstood, or a weak attempt to teach certain doctrines, which
the writer considers as moral truths; and which are usually no
more than specious flatteries of some gross vice or weakness, with
which the author, in common with his auditors, are infected. Hence
what has been called the classical and domestic drama. Addison's
CATO is a specimen of the one; and would it were not superfluous
to cite examples of the other! To such purposes poetry cannot be
made subservient. Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed,
which consumes the scabbard that would contain it. And thus we
observe that all dramatic writings of this nature are unimaginative
in a singular degree; they affect sentiment and passion, which,
divested of imagination, are other names for caprice and appetite.
The period in our own history of the grossest degradation of the
drama is the reign of Charles II, when all forms in which poetry
had been accustomed to be expressed became hymns to the triumph of
kingly power over liberty and virtue. Milton stood alone illuminating
an age unworthy of him. At such periods the calculating principle
pervades all the forms of dramatic exhibition, and poetry ceases
to be expressed upon them. Comedy loses its ideal universality:
wit succeeds to humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph,
instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm, and contempt, succeed to
sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we Obscenity, which
is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, becomes, from
the very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting: it
is a monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings
forth new food, which it devours in secret.

The drama being that form under which a greater number of modes
of expression of poetry are susceptible of being combined than any
other, the connexion of poetry and social good is more observable
in the drama than in whatever other form. And it is indisputable
that the highest perfection of human society has ever corresponded
with the highest dramatic excellence; and that the corruption or the
extinction of the drama in a nation where it has once flourished,
is a mark of a corruption of manners and an extinction of the
energies which sustain the soul of social life. But, as Machiavelli
says of political institutions, that life may be preserved and
renewed, if men should arise capable of bringing back the drama
to its principles. And this is true with respect to poetry in its
most extended sense: all language, institution and form, require not
only to be produced but to be sustained: the office and character
of a poet participates in the divine nature as regards providence,
no less than as regards creation.

Civil war, the spoils of Asia, and the fatal predominance first of
the Macedonian, and then of the Roman arms, were so many symbols
of the extinction or suspension of the creative faculty in Greece.
The bucolic writers, who found patronage under the lettered tyrants
of Sicily and Egypt, were the latest representatives of its most
glorious reign. Their poetry is intensely melodious, like the odour
of the tuberose, it overcomes and sickens the spirit with excess
of sweetness; whilst the poetry of the preceding age was as a
meadow-gale of June, which mingles the fragrance all the flowers
of the field, and adds a quickening and harmonizing spirit of its
own, which endows the sense with a power of sustaining its extreme
delight. The bucolic and erotic delicacy in written poetry is
correlative with that softness in statuary, music and the kindred
arts, and even in manners and institutions, which distinguished the
epoch to which I now refer. Nor is it the poetical faculty itself,
or any misapplication of it, to which this want of harmony is to
be imputed. An equal sensibility to the influence of the senses
and the affections is to be found in the writings of Homer and
Sophocles: the former, especially, has clothed sensual and pathetic
images with irresistible attractions. Their superiority over these
succeeding writers consists in the presence of those thoughts which
belong to the inner faculties of our nature, not in the absence
of those which are connected with the external: their incomparable
perfection consists in a harmony of the union of all. It is not
what the erotic poets have, but what they have not, in which their
imperfection consists. It is not inasmuch as they were poets, but
inasmuch as they were not poets, that they can be considered with
any plausibility as connected with the corruption of their age. Had
that corruption availed so as to extinguish in them the sensibility
to pleasure, passion, and natural scenery, which is imputed to them
as an imperfection, the last triumph of evil would have been achieved.
For the end of social corruption is to destroy all sensibility
to pleasure; and, therefore, it is corruption. It begins at the
imagination and the intellect as at the core, and distributes itself
thence as a paralysing venom, through the affections into the very
appetites, until all become a torpid mass in which hardly sense
survives. At the approach of such a period, poetry ever addresses
itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed, and
its voice is heard, like the footsteps of Astraea, departing from
the world. Poetry ever communicates all the pleasure which men
are capable of receiving: it is ever still the light of life; the
source of whatever of beautiful or generous or true can have place
in an evil time. It will readily be confessed that those among the
luxurious citizens of Syracuse and Alexandria, who were delighted
with the poems of Theocritus, were less cold, cruel, and sensual
than the remnant of their tribe. But corruption must utterly have
destroyed the fabric of human society before poetry can ever cease.
The sacred links of that chain have never been entirely disjoined,
which descending through the minds of many men is attached to those
great minds, whence as from a magnet the invisible effluence is
sent forth, which at once connects, animates, and sustains the life
of all. It is the faculty which contains within itself the seeds
at once of its own and of social renovation. And let us not
circumscribe the effects of the bucolic and erotic poetry within
the limits of the sensibility of those to whom it was addressed.
They may have perceived the beauty of those immortal compositions,
simply as fragments and isolated portions: those who are more
finely organized, or born in a happier age, may recognize them as
episodes to that great poem, which all poets, like the cooperating
thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of
the world.

The same revolutions within a narrower sphere had place in ancient
Rome; but the actions and forms of its social life never seem to
have been perfectly saturated with the poetical element. The Romans
appear to have considered the Greeks as the selectest treasuries
of the selectest forms of manners and of nature, and to have
abstained from creating in measured language, sculpture, music, or
architecture, anything which might bear a particular relation to
their own condition, whilst it should bear a general one to the
universal constitution of the world. But we judge from partial
evidence, and we judge perhaps partially Ennius, Varro, Pacuvius,
and Accius, all great poets, have been lost. Lucretius is in the
highest, and Virgil in a very high sense, a creator. The chosen
delicacy of expressions of the latter, are as a mist of light which
conceal from us the intense and exceeding truth of his conceptions
of nature. Livy is instinct with poetry. Yet Horace, Catullus,
Ovid, and generally the other great writers of the Virgilian age,
saw man and nature in the mirror of Greece. The institutions also,
and the religion of Rome were less poetical than those of Greece,
as the shadow is less vivid than the substance. Hence poetry in
Rome, seemed to follow, rather than accompany, the perfection of
political and domestic society. The true poetry of Rome lived in
its institutions; for whatever of beautiful, true, and majestic,
they contained, could have sprung only from the faculty which creates
the order in which they consist. The life of Camillus, the death of
Regulus; the expectation of the senators, in their godlike state,
of the victorious Gauls: the refusal of the republic to make peace
with Hannibal, after the battle of Cannae, were not the consequences
of a refined calculation of the probable personal advantage to
result from such a rhythm and order in the shows of life, to those
who were at once the poets and the actors of these immortal dramas.
The imagination beholding the beauty of this order, created it out
of itself according to its own idea; the consequence was empire,
and the reward everliving fame. These things are not the less poetry
quid carent vate sacro. They are the episodes of that cyclic poem
written by Time upon the memories of men. The Past, like an inspired
rhapsodist, fills the theatre of everlasting generations with their
harmony.

At length the ancient system of religion and manners had fulfilled
the circle of its revolutions. And the world would have fallen into
utter anarchy and darkness, but that there were found poets among
the authors of the Christian and chivalric systems of manners and
religion, who created forms of opinion and action never before
conceived; which, copied into the imaginations of men, become as
generals to the bewildered armies of their thoughts. It is foreign
to the present purpose to touch upon the evil produced by these
systems: except that we protest, on the ground of the principles
already established, that no portion of it can be attributed to
the poetry they contain.

It is probable that the poetry of Moses, Job, David, Solomon, and
Isaiah, had produced a great effect upon the mind of Jesus and his
disciples. The scattered fragments preserved to us by the biographers
of this extraordinary person, are all instinct with the most vivid
poetry. But his doctrines seem to have been quickly distorted.
At a certain period after the prevalence of a system of opinions
founded upon those promulgated by him, the three forms into which
Plato had distributed the faculties of mind underwent a sort of
apotheosis, and became the object of the worship of the civilized
world. Here it is to be confessed that 'Light seems to thicken,'
and

The crow makes wing to the rooky wood,
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
And night's black agents to their preys do rouze.

But mark how beautiful an order has sprung from the dust and
blood of this fierce chaos! how the world, as from a resurrection,
balancing itself on the golden wings of knowledge and of hope, has
reassumed its yet unwearied flight into the heaven of time. Listen
to the music, unheard by outward ears, which is as a ceaseless and
invisible wind, nourishing its everlasting course with strength
and swiftness.

The poetry in the doctrines of Jesus Christ, and the mythology and
institutions of the Celtic conquerors of the Roman empire, outlived
the darkness and the convulsions connected with their growth and
victory, and blended themselves in a new fabric of manners and
opinion. It is an error to impute the ignorance of the dark ages to
the Christian doctrines or the predominance of the Celtic nations.
Whatever of evil their agencies may have contained sprang from the
extinction of the poetical principle, connected with the progress
of despotism and superstition. Men, from causes too intricate to be
here discussed, had become insensible and selfish: their own will
had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the
slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and
fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found
capable of CREATING in form, language, or institution. The moral
anomalies of such a state of society are not justly to be charged
upon any class of events immediately connected with them, and those
events are most entitled to our approbation which could dissolve
it most expeditiously. It is unfortunate for those who cannot
distinguish words from thoughts, that many of these anomalies have
been incorporated into our popular religion.

It was not until the eleventh century that the effects of the
poetry of the Christian and chivalric systems began to manifest
themselves. The principle of equality had been discovered and
applied by Plato in his Republic, as the theoretical rule of the
mode in which the materials of pleasure and of power, produced by
the common skill and labour of human beings, ought to be distributed
among them. The limitations of this rule were asserted by him
to be determined only by the sensibility of each, or the utility
to result to all. Plato, following the doctrines of Timaeus and
Pythagoras, taught also a moral and intellectual system of doctrine,
comprehending at once the past, the present, and the future condition
of man. Jesus Christ divulged the sacred and eternal truths contained
in these views to mankind, and Christianity, in its abstract purity,
became the exoteric expression of the esoteric doctrines of the
poetry and wisdom of antiquity. The incorporation of the Celtic
nations with the exhausted population of the south, impressed
upon it the figure of the poetry existing in their mythology and
institutions. The result was a sum of the action and reaction of
all the causes included in it; for it may be assumed as a maxim that
no nation or religion can supersede any other without incorporating
into itself a portion of that which it supersedes. The abolition of
personal and domestic slavery, and the emancipation of women from
a great part of the degrading restraints of antiquity, were among
the consequences of these events.

The abolition of personal slavery is the basis of the highest
political hope that it can enter into the mind of man to conceive.
The freedom of women produced the poetry of sexual love. Love
became a religion, the idols of whose worship were ever present.
It was as if the statues of Apollo and the Muses had been endowed
with life and motion, and had walked forth among their worshippers;
so that earth became peopled by the inhabitants of a diviner world.
The familiar appearance and proceedings of life became wonderful
and heavenly, and a paradise was created as out of the wrecks of
Eden. And as this creation itself is poetry, so its creators were
poets; and language was the instrument of their art: 'Galeotto fu
il libro, e chi lo scrisse.' The Provencal Trouveurs, or inventors,
preceded Petrarch, whose verses are as spells, which unseal the
inmost enchanted fountains of the delight which is in the grief of
love. It is impossible to feel them without becoming a portion of
that beauty which we contemplate: it were superfluous to explain
how the gentleness and the elevation of mind connected with these
sacred emotions can render men more amiable, more generous and wise,
and lift them out of the dull vapours of the little world of self.
Dante understood the secret things of love even more than Petrarch.
His Vita Nuova is an inexhaustible fountain of purity of sentiment
and language: it is the idealized history of that period, and those
intervals of his life which were dedicated to love. His apotheosis
of Beatrice in Paradise, and the gradations of his own love and her
loveliness, by which as by steps he feigns himself to have ascended
to the throne of the Supreme Cause, is the most glorious imagination
of modern poetry. The acutest critics have justly reversed the
judgement of the vulgar, and the order of the great acts of the
'Divine Drama', in the measure of the admiration which they accord
to the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The latter is a perpetual
hymn of everlasting love. Love, which found a worthy poet in Plato
alone of all the ancients, has been celebrated by a chorus of the
greatest writers of the renovated world; and the music has penetrated
the caverns of society, and its echoes still drown the dissonance
of arms and superstition. At successive intervals, Ariosto, Tasso,
Shakespeare, Spenser, Calderon, Rousseau, and the great writers
of our own age, have celebrated the dominion of love, planting
as it were trophies in the human mind of that sublimest victory
over sensuality and force. The true relation borne to each other
by the sexes into which human kind is distributed, has become
less misunderstood; and if the error which confounded diversity
with inequality of the powers of the two sexes has been partially
recognized in the opinions and institutions of modern Europe, we
owe this great benefit to the worship of which chivalry was the
law, and poets the prophets.

The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over
the stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world. The
distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival
Milton have idealized, are merely the mask and the mantle in which
these great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised.
It is a difficult question to determine how far they were conscious
of the distinction which must have subsisted in their minds between
their own creeds and that of the people. Dante at least appears to
wish to mark the full extent of it by placing Riphaeus, whom Virgil
calls justissimns unus, in Paradise, and observing a most heretical
caprice in his distribution of rewards and punishments. And Milton's
poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that
system, of which by a strange and natural antithesis, it has been
a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence
of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a
mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the
popular personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient cunning,
and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremest
anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial
in a slave are not to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed
by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued, are marked by
all that dishonours his conquest in the victor. Milton's Devil as
a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres
in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of
adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted
triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from
any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in
enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve
new torments. Milton has so far violated the popular creed (if this
shall be judged to be a violation) as to have alleged no superiority
of moral virtue to his God over his Devil. And this bold neglect of
a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy
of Milton's genius. He mingled as it were the elements of human
nature as colours upon a single pallet, and arranged them in the
composition of his great picture according to the laws of epic
truth; that is, according to the laws of that principle by which a
series of actions of the external universe and of intelligent and
ethical beings is calculated to excite the sympathy of succeeding
generations of mankind. The Divina Commedia and Paradise Lost have
conferred upon modern mythology a systematic form; and when change
and time shall have added one more superstition to the mass of
those which have arisen and decayed upon the earth, commentators
will be learnedly employed in elucidating the religion of ancestral
Europe, only not utterly forgotten because it will have been stamped
with the eternity of genius.

Homer was the first and Dante the second epic poet: that is,
the second poet, the series of whose creations bore a defined and
intelligible relation to the knowledge and sentiment and religion
of the age in which he lived, and of the ages which followed it:
developing itself in correspondence with their development. For
Lucretius had limed the wings of his swift spirit in the dregs of
the sensible world; and Virgil, with a modesty that ill became his
genius, had affected the fame of an imitator, even whilst he created
anew all that he copied; and none among the flock of mock-birds,
though their notes were sweet, Apollonius Rhodius, Quintus Calaber,
Nonnus, Lucan, Statius, or Claudian, have sought even to fulfil
a single condition of epic truth. Milton was the third epic poet.
For if the title of epic in its highest sense be refused to the
Aeneid, still less can it be conceded to the Orlando Furioso, the
Gerusalemme Liberata, the Lusiad, or the Fairy Queen.

Dante and Milton were both deeply penetrated with the ancient
religion of the civilized world; and its spirit exists in their
poetry probably in the same proportion as its forms survived in
the unreformed worship of modern Europe. The one preceded and the
other followed the Reformation at almost equal intervals. Dante
was the first religious reformer, and Luther surpassed him rather
in the rudeness and acrimony, than in the boldness of his censures
of papal usurpation. Dante was the first awakener of entranced
Europe; he created a language, in itself music and persuasion, out
of a chaos of inharmonious barbarisms. He was the congregator of
those great spirits who presided over the resurrection of learning;
the Lucifer of that starry flock which in the thirteenth century
shone forth from republican Italy, as from a heaven, into the
darkness of the benighted world. His very words are instinct with
spirit; each is as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable
thought; and many yet lie covered in the ashes of their birth, and
pregnant with a lightning which has yet found no conductor. All
high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained
all oaks potentially. Veil after veil may be undrawn, and the
inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed. A great poem
is a fountain for ever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and
delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its
divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to
share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever
developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight.

The age immediately succeeding to that of Dante, Petrarch, and
Boccaccio, was characterized by a revival of painting, sculpture,
and architecture. Chaucer caught the sacred inspiration, and the
superstructure of English literature is based upon the materials
of Italian invention.

But let us not be betrayed from a defence into a critical history
of poetry and its influence on society. Be it enough to have pointed
out the effects of poets, in the large and true sense of the word,
upon their own and all succeeding times.

But poets have been challenged to resign the civic crown to reasoners
and mechanists, on another plea. It is admitted that the exercise
of the imagination is most delightful, but it is alleged that that
of reason is more useful. Let us examine as the grounds of this
distinction, what is here meant by utility. Pleasure or good, in a
general sense, is that which the consciousness of a sensitive and
intelligent being seeks, and in which, when found, it acquiesces.
There are two kinds of pleasure, one durable, universal and
permanent; the other transitory and particular. Utility may either
express the means of producing the former or the latter. In the
former sense, whatever strengthens and purifies the affections,
enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense, is useful. But
a narrower meaning may be assigned to the word utility, confining
it to express that which banishes the importunity of the wants of
our animal nature, the surrounding men with security of life, the
dispersing the grosser delusions of superstition, and the conciliating
such a degree of mutual forbearance among men as may consist with
the motives of personal advantage.

Undoubtedly the promoters of utility, in this limited sense, have
their appointed office in society. They follow the footsteps of
poets, and copy the sketches of their creations into the book of
common life. They make space, and give time. Their exertions are
of the highest value, so long as they confine their administration
of the concerns of the inferior powers of our nature within the
limits due to the superior ones. But whilst the sceptic destroys
gross superstitions, let him spare to deface, as some of the
French writers have defaced, the eternal truths charactered upon
the imaginations of men. Whilst the mechanist abridges, and the
political economist combines labour, let them beware that their
speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles
which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in
modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and
want. They have exemplified the saying, 'To him that hath, more
shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath
shall be taken away.' The rich have become richer, and the poor
have become poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between
the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. Such are the
effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the
calculating faculty.

It is difficult to define pleasure in its highest sense; the
definition involving a number of apparent paradoxes. For, from an
inexplicable defect of harmony in the constitution of human nature,
the pain of the inferior is frequently connected with the pleasures
of the superior portions of our being. Sorrow, terror, anguish,
despair itself, are often the chosen expressions of an approximation
to the highest good. Our sympathy in tragic fiction depends on this
principle; tragedy delights by affording a shadow of the pleasure
which exists in pain. This is the source also of the melancholy
which is inseparable from the sweetest melody. The pleasure that
is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself. And
hence the saying, 'It is better to go to the house of mourning, than
to the house of mirth.' Not that this highest species of pleasure
is necessarily linked with pain. The delight of love and friendship,
the ecstasy of the admiration of nature, the joy of the perception
and still more of the creation of poetry, is often wholly unalloyed.

The production and assurance of pleasure in this highest sense
is true utility. Those who produce and preserve this pleasure are
poets or poetical philosophers.

The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, [Footnote:
Although Rousseau has been thus classed, he was essentially a
poet. The others, even Voltaire, were mere reasoners.] and their
disciples, in favour of oppressed and deluded humanity, are entitled
to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree
of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have
exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would have
been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women,
and children, burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have
been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition
in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have
been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch,
Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton,
had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been
born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival
of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no
monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if
the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished
together with its belief. The human mind could never, except by
the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the
invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical
reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted
to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative
faculty itself.

We have more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know
how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical
knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the
produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought,
is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes.
There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best
in morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what
is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we
let '_I_ DARE NOT wait upon I WOULD, like the poor cat in the adage.'
We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we
want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the
poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have
eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences
which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the
external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally
circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved
the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation
of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence
of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge,
is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and
combining labour, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?
From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should
have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam?
Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible,
incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.

The functions of the poetical faculty are two-fold; by one it
creates new materials of knowledge and power and pleasure; by the
other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange
them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called
the beautiful and the good. The cultivation of poetry is never more
to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish
and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of
external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them
to the internal laws of human nature. The body has then become too
unwieldy for that which animates it.

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and
circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science,
and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same
time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is
that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that
which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds
from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the
scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface
and bloom of all things; it is as the odour and the colour of the
rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form
and splendour of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and
corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship--what
were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what
were our consolations on this side of the grave--and what were our
aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and
fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of
calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a
power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A
man cannot say, 'I will compose poetry.' The greatest poet even cannot
say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some
invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory
brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a
flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious
portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or
its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original
purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the
results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the
decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated
to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions
of the poet. I appeal to the greatest poets of the present day,
whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of
poetry are produced by labour and study. The toil and the delay
recommended by critics, can be justly interpreted to mean no more
than a careful observation of the inspired moments, and an artificial
connexion of the spaces between their suggestions by the intertexture
of conventional expressions; a necessity only imposed by the
limitedness of the poetical faculty itself; for Milton conceived
the Paradise Lost as a whole before he executed it in portions; We
have his own authority also for the muse having 'dictated' to him
the 'unpremeditated song'. And let this be an answer to those who
would allege the fifty-six various readings of the first line of
the Orlando Furioso. Compositions so produced are to poetry what
mosaic is to painting. This instinct and intuition of the poetical
faculty, is still more observable in the plastic and pictorial arts;
a great statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as
a child in the mother's womb; and the very mind which directs the
hands in formation is incapable of accounting to itself for the
origin, the gradations, or the media of the process.

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest
and best minds. We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought
and feeling sometimes associated with place or person, sometimes
regarding our own mind alone, and always arising unforeseen
and departing unbidden, but elevating and delightful beyond all
expression; so that even in the desire and regret they leave, there
cannot but be pleasure, participating as it does in the nature
of its object. It is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner
nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind
over the sea, which the coming calm erases, and whose traces remain
only, as on the wrinkled sand which paves it. These and corresponding
conditions of being are experienced principally by those of the
most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination; and the
state of mind produced by them is at war with every base desire.
The enthusiasm of virtue, love, patriotism, and friendship,
is essentially linked with such emotions; and whilst they last,
self appears as what it is, an atom to a universe. Poets are not
only subject to these experiences as spirits of the most refined
organization, but they can colour all that they combine with the
evanescent hues of this ethereal world; a word, a trait in the
representation of a scene or a passion, will touch the enchanted
chord, and reanimate, in those who have ever experienced these
emotions, the sleeping, the cold, the buried image of the past.
Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in
the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the
interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form,
sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy
to those with whom their sisters abide--abide, because there is
no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they
inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the
visitations of the divinity in man.

Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that
which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most
deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure,
eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light yoke,
all irreconcilable things. It transmutes all that it touches, and
every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed
by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it
breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous
waters which flow from death through life; it strips the veil of
familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping
beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.

All things exist as they are perceived; at least in relation to
the percipient. 'The mind is its own place, and of itself can make
a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.' But poetry defeats the curse
which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding
impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain,
or withdraws life's dark veil from before the scene of things, it
equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the
inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos.
It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and
percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity
which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to
feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It
creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our
minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.
It justifies the bold and true words of Tasso: Non merita nome di
creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta.

A poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure,
virtue and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the
best, the wisest, and the most illustrious of men. As to his glory,
let time be challenged to declare whether the fame of any other
institutor of human life be comparable to that of a poet. That
he is the wisest, the happiest, and the best, inasmuch as he is
a poet, is equally incontrovertible: the greatest poets have been
men of the most spotless virtue, of the most consummate prudence,
and, if we would look into the interior of their lives, the most
fortunate of men: and the exceptions, as they regard those who
possessed the poetic faculty in a high yet inferior degree, will
be found on consideration to confine rather than destroy the rule.
Let us for a moment stoop to the arbitration of popular breath, and
usurping and uniting in our own persons the incompatible characters
of accuser, witness, judge, and executioner, let us decide without
trial, testimony, or form, that certain motives of those who are
'there sitting where we dare not soar', are reprehensible. Let
us assume that Homer was a drunkard, that Virgil was a flatterer,
that Horace was a coward, that Tasso a madman, that Lord Bacon was
a peculator, that Raphael was a libertine, that Spenser was a poet
laureate. It is inconsistent with this division of our subject
to cite living poets, but posterity has done ample justice to the
great names now referred to. Their errors have been weighed and found
to have been dust in the balance; if their sins 'were as scarlet,
they are now white as snow'; they have been washed in the blood of
the mediator and redeemer, Time. Observe in what a ludicrous chaos
the imputation of real or fictitious crime have been confused in
the contemporary calumnies against poetry and poets; consider how
little is, as it appears--or appears, as it is; look to your own
motives, and judge not, lest ye be judged.

Poetry, as has been said, differs in this respect from logic, that
it is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind,
and that its birth and recurrence have no necessary connexion with
the consciousness or will. It is presumptuous to determine that
these are the necessary conditions of all mental causation, when
mental effects are experienced unsusceptible of being referred to
them. The frequent recurrence of the poetical power, it is obvious
to suppose, may produce in the mind a habit of order and harmony
correlative with its own nature and its effects upon other minds.
But in the intervals of inspiration, and they may be frequent
without being durable, a poet becomes a man, and is abandoned to
the sudden reflux of the influences under which others habitually
live. But as he is more delicately organized than other men, and
sensible to pain and pleasure, both his own and that of others, in
a degree unknown to them, he will avoid the one and pursue the other
with an ardour proportioned to this difference. And he renders
himself obnoxious to calumny, when he neglects to observe the
circumstances under which these objects of universal pursuit and
flight have disguised themselves in one another's garments.

But there is nothing necessarily evil in this error, and thus
cruelty, envy, revenge, avarice, and the passions purely evil, have
never formed any portion of the popular imputations on the lives
of poets.

I have thought it most favourable to the cause of truth to set down
these remarks according to the order in which they were suggested
to my mind, by a consideration of the subject itself, instead of
observing the formality of a polemical reply; but if the view which
they contain be just, they will be found to involve a refutation
of the arguers against poetry, so far at least as regards the first
division of the subject. I can readily conjecture what should have
moved the gall of some learned and intelligent writers who quarrel
with certain versifiers; I confess myself, like them, unwilling
to be stunned, by the Theseids of the hoarse Codri of the day.
Bavius and Maevius undoubtedly are, as they ever were, insufferable
persons. But it belongs to a philosophical critic to distinguish
rather than confound.

The first part of these remarks has related to poetry in its
elements and principles; and it has been shown, as well as the narrow
limits assigned them would permit, that what is called poetry, in
a restricted sense, has a common source with all other forms of order
and of beauty, according to which the materials of human life are
susceptible of being arranged, and which is poetry in a universal
sense.

The second part will have for its object an application of these
principles to the present state of the cultivation of poetry, and
a defence of the attempt to idealize the modern forms of manners and
opinions, and compel them into a subordination to the imaginative
and creative faculty. For the literature of England, an energetic
development of which has ever preceded or accompanied a great and
free development of the national will, has arisen as it were from a
new birth. In spite of the low-thoughted envy which would undervalue
contemporary merit, our own will be a memorable age in intellectual
achievements, and we live among such philosophers and poets
as surpass beyond comparison any who have appeared since the last
national struggle for civil and religious liberty. The most unfailing
herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people
to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry.
At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating
and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man
and nature. The persons in whom this power resides may often, as far
as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent
correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are
the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet
compelled to serve, the power which is seated on the throne of
their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the
most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled
with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure
the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a
comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves
perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for
it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the
hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the
gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words
which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing
to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is
moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of
the world.

THE END

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Sorry, no summary available yet.