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beautifying power of imagination is excited, which in some measure transmutes the forms of things from their actual pro
Clothing the palpable and the familiar
Still less can verse or metrical form be regarded as constituting the essence, or even one of the essentials, of poetry. It no doubt heightens its effect; it increases its charm and power of pleasing, by enlisting the aid of musical sound and cadence on the side of imaginative language or touching sentiment; but it must yet be regarded as amongst the externals of poetry,--something which will never make poetry of itself, and without which poetry is not only conceivable, but has in fact existed, and that in very striking and impressive forms.
Poetry may perhaps be defined to be an art which has creation of intellectual pleasure for its object, which attains its end by the use of language natural in an excited state of the imagination and the feelings, and generally, though not necessarily, formed into regular numbers. The proper antithesis, therefore, to poetry, as Mr Coleridge has remarked, is not prose, but science. The proper antithesis to prose is verse. Science seeks to instruct, to discover and to communicate truth; “ the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” Poetry may indeed incidentally instruct, as science may indirectly communicate pleasure; but the object of each must be gathered from its main direction and bearing, and in this sense the production of intellectual enjoyment is unquestionably the aim and the proper province of poetry.
But so closely are the intellectual and refined pleasures
of man connected with his moral qualities, so much does his relish for the higher and more spiritual pleasures of the imagination depend on a sound and healthy state of morality in the first instance, and so much is this state in turn promoted and encouraged by stimulating and keeping alive the activity of the imagination and the sensibilities of the heart, that poetry, though generally avoiding the form of direct instruction, may yet be said, with justice, to be the most important handmaid and assistant of moral education, by its appeals to those affections which are apt to become indolent and dormant amidst the commerce of the world, and the revival of those purer and more enthusiastic feelings which are associated with the earlier and least selfish period of our existence. Immersed in business, which, if it sharpen the edge of intellect, leaves the heart barren; toiling after material wealth or power, or struggling with fortune for existence; seeing selfishness reflected all around us from the hard and glittering surface of society, as from a cold and polished mirror ; it would go hard with man in adversity, perhaps still more in prosperity, if some resource were not provided for him, which, under the form of an amusement and a recreation, administered a secret but powerful balm in the one case, and an antidote in the other. This resource is afforded us by the influences of poetry. “ Whatever withdraws us from the power of the senses ; whatever makes the past, the distant, and the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of human beings.” Sometimes, no doubt, poetry openly assumes the garb of morality, but it is generally least instructive when most directly didactic, and practically attains the end of instruction with most success when the instructor is himself unconscious of the lesson he conveys. In an indi
rect form, however, and through the medium of the feelings and the imagination rather than the mere reason, its efficiency as a moral agent is great and undeniable. And as upon the intellectual worth and nobleness of individuals depends the standard of a national morality, it may with truth be said that the fame and character of nations,—those qualities the presence of which makes the smallest state conspicuous in the world's eye, and the absence of which renders the widest empire, on which the sun never sets, insignificant ; namely, national pride, honour, fidelity to engagements, courage to act, fortitude to suffer, a generous and far-seeing policy, disdaining all mean or questionable advantages ; are to some extent derived, and, at all events, continually cherished and fostered, by the influence of a pure and ennobling national poetry. If Plato had succeeded in banishing poets from his ideal republic, he would assuredly have conferred no benefit upon morals. He would have created a hard and utilitarian frame of society, inaccessible to generous feeling, and incapable of those great efforts, either of action or of endurance, which have their source only in enthusiasm, and cannot be suggested by any principle of expediency, however enlarged may be the basis of calculation.
It is the conviction of this intimate though indirect connection between poetry and morality, and the consequent bearing of the former upon human welfare, that explains the veneration which mankind have always felt for those poets who, acting under an impression of the sacredness of the task committed to them, and of the power of the talisman which genius has placed in their hands, have devoted their labours to the purest forms of poetry, and to the excitement of emotions, either virtuous in themselves, or conducive to
virtue. It is this conviction which accounts for the aversion which they have never failed in the end to manifest against all those who have made the fascinations of poetry and wit subservient to the gratification of baser feelings or meaner propensities. For men taken in the mass judge rightly, even when they act wrongly; and moral opinion, so variable and wavering when applied to our own case or that of our friends, is found a safe and steady guide when applied to the mere representation of human thought and action in the forms with which they are invested by the poet. Hence the feelings of all men are enlisted and warmly excited on the side of virtue in fictitious composition, and still more in the most fascinating form of fictitious composition, poetry. For here the tendency of the poem is felt to be no mere speculative question, but a real dispute “ pro aris et focis ;” a contest whether, as is said to be often the case in India, poison is to be conveyed into the wells from which pure and refreshing water ought to be drawn. And this practical bearing upon important interests, of the abuse of a fine art, is more felt, and justly, in poetry than in any other. In painting, for instance, Parrhasius, Julio Romano, Annibal Caracci, and Titian, have ministered by their pictures to the promotion of vice; some have even deavoured to pervert the pure marble into a vehicle of impure representations : but the circle of their operation is limited ; to the mass of men their iniquities of this nature are even unknown: but poetry, multiplied indefinitely by printing, finding its way into every quarter of the globe, and penetrating into the humblest as well as the highest class of society, has a sphere of operation bounded only by the globe itself, and a practical influence, through their sympathies, upon men's habits of thought, and consequently
upon their morality and their happiness, which is not the less certain and extensive, that its limits do not admit of any precise or distinct determination.
Hence it is a remarkable fact in the history of poetry, that no work essentially immoral, or even exhibiting a mere indifference to moral feeling, has ever maintained a permanent popularity. The low ribaldry which deforms the splendid talents of Aristophanes will always render the perusal of his plays a painful task; the witty licentiousness of the Pucelle is already all but forgotten ; and the next generation, while they treasure the better parts of Byron, will assuredly consign to oblivion much of his gloomy reasonings, his contempt for human nature, and his ridicule of generous feelings. The poets who are found to retain their hold over all hearts, and whose influence even appears to extend with the progress of ages, Homer, Shakspeare, Milton, Spenser, Calderon, Tasso, are those who have done their utmost to elevate rather than to depress the spirit and the hopes of men ; to make existence brighter about us, and to embody in their strains the principles of faith and hope, of purity and universal charity. For it need hardly be observed, that we are not to condemn a work as immoral on account of a few brief passages, in which the poet, led away by a too lively imagination, has admitted scenes or images of an objectionable kind. Such, indeed, are to be found in Shakspeare, and in the pure and religious poems of Spenser; more rarely also in Tasso ; but the general strain of the poem, and the obvious aim of the poet, being to promote the cause of virtue, the few objectionable particulars are lost in the general effect, and cease to be dangerous from their proximity to so much that is calculated to purify and to elevate the mind.