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If wit be well described by Pope, as being “ that " which has been often thought, but was never before “ so well expressed,” they certainly never attained, nor ever fought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction. But Pope's account of wit is undoubtedly erroneous : he depresses it below its natural dignity, and reduces it from strength of thought to happiness of language.
If by a more noble and more adequate conception that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it wonders how he missed ; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new, but Teldom natural ; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.
But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically confidered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of diffimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his mprovement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
From this account of their compositions it will be readily inferred, that they were not successful in representing or moving the affections. As they were wholly employed on something unexpected and surprising, they had no regard to that uniformity of sentiment which enables us to conceive and to excite the pains and the pleasure of other minds: they never enquired what, on any occasion, they should have said or done ; but wrote rather as beholders than par. takers of human nature ; as Beings looking upon good and evil, impassive and at leisure; as Epicurean deities, making remarks on the actions of men, and the vicissitudes of life, without interest and without emotion. Their courtship was void of fondness, and their lamentation of sorrow. Their wish was only to say what they hoped had been never said before.
Nor was the sublime more within their reach than the pathetick; for they never attempted that com- . prehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration. Sublimity is produced by aggregation, and littleness by dispersion. Great thoughts are always general, and consist in positions not limited by exceptions, and in descriptions not descending to minuteness. It is with great propriety that Subtlety, which in its original import means exility of particles, is taken in its metaphorical meaning for nicety of distinction. Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation. Their attempts were always analytick; they broke every image into fragments; and could no more repre
fent, by their slender conceits and laboured particu| larities, the prospects of nature, or the scenes of life,
than he who diffects a sun-beam with a prism can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon. , .
What they wanted however of the sublime, 'they endeavoured to supply by hyperbole ; their amplification had no limits; they left not only reason but fancy behind them ; and produced combinations of confused magnificence, that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined.
Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, is nerer wholly lost; if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth : if their conceits were far-fetched they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and · think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet,
nor assume the dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and hereditary fimilies, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility of fyllables.
In peruling the works of this race of authors, the mind is exercised either by recollection or inquiry : either something already learned is to be retrieved, or fomething new is to be examined. If their greatneis seldom elevates, their acuteness often surprises; if the imagination is not always gratified, at least the powers of reflexion and comparison are employed ; and in the mass of materials which ingenious absurdity has thrown together, genuine wit and useful knowledge may be sometimes found buried perhaps in grossness of expression, but useful to those who
ditv has thrown together, gelung
know their value ; and such as, when they are expanded to perfpicuity, and polished to elegance, may give luftre to works which have more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment.
This kind of writing, which was, I believe, borrowed from Marino and his followers, had been recommended by the example of Donne, a man of very extensive and various knowledge ; and by Jonson, whose manner resembled that of Donne more in the ruggedness of his lines than in the cast of his sentiments.
When their reputation was high, they had undoubtedly more imitators than time has left behind. Their immediate fucceffors, of whom any remembrance can be said to reinain, were Suckling, Waller, Denham, Cowley, Cleiveland, and Milton. Denham and Waller fought another way to fame, by improving the harmony of our numbers. Milton tried the metaphysic style only in his lines upon Hobson the Carrier. Cowley adopted it, and excelled his predeceffors, having as much sentiment and more musick. Suckling neither improved versification, nor abounded in conceits. The fashionable style remained chiefly with Cowley; Suckling could not reach it, and Milton disdained it.
CRITICAL REMARKS are not easily understood without examples; and I have therefore collected instances of the modes of writing by which this species of poets (for poets they were called by themselves and their admirers) was eminently diftinguished.
AS the authors of this race were perhaps more desirous of being admired than understood, they sometimes drew their conceiis from receffes of learning not very much frequented by common readers of poetry. Thus Cowley on Knowledge : The sacred tree 'midst the fair oichard grew;
The phoenix Truth did on it rest,
And built his perfum'd nest,
Each leaf did learned notions give,
And th’apples were demonstrative:
On Anacreon continuing a lover in his old age :
Love was with thy life entwin'd,
Tl’antiperiftalis of age
In the following verses we have an allufion to a Rabbinical opinion concerning Manna :
Variety 1 alk not: give me one
Thus Donne shews his medicinal knowledge in some encomiaftick verses :
In every thing there naturally grows
If ’t were not injur'd by extrinsique blows;