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Biographical Notices, &c.
AUBREY DE VERE, Esq.
A GREATER error there can hardly be than that which regards poetry as an art conducive to pleasure only, or, at best, but to intellectual cultivation. Had it no higher function, it would but little deserve to be, what it has so often proved, the delight of youth, the inspiring companion of manhood, and the solace of age ;-it could never have attained that high place which has belonged to it, as one of the most influential powers for the education of the human race. Poetry may, indeed, be degraded; and very commonly the depth of the degradation is in proportion to the original height of what has thus been brought low :-painting, sculpture, and architecture, kindred arts, which work with inferior materials and within a narrower range, too often have been corrupted by the same malignant influences. But the effect of such degradation is ever the withdrawal of a gift sent to strengthen the human heart and to elevate human action; while the cause of it is to be found mainly in a low or a false estimate of that which has thus been shorn of its duties and functions.
It is the office of poetry, as Bacon tells us, to "submit the shows of things to the desires of the mind ;"—meaning by the latter expression, the aspirations of that mens melior, or nobler mind, which is the part of man that retains the image of God and thirsts for immortality. The world of sense, since the Fall, has lost the glory of that light which dwelt upon its countenance as it was first created. In poetry a portion of that light is restored; for poetry is an ideal art, which invests objects with a grandeur, a freedom, and a purity not their own. When we speak of “poetic Justice,” we refer to the fact, that in poetry we require a justice more palpable and swift than that which the eye discerns in the course of actual events. When we speak of poetic Truth, we refer to a truth essential and universal, and free from the accidents to which the detail of common things is, in appearance at least, subjected. Not less sacred is that Beauty of which the poets in every age have sung. It is nothing merely material, although it manifests itself in material things. From them it looks forth, as the soul looks forth from the face. It has been called “the smile of truth,” and justly; for it is one with goodness, and therefore with truth ; and while it expresses truth, it expresses her chiefly in her frankest, brightest, and most genial moods. To have no sense of the poetical is, so far as the imagination is concerned, to lack the happier and larger interpretation of all that lies around us. A merely prosaic version of human life is far from being the true one. Were it such, the Father of lights, Himself the Living Truth, would not, in creating man, have constituted the imagination one of his most powerful faculties ; -neither would He have taught by parables.
It is especially in youth that the cultivation of the poetic mind is useful. In its fruitful soil weeds will grow if the good seed be not sown. To unsensualise the mind is one of the great functions which belongs to elevated poetry. Poetry, says Milton, should be “simple, sensuous, and impassioned.” His meaning is, that although its origin is from an elevation far above that of the senses, it should notwithstanding so be drawn towards sensuous or visible objects with a certain generous “passion” or enthusiasm, as to penetrate them with its own higher life; while it receives from them in turn a fervour like that which belongs to real life, through which poetry stands distinguished from the colder world of abstract science. But if poetry thus descends to the sensuous, it is by a sort of condescension. It quits its native regions that it may help to harmonise the din of life, and to spiritualise the objects of sense. Amid those objects it reveals an inner world of beautiful and pathetic relations, which to the sensual eye remain as invisible as to the ken of the animal creation. If we have not learned in youth to penetrate thus into the moral meaning of all that lies around us, it is but too probable that in later life also we shall value them but as they address the senses. If we escape this danger, another remains behind. The world is as strong as the senses; and the conventional relations of things constitute often a prison, and a narrow one, of their own. Poetry is a deliverer from this tyranny of the arbitrary, the petty, and the sordid. It flings a radiance around the great realities of life, which renders it difficult for us to worship in their place the modes and fashions of society. It enlarges the heart through the imagination; it teaches us to sympathise ; it enables us to follow the fortunes of others in untried modes of being. It lifts us thus beyond the limits of a merely individual experience, and enfranchises us into the freedom of “no mean city.” In removing selfishness it imparts to us greatness ; or at least it takes away from us that feebleness which belongs often even to virtuous dispositions. The prosaic nature is the narrow, and, for the most part, the timid nature. It gropes its way, like the blind.
It has but imperfectly learned that language, wide and diffusive as light, through which the distant is brought near; or acquired that manysidedness of mind, so precious when joined with unity of principle and fixedness of heart.
There is hardly a virtue belonging to the youthful character which poetry does not help to train. Generosity, tenderness, and refinement of nature are especially cherished by it ; while the hardier virtues- -courage, perseverance, and self-sacrifice -the constituents of the heroic character-have at all times been the great objects to which it directs our admiration. There is nothing that exists in the outward life of man which does not find a mirror in poetry. Every tie that binds man to man, every kindly sympathy and cleansing affection, has been the poet's theme. Friendship and love, patriotism and piety, whatever is just and brave in action, whatever is pure in
passion or purifying in suffering, has supplied his inspiration. In his song the youthful heart rehearses life. It braces itself