Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

lines. If the lake was ever sounded from Chilor, it was probably sounded in metres, not fathoms. This is an addition of another particular detail, in which the only compliance with Reynolds's requirement is, that there is some chance of its being an inaccurate one.

“From Chillon's Snow-White battlement.”

Why snow-white? Because castle battlements are not usually snow-white. This is another added detail, and a detail quite peculiar to Chillon, and therefore exactly the most striking word in the whole passage. “Battlement!” why battlement? Because all walls have not battlements, and the addition of the term marks the castle to be not merely a prison, but a fortress. This is a curious result. Instead of finding, as we expected, the poetry distinguished from the history by the omission of details, we find it consist entirely in the addition of details; and instead of being characterized by regard only of the invariable, we find its whole power to consist in the clear expression of what is singular and particular! The reader may pursue the investigation for himself in other instances. He will find in every case that a poetical is distinguished from a merely historical statement, not by being more vague, but more specific, and it might, therefore, at first appear that our author's comparison should be simply reversed, and that the Dutch School should be called poetical, and the Italian historical. But the term poetical does not appear very applicable to the generality of Dutch painting; and a little reflection will show us, that if the Italians represent only the invariable, they cannot be properly compared even to historians. For that which is incapable of change has no history, and records which state only the invariable need not be written, and cculd not be read.

[ocr errors]

It is evident, therefore, that our author has entangled himself in some grave fallacy, by introducing this idea of invariableness as forming a distinction between poetical and his. torical art. We must not go on with our inquiry until we have settled satisfactorily the question already suggested to us, in what the essence of poetical treatment really consists. For though, as we have seen, it certainly involves the addition of specific details, it cannot be simply that addition which turns the history into poetry. For it is perfectly possible to add any number of details to a historical statement, and to make it more prosaic with every added word. As, for instance, “The lake was sounded out of a flat-bottomed boat, near the crab tree at the corner of the kitchen-garden, and was found to be a thousand feet nine inches deep, with a muddy bottom.” It thus appears that it is not the multiplication of details which constitutes poetry; nor their subtraction which constitutes history; but that there must be something either in the nature of the details themselves, or the method of using them, which invests them with poetical power or historical propriety.

It seems to me, and may seem to the reader, strange that we should need to ask the question, “What is poetry?” Here is a word we have been using all our lives, and, I suppose, with a very distinct idea attached to it; and when I am now called upon to give a definition of this idea, I find myself at a pause. What is more singular, I do not at present recollect hearing the question often asked, though surely it is a very natural one; and I never recollect hearing it answered, or even attempted to be answered. In general, people shelter themselves under metaphors, and while we hear poetry described as an utterance of the soul, an effusion of Divinity or voice of nature, or in other terms equally elevated and obscure, we never attain anything like a definite explana

tion of the character which actually distinguishes it from prose. I come, after some embarrassment, to the conclusion, that poctry is “the suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions.” I mean, by the noble emo tions, those four principal secret passions—Love, Veneration, Admiration, and Joy (this latter especially, if unselfish); and their opposites—Hatred, Indignation (or Scorn), Horror, and Grief—this last, when unselfish, becoming Compassion. These passions in their various combinations constitute what is called “poetical feeling,” when they are felt on noble grounds, that is, on great and true grounds. Indignation, for instance, is a poetical feeling, if excited by serious injury; but it is not a poetical feeling if entertained on being cheated out of a small sum of money. It is very possible the manner of the cheat may have been such as to justify considerable indignation; but the feeling is nevertheless not poetical, unless the grounds of it be large as well as just. In like manner, energetic admiration may be excited in certain minds by a display of fireworks, or a street of handsome shops; but the feeling is not poetical, because the grounds of it are false, and therefore ignoble. There is in reality nothing to deserve admiration either in the firing of packets of gunpowder, or in the display of the stocks of warehouses. But admiration excited by the budding of a flower is a poetical feeling, because it is impossible that this manifestation of spiritual power and vital beauty can ever be enough admired. / Farther, it is necessary to the existence of poetry that the grounds of these feelings should be furnished by the imagination. Poetical feeling, that is to say, mere noble emotion, is not poetry. It is happily inherent in all human nature deserv. ing the name, and is found often to be purest in the least . sophisticated. But the power of assembling, by the help of

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

the imagination, such images as will excite these fuelings, is the power of the poet or literally of the “Maker.”

* Take, for instance, the beautiful stanza in the “Affliction of Margaret "

“I look for ghosts, but none will force
Their way to me. 'Tis falsely said
That ever there was intercourse
Between the living and the dead;

For, surely then, I should have sight
Of him I wait for, day and night,
With love and longing infinite.”

This we call Poetry, because it is invented or made by the writer, entering into the mind of a supposed person. Next, take an instance of the actual feeling truly experienced and simply expressed by a real person.

“Nothing surprised me more than a woman of Argentière, whose cottage I went into to ask for milk, as I came down from the glacier of Argentière, in the month of March, 1764. An epidemic dysentery had prevailed in the village, and, a few months before, had taken away from her her father, her husband, and her brothers, so that she was left alone, with three children in the cradle. Her face had something noble in it, and its expression bore the seal of a calm and profound sorrow. After having given me milk, she asked me whence I came, and what I came there to do, so early in the year. When she knew that I was of Geneva, she said to me, “she could not believe that all Protestants were lost souls; that there were many honest people among us, and that God was too good and too great to condemn all without distinction. Then, after a moment of reflection, she added, in shaking her head, “But, that which is very strange, is that of so many who have gone away, none have ever returned. I, she added, with an expression of grief ‘who have so mourned my husband and my brothers, who have never ceased to think of them, who every night conjure them with beseechings to tell me where they are, and in what state they are ! Ah, surely, if they lived anywhere, they would not leave me thus! But, perhaps, she added, ‘I am not worthy of this kindness; perhaps the pure and innocent spirits of these children, and she looked at the cradle, “may have their presence, and the joy which is denied to me.’”—SAUSSURE, Voyages dans les Alpes, chap. xxiv.

This we do not call Poetry, merely because it is not invented, but the true itterance of a real person.

Now this power of exciting the emotions depends, of course, on the richness of the imagination, and on its choice of those images which, in combination, will be most effective, or, for the particular work to be done, most fit. And it is altogether impossible for a writer not endowed with invention to conceive what tools a true poet will make use of, or in what way he will apply them, or what unexpected results he will bring out by them; so that it is vain to say that the details of poetry ought to possess, or ever do possess, any definite character Generally speaking, poetry runs into finer and more delicate details than prose; but the details are not poetical because they are more delicate, but because they are employed so as to bring out an affecting result. For instance, no one but a true poet would have thought of exciting our pity for a bereaved father by describing his way of locking the door of his house:

“Perhaps to himself, at that moment he said,
The key I must take, for my Ellen is dead;
But of this in my ears not a word did he speak,
And he went to the chase with a tear on his cheek.”

In like manner, in painting, it is altogether impossible to say beforehand what details a great painter may make poetical by his use of them to excite noble emotions: and we shall, therefore, find presently that a painting is to be classed in the - great or inferior schools, not according to the kind of details which it represents, but according to the uses for which it employs them.

It is only farther to be noticed, that infinite confusion has been introduced into this subject by the careless and illogical custom of opposing painting to poetry, instead of regarding poetry as consisting in a noble use, whether of colors or words.- Painting is properly to be opposed to speaking or writing, but not to poetry. Both painting and speaking are methods of - - - 14

« ZurückWeiter »