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ON THE FABLE, IMAGERY, AND ALLEGORY OF
Having considered, at some length, the merits and inventive powers of Addison in the delineation of humorous character, we shall now proceed to elucidate another striking feature in his writings, his love of fable, allegory, and oriental imagery.
No portions of the periodical compositions of our author have been more generally relished and admired than those which aim to instruct through the medium of narrative and fiction; and of these by far the greater part may be classed under the heads of Oriental Tales, Allegories, and Visions. To these Addison appears to have been greatly attached : “I have been always wonderfully delighted,” he observes,“ with fables, allegories, and the like inventions, which the politest and the best instructors of mankind have always made use of. They take off from the severity of instruction, and inforce it at the same time that they conceal it *.” As the exquisite propriety and beauty with which Addison conducted these fictions contributed in a very high degree toward rendering a taste for oriental fable more general, it will not be deemed irrelevant, if, previous to a particular enumeration of them, we offer a few observations on the peculiar character of oriental fiction, and on its introduction into Europe and this island.
The cultivation of oriental literature, which for the last half century has been prosecuted with uncommon ardour in this country, has furnished us with numerous and authentic specimens of the tales and poetry of the East, and has corrected many errors and prejudices formerly entertained relative to its language and imagery.
If we take Arabia as a province of the eastern world most fertile in the production of works of imagination, we shall find their fictions and poetry, though more bold and daring, both in incident and imagery, than the efforts of European fancy, yet extremely interesting, and sometimes pathetic. The vast, the wonderful, the wild, characterize, indeed, the major part of oriental fabling; but it is a mistake to suppose that these
* Tatler, No 90.
romantic incidents are delivered in bombastic and highly inflated language; the purer ages of Arabian literature were remarkable for sweetness and simplicity of style; and the diction ascribed as a general defect of eastern composition, applies merely to its modern and degraded state. “The English reader will perhaps be surprized to find in these productions,” remarks Professor Carlyle, alluding to his specimens of Arabian poetry,
so few of those lofty epithets and inflated metaphors which are generally considered as characteristic of the oriental mode of composition; he will probably be more surprized to hear, that during the flourishing periods of Arabian literature, this bombast style was almost unknown, and that the best writers, both of poetry and prose, expressed themselves in a language as chaste and simple as that of Prior or of Addison. True taste in composition is by no means restricted to certain ages or climates; for it is no more than good sense directed to a particular object, and will be found in every country, which is arrived at that point in civilization where barbarism has ceased, and fantastic refinement not yet begun. The writer who had obtained celebrity in the court of Bagdad during the splendour of the Khaliphat, would have smiled equally at the prosaic poetry of his European contemporaries, the Bards and Troubadours, and at the poetic prose of his own countrymen, the present orientals *.'
So early as the commencement of the seventh century of the christian era, the Arabian poetry and language had obtained considerable excellence; and from the age of Lebid, a poet contemporary with Mohammed, to the extinction of the Khaliphat by the Tartars in the 656th year of the Hegira, the compositions of the Arabians ceased not to do honour to their country and their genius.
During this illustrious period, and especially during the first five centuries of the Hegira, the elegant literature of the Arabians, both in prose and verse, was remarkable for its simplicity, energy, and beauty of style; and whether a poem or a tale were produced, true taste was seldom violated by the introduction of glaring metaphor or pompous language.
Of the pathos, and pastoral sweetness of the poetry of Arabia immediately anterior to the promulgation of Mohammedanism, the following elegy by Lebid Ben Rabiat Alamary, as translated by Professor Carlyle, is so exquisite a specimen, that I cannot withhold it from the reader ; especially as it brings so decisive a proof of that simplicity of style and tenderness of sentiment, which continued for so many centuries to grace the best compositions of Arabia. “Its subject,” says the Professor, « is one that must be ever interesting to a feeling mind-the return of a person, after a long absence, to the place where he had spent his early years—it is, in fact, an Arabian DESERTED VILLAGE.”
* Specimens of Arabian Poetry, Preface, p. 2,3,
Those dear abodes which once contain'd the fair,
Amidst Mitata's wilds I seek in vain,
But scatter'd ruins, and a silent plain.
Their course neglected and their waters gone,
Like moss-grown letters on a mouldering stone.
Its hallow'd circle o'er our heads hath roll’d,
And fondly listen'd to the tale I told ?
A never-failing stream, hath drench'd thy head ?
Or gentle drops, its genial influence shed ?
Hath caus'd thy locks with glittering gems to glow ?
To fall responsive to the breeze below?
Now clothe those meadows once with verdure gay;
The teeming antelope and ostrich stray: