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ness in a young man from the age of seventeen to that of four or five and twenty, provided I find him always arguing on one side of the question. The controversies, occasioned by my unfeigned zeal for the honour of a favourite contemporary, then known to me only by his works, were of great advantage in the formation and establishment of my taste and critical opinions. In my defence of the lines running into each other, instead of closing at each couplet; and of natural language, neither bookish, nor vulgar, neither redolent of the lamp, nor of the kennel, such as I will remember thee; instead of the same thought tricked up in the rag-fair finery of,
thy image on her wing Before my fancy's eye shall memory bring,
I had continually to adduce the metre and diction of the Greek poets from Homer to Theocritus inclusively; and still more of our elder English poets from Chaucer to Milton. Nor was this all. But as it was my constant reply to authorities brought against me from later poets of great name, that no authority could avail in opposition to Truth, Nature, Logic, and the Laws of Universal Grammar; actuated too by my former passion for metaphysical investigations; I laboured at a solid foundation, on which permanently to ground my opinions, in the component faculties of the human mind itself, and their comparative dignity and importance. According to the faculty or source, from which the pleasure given by any poem or passage was derived, I estimated the merit of such poem or passage. As the result of all my reading and meditation, I abstracted two critical aphorisms, deeming them to comprise the conditions and criteria of poetic style;first, that not the poem which we have read, but that
to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry ;-secondly, that whatever lines can be translated into other words of the same language, without diminution of their significance, either in sense or association, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious in their diction. Be it however observed, that I excluded from the list of worthy feelings, the pleasure derived from mere novelty in the reader, and the desire of exciting wonderment at his powers in the author. Oftentimes since then, in perusing French tragedies, I have fancied two marks of admiration at the end of each line, as hieroglyphics of the author's own admiration at his own cleverness. Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous undercurrent of feeling; it is every where present, but seldom any where as a separate excitement. I was wont boldly to affirm, that it would be scarcely more difficult to push a stone out from the Pyramids with the bare hand, than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Milton or Shakespeare, (in their most important works at least,) without making the poet say something else, or something worse, than he does say. One great distinction, I appeared to myself to see plainly between even the characteristic faults of our elder poets, and the false beauty of the moderns. In the former, from Donne to Cowley, we find the most fantastic out-of-the-way thoughts, but in the most pure and genuine mother English; in the latter the most obvious thoughts, in language the most fantastic and arbitrary. Our faulty elder poets sacrificed the passion and passionate flow of poetry to the subtleties of intellect and to the starts of wit; the moderns to the glare and glitter of a perpetual, yet broken and heterogeneous imagery, or rather to an amphibious some
thing, made up, half of image, and half of abstract 25 meaning. The one sacrificed the heart to the head; the other both heart and head to point and drapery./
The reader must make himself acquainted with the general style of composition that was at that time deemed poetry, in order to understand and account for the effect produced on me by the Sonnets, the Monody at Matlock, and the Hope, 26 of Mr. Bowles; for it is peculiar to original genius to become less and less striking, in proportion to its success in improving the taste and judgment of its contemporaries. The poems of West,27 indeed, had the merit of chaste and manly diction; but they were cold, and, if I may so
25 I remember a ludicrous instance in the poem of a young tradesman :
"No more will I endure love's pleasing pain,
26 [The Monody at Matlock was published in 1791, and the Vision of Hope in 1796. Ed.]
27 [Meaning of course, Gilbert West, the Translator of Pindar; to whose merit as a poet, it may be doubted whether the author does full justice in the text. West's two imitations of Spenser are excellent, not merely, as Johnson seems to say, for their ingenuity, but for their fulness of thought and vigour of expression. The following stanza is but one of many other passages of equal felicity :—
Custom he hight, and aye in every land
Usurp'd dominion with despotic sway
So soft and gentle doth he win his way
That she unwares is caught in his embrace,
And tho' deflower'd and thrall'd nought feels her foul disgrace.
express it, only dead-coloured; while in the best of Warton's 28 there is a stiffness, which too often gives them the appearance of imitations from the Greek. Whatever relation, therefore, of cause or impulse Percy's collection of Ballads may bear to the most popular poems of the present day; yet in a more sustained and elevated style, of the then living poets
28 [Thomas Warton; whose English poems, taken generally, seem as inferior to G. West's in correctness of diction as in strength of conception. Some of his Latin verse is beautiful;. and, if he had written nothing else, his epigram addressed to Sleep would perpetuate his name at least among scholars:
Somne veni; et quanquam certissima mortis imago es,
Huc ades, haud abiture cito: nam sic sine vita
Vivere quam suave est-sic sine morte mori!
A few stray lines of Warton's have crept into familiar use and application without ever being attributed to their author, such
while with uplifted arm
O what's a table richly spread
Nor rough, nor barren are the winding ways
Warton's best poem, as a whole, is the Inscription in a Hermitage:
Beneath this stony roof reclin'd, &c.
But his great work is the History of English Poesy, imperfect and inadequate as it is : τὸν τελοῦντα μένει.
It is somewhat remarkable that Mr. C. should not upon this occasion have mentioned Akenside, and, as compared with Warton, the beautiful Hymn to the Naiads. Ed.]
Cowper and Bowles 29 were, to the best of my knowledge, the first who combined natural thoughts with natural diction; the first who reconciled the heart with the head.
It is true, as I have before mentioned, that from
diffidence in my own powers, I for a short time adopted a laborious and florid diction, which I myself deemed, if not absolutely vicious, yet of very inferior worth. Gradually, however, my practice conformed to my better judgment; and the compositions of my twentyfourth and twenty-fifth years—(for example, the shorter blank verse poems, the lines, which now form the middle and conclusion of the poem entitled the Destiny of Nations,30 and the tragedy of Remorse)"—are not more below my present ideal in respect of the general tissue of the style than those of the latest date. Their faults were at least a remnant of the
29 Cowper's Task* was published some time before the Sonnets of Mr. Bowles; but I was not familiar with it till many years afterwards. The vein of satire which runs through that excellent poem, together with the sombre hue of its religious opinions, would probably, at that time, have prevented its laying any strong hold on my affections. The love of nature seems to have led Thomson to a cheerful religion; and a gloomy religion to have led Cowper to a love of nature. The one would carry his fellow-men along with him into nature; the other flies to nature from his fellow men. In chastity of diction however, and the harmony of blank verse, Cowper leaves Thomson immeasurably below him; yet still I feel the latter to have been the born poet.
30 [Poet. Works, I. 98. Ed.]
31 [Poet. Works, II. 153. Ed.]
[Cowper's Task was first published in 1785-his Table Talk in 1782. Ed. Thomson was born in 1700; published his works, collected in 4to, in 1730. The Castle of Indolence, his last piece, appeared in 1746. S. C.]