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Let no pious ear be offended if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. The doctrines of religion may, indeed, be defended in a didactick poem ; and he who has the happy power of arguing in verse, will not lose it because his subject is sacred. A poet may describe the beauty and the grandeur of nature, the flowers of the spring, and the harvests of autumn, the vicissitudes of the tide, and the revolutions of the sky, and praise the maker for his works, in lines which no reader shall lay aside. The subject of the disputation is not piety, but the motives to piety; that of the description is not God, but the works of God.
Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man, admitted to implore the mercy of his creator, and plead the merits of his redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.
The essence of poetry is invention ; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topicks of devotion are few, and, being few, are universally known; but, few as they are, they can be made no more ; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression.
Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the mind than things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts of nature which attract, and the concealment of those which repel the imagination: but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and such as it is, it is known already.
From poetry the reader justly expects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension and elevation of his fancy; but this is rarely to be hoped by christians from metrical devotion. Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the supreme being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted ; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be improved.
The employments of pious meditation are faith, thanksgiving, repentance, and supplication. Faith, invariably uniform, cannot be invested by fancy with decorations. Thanksgiving, the most joyful of all holy effusions, yet addressed to a being without passions, is confined to a few modes, and is to be felt rather than expressed. Repentance, trembling in the presence of the judge, is not at leisure for cadences and epithets. Supplication of man to man may diffuse itself through many topicks of persuasion; but supplication to God can only cry for mercy.
Of sentiments purely religious, it will be found that the most simple expression is the most sublime. Poetry loses its lustre and its power, because it is applied to the decoration of something more excellent than itself. All that pious verse can do is to help the memory, and delight the ear, and, for these purposes, it may be very useful; but it supplies nothing to the mind. The ideas of christian theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestick for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures, is to magnify, by a concave mirror, the sidereal hemisphere.
As much of Waller's reputation was owing to the softness and smoothness of his numbers, it is proper to consider those minute particulars to which a versifier must attend.
He certainly very much excelled in smoothness most of the writers who were living when his poetry commenced. The poets of Elizabeth had attained an art of modulation, which was afterwards neglected or forgotten. Fairfax was acknowledged by him as his model; and he might have studied with advantage the poem of Davies ", which, though merely philosophical, yet seldom leaves the ear ungratified.
But he was rather smooth than strong; of “ the full resounding line,” which Pope attributes to Dryden, he has
m Sir John Davies, en ed, Nosce Teipsum. This oracle expounded in two elegies; 1. Of Humane Knowledge: 2. Of the Soule of Man' and the Immortalitie thereof, 1599. R.
given very few examples. The critical decision has given the praise of strength to Denham, and of sweetness to Waller.
His excellence of versification has some abatements. He uses the expletive do very frequently; and, though he lived to see it almost universally ejected, was not more careful to avoid it in his last compositions than in his first. Praise had given him confidence; and finding the world satisfied, he satisfied himself.
His rhymes are sometimes weak words : so is found to make the rhyme twice in ten lines, and occurs often as a rhyme through his book.
His double rhymes, in heroick verse, have been censured by Mrs. Phillips, who was his rival in the translation of Corneille's Pompey; and more faults might be found, were not the inquiry below attention.
He sometimes uses the obsolete termination of verbs, as waxeth, affecteth ; and sometimes retains the final syllable of the preterite, as amazed, supposed, of which I know not whether it is not to the detriment of our language that we have totally rejected them.
Of triplets he is sparing ; but he did not wholly forbear them: of an alexandrine he has given no example.
The general character of his poetry is elegance and gaiety. He is never pathetick, and very rarely sublime. He seems neither to have had a mind much elevated by nature, por amplified by learning. His thoughts are such as a liberal conversation and large acquaintance with life would easily supply. They had, however, then, perhaps, that grace of novelty which they are now often supposed to want by those who, having already found them in later books, do not know or inquire who produced them first. This treatment is unjust. Let not the original author lose by his imitators.
Praise, however, should be due before it is given. The author of Waller's life ascribes to him the first practice of what Erythræus and some late criticks call alliteration, of using in the same verse many words beginning with the
same letter. But this knack, whatever be its value, was so frequent among early writers, that Gascoigne, a writer of the sixteenth century, warns the young poet against affecting it; Shakespeare, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, is supposed to ridicule it; and, in another play, the sonnet of Holofernes fully displays it.
He borrows too many of his sentiments and illustrations from the old mythology, for which it is vain to plead the example of ancient poets; the deities which they introduced so frequently, were considered as realities, so far as to be received by the imagination, whatever sober reason might even then determine. But of these images time has tarnished the splendour. A fiction, not only detected but despised, can never afford a solid basis to any position, though sometimes it may furnish a transient allusion, or slight illustration. No modern monarch can be much exalted by hearing that, as Hercules had his club, he has
But of the praise of Waller, though much may be taken away, much will remain; for it cannot be denied that he added something to our elegance of diction, and something to our propriety of thought; and to him may be applied what Tasso said, with equal spirit and justice, of himself and Guarini, when, having perused the Pastor Fido, he cried out “if he had not read Aminta, he had never excelled it."
As Waller professed himself to have learned the art of versification from Fairfax, it has been thought proper to subjoin a specimen of his work, which, after Mr. Hoole's translation, will, perhaps, not be soon reprinted. By knowing the state in which Waller found our poetry, the reader may judge how much he improved it.
Of her strong foes, that chas'd her through the plaine, And still pursu'd, but still pursu'd in vaine.
Yet still the fearfull dame fled, swift as winde,
On Iordans sandie bankes her course she staid,
And loue, his mother, and the graces kept
5. The birds awakte her with their morning song, Their warbling musicke pearst her tender eare, The murmuring brookes and whistling windes among The ratling boughes, and leaues, their parts did beare ; Her eies vnclos'd beheld the groues along Of swaines and shepherd groomes, that dwellings weare :
And that sweet noise, birds, winds, and waters sent, Prouokte againe the virgin to lament.