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In all these respects, Mr. Pope's ethical epistles deserve to be mentioned with signal honour, as a model, next to perfect, of this kind of poetry. Here, perhaps, the strength of his genius appeared. In the more sublime parts of poetry, he is not so distinguished. In the enthusiasm, the fire, the force, and copiousness of poetic genius, Dryden, though a much less correct writer, appears to have been superior to him. One can scarcely think that he was capable of epic or tragic poetry; but within a certain limited region, he has been outdone by no poet. His translation of the Iliad will remain a lasting monument to his honour, as the most elegant and highly finished translation, that, perhaps, ever was given of any poetical work. That he was not incapable of tender poetry, appears from the epistle of Eloisa to Abelard, and from the verses to the memory of an unfortunate lady, which are almost his only sentimental productions; and which, indeed, are excellent in their kind. But the qualities for which he is chiefly distinguished are, judgment and wit, with a concise and happy expression, and a melodious versification. Few poets ever had more wit, and at the same time more judgment, to direct the proper employment of that wit. This renders his Rape of the Lock' the greatest masterpiece that perhaps was ever composed, in the gay and sprightly style; and in his serious works, such as his Essay on Man, and his Ethic Epistles, his wit just sufficiently discovers itself to give a proper seasoning to grave reflections. His imitations of Horace are so peculiarly happy, that one is at a loss, whether most to admire the original or the copy; and they are among the few imitations extant, that have all the grace and ease of an original. His paintings of characters are natural and lively in a high degree ; and never was any writer so happy in that concise spirited style, which gives animation to satires and epistles. We are never so sensible of the good effects of rhyme in English verse, as in reading these parts of his works. We see it adding to the style, an elevation which otherwise it could not have possessed; while at the same time he manages it so artfully, that it never appears in the least to encumber him; but, on the contrary, serves to increase the liveliness of his manner. He tells us himself, that he could express moral observations more concisely, and therefore more forcibly, in rhyme, than he could do in prose.
Among moral and didactic poets, Dr. Young is of too great eminence to be passed over without notice. In all his works, the marks of strong genius appear. His universal passion, possesses the full merit of that animated conciseness of style, and lively description of characters, which I mentioned as particularly requisite in satirical and didactic compositions. Though his wit may often be thought too sparkling, and his sentences too pointed, yet the vivacity of his fancy is so great, as to entertain every reader. In his Night Thoughts, there is much energy of expression; in the three first, there are several pathetic passages; and scattered through them all, happy images and allusions, as well as pious reflections, occur.
But the sentiments are frequently overstrained and turgid; and the style is too harsh and obscure to be pleasing. Among French authors, Boileau
has undoubtedly much merit in didactic poetry. Their later critics are unwilling to allow him any great share of original genius, or poetic fire.*
But his art of poetry, his satires and epistles, must ever be esteemed eminent, not only for solid and judicious thought, but for correct and elegant poetical expression, and fortunate imitation of the ancients.
From didactic, I proceed next to treat of descriptive poetry, where the highest exertions of genius may be displayed. By descriptive poetry, I do not mean any one particular species or form of composition. There are few compositions of any length, that can be called purely descriptive, or wherein the poet proposes to himself no other object, but merely to describe, without employing narration, action, or moral sentiment, as the groundwork of his piece. Description is generally introduced as an embellishment, rather than made the subject of a regular work. But though it seldom form a separate species of writing, yet into every species of poetical composition, pastoral, lyric, didactic, epic, and dramatic, it both enters and possesses in each of them a very considerable place; so that in treating of poetry, it demands no small attention.
Description is the great test of a poet's imagination; and always distinguishes an original from a second-rate genius. To a writer of the inferior class, nature, when at any time he attempts to describe it, appears exhausted by those who have gone before him in the same track. He sees nothing new, or peculiar, in the object which he would paint; his conceptions of it are loose and vague; and his expressions, of course, feeble and general. He gives us words rather than ideas; we meet with the language indeed of poetical description, but we apprehend the object described very indistinctly. Whereas, a true poet makes us imagine that we see it before our eyes; he catches the distinguishing features; he gives it the colours of life and reality: he places it in such a light that a painter could copy after him. This happy talent is chiefly owing to a strong imagination, which first receives a lively impression of the object; and then, by employing a proper selection of circumstances in describing it, transmits that impression in its full force to the imagination of others.
In this selection of circumstances lies the great art of picturesque description. In the first place, they ought not to be vulgar and common ones, such as are apt to pass by without remark; but, as much as possible, new and original, which may catch the fancy and draw attention. In the next place, they ought to be such as particularize the object described, and mark it strongly. No description, that rests in generals, can be good. For we can conceive nothing clearly in the abstract; all distinct ideas are forme: upon particulars. In the third place, all the circumstances employed ought to be uniform, and of a piece; that is, when describing a great object, every circumstance brought into view should tend to aggrandize; or, when describing a gay and pleasant one, should tend to beautify, that by this means, the impression may rest upon the imagination complete and entire: and lastly, the circumstances in description should be expressed with conciseness and with simplicity; for, when either too much exaggerated, or too long dwelt upon and extended, they never fail to enseeble the impression that is designed to be made. Brevity, almost always contributes to vivacity. These general rules will be best understood by illustrations, founded on particular instances.
* Vid. Poëtique Francoise de Marmontel.
Of all professed descriptive compositions, the largest and fullest that I am acquainted with, in any language, is Mr. Thomson's Seasons; a work which possesses very uncommon merit. The style, in the midst of much splendour and strength, is sometimes harsh, and may be censured as deficient in ease and distinctness. But notwithstanding this defect, Thomson is a strong and a beautiful describer; for he had a feeling heart, and a warm imagination. He had studied and copied nature with care. Enamoured of her beauties, he not only described them properly, but felt their impression with strong sensibility. The impression which he felt, he transmits to his readers; and no person of taste can peruse any one of his Seasons, without having the ideas and feelings, which belong to that season, recalied and rendered present to his mind. Several instances of Brost beautiful description might be given from him; such as, the shower in Spring, the morning in Summer, and the man perishing Il snow in Winter. But, at present, I shall produce a passage of another kind, to show the power of a single well chosen circumstance, to heighten a description. In his Summer, relating the effects of heat in the torrid zone, he is led to take notice of the pestilence that destroyed the English feet, at Carthageria, under Admiral Vernon; when he has the following lines :
-You, gallant Vernon, saw
L. 1050. All the circumstances here are properly chosen, for setting this dismal scene in a strong light before our eyes. But what is most striking in the picture, is, the last image. We are conducted through all the scenes of distress, til! we come to the mortality prevailing in the fleet, which a vulgar poet would have described by exaggerated expressions, concerning the multiplied trophies and victories of death. But, how much more is the imagination impressed, by this single circumstance of dead bodies thrown overboard every night; of the constant sound of their falling into the waters, and of the Admiral listening to this melancholy sound, so often striking his ear?
Heard nightly plunged, amid the sullen waves,
The frequent corse.* The culogiwn which Dr. Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, gives of Thom
Mr. Parnell's tale of the Hermit is conspicuous throughout the whole of it, for beautiful descriptive narration. The manner of the Hermit's setting forth to visit the world; his meeting with a companion, and the houses in which they are successively entertained, of the vain man, the covetous man, and the good man, are pieces of very fine painting, touched with a light and delicate pencil, overcharged with no superfluous colouring, and conveying to us a lively idea of the objects. But, of all the English poems in the descriptive style, the richest and most remarkable are, Milton's Allegro and Penseroso. The collection of gay images on the one hand, and of melancholy ones on the other, exhibited in these two small, but inimitably fine poems, are as exquisite as can be conceived. They are, indeed, the storehouse whence many succeeding poets have enriched their descriptions of similar subjects; and they alone are sufficient for illustrating the observations which I made, concerning the proper selection of circumstances in descriptive writing. Take, for instance, the following passage from the Penseroso :
I walk unseen
son, is high, and, in my opinion, very just : “ As a writer, he is entitled to c.le praise of the highest kind ; his mode of thinking, and of expressing his thoughts, is original His blank verse is no more the blank verse of Milton, or of any other poet, than the rhymes of Prior are the rhymes of Cowley. His numbers, bis pauses, his diction, are of his own growth, without transcription, without imitation. He thinks in a peculiar train, and he thinks always as a man of genius.' He looks round on nature and life, with the eye which nature bestows only on a poet; the eye that distinguishes in every thing presented to its view, whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained ; and with a mind, that at once comprehends the vast and attends to the minute. The reader of the Seasons wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him, and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses. His descriptions of extended scenes, and general effects, bring before us the whole magnificence of nature, whether pleasing or dreadful. The gayety of spring, the splendour of summer, the tranquillity of autumn, and the horror of winter, take, in their turn, possession of the mind. The poet leads us through the appearances of things, as they are successively varied by the vicissitudes of the year, and imparts to us so much of his own enthusiasm, that our thoughts expand with his imagery, and kindle with his sentiments. The censure which the saine eminent critic passes upon Thomson's diction, is no less just and well founded, that it is too exuberant, and may sometimes be charged with filling the ear more than the mind.'
Or let my lamp, at midnight hour,
in some high lonely tower,
In fire, air, flood, or under ground. Here there are no unmeaning general expressions; all is particular, a! is picturesque; nothing forced or exaggerated; but a simple style, and a collection of strong expressive images, which are all of one class, and recal a number of similar ideas of the melancholy kind: particularly the walk by moon-light; the sound of the curfewbell heard distant; the dying embers in the chamber; the bellman's call; and the lamp seen at midnight in the high lonely tower. We may observe, too, the conciseness of the poet's manner. He does not rest long on one circumstance, or employ a great many words to describe it; which always makes the impression faint and languid; but placing it in one strong point of view, full and clear before the reader, he there leaves it.
• From his shield and his helmet,' says Homer, describing one of his heroes in battle, From his shield and his helmet, there sparkled an incessant blaze; like the autumnal star, when it appears in its brightness from the waters of the ocean.' This is short and lively; but when it comes into Mr. Pope's hands, it evaporates in three pompous lines, each of which repeats the same image in different words:
High on his helm celestial lightningy play,
Like the red star that fires th' autumnal skies. It is to be observed, in general, that, in describing solemn or great objects, the concise manner is almost always proper. Descriptions of gay and smiling scenes can bear to be more amplified and prolonged, as strength is not the predominant quality expected in these. But where a sublime or a pathetic impression is intended to be made, energy is above all things required. The imagination ought then to be seized at once; and it is far more deeply impressed by one strong and ardent image, than by the anxious minuteness of laboured illustration. • His face was without form, and dark,' says Ossian, describing a ghost, the stars dim twinkling through his form ; thrice he sighed over the hero; and thrice the winds of the night roared around.'
It deserves attention, too, that in describing inanimate natural objects, the poet, in order to enliven his description, ought always to mix living beings with them. The scenes of dead and still life are apt to pall upon us, if the poet do not suggest sentiments and introduce life and action into his description. This is well known to every painter who is a master of his art. Seldom has any beautiful