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NUMB. 92. SATURDAY, February 2, 1751.
Jam nunc minaci murmure cornuum
Lo! now the clarion's voice I hear,
vague and undefined, different in different minds, and diversified by time or place. It has been a term hitherto used to signify that which pleases us we know not why, and in our approbation of which we can justify ourselves only by the concurrence of numbers, without much power of enforcing our opinion upon others by any argument, but example and authority. It is, indeed, so little subject to the examinations of reason, that Pascal supposes it to end where demonstration begins, and maintains, that without incongruity and absurdity we cannot speak of geometrical beauty.
To trace all the sources of that various pleasure which we ascribe to the agency of beauty, or to disentangle all the perceptions involved in its idea, would, perhaps, require a very great part of the life of Aristotle or Plato. It is, however, in many cases, apparent that this quality is merely relative and comparative; that we pronounce things beautiful because they have something which we agree, for
whatever reason, to call beauty, in a greater degree than we have been accustomed to find it in other things of the same kind; and that we transfer the epithet as our knowledge increases, and appropriate it to higher excellence, when higher excellence comes within our view.
Much of the beauty of writing is of this kind; and therefore Boileau justly remarks, that the books which have stood the test of time, and been admired through all the changes which the mind of man has suffered from the various revolutions of knowledge, and the prevalence of contrary customs, have a better claim to our regard than any modern can boast, because the long continuance of their reputation proves that they are adequate to our faculties, and agreeable to nature.
It is, however, the task of criticism to establish principles ; to improve opinion into knowledge; and to distinguish those means of pleasing which depend upon known causes and rational deduction, from the nameless and inexplicable elegancies which appeal wholly to the fancy, from which we feel delight, but know not how they produce it, and which may well be teriped the enchantresses of the soul. Criticism reduces those regions of literature under the dominion of science, which have hitherto known only the anarchy of ignorance, the caprices of fancy, and the tyranny of prescription.
There is nothing in the art of versifying so much exposed to the power of imagination as the accommodation of the sound to the sense, or the representation of particular images, by the flow of the verse Vol. V. K
in which they are expressed. Every student has innumerable passages, in which he, and perhaps he alone, discovers such resemblances; and since the attention of the present race of poetical readers seems particularly turned upon this species of elegance, I shall endeavour to examine how much these conformities have been observed by the poets, or directed by the criticks, how far they can be established upon nature and reason, and on what occasions they have been practised by Milton.
Homer, the father of all poetical beauty, has been particularly celebrated by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as he that, of all the poets, exhibited the greatest variety of sound; for there are, says he, innumerable passages, in which length of time, bulk of body, ertremity of passion, and stillness of repose; or, in which, on the contrary, brevity, speed, and eagerness, are evidently marked out by the sound of the syllables. Thus the anguish and slow pace with which the blind Polypheme groped out with his hands the entrance of his cave, are perceived in the cadence of the verses which describe it.
Κύκλωψ δε σενάχων τε και ωδίνων οδύνησι, ,
The critick then proceeds to show, that the efforts of Achilles struggling in his armour against the current of a river, sometimes resisting and sometimes yielding, may be perceived in the elisions of the syllables,
the slow succession of the feet, and the strength of the consonants.
Δεινον δ' αμφ' Αχιλήα κυκώμενον πατο κύμα
So oft the surge; in wat'ry mountains spread,
When Homer describes the crush of men dashed ågainst a rock, he collects the most unpleasing and harsh sounds.
Συν δε δύω μάρμας, ώςε σκύλακάς αποτί γαιη
His bloody hand
And when he would place before the eyes something dreadful and astonishing, he makes choice of the strongest vowels, and the letters of most difficult utterance.
Tremendous Gorgon frown'd upon its field,
Many other examples Dionysius produces; but these will sufficiently show, that either he was fanciful, or we have lost the genuine pronunciation, for I know not whether, in any one of these instances, such similitude can be discovered. It seems, indeed, probable, that the veneration with which Homer was read, produced many supposititious beauties : for though it is certain, that the sound of many of his verses very justly corresponds with the things expressed, yet, when the force of his imagination, which gave him full possession of every object, is considered, together with the flexibility of his language, of which the syllables might be often contracted or dilated at pleasure, it will seem unlikely that such conformity should happen less frequently even without design. It is not however to be doubted, that Virgil
, who wrote amidst the light of criticism, and who owed so much of his success to art and labour, endeavoured, among other excellencies, to exhibit this similitude; nor has he been less happy in this than in the other graces of versification. This felicity of his numbers was, at the revival of learning, displayed with great elegance-by Vida, in his Art of Poetry.
Haud satis est illis utcunque claudere versum.