« AnteriorContinuar »
empire of thought, possesses all the most essential characteristics of poetry, and it would be unreasonable to consider that by adding to a composition of this kind the graces of rhythm, often in itself an aid to solemn feeling, it could be rendered less proper for the conveyance of serious and elevated sentiment.
So inadequate, indeed, have all nations found the language in ordinary use, to impress the popular mind with lofty or devotional thought, that both patriotism and religion have from the earliest ages employed poetry as the vehicle of their appeals. Custom, which has generally its birth in some strong, natural feeling, thus agrees with reason in pointing out the fitness of poetry, elevating both by the language to which it has a sort of prescriptive light, and by its association with music, for being employed as a medium of high moral instruction.
But the number of persons who feel disposed to doubt the propriety of using poetry as a channel of religious instruction, is incomparably less than that of those who deem that poetry, when so employed, must be of a less stirring, impassioned, or elevating nature than when engaged on themes of an earthly or temporary character. Nor is the error of this opinion less apparent than that already noticed. To suppose that subjects, sublime not only in their own nature, but in all the associations to which they give rise, can be unfit for poetry, is to contradict common sense. It is therefore, advisable, perhaps, to inquire how so untenable a notion could ever have gained ground. In doing this we shall readily discover that it had its rise in J "cry confined idea of poetry itself, in ignorance 01 its history, and the
triumphs effected by the most eminent masters of the art.
Objects of sense are usually of more general and ordinary interest than those of which the existence can only be discovered by the mind. Their beauty or deformity is recognized at a glance; it inspires instantaneous pleasure or dislike, and to possess, or avoid contact with it, is a feeling born with the first pulse of the he?rt. To comprehend, on the other hand, intellectual excellence or deformity, if not of the most common kind, requires a mind active, well chastened, clear in its vision, and possessing a fair and ready command over all the passages to the heart. It need not be said, that these requisites to the reception of what is intellectually good, or evil, are not the universal possession of mankind in their present state; and it hence follows that there is no comparison between the number of those who can be affected by representations which appeal strongly to their senses, and that of those who can take a deep and vivid delight in pictures of sensual pleasure, or objects of ordinary attraction. It is, therefore, to be expected that in every species of literature, the portions most conversant about matters which awaken the lowest order of our passions will be the most popular, and that the merit of such portions of literature will be appreciated with much greater facility than those of a higher class. Thus, in poetry, the ballad obtains a quicker popularity than the ode; the romance than the epic, the melo drama than the tragedy, and all these a more general admiration than compositions characterized by a strong spirit of devotion.
The fate, however, which attends the species of poetry to which I allude, is not in any respect an evidence of its wanting the purest and most essential qualities of song. There is no art of which the noblest triumphs will not be often unappreciated by the world. Music, when employed but in its simplest forms, seldom gives pleasure except to educated ears, and, which is perhaps more applicable to our present purpose, often fails to inspire so much delight by the grandest of its simple, solemn melodies, as by the most trifling airs. Painting, in the same manner, puts forth her sublimest powers in vain for a large mass of mankind, whose chief hindrance to their rightly estimating the glories of the art are a mingled levity and sensuality of feeling, which prevent their minds from participating in any sentiment, not low and gross as the generality of their ideas. Like those of music, its most wonderful productions, perhaps, can only be appreciated to the full extent of their worth by highly cultivated intellects, but like that too it has its election of religion, and many of its noblest efforts owe their excellency to the simple majesty conferred on them by the sublime, religious feeling of their authors.
To dispute, therefore, the genuine worth of that class of music or painting which is intended to inspire devotion, or to doubt the feasibility of combining the deepest feelings of piety with the inspiration of genius in those arts, would be to oppose the judgment of critics of every class and even of every temper. A strong probability is thus afforded, even before the examination of the subject, that the prejudice felt by some persons to religious poetry results from their not possessmg ei'jser sufficient elevation, or sufficient purity of spirit, *o comprehend the beauty of what is most intellec.ually excellent. Poetry, in fact, like both its sister arts, is the offspring of devotion, and for many ages knew only the language of its parent. As soon as it learnt others, and was condemned to the vassalage of th« world, it lost not only its dignity, but the best portion of its power over the heart. Its voice had been regarded as divine, its language as the sacred revelations of heaven to the human spirit, and the imagination of the poet was felt to be a species of inspiration; not indeed of the same nature as that by which supernatural truths are made known, but an impulse given to the heart and intellect, which enabled him who enjoyed it to unfold the beauty which lay wrapped up tn the mysteries of nature; to give an interpretation to her signs, and to explain the imperfect visions which rise from time to time in every human soul, but which pass away without instructing it, because they are seen dimly and uncertainly. This was the manner in which the art of the poet was regarded, when the works were produced which the noblest intellects of all subsequent ages have pronounced to be the most perfect of their kind; in which also the feeling of devotion is seen to predominate over all others, and from the influence of which on the minds of men in states of society less factitious than our own, Toetry won for its professors honours of the loftiest kind. The fleeting popularity which attends the most admired writers of modern days is a poor substitute for the veneration in which their predecessors
were held, and which they mainly acquired by the dignity that appeared in all their compositions, and which, as the effect of great elevation of mind in themselves, commanded while it elevated the minds of others.
But while I make these general suggestions on the subject, least of all, it may be observed, have we in this country, reason to suppose either that poetry is an unsuitable medium for the conveyance of religious sentthients, or that if it be employed for such a purpose, it must use a cold and inanimate style, ill calculated to satisfy minds accustomed to hear the Muse speak in the sweetest and most impassioned tones of thought and language. To the honour of our literature be it spoken, all our best and most celebrated writers, with one or two exceptions, have evinced a strong spirit of devotion and piety in their noblest compositions. Some of them, it is well known, drew their themes from the very oracles of sacred truth; and those whose subjects were of a different class, yet seem to have had their minds constantly lifted up above the common level even of genius, by a powerful feeling of religion. The names of Milton and Cowper will at once rise in the mind of the reader, but scarcely less to our purpose are those of Spenser and Thomson, who, though their poetry is not of a class which may be technically called religious, is happily very stronglv imbued with a religious spirit. There are few persons, who would venture to say that they would have the passages of a religious nature which occur in these poets blotted out; and the number is far less, of those who have any sense of what u beau