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higher privileges, than to any other kind of literary composition, or any other mode of human language.
The next inquiry must therefore be, “ How " is the language of nature to be improved?" or rather, “ What are those improvements that “ peculiarly belong to the language of poetry?"
Natural Language is improved in Poetry by the use of
One mode of improvement peculiar to poetical diction results from the use of those words, and phrases, which, because they rarely occur in prose, and frequently in verse, are by the grammarian and lexicographer termed poetical. In these some languages abound more than others: but no language I am acquainted with is altogether without them; and perhaps no language can be so, in which any number of good poems have been written. For poetry is better remembered than prose, especially by poetical authors; who will always be apt to imitate the phraseology of those they have been accustomed to read and admire: and thus, in the works of poets, down through successive generations, certain phrases may have been conveyed, which, though originally perhaps in common use, are now confined to poetical composition. Prose writers are not so apt to imitate one another, at least in words and phrases; both because they do not so well remember one another's phraseology, and also because their language is less artificial, and must not, if they would make it easy and flowing, (without which it cannot be elegant), depart essentially from the style of correct conversation. Poets too, on account of the greater difficulty of their numbers, have, both in the choice and in the arrangement of words, a better claim to indulgence, and stand more in need of a discretionary power.
The language of Homer differs materially from what was written and spoken in Greece in the days of Socrates. It differs in the mode of inflection, it differs in the syntax, it differs even in the words; so that one might read Homer with ease, who could not read Xenophon; or Xe- , nophon, without being able to read Homer. Yet I cannot believe that Homer, or the first Greek poet who wrote in his style, would make choice of a dialect quite different from what was intelligible in his own time; for poets have in all ages written with a view to be read, and to be read
with pleasure; which they could not be, if their diction were hard to be understood. It is more reasonable to suppose, that the language of Homer is according to some ancient dialect, which, though not perhaps in familiar use among the Greeks at the time he wrote, was however intelligible. From the Homerick to the Socratick age, a period had elapsed of no less than four hundred years; during which the style both of discourse and of writing must have undergone great alterations. Yet the Iliad continued the standard of heroick poetry, and was considered as the very perfection of poetical language; notwithstanding that some words in it were become so antiquated, or so ambiguous, that Aristotle himself seems to have been somewhat doubtful in regard to their meaning. * And if Chaucer's merit as a poet had been as great as Homer's, and the English tongue under Edward the third, as perfect as the Greek was in the second century after the Trojan war, the style of Chaucer would probably have been our model for poetical diction at this day; even as Petrarcha, his contemporary, is still imitated by the best poets of Italy.
I have somewhere read, that the rudeness of
* Aristot. Poet. cap. 25.
the style of Ennius was imputed by the old criticks to his having copied too closely the dialect of common life. But this, I presume, must be a mistake. For, if we compare the fragments of that author with the comedies of Plautus, who flourished in the same age, and whose language was certainly copied from that of common life, we shall be struck with an air' of antiquity in the former, that is not in the latter. Ennius, no doubt, like most other sublime poets, affected something of the antique in his expression: and many of his words and phrases, not adopted by any prose writer now extant, are to be found in Lucretius and Virgil, and were by them transmitted to succeeding poets. These form part of the Roman poetical dialect; which appears from the writings of Virgil, where we have it in perfection, to have been very copious. The style of this charming poet is indeed so different from prose, and is altogether so peculiar, that it is perhaps impossible to analyse it on the common principles of Latin grammar. And yet no author can be more perspicuous or more expressive; notwithstanding the frequency of Grecism in his syntax, and his love of old words, which he, in the judgment of Quintilian, knew better than any other man how to improve into decoration.* * Quintil. Instit. viii. 3. $ 3.
The poetical dialect of modern Italy is so different from the prosaick, that I have known persons who read the historians, and even spoke with tolerable fluency the language of that country, but could not easily construe a page of Petrarcha or Tasso. Yet it is not probable, that Petrarcha, whose works are a standard of the Italian poetical diction,* made any material innovations in his native tongue. I rather believe, that he wrote it nearly as it was spoken in his time, that is, in the fourteenth century; omitting only harsh combinations, and taking that liberty which Homer probably, and Virgil certainly, took before him, of reviving such old, but not obsolete expressions, as seemed peculiarly sig. nificant and melodious; and polishing his style to that degree of elegance which human speech, without becoming unnatural, may admit of, and which the genius of poetry, as an art subservient to pleasure, may be thought to require.
The French poetry in general is distinguished from prose rather by the rhyme and the measure, than by old or uncommon phraseology. Yet the French, on certain subjects, imitate the style of their old poets, of Marot in particular; and may therefore be said to have something of
* Vicende della literatura del Denim, cap. 4.