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Of the Sound of Poetical Language. IT is folly to prefer sound to sense. Yet the ear, like every other perceptive faculty, is capable of gratification; and therefore to the sound of words some regard is to be had, even in prose. For ill sounding language can never be agreeable, either to the hearer or to the speaker; and of different modifications of well sounding language some will be found to be more agreeable than others. It is the business of the poet to make his style as agreeable, and consequently as pleasing to the ear, as the nature of the subject will allow. And to the harmony of language it behooves him, more than any other writer, to attend; as it is more especially his concern to render his work pleasurable. In fact we find, that no poet was ever popular who did not possess the art of harmonious composition.
What I have to say on the subject of poetical harmony may be referred to one or other of these heads: sweetness, measure, and imitation. I. In order to give sweetness to language, either in verse or prose, all words of harsh sound, difficult pronunciation, or unwieldy magnitude, are to be avoided as much as possible, unless when they have in the sound something peculiarly emphatical; and words are to be so placed in respect of one another, as that discordant combinations may not result from their union. But in poetry this is more necessary than in prose; poetical language being understood to be an imitation of natural language improved to that perfection which is consistent with probability. To poetry, therefore, a greater latitude must be allowed than to prose, in expressing, by tropes and figures of pleasing sound, those ideas whereof the proper names are in any respect offensive, either to the ear or to the fancy.*
II. How far versification or regular measure may be essential to this art, has been disputed by critical writers; some holding it to be indispensably necessary, and some not necessary at all. Without recapitulating what has been said by others, I shall only deliver my own opinion, which, if I mistake not, will be found consistent with the principles already established.
See part 2. chap. 1. sect. 3. § 1, 2. VOL. VI
First, then, I am of opinion, that to poetry verse is not essential. In a prose work, we may have the fable, the arrangement, and a great deal of the pathos, and language, of poetry; and such a work is certainly a poem, though perhaps not a perfect one. For how absurd would it be to say, by changing the position only of a word or two in each line, one might divest Homer's Iliad of the poetical character. At this rate, the arts of poetry and versification would be the same; and the rules in Despauter's grammar, and the moral distichs ascribed to Cato, would be as real poetry as any part of Virgil. In fact, some very ancient poems, when translated into a modern tongue, are far less poetical in verse than in prose; the alterations necessary to adapt them to our numbers being detrimental to their sublime simplicity; of which any person of taste will be sensible, who compares our common prose version of Job, the Psalms, and Song of Solomon, with the best metrical paraphrase of those books that has yet appeared.* Nay, in many cases, comedy will be
* Madame Dacier, zealous to vindicate her Homer, seems to carry the encomium on prose translation rather too far, when she exclaims, “Ouy, je ne crains
point de le dire, et je pourrois le prouver, les pöetes “traduits en vers cessent d'etre pöetes." But she is
more poetical, because more pleasing and natural, in prose, than in verse. By versifying Tom Jones and the Merry Wives of Windsor, we should spoil the two finest comick poems, the one epick, the other dramatical, now in the world.
But, secondly, Though verse be not essential to poetry, it is necessary to the perfection of all poetry that admits of it. Verse is to poetry, what colours are to painting.* A painter might display great genius, and draw masterly figures with chalk or ink; but if he intend a perfect picture, he must employ in his work as many colours as are seen in the object he imitates. Or, to adopt a beautiful comparison of Demosthenes,
right in what she says a little after: “En fait de traduc“tion, il y a souvent dans la prose une précision, une “ beauté, et une force, dont la pöesie ne puet approcher. “ Les livres des Prophetes, et les Pseaumes, dans la “ vulgate meme, sont pleins de passages, que le plus “ grand poete du monde ne scauroit rendre en vers, sans leur faire perdre de leur majesté et de leur énergie.” Preface a l'Iliade de Mad. Dacier, p. 39.
* Horace seems to hint at the same comparison, when, after specifying the several sorts of verse suitable to epick, elegiack, lyrick, and dramatick poetry, he adds,
Descriptas servare vices, operumque colores,
Ar. Poet. vers. 86.
quoted by Aristotle, t “ Versification is to po
etry what bloom is to the human countenance." A good face is agreeable when the bloom is gone; and good poetry may please without versification; harmonious numbers may set off an indifferent poem, and a fine bloom indifferent features: but without verse, poetry is incomplete; and beauty is not perfect, unless to sweetness and regularity of feature there be superadded,
The bloom of young desire and purple light of love. If numbers are necessary to the perfection of the higher poetry, they are no less so to that of the lower kinds, to pastoral, song, and satire, which have little besides the language and versification to distinguish them from prose; and which some ancient authors are unwilling to admit to the rank of poems; though I think it too nice a scruple, both because such writings are commonly termed poetical, and also because there is, even in them, something that may not improperly be considered as an imitation of nature.
That the rhythm and measures of verse are naturally agreeable; and therefore, that by these poetry may be made more pleasing than it would
† Aristot. Rhetor. lib. 3. cap. 4.