« PreviousContinue »
who bounds his aims and desires to the acquisition of wealth and power,-perceiving that the pursuit of these is not advanced, but rather moderated and checked, by the ingenuous discipline of the muses, looks upon it with suspicion or contempt. Now, in the present age, the prodigious development of the mechanical sciences, and the impulse imparted by this and other causes to civilization, as distinguished from mental culture, have greatly enlarged the proportionate number of both sensualists and worldlings, by widening, beyond all precedent, the spheres of ordinary enjoyment and gainful exertion. In these considerations, therefore, we are in some degree supplied with the means of accounting for the diminished esteem in which the noblest and most intellectual of the fine arts is held, in an age which puts forth peculiar claims to intelligence and philosophy; and for the measure of encouragement it continues to receive, being lavished chiefly upon the least worthy of its productions.
Among the causes of the comparative neglect into which the higher kinds of poetry, and, with them, of philosophy, seem to have fallen, may likewise be mentioned the absorbing interest attached, in our days, to all questions that relate to political rights and the proceedings of governments. The politician-he who is such by taste and temper, not from duty and the necessity of
his social position, is a worldly unimaginative being. What is denoted in those brawling clamours for extended civil rights, which stun us on all sides, -in those restless suspicions of existing authority, which agitate the popular mind,-in the zealous attempts going on to cast into the crucible, and try by the vulgarest tests, those majestic but indefinable ideas, those venerable principles, which have hitherto benignantly awed mankind into a happy contentedness—to be minted into the petty coinage of legislative enactments-unless a growing (lisposition to overvalue the world of sense, and the things that are in the world ?'
Carried to its present extreme, this tendency of the time runs counter, not only to religion-whose office is to withdraw mankind from the visible and present to the unseen and the eternal; but to all those thoughts, feelings, and pursuits, which are the best allies of religion, by teaching the soul to expand itself amid the grandeur of its own conceptions, the melancholy dignity of the past, and the sublime promises of the future.
There is yet another circumstance which has largely concurred to diffuse ignorance and prejudice, on this subject, especially among good, but weak and unreflecting persons. None have been greater enemies to the just influence of poetry, than poets themselves. “ Those rarely bestowed gifts," by which they are distinguished, they have unhap
pily, and, in proportion, by no means rarely, employed to inflame the bad passions, and corrupt the hearts, of their fellow-men. Perhaps, indeed, less harm has eventually followed this perversion of ability, than is commonly supposed. We trust, we should be among the last to become the apologists of licentiousness, or to extenuate the crimefor such we deem it—of mingling the least infusion of poison with those refreshing waters, the true sources of which it will be seen that we regard as situated far above the region of the earthly Helicon. But we think such to be essentially the nature of genuine poetry, that, unless in a very few possible cases, where a fixed purpose of converting it to an engine of evil may have existed, a design barely consistent with the possession of the faculty,—its influence has invariably preponderated on the side of truth and virtue. The mere use of numbers has a softening and humanizing effect; and it may be doubted whether the agitation of the soul by the inward stirring of the affections, independent of the expression of any definite sentiment favourable to virtue, do not purify the moral atmosphere within, and thereby indirectly promote the same end. To pursue this question, however, is not the present purpose. Many good men think otherwise. Justly offended with effusions inspired by intemperate passion and false sensibility--witnessing the extensive circula
tion, among all classes, of works in verse, avowedly hostile to religious and moral principle—they have, not unnaturally, acquired a prejudice against the fascinating vehicle of so much mischief. It is the fate of the best gifts of heaven to be subject, through the perversity of mankind, to the worst abuses. Yet, it would be adopting a very foolish and unphilosophical course, wholly to scorn or repudiate them on that account. The proper use of those gifts will ever prove the most effective antidote to their abuse. This is clearly shown in the obvious fact, that poems which are calculated to corrupt the mind by their licentiousness, and debase it by their folly, notwithstanding they may find readers in the age which produces them, among those whose vices they seek to adorn, and whose follies they would flatter, disappear in the succeeding generation, which has no such interest in them, and leave the field open to productions of a different character. Whatever is essentially evil or worthless, cannot maintain a permanent place in the general esteem of mankind. Those poets whose names are familiar to every one as “household words,” have been, upon the whole, teachers of virtue—many of them highly distinguished as such. Homer, Pindar, Æschylus, Dante, Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton,—such are the names which every succeeding age has cherished, and had in honour. What, in the meantime, is become of
the many fulsome laureats of the madness and folly of their times, "with their prodigious issues of tumerous heats and flashes of their adulterate brains," who successively found listeners in the long interval between the first and last of these illustrious men? They have been silently left to merited oblivion; the most brilliant of them surviving only in the partial admiration of a few studious and retired minds, who have sufficient leisure and taste to separate the gold from the alloy. The true poet, however, will survive in the hearts of the people,—not at all times in equal estimation, but always in a degree somewhat proportioned to his worth; for he is a master in the school of truth, and therefore of virtue; and the generations of mankind form too just an estimate of their own interests, not to value his lessons, however numerous may be the individual men, in each generation, who disregard them.
The end of the poet's labours, then, often as the assertion has been made, and by high critical authorities too, is not merely to impart delight. To gifts so'rare and excellent a nobler office is assigned by the Creator. His method differs from that of the historian, the philosopher, and the divine; but, if true to his high calling, he is no less a teacher than they. He does not lead the mind right on, towards the temple of Wisdom, along a rough and thorny, or at least an unadorned road; but, with