Page images


scribble-scrabble account of what I have told. It will be sufficient to show you that Mr. Homespun has not so much cause for envy as from his letter I presume he feels against us, and will, I hope, also procure a little of your good counsel how to make a comi fo life somewhat more comfortable to the greatest part of our family, and inparticular to your humble servant,


No. 37. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 15, 1785.

The mythology of the ancients has given rise to many an elegant allusion, and adorned many a beautiful description.

In a book published lately at Paris, containing an account of the principal gems in the cabinet of the Duke of Orleans, is the following excellent illustration of the pleasing effects of the popular religion of antiquity.

• The delightful fictions built on their religious system,' says the author of this work, ' have peopled and animated all nature, and made a solid temple of the vast universe. Those flowers, whose varied and shining beauty we so much admire, are the tears of Aurora. It is the breath of Zephyrus which gently agitates the leaves. The soft murmurs of the waters are the sighs of the Naiads. A god impels the winds. A god pours out the rivers. Grapes are the


gift of Bacchus.

Ceres presides over the harvest. Orchards are the care of Pomona. Does a shepherd sound his reed on the summit of a mountain, it is Pan who, with his pastoral pipe, returns the amorous lay. When the sportsman's horn rouses the attentive ear, it is Diana armed with her bow and quiver, more nimble than the stag she pursues, who takes the diversion of the chase. The Sun is a god, who, riding on a car of fire, diffuses his light through the world. The Stars are so many divinities, who measure with their golden beams the regular process of time. The Moon presides over the silence of the night, and consoles the world for the absence of her brother. Neptune reigns in the seas, surrounded by the Nereides, who dance to the joyous shells of the Tritons. In the highest heavens is seated Jupiter, the father and master of men and gods: under his feet roll the thunders formed by the Cyclops in the cavern of Lemnos; his smile rejoices nature, and his nod shakes the foundation of Olympus. Surrounding the throne of their sovereign, the other divinities quaff the nectar from a cup presented to them by the young and beautiful Hebe. In the middle of the bright circle shines with distinguished lustre the unrivalled beauty of Venus, alone adorned with a splendid girdle, on which the graces and sports for ever play; and in her hand is a smiling boy, whose power is universally acknowledged by heaven and earth.'

It is impossible to read this elegant passage without feeling something of that delusionit describes; and the reader who is conversant in the classics will at once call to his recollection


of those animated descriptions and pleasing allusions with which those admirable works so much abound.

For my own part, however, while I must always remember, with a pleasing sort of gratitude, the de

light which I have received from the poets of Greece and of Rome; and while I recollect, with a species of enthusiasm, that rapture I first received from the animated accounts of nature with which their works are adorned; I cannot help sometimes thinking that the taste which they have produced in modern times, that fondness of imitation they have given birth to, has in some respects hurt the works of the moderns, and, instead of improving, helped to spoil many an exertion of genius. The mythological allusions of the ancients were grafted on the popular opinions of the country; as such to a reader of the times they were natural; the mind easily acknowledged their justice, and something like an implicit belief attended their perusal. Even when they are perused by a modern, in the writings of the ancients, he acquires some portion of this belief. The same ductility of imagination which creates our sympathy and interest in the passions and feelings of an Achilles and an Æneas, though they lived in a distant region, and a period long since past, makes us enter into their religious creed, and the effects thereby produced. Our reason is for a time suspended ; and we can for a moment suppose Minerva to descend from heaven to assist a Grecian hero, or Eolus to inflate the winds at the suit of Juno, to overwhelm in the billows the unfortunate son of a rival goddess.

But those animated and personified descriptions, however natural in an ancient author, and however they may interest even a modern reader by the same sympathy which engages us in the fate of a hero who died a thousand years ago, have now ceased to be natural. When used by a modern writer, they do not proceed from an animated mind, impressed and governed by the belief of his countrymen, but are the effect of a mere copy, the feeble offspring of a cold and servile imitation.


Whether it has proceeded from this cause I know not; but while I feel the most pleasing delusion from the mythological fictions of the ancient authors, I have always felt something very much the reverse from the same fictions when appearing in the works of the moderns. The scenes which nature lays before us, and the actions of those men who are placed in interesting situations, when well described, and naturally represented, must ever be delightful; but when in a modern author I see nature left as it were behind, and borrowed description and allusion made use of, I have ever found my mind, instead of being gratified, cheated of that pleasure which it wished to enjoy. The delusion in which I was fond to indulge has been removed, and fanciful conceit has usurped the place of nature,

Another bad consequence of this servile imitation of the ancients, of this borrowing what was natural in them, but which is no longer so in us, has been to prevent modern authors from studying nature as it is, from attempting to draw it as it really appears; and, instead of giving genuine descriptions, it leads them to give those only which are false and artificial.

Every reader acquainted with our modern authors will easily recal a variety of passages to illustrate these remarks.

To take an instance from the works of an author who does the highest honour to this country, what can be more absurd than the following lines as a description of Windsor Forest ?

See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crown'd,
Here blushing Flora paints th' enamelled ground,
Here Ceres' gifts in waving prospect stand,

And nodding tempt the jovial reapers' hand.
This is surely not a description of Windsor Forest.

In like manner, the description in the same poem, of Thames shedding tears for Cowley's death, must surpass all modern credulity; and of an equally unnatural kind is the transformation of Lodona, the daughter of father Thames.

In the Pastorals of the same author, what strange effects are produced by the mourning of a shepheri boy along the side of the Thames !

There while he mourn'd, the streams forgot to flow,
The flocks around a dumb compassion show,
The Naiads wept in ev'ry wat'ry bow'r,

And Jove consented in a silent show'r. The same shepherd thus describes the effects of his numbers:

And yet my numbers please the rural throng,

Rough satyrs dance, and Pan applauds my song. It is unnecessary to multiply examples; the descriptive poems

of the moderns are full of them. One author deserves to be excepted, an author who has been justly deemed an original, and whose character of originality is in a great measure owing to his having painted nature as it is, and laid aside the mythological allusions of antiquity.-Thomson, in his Seasons, may be styled the great poet of Nature. In that poem he has described the whole varied year,

and the different scenes which its variations produce.

. This author,' says a distinguished critic, 'is entitled to one praise of the highest kind : his mode of thinking and of expressing his thoughts is original. He thinks in a peculiar train, and he thinks always as a man of genius; he looks round on nature and on life with the eye which Nature bestows only on a poet; the eye that distinguishes, in every thing presented to its view, whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained, and



« PreviousContinue »