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In Bonnell Thornton's burlesque Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, there is the following amusing specimen of imitative harmony.
In strains more exalted the salt-box shall join,
Though Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day is generally admitted to be a failure, and to be in almost every respect greatly inferior to Dryden's Alexander's Feast, it is not utterly devoid of merit. Dr. Johnson highly commends the third stanza, in which he says “there are numbers, images, harmony and vigour, not unworthy the antagonist of Dryden.” Dr. Aiken remarks of the first stanza (which I shall here quote), that it “ seems to imitate happily the music it describes :"—
Descend ye Nine; descend and sing ;
In a sadly pleasing strain
Let the loud trumpet sound
The shrill echoes rebound;
Hark! the numbers soft and clear
And fill with spreading sounds the skies;
The strains decay,
And melt away
In a dying, dying fall. But though Dr. Johnson bestows a general approval on this poem (the least successful of all Pope's works), and though he
honours some passages with particular praise, this first stanza, he says, consists of " sounds well chosen indeed, but only sounds.” I have already admitted the danger of a too minute attention to the art of representative metre, as it may lead the poet to overlook far more important considerations, and to sacrifice sense to sound. A similar danger, however, is common to all other arts. The painter as well as the poet may make too much of his accessories, and too little of his main subject. This is no reason, however, why the painter's accessories or the poet's metrical details should be treated with indifference or contempt. The music of verse seems to have a natural affinity to what may be called the music of thought, and no reader of nice ear or poetical sensibility can fail to appreciate its worth. “Harmony of period and melody of style,” says Shenstone, “ have greater weight than is generally imagined in the judgment we pass upon writing and writers. As a proof of this, let us reflect, what texts of Scripture, what lines in poetry, or what periods we most remember and quote, either in verse or prose, and we shall find them to be only musical ones.” Beautiful thoughts and exquisite emotions“ involuntarily move harmonious numbers.”
One of Pope's best attempts at imitative harmony is his description of the labour of Sisyphus.
With many a weary step and many a groan,
To every reader, who has gentility enough to aspirate the h's, the second line is quite a task. He has given us another line that moves with the same difficulty.
“ And when up ten steep slopes you've dragged your thighs.” Here indeed
The line too labours, and the words move slow.
Mr. Crowe, the author of Lewisdon Hill, has attempted a new version of this celebrated passage respecting Sisyphus, and it is not without great merit, though unequal perhaps to that of Pope.
Then Sisyphus I saw, with ceaseless pain
Paradise Lost abounds in examples of the beauty of which I am now treating. The toil of Satan perhaps even surpasses that of Sysiphus,
So he with difficulty and labour hard
Now for the “ harsh thunder” of the gates of Hell! With what rapidity they fly open !
On a sudden open fly
Here is a happy imitation of an echo.
I fled and cried out, death!
From all her caves, and back resounded death! The pause after the word shook in the next extract is very effective.
And over them triumphant Death his dart
The quick and joyous movement of the ensuing verses is a particularly happy instance of representative harmony.
Let the merry bells ring round,
There is a watery music in the following lines.
Fountains ! and ye that warble as ye flow,
Here is a description of carriage wheels descending and ascending a hill. It is noticed by Mr. Crowe, but I know not who the author is.
Which in their different courses as they pass
Or slowly turn, oft resting, up the steep. Dyer in his Ruins of Rome," a poem that Wordsworth remarks has been very undeservedly neglected, has a fine specimen of imitative harmony, in which the fall of ruins is represented with great effect. The passage is quoted by Johnson with commendation.
The pilgrim oft
The same poet well describes the sudden delay in a ship’s progress on the Indian Ocean by a cessation of wind.
With easy course
By dead calms, that oft lie on those smooth seas. The following remarkably successful adaptation of sound to sense is from Pope's Homer's Iliad. It has a greater freedom of versification than the translator usually exhibits.
As from some mountain's craggy forehead torn
(Which from the stubborn stone a torrent rends)
There stops, - &c. The ensuing lines from Shakespeare's “Troilus and Cressida” seem inflated with the bulky meaning.
“ The large Achilles, on his press'd bed lolling,
From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause." Cowley laboured hard to produce an echo to the sense, and sometimes succeeded, as the next four lines may show. The continuity of a stream is well represented.
Ile who defers his work from day to day,
The progress of Milton's fiend is a very striking illustration of the effect to be gained by an artful and choice arrangement of words.
“ The fiend
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps or flies.” I need hardly give any further specimens*, for every reader, though he may not previously have studied the subject, must now understand the nature of imitative harmony in verse. It depends, it will be seen, sometimes on the sound of particular words, sometimes on the management of the pauses, sometimes on the length or shortness of the metrical feet, and sometimes on all these circumstances artfully or happily combined.
* A few of these examples have been noticed before by Johnson, Leattie and Crowe; but I have introduced as many new ones as I could recollect.