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(FROM VIRGIL'S GEORGICS, BOOK 11.)
An ! happy Swains! If they their bliss but knew,
ON THE INFLUENCE OF POETRY.
Since the publication of the first edition of the Literary Leaves,
have been favored with a communication from a celebrated poet, in which he has made some highly interesting remarks suggested by an article on Poetry and Utilitarianism which is reprinted at page 55 of the present volume. They are so confirmatory of my own views, that I cannot resist the temptation to make some public use of them. As the name of the writer is suppressed I feel assured, from what I know of his character, that he will readily excuse the liberty I take in venturing to offer my readers the following extract from his most kind and acceptable letter.
“ The vindication of poetry against utilitarianism particularly deserves commendation, at a time when 'push-pin,' in every thing connected with literature is superseding poetry,'--and the ' utile in its lowest sense is preferred to the dulce in its highest. I have myself from time to time in public and in private declaimed not a little against this polished barbarism, this last refinement of excessive civilization, by which all language is to be finally converted into the technical expression of ideas purely abstract, and employed for purposes merely practical,- in the acquisition of sordid wealth and creature-comforts, or in the indulgence of speculations that lead from doubt io doubt on things spiritual, and end in nothing if they end in anything,—that is a contradiction, but it suits the subject, where every thing contradicts every thing, and the mind questioning at length its own existence resolves itself into a series of effects, whether they be called thoughts and sensations, from one great laboratory of causes,– the animal brain, and which, whether they be thoughts or sensations only, are disconnected, though as quickly successive, as the sparks that are generated and instantly extinguished, by the collision of Aint and steel. I must break off from this rhapsodical invective, by adding that the prevalence of utilitarianism will not only disenchant the world of all that is poetical and picturesque in it, but will neutralize all that is noble and disinterested in human action by removing the sanctions of eternity from the conscience,
VOL. II. 2 Y
and gradually obliterating the sense of reponsibility to another and higher tribunal than the earth ; without which it is hard to conceive how any man of like passions with ourselves, can be virtuous from principle in the hour of temptation when he can sin to advantage and with impunity. “The greatest good to the greatest number,' the favorite maxim of this class of philosophers, can never be accomplished by any code of laws or system of morals which deals with man, whether singly or in society, as of the earth earthy,' without the hope of immortality, and the belief of a judgment to come according to which a state of existence far more important to him than the present will be determined. Utilitarianism, as it is preached and practised, whatever its pretensions may be, is adapted only to the things of time and sense, so far as these can be adapted to the desires and necessities of rational beings with brute destinies, gifted with faculties capable of infinite expansion, yet limited to three score years and ten for their development, and then going to the grave with a surplus of intellect unemployed which might serve to carry them through every inhabited orb in the universe, were that the soul's progress after the death of the body, and prepared for all the exercises and enjoyments of heaven itself to eternity, when soul and body shall be reunited, as we are taught by Revelation to expect they will be. No more ;—you will guess at the meaning of the foregoing verbiage, if I have failed to make it intelligible.
There is unquestionably a depreciatory opinion respecting the nature of poetry very prevalent, not only amongst ignorant or prejudiced persons, but even amongst many well educated men who pretend to some refinement of taste and feeling. It is lamentable, indeed, after so much has been written upon the subject of poetry by some of the ablest critics in the world, that it should be yet so little understood. This perhaps partly arises from the difficulty of making a distinction in common parlance between the words poetry and metre, though a very little thought is sufficient to convince a man of any discrimination that these are by no means synonymous or convertible expressions. Every one understands the clear distinction between prose and verse, which are always placed in opposition, but it is by no means so universally perceived that verse is not necessarily poetry. Coleridge has rightly explained that poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. There is, nevertheless, as marked a difference between mere metre and true poetry, as between true poetry and a prose work on a scientific subject. Sometimes, however, there may be poetry in prose, as sometimes there may be none in metre.
If we look into the dictionaries for a definition of poetry we shall find that it is " a metrical composition ;—the art or practice of writing poems ;” and this is all that the generality of thoughtless people seem to have learned about it. It has often happened that even those who ought to know better have had the same limited conception of its nature. And yet Aristotle has affirmed that “poetry is a more philosophical and excellent thing, than history; for poetry is conversant about general truth; history, about particular* ," and Lord Bacon has said that it is" a capital part of learning," and that it “ has something divine in it." It is strange, indeed, that people should listen attentively to such definitions as these, and still confound poetry with metre. Is there anything “ divine” in the art of measuring syllables ? or can Aristotle have considered a mere versifier a more useful and noble writer than an historian ? If poetry were
so limited and mean a thing, as the Utilitarians would have us suppose it, how is it that the attempt to reduce it to a definition has puzzled so many strong and subtle intellects ? Poetry embraces the whole moral and material world. It is as illimitable as the soul of man. That soul is not more distinct in its nature from its clay receptacle, than is the spirit of poetry from the form in which it is embodied. If we speak of poetry merely as an art, we may limit it to the imitation of moral and external nature, the poet using words as a painter uses colours. But if we go beyond this, and endeavour to define that peculiar and rare faculty or endowment which enables the poet to give life to inanimate things, and to feel more intensely than other men the loveliness or grandeur of the universe, or if we attempt to analyse the poetical or to fix its bounds, we soon discover that the utmost human ingenuity may be taxed in vain. The faculty of mind which the poet most exerts is that of the imagination ; and assuredly nothing in life is more directly allied to the highest and purest exertions of the noblest imagination than poetry, and this fact alone is a sufficient evidence of its loftiness, and in a high and liberal sense of the word, of its utility. “ The faculty of imagination,” says Dugald Stewart, “is the great spring of human activity, and the principal source of human improvement. Destroy that faculty, and the condition of man will be as stationary as that of the brutes."
* Aristotle's Treatise of Poetry ; Twining's Translation.
To limit utility, as many of our modern philosophers have done, to material objects and the sciences that administer to the comforts and conveniences of corporeal life, is to degrade our human nature, which in reality is far more nearly allied to a higher order of existence than such reasoners would seem to imply. It is not always quite clear that the sciences which lessen human labour or the sensual luxuries procurable by wealth, have contributed very materially to the true happiness of mankind. The pleasures which all external things can give are speedily exhausted. We soon get accustomed to any external or corporeal advantage derived from wealth or science, and when its novelty is gone, we regard that which was once an addition to our pleasures as no more than the supply of a necessity, We should feel the want of it far more than we appreciate its possession. But those arts which kindle the imagination and touch the feelings—which elevate and refine our spiritual nature, and which increase our sensibilities, are more immediately conversant with the elements of permanent delight. We are not so soon satiated with beautiful images and noble sentiments as with the sensual luxuries of life. In the intellectual banquet the appetite grows with what it feeds on. The more we dwell upon the beauty and sublimity of the visible world, the more we see to love and to admire and the more capable we become of that high enjoyment. We owe it to the great invention