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It is truly wonderful that any individual who has ever thought at all upon the human mind, and has witnessed the irrepressible enthusiasm with which men of taste in all ages have hailed the appearance of poetic genius, should yet regard it with an ignorant contempt. Such a man as Bentham could not fail to have observed the intense emotion often excited by the poet; and it is strange that he should have been aware of this prodigious power, and yet not have felt inclined to inquire into the cause. The fascination is not to be attributed to false morals and tinkling rhymes. What must he have thought of those persons who with the greatest reputation for genius and judgment, have pronounced poetry to be the highest of all human arts, and who have said that it is "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge ?"
Matter-of-fact people conceive poetry to be opposed to truth, because it is chiefly conversant with that order of things and thoughts, which is beyond the range of their own minds. Whenever they attempt to be poetical themselves, they invariably do violence to nature and common sense. If they attempt to paint human passion, they are merely bombastic; their want of imagination renders them at once blind and cold. Nothing can be more false and extravagant than the verses of a literal-minded man.
Even men whose minds are elegant and refined, if they have not poetical genius, though they may be good judges of the compositions of other men, are unable themselves to paint the passions of the human heart or the beauties of external nature with spirit or fidelity. It is curious to observe, that in the most voluminous collections of verse by men of mere cleverness, in the midst of much that is ingenious, we seek in vain for a single poetical idea. Persons of talent or learning without genius, with all their labour and assiduity produce nothing in verse worthy of preservation, and are never poetical even by accident. In five thousand of their verses there are not five lines of poetry.
When we meet with the shortest fragment of true poetry, we allow the praise of genius to the writer.
Myriads of men have attempted to excel in this divine art, but how few have succeeded! How many able and well-educated persons have devoted their whole lives to it in vain, who would infallibly have excelled in almost any other study with the same talents and assiduity. Hayley, for example, a learned and clever writer, spent half a century in an unrequited courtship of the Muse. The “ Admirable Crichton,” who excelled in every other accomplishment, attempted poetry, and failed.
If verse be poetry, there is scarcely a respectable family in England that has not its poet. Almost every well-educated man has at some period of his life committed the sin of rhyme. Nothing is so easy or so common. But Poetry is an unteachable, untaught.” One line that is breathed upon by the Muse is a hallowed thing.
The only way to account for Bentham's error, is to suppose that it originated in his own want of imagination, and in as great a mistake as to the nature of that faculty as he fell into with respect to poetry. We meet with many persons of ordinary knowledge and education, who laugh to scorn the pretensions of the poet as an instructor of mankind, and who are quite unable to understand that imagination is not only conversant with truth, but that no high truth is to be discovered without it. We look not, however, for such ignorance and obtuseness in a philosopher. Many metaphysicians have made poetry their text book, and the most subtle and abstruse discussions are often flashed upon our understanding by poetical illustrations*. It is a sad
“A philosopher will admit some of those wonderful lines or words in poetry) which bring to light the infinite varieties of character, the furious bursts or wily workings of passion, the winding approaches of temptation, the slippery path to depravity, the beauty of tenderness, the grandeur of what is awful or holy in man. In every such quotation, the moral philosopher uses the best materials for his science ; for what are they but the results of experiment and
mistake to suppose that imagination is in direct contradistinction to reason. All truly great thinkers and discoverers have been indebted to the former faculty. In no
In no one department of Literature and Science have men become eminent who have noti possessed a large share of imagination. It is almost another word for genius ; at all events there may be much talent but no true genius without it. Bacon, Newton, Leibnitz, Galileo, Columbus, Sir Humphrey Davy and Burke, and Fox, Channing and Chalmers have as much required the assistance of imagination as Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and Wordsworth*. It is true that there is a difference in the degree and character of the imagination of these men, but in their several studies they have all exerted this noble faculty. It is imagination which suggests materials for the reason and judgment, or places them in that strong and vivid light which enables us to see them with distinctness. Some one has justly remarked, that the man who is able to see nothing but a silly extravagance in Berkeley's theory of the non-existence of matter, may feel assured that he is no metaphysician, and should never venture upon any profound metaphysical question. We may oppose the theory, and yet acknowledge the subtle genius and delicate apprehension of the theorist. The more lofty are the speculations of the metaphysician the more poetical he becomes. Dr. Channing, one of the most eloquent and imaginative of modern writers, in his Essay on Milton has explained, that our struggles after something holier and
observation on the human heart, performed by artists of other skill and power than his ? They are facts which could only have been ascertained by Homer, by Dante, by Shakespeare, by Cervantes, by Milton! Every strong feeling which these masters have excited is a successful repetition of the original experiment, and a continually growing evidence of the greatness of their discoveries.”—Progress of Ethical Philosophy.
* It was the habit of association, which forms a principal part of the complex faculty of the imagination, that may be said to have led to various discoveries in science, and to have furnished Bacon with his luminous illustrations in philosophy.-Edinburgh Review.
purer than this earth affords, carry us to the foundation and the sources of poetry*. His own pulpit discourses are full of that sublimity of thought and celestial ardour of feeling which he attributes in others to poetical inspiration. One would think that the very term inspiration would open the eyes of the most obtuse to the superior dignity of the imaginative arts. But the great mob of mankind are not easily persuaded that abstract studies can possess even an indirect practical utility, and look upon a poet as a visionary idler. Imaginative men are continually exposed to the insults and misapprehension of the vulgar, who only see what is immediately before them. Their notion of the utility of poetry is like Falstaff's notion of honour. They ask if it can set a broken leg or cure the grief of a wound, and on receiving an answer in the negative, they exclaim that it is a word-air-a trim' reckoning! and therefore they'll have none of it! Sir Joshua Reynolds was once present at a meeting of a Society for the encouragement of commerce and manufactures, when Dr. Tucker, the dean of Gloucester, asserted that a pinmaker was a more valuable and useful member of society than Raphael. Here was a Utilitarian after Bentham's own heart! The painter was naturally indignant, and replied that this was the observation of a narrow mind, that sees with a microscopic eye but a part of the great machine of the economy of life, and takes the small part which he sees to be the whole. Commerce is the means and not the end of happiness. “This kind of argument," continued Sir Joshua, "is like making the brickmaker superior to the architect.”
* "By those who are accustomed to speak of poetry as light reading, Milton's eminence in this sphere may be considered as only giving him a rank amongst the contributors to public amusement. Not so thought Milton. Of all God's gifts of intellect he esteemed poetical genius the most transcendent. He esteemed it in himself as a kind of inspiration, and wrote his great works with something of the dignity of a prophet. I agree with Milton in his estimate of poetry."-Channing.
The Utilitarians in their theory of morals seem to forget that “ we have all of us one human heart ;” and address themselves, and in the driest manner, to the understanding alone. Hazlitt is right in his remark, that the cultivation of a moral sense is not the last thing that should be attended to; and that truth, when carried alive into the heart by passion and imagination, makes a more vivid and lasting impression than all Bentham's tables and calculations of right and wrong, utility and inutility. A tender or spirited poetical illustration may linger on the ear and mind of the reader long after formal and dry discussions are forgotten.
Bentham's insult to the memory of such men as Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton, (whose art is less valuable than a game at Pushpin, and whose writings are only good substitutes for drunkenness and the love of gaming !) must recoil upon his own reputation, be remembered with his own productions, and yet be forgotten some centuries before the names of that illustrious triad. Mr. Mill, another Utilitarian, is guilty of the same error. In his remarks on the faculty of imagination he maintains that the Poet's trains of ideas end in nothing ; that his train is its own end. It is all mere pleasure, or the purpose is frustrated*. In all other men the case is different—the end is important, not the train. This is the case, he says, with the merchant. “ His trains are directed to a particular end, and it is the end alone which gives a value to the train. The end of the metaphysical, and the end of the mathematical inquirer is the discovery of truth; their trains are directed to that object ; and are or are not, a source of
There is a passage in Bentham on this subject, that shows into what a state of confusion of mind he was apt to be thrown when on the uncongenial subject of poetry. “ All that can be alleged,” he says, “in diminution of their” (Poetry and the Fine arts) “ utility is, that it is limited to the excitement of pleasure ; they cannot disperse the clouds of grief and misfortune.” Thus we are told that though poetry excites pleasure it cannot cheer the mind ! This is philosophy! Why a game at Pushpin, as it can give pleasure, may sometimes abstract the mind from unpleasant thoughts. Poetry can do more. It not only amuses but instructs.