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I read all the poets of Persia and Arabia, and was able to repeat by memory the volumes that are suspended in the mosque of Mecca. But I soon found that no man was ever great by imitation. My desire of excellence impelled me to transfer my attention to nature and to life. Nature was to be my subject, and men to be my auditors; I could never describe what I had not seen; I could not hope to move those with delight or terror, whose interests and opinions I did not understand.
“Being now resolved to be a poet, I saw every thing with a new purpose; my sphere of attention was suddenly magnified: no kind of knowledge was to be overlooked. I ranged mountains and deserts for images and resemblances, and pictured upon my mind every tree of the forest and flower of the valley. I observed with equal care the crags of the rock and the pinnacles of the palace. Sometimes I wandered along the mazes of the rivulet, and sometimes watched the changes of the summer clouds. To a poet nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his imagination; he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little. The plants of the garden, the animals of the wood, the minerals of the earth, and meteors of the sky, must all concur to store his mind with inexhaustible variety : for every idea is useful for the enforcement or decoration of moral or religious truth; and he, who knows most, will have · most power of diversifying his scenes, and of gratifying his reader with remote allusions and unexpected instruction.
“ All the appearances of nature I was therefore careful to study, and every country which I have surveyed has contributed something to my poetical powers.”
“In so wide a survey,” said the prince, "you must surely have left much unobserved. I have lived, till now, within the circuit of these mountains, and yet cannot walk abroad without the sight of something which I never beheld before, or never heeded.”
“The business of a poet," said Imlac, “is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances : he does not number the streaks of the
tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind; and must neglect the minuter discriminations, which one may have remarked, and another have neglected, for those characteristics which are alike obvious to vigilance and carelessness.
“But the knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet; he must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life. His character requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition, observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions, and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness of infancy to the despondence of decrepitude. He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstract and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same: he must therefore content himself with the slow progress of his name; contemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as a being superior to time and place.
“His labour is not yet at an end: he must know many languages and many sciences; and, that his style may be worthy of his thoughts, must, by incessant practice, familiarize to himself every delicacy of speech and grace of harmony."
25.- REMARKS ON SOME OF THE BEST POETS, BOTH ANCIENT
'Tis manifest, that some particular ages have been more happy than others, in the production of great men, and all sorts of arts and sciences; as that of Euripides, Sophocles, Aristo
Cicero Lucretiere end of* especie
phanes, and the rest, for stage poetry, amongst the Greeks; that of Augustus for heroic, lyric, dramatic, elegiac, and indeed all sorts of poetry, in the persons of Virgil, Horace, Varius, Ovid, and many others; especially if we take into that century the latter end of the Commonwealth, wherein we find Varro, Lucretius, and Catullus : and at the same time lived Cicero, Sallust, and Cæsar. A famous age in modern times, for learning in every kind, was that of Lorenzo de Medici and his son Leo X., wherein painting was revived, poetry flourished, and the Greek language was restored.
Examples in all these are obvious : but what I would infer is this, That in such an age, 'tis possible some great genius may arise to equal any of the ancients, abating only for the language; for great contemporaries whet and cultivate each other; and mutual borrowing, and commerce, makes the common riches of learning, as it does of civil government.
But suppose that Homer and Virgil were the only poets of their species, and that Nature was so much worn out in producing them, that she is never able to bear the like again; yet the example only holds in heroic poetry. In tragedy and satire, I offer myself to maintain, against some of our modern critics, that this age and the last, particularly in England, have excelled the ancients in both these kinds.
Thus I might safely confine myself to my native country; but if I would only cross the seas, I might find in France a living Horace and a Juvenal, in the person of the admirable Boileau, whose numbers are excellent, whose expressions are noble, whose thoughts are just, whose language is pure, whose satire is pointed, and whose sense is close. What he borrows from the ancients, he repays with usury of his own, in coin as good, and almost as universally valuable ; for, setting prejudice and partiality apart, though he is our enemy, the stamp of a Louis, the patron of arts, is not much inferior to the medal of an Augustus Cæsar.
Now, if it may be permitted me to go back again to the consideration of epic poetry, I have confessed that no man hitherto has reached, or so much as approached, to the excellencies of Homer or Virgil : I must further add, that Statius, the best versificator next Virgil, knew not how to design after him, though he had the model in his eye; that Lucan is wanting both in design and subject, and is besides too full of heat and affection; that, among the moderns, Ariosto neither designed justly, nor observed any unity of action or compass of time, or moderation in the yastness of his draught: his style is luxurious, without majesty or decency; and his adventures without the compass of nature and possibility. Tasso, whose design was regular, and who observed the rules of unity in time and place more closely than Virgil, yet was not so happy in his action; he confesses himself to have been too lyrical, that is, to have written beneath the dignity of heroic verse, in his episodes of Sophronia, Erminia, and Armida; his story is not so pleasing as Ariosto's; he is too flatulent sometimes, and sometimes too dry; many times unequal, and almost always forced; and, besides, is full of conceptions, points of epigram, and witticisms; all which are not only below the dignity of heroic verse, but contrary to its nature. Virgil and Homer have not one of them: and those who are guilty of so boyish an ambition in so grave a subject, are so far from being considered as heroic poets, that they ought to be turned down from Homer to Anthologia, from Virgil to Martial and Owen's epigrams, and from Spenser to Flecknoe, that is, from the top to the bottom of all poetry. But to return to Tasso; he borrows from the invention of Boiardo, and in his alteration of his poem, which is infinitely the worst, imitates Homer so very servilely, that (for example) he gives the king of Jerusalem fifty sons, only because Homer had bestowed the like number on king Priam; he kills the youngest in the same manner, and has provided his hero with a Patroclus, under another name, only to bring him back to the wars, when his friend was killed. The French have performed nothing in this kind, which is not below those two Italians, and subject to a thousand more reflections, without examining their St Louis, their Pucelle, or their Alarique. The English have only to boast of Spenser and Milton, who neither of them wanted either genius or learning to have been perfect poets, and yet both of them are liable to many censures.
26.-ON THE ILIAD OF HOMER. The subject of the Iliad must unquestionably be admitted to be, in the main, happily chosen. In the days of Homer, no object could be more splendid and dignified than the Trojan war. So great a confederacy of the Grecian states, under one leader, and the ten years' siege which they carried on against Troy, must have spread far abroad the renown of many military exploits, and interested all Greece in the traditions concerning the heroes who had most eminently signalized themselves. Upon these traditions Homer grounded his poem; and though he lived, as is generally believed, only two or three centuries after the Trojan war, yet, through the want of written records, tradition must, by his time, have fallen into the degree of obscurity most proper for poetry; and have left him at full liberty to mix as much fable as he pleased with the remains of true history. He has not chosen, for his subject, the whole Trojan war; but, with great judgment, he has selected one part of it, the quarrel betwixt Achilles and Agamemnon, and the events to which that quarrel gave rise ; which, though they take up forty-seven days only, yet include the most interesting and most critical period of the war. By this management, he has given greater unity to what would have otherwise been an unconnected history of battles. He has gained one hero, or principal character, Achilles, who reigns throughout the work; and he has shown the pernicious effect of discord among confederated princes. At the same time I admit that Homer is less fortunate in his subject than Virgil. The plan of the Æneid includes a greater compass, and a more agreeable diversity of events; whereas the Iliad is almost entirely filled with battles.
The praise of high invention has in every age been given to Homer, with the greatest reason. The prodigious number of incidents, of speeches, of characters divine and human, with which he abounds; the surprising variety with wbich he has diversified his battles, in the wounds and deaths, and little history-pieces of almost all the persons slain, discover an