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Ovid, or perhaps more compendiously from his Gradus, halves and quarters of lines, in which to embody them.24
I never object to a certain degree of disputatiousness in a young man from the age of seventeen to that of four or five and twenty, provided I find him always arguing on one side of the question. The controversies, occasioned by my unfeigned zeal for the honor of a favorite contemporary, then known to me only by his works, were of great advantage in the formation and establishment of my taste and critical opinions. In my defence of the lines running into each other, instead of closing at each couplet; and of natural language, neither bookish, nor vulgar, neither redolent of the lamp, nor of the kennel, such as I will remember thee; instead of the same thought tricked up in the rag-fair finery of,
thy image on her wing Before my fancy's eye shall memory bring,
I had continually to adduce the metre and diction of the Greek. poets from Homer to Theocritus inclusively; and still more of our elder English poets from Chaucer to Milton. Nor was this
nyme, lacteus; for coloratus, and the first synonyme is purpureus. I mention this by way of elucidating one of the most ordinary processes in the ferrumination of these centos.]
24 [The description in the text may be true of those who never in any proper sense succeed in writing Latin verse. But the experience of many scholars in England, amongst boys, would enable them with sincerity to deny its universal application. The chief direct use of the practice of Latin verse composition consists in the mastery which it gives over the vocabulary and constructive powers of the language. But it is, perhaps, greatly to be regretted that spoken and written Latin has to so great a degree ceased to be a mean of communication between liberally educated Europeans. The pretence that the extended knowledge of modern languages is an adequate substitute, is in five cases out of ten generally, and in the pre-eminent instances of Germany and England, in three out of four, otoriously untrue. Mere school editions of the Classics may properly enough be accompanied with notes in a modern language, but every work designed for the promotion of scholarship generally ought, by literary comity, to be published in a language which every scholar can read. This remark does not touch the question of dictionaries; as to which nothing but necessity can justify the ordinary use of any interpretation but into the native idiom of the student. Ed.]
all. But as it was my constant reply to authorities brought against me from later poets of great name, that no authority could avail in opposition to Truth, Nature, Logic, and the Laws of Universal Grammar; actuated too by my former passion for metaphysical investigations; I labored at a solid foundation, on which permanently to ground my opinions, in the componer.t faculties of the human mind itself, and their comparative dignity and importance. According to the faculty or source from which the pleasure given by any poem or passage was derived, I estimated the merit of such poem or passage. As the result of all my reading and meditation, I abstracted two critical aphorisms, deeming them to comprise the conditions and criteria of poetio style;-first, that not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry ;-secondly, that whatever lines can be translated into other words of the same language, without diminution of their significance, either in sense or association, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious in their diction. Be it however observed, that I excluded from the list of worthy feelings, the pleasure derived from mere novelty in the reader, and the desire of exciting wonderment at his powers in the author. Oftentimes since then, in perusing French tragedies, I have fancied two marks of admiration at the end of each line, as hieroglyphics of the author's own admiration at his own cleverness. Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous under-current of feeling; it is everywhere present, but seldom anywhere as a separate excitement. I was wont boldly to affirm, that it would be scarcely more difficult to push a stone out from the Pyramids with the bare hand, than to alter a word or the position of a word in Milton or Shakspeare (in their most important works at least), without making the poet say something else, or something worse, than he does say. One great distinction, I appeared to myself to see plainly between even the characteristic faults of our elder poets, and the false beauty of the moderns. In the former, from Donne to Cowley, we find the most fantastic out-of-the-way thoughts, but in the most pure and genuine mother English; in the latter the most obvious thoughts, in language the most fantastic and arbitrary.
Our faulty elder poets sacrificed the passion and passionate flow of poetry to the subtleties of intellect and to the starts of wit; the moderns to the glare and glitter of a perpetual, yet broken and heterogeneous imagery, or rather to an amphibious something, made up, half of image, and half of abstract meaning. The one sacrificed the heart to the head; the other both heart and head to point and drapery.
The reader must make himself acquainted with the general style of composition that was at that time deemed poetry, in order to understand and account for the effect produced on me by the Sonnets, the Monody at Matlock, and the Hope," of Mr. Bowles; for it is peculiar to original genius to become less and less striking, in proportion to its success in improving the taste and judgment of its contemporaries. The poems of West," indeed, had the merit of chaste and manly diction; but they were cold, and, if I may so express it, only dead-colored; while in the best of Warton's28 there is a stiffness, which too often gives them
25 I remember a ludicrous instance in the poem of a young tradesman : "No more will I endure love's pleasing pain,
Or round my heart's leg tie his galling chain."
26 [The Monody at Matlock was published in 1791, and the Vision of Hope in 1796. Ed.]
27 [Meaning of course, Gilbert West, the Translator of Pindar; to whose merit as a poet, it may be doubted whether the author does full justice in the text. West's two imitations of Spenser are excellent, not merely as Johnson seems to say, for their ingenuity, but for their fulness of thought and vigor of expression The following stanza is but one of many other passages of equal felicity::
Custom he hight, and aye in every land
Usurp'd dominion with despotic sway
So soft and gentle doth he win his way
That she unwares is caught in his embrace,
And tho' deflower'd and thrall'd nought feels her foul disgrace.
[Thomas Warton; whose English poems, taken generally, seem as
the appearance of imitations from the Greek. Whatever relation, therefore, of cause or impulse Percy's collection of Ballads may bear to the most popular poems of the present day; yet in a more sustained and elevated style, of the then living poets Cowper and Bowles" were, to the best of my knowledge, the first who
inferior to G. West's in correctness of diction as in strength of conception. Some of his Latin verse is beautiful; and, if he had written nothing else, his epigram addressed to Sleep would perpetuate his name at least among
Somne veni; et quanquam certissima mortis imago es,
Consortem cupio te tamen esse tori.
Huc ades, haud abiture cito: nam sic sine vita
Vivere quam suave est―sic sine morte mori!
A few stray lines of Warton's have crept into familiar use and application without ever being attributed to their author, such as:
while with uplifted arm
Death stands prepared, but still delays, to strike.
Ode to Sleep.
O what's a table richly spread
Nor rough, nor barren are the winding ways
In Dugdale's Monasticon.
Warton's best poem, as a whole, is the Inscription in a Hermitage :
Beneath this stony roof reclin'd, &c.
But his great work is the History of English Poesy, imperfect and inadequate as it is: τὸν τελοῦντα μένει.
It is somewhat remarkable that Mr. C. should not upon this occasion have mentioned Akenside, and, as compared with Warton, the beautiful Hymn to the Naiads. Ed.]
29 Cowper's Task was published some time before the Sonnets of Mr. Bowles; but I was not familiar with it till many years afterwards. The vein of satire which runs through that excellent poem, together with the sombre hue of its religious opinions, would probably, at that time, have
[Cowper's Task was first published in 1785-his Table Talk in 1782. Ed. Thomson was born in 1700: published his works, collected in 4to., in 1730. The Castle of Indolence, his last piece, appeared in 1746. S. C.]
combined natural thoughts with natural diction; the first who reconciled the heart with the head.
It is true, as I have before mentioned, that from diffidence in my own powers, I for a short time adopted a laborious and florid diction, which I myself deemed, if not absolutely vicious, yet of very inferior worth. Gradually, however, my practice conformed to my better judgment; and the compositions of my twentyfourth and twenty-fifth years-(for example, the shorter blank verse poems, the lines which now form the middle and conclusion of the poem entitled the Destiny of Nations, and the tragedy of Remorse)—are not more below my present ideal in respect of the general tissue of the style than those of the latest date. Their faults were at least a remnant of the former leaven, and among the many who have done me the honor of putting my poems in the same class with those of my betters, the one or two, who have pretended to bring examples of affected simplicity from my volume, have been able to adduce but one instance, and that out of a copy of verses half ludicrous, half splenetic, which I intended, and had myself characterized, as sermoni propiora."
Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, which will itself need reforming. The reader will excuse me for noticing, that I myself was the first to expose risu honesto the three sins of poetry, one or the other of which is the most likely to beset a young writer. So long ago as the publication of the second number of the Monthly Magazine, under the name of Nehemiah Higginbottom, I contributed three sonnets, the first of which had for its object to excite a
prevented its laying any strong hold on my affections. The love of nature seems to have led Thomson to a cheerful religion; and a gloomy religion to have led Cowper to a love of nature. The one would carry his fellowmen along with him into nature; the other flies to nature from his fellow men. In chastity of diction, however, and the harmony of blank verse, Cowper leaves Thomson immeasurably below him; yet still I feel the latter to have been the born poet.
80 [Poet. Works, i., 98. Ed.]
31 [Poet. Works, ii., 153. Ed.]
32 [Not meaning of course the exquisite Reflections on having left a place of Retirement, to which Coleridge himself affixed the motto from Horace Poet. Works, i., 193. Ed.]