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The scantiness of the French poetical diction is, probably, attended with the less inconvenience, that the phrases which occur in good prose writing are less degraded by vulgar application than in English, in consequence of the line being more distinctly and more strongly drawn between polite and low expressions in that language than in ours. Our poets, indeed, by having a language appropriated to their own purposes, not only can preserve a dignity of expression, but can connect with the perusal of their compositions, the pleasing impressions which have been produced by those of their predecessors. And hence, in the higher sorts of poetry where their object is to kindle, as much as possible, the enthusiasm of their readers, they not only avoid, studiously, all expressions which are vulgar, but all such as are borrowed from fashionable life. This certainly cannot be done in an equal degree by a poet who writes in the French language. In English, the poetical diction is so extremely copious, that it is liable to be abused; as it puts it in the power of authors of no genius, merely by ringing changes on the poetical vocabulary, to give a certain degree of currency to the most unmeaning compositions. In Pope's Song by a Person of Quality, the incoherence of ideas is scarcely greater than what is to be found in some admired passages of our fashionable poetry. Nor is it merely by a difference of words, that the language of poetry is distinguished from that of prose. When a poetical arrangement of words has once been established by authors of reputation, the most common expressions, by being presented in this consecrated order, may serve to excite poetical associations. On the other hand, nothing more completely destroys the charm of poetry, than a string of words which the custom of ordinary discourse has arranged in so invariable an WOL. I. 41
order, that the whole phrase may be anticipated from hearing its commencement. A single word frequently strikes us as flat and prosaic, in consequence of its familiarity; but two such words coupled together in order of conversation can scarcely be introduced into serious poetry without appearing ludicrous. No poet in our language has shewn so strikingly as Milton, the wonderful elevation which style may derive from an arrangement of words, which, while it is perfectly intelligible, departs widely from that to which we are in general accustomed. Many of his most sublime periods, when the order of the words is altered, are reduced nearly to the level of prose. To copy this artifice with success, is a much more difficult attainment than is commonly imagined ; and, of consequence, when it is acquired, it secures an author, to a great degree, from that crowd of imitators, who spoil the effect of whatever is not beyond their reach. To the poet who uses blank verse, it is an acquisition of still more essential consequence than to him who expresses himself in rhyme; for the more that the structure of the verse approaches to prose, the more it is necessary to give novelty and dignity to the composition. And accordingly, among our magazine poets, ten thousand catch the structure of Pope's versification, for one who approaches to the manner of Milton, or of Thomson. The facility, however, of this imitation, like every other, increases with the number of those who have studied it with success; for the more numerous the authors who have employed their genius in any one direction, the more copious are the materials out of which mediocrity may select and combine, so as to escape the charge of plagiarism. And, in fact, in our own language, this, as well as the other great resource of poetical expression, the employment of appropriated words, has had its effect so much impaired by the abuse which has been made of it, that a few of our best poets of late have endeavoured to strike out a new path for themselves, by resting the elevation of their composition chiefly on a singular, and, to an ordinary writer, an unattainable union of harmonious versification, with a natural arrangement of words, and a simple elegance of expression. It is this union which seems to form the distinguishing charm of the poetry of Goldsmith. From the remarks which have been made on the influence of the association of ideas on our judgments in matters of taste, it is obvious how much the opinions of a nation with respect to merit in the fine arts, are likely to be influenced by the form of their government, and the state of their manners. Voltaire, in his discourse pronounced at his reception into the French academy, gives several reasons why the poets of that country have not succeeded in describing rural scenes and employments. The principal one is, the ideas of meanness, and poverty and wretchedness, which the French are accustomed to associate with the profession of husbandry. The same thing is alluded to by the Abbé de Lille, in the preliminary discourse prefixed to his translation of the Georgics. “A translation,” says he, “of this “poem, if it had been undertaken by an author of genius, “would have been better calculated than any other work, “for adding to the riches of our language. A version of “the AEneid itself, however well executed, would, in this “respect, be of less utility; inasmuch as the genius of our “ tongue accommodates itself more easily to the description “of heroic achievements, than to the details of natural phe“nomena, and of the operations of husbandry. To force “it to express these with suitable dignity, would have been “a real conquest over that false delicacy, which it has con“tracted from our unfortunate prejudices.”
How different must have been the emotions with which this divine performance of Virgil was read by an ancient Roman, while he recollected that period in the history of his country, when dictators were called from the plough to the defence of the state, and after having led monarchs in triumph, returned again to the same happy and independent occupation. A state of manners to which a Roman author of a later age looked back with such enthusiasm, that he ascribes, by a bold poetical figure, the flourishing state of agriculture under the republic, to the grateful returns which the earth then made to the illustrious hands by which she was cultivated.—“Gaudente terra vomere laureato, et tri“umphali aratore.”
Of the Influence of Association on our active Principles, and on our moral Judgments.
In order to illustrate a little farther, the influence of the Association of Ideas on the human mind, I shall add a few remarks on some of its effects on our active and moral principles. In stating these remarks, I shall endeavour to avoid, as much as possible, every occasion of controversy, by confining myself to such general views of the subject, as do not presuppose any particular enumeration of our original principles of action, or any particular system concerning the nature of the moral faculty. If my health and leisure enable me to carry my plans into execution, I propose, in the sequel of this work, to resume these inquiries, and to examine the various opinions to which they have given rise.
The manner in which the association of ideas operates in producing new principles of action, has been explained very distinctly by different writers. Whatever conduces to the gratification of any natural appetite, or of any natural desire, is itself desired on account of the end to which it is subservient; and by being thus habitually associated in our apprehension with agreeable objects, it frequently comes, in process of time, to be regarded as valuable in itself, independently of its utility. It is thus that wealth becomes, with many, an ultimate object of pursuit; although, at first, it is undoubtedly valued merely on account of its subserviency to the attainment of other objects. In like manner, men are led to desire dress, equipage, retinue, furniture, on account of the estimation in which they are supposed to be held by the public. Such desires are called by Dr. Hutcheson* secondary desires; and their origin is explained by him in the way which I have mentioned. “Since we are “capable,” says he, “of reflection, memory, observation, “and reasoning about the distant tendencies of objects and “actions, and not confined to things present, there must “arise, in consequence of our original desires, secondary “desires of every thing imagined useful to gratify any of “the primary desires; and that with strength proportioned “to the several original desires, and imagined usefulness or “necessity of the advantageous object.”—“Thus,” he continues, “as soon as we come to apprehend the use of “wealth or power to gratify any of our original desires, we - “must also desire them; and hence arises the universality “of these desires of wealth and power, since they are the “means of gratifying all other desires.” The only thing that appears to me exceptionable in the foregoing passage is, that the author classes the desire of power with that of wealth; whereas I apprehend it to be clear, (for reasons which I shall state in another part of this work,) that the former is a primary desire, and the latter a secondary one.
* Plin. Nat. Hist. xviii. 4.