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ON THE MORAL USES OF POETRY.
I HAVE been detained much longer than I anticipated by the subject I first took up, the Sphere and Duties of Woman. The consequence is, that what I have to say of Literary and Intellectual Culture will occupy a much smaller space in these lectures than I had intended. Having at length however, despatched that prolific subject, I shall invite your attention this evening to the Moral Uses of Poetry.
The first distinction, which literature presents to us, is that of poetry and prose. As poetry is the most ancient of the two, it must be considered as the primary and most instinctive development of the human mind. It is the first expression of what is in man, of the thoughts, emotions, sentiments, feelings, passions which are excited by all that
he beholds and experiences in this life. Poetry preceded prose, because it preceded writing, and was the only form in which words could be remembered before any external signs were invented to represent them. Poetry preceded prose because it is capable of being set to music, which was a still earlier invention, while prose is not. Poetry and music both had their origin in the propensity, or rather instinct there is in us to express our emotions in words and tones. On the occurrence of a joyful event we give vent to our feelings by shouts of gladness. We repeat to ourselves in words, the facts, and the feelings which they excite over and over, because they have made a deep impression on our minds. Our exclamations when we are glad, reveal to us the origin of poetry, and show to us the Lyric Muse in her cradle. Just so is it with the low wailings of bereavement and sorrow. They too form themselves into music and poetry, but take the longer, slower measure of the elegy or the dirge. Thus it was that the various feelings, sentiments, and passions of humanity found expression in the ruder ages of the world, and thus originated poetry, and thus
in fact sprang up literature, the mightiest agent in the advancement of mankind.
But poetry differs from prose in its substance as well as its form. Prose is generally a literal representation of things. It adopts words which convey as nearly as possible a precise idea of the thing represented, otherwise it would fail of its purpose to convey true and just conceptions, and would thus be the instrument of deception. This is the form which our communications assume in the ordinary, unimpassioned intercourse of life. But let emotion spring up in the heart of the most prosaic, and poetry is instantly born. Literal words become no longer capable of expressing, not the things themselves, but our apprehension of them, the feelings we have concerning them. The man who has wronged us becomes a Turk. The man that has betrayed us becomes a Judas. The place where we have been happy becomes a Paradise, and the one where we have been miserable, a Pandemonium. Thus, then, a new language is invented, a language of symbols, instead of words. But it causes few mistakes, for it is rightly interpreted by the same poetic element which exists in every human being.
As poetry originates in emotion, so through the mysterious sympathies by which we are bound together, it usually excites emotion of the same kind. Emotions are generally pleasurable. They rouse us up from the dead level of a monotonous existence, and give us a higher consciousness of our being. Hence the pleasures of poetry, hence its popularity in all ages and nations. As in its creation the mind puts forth its highest energies, so its reflex influence upon the human mind and beart is powerful to a corresponding degree. It excites the same feelings in which it had its birth, and thus, by repeated exercise it tends to give a preponderance in the character to those sentiments, feelings and passions to which it addresses itself. Hence the immeasurable moral power of poetry. It is the pioneer of civilization and improvement. It is the first articulate voice of that common inspiration which giveth man understanding. We are not to suppose that God has taken no care of that part of mankind which he has left without a supernatural revelation, that his providence does not likewise extend to them. It is in his plan that the wise should every where instruct the ignorant, the
strong should help the weak. Who but he endows the poet with an extraordinary measure of the same powers which he has conferred on all men? It was not then the reverence of superstition, but the dictate of sound reason, which has in all ages attributed inspiration to the poet, and has made poet and prophet synonymous with each other. Epimenides, a poet of Crete, is called a prophet by Paul himself.
But whatever may be the kind and degree of the inspiration of the poet, certain it is that the Creator has so constituted man, that poetry shall spring out of the better elements of his nature, shall in turn address those better elements, aid in their development, and tend to give them the predominance in the formation of his character, and the government of his conduct. Nothing bad is poetic in man. The moment the poet attempts to prostitute his noble powers to the commendation of moral obliquity, to the kindling of the baser passions, his inspiration is withdrawn, the wing of his imagination droops, and his celestial harp, though tuned to heavenly harmonies, begins to grate harsh discord.