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This office, however, though certainly humble, in comparison with the production of the great works whose merit it is the business of criticism to determine, is, nevertheless, as important as it is delicate. Few minds are qualified to discern, unaided, the less obvious beauties of composition, or even to find the position from which they are best surveyed. To furnish assistance in doing this is the object of all critical rules. To develop the principles of our nature, on which the various excellences of composition depend, and according to which the models of good writing are executed, is the proper business of the philosophy or theory of literary composition.
The natural method of study, in this part of education, would therefore seem to be, to proceed from the consideration of the theory of taste, and its common relation to all the forms of beauty, in nature, art, or literature, to the general idea of literaturesubjects already treated in the foregoing pages—and thence to the particular examination of this department of genius, under the familiar divisions to which we are accustomed in rhetorical treatises. This will, accordingly, be the object of the present and of several of the succeeding chapters.
That these divisions are perfect need not be assumed. It is the necessary consequence of the progress of literature, that its several departments should be more and more separated from each other, and that new departments should now and then be formed. History and poetry and theology seem to have been all united in the infancy of composition; and, within a short period, we have seen the novel distinguished from the romance, and the historical novel from others of the same family; and, still more recently, the satirical novel, in which contemporary manners are exposed to public censure, raised to singular popularity by the talent of a living writer. Other forms of literary production may be introduced ; and those now familiar to us may be yet further modified. It is, however, sufficient for the purposes of the present work, to distinguish the principal branches of composition as now well understood, and to point out the characteristic features of each, the rules to which they are respectively subject, and the circumstances to be considered, in determining their merits, and in deriving improvement or enjoyment from them.
The most general distinction of literary productions is that of PROSE and POETRY. What is Prose? And what is Poetry ?
SECOND SERIES, VOL. VII. NO. II.
Wherein are they distinguished ? And what are those common traits, which belong to them as, equally, branches of literature?
It will assist us in replying to these questions to begin by considering, in what they are not distinguished.
Prose and poetry are, then, not distinguished by their subjects. One subject may be more appropriate to poetry, another, to prose. But nearly all subjects admit of being treated in either. Poetry, we are told, was, originally, the only vehicle of formal instruction. “Minos and Thales," says Dr. Blair,“ sung to the lyre, the laws which they composed, and till the age immediately preceding that of Herodotus, history had appeared in no other form than that of poetical tales.” Homer was the first historian, and Hesiod the first theologian of Greece. The longest poem of Horace, the Art of Poetry, is a carefully written treatise on an important branch of rhetoric. The Georgics, considered the most finished of the works of Virgil, is an ample discussion of the subject of agriculture, as it was understood in his time. Dr. Armstrong wrote a poem on the Art of Preserving Health, in which a system of dietetics and exercise is laid down with the didactic minuteness of a physician. Green wrote a poem on the Spleen, in which the art of cheerfulness is treated with similar particularity. Pope wrote, in poetry, the Art of Criticism, and a philosophical Essay on Man, and Dr. Akenside, a theory of taste, in his Pleasures of the Imagination, from which Dr. Thomas Brown has quoted no small part in illustration of his philosophical doctrines. In short, every thing but the pure mathematics has, I believe, been sung; and even one of the propositions of Euclid has been versified by Coleridge; the multiplication table had been set to music before.
Poetry is not distinguished from prose by the fictitious character of the one and the reality of the other. Fact and fiction belong to the domain of each. The Iliad of Homer is, probably, founded on real events in the history of his country. And, even if such an event as the siege of Troy never happened, and every historical incident, which the poet has connected with it, were absolutely fictitious, still what a mass of fact would remain in the Iliad; what a body of information might be gathered from it in relation to the manners, the institutions, the pursuits, the character of the poet's times; what details of life and feeling and thought, which we know must have been taken from the actual state of things in the heroic ages of Greece. The geography, the scenery, the climate of her sunny islands and sparkling waters, are delineated with surprising accuracy by her blind bard. The leading incidents and characters in the historical plays of Shakspeare are real. The assassination of Cæsar and the civil wars that followed, are not essentially misrepresented by the poet. Brutus and Cassius, Anthony and Cleopatra are not feigned by him. King John and King Richard, the Henrys and the Edwards, and the touching or terrible scenes in which they fig. ure in the wonderful dramas of this poet-historian, had, in all important respects, a literal existence.
Indeed, even poetry rarely creates any thing wholly fictitious; though it is true, that fiction is her highest and most characteristic vocation. If, on the one hand, creation is the peculiar prerogative of genius, and exhibits in their boldest and grandest features the wonderful powers of our nature, it is on the other hand even humiliating to think, how little after all it is permitted to the most original minds to create. And it is worthy of observation that history, and eloquence, and philosophy admit of a species of fiction. The severest annalist selects from the series of incidents which make up the life he records; and, though he may never distort, or essentially color, events or characters, it is hardly possible that the historian, or the orator, should present us with a perfect transcript of reality. The most practical and impartial eye sees not even the present precisely as it is, much less the remote and the past. And it is only when we think how little we know of the real events in the midst of which we live, and some of which we originate, or modify, that we understand the extreme delicacy and intrinsic difficulty of representing human life in history. He is a fortunate statesman, who apprehends the movements of his own time, entirely; the sagacity is rare, which can trace a single important event to its true causes and its actual effects. What resources must then be necessary to determine the sequence, which connects the complicated tissue of social life, in all its Protean forms, as they are successively unfolded on the theatre of national or general history. The facts of history, ascertained beyond dispute, are numerous and multiform, and the lessons they teach often infallible and inestimable. Human experience has been sufficiently extended and varied, and faithfully enough recorded, to have profited mankind far more than it has done. But it is idle to look for absolute reality and truth unmixed with theory or fancy, in the most veritable narrative. Were there no reason in the nature of the subject itself, there is enough in the essential im
perfection of our mental vision; for the intellectual, like the external eye, robes its objects, sometimes, in colors of its own. “ The eyes of a man in the jaundice,” says Watts, “make yellow observations on every thing; and the soul tinctured with any passion, diffuses a false color over the appearance of things." Happy is the historian whose "eye is single.”
In oratory we are so accustomed to exaggeration and perversion of facts, that we instinctively put ourselves on our guard against illusion. And even in philosophy, theory, hypothesis, speculation, words in their primitive meaning implying nothing bad, have come to signify something unreal and fanciful; a change of use which can be accounted for only from the fact, that so much which bears the name of philosophy has proved untrue. There is, however, this difference between fiction in history, eloquence and philosophy, and fiction in poetry, that in the former case it is disavowed, in the latter it is professed The historian, the orator, and the philosopher propose truth; we demand truth of them, we are offended if fiction is intentionally substituted for it; and the author loses in our confidence and esteem, in proportion as he fails for any cause to exhibit it. The poet not only proposes fiction; he is ambitious of it; he is by profession, as his name implies, a maker ; to create is his loftiest aim ; originality his highest praise.
The Novelist shares the world of fiction almost equally with the poet. As great liberty of invention is allowed him, and he, quite as frequently, weaves his narrative and his characters out of his own fancy. The more elevated creations of the novelist are, in this respect, essentially poetical, though in general the fictitious in prose is a nearer approximation to fact than poetry exhibits. To the difference in their language corresponds, in some degree, the difference in the tone and spirit of their creations. Those of the poet are more select and dignified; those of the novelist, more ordinary and vulgar. If truth, in the representation of human nature, imply completeness and justness of view, it must be admit· ted that the poet is even less fictitious than the novelist. For - the aspects of our nature dwelt upon by the latter are more confined and unimportant. A great part of the stirring interest of the common novel arises from the unprofitable unfolding of passions, which, if human, are not good to be felt or witnessed, and on occasions such as never occur. The influence of these works on the reader is very like that of spending one's time in gazing at public spectacles and feats of agility and conflicts of passion;
or lounging in places of concourse, in courts of law, at houses of gaming, and race courses. We enjoy the excitement, and we want it again. Poetry aims higher, and sustains herself in more wholesome and more just ideas of man. There are exceptions, but, considered as a department of literature, its sentiments are purer and nobler, its philosophy is deeper, and its examples more unexceptionable. Indeed, there seems to be something in the style of mind, which distinguishes the higher order of poets, that fits them to sympathize with moral greatness and religious truth. And we rise from the perusal of their works with profounder conceptions of ourselves and a deeper feeling of the great objects and interests of life. The soul is raised to a point of more comprehensive observation, and inspired with more becoming sentiments. As works of art, too, the great productions of poetry are of a higher character; they have a more perfect unity and sounder philosophy; they are executed in a more perfect style; and they seem, throughout, to imply a nobler order of thought and a more solicitous and careful study and discipline in the author. This may be partly owing to the fact that the great models, by which our taste has been cultivated, are chiefly poetical. The art of composition was carried to its perfection, by the classical writers, and was especially so in the illustrious poems, which they have left us, and on which our rhetorical rules have been mainly founded. The standard of excellency in poetry is therefore higher. It is observable, also, that poetry is addressed to a smaller number of readers; it is appreciated by comparatively few; and it appears in its more elevated forms to have been reserved as the medium of communion for the thoughtful and imaginative, as the expression of those finer feelings and profounder conceptions which constitute the inward life of regulated and chastened genius. The very language of prose brings the spirit almost instinctively down to fellowship with the ordinary world of men, and interests us again in the grosser elements and associations of life. But however the fact be accounted for, it cannot be denied that fiction in poetry is of a higher character and a more improving influence upon the taste and the heart, than fiction in prose. Except Bunyan, and possibly Scott, there is no Milton, no Shakspeare, no Thomson, no Young, no Cowper, no Wordsworth, among the English authors of prose fiction, though our poets would hardly fill an alcove in the library of our works of fiction. Such is the differ