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ses and the passions. Music itself might almost be termed a sensual enjoyment; when with music therefore was combined all the information that men were capable of receiving in that stage of society, the heroic actions, or miraculous achievements of their ancestors, the entertainment must have been delightful. Still the expression must be such as to excite and engage the passions. The superstition always attached to so early a stage in the history of man, will also account for that alliance with the wonderful, the supernatural, which poetry has always claimed: and hence the origin of poetical machinery. The very poverty of language at this early period, aided by the vividness of an imagination that had none of the polished haunts of men to dwell in, and nothing but the solitude of woods and groves in which to rove, would naturally lead to a language and expression highly figurative and metaphorical.
Hence you have all the ingredients and characteristics of poetry; and hence it may be defined "a metrical composition chiefly addressed to the passions, occasionally enriched by machinery, or at least by the introduction of the supernatural, and expressed in highly figurative language."
This definition, however, though the best that I am able to offer in a general way, is still very imperfect, for it does not embrace what is almost the spirit and essence, of poetry. Since it is so difficult therefore to form a definition, let us seck for an etymology? A poem is the production of the imagination or fancy: hence it was originally termed poema (a creation) and the writers were called Aoietai (makers). Not that every thing contained in a poem was supposed to be a new invention, for that could not be truc, and particularly of descriptive poems; but the composition as a whole might be regarded more strictly as an effort of the invention - than the detail of facts or arguments, than the records of history, or the reasonings of the logician.
I have defined a poem to be a metrical composition ; but I am not going to send you back to your grammar, to descant on the quantities of syllables, to give rules to
know a dactyl, a spondec, an iambic, &c. These you have already learned in your prosody. But there is one distinction between the ancient and modern languages, which it becomes necessary to point out. Harmony is an essential part of poetry; but the harmony of ancient and modern verse depends upon very different principles. The ancient languages were distinguished by what is called quantity; the same combinations of letters always formed cither by long or short syllables; and by a certain arrangement of these the most perfect harmony could be produced. Modern languages, on the contrary, are defective with respect to the quantity of syllables, the same syllable being sometimes long and sometimes short. Some critics indeed have denied that we have any quantity at all, and say we have only accent, that is, a certain stress laid upon a particular syllable, as attribute, conjecture, complain, &c. In this however I do not coincide: for a perusal of our best prose writers will convince any one with a good ear that we have quantity, and that on the tasteful and musical admixture of long and short syllables much of the harmony of those writers depends; as I endeavoured to prove in a former letter. Whatever may be said of our iambics too, it must be allowed that we, as well as the French, have a dactyl measure, and Dr. Watts, as I recollect, has composed in it some short pieces without rhyme. Yet I must confess that, in the bulk of our poetry, and in our heroic verse in particular, more attention is given to accent than to quantity.
From these defects in our numbers, and to afford usthat regular return of the same sound, which seems to constitute the music of verse, modern poets have called in the aid of rhyme; without which, whether it arises from habit or from principle, very little modern poetry can please, or satisfy the car.
Our English verse then is regulated rather by the number of syllables than of feet, for you will find in what we call our iambic verse, very little attention is paid to the quantity of the syllables, and even some degree of negligence in this respect seems often to add to its beau
ty and variety; and it depends for its harmony on the rhyme, and on the pause, which divides the line into two hemistichs or half verses, and seems to give the reader time to breathe, as
"Awake my St. John-leave all meaner things
A mighty maze-yet not without a plan."
Here the pause is finely varied, and the harmony complete, whereas in verse, where it falls too frequently in the same place, there is always a monotony, and consequently a tameness. It is only a good ear which, with proper practice can regulate this essential adjunct to good poetry.
Rhyme is not, however, an essential ingredient in English poetry, as the tragedies of Shakspeare, and the epic poems of Milton may satisfy you. It is then called blank verse, as wanting the rhyme. Whether blank verse or rhyme is to be preferred is still a matter in dispute among the critics. In tragedy it is certainly more natural, as approaching nearer to prose; but the few successful adventurers in blank verse in the other walks of poetry seems to form a presumptive argument against it. Milton himself appears to be supported ra ther by the grandeur and sublimity of his thoughts and language, than by the harmony of his numbers.
Our heroic poetry, whether in rhyme or blank verse, consists of ten syllables; and in rhyme, of couplets, or two lines rhyming to each other. Sometimes, however, a triplet is introduced, or an Alexandrine, or line of twelve syllables. You have an instance of both in these lines....
"Waller was smooth-but Dryden taught to join
The most frequent measure next to this in English poetry is that of eight syllables. This is often appropriated to ludicrous poetry, such as Hudibras, and most of Swift's humorous pieces, and the humour is often heightened by double rhymes. Take for example the first lines of Hudibras....
"When civil dudgeon first grew high,
"And made them fight like mad or drunk,
"Whose honesty they all durst swear for,
It is sometimes however used on more serious occasions, and seems well adapted to tender expression. Both the ten and eight syllable verses are generally considered as iambics; but some short poems have only seven syllables, and these may be regarded as trochaic, with a long syllable or double rhyme at the close....`
"Fill the bowl-with rosy wine,
Many poems, and especially songs, in our language, are written in the dactyl or anapestic measure, some consisting of eleven or twelve syllables, and some of less. ✔ Of this measure we have a good specimen in Dr. By- rom's pretty pastoral, inserted in one of the volumes of the Spectator....
"My time, O ye Muses, was happily spent,
"When Phoebe was with me wherever I went," &c.
DESCRIPTION, &c. OF POETRY.
What I have said upon this subject will suffice to give you a general idea of metre, at least as far as respects our own poetry. I shall next call your attention to a higher subject, the thoughts and language of poetry. Though this letter is not so long as some that have preceded it, yet I think it will make a better division of the subject to conclude it here, than to enter upon a new and extended subject.