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reason but fancy behind them; and produced combinations of confused magnificence, that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined.
Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, is never wholly lost: if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth: if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and hereditary similies, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility of syllables.
In perusing the works of this race of authors, the mind is exercised either by recollection or inquiry; either something already learned is to be retrieved, or something new is to be examined. If their greatness seldom elevates, their acuteness often surprises; if the imagination is not always gratified, at least the powers of re
flection and comparison are employed; and in the mass of materials which ingenious absurdity has thrown together, genuine wit and useful knowledge may be sometimes found, buried perhaps in grossness of expression, but useful to those who know their value; and such as, when they are expanded to perspicuity, and polished to elegance, may give lustre to works which have more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment. * This kind of writing, which was, I believe, borrowed from Marino and his followers, had been recommended by the example of Donne, a man of a very extensive and various knowledge; and by Jonson, whose manner resembled that of Donne more in the ruggedness of his lines than in the cast of his sentiments.
When their reputation was high, they had undoubtedly more imitators than time has left behind. Their immediate successors, of whom any remembrance can be said to remain, were Suckling, Waller, Denham, Cowley, Cleiveland, and Milton. Denham and Waller sought another way to fame, by improving the harmony of our
numbers. Milton tried the metaphysick style only in his lines upon Hobson the Carrier. Cowley adopted it, and excelled his predecessors, having as much sentiment and more music. Suckling neither improved versification, nor abounded in conceits. The fashionable style remained chiefly with Cowley; Suckling could not reach it, and Milton disdained it.
CRITICAL REMARKs are not easily understood without examples; and I have therefore collected instances of the modes of writing by which this species of poets, for poets they were called by themselves and their admirers, was eminently distinguished,
As the authors of this race were perhaps more desirous of being admired than understood, they sometimes drew their conceits from recesses of learning not very much frequented by common readers of poetry. Thus Cowley on Knowledge :
The sacred tree 'midst the fair orchard grew ; The phoenix Truth did on it rest, And built his perfum’d nest, That right Porphyrian tree which did true logic shew.
Each leaf did learned notions give,
And th” apples were demonstrative :
So clear their colour and divine,
On Anacreon continuing a lover in his old age :
Love was with thy life entwin'd,
In the following verses we have an allusion to a rabbinical opinion concerning manna :
Variety I ask not: give me one
Thus Donne shews his medicinal knowledge in some encomiastick verses:
In every thing there naturally grows A balsamum to keep it fresh and new,
If 'twere not injur’d by extrinsique blows; Your youth and beauty are this balm in you.
But you, of learning and religion,
A mithridate, whose operation
Though the following lines of Donne, on the last night of the year, have something in them too scholastic, they are not inelegant:
This twilight of two years, not past nor next,
Yet more abstruse and profound is Donne's reflection upon man as a microcosm:
If men be worlds, there is in every one
Of thoughts so far fetched, as to be not only unexpected, but unnatural, all their books are full.