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Sir William Jones, forgetting their defects, or rather absorbed in their excellencies, scruples not to say, “there is but one law for poetry,--the will of the poet."
The above were great poets, both from nature and situation.* Aud I liave introduced them to explain, amidst the other reasons which lead to the same point, why, probably, it is that we have so few excellent poets,----I mean, in the higher essentials of poetry according to Aristotle's
flower of poetry, as Pindar speaks ---and it seems to be, partly, because few, comparatively, are in situations favourable to extraordinary energies, as the above poets were ; and partly because poets are more regulated by feelings which belong to an age of taste, than such as are peculiar to an age of 'genius.
'This reminds me of the distinction to be made between an age of genius and taste; and, with a full recollection of what has been said of the comparatively small number of poets truly excellent, to ask with due submission, whether the sublimest efforts of poetic talent are not to be looked for in the former period rather than in the latter. The ingenious Mr. Robert Southeyt observes, that in all countries the age of genius has preceded that of taste, and he has assigned very satisfactory reasons why the poets of Spain and Portugal never attained to the æra of taste. These are, the despotic nature of their government, the enervating shackles of their superstition, and the degrading influence of false literature which had long infested Europe; and he observes, that as these circumstances influenced Lope de Vega, so did “the dan. gerous abilities of Lope de Vega assist the progress of the evil.”
Mr. Southey is undoubtedly correct; for such evils act in vari. ous directions. They check genius, and unnerve integrity, the most powerful spring of human action : inquiry is, as it were, strangled in the birth : a bad taste becomes the public feeling : all motives to enthusiasm are destroyed : one bad imitator tracks the path of another :--and these are circumstances all ruinous to ex. cellence.
Yet under these circumstances Camoens and Lope de Vega reached their portion of excellence; and under more fostering causes, more invigorating motives, they would probably have been more excellent poets. For the age of genius seems more susceptible of some great qualities than an age of taste. Genius is the towering eagle that soars high, sails on the whirlwind, and sees and feels vast things. Taste loves security, and is apt to fear encounter. ing a storm. Strength yields to tameness,-grandeur to splendour,--the reality and sublimity of feeling to the more regular,
* What Sir W. says on this subject is highly worthy of consideration. Comment. Paes. Asiat. Part iv. cap. 12.
+ Letters written during a short Rosidence in Spain and Portugal, p. 124.
the more monotonous tones of passion. While, therefore, ascribing to an age of taste the acquisition of many improvements, we must, at the same time, ascribe to it the loss of some excellencies.
Despotic governments are certainly unfavourable to true ex. cellence.
However men define taste, and wherever they fix the principles of judgment, some affections there are so natural to man, and of such pervading, powerful energies, as to command, wherever they predominate, all the powers of poetry and eloquence. They, as it were, open the very springs of language, and urge the stream forward with a strong irresistible force: or, by some secret melt ing influence, they cause the sweetest undulations of melody, and produce all its refreshing, its most delightful salubrity, all its most romantic excursions, and enravishing charms.
These affections may be felt in the thunder of Demosthenes, the strength of Thucydides, the address of Pericles, the elegance of Lysias, no less than in the sweet melodies of Plato, the elegant simplicity of Xenophon. The same affections generate all the most excellent qualities of poetry. Hence the animation and grandeur of Tyrtæus, the ardour, the vehemence of Alcæus, the loftiness of Pindar, and the majesty of Stesichorus. As the love of money and of pleasure are the usual attendants on a declining empire, so are they the secret but inveterate enemies of genius : they take the citadel by a stratagem, and they force every faculty into subjection. Then enters Slavery with her vile party of marauders, who plunder it of every thing which constitutes the pride of generosity, the triumph of independence.
All the best energies of the mind are then compelled to be obedient: the powers of speech are then subdued into the service of the oppressor; genius, if it does not retire in disgust, wastes itself in meanness, or dreams away life in listlessness and sensuality. The poet is content to become the retailer of trifles and nicknacks; or, borne down by the tide of general corruption, a pander to tyrants, and the sycophant of slaves. To the loss of freedom, therefore, Longinus justly attributed the decay of genius, and the departure of all that is great and sublime in writing, from the Grecians. * When the sun of freedom set, science and taste gradually disappeared, and were succeeded by a night of ignorance and dulness.t Romelie, therefore, or modern Greece, in a moa dern Greek poem, after comparing her present condition, dege.
Περι Υψος sub fη. + What has been here said on the influeace of governments is copied from some former Essay of the writer's, though with some alterations, not in the Reflector.
I O 'EEYOS Le Tony Povleenge (this is modern Greek) en Voyage de Dimo Nicolo Stephannpoli en Grece, pendant les annees 1797, 1798. Tome II.
nerated in talents, and bereared of all dignity, properly adds, " these are my evils and my regrets ; their source is in my slavery.". She could boast no more excellent poets.
Rome, in regard to her poets, was similarly circumstanced. How different the writers under the emperors to those of the Au. gustan age! The former were tlowers, blooming, and beautiful, and sweet: the latter were flowers all shrivelled, that are just on the decline, with little fragrance. Eloquence and poetry shared the same fortune.* They withered as liberty declined.
The history of literature, too, furnishes many examples illustra. tive of the point now under consideration. In the destruction of valuable libraries, like that of Alexandria, much that is excellent
have perished; and as some writings are to be traced only in collectors, such as Athenæus and Stobæus, so by the zeal of party much may have been destroyed. In ages of fanaticism and superstition, suppression as well as forgery was common. ly pratised; we have false diplomas, false bulls, and false gospels;+ and instances might be given of magnificent editions of the Scriptures that have been suppressed. I Of some excellent writers we know nothing but by the scraps, preserved, as in scoro, by their enemies. And may not all this have happened with respect to much that was truly excellent in poetry?
Time itself, that great destroyer, has in this destruction of ex. cellence united with Goths, and has, perhaps, sacrificed as much in bis fury, as he has preserved from ruin.
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Pope's Epistle to Addison. And here I cannot help just mentioning, though with reluctance, what has been said by some, that poets themselves have not been always so favourable to their own order as could be wished: whether it is, that the temple of Fame is supposed to be of such limited dimensions as to admit but few within its walls; or that literature, when it becomes a commercial concern, is apt, like other commercial speculations, to excite competition, rivalry, jealousy, and by a sort of spongy softness to absorb the more gene. rous passions.
* Dum res 'populi Romani memorabantur pari eloquentiâ et libertate. Taciti Hist.
+ See Codas Apocryphus Novi Testamenti a Fabricio, and James's Corroprions of the Fathers.
# One patrouized by the Polish Prince Radzivil, another edited by Servetus.
What Reitzius* says of Aristotle's burning the writings of mny, philosophers, that what he borrowed from them might not be de. tected, has been said by an ancient writer,--I forget who,-of Homer. Such reports, however, for the honour of all that is great in human nature, it is to be hoped are mere fabrications, and with respect more particularly to Homer, may be thrown over to the mass of idle stories that have been propagated about the great bard. I am not willing to enter much upon this subject now, and therefore I shall only at present say, that such as choose to see how a spirit like this may operate, may find several examples to his mind in Reitzius.
If in the above causes there exist reasons why much that is excellent may have been destroyed or suppressed, in the motives which influence mankind in writing there exist others, why much has not been produced. From muddy springs flow muddy waters; and if in their course they do not clear themselves by the beds over which they flow, or by mingling insensibly with purer waters, they will continue muddy till they are buried in the sea. So must pure writings have a pure source, a wholesome direction, and, whatever meandering they make, must fertilize and enrich the land. The love of gain, the desire of gratifying a frivolous or vicious taste, the humiliation of administering to base passions, the little vanity which feeds on the smile of the day, and is satisfied with superficial compliments,—these are not the motives which stir great passions,—which form great conceptions, which authorize noble darings,--which give that confirmed persevering enthusiasm, which conspire to form the poet, omnibus numeris absolutum. It is a desire to please, that he may instruct, and to instruct that he may benefit mankind; to live in the good opinion of a future age, that he may improve and bless it. This is the true Love OF FAME, the nurse of all that is truly excellent; and one reason, the principal reason, why amidst all the poetical contentions in the world, there have existed so few excellent poets, is, that the spring and source do not arise in majesty and true greatness
I close this Essay with an excellent passage from Longinus's Treatise on the Sublime, as being much to our purpose.
we submit to our consideration how Homer, were he present, or Demosthenes, would hear what we say, or how they would be affected; to constitute such a tribunal and theatre for our writings, and to be disciplined to give the grounds of our writings, before such heroes, judges, and witnesses, would excite a great contest after excellence. But the incitement is still greater, if you add, how will every age that comes after mę, hear what I have written?"
Oratio de Plagio Literario, p. 16
The reader may observe that I have passed over, or rather 'merely alluded to, oue great mound of original genius,-the servile imitation of others. This subject I have elsewhere examined. I have made due allowance for particular circumstances, which ought to operate as modifications on general principles; and I would make a distinction betwixt governments settled and long established, as the Eastern, and governments on the decline, as those of Greece and Rome. And for similar reasons I deem it unnecessary to enter on the question, What think you of the age of Louis the Fourteenth?
ART. VIII.- On the best Means of Promoting the Fundamental
Principles of the English Constitution.
HOBBES sets out in his “ Philosophical Elements concerning a Citizen,” with observing, that “if in those matters on which we speculate for the sake of exercising our genius, any error is introduced, no loss but of our time ensues ; but that in our meditations which relate to the purposes of life, not only from our error but our ignorance necessarily must arise offences, quarrels, and violent deaths."
Locke seems to have started from nearly the same point, if one may judge by the quotation from Livy prefixed to his Treatise on Government, and was evidently much indebted to Hobbes for some principles; but they were urged on by different impulses, and took different directions : Hobbes, as seeing the horrors of a civil storm, thought quiet was to be found only under arbitrary power:* Locke, as seeing a storm passed, and as having in view peace and liberty under the revolution.
Algernon Sidney and Harrington had previously taken nearly the same course as Locke, though under different circumstances ; and they took a different course from Hobbes, though under circumstances nearly similar.
Political systems should be considered relatively to their prin. ciples and tendencies, as well as to any present state of things; and civil dissentions no less than civil harmonies rather be traced
* 1 infer this from what Hobbes says in the preface to his readers, of his bouk de Cive, “ quapropter si aliqua inveneritis aut minus certa, aut magis quain necesse erat, acriter dicta, cum non partium, sed pacis studio et ab eo dicta sunt, cujus, propter patriæ præsentem calamitatem, dolore justo aliquid condonari æquum est ea int æquo aniino dignemini, lectores, oro et postulo." Hobbes's book de Cive was written ai Paris in 1646.