« FöregåendeFortsätt »
“ That touch each other to the quick-in modes
No soul to dream of.” This whole range of subjects, of deepest moment in the science of humanity, belongs to the imaginative portion of literature, toward which the proge literature is always tending, whenever it approaches the deep and spiritual and mysterious parts of human nature. When Mr. Lockhart, at the conclusion of his admirable biography of Sir Walter Scott, devotes a chapter to a delineation of Scott's character, with all his familiarity with his subject and his powers as an author, he prefaces his attempt with this remark : “ Many of the feelings common to our nature can only be expressed adequately, and some of the finest can only be expressed at all, in the language of art, and more especially in the language of poetry. When Arnold, in his History of Rome, portrays the character of Scipio, and especially that deep religious spirit in it which baffled the ancient historians-feeling the inadequacy of his effort in dealing with character, which, like Scipio's and the Protector Cromwell's, “are the wonders of history," he adds, “the genius which conceived the incomprehensible character of Hamlet would alone be able to describe with intuitive truth the character of Scipio, or of Cromwell.”+ Now observe how two authors, of the finest powers in these two high departments—biography and history-after carrying those powers to the farthest, profess their sense of how much remains unaccomplished; and, moreover, their conviction that all of higher or deeper achievement which lies beyond is left to poetry, or left to
* Lockhart's Scott, vol. x. p. 22. † History of Rome, vol. iii., p. 385.
silence; not that it is less true or less real, but because there is truth which prose can never reach to--truth to which a form can be given only by imagination and art, whether using the instrument of words, the pencil, or the chisel—the hand of poet, of painter, or of sculptor. We ought to remember, then, that when we let imaginative studies drop out of our habits of reading, we neglect a whole region of truth and reality which the highest prose authority acknowledges itself unequal to.
The propensity to partial prose reading is attended with further loss, inasmuch as it not only separates us from much of the highest truth human nature can hold communion with, but it makes one lose the finest and deepestreaching discipline our spiritual being is capable of. Two thousand years ago, the great philosopher of criticism gave his well-known theory of tragic poetry, that it purifies our feelings through terror and pity. But in the large compass of its power, poetry employs also other and kindlier agencies of good. It deals with us in the spirit of the most sagacious morality: it does not single out this or that faculty, and tutor the one till it grows weary or stubborn, or stupid under the narrow teaching and the dull iteration, but it addresses good sense, (which true poetry is never heedless of the intellect, the affections, and what has been well called “the great central power of imagination, which brings all the other faculties into harmonious action."* Instead of ministering to the mind diseased or the mind enfeebled one drug, or hard, unvaried food, it carries poor suffering humanity to the seaside, or up to the mountain-tops, for the larger contemplation which
* Talfourd's Literary Sketches and Letters, being the Final Memoirs of Charles Lanıb, p. 255.
leads to infinity, and for the health and strength and life of sublimer and purer thoughts and feelings. Were it possible to fathom the mystery which dwells in the serious eyes of infancy, we should learn, I believe, that nature leads the young spirit on to its sense of truth through wonderment and faith; and we do know how the imagination of childhood puts forth its powers into the region of the marvellous, the distant, the shadowy, and the infinite, -Robinson Crusoe's lonely island, the Arabian wonders, fairy fictions, fables without the “morals,” which are skipped with better wisdom than they were put there, or travels in far-off lands. These things wear away as the work of life comes on, and, unhappily, the loving, faithful, imaginative spirit wears away too. The imagination is suffered to grow torpid, instead of being cultivated into a wiser activity, and our souls become materialized and sophisticated. There is enough in life to make us practical, but what we more need is to study how to be wisely visionary, to carry the freshness and feelings of childhood and this has been said to be a characteristic of genius) into the mature reason, for
We live by admiration, hope, and love;
In dignity of being, we ascend. This is the poetic process of our spiritual growth, and when the poet teaches or chastens, he, at the same time, elevates and brings forth into life and light all of great and good that lies hidden in our nature. "Wouldst thou," says that earnest but rigid writer, Carlyle, "plant for eternity, then plant into the deep, infinite faculties of man his fantasy and heart; wouldst thou plant for year and then plant into his shallow, superficial faculties, his selflove, and arithmetical understanding."* The poet's planting is the deep planting, and his teaching becomes a ministry within our inmost being, so that the oracle without and the response within are in marvellous unity. It is not like the lessons which, remaining outward to us and unrecognised by our deep sympathies, are easily intercepted by chance or blown away from us, but it is made part of our very life and taste, to give perpetual strength or welcome warning. I would rather a child of mine should know and feel the high, imaginative teachings of Wordsworth’s “ Ode to Duty,” than any piece of uninspired prose morality in the language, because the heart that will truly take that lofty lesson unto itself, however it may falter with frailty or fall short in the fulfilment, will fain not cast it out; it is teaching, that tempers the pride and usefulness of manhood, showing how much more of moral beauty and strength and happiness there is in the spirit of willing obedience than in that of power or of liberty; nay, that the only genuine liberty is that which is in harmony with law and self-control; it is teaching fitted to give to womanhood a star-like life and motion, obedient to her orbit, and kindling the firmament of humanity with bright and benignant influences, radiant from that orbit alone ; for the poet, better than the prose moralist, by throwing the consecration of his art around the sense of duty, discloses its hidden power for suffering or for action, so that, if need be, the woman will bow, like “the gentle lady married to the Moor," beneath the doom of some dark tragedy of home, or, if man's wrongs or his omissions should call her to other duties—for what a woman ought to do often depends on what man does or leaves undone—she will go forth, like Imogen, for womanly well-doing in the rude places of the open and unroofed world.
When that accomplished lady, whose genius, with no other instruments than the poet's text and her own voice, so finely illustrated the genius of Shakspeare, read in a neighbouring city, to an audience of teachers, some selections of English literature, she gave that eloquent tribute to the character of Washington, which occurs in the historical lectures of Professor Smyth, of the English University of Cambridge, * and also Wordsworth's Ode to Duty, to which I have made allusion. I was struck with I will not say the felicity of the choice, but with the wisdom of it—the one selection portraying the might and glory of duty as actualized in the life of the moral hero of modern times; the other showing them idealized by the imagination of the poet. I refer to this as an admirable combination of the deep teachings of prose and poetry.
In order to receive the true benefit of the discipline of poetry, and also the full enjoyment of it, there must be given to it much more of thought, of strenuous activity of the reader's own imagination, more caution of mind, than most people think it worthy of. It must be studied, and not merely read. There are some books which I wish to commend to you with a view to the proper culture and discipline of the imagination. I will
* Smyth's Lectures, vol. ii. p. 486.