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A foolish passion lately prevailed for inspecting the private correspondence of every person who had attained either rank or fame. Now the private correspondence of any man, upon ordinary subjects, can afford but little interest. I confess I was disappointed even in the letters of Mr. Gibbon, and perhaps I should be equally so with those of Mr. Burke, or Dr. Johnson. A few very fine letters of the latter, it is true, are preserved, such as that to Lord Chesterfield, the Earl of Bute, &c. But these are written upon important occasions. The truth is, to make a composition perfect there must be subject, and the petty incidents of private life are not subjects that can be expected to engage much of public attention. It is different when the facts described are of general importance. Miss Williams's Letters on the French Revolution deservedly were much noticed, and will be long read, not merely because they are well written, but because the transactions they detail were of the utmost consequence in an historical point of view.
Dialogue is another form of writing. I use this expression, because it may be adapted to any subject, or almost any style. It is, however, a very clumsy mode of conveying either sentiments or facts. The dialogues of Plato may perhaps be excused, if we consider them (as perhaps we ought) transcripts of the delightful conversations of his incomparable master. The science of that period was almost entirely metaphysical. In the present state of things, when a world of facts is displayed to our view, it is therefore not extraordinary that they should be in general uninteresting. As a proof, the best translation of Plato would not at present have a sale.
Many of Cicero's philosophical and critical works are also in dialogue, but I think they would appear to at least equal advantage in a different form. A modern author of great wit and fancy, as well as learning, has also published his critical researches, under the title of Era 77sposolen in dialogue; but the wit and vivacity of the writer enliven the subject, and reconcile us entirely to the manner and form.
It is upon ludicrous subjects, however, and where there is some display of character, that the dialogue form has been most happily employed. It becomes in this instance a kind of little drama. Lucian will be read with admiration and pleasure, as long as there is a relish for wit and fancy in the world. His pages Twy Cow (or sale of the philosophers), is the best of his dialogues. Lucian has been successfully imitated by Fenelon, and Lord Lyttleton.
DESCRIPTION AND ORIGIN OF POETRY.....METRE.....
MY DEAR JOHN,
HAVING endeavoured to present you with a critical view of the various forms of prosaic composition, I shall proceed without further preparation to the enchanting regions of poetry; a fairy land with which, however, you can only become properly acquainted by visiting it in person.
Dr. Blair observes, with some justice, that it is not easy to define “ what is poetry;" and yet we may add there is no person of tolerable taste, and common attainments, who will mistake poetry for prose, or prose for poetry. It would be perhaps to speak more correctly to say, it is not easy to define the limits between poetry and prose; for as I have shewn that all good prose, and oratorical prose particularly, falls naturally into a kind of metre, or musical cadence; so, on the other hand, if we admit metre as an essential adjunct in the definition of poetry, there is a kind of low and colloquial poctry, which is almost prose, and is even little distinguished from it even by the metre; such is the iambic verse of our own, and even of the Greek tragedies. There are many long speeches in Shakspeare, which a mere auditor could not possibly distinguish from prosaic composition. A specimen occurs this instant to my memory. It is Hotspur's reply to the king's ambassador, Sir Walter Blunt....
“The king is kind, and well we know, the king
“ And when he was not six-and-twenty strong,
Perhaps, however, we shall be best enabled to define, or at least to understand the nature of poetry, by reverting a little to its origin. Poetry has certainly origin ated in that instinctive love of harmony and music, which is implanted in the whole human race. It is impossible to look back to any period of society for the first musical effusions. We find them among the savages of the lowest order, and we find them always there accompanied with words ; for it is a depraved state of the public taste, when they attend to sound alone. This is the act of luxury and that sickliness of taste which perverts the very design of an art; and that of music was undoubtedly to give force and interest to sentiment and language.
Bishop Lowth has, with great labour, and not with less taste and discernment, traced the Hebrew poetry to a very early period of society ; * to the exclamation of Lamech, the sixth from Adan, in the fourth chapter of Genesis, and also to the prophetic execration of Noah upon Ham. The inspired benedictions of the patriarchs
* See Lectures of the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, Lect. iv. &c.
Isaac and Jacob, he proves to have been altogether of the same description ; and, when we proceed a little further in the history of the Hebrew nation, 'we find the songs of Miriam and of Moses, who, it may be observed, was the reputed author of many of the Psalms now extant, and that of Deborah and Barak, &c. All these we know were adapted to musical notes, and there is undoubted evidence that a great part of the religious service of the Hebrews was performed by both vocal and instrumental music. '
If we look into the history of other nations, we shall find all their early compositions to have been poetical, and actually set (as we should call it in inodern language, perhaps composed) to music. Greece for successive ages was possessed of no records but the poetic. The laws themselves were metrical, as Aristotle proves by the very name nomai (laws) by which some of the early popular songs were distinguished. In short, the Germans, the Spaniards, and even the Swedes, had both their ancient l'ecords and their ancient laws in verse. A gentleman, who had seen more of savage life than any man I ever knew, assured me that all the savage nations had their songs adapted to a rude music; and that the common subjects of these songs were love and war.
Hence I think we have very clearly the origin not only of poetry, but even of numbers or metre. Music was early found to be the most fascinating vehicle for sentiment. The poetry was composed to the music, and not the music to the words, as in modern times. Hence the absolute necessity of metre or rhyme, or something which should correspond with the musical cadence; hence the invention of all the different ancient metres ; and hence we may lay it down as a maxim that metre of sonie kind is essential to poetry.
The origin of poetry will explain to us the nature of the style which is appropriated to it, and indeed all its peculiar qualities. It was before men had learned to reason, that they applied themselves to poetry. There was therefore nothing for them to address but the sen