Page images


writers of all civilized countries; and concludes the enumeration thus: "In our neighbour country, Ireland, where truly learning goes very bare, yet are their poets held in devout reverence. Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians," (only the next remove to the Irish, as he seems to think)"where no writing is, yet have they their poets, who make and sing songs, which they call Arentos,' both of their ancestors' deeds, and praises of their gods. A sufficient probability that, if ever learning came among them, it must be by having their hard, dull wits softened and sharpened with the sweet delight of poetry; for until they find a pleasure in the exercise of the mind, great promises of much knowledge will little persuade them that know not the fruits of knowledge." He next proceeds to contrast poetry generally, as an art, with all other arts and sciences, in the following skilful and highly eloquent


"There is no art delivered to mankind, that hath not the works of nature for its principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth. So doth the astronomer look upon the stars, and by that he seeth set down what order nature hath taken therein. So doth the geometrician and arithmetician, in their divers sorts of quantities. So doth the musician, in tunes tell you which by nature agree, which not. The natural philosopher thereon hath his name, and the moral philosopher standeth upon the natural virtues, vices, or passions of man: And follow nature, saith he, therein, and you shall not err. The lawyer saith what men have determined. The historian, what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech, and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which are still compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weigheth the nature of man's body, and the nature of things hurtful or helpful to it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and ab. stract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he indeed build upon the depth of nature."

How extremely accurate are the thoughts, in all this; and with what felicitous simplicity are they expressed! Now mark the fine burst of enthusiasm by which the argument is applied and summed up.

"Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demigods, cyclops, chymeras, furies, and such like, so as he

goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely: her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden."

-"Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison, to balance the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of nature; but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who having made man to his own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature, which in nothing he shewed so much as in poetry —when, with the force of a divine breath, he bringeth things forth surpassing her doings; with no small arguments to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam.-Since our erect wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it."

[ocr errors]

He now proceeds to arrange poetry under various artificial divisions and subdivisions; shewing, however, that they all do and must lead to the same great end, of bettering mankind by means of delighting them. We shall not follow him minutely through this part of the subject, but may mention, in passing, that he here announces, and in some degree developes, those views in regard to versification and diction, the mere revival of which has been thought a stroke of genius in our own times.

The next step our author takes in his eloquent disquisition on the value and virtue of poesy, is to contrast it somewhat circumstantially with the other high sciences, and demonstrate its comparative superiority over them all. Those who only know Sir Philip Sidney as a chivalrous soldier, an inditer of extravagant verses, and a builder-up of the most romantic romance that ever represented things and persons as they are not, will be surprised to observe the extraordinary accuracy of thought, as well as of feeling, which pervades all the definitions and descriptions that occur in this part of the Essay. Let the reader take the following as proofs, that acute penetration and thorough good sense are in no degree incompatible with the most fervid enthusiasm and the most lofty imagination.

"So that the ending of all earthly learning being virtuous action, those skills that most serve to bring forth that, have a most just title to be princes over all the rest; wherein, if we can shew it rightly, the poet is worthy to have it before any other competitors: among whom, principally to challenge it, step forth the moral philosophers; whom methinks I see coming towards me with a sullen gravity, as though they could not abide vice by day-light; rudely clothed, for to witness outwardly their contempt of outward things; with books in

their hands against glory, whereto they set their names; sophistically speaking against subtlety, and angry with a man in whom they see the foul fault of anger."


"The historian scarce gives leisure to the moralist to say so much, but that he, (loaden with old mouse-eaten records, authorising himself for the most part upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay-having much ado to accord differing writers, and to pick truth out of partiality; better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world goes than how his own wit runs ; curious for antiquities, and inquisitive of novelties; a wonder to young folks, and a tyrant in table-talk-denieth, in a great chafe, that auy man, for teaching of virtue and virtuous actions, is comparable to him." "The philosopher, therefore, and the historian are they which would win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example; but both, not having both, do both halt. For the philosopher, sitting down with the thorny arguments, the bare rule is so hard of utterance, and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him shall wade in him until he be old, before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract and general, that happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy that can apply what he doth understand. On the other side, the historian, wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should be, but to what is-to the particular truth of things, and not the general reason of things-that his example draweth not necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine. Now doth the peerless poet perform both; for whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it, by some one by whom he presupposeth it was done; so as he coupleth the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture, I say,-for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul, so much as that other doth."


So, no doubt, the philosopher with his learned definitions, be it of virtues or vices, matters of public policy or private government, replenisheth the memory with many infallible grounds of wisdom, which, notwithstanding, lie dark before the imaginative and judging power, if they be not illuminated and figured forth by the speaking picture of poesy. Tully taketh much pains, and many times not without poetical helps, to make us know what force the love of our country hath in us: let us but hear old Anchises, speaking in the midst of Troy's flames; or see Ulysses, in the fulness of all Calypso's delights, bewailing his absence from barren and beggarly Ithaca! Anger, the Stoics said, was a short madness; let but Sophocles bring you Ajax on a stage, killing or whipping sheep and oxen, thinking them the army of the Greeks, with their chieftains Agamemnon and Menelaus; and tell me if you have not a more familiar insight into anger than finding in the school-men its genus and difference?”

After a multiplicity of other examples of a similar kind, he adds:

"For conclusion, I say, the philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught. But the poet is the food for tender stomachs; the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher."

Thus far our author has been comparing the poet's power of teaching with that of the philosopher. He next examines, in detail, the relative pretensions of the poet and the historian. One of his most powerful arguments in favor of the former's infinite superiority, is set down as follows:

"But history, being captived to the truth of a foolish world, is many times a terror to well doing, and an encouragement to unbridled wickedness. For see we not valiant Miltiades rot in his fetters? The just Phocion and the accomplished Socrates put to death like traitors? The cruel Severus living prosperously? Sylla and Marius dying in their beds? Pompey and Cicero slain then, when they would have thought exile a happiness? See we not virtuous Cato driven to kill himself, and rebel Cæsar so advanced, that his name yet, after sixteen hundred years, lasteth in the highest honor?"

Having gone through these particular comparisons, and added many more arguments, no less just than ingenious, in proof of his proposition, he now concludes this part of his subject by a general summary, from which we select the following admirable passages-which, for justness of thought, and curious felicity of expression, cannot well be surpassed.


"Now therein" (that is to say, the power of at once teaching and enticing to do well)" Now therein, of all sciences-I speak still of human and according to human conceit-is our poet the monarch, For he doth not only shew the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect nto the way, as will entice any man to enter into it. Nay, he doth as if your journey should lie through a fair vineyard, at the very first give you a cluster of grapes, that, full of that taste, you may long to pass further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness; but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music; and with a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you with a tale, which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner; and pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the

* We have here, undoubtedly, the origin of Shakspeare's

"That elder ears played truant at his tale,

And younger hearings were quite ravish'd,-
So sweet and voluble was his discourse, &c."



mind from wickedness to virtue, even as the child is often brought to take most wholesome things, by hiding them in such other as have a pleasant taste."-" For even those hard-hearted evil men, who think virtue a school name, and know no other good but indulgere genio, and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the philosopher, and feel not the inward reason they stand upon, yet will be content to be delighted; which is all the good-fellow poet seems to promise; and so steal to see the form of goodness-which seen, they cannot but love ere themselves be aware, as if they had taken a medicine of cherries."-"By these, therefore, examples and reasons, I think it may be manifest that the poet, with that same hand of delight, doth draw the mind more effectually than any other art doth. And so a conclusion not unfitly ensues, that as virtue is the most excellent resting-place for all worldly learning to make an end of, so poetry, being the most familiar to teach it, and most princely to move towards it, in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman."

Should it occur to the reader, in the midst of his admiration of these passages, that he has met with something very like parts of them before, we can readily believe that he is not mistaken; for the truth is, that the Defence of Poesy has formed the staple of all the "thousand and one" dissertations on that art, with which our magazines and reviews have teemed during the last twenty years.

Having drawn this inference respecting poetry generally, he prepares to descend into an examination of the various species into which it is divided; for, as he says, "though (as in man) all together may carry a presence full of majesty and beauty, perchance in some one defectuous piece we may find a blemish."It is unnecessary to follow him through this examination; but we cannot refuse to collect the following characteristic touch as we pass on, and also the passage in which he triumphantly sums up this division of his subject. In speaking of the lyric, he says, " Certainly, I must confess mine own barbarousness, I never heard the old song of Piercy and Douglas" (the ballad of Chevy Chase)-" that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet." His summing up of this part is as follows:

"Since, then, poetry is of all human learning the most antient, and of most fatherly antiquity, as from whence other learnings have taken their beginnings;-Since it is so universal that no learned nation doth despise it, no barbarous nation is without it ;-Since both Roman and Greek gave such divine names unto it, the one of prophesying, the other of making; and that, indeed, that name of making is fit for it, considering that whereas all other arts retain themselves within their subject, and receive, as it were, their being from it,-the poet, only, bringeth his own stuff, and doth not learn a conceit out of the matter, but maketh matter for a conceit;-Since neither his de

« PreviousContinue »