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I HAVE now finished my observations on the different kinds of writing in prose. What remains is, to treat of poetical composition. Before entering on the consideration of any of its particular kinds, I design this lecture as an introduction to the subject of poetry in general; wherein I shall treat of its nature, give an account of its rise and origin, and make some observations on versification, or poetical numbers.

Our first enquiry must be, what is poetry? and wherein does it differ from prose? The answer to this question is not so easy as might at first be imagined; and critics have differed and disputed much, concerning the proper definition of poetry. Some have made its essence to consist in fiction, and support their opinion by the authority of Aristotle and Plato. But this is certainly too limited a definition; for though fiction may have a great share in many poetical compositions, yet many subjects of poetry may not be feigned; as where the poet describes objects which actually exist, or pours forth the real sentiments of his own heart. Others have made the characteristic of poetry to lie in imitation. But this is altogether loose; for several other arts imitate as well as poetry; and an imitation of human manners and characters, may be carried on in the humblest prose, no less than in the most lofty poetic strain

The most just and comprehensive definition which, I think, can be given of poetry, is, “That it is the language of passion, or of enlivened imagination, formed, most commonly, into regular numbers." The historian, the orator, the philospher, address themselves, for the most part, primarily to the understanding their direct aim is to inform, to persuade, or to in

struct. But the primary aim of a poet is to please and to move; and, therefore, it is to the imagination, and the passions, that he speaks. He may, and he ought to have it in his view, to instruct, and to reform; but it is indirectly, and by pleasing and moving, that he accomplishes this end. His mind is supposed to be animated by some interesting object which fires his imagination, or engages his passions; and which, of course, communicates to his style a peculiar elevation suited to his ideas ; very different from that mode of expression, which is natural to the mind in its calm, ordinary state. I have added to my definition, that this language of passion, or imagination, is formed, most commonly, into regular numbers; because, though versification be, in general, the exterior distinction of poetry, yet there are some forms of verse so loose and familiar, as to be hardly distinguishable from prose; such as the verse of Terence's comedies; and there is also a species of prose, so measured in its cadence, and so much raised in its tone, as to approach very near to poetical numbers; such as the Telemachus of Fenelon; and the English Translation of Ossian. The truth is, verse and prose, on some occasions, run into one another, like light and shade. It is hardly possible to determine the exact limit where eloquence ends, and poetry begins; nor is there any occasion for being very precise about the boundaries, as long as the nature of each is understood. These are the minutiae of criticism, concerning which frivolous writers are always disposed to squabble; but which deserve not any particular discussion. The truth and justness of the definition, which I have given of poetry, will appear more fully from the account which I am now to give of its origin; and which will tend to throw light on much of what I am afterwards to deliver, concerning its various kinds.

The Greeks, ever fond of attributing to their own nation the invention of all sciences and arts, have ascribed the origin of poetry to Orpheus, Linus, and Musæus. There were, perhaps, such persons as these, who were the first distinguished bards in the Grecian countries. But long before such names were heard of, and among nations where they were never known, poetry existed. It is a great error to imagine, that poetry and music are arts which belong only to polished nations. They


have their foundation in the nature of man, and belong to all nations, and to all ages; though, like other arts founded in nature, they have been more cultivated, and, from a concurrence of favourable circumstances, carried to greater perfection in some countries than in others. In order to explore the rise of poetry, we must have recourse to the deserts and the wilds; we must go back to the age of hunters and of shepherds ; to the highest antiquity; and to the simplest form of manners among mankind.

It has been often said, and the concurring voice of all antiquity affirms, that poetry is older than prose. But in what sense this seemingly strange paradox holds true, has not always been well understood. There never, certainly, was any period of society, in which men conversed together in poetical numbers. It was in very humble and scanty prose, as we may easily believe, that the first tribes carried on intercourse among themselves, relating to the wants and necessities of life. But from the very beginning of society, there were occasions on which they met together for feasts, sacrifices, and public assemblies; and on all such occasions, it is well known, that music, song, and dance, made their principal entertainment. It is chiefly in America, that we have had the opportunity of being made acquainted with men in their savage state. We learn from the particular and concurring accounts of travellers, that among all the nations of that vast continent, especially among the northern tribes, with whom we have had most intercourse, music and song are, at all their meetings, carried on with an incredible degree of enthusiasm ; that the chiefs of the tribe are those who signalize themselves most on such occasions; that it is in songs they celebrate their religious rites; that, by these they lament their public and private calamities, the death of friends, or the loss of warriors; express their joy on their victories ; celebrate the great actions of their nation, and their heroes; excite each other to perform brave exploits in war, or suffer death and torments with unshaken constancy.

Here then we see the first beginnings of poetic composition, in those rude effusions, which the enthusiasm of fancy or passion suggested to untaught men, when roused by interesting events, and by their meeting together in public assemblies. Two

particulars would early distinguish this language of song, from that in which they conversed on the common occurrences of life; namely, an unusual arrangement of words, and the employment of bold figures of speech. It would invert words or change them from that order in which they are commonly placed, to that which most suited the train in which they rose in the speaker's imagination; or which was most accommodated to the cadence of the passion by which he was moved. Under the influence too of any strong emotion, objects do not appear to us such as they really are, but such as passion makes us see them. We magnify and exaggerate; we seek to interest all others in what causes our emotion; we compare the least things to the greatest; we call upon the absent as well as the present, and even address ourselves to things inanimate. Hence, in congruity with those various movements of the mind, arise those turns of expression, which we now distinguish by the learned names of Hyperbole, Prosopopeia, Simile, &c. but which are no other than the native original language of poetry, among the most barbarous nations.

Man is both a poet and a musician by nature. The same impulse which prompted the enthusiastic poetic style, prompted a certain melody, or modulation of sound, suited to the emotions of joy or grief, of admiration, love, or anger. There is a power in sound, which, partly from nature, partly from habit and association, makes such pathetic impressions on the fancy, as delight even the most wild barbarians. Music and poetry, therefore, had the same rise; they were prompted by the same occasions; they were united in song; and, as long as they continued united, they tended, without doubt, mutually to heighten and exalt each other's power. The first poets sung their own verses; and hence the beginning of what we call, Versification, or words arranged in a more artful order than prose, so as to be suited to some tune or melody. The liberty of transposition, or inversion, which the poetic style, as I observed, would naturally assume, made it easier to form the words into some sort of numbers that fell in with the music of the song. Very harsh and uncouth, we may easily believe, these numbers would be at first. But the pleasure was felt; it was studied; and versification, by degrees, passed into an art.

It appears from what has been said, that the first compositions, which were either recorded by writing, or transmitted by tradition, could be no other than poetical compositions. No other

but these, could draw the attention of men in their rude uncivilized state. Indeed, they knew no other. Cool reasoning, and plain discourse, had no power to attract savage tribes, addicted only to hunting and war. There was nothing that could either rouse the speaker to pour himself fourth, or draw the crowd to listen, but the high powers of passion, of music, and of song. This vehicle, therefore, and no other, could be employed by chiefs and legislators, when they meant to instruct or to animate their tribes. There is, likewise, a farther reason why such compositions only could be transmitted to posterity; because, before writing was invented, songs only could last, and be remembered. The ear gave assistance to the memory, by the help of numbers; fathers repeated and sung them to their children; and by this oral tradition of national ballads, were conveyed all the historical knowledge, and all the instruction of the first ages.

The earliest accounts which history gives us concerning all nations, bear testimony to these facts. In the first ages of Greece, priests, philosophers, and statesmen, all delivered their instructions in poetry. Apollo, Orpheus and Amphion, their most ancient bards, are represented as the first tamers of mankind, the first founders of law and civilization. Minos and Thales sung to the lyre the laws which they composed ;* and till the age immediately preceding that of Herodotus, history had appeared in no other form than that of poetical tales.

In the same manner, among all other nations, poems and songs are the first objects that make their appearance. Among the Scythian or Gothic nations, many of their kings and leaders were scalders, or poets; and it is from their Runic songs, that the most early writers of their history, such as Saxo-Grammaticus, acknowledge, that they had derived their chief information. Among the Celtic tribes in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, we know in what admiration their bards were held, and how great influence they possessed over the people. They were both poets and musicians, as all the first poets in every country were

* Strabo, 1. 10.

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