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REV. W. L. BOWLES,
IN REPLY TO HIS LETTER TO
THOMAS CAMPBELL, ESQ.
AND TO HIS TWO LETTERS TO
THE RIGHT HON. LORD BYRON;
A VINDICATION OF THEIR DEFENCE OF THE
POETICAL CHARACTER OF POPE,
AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE OF POETICAL IMAGES, AND OF THE CHARACTERISTIC QUALITIES THAT DISTINGUISH POETRY
FROM ALL OTHER SPECIES OF WRITING.
By M. M DERMOT.
The vulgar thus through imitation err,
[Concluded from No. XXXIX.]
How greatly then have you erred, when you transfer the whole of the poetry to the images or subject. I am aware, that you affect to assign a part of it to the execution. « Let me not, however,” you say, “ be considered as thinking that the subject alone constitutes poetical excellency. The execution is to be taken into consideration at the same time.” Here you seem as usual, to have studied ambiguity of expression. The unwary reader might be led to suppose, that by the “execution” being taken into “ consideration," you meant, that a part of the “poetical excellency" was to be ascribed to the execution. But you had no intention of conceding so much to the powers of the artist. Apprehending, however, that your readers would not be satisfied with a theory that ascribed no part of the “poetical excellency” to the execution, you thought to get over the difficulty, by using a form of expression, which would incline them to think you granted one half to the subject, and the other to the execution. You were, however, wise enough to know, that taking the subject into consideration was one thing, and admitting its claim to a share in constituting poetical excellency, was another; and accordingly, the consideration .you came to was, to reject all claims of the kind; for immediately afterwards you add, “the subject and the execution are equally to be considered; the one respecting the poetry, the other, the art and powers of the poet. The poetical subject, and the arts and talent of the poet, should always be kept in mind; and, I imagine it is for want of observing this rule, that so much has been said, and so little understood, of the real ground of Pope's character as a poet." What a pity you did not perceive, that the rule by which you wish to direct us in judging of Pope's poetical character, is infinitely more difficult to be understood than what it attempts to explain. Who can possibly elicit any thing like meaning out of the passage which I have now quoted ? « The subject and the execution," you say, “are equally to be considered; the one respecting the poetry; the other, the art and powers of the poet." So far we are told nothing; for it serves no purpose to know, that we are to take these things into consideration, without knowing for what end, or in what point of view we are to consider them. The remainder of the passage gives no explanation. “The poetical subject and the arts and talent of the poet should always be kept in mind.” We are now just as wise as we were before. We may, indeed, keep these matters in mind as long as we please; but till we know why they are to be kept in mind, we gain but little by the tenacity of our memory. And yet, without another word on the subject, you tell us, it is for want of observing this rule, that so much has been said, and so little understood, of the real grounds of Pope's character as a poet. But where, in the name of common sense, is the “rule” that we should observe, and that is to guide us through this mysterious and poetical character? We are told in one place, to consider the subject and the execution; and in another, to keep them in mind; and here is the grand rule that is to give us a clue to the real ground of Pope's poetical character. You complain that you have been misunderstood by Mr. Campbell, that you have been misunderstood by the writer of the Critique on your invariable principles of poetry, in the Quarterly Review, that you have been misunderstood by Mr. Gilchrist, and finally that you have been misunderstood by Lord Byron. But can you seriously complain of being misunderstood, when you write what conveys no meaning? Where the meaning is enveloped in mystery, every reader is left to guess at it as well as he
can, and if he should not happen to hit the nail on the head," and guess exactly what you mean, who is in fault? You must therefore study perspicuity of expression, before you complain of being misunderstood. The best writers have been led to support erroneous principles ; but then no person was at a loss to discover what these principles were; for an erroneous proposition contains nothing in itself that renders the expression of it obscure. If I maintain, that two and two make five, I maintain what is erroneous; but then my meaning is as clearly understood, as if I said that two and two make four. You would, therefore, be excusable, had you merely advocated false principles, for the greatest writers have done so before you; but I know not whether it be possible to excuse a writer, whose language is as unintelligible as his principles are erroneous.
I believe, however, we can get a clue to this mysterious passage from the sentence with which it commences, “Let me not, however, be considered as thinking that the subject alone constitutes poetical excellency." From this we are evidently to conclude, that something else must co-operate with the subject before it becomes poetical, and this something we imagine we discovery when you immediately add, « The execution is to be taken into consideration.” Here we are inclined to think that the execution is that something which is to constitute a part of the poetical excellency, even though you do not inform us into what kind of consideration it is to be taken. And we are warranted in thinking so, for as you inform us that the subject alone does not constitute poetical excellency, and as there must therefore be something else to co-operate with it, and as there is no something else mentioned throughout the entire of your answer to Lord Byron but the execution, we are led by the most rigid and logical process of reasoning, to conclude, that the execution is that something which co-operates with the subject in constituting poetical excellency. But how much are we deceived in drawing this inference; for when you come to explain yourself, you coolly turn round and tell us, that the subject is “ to be considered respecting the poetry,” the execution respecting “ the art and powers of the poet." Now though there is certainly no meaning in saying we must consider the subject respecting the poetry, &c. as a thousand considerations might come into our heads relative to them, which never entered into yours, and with which, consequently, it was not your intention to trouble us, yet we can easily perceive from the context, that you mean to say,
poetry is to be ascribed to the subject, and the execution to the art and powers of the poet. No person can doubt, for a moment, that this is your meaning, and I dare say you will not deny it yourself; but then, if the poetry be ascribed to the subject alone, does it not flatly contradict the inference which we were led to make from
first and second propositions, namely, that the subject alone does not constitute poetical excellency, and that the execution was to be taken into consideration ? From these propositions, we were justified in concluding, that the execution was what made up that part of the “ poetical excellency” which the “ subject alone did not constitute ;" but here we are told, that we must ascribe the “poetry” to the “ subject,” and the "execution to the art and powers
If so, then, the execution comes in for no part of that poetical excellency which we were told “the subject alone did not constitute ;" and though it does not constitute it, yet the entire of the poetry is here ascribed to it; and the only consideration into which the execution is to be taken, appears to be, that we must ascribe it to the art and powers of the poet. Whatever is poetical, therefore, in the Paradise Lost, is to be ascribed to the subject, and not to Milton : it is the execution alone for which he can be allowed any credit. But who can avoid being sick of this confusion of “ subject, execution, poetry, poetical excellency, and art and powers of the poet ?” Who can avoid smiling, when
of the poet.
you condescend to admit that you do not think “ the subject alone constitutes poetical excellency,” though you immediately afterwards ascribe the entire to it? Does it require a moment's reflection to perceive, that the entire of the poetical excellency of the Iliad, the Æneid, and the Paradise Lost, must be entirely attributed to their illustrious authors, and to that poetical genius with which they were endowed by nature? If you were to attempt an heroic poem on a subject similar to either of these, I doubt whether you would not soon perceive, that the “poetical excellency” would depend more on yourself than on your subject. In my opinion, it is verging on idiotism to ascribe any part of the excellency of a poem to the subject ; for if such a poem
as the Iliad had been attempted by Pascal, Locke, Longuerie, or Bayle, they would have produced Iliads, which, so far from possessing any “ poetical excellency," would be looked upon by the critics either as a stiff and affected kind of prose, or, at best, as a wretched species of prosaic versification. You must acknowledge, however, that if the powers of a Locke, a Newton, or of the most learned and profound writers, cannot render such a subject as the Iliad poetical, the poetical excellency must be in the execution alone, and not in the subject; for if any subject were poetical, none could be more so than that of the Iliad, judging of a poetical subject according to your own theory. It is therefore to the poetical mind, and not to the subject, that we must refer the entire of the poetical excellency. He who said,
Poeta nascitur, non fit, was a much better judge of the nature of poetry than you appear to be ; for he who is not born a poet, or whose genius is averse to it, will never attain to poetical excellency, whatever be the subject he treats, or however studious he may be of drawing all his images from nature alone.
It is not the subject therefore, or the images introduced by the poet, that constitute poetical excellency, or even the smallest ingredient in it. All depends, as I have already observed, on the associations created by the poet, that is, on the art with which he connects his images, and the ideas that naturally arise from the nature of this
When Gray represents the eagle
Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air; would you think it more poetical to say, flying with supreme dominion, than sailing ? If your theory be of any value, the term “ flying” would certainly be more poetical than that of " sailing,” as it expresses the natural action of a natural being, and,