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DIDACTIC, SATYRIC, AND DESCRIPTIVE POETRY...HE
= SURES OF MEMORY.
MY DEAR JOHN,
I NOW proceed to my fifth division, and have placed didactic, or as some have called it, preceptive poetry, lower on the scale than descriptive, elegiac, and lyric poetry; not because it is of less consequence, but because (if I may be indulged in a little harshness of expression) it is less poetical. The preceptive muse has indeed been termed pedestrian, while her other sisters are furnished with wings, or mounted on the sabled courser, and thus are feigned to scale the heights of Parnassus, while she continues to wander at the bottom, or the side. Not that the moral poems of Horace, Juvenal, Pope, and Johnson; the Georgics of Virgil, or the Essay on Criticism, can be compared, in point of real importance, with the elegies of Tibullus, or the odes even of Gray; it is as poems only, and not as lessons of instruction, that they are assigned the inferior station.
With respect, however, to the poetical beauties of which a didactic composition may be susceptible, very much will depend upon the nature of the subject. If it relates to rural affairs, there is room for much elegant description; and if the subject is moral, it will admit of all the embellishments which may be derived from the delineation of the human character and passions.
Didactic poetry embraces a vast scope of subject, for indeed it may be applied to almost any; but these subjects may in general be classed under three heads: 1st. The arts; 2d. Philosophy and science; and 3d. Morals.
Thus on the arts we have Horace, Vida, Boileau, Roscommon, and Pope on poetry and criticism, with some of inferior note; Du Fresnoy on the art of painting; Mason's English Garden; and in agriculture Hesiod, Virgil, and others.
In philosophy and science, Lucretius; Armstrong on health; Akenside's pleasures of imagination.
In morals the didactic poems are innumerable.
To poems of the two first classes, the rules laid down in treating of didactic compositions in prose will generally apply. As the poet's object, however, is in a great measure to please and entertain, it is unnecessary that he should pursue so exact a methodical arrangement as where a work is meant for instruction only. A writer of taste will also select such parts of his subject as are most likely to captivate the fancy and command attention. He may also enliven it not only with splendid figures, but with pleasing episodes, which serve to relieve the attention, and enliven the gravity of precept. Of all these excellencies we have a most striking example in the Georgics of Virgil. But it requires uncommon powers of mind, great extent of knowledge; and above all, fancy and taste, to render any poem of this description tolerable.
Before I proceed to the third class, moral poems, I shall briefly notice a few of the principal writers in the two first divisions.
The first didactic poem extant was undoubtedly Hesiod's Epywv na Hμetwy, “ Of Works and Days." I read it attentively in early life, but I believe few will read it a second time for the sake of the poetry; yet there are many more elegant productions which I would rather see destroyed than this. It is a most singular compound, with little regard to method, of moral observations, of economical instructions, and georgical precepts. It affords a truly interesting picture of man's
first emergence from a state of barbarism; and you see the shepherd of Helicon first introducing his half-barbarous neighbours into something like the manners of civilized life. I can have no question, from the internal evidence, but that Hesiod preceded Homer; and no man can have a correct idea of the very early state of Greece without reading his poems. Let me now observe (as I shall have no opportunity of noting again his Theogonia), I have no hesitation in believing Hesiod, if not altogether, at the least, almost the inventor of the mythology of the Greeks. He had probably collected some dark hints from tradition of the true theology, and still more probably had some knowledge of the Hebrew writings. From these, in part accommodated to the popular superstitions, he appears to have formed his Theogonia. Herodotus positively declares that he and Homer were "the first who gave names to the gods."
The next didactic poem of any consequence is that of the Roman poet Lucretius, "De Natura Rerum." Philosophy is, however, a subject that accords but ill with poetry; and I can give little commendation either to the reasoning or the numbers of Lucretius. He has however some fine passages. The introduction is beautiful, and particularly the following lines....
"Te, Dea, te fugiunt venti, te nubila cæli,
"At thy approach the raging tempests fly;
The description of the plague at Athens is a very fine digression, I might say episode, if that phrase might be applied to any part of a didactic poem; and
there are occasionally some fine ideas cloathed in spirited language; but on the whole Lucretius is a tedious writer, and as the philosophy is good for nothing, few will take the trouble to read him for a few original conceptions and brilliant thoughts poetically expressed. I can say nothing of the Astronomicon of Manilius, having never read it.
The incomparable Georgics present themselves next in order for our consideration, and they may be regarded as a model for didactic composition. The author was indeed happy in his subject; for a dissertation on rural employments and affairs affords more scope than any other for beautiful and luxuriant description; but the fine imagination, and luxuriant and vivid style of Virgil, could give enchantment to almost any subject. The plan is sufficiently regular for the conveying of all necessary instruction, while the poem is every where enlivened by animated description, splendid allusions, or interesting narrations. I need only mention his description of the perpetual spring in Italy, and of the Scythian winter; of the happiness of a country life; of the prodigies that foretold the death of Cæsar; of the murrain among the cattle; his interesting account of the bees; and the beautiful episode, if I may again borrow this expression from epic poetry, of Orpheus and Eurydice. The whole too is enriched with apt allusions to the fables of antiquity, and adorned with a felicity of expression which Virgil only could give. It is unnecessary to add more upon so popular a work, especially as I know you to be not cursorily acquainted with it.
Horace's Art of Poetry is confessedly of so irregular a fabric, that critics are divided on the point whether it is an essay on poetry in general, or only a criticism on the state of dramatic poetry at that time. To me it has always appeared to consist of detached remarks upon poetry in general, written with the usual ease and spirit of the author, and seems in some measure connected with the Epistle to Augustus. Bishop Hurd's remarks upon this poem, which made some noise when first published, (probably as from the hand of a bishop) are
entirely borrowed from a foreign critic. Though inferior to his moral epistles and satires, the Ars Poetica contains many excellent precepts, and very many lively and spirited thoughts.
Vida has imitated Horace with more of regularity, but less of spirit. The poem is, however, not destitute of merit. It has been elegantly translated by Mr. Hampson, a gentleman who has evinced considerable powers on other occasions. The translation is introduced by a most ingenious and handsome dedication to a prelate now alive.
Boileau's Art of Poetry is upon a still more regular plan than that of Vida; and, as far as French versification will admit, is a most excellent poem. Boileau's Art of Poetry may be read with great advantage by most young writers, as far as critical rules can come in aid of genius; there is nothing against which we can with propriety take exception, and I do not know that he has omitted any of the critical precepts of antiquity.
Mr. Pope's Essay on Criticism resembles more the Art of Poetry of Horace than either of those last mentioned. It is full of genius, full of pointed and useful reflections, but deficient in method. In excuse for this, we must properly recur to the nature of the subject. Criticism, as a science, cannot be reduced to rule, at least without applying it to every department of literature. It was therefore the author's design rather to elicit a few principles and precepts for the moral conduct of critics, than to establish a system. But in whatever light we may regard it as a scholastic treatise, the Essay on Criticism is certainly a poem....a poem abounding in beauties, parts of which are continually quoted as authority by every person of taste. If the early age of the writer (twenty years) is considered, it must be accounted an unexampled production.
Dr. Johnson observes of it...." If he had written nothing else, it would have placed him among the first critics, and the first poets; as it exhibits every excellence that can embellish or dignify a didactic composition." Dr. Johnson adds (in particularizing the beau