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Didactic, Satiric, and Descriptive Poetry.Hesiod.-Lucretius.—Virgil.—Horace.— Boileau.-Pope.-Rapin.-Mason.-Akenside. Armstrong. -Juvenal. - Butler.Young.Dryden. - Prior. Denham.Jago.-Goldsmith.-Roscoe.-Pleasures of
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 fabled 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 beau ties 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 móral, 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 3. 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 prin cipal writers in the two first divisions.
The first didactic poem extant was undoubtedly Hesiod's Eyes Hey," 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 shall have no opportunity of noting again his Theogonia), I have no hesitation in believing He
siod, 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 66 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 cœli,
"At thy approach the raging tempests fly;