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My time, O ye Muses, was happily spent, "When Phoebe was with me wherever I went," &c.
What I have said upon this subject will suffice to give you a general idea of metre, at least as far as respects our own poetry. I shall next call your attention to a higher subject, the thoughts and language of poetry. Though this letter is not so long as some that have preceded it, yet I think it will make a better division of the subject to conclude it here, than to enter upon a new and extended subject.
Thoughts and Language of Poetry.
MY DEAR JOHN,
I OBSERVED that my definition of a poem as (6 a metrical composition," &c. was, like most definitions, imperfect, for a poem was likewise to be considered as a high and vigorous effort of the imagination. In considering what is requisite to form a poet, both as to choice of subject, thought and language, I cannot do better than take for my text the well-known lines of Horace
"Ingenium cui sit, cui mens divinior atque os
HOR. Sat. iv.
"Creative genius and the power divine
There can be little doubt but the poet means by ingenium that strong power of mind which, as circumstances require, can form a fable, plot,
or story, and ornament it with characters and circumstances; can create an imaginary land, and people it with imaginary beings; describe what he never saw, or add fancied embellishments to what he had seen.
The first and highest exercise of invention is in the choice and arrangement of the subject, and especially when that subject happens to be altogether fictitious. Yet judgment must here come in aid of fancy, and both must be united to form a perfect poet. There may be fancy without judgment; and in that case men write pretty things, nay sometimes are brilliant ; but they never accomplish what is truly great. It is impossible to be poetical without the subject admits of it; unless that is in itself interesting, all the pomp and ornaments of poetry and language will be lavished on it in vain. It would be making a statue of snow, and bestowing on it the art and genius and labour of a Phidias. If on the contrary the subject is well conceived, appropriate beauties will seem naturally to arise out of it, and the execution will be easy in proportion.
The man who attempted to turn the whole Bible into verse did not consider that the whole
of the Bible is not poetical. Milton, on the contrary, seems to have chosen the only scriptural subject that afforded scope for imagination. The fall of our first parents was poetical in itself, and from an obscure passage in the Epistle of St. Jude, the vigorous fancy of Milton has formed the sublime episode of a war in heaven.
Trifling subjects, even in description, afford but little interest. A cowslip, a rose, or a snowdrop are beautiful objects; but the man who should write a long poem on any of them would seem to be trifling with his reader. I question, from this defect, whether "the Loves of the Plants" will live, though e riched with all the beauties of language, and with many new and brilliant thoughts. It was happily ridiculed in a burlesque poem, entitled "the Loves of the Triangles." I rejoice in the "Task" that produced such an effort from Mr. Cowper's genius; without its having been imposed he perhaps would not have written; but as it is, it must be rather considered as a farrago or collection of fine sentiments and episodes, than as a regular poem. Those subjects which excite most general interest will afford most pleasure,
not only to the reader, but to the author himself; and be most prolific in excellencies and beauties. "Sentiments and descriptions (says Dr. Beattie) may be regarded as the pilasters, carvings, gildings, and other decorations of the poetical fabric; but human actions are the columns and rafters that give it stability and elevation."
Poetry has been called an imitative art, and so it may be considered in some degree. But though it is an imitation of nature, it must not be, like a Flemish painting, an imitation of nature in every particular. It should be (putting burlesque poetry out of the question for the present) an imitation of nature dignified and exalted, as far as the human imagination is capable of rising.
A fine poem may again be compared to a fine picture. It is to depict nature and hold her up to view; but there is no necessity to exhibit every thing in nature, or combine such actions as might possibly have existed together, though poetically inconsistent with each other. It is by not going beyond the bounds of probability, that in the intervals of some great event, a pert dialogue might take place between some