Page images

who received the divinity in the moments when she was propitious, and wrote under her immediate inspiration, possessed the right of giving utterance to her dictates, how little conformable soever they might be found to the more rigid principles of criticism.

From the force of these descriptions of poetical enthusiasm, much it is to be remarked should be subducted, and attributed to the extravagance of declamatory exaggeration. There is evidently displayed under the tissue of figurative language, an ambitious attempt at raising the description to the height of the subject described, and at accommodating it to the elevation of poetical expression. To a certain degree however they may be admitted; for they do not appear so difficult to be reconciled, as may be at first imagined, with notions which are at present very generally allowed. Few persons, it is presumed, will be found to deny the existence of that talent or aptitude for excelling in any of the arts of design, which we term genius; which, though capable of improvement or deterioration, is a natural endowment dispensed by the same Power which has bestowed on us our grosser organs. As few, it is presumed,

will be found to deny that it is to those persons alone, on whom this faculty is bestowed, that those happy irregularities of conception or execution, which we tolerate as licences, will be likely to occur. While they who are accustomed to attend to the motions of their minds, must have observed that there are propitious moments, when, from the accidental presentation of external objects to the senses, or the fortuitous recurrence of ideas previously acquired by sensation, those happy combinations of imagery arise, which cannot be created at pleasure.

But of these opinions of the ancients, even with the aid of this explanation, little use can be made in elucidating the nature of those licences of poetry which it is the purpose of these inquiries to investigate. They give the matter under discussion a dependance upon a mental faculty which is probably as inscrutable in its nature and movements, and as difficult to be brought within ascertainable limits, as these licences themselves. And surely if poetical genius or enthusiasm is of a nature which is difficult to be determined, much more difficult must it be to ascertain those effusions to which it gives birth, which are of themselves capable of an endless modification.

Neither does modern criticism afford us much greater assistance in entering on these inquiries. Though various writers have touched on the subject, and have sheltered many seeming anomalies in poetry, under the general term licence, yet they have no where defined with accuracy what the term signifies. Many expressions occur in the works both of poets and criticks, which infer the existence of such a principle in poetry as certain and acknowledged: some few passages might be pointed out, where a description of its nature is cursorily attempted, and others where bounds are partially prescribed to its power. But in the only attempts wherein they have undertaken to define its nature, they are found either to give too great a latitude to its meaning, or to circumscribe it within too narrow limits. The former seems to be the case, where poetick licence is described as being that particular character which distinguishes and sets bounds between poetry and mere prose:

for to

• Mr. Dryden thus defines this term, "Poetical licence I take to be the liberty which poets have assumed to themselves, in all ages, of speaking things in verse, which are beyond the severity of prose. It is that particular character which distinguishes and sets the bounds betwixt oratio soluta and poetry."

Pref. to State of Innoc.

select a single instance, verse, which constitutes an essential difference between both kinds of composition, is not in any respect of a licentious character, however included in this description. And on the other hand, those attempts at illustrating its nature, must be at once pronounced too confined in their application, which would straighten it (as is the case in some few tracts written expressly on the subject,) to the immunities of mere poetical diction.

From the insufficiency of these attempts, it is of course still necessary that some effort should be made to complete the definition of the terms under consideration. And in order to arrive at one more just and comprehensive, it is expedient to make a few preliminary observations; which, if they do not appear wholly adequate to the end of their application, will at least afford some assistance in arranging the scattered members of poetry, and thus bringing within the bounds of comprehension an art so apparently unlimited in its nature and varied in its appearance.

See particularly Christ. Ware, Senar. sine de Leg. et Licent. Vet. Poetar.

The study of human nature, in which every poet should be read, is merely a contexture of different sciences. Every thing which regards man's state and situation, either has been made, or is capable of becoming the subject of such learned or philosophical investigation. To History is committed the perpetuation of his achievements in the more active and splendid scenes of life. The circumstances not only of his nature and existence, but of those inferiour beings, and of that inanimate world, which becomes considerable from being connected with him, supply Natural History with its various speculations. From the varieties in his manners, his conduct, and his opinions, Ethicks derive their matter of discussion. The peculiarities of his language give to Grammar, and Rhetorick their scope and origin. And to Criticism is consigned the regulation of those finer productions of the art, which furnish his taste with the means of elegant gratification.

That each of these sciences enter the composition of poetry, is a truth so evident, as to need no proof in order to be admitted. And he who would succeed in this art, must not only have his observation considerably

« PreviousContinue »