Lecture I. The Introduction. Of the Uses and Design of Poetry.
The purpose of Poetry is to instruct while it gives pleasure; instruction being the end, and pleasure the means—Illustrated by examples from different species of Poetry—The Didactic—Epic—Tragic—Lyric—the lighter kinds of Poetry, which are calculated as well for the amusement of our leisure as for the the ornament and improvement of literature—Sacred Poetry; whence a transition to the immediate object of these Lectures.
Though our present meeting be, on some accounts, rather earlier than I could have wished, yet I cheerfully embrace the opportunity which it affords me of assuring you, Gentlemen, that to this undertaking (whether considered as a duty imposed, or as a favour conferred upon me) I bring, if no other accomplishment, at least industry and inclination. I could, indeed, more patiently bear to be accused of wanting genius, fluency, or elegance, than of wanting diligence in the exercise of that office to which your authority has called me, or gratitude in the acceptance of that favour, which (whatever it be in itself) is undoubtedly great, since conferred on me by you. For to judge rightly of obligations of this kind, regard must be had, not only to the favour itself, but to the persons who confer it, and to the person on whom it is conferred. When, therefore, I reflect, that the station to which I am invited, has been adorned by men of the first rank in genius and earning; when I regard you, whose favour can add dignity to the most respectable characters; when, in fine, I consider myself, who could never have expected or hoped from my own merits for any public testimony of your approbation; I receive this appointment as an honour, for which the utmost exertions of labour and assiduity will be but a very inadequate return. This part of my duty, however, though feebly and imperfectly, I would wish you to believe I most willingly perform: for to an ingenuous mind nothing can be more agreeable than the expression, or even the sense of gratitude; and the remembrance of the obligation will rather stimulate than depress. Other considerations have, I must confess, rendered me not a little solicitous: I am appointed to superintend a particular department of science, which you have constantly distinguished by your presence and attention; and a subject is to be discussed, which not only you have judged worthy of your cultivation, and the public countenance of the University, but which has hitherto received in this place all the embellishments of grace and elegance of which it is naturally susceptible. Should it, therefore, fall into neglect or disrepute hereafter, I fear that I shall be compelled to acknowledge the fault to have been mine, and not that of the institution itself. (Lecture I ¶ 1)
Whatever degree of success, indeed, may attend my endeavours, let it not for a moment be suspected, that the design is not altogether deserving of approbation. for, can there be any thing of more real importance to literature itself, can any thing be more consistent with the ends for which this University was founded, than that the art, of whose assistance every other art and profession has so greatly availed itself, should be assigned a place among the rest?—that art, so venerable for its antiquity, so delightful in itself—that art, which is in a manner congenial to humanity, and which sets off Nature by the most agreeable representation of her beauties; which, among the ignorant and the learned, the idle and the studious, has ever obtained favour, admiration, and regard. Nothing surely can be more worthy of a liberal and accomplished mind, than to perceive what is perfect and what is defective in an art, the beauties of which frequently lie beneath the surface; to understand what is graceful, what is becoming, in what its excellences consist; and, in a word, to discover and relish those delicate touches of grace and elegance that lie beyond the reach of vulgar apprehension. From these subtile researches after beauty and taste, there is also the fairest reason to apprehend that the judgment itself with will receive some accessions of strength and acuteness, which it may successfully employ upon other objects, and upon other occasions. Such at least appear to have been the sentiments of that excellent person, to whose munificence Poetry has been long indebted for her admission into the circle of those sciences which are cultivated in this University. For, possessing a mind not only instructed in the most useful branches of knowledge, but adorned with the most elegant arts; and having imbibed the first principles of education in a seminary where the most important and sacred subjects, recommended by all the elegance of polite literature, have been heretofore, and still continue to be, studied with vigour and effect; he saw and experienced how much an attention to these elegancies would contribute to the investigation or illustration of the severer branches of erudition, and how strict the alliance between Philosophy and the Muses. (Lecture I ¶ 2)
The design, therefore, of the author of this institution, as well as the usual practice on occasions like the present, reminds me, Gentlemen, of the propriety (though a matter already familiar to most of you) of premising a few such observations as appear less exceptionable concerning the end and utility of the poetic art. (Lecture I ¶ 3)
Poetry is commonly understood to have two objects in view, namely, advantage and pleasure, or rather an union of both. I wish those who have furnished us with this definition had rather proposed utility as its ultimate object, and pleasure as the means by which that end may be effectually accomplished. The philosopher and the poet, indeed, seem principally to differ in the means by which they pursue the same end. Each sustains the character of a preceptor, which the one is thought best to support, if he teach with accuracy, with subtlety, and with perspicuity; the other, with splendour, harmony, and elegance. The one makes his appeal to reason only, independent of the passions; the other addresses the reason in such a manner as even to engage the passions on his side. The one proceeds to virtue and truth by the nearest and most compendious ways; the other leads to the same point through certain deflections and deviations, by a winding but pleasanter path. It is the part of the former so to describe and explain these objects, that we must necessarily become acquainted with them; it is the part of the latter so to dress and adorn them, that of our own accord we must love and embrace them. (Lecture I ¶ 4)
I therefore lay it down as a fundamental maxim, that Poetry is useful, chiefly because it is agreeable; and should I, as we are apt to do, attribute too much to my favourite occupation, I trust Philosophy will forgive me when I add, that the writings of the poet are more useful than those of the philosopher, inasmuch as they are more agreeable. To illustrate this position by well-known examples:—Can it be supposed that the more learned Romans when they became devoted to the doctrine of Epicurus, did not more highly esteem, and more frequently apply to the admirable poem of Lucretius, than to Catius, or Amafanius, or even the commentaries of Epicurus himself? Who can believe that even the most tasteless could peruse the writings on agriculture, either of the learned Varro or (not to mention the elder Cato) of Columella, an author by no means deficient in elegance, with the same pleasure and attention as that most delightful and most perfect work, the Georgics of Virgil? a work in which he has equalled the most respectable writers in the solidity of his matter, and has greatly excelled the most elegant in the incredible harmony of his numbers. On the contrary, if Manilius, who is numbered (and rightly, if we may credit his own testimony) among the writers of the Augustan age, has treated the engaging science of Astronomy in such low and inelegant verse as even scarcely to excel Julius Firmicus, a prose writer on the same subject in a less polished age, I will allow him the merit of a philosopher and astronomer, but never can account him a poet. For, what is a poet, destitute of harmony, of grace, and of all that conduces to allurement and delight? or how should we derive advantage or improvement from an author whom no man of taste can endure to read? The reason, therefore, why Poetry is so studious to embellish her precepts with a certain inviting sweetness, and, as it were, (Lecture I ¶ 5)
—tincture them with the honey of the Muses,(Lecture I ¶ 6)
is plainly by such seasoning to conciliate faovur to her doctrine, as is the practice even of physicians, who temper with pleasant flavours their least agreeable medicines: (Lecture I ¶ 7)
Thus, the sick infant’s taste disguis’d to meet,
They tinge the vessel’s brim with juices sweet:
The bitter draught his willing lip receives;
He drinks deceiv’d, and so deceiv’d he lives; (Lecture I ¶ 8)
But if it be manifest, even in authors who directly profess improvement and advantage, that those will most efficaciously instruct who afford most entertainment; the same will be still more apparent in those who, dissembling the intention of instruction, exhibit only the blandishments of pleasure; and while they treat of the most important things, of all the principles of moral action, all the offices of life, yet laying aside the severity of the preceptor, adduce at once all the decorations of elegance, and all the attractions of amusement: who display, as in a picture, the actions, the manners, the pursuits and passions of men; and by the force of imitation and fancy, by the harmony of numbers, by the taste and variety of imagery, captivate the affections of the reader, and imperceptibly, or perhaps reluctantly, impel him to the pursuit of virtue. Such is the real purpose of heroic poetry; such is the noble effect produced by the perusal of Homer. And who so thoughtless, or so callous, as not to feel incredible pleasure in that most agreeable occupation? who is not moved, astonished, enraptured, by the inspiration of that most sublime genius? who so inanimate as not to see, not to feel inscribed, or as it were imprinted upon his heart, his most excellent maxims concerning human life and manners? From philosophy a few cold precepts may be deduced; in history, some dull and spiritless examples of manners may be found: here we have the energetic voice of Virtue herself, here we behold her animated form. Poetry addresses her precepts not to the reason alone; she calls the passions to her aid: she not only exhibits examples, but fixes them in the mind. She softens the wax with her peculiar ardour, and renders it more plastic to the artist’s hand. Thus does Horace most truly and most justly apply this commendation to the poets: (Lecture I ¶ 10)
What’s fair, and false, and right, these bards describe,
Better and plainer than the Stoic tribe:— (Lecture I ¶ 11)
Plainer or more completely, because they do not perplex their disciples with the dry detail of parts and definitions, but so perfectly and so accurately delineate, by examples of every kind, the forms of the human passions and habits, the principles of social and civilised life, that he who from the schools of philosophy should turn to the representations of Homer, would feel himself transported from a narrow and intricate path to an extensive and flourishing field:—Better, because the poet teaches not by maxims and precepts, and in the dull sententious form; but by the harmony of verse, by the beauty of imagery, by the ingenuity of the fable, by the exactness of imitation, he allures and interests the mind of the reader, he fashions it to habits of virtue, and in a manner informs it with the spirit of integrity itself. (Lecture I ¶ 12)
But if from the Heroic we turn to the Tragic Muse, to which Aristotle indeed assigns the preference, because of the true and perfect imitation, we shall yet more clearly evince the superiority of poetry over philosophy, on the principle of its being more agreeable. Tragedy is, in truth, no other than philosophy introduced upon the stage, retaining all its natural properties, remitting nothing of its native gravity, but assisted and embellished by other favouring circumstances. What point, for instance, of moral discipline have the tragic writers of Greece left untouched or unadorned? What duty of life, what principle of political economy, what motive or precept for the government of hte passions, what commendation of virtue is there, which they have not treated of with fulness, variety, and learning? The moral of Æschylus (not only a poet, but a Pythagorean) will ever be admired. Nor were Sophocles and Euripides less illustrious for the reputation of wisdom; the latter of whom was the disciple of Socrates and Anaxagoras, and was known among his friends by the title of the dramatic philosopher. In these authors, surely, the allurements of poetry afforded some accession to the empire of philosophy; nor indeed has any man arrived at the summit of poetic fame who did not previously lay the foundation of his art in true philosophy. (Lecture I ¶ 13)
Should it be objected, that some have been eminent in the walk of poetry, who never studied in the schools of the philosophers, nor enjoyed the advantages of an education above the common herd of mankind; I answer, that I am not contending about the vulgar opinion, or concerning the meaning of a word: The man who, by the force of genius and observation, has arrived at a perfect knowledge of mankind; who has acquainted himself with the natural powers of the human mind, and the causes by which the passions are excited and repressed; who not only in words can explain but can delineate to the senses, every emotion of the soul, who can excite, can temper and regulate the passions—such a man, though he may not have acquired erudition by the common methods, I esteem a true philosopher. The passion of jealousy, its causes, circumstances, its progress and effects, I hold to be more accurately, more copiously more satisfactorily described in one of the dramas of Shakespeare, than in all the disputations of the schools of philosophy. (Lecture I ¶ 14)
Now, if Tragedy be of so truly a philosophical nature; and if, to all the force and gravity of wisdom, it add graces and allurements peculiarly its own—the harmony of verse, the contrivance of the fable, the excellence of imitation, the truth of action; shall we not say that philosophy must yield to poetry in point of utility? or shall we not rather say, that the former is greatly indebted to the latter, of whose assistance and recommendation it makes so advantageous a use, in order to attain its peculiar purpose, utility, or improvement? (Lecture I ¶ 15)
But if the force of imitation and fable be so great, the force of truth itself must surely appear much greater: we should therefore apply to history rather than to potry, for instruction in morals. This, however, is a mistaken notion. History is confined within too narrow limits; history is subject to laws peculiar to itself, and too servere to admit of such an application. It relates things as they really were, it traces events under the guidance of authority; it must exhibit what has happened, not what might or ought to have happened. It must not deviate in question of reasonable instruction or plausible conjecture, but confine itself to that path which the stubbornness of fact has prescribed. History treats of things and persons which have been in actual existence; the subjects of poetry are infinite and universal. The one investigates causes through the uncertain medium of conjecture; the other demonstrates them with clearness and certainty. The one catches the casual glimpses of truth, whenever they break forth to the view; the other contemplates her unclouded appearance. History pursues her appointed journey by a direct path; poetry ranges uncontrolled over the wide expanse of nature. The former must make her precepts subservient to the subject; the latter forms a subject subordinate to her precepts and design. For those reasons poetry is defined by Aristotle as something of a more serious and philosophical nature than history: nor is our Bacon (a name not inferior in literature) of a different sentiment. The subject itself, and the authority of so great a man, require that the passage should be quoted in his own words.
Since the sensible world is in dignity inferior to the rational soul, poetry seems to endow human nature with that which lies beyond the power of history, and to gratify the mind with at least the shadow of things where the substance cannot be had. For, if the matter be properly considered, an argument may be drawn from poery, that a superior dignity in things, a more perfect order, and a more beautiful variety delights the soul of man, than is found in nature since the fall. As, therefore, the actions and events which are the subject of true history, are not of sufficient amplitude to content the mind of man; poetry is at hand, and invents actions of a more heroic nature. Because true history reports the success of events not proportionably to desert, or according to the virtue or vice that has been displayed in them; poery corrects this, and represents events and fortunes according to justice and merit: Because true history, from the obvious similarity of actions, and the satiety which this circumstance must occasion, frequently creates a distaste in the mind; poetry cheers and refreshes it, exhibiting things uncommon, varied, and full of vicissitude. As poetry, therefore, contributes not only to pleasure, but to magnamity and good morals, it is deservedly supposed to participate in some measure of Divine inspiration; since it raises the mind, and fills it with sublime ideas, by proportioning the appearances of things to the desires of the mind, and not submitting the mind to things, like reason and history. (Lecture I ¶ 16)
That elevation of sentiment, that inspiration, that usefulness in forming the manners, is, however, by no means so peculiar to the Epic, (to which the great man chiefly refers in this passage,) as to exclude the claim of every other species of poetry: there are others which also deserve to partake in the commendation; and first the Ode, (Lecture I ¶ 17)
With thoughts that breathe, and words that burn; (Lecture I ¶ 18)
which, though in some respects inferior to what are called the higher species of poetry, yields to none in force, ardour, and sometimes even in dignity and solemnity. Every species of poetry has in fact its peculiar mode of acting on the human feelings; the general effect is perhaps the same. The epic accomplishes its design with more leisure, with more consideration and care, and therefore probably with greater certainty. It more gradually insinuates itself—it penetrates, it moves, it delights; now rising to a high degree of sublimity, now subsiding to its accustomed smoothness; and, conducting the reader through a varied and delightful scene, it applies a gentle constraint to the mind, making its impression by the forcible nature of this application, but more especially by its continuance. The ode, on the contrary, strikes with an instantaneous effect, amazes, and as it were storms the affections. The one may be compared to a flame, which, fanned by the winds, gradually spreads itself on all sides, and at last involves every object in the conflagration; the other to a flash of lightning, which instantaneously burns forth, (Lecture I ¶ 19)
With instant ruin threats great nature’s frame,
And shoots through every part the vivid flame. (Lecture I ¶ 20)
The amazing power of Lyric poetry, in directing the passions, in forming the manners, in maintaining civil life, and particularly in exciting and cherishing that generous elevation of sentiment on which the very existence of public virtue seems to depend, will be sufficiently apparent by only contemplating those monuments of genius which Greece has bequeathed to posterity. If we examine the poems of Pindar, (which though by no means accounted the most excellent of their kind, by some strange fatality are almost the only specimens that remain,) how exquisite must have been the pleasure, how vivid the sensation to the Greek, whose ordinary amusement it was to sing, or hear them sung! For, this kind of entertainment was not confined to persons of taste and learning, but had grown into general use. When he heard his gods, his heroes, his ancestors received into the number of the gods, celebrated in a manner so glorious, so divine, would not his bosom glow with the desire of fame, with the most fervid emulation of virtue, with a patriotism, immoderate perhaps, but honourable and useful in the highest degree? Is it wonderful, that he should be so elevated with this greatness of mind, (shall I call it?) or rather insolence and pride, as to esteem every other people mean, barbarous, and contemptible, in comparison with himself and his own countrymen? It is almost unnecessary to remind this assembly, that in the sacred games (which afforded so much support to the warlike virtue of Greece) no inconsiderable share of dignity and esteem resulted from the verses of the poets; nor did the Olympic crown exhibit a more ample reward to the candidate for victory, than the encomium of Pindar or Stesichorus. I wish, indeed, that time had not invidiously deprived us of the works of the latter, whose majesty and excellence commanded universal applause, whom Dionysius preferred before every other lyric poet, because he made choice of the sublimest and most splendid subjects, and in the amplification of them preserved most completely the manners and the dignity of his characters. To Alcæus, however, the same author attributes the most excellent manner of treating political subjects. As a man, indeed, how great! as a citizen, how strenuous! What a spirited defender of the laws and constitution of his country! what a vigorous opposer of tyrants! who consecrated equally his sword and his lyre on the altar of freedom! whose prophetic muse, ranging through every region, acted as the sacred guardian, not for the present moment only, but for future ages; not of his own city alone, but of the whole commonwealth of Greece. Poetry such as this, so vehement, so animated, is certainly to be esteemed highly efficacious, as well in exciting the human mind to virtue, as in purifying it from every mean and vicious propensity; but still more especially does it conduce to cherish and support the vigour of soul, that generous temper and spirit, which is both the offspring and guardian of liberty. Could an apprehension arise that another Pisistratus would meditate the enslaving of that city, where at every banquet, nay, in the streets and in the meanest assembly of the common people, that convivial ode was daily sung which bears the name of Callistratus? an author known to us only by this composition, which, however, sufficiently demonstrates him to have been an admirable poet and an excellent citizen: (Lecture I ¶ 21)
Verdant myrtle’s branchy pride
Shall my thirsty blade entwine;
Such, Harmodius, deck’d thy side;
Such, Aristogiton, thine. (Lecture I ¶ 22)
Noblest youths! in islands blest,
Not like recreant idlers dead;
You with fleet Pelides rest,
And with godlike Diomed (Lecture I ¶ 23)
Myrtle shall our brows entwine,
While the Muse your fame shall tell;
’Twas at Pallas’ sacred shrine,
At your feet the tyrant fell. (Lecture I ¶ 24)
If, after the memorable Ides of March, any one of the tyrannicides had delivered to the populace such a poem as this, had introduced it to the suburra, to the assemblies of the forum, or had put it into the mouths of the common people, the dominion of the Cesars and its adherents would have been totally extinguished: and I am firmly persuaded, that one stanza of this simple ballad of Harmodius would have been more effectual than all the Philippics of Cicero. (Lecture I ¶ 26)
There are some other species of poetry, which with us generally appear in an easy and familiar style, but formerly assumed sometimes a graver and more important character. Such is the Elegy: I do not speak of the light and amorous elegy of the moderns, but that ancient, serious, sacred, and didactic elegy, the perceptress of morals, the lawgiver of nations, the oracle of virtue. Not to enter into a detail of authors, of whose works we are not in possession, and of whose merits we consequently can form no adequate judgment, it will be sufficient to instance Solon, the most venerable character of antiquity, the wisest of legislators, and withal a poet of no mean reputation. When any thing difficult or perplexing occurred in the administration of public affairs, we are informed that he had recourse to poetry. Were the laws to be maintained or enforced upon any particular emergency; was the indolence or licentiousness of the citizens to be reproved; were their minds to be stimulated to the love of liberty—he immediately attacked them with some poetical production, bold, animated, and severe; in the highest tone of censorial gravity, and yet in no respect deficient in elegance: (Lecture I ¶ 27)
Before the awful peal the lighning flies,
And gathering clouds impending storms presage;
By souls aspiring civil freedom dies;
The people’s madness whets the tyrant’s rage. (Lecture I ¶ 28)
It is a well-known fact, that Athens was altogether indebted for the recovery of Salamis to the verses of Solon, even contrary to their own inclination and intention. After they had, from repeated overthrows, fallen into the deepest despair, insomuch that it was made a capital offence even to propose the renewal of the war, or the reclaiming of the island, such was the influence of that single poem, which begins—
Let us march to Salamis, that, as if pronounced by a prophet instinct with divine enthusiasm, the people, propelled by a kind of celestial inspiration, became clamorous for war, and sought the field of battle with such incredible ardour, that by the violence of their onset, after a great slaughter of the enemy, they achieved a most decisive victory. (Lecture I ¶ 29)
—manly souls to martial deeds
By verse excited. (Lecture I ¶ 31)
The whole scope and subject of his compositions is the celebration of valour and patriotism, and the immortal glory of those who bravely fell in battle:—compositions which could impart some degree of courage even to the timid and unmanly; by which, indeed, he elevated the minds of the Lacedemonians, which had been long debilitated and depressed, to the certain hope o victory. The fact is well known, and had it not been corroborated by the testimony of so many authors, it would doubtless have been thought by some incredible; though I confess it appears to me no less supported by the reason of things, than by the authority of the historian. It is impossible that men should act otherwise than with the most heroic ardour, the most undaunted resolution, who sung to the martial pipe, when arranged in military order, marching to the onset, or perhaps actually engaged, such strains as these: (Lecture I ¶ 32)
Our country’s voice invites the brave
The glorious toils of war to try;
Curs’d be the coward or the slave
Who shuns the fight, who fears to die! (Lecture I ¶ 33)
Obedient to the high command,
Full fraught with patriotic fire,
Descends a small but trusty band,
And scarce restrains th’ impatient ire. (Lecture I ¶ 34)
Lo! the hostile crowds advance!
Firmly we their might oppose;
Helm to helm, and lance to lance,
In awful pomp we meet our foes. (Lecture I ¶ 35)
Unaw’d by fear, untaught to yield,
We boldly tread the ensanguin’d plain;
And scorn to quit the martial field,
Though drench’d in blood, though heap’d with slain. (Lecture I ¶ 36)
For though stern death assail the brave,
His virtues endless life shall claim;
His fame shall mock th’ invidious grave—
To times unborn a sacred name! (Lecture I ¶ 37)
Not entirely to omit the lighter kinds of poetry, many will think that we allow them full enough, when we suppose their utility to consist in the entertainment which they afford. Nor is this, Gentlemen, altogether to be despised, if it be considered that this entertainment, this levity itself, affords relaxation to the mind when wearied with the laborious investigation of truth; that it unbends the understanding after intense application; restores it when debilitated; and refreshes it, even by an interchange and variety of study. In this we are countenanced by the example and authority of the greatest men of Greece, by that of Solon, Plato, and Aristotle; among the Romans, by that of Scipio and Lælius, Julius and Augustus Cesar, Varro and Brutus, who filled up the intervals of their more important engagements, their severer studies, with the agreeableness and hilarity of this poetical talent. Nature indeed seems in this most wisely to have consulted for us, who, while she impels us to the knowledge of truth, which is frequently remote, and only to be prosecuted with indefatigable industry, has provided also these pleasing recreations as a refuge to the mind, in which it might occasionally shelter itself, and find an agreeable relief from languor and anxiety. (Lecture I ¶ 38)
But there is yet a further advantage to be derived from these studies, which ought not to be neglected; for, beside possessing in reserve a certain solace of your labours, from the same repository you will also be supplied with many of the brightest ornaments of literature. The first object is, indeed, to perceive and comprehend clearly the reasons, principles, and relations of things; the next is, to be able to explain your conceptions, not only with perspicuity, but with a degree of elegance. For, in this respect, we are all of us in some measure fastidious: We are seldom contented with a jejune and naked exposition even of the most serious subjects; some of the seasonings of art, some ornaments of style, some splendour of diction, are of necessity to be adopted; even some regard is due to the harmony of numbers, and to the gratification of the ear. In all these respects, though I grant that the language of poetry differs very widely from that of all other kinds of composition, yet he who has bestowed some time and attention on the perusal and imitation of the poets, will, I am persuaded, find his understanding exercised and improved as it were in this Palestra, the vigour and activity of his imagination increased, and even his manner of expression to have insensibly acquired a tinge from this elegant intercourse. Thus we observe in persons who have been taught to dance, a certain indescribable grace and manner; though they do not form their common gesture and gait by any certain rules, yet there results from that exercise a degree of elegance, which accompanies those who have been proficients in it even when they have relinquished the practice. Nor is it the least improbable, that both Cesar and Tully (the one the most elegant, the other the most eloquent of the Romans) might have derived considerable assistance from the cultivation of this branch of polite literature, since it is well known that both of them were addicted to the reading of poetry, and even exercised in the composition of it. This too is so apparent in the writings of Plato, that he is thought not only to have erred in his judgment, but to have acted an ungrateful part, when he excluded from his imaginary commonwealth that art, to which he was so much indebted for the splendour and elegance of his genius, from whose fountains he had derived that soft, copious, and harmonious style, for which he is so justly admired. (Lecture I ¶ 39)
But to return to the nobler and more important productions of the Muses.—Thus far poetry must be allowed to stand eminent among the other liberal arts; inasmuch as it refreshes the mind when it is fatigued, soothes it when it is agitated, relieves and invigorates it when it is depressed; as it elevates the thoughts to the admiration of what is beautiful, what is becoming, what is great and noble: nor is it enough to say, that it delivers the precepts of virtue in the most agreeable manner; it insinuates or instils into the soul the very principles of morality itself. Moreover, since the desire of glory, innate in man, appears to be the most powerful incentive to great and heroic actions, it is the peculiar function of poetry to improve this bias of our nature, and thus to cherish and enliven the embers of virtue: and since one of the principal employments of poetry consists in the celebration of great and virtuous actions, in transmitting to posterity the examples of the bravest and most excellent men, and in consecrating their names to immortality; this praise is certainly its due, that while it forms the mind to habits of rectitude by its precepts, directs it by examples, excites and animates it by its peculiar force, it has also the distinguished honour of distributing to virtue the most ample and desirable rewards of its labours. (Lecture I ¶ 40)
But, after all, we shall think more humbly of poetry than it deserves, unless we direct our attention to that quarter where its importance is most eminently conspicuous; unless we contemplate it as employed on sacred subjects, and in subservience to religion. This indeed appears to have been the original office and destination of poetry; and this it still so happily performs, that in all other cases it seems out of character, as if intended for this purpose alone. In other instances poetry appears to want the assistance of art, but in this to shine forth with all its natural splendour, or rather to be animated by that inspiration, which, on the other occasions, is spoken of without being felt. These observations are remarkably exemplified in the Hebrew poetry, than which the human mind can conceive nothing more elevated, more beautiful, or more elegant; in which the almost ineffable sublimity of the subject is fully equalled by the energy of the language and the dignity of the style. And it is worthy observation, that as some of these writings exceed in antiquity the fabulous ages of Greece, in sublimity they are superior to the most finished productions of that polished people. Thus, if the actual origin of poetry be inquired after, it must of necessity be referred to religion; and since it appears to be an art derived from nature alone, peculiar to no age or nation, and only at an advanced period of society conformed to rule and method, it must be wholly attributed to the more violent affections of the heart, the nature of which is to express themselves in an animated and lofty tone, with a vehemence of expression far remote from vulgar use. It is also no less observable, that these affections break and interrupt the enunciation by their impetuosity; they burst forth in sentences pointed, earnest, rapid, and tremulous; in some degree the style as well asthe modulation is adapted to the emotions and habits of the mind. This is particularly the case in admiration and delight; and what passions are so likely to be excited by religious contemplations as these? What ideas could so powerfully affect a new-created mind, (undepraved by habit or opinion,) as the goodness, the wisdom, and the greatness of the Almighty? Is it not probable, that the first effort of rude and unpolished verse would display itself in the praise of the Creator, and flow almost involuntarily from the enraptured mind? Thus far, at least, is certain, that poetry has been nurtured in those sacred places where she seems to have been first called into existence; and that her original occupation was in the temple and at the altar. However ages and nations may have differed in their religious sentiments and opinions, in this at least we find them all agreed, that the mysteries of their devotion were celebrated in verse. Of this origin poetry even yet exhibits no obscure indications, since she ever embraces a divine and sacred subject with a kind of filial tenderness and affection. To the sacred haunts of religion she delights to resort as to her native soil: there she most willingly inhabits, and there she flourishes in all her pristine beauty and vigour. But to have slightly glanced at the subject, appears sufficient for the present; we shall soon perhaps find an opportunity of entering upon a more ample discussion. (Lecture I ¶ 41)
I trust indeed that you will pardon me, Gentlemen, if I do not as yet venture to explain my future plan of instruction, and the form and method which I think of pursuing. That man must have too little respect for your judgment, and by far too high an opinion of his own, who would presume to produce before you matter not sufficiently digested, not sufficiently polished and perfected by study and by the maturest consideration. I have, therefore, determined within myself, that nothing shall hastily or prematurely proceed from me in this assembly, nothing which is not laboured to the extent of my abilities; and that for what is wanting in genius, in erudition, in fluency, and in every respect in which I feel myself deficient, I shall endeavour to compensation, as much as possible, by care and assiduity. If in these points I shall be enabled to perform my duty, I trust, Gentlemen, that other deficiencies you will be kind enough to excuse; and that the person whom you have honoured with your favour and attention, with your candour and indulgence, you will continue to support. (Lecture I ¶ 42)
Lecture I, n. 1: The Prælector of Poetry at Oxford is obliged by the statute to read his inaugural lecture the first Tuesday in the Term subsequent to his election; and it appears by the University Register, that Mr. Lowth was elected to the Professorship on the 21st of May, 1741, in the vacation between Easter and Act Term. As this vacation is only thirteen days, commencing the Thursday before Whitsunday, and ending the Wednesday after Trinity Sunday, the longestinterval that could possibly happen between his election and his first lecture is somewhat less than three weeks; it might probably be much shorter. Even in his youth Bishop Lowth was distinguished by the cautious accuracy of his judgment; he therefore very properly introduces a plan, upon which he was to work for ten years, (the usual term of the professorship,) with much modesty and reserve; and when he speaks of meeting his constituents rather early, (paulo maturius,) he must be understood as regretting the little time which by the statute was allowed him to prepare his introductory address. This fact will serve also to explain some passages towards the conclusion of the lecture.
For the substance of this note I am indebted to a very intelligent friend at Oxford, and am happy in this opportunity of returning my best acknowledgements.—T. ↩
Lecture I, n. 3: There are, however, poems which only delight, but which are not therefore to be condemned: some, which, though they contain no moral precepts, no commendation of virtue, no sentiment curious or abstruse, yet dress and adorn common ideas in such splendour of diction and harmony of numbers, as to afford exquisite pleasure; they bring, as it were, before our eyes the woods and streams, and all the elegant and enchanting objects of nature. The excellence of such poems is founded upon the same principle with that of a beautiful picture, which is more valued for contributing to pleasure only, than many other things are for their actual utility. What follows I greatly approve: only, I would not wish it to be denied, that there are some poems which have no design but that of giving pleasure, and that this is even a laudable end; nor, indeed, does our author altogether suppose this impossible.—M. ↩
Lecture I, n. 4: Seneca seems to detract from the authority of Virgil’s Georgics, describing him as an author
who studied truth less than elegance; and wished rather to delight the reader than to instruct the husbandman. Columella, however, seems to be of a very different opinion; and I cannot help thinking him a much better judge. He continually cites the Georgics, never with any degree of blame, and generally with the greatest applause:
This mode we shall pursue, if we may trust the poet, whose authority on such occasions I esteem little less than an oracle.—Lib. iv.
I shall frequently make use of the authority of this divine poem.—Lib. vii. 3. In the very matter for which Seneca finds fault with Virgil, namely, the time of sowing millet, the reader will see how ignorantly the poet is censured by the philosopher, if he consults Columella, ii. 9. Plin. N. H. xviii. 7. Pallad. iii. 3. —Author’s Note. ↩
Lecture I, n. 11: Athenæus, lib. xv. This Skolion (or convivial song) some have attributed to Alcæus; but not conformably with strict chronology, for Alcæus flourished about eighty years before the death of Hipparchus. But Hesychius has preserved the name of the author from oblivion, directly assigning the poem to Callistratus. This poem was so celebrated at Athens, that it was sung at almost every banquet, as we learn from Aristophanes, Αχαρν. 977.
Grim visag’d War shall never be my guest,
Nor at my table sing Harmodius’ praise:
Such lawless riot mars our temp’rate joys.
He shall never sing Harmodius with me; that is, he shall never be my guest. Upon this passage the Scholiast:
In their convivial meetings they sung a certain ballad of Harmodius, which begins Φιλτατε Ἁρμοδιε. κ. λ. Also, in the same comedy, 1092, these songs are enumerated among the other apparatus of the entertainment:
The sprightly dance, Harmodius! thy delight.
There is another allusion to the same, Λυσις. 633.
My sword I’ll bear hid in a myrtle branch;
And like Aristogiton walk in arms.
It is evident from this ballad, that the conspirators, when they assaulted Hipparchus, concealed their daggers in those myrtle garlands, which, if I mistake not, were carried by all who assisted in the sacred rites of the Panathenaic sacrifice: and this is indeed confirmed by the Scholiast upon Aristophanes, before referred to:
For these men, Harmodius and Aristogiton, hastily drawing their swords out of the myrtle boughs, fell furiously on the tyrant. Hence, perhaps, arose the custom, that whoever sung any convivial song in company, always held a branch of myrtle in his hand. See Plutarch, i. Symp. Quest. 1.—Author’s Note
Our Collins, in particular, has attributed this poem to Alcæus, in the following beautiful lines:
What new Alcæus, fancy blest,
Shall sing the sword in myrtles drest,
At Wisdom’s shrine awhile its flame concealing,
(What place so fit to seal a deed renown’d?)
Till she her brightest lightnings round revealing,
It leap’d in glory forth, and dealt her prompted wound.
Ode to Liberty. ↩
Lecture I, n. 12: The above imitation, all but the third stanza, is taken from a paraphrase of this poem, said to be the production of Sir W. Jones. The following is a more literal translation, by Mr. Cumberland:
He is not dead, our best belov’d,
Harmodius is not lost;
But with Troy’s conquerors remov’d
To some more happy coast.
Bind then the myrtle’s mystic bough,
And wave your swords around;
For so they struck the tyrant low,
And so their swords were bound.
Perpetual objects of our love
The patriot pair shall be,
Who in Minerva’s sacred grove
Struck and set Athens free.
Observer, No. 49.—T. ↩
Lecture I, n. 14:
It will not be inconsistent with these studies to amuse yourself with poetry: —Tully,indeed, appears to have acquired that luminous and splendid diction which he possessed, by occasionally resorting to such occupations. Quinct. lib. x. 5. —Author’s Note. ↩
It may be doubted whether Cicero was indebted for his excellence as an orator to the cultivation of poetry. He would have been accounted but a moderate orator, if his orations had only equalled his poetry—had he spoken as he sung:
Fortune fortuned the dying notes of Rome:
Till I, thy consul sole, consoled thy doom.
I do not expect from Cicero the polish and perfection of Virgil, but one might at least have hoped to meet in his verse some of that fire and fancy which appears in his oratory. The case, however, is far otherwise; for he appears not deficient in art, but in nature, in that energy and enthusiasm which is called the poetic furor.
Upon very mature consideratio indeed I will venture to profess that however poetry may contribute to form an accomplished orator, I hardly ever expect to find the same person excellent in both arts. The language of poetry has something in it so different and contrary to that of oratory, that we seldom find those who have applied much to the one rise above mediocrity in the other. The chief excellence of an orator consists in perspicuity; and in such a degree of perspicuity as is necessary to render the composition intelligible even to the common people; but, though obscurity be not a necessary adjunct of a good poem, it must be considerably superior to the language and comprehension of the vulgar to rank above mediocrity. The orator must not deviate from the common, and beaten track of language; the poet must aim at a happy boldness of diction, and wander into new paths. The orator, in order to be generally understood, is necessarily more copious and prolix, not only than the poet, but than all other writers: the chief commendation of the poet is brevity. A poem is always enervated by circumlocutions unless new lights of sentiment and language are thrown in. For those and other reasons I am of opinion, that, if a well cultivated genius for poetry should apply earnestly to oratory, he might indeed prove such an orator as would please a learned audience, and not be unpleasing to the populace; but such a man will never prove a very popular orator, on whom the people shall gaze with admiration and rapture, and who shall acquire a perfect ascendency over all their passions. And he who is by nature an orator, may possibly be a poet for the multitude, or by art and study, and the imitation of the best models, may make a decent proficiency, but never can be a great and divine poet.—M. ↩
Lecture I, n. 16: The most ancient poetry, as well as music, according to Plato, was
that which was addressed to the Deity under the appellation of hymns.—De Leg. lib. iii. Suetonious has illustrated this subject in a very elegant manner, though he is a little unfortunate in his etymology; a circumstance not uncommon with the old grammarians.
When first, says he,
mankind emerged from a state of barbarism into the habits of civilised life, and began to be acquainted in some measure with their own nature and that of the gods, they contented themselves with a moderate style of living, and a language just proportioned to their wants; whatever was grand or magnificent in either, they dedicated to their deities. As, therefore, they built temples more elegant by far than their own habitations, and made the shrines and images of their divinities much larger than the human form, so they thought it necessary to celebrate them in a style of greater majesty than common; in language more splendid, harmonious, and agreeable. This species of composition, because it assumed a certain distinct form, was called a poem, from the word ποιοτης, and those who cultivated it were called poets. From a fragment of a work not extant concerning Poetry, quoted by Isidorus. Orig. lib. viii. c. 7.—Author’s Note. ↩