The Edinburgh Encyclopædia







Poetry. Definition.

POETRY, Poesy, is a term derived from the Greek ποιητρια, ποιησις of ποιεω, I make, intimating, that the art which it denotes was regarded of unrivalled eminence, or of peculiarly difficult execution. In nothing have critics differed and disputed so much as about the definition of this divine art, each succeeding writer rejecting altogether, or essentially qualifying, the definition given by his predecessors. The father of criticism has denominated it "a mimetic or imitative art." Others have characterized it as "the art of expressing our thoughts by fictions," a definition supported by the authority of Aristotle and Plato. Neither of these definitions is correct. The former is defective, inasmuch as it does not discriminate poetry from other arts which depend equally on imitation; for, not to mention sculpture and painting, "an imitation of human manners and characters", says an excellent critic, "may be carried on in the humblest prose, no less than in the more lofty poetic strain." The latter is equally defective, and for similar reasons, because, though fiction be one of the characteristics of poetry, yet many of the happiest poetical effusions may be literally descriptive of real life, and of things which actually exist; while fiction forms also one of the great lineaments and features of prose as well as of poetical composition. There have been numberless other definitions more or less objectionable; but that given by our countryman Dr. Blair may probably be regarded as the most just and comprehensive that has yet been submitted to the public, "that it is the language of passion, or of enlivened imagination, formed most commonly into regular numbers." "The historian, the orator, the philosopher," says the same author, "address themselves for the most part primarily to the understanding; their direct aim is to inform, to persuade, or to instruct. But the primary aim of a poet is to please and to move; and therefore it is to the imagination and the passions that he speaks. He may, and he ought, to have it in his view, to instruct and to reform; but it is indirectly, and by pleasing and moving, that he accomplishes this end. His mind is supposed to be animated by some interesting object which fires his imagination, or engages his passions; and which, of course, communicates to his style a peculiar elevation suited to his ideas, very different from that mode of expression which is natural to the mind in its calm ordinary state." This definition, so clearly expressed, and so admirably illustrated, may probably be made yet more simple and accurate by being rendered more minute. And poetry may therefore be defined, as the language of passion, or of enlivened imagination, expressed in the most elegant and rich terms, whether in regular numbers or otherwise, ornamented with similies, metaphors, tropes, figures, episodes, allegories, and hyperboles; in which fiction and imagination may, with propriety, be indulged beyond the strict limits of truth and reality. This definition, we presume, is free from the defects by which those quoted above are characterized, and yet, at the same time, combines their truth and excellencies.

Verse not necessary to poetry.

Verse or regular numbers, it is evident, are not essential to the existence of poetry. Verse is, we grant, the common external distinction of poetry, and probably may be regarded as contributing much to its beauty and fascination; yet poetry consists not in the form or dress in which it is presented to the eye; it consists in the soul and spirit by which this form is animated, and which imparts to it all its native fire. There is, besides, a species of verse scarcely distinguishable from prose, as that of the comedies of Terence; and there are various productions, apparently written in prose, of so elevated and impassioned a character, as virtually and undeniably to belong to the highest and purest kind of poetical composition. The Telemachus of Fenelon, and the English translation of Ossian, will at once occur to very reader.

Distinction between poetry and eloquence.

Hence it is, since verse and prose are not inherently and radically distinct, but like light and shade run on some occasion into each other, that the exact limit between poetry and eloquence (the art most closely connected with poetry) cannot with precision and be determined. They both depend essentially, though probably in somewhat different degrees, on the same principles, on deep susceptibility of feeling, on boldness [707] and originality of invention, on animated and figurative language. The exact boundaries of the two arts, therefore, it would be difficult, and at present we have not time, to ascertain; and it need merely be mentioned, as one of the greatest distinctions between them, that study and discipline are more necessary in the one than in the other; or, in other words, that to an orator, whatever be his natural genius, study, education, and rigid discipline, are indispensably necessary; while a poet may attain to the very perfection of his art without education, without the benefit of human learning, merely by the innate force of genius alone. An orator must necessarily be a student and a scholar, ere he can gain distinction; a poet, though learning and reading may be useful, may reach to eminence without the assistance of either. Homer is known to us as the greatest of all poets in consequence of natural endowments alone: Demosthenes enjoyed the same distinction in eloquence as the result of human learning and the most inflexible study, united with genius, – a result which genius of itself would have been insufficient to accomplish.

Music and poetry coeval.

But, though verse be not essential to poetry, a certain melody or modulation of voice, analogous probably to verse, seems to have been the dress in which poetical composition first appeared. So correct is this opinion that poetry and music are allowed by all to have had the same origin. "The first poets sung their own verses; and hence the beginning of what we call versification, or words arranged in a more artful order than prose, so as to be suited to some tune or melody. The liberty of transposition or inversion, which the poetic style would naturally assume, made it easier to form the words into some sort of numbers that fell in with the music of the song. Very harsh and uncouth, we may easily believe, these numbers would be at first. But the pleasure was felt; it was studied; and versification by degrees passed into an art." (Blair's Lectures, ii. 223.) Music and poetry, being thus coeval, continued intimately connected till music began to be studied as a separate art, divested of the poet's song, and formed into the artificial and intricate combinations of harmony, thus losing all its ancient power of inflaming the heart with strong emotions, and becoming an art of mere amusement among polished and luxurious nations.

Origin of poetry.

The origin of the art which we have thus endeavoured to define and characterize, must be referred to the remotest antiquity. The Greeks, indeed, have given a mythological account of its origin, and have ascribed the honour of it to their ancient deities, or to their first distinguished bards, to Apollo and the muses, to Orpheus, Linus, Musæus. But this opinion is evidently abulous. To explore the rise of poetry, we need not have recourse to refined and accomplished nations. Poetry has its origin in the nature of man, and belongs to every age and to every country. It belongs in particular to the simplest and most unsophisticated manners. It first appeared in the deserts and the wilds, among hunters and shepherds, in the first generations of the world, or in the rudest state of society, before refinement had polished or learning had illumined mankind. And, consistently with this opinion, we find poetry, not only more common, but more pure and impassioned, in those nations, the inhabitants of which are the farthest removed from the luxury, learning, and refinement of civilized life. Poetry, indeed, seems to lose its original character of boldness, originality, and enthusiasm, and to become timid, unnatural, and artificial, in proportion as the people by whom it is cultivated are removed from the stae of rude and savage existence. Hence it is that we find the wild Indians of America employ in their treaties and public transactions, bolder metaphors, more splendid gorgeousness of style, than the civilized nations of Europe in their most elevated poetical productions. Having concluded a treaty of peace with the British, the Five Nations of Canada expressed themselves by their chiefs in the following language. "We are happy in having buried under ground the red axe, that has often been dyed with the blood of our brethren. Now, in this sort, we enter the axe and plant the tree of peace. We plant a tree whose top will reach the sun, and its branches spread abroad, so that it shall be seen afar off. May its growth never be stifled and choked; but may it shade both your country and ours with its leaves! Let us make fast its roots, and extend them to the utmost bounds of your colonies. If the French should come to shake the tree, we should know it by the motion of its roots reaching into our country. May the Great Spirit allow us to rest in tranquillity upon our mats, and never dig up the axe to cut down the tree of peace! Let the earth be trod hard over it where it lies buried. Let a strong stream run under the pit to wash the evil away out of our sight and remembrance. The fire that had long burned in Albany is extinguished. The bloody bed is washed clean, and the tears are wiped from our eyes. We now renew the covenant chain of friendship. Let it be kept bright and clear as silver, and not suffered to contract any rust. Let not any one pull away his arm from it." (Cadwallader Colden's History of the Five Indian Nations.)

Nor is this a solitary and unsupported instance. Of the principle we are labouring to establish, the poems of Ossian afford a striking illustration: and innumerable other references might be made, (see particularly an Essay on Sclavonic poetry, published in Letters on Poland, 1823, and Von Troil's Letters on Iceland,) as a proof how inseparably, in rude periods of society, poetry is connected with the feelings and principles of every class and condition of men, particularly on moving and interesting occasions. Among all savage tribes indeed with whom we have yet had any intercourse, poetical effusions, rude probably, but true to nature, obtain in an extraordinary degree. This fact has been established by the minute and concurring accounts of travellers. Their religious rites are celebrated in song. By songs they lament their public and private calami ties, the death of friends, or the loss of warriors. By these they express their joy on their victories, record and embalm the bravery of their heroes, excite each other to perform feats of valour, and to encounter death or torments with inflexible firmness. Agreeably to this opinion, Moses and Miriam, the first authors known to us, offered upon the banks of the Red Sea a song of praise to the Almighty, for the deliverance which, through his miraculous assistance, they had experienced from Egyptian bondage. This song has been transmitted to us, and forms not only the most ancient monument, but an unrivalled specimen, of poetical composition. ° ° ° "Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy. And in the greatness of thine excellence thou hast overthrown them that rose up against thee: thou sendest forth thy wrath which consumed them as stubble. And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together; the floods, stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil: my lust shall be satisfied [708] upon them: I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters. Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like unto thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?" ° ° °

Poetry of greater antiquity than prose.

From these varied examples, it is evident that poetry, except in common conversation, or in reference to every-day occurrences, is of greater antiquity than prose. History, law, theology, were all embodied and transmitted from age to age in poetic numbers. The prophets of the Hebrews "prophesied," we are told, "with the psaltery, tabret, and harp before them." With the Arabians and Persians, poetry was the earliest form and medium of all their learning and instruction: their proverbs and moral maxims were moulded into verse like the writings of Solomon or the book of Job. Minos and Thales sung to the lyre the laws which they composed and disseminated. Tacitus mentions the hymns of the Germans, at a time when that rude people lived in the woods in circumstances of savage existence; and the Runic songs of all the Gothic tribes formed the source whence the more early writers of their history drew their most important information. Among the Celtic nations poetry was, if possible, more assiduously cultivated and more deeply venerated: their bards were held in such high estimation, that even their persons were regarded as sacred. So much, in ancient times, was poetry the vehicle in which national, local, and individual history was embodied, that even in periods comparatively recent, historians, imbibing the ancient spirit, have clothed their compositions in a similar dress, – a fact of which our countrymen Lermont, Barbour, Winton, form conspicuous instances. In short, history, eloquence, poetry, were coeval, and synonimous or at least analogous terms. Whoever, in these rude ages, wished to move or to persuade, to instruct or to interest his friends or his countrymen, whatever was the subject on which he descanted, had recourse to the harmony of numbers and the melody of song.

Progress of Poetry.

Poetry thus having its foundation in the nature of man, may be expected to exhibit similar features during the primitive ages of every country. The circumstances which caused it to be cultivated and cherished were every where nearly the same. The praises of gods and men, individual or national glory or calamity, joy or lamentation, which constituted the early subjects of poetry, are topics common to every tribe and nation. But though, in the first stages of society, mankind in every country resemble each other, they gradually vary: climate and modes of living form and develop principles and habits among one people which are unknown or despised by another. Thus, though in every nation, the source of poetry and its great general lineaments, were at first similar, it by degrees, among different tribes, exhibited distinct and peculiar characteristics; and was mild or impetuous, martial or tender, unpolished or refined, according to the circumstances and institutions of the different nations of the world.

Different kinds of.

Hence the great national division of poetry, the Hebrew, Chinese, Arabian, Gothic, Celtic, Grecian, each kind being powerfully descriptive of the circumstances of the people, and the natural scenery of the country, where it obtained. Nor was this general division the only change that poetry underwent. Poetical composition at first embraced the whole impulses of which the human soul is susceptible, the unrestrained range of the human imagination; and every species of the art lay confused in the same mass, according as circumstances or enthusiasm directed the poet's strain. But now, in addition to the national division just spoken of the different kinds of poetry were severally discriminated, each being assigned its separate character and importance, and subjected to rules and restrictions unknown in the earlier stages of the art. History, eloquence, and poetry, long so closely connected, were now disjoined, and each regarded as distinct from the others, and independent of them. The historian now laid aside the garb and brilliancy of poetry; he wrote in sober, elaborate prose, and was ambitious of no praise but that of candour and authenticity. The orator, though he did not altogether relinquish the splendid and flowing ornaments by which he was formerly characterized, laboured to gain his point, as much by ingenuity, and arguments addressed to the understanding, as by his warm and impassioned appeals to the feelings and the heart. "Poetry," says an elegant critic, "became now a separate art, calculated chiefly to please, and confined generally to such subjects as related to the imagination and the passions. Even its earliest companion, music, was in a great measure divided from it." It now indeed assumed a comparatively tame and uninteresting aspect. The bard, instead of pouring forth his song as the native and irresistible effusions of an ardent and inspired heart, had recourse to study and to rules, affected to be actuated by what he did not feel, and supplied the want of native emotions by pompous and artificial ornaments, chosen to dazzle and to deceive.

Divisions of.

The divine art, therefore, of which we are treating, has, in the more civilized countries, been divided into different departments or professions, a thing unknown in the poetic compositions of a rude state of society. It must not be denied, however, that, even at the earliest periods of the art, we may trace symptoms and indications of that division which we are now contemplating. Thus, what we now denominate the Ode or Lyric Poetry, may, with propriety, be reckoned the first species of composition. As the word Ode denotes, it was a species of poetry intended to be sung or accompanied with music; a distinction, however, at first peculiar, as formerly shown, to no one mode of poetical writing. But of that which we now call the Ode, the earliest productions, such as the Song of Moses and Miriam, the Psalms of David, &c., are correct and regular specimens. The Elegy would at a remote period be introduced, lamenting the death of friends, cf chiefs, and of warriors. Nor would Epic Poetry be long uncultivated. To celebrate the exploits of heroes is a task which the bard would early be excited to perform; and his effusions on such an occasion would literally give birth to the epic or heroic species of poetic composition. And if, while reciting a production of this nature at any of the public meetings of the tribe, the different bards should endeavour to personate the different heroes and personages, and should feel, and speak, and act, agreeably to the several characters they had assumed, this representation would necessarily be the origin and the first outlines of dramatic composition. Thus early, therefore, may we trace the undefined, original appearances of the different kinds of poetry, of which the most ancient tribes (though this division was not nominally known to them, and though poetry of every description was then indiscriminately blended together) afford some striking indications; but it was left to more civilized nations to effect, by study, by rigid definition, and by criticism, what the early bards did not fully understand or wilfully neglected, preferring, as they did, to give utterance to the strong movements and sympathies of their souls in such wild and impetuous language as nature spontaneously dictated, rather than do violence to [709] the noble warmth of their feelings by study or by artificial arrangements. The remainder of this article shall be employed in giving an analysis of the different kinds of poetic writings, and in enumerating some of the more eminent authors, in the several departments of the art.

Poetry of the Hebrews.

But before entering on this portion of our subject, we shall treat of the poetry of the Hebrews, not because it is the medium of divine revelation, – we shall not at present consider its awful dignity and importance in this respect, – but because it is the most ancient, as well as the most curious and perfect specimen of poetical writing handed down to us. Though the books of the Old Testament, being the production of various individuals and different ages, are characterized by great diversity of style, it is not difficult to ascertain which of them belong to the department of poetry. Of this class, undoubtedly, are the Book of Job, the Psalms of David, the Song of Solomon, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a great proportion of the prophetical books, with innumerable detached passages in the historical writings. Whether these compositions were originally written in verse has long been a subject of dispute with biblical critics, and is yet undetermined. Our knowledge of the correct pronunciation of the language in which they are written is so imperfect, that the dispute can never be expected to be settled. Many learned writers, however, such as Dr. Lowth and Dr. Blayney, are decidedly of opinion, that in the poetical books the arrangements of the words and the cadences of the sentences are so essentially different from those in the historical, as to warrant the inference that they were originally composed in regular numbers. Music and poetry, among the Hebrews, as well as among all other people, seem to have been inseparably connected. In the earlier notices on this subject in the Old Testament, it is mentioned that praises were offered up to the Lord in songs accompanied with various instruments of music. We are told by Samuel of the prophets "prophesying with the psaltery and harp before them." "Sing unto the Lord a new song," is an expression every where to be found, and is evidently conclusive with respect to the intimate connexion formerly stated as existing between poetry and music. But whatever opinions may be entertained on other points, Hebrew poetry, it is allowed by all, is of a peculiar description, unlike that of any other nation with which we are acquainted. And this peculiarity consists in no mean degree in its artificial external structure, in its repetitions, amplifications, alternation and correspondence of parts. Every period is divided into two members, either tautological, or forming a contrast to each other, and always the same in point of sound and measure. Our English version, though in prose, being literally word for word after the original, retains all the characteristic marks of metrical and poetical composition, and may with propriety be quoted for the benefit of those unacquainted with the Hebrew language. Thus, in the twentieth chapter of Job:

"The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment.
Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, – and his head unto the clouds;
Yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung: – they which have seen him shall say, where is he?
He shall fly away as a dream and shall not be found, – yea, he shall be chased away as a vision of the night.
The eye also which saw him, shall see him no more; – neither shall his place any more behold him."

This method of composition, which forms the peculiar and distinguishing feature of Hebrew poetry, became at length so familiar, and so much the character of the language, that it prevailed more or less in every other species of composition. In the prophetical writings this idiom is conspicuously remarkable. In Isaiah, chapter fifty-fifth, the reader will find striking specimens of this, as well as in innumerable other places.

The origin of this idiom in the Hebrew tongue may probably be traced to the nature of their music. Their hymns or odes, like those of other nations, were uniformly sung; but with them this was accomplished in a way somewhat peculiar. Their singers and musicians did not all perform together, but each individual, or the different divisions of the band, had their respective parts to accomplish, so as to obtain a varied but uninterrupted melody. Thus, for example, one band sung, "The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice;" the chorus or semi-chorus immediately succeeded, "let the multitude of the isles be glad thereof." "Clouds and darkness are around him," was sung by one, while the other replied, "judgment and righteousness are the habitation of his throne." Of this peculiarity, the 24th psalm may be adduced as, probably, the most striking and satisfactory instance. It is supposed to have been composed on the important and solemn occasion of the ark of the covenant being brought back to Mount Sinai. "Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord, and who shall stand in his holy place?" is sung by a semi-chorus, and the response is made by a full chorus, "He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully." As the procession approached the door of the tabernacle, the full chorus is supposed again to join in the exclamation, "Lift up your heads ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the king of glory shall enter in." "Who is the king of glory?" is a question by the semi-chorus, and the answer is returned by the whole chorus, as the ark is introduced into the tabernacle, "The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle." These examples, while they illustrate the nature of Hebrew poetry, show, at the same time, how much of the beauty and magnificence of this portion of the sacred volume is lost to those who understand not the genius of the original tongue, or who know not the different circumstances for which these compositions were severally written.

It may be here remarked, that this practice of the Hebrew poets, of always amplifying the same thought by repetition or contrast, does not in the least degree tend to enfeeble their style – a result which, at first sight, we would suppose unavoidable. In managing this extremely difficult point consist their merit and their eminence. The same thought is never dwelt upon long; their sentences are short; and, except with regard to the peculiarity which we have just contemplated, they use no superfluous words, no artificial embellishments. There is nothing else very peculiar or idiomatical in the mode of construction of Hebrew poetry. It is certainly characterized by beauties of every description to a degree altogether unrivalled. Simplicity, strength, boldness, magnificence, sublimity, pathos, are its distinguishing features. With the Hebrew poets there are no far-fetched allusions and illustrations, no false feeling, or studied and artificial magnificence. The pastoral life, and the parched ground of Judea, the palm-trees and the cedars of Lebanon, are almost the only sources from which they draw their figures and their associations.

Lyric poetry, or the Ode.

Having thus treated of the poetry of the Hebrews, we proceed to give such an account of the different species of poetic composition as our limits will admit. [710] Lyric Poetry, or the Ode, is probably the first that will suggest itself to the mind of every reader. As its name imports, it is intended to be sung or accompanied with music – a distinction, as formerly shown, not originally confined to any one kind of poetic writing, as music and poetry were coeval, but which the ode was allowed to retain when these two arts were separated. The ode, therefore, may justly be regarded as the form of the earliest poetical effusions; and, consistently with this opinion, it is required to be more fervid, more impassioned, more directly the offspring of natural feeling, than any other department of the art. Following the dictates of natural emotion, it may be abrupt in its transitions, it may make bold digressions, and give way to enthusiastic and energetic flights, in compatible with every other species of composition, and which, at least, can never be justified in verses written for simple recitation. The subjects, too, on which it may descant, are more akin to those which originally formed the song of the poet.

"Musa dedit fidibus divos, puerosque deorum,
Et pugilem victorem, et equum certamine primum,
Et juvenum curas, et libera vina referre."
Ars Poetica.

The ode, therefore, is necessarily a composition in which dignity, energy, and passion, are conspicuous; it is usually meant to be a warm transcript of the poet's heart – a character which it still, in a great measure, retains, though, in modern times, it has been divided into four denominations, each more or less distinct and different from the others. These are sacred odes; heroic odes; moral and philosophical odes; festive and amatory odes. The two first possess the distinction by which the ode was originally marked, elevation and pathos; while the two last are of a more subdued and tame description, in general elegant and nervous, though sometimes gay and sportive. To the festive and amatory ode belong songs of every character, and of every degree of merit. The most celebrated writers of odes of antiquity are Pindar, Anacreon, Horace. In England, the names of Cowley, Dryden, Collins, Gray, Smollett, will at once occur to every poetic reader. "Dryden's Ode to St. Cecilia," "The Tears of Scotland," by Smollett, and "Collins's Ode to the Passions," may be mentioned as, probably, the finest specimens of lyric composition which the country has yet produced.


As not unconnected with the ode, or rather as a species of it, the Elegy may be mentioned. "It is," says Johnson, "the effusion of a contemplative mind, sometimes plaintive, always serious, and, therefore, superior to the glitter of artificial ornaments." It was originally appropriated to mourn the death of a friend, a benefactor, or a distinguished character; but it was afterwards used in a wider sense, and came to express the grief of lovers, and every species of distress and disappointment. Poets of almost every age and nation have cultivated, with various success, elegiac composition; but "The Country Church-yard" of Gray probably stands unrivalled in ancient or modern times. "It abounds," says the author just quoted, "with images which find a mirror in every breast, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo."

Epic poetry.

But though lyric poetry be regarded as the first species in use among savage tribes, yet the Epic has a claim to nearly as remote an origin, and certainly at least it retains its original characteristics as unpolluted as any other division of the art. The recital of the achievements of heroes and of ancestors, of warriors who had fallen, or who had conquered in battle – and this recital would literally constitute epic poetry, – would naturally be a subject which, in the earliest periods of society, would call forth the poet's powers, and which he would wish to embalm and perpetuate in song. And this mode of poetic writing, besides being old, is allowed to be the most dignified, elevated, and majestic, fitted only for the cultivation of men of the finest and most diversified genius. A story, or the achievements of a single hero, are regarded as indispensable requisites in an epic poem, both to excite the interest and admiration of the reader, and to connect the subsidiary narratives and episodes of the work. It has been compared to tragedy, and indeed the only essential difference between the two is, that the epic employs narrative, and in some respects partakes rather of the character of historical composition; while tragedy represents incidents as appearing before our eyes, and her heroes and actors speaking their own sentiments, and engaged in all the bustle and fervour of active existence. Tragedy, there fore, displays characters chiefly by means of sentiments and passions which seem to pass under our review; epic poetry chiefly by actions. Epic poetry, besides, is a less animated and impassioned composition, and deals more in narrative and description than tragedy. It requires indeed occasional bursts of energetic and overpowering emotions, but these are not its leading characteristics. The emotions, however, which it does excite, if not so frequent or so violent as those of dramatic composition, are more prolonged and more developed by actual occurrences; for it embraces a wider compass of time and action than the kind of writing with which we are contrasting it. The action of the Odyssey, for example, extends to eight years and a half; that of the Æneid about six years. The epic poet is not obliged to confine himself to historical truth; fiction, invention, imagination, may be admitted almost to any extent, at the expence of scrupulous accuracy, provided always the poet sin not against the unities, or that his work, according to the language of critics, embrace an entire action, or have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the distinguishing quality of the great epic poems. The object, for example, of the Odyssey, is the return and establishment of Ulysses in his own country; and amid all the ramifications of the poem, every portion of it has its proper and suitable dimensions; the great object is steadily kept in view, and every sentence and every apparent departure from the subject, is made powerfully and directly conducive to the interest and progress of it. In this department of writing, in addition to the work just mentioned, the most distinguished are Virgil's Æneid, Tasso's Jerusalem, Lucan's Pharsalia, Statius's Thebaid, Camoens' Lusiad, Voltaire's Henriade, Cambray's Telemachus, Ossian's Fingal and Temora, Milton's Paradise Lost, Glover's Leonidas, Wilkie's Epigoniad.

Pastoral poetry.

Pastoral poetry, the species which we next proceed to consider, is not of so ancient an origin as those we have already contemplated. Figures and descriptions of a pastoral kind indeed occur in the earliest poems that have been handed down to us; but these descriptions are incidental only; and it is now allowed by all critics that pastoral poetry was not cultivated as a separate and distinct branch of the art till towns and cities had been built and inhabited, till gradation of rank had been established, and men had become comparatively luxurious and refined. Rural peace and tranquillity were not known or not appreciated till they could be con[711]trasted with the bustle and anxiety of courts and large cities. "Men, then," to use the words of an elegant writer, "began to look back on the more simple and innocent life which their forefathers led, or which they supposed them to have led; they looked back upon it with pleasure; and in those rural scenes and pastoral occupations imagining a degree of felicity to take place superior to what they now enjoyed, conceived the idea of celebrating it in poetry. It was in the court of King Ptolemy that Theocritus wrote the first pastorals with which we are acquainted; and in the court of Augustus he was imitated by Virgil." But to whatever date we may assign the origin of pastoral poetry, it is agreed on all hands that no species of the poetic art is more fascinating, sweet, and natural. It brings before our minds the most ancient, the most innocent, the most happy, and the simplest form of existence. It recals to the imagination of most of us the place of our birth, and the haunts of our childhood, "the green pastures and the still waters," hallowed and endeared to us by many a tender association, and on which at every period of our life memory lingers with peculiar fondness. Flocks, trees, flowers, streams, rural love and rural peace, carry charms to every bosom.

In writing pastoral, however, rural life must be painted, not literally as we find it in the present age, but in reference to those innocent and simple times described so exquisitely by the earlier pastoral poets. It is this pleasing illusion, probably more than any thing else, which has shed such inexpressible beauty and sweetness over this species of poetry. – Of pastoral compositions, the language, it is evident, must be humble, devoid of floridness and pomp; the figures simple, concise, and taken from rural scenery and rural occupations; the sentiments, the result of natural and unsophisticated emotions. Apostrophes to inanimate objects, if not turgidly executed, may be frequent; digressions may be allowed, if short and directly connected with the circumstances in which the parties are supposed to be placed.

There is a form of pastoral poetry that has been introduced in recent times, and which it would be improper to overlook, namely, that in which it assumes the character of the regular drama, founded on the sympathy and innocence of rural manners. Of this kind the Pastor Fido of Guarini, and Tasso's Aminta, are well known. But our own country has produced a pastoral drama which will bear a comparison with any composition of the kind. We allude to the "Gentle Shepherd" of Ramsay, which abounds with beauties of the highest and most varied order. It is completely free from offensive rusticity or coarseness; it uniformly sustains the genuine character of rural simplicity; while, at the same time, the affecting incidents, tender sentiments, and natural description, by which it is characterized, would do honour to any poet. – Among the ancients, the most celebrated writers of pastorals are Theocritus and Virgil. Various authors of our own country have applied their genius to pastoral composition, – but with no eminent success; and, with the exception of Ramsay, Britain can boast of no great poet in this department of writing but Shenstone, whose "Pastoral Ballad" has challenged the praise and admiration of every critic. Of all the moderns, how ever, Gesner, a native of Switzerland, has cultivated pastoral composition with the most brilliant success. He excels chiefly in the description of domestic sympathy and felicity, the mutual affection of husbands and wives, of parents and children, of brothers and sisters, and of lovers. There is throughout his Idyls such sweet and tender sentiments, such genuine touches of nature, as must make a deep impression on every heart susceptible of pure and simple, yet elevated emotions.

Didactic Poetry.

The object of Didactic Poetry, which is the next species that claims attention, is to convey knowledge and instruction. It has been employed chiefly on moral, philosophical, and critical subjects. In works of this nature, method and arrangement are indispensably necessary, so as to give a connected strain of instruction; and yet in no department of writing are such privileges allowed. Digressions and episodes of all kinds, historical or fabulous, every embellishment and illustration may with propriety be introduced, provided they originate naturally in the subject, and tend to elucidate or enforce it. The great art of a didactic poet, indeed, is to relieve the reader by digressions and collateral discussions; and to make, as it were, the ostensible object of his composition subservient to illustrations and episodes which are susceptible of higher poetry and deeper interest than can be communicated to a continued series of grave instructions. It is this in which the chief interest of Virgil's Georgics consists, and the genius of the author is most eminently displayed. This celebrated production, with all the merit which in other respects it possesses, and all the valuable information it conveys, would be comparatively uninteresting and prosaic, were it not for the beautiful and highly poetical digressions by which it is characterized; such as the praises of Italy, the felicity of rural life, the fable of Aristaeus, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Nor is the talents of Virgil less remarkable in connecting his episodes happily with his subject: they are all made directly subservient to the great purpose of his treatise, and they are introduced and terminated so happily, that we believe the two to be perfectly inseparable, – and a didactic poem is entitled to praise, not for any one quality more than for its resembling, in the points just specified, the Georgics of Virgil. This kind of poetry, it may be remarked, is one of the highest species of the art. It does not merely require elevation of sentiment, and richness and dignity of language, but it embraces almost every other mode of poetical writing, the descriptive, the pathetic, the tender, and the sublime; and is therefore to be cultivated only by poets of the highest and most varied endowments. Didactic poetry has been cultivated both in ancient and modern times, by Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Vida, Boileau, Pope, Akenside, Young, Rogers, Campbell.

Descriptive Poetry.

Descriptive Poetry, though we have so long delayed treating of it, is probably as difficult of execution, and requires as high powers of genius as any of the kinds we have yet analyzed. Descriptive poetry, however, does not mean exclusively any one particular form of composition. There are few poems purely descriptive; and still fewer in which description does not form a large and prominent part. Shakespeare, for example, though his excellence lies in manners and characters, may justly be denominated a descriptive poet, as in his works are instances of scenery painted with exquisite taste and beauty. But there are poems, such as Thomson's Seasons, or Milton's Allegro, more professedly descriptive than others, as description is their predominating and distinguishing characteristic. A writer of ordinary talents is evidently unfit to attain even respectability in this species of poetry. To him nature, which is the great field for the display of the descriptive powers, has nothing striking or interesting, or she seems exhausted by those who have preceded [712] him; and his language, being copied from others, instead of being the result of his own lively impressions, is vague, general, and languid; and though his descriptions may be decked with the drapery of poetry, we find, after perusing them, that nothing has been felt, and nothing has been accomplished. A true poet, on the contrary, sets the object painted distinctly and visibly before us. He makes a proper selection of circumstances; all the interesting tints, and beauties, and associations, make a deep impression on his own breast, and he transmits a warm impress to the breasts of others. We see before us scenery, and life, and reality, something in short from which a painter might copy. This praise is peculiarly the praise of Thomson. Thomson had a warm imagination, and a feeling heart; was deeply enamoured of the beauties of nature, and was possessed of genius to catch what was attractive and pleasing, and to reject what was superfluous or uninteresting; and he was thus enabled to produce the noblest poem of the kind we are considering, of which any language can boast. It need merely be mentioned farther, that in portraying inanimate natural objects, the description should be enlivened by the introduction of living beings to excite our interest and sympathy. It is this which gives description its highest charms, and brings the subjects of it home to the business and the bosom of every class of readers. The force of this opinion will be fully seen from the following quotation from Ossian: "I have seen the walls of Balclutha, but they were desolate. The fire had resounded within the halls; and the voice of the people is non heard no more. The stream of Clutha was removed from its place by the fall of the walls; the thistle shook there its lonely head; the moss whistled to the wind. The fox looked out at the window; the rank grass waves round her head. Desolate is the drvelling of Moina; Silence is in the house of her fathers." Nothing can be conceived more exquisitely touching than the thought conveyed in the sentence with which this description terminates. It finds a way direct to every bosom. – Description, as already mentioned, prevails more or less in every poetical production, ancient and modern. The British poets who stand highest in this department, are Ossian, Milton, (particularly in his Allegro and Pensoroso,) Blair, (the author of the Grave) Denham, Falconer, Thomson, Grahame, Scott, – of whom Milton and Thomson are unrivalled.


A poetical composition, in which allegory is the prevailing feature, can scarcely be regarded as forming a distinct and separate division of the art, as allegory is nothing but a continued metaphor, and, therefore, does not change the inherent nature of the work in which it is used. An amatory, or a pastoral poem, for example, may be allegorical, and its character as a pastoral or amatory production remains unchanged. Allegory has a reference only to the machinery employed, and its effect, therefore, is confined to the drapery in which poetry is veiled, not to the spirit by which it is animated. It is merely external, and is more remarkable than any other figure, merely because it is not so common, and because, when once introduced, it can be terminated only with the subject which it is employed to embellish or illustrate. Allegory, however, whatever be its influence on the nature of poetical writing, is recommended to us, as it forms the medium through which some of the most important truths in holy writ are conveyed to us. A very fine example of it may be found in the eightieth psalm, in which the Israelites are represented under the image of a vine. The parables in the prophetical writings, and in the New Testament, are all allegorical, and are supported and managed with incomparable felicity. Allegory seems to be of oriental origin, where it still prevails. It was early introduced into Europe. It was the great charcteristic of the Provençal poets. Nor is it unknown in British literature. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries indeed, it was the prevailing taste, as the work of Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, James I. of Scotland, and various others, amply testify. Thomson's Castle of Indolence, various prose essays in the Spectator, Rambler, and Adventurer, partake of the same character; but the progress of learning and refinement has banished this false taste; and no poet is now so blind to his reputation or success, as to attempt to revive and perpetuate it.

In the foregoing enumeration we have not introduced Dramatic Poetry, referring for a full discussion of that subject to our article DRAMA.

Living English poets.

We have hitherto also said nothing of the nature and progress of poetry in Britain; nor have we scarcely alluded to any of the great poets of the present day. The former topic is far too extensive for our present purpose, and besides (in addition to its being familiar to every reader from the writings of Warton, Johnson, Ellis, Campbell, and others), it will be found collaterally discussed in this work, in the lives of the various poets that this country has produced. The latter subject is of a nature too delicate and difficult for present consideration. Of living merit, indeed, it is peculiarly hazardous to speak, lest partial feelings should lead us to undue panegyric, or to unwarranted disapproval. With regard, therefore, to both these subjects, (though extremely important and interesting) we shall in this place merely mention that England is inferior to no country in the number and excellence of her poetical productions; that in every age, from the days of Chaucer and Gower, she has in this art produced writers of the highest endowments; that, though after the death of Goldsmith an interval elapsed more barren than any previous era in the history of English poetry, yet the subsequent age has been, if possible, more eminent than any former period for the variety and superior character of its poetical compositions. The present, indeed, has been denominated one of the most flourishing epochs of English poetry; an opinion of which no person can fail to be convinced if he reflect for a moment on the illustrious names by which it is adorned. We have, indeed, lost Cowper, Grahame, Leyden, Keats, Bloomfield; but we can still boast of Scott, Byron, Campbell, Southey, Rogers, Moore, Crabbe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Montgomery, and a multitude of others – each distinguished by his own peculiar genius and characteristics – all of them possessed of the highest and richest endowments, and not a few of them unrivalled in the departments of poetry which they have severally chosen to cultivate and adorn.

Venimus ad summum fortunæ, °°°
Psallimus °° Achivis doctius unctis.

The reader, besides the works already mentioned, may consult Beattie's Essay on Poetry and Music; Boileau, Art Poetique; Lowth, De Sacra Poësi Hebraeorum; Blair's Lectures, and his Essay on the Authenticity of Ossian; Letters on Iceland, by Dr. Von Troil, § xvii. on Icelandic Poetry; An Essay on Sclavonic Poetry, in a work entitled, Letters, Literary and Political, on Poland. 1828. (&)





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Edinburgh Encyclopædia;
conducted by David Brewster.
Volume XVI. Edinburgh: Blackwood [u.a.] 1830, S. 706-712.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien). Die Marginalien sind als Zwischenüberschriften gesetzt (kursiv).

The Edinburgh Encyclopædia (1808-1830)   online








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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer