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WORKS OF THE MOST ADMIRED WRITERS.
EDITED BY THE
REV. H. STEBBING, A. M.
AUTEOR OF 'LIVES OF THE ITALIAN POETS,' ku
LONDON: PRINTED FOR SCOTT, WEBSTER, AND GEARY,
36, CHARTERHOUSE SQUARE.
There are few errors, that have gained popularity, which admit of a readier confutation than the notion that Poetry is either an unsuitable medium for the conveyance of religious sentiments, or that religion, if it employs poetry as a venicie of instruction, must first deprive it of those striking characteristics which give it its chief power over the imagination and the affections. It can hardly be disputed that the more dignified a sentiment may be, the more dignified ought to be the language in which it is conveyed ; that the more the substance of a narrative may teem with impressive and lofty lessons, the nobler ought to be the mirror in which they are displayed, and that even in the description of objects remarkable either for beauty or sublimity, expressions ought to be employed which would be extravagant if used in respect to things of a less noble nature, but which are in these cases necessary to affect the mind with a feeling corresponding to what would arise at the view of the objects themselves. But a composition, the language of which is throughout dignified, abounding in brilliant expressions and images, and reflecting in its bright and copous stream the starry
empire of thought, possesses all the most essential characteristics of poetry, and it would be unreasonable to consider that by adding to a composition of this kind the graces of rhythm, often in itself an aid to solemn feeling, it could be rendered less proper for the conveyance of serious and elevated sentiment.
So inadequate, indeed, have all nations found the language in ordinary use, io impress the popular mind with lofty or devotional thought, that both patriotism and religion have from the earliest ages employed poetry as the vehicle of their appeals. Custom, which has generally its birth in some strong, natural feeling, thus agrees with reason in pointing out the fitness of poetry, elevating both by the language to which it has a sort of prescriptive right, and by its association with music, for being employed as a medium of high moral instruction.
But the number of persons who feel disposed to doubt the propriety of using poetry as a channel of religious instruction, is incomparably less than that of those who deem that poetry, when so employed, must be of a less stirring, impassioned, or elevating nature than when engaged on themes of an earthly or temporary character. Nor is the error of this opinion less apparent than that already noticed. To suppose that subjects, sublime not only in their own nature, but in all the associations to which they give rise, can be unfit for poetry, is to contradict common sense. It is therefore, advisable, perhaps, to inquire how so untenable a notion could ever have gained ground. In doing this we shall readily discover that it had its rise in a very confined idea of poctry itself, in ignorance or its history, and the triumphs effected by the most eminent masters of the ani.
Objects of sense are usually of more general and ordinary interest than those of which the existence can only be discovered by the mind. Their beauty or deformity is recognized at a glance ; it inspires instantaneous pleasure or dislike, and to possess, or avoid contact with it, is a feeling born with the first pulse of the heart. To comprehend, on the other hand, intellectual excellence or deformity, if not of the most common kind, requires a mind active, well chastened, clear in its vision, and possessing a fair and ready command over all the passages to the heart. It need not be said, that these requisites to the reception of what is intellectually good, or evil, are not the universal possession of mankind in their present state ; and it hence follows that there is no comparison between the number of those who can be affected by representations which appeal strongly to their senses, and that of those who can take a deep and vivid delight in pictures of sensual pleasure, or objects of ordinary attraction. It is, therefore, to be expected that in every species of literature, the portions most conversant about matters which awaken the lowest order of our passions will be the most popular, and that the merit of such portions of literature will be appreciated with much greater facility than those of a higher class. Thus, in poetry, the ballad obtains a quicker popularity than the ode ; the romance than the epic, the melo-drama than the tragedy, and all these a more general admiration than compositions characterized by a strong spirit of devotion.