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'Gins to thicken, and the sun
89.-WHAT IS POETRY?
LEIGH HUNT. [We could not close this first Volume of · Half-Hours with the Best Authors' at all satisfactorily, if we did not give an extract from the writings of one of the most original and fascinating of English prose writers-one, also, who has won an enduring station amongst English poets. Leigh Hunt, the son of a West Indian who came to England and took orders in the Church, was born in 1784. He was educated at Christ's Hospital. As early as 1805 he was a writer of theatrical criticism in his brother's paper, “The News;'-in 1808 the brothers established the Examiner -a weekly paper which surpassed all its then contemporaries in ability and taste. In those days it was almost impossible for a public writer to speak out; and Leigh Hunt had to expiate a sarcasm upon the Prince Regent by two years'imprisonment. Mr. Hunt's subsequent connection with Lord Byron was not a fortunate one; and we are inclined to think that in future literary history most honest sympathies will be with the plebeian asserting his independence as a brother in letters, instead of with the patrician,heartless and insolent,-a declaimer for liberty but in practice a tyrant. Mr. Hunt, who has borne much adversity with a cheerfulness beyond all praise, writes as freshly and brilliantly as ever. Long may those unfailing spirits which are the delight of his social and family circle be the sunshine of his old age. The following extract is from a delightful volume, published in 1847, entitled, 'Selections from the English Poets-Imagination and Fancy.'
If a young reader should ask, after all, What is the best way of knowing bad poets from good, the best poets from the next best, and so on? the answer is, the only and twofold way; first, the perusal of the best poets with the greatest attention; and second, the cultivation of that love of truth and beauty which made them what they are. Every true reader of poetry partakes a more than ordinary portion of the poetic nature; and no one can be completely such, who does not love, or take an interest in every thing that interests the poet, from the firmament to the daisy-from the highest heart of man, to the most pitiable of the low. It is a good practice to read with pen in hand, marking what is liked or doubted. It rivets the attention, realizes the greatest amount of enjoyment, and facilitates reference. It enables the reader also, from time to time, to see what progress he makes with his own mind, and how it grows up to the stature of its exalter.
If the same person should ask, What class of poetry is the highest? I should say, undoubtedly, the Epic; for it includes the drama, with narration besides; or the speaking and action of the characters, with the speaking of the poet himself, whose utmost address is taxed to relate all well for so long a time, particularly in the passages least sustained by enthusiasm. Whether this class has included the greatest poet, is another question still under trial; for Shakspeare perplexes all such verdicts, even when the claimant is Homer; though if a judgment may be drawn from his early narratives (“Venus and Adonis,' and the Rape of Lucrece'), it is to be doubted whether even Shakspeare could have told a story like Homer, owing to that incessant activity and superfætation of thought, a little less of which might be occasionally desired even in his plays ;-if it were possible, once possessing
come such narrators as the less universal but intenser Dante; Milton, with his dignified imagination; the universal profoundly simple Chaucer; and luxuriant remote Spenser-immortal child in poetry's most poetic solitudes : then the great second-rate dramatists; unless those who are better acquainted with Greek tragedy than I am, demand a place for them before Chaucer: then the airy yet robust universality of Ariosto; the hearty out-of-door, nature of Theocritus, also a universalist; the finest lyrical poets (who only take short flights, compared with the narrators); the purely contemplative poets who have more thought than feeling; the descriptive, satirical, didactic, epigrammatic. It is to be borne in mind, however, that the first poet of an inferior class may be superior to followers in the train of a higher one, though the superiority is by no means to be taken for granted; otherwise Pope would be superior to Fletcher, and Butler to Pope. Imagination, teeming with action and character, makes the greatest poets ; feeling and thought the next; fancy (by itself) the next; wit the last.
Thought by itself makes no poet at all; for the mere conclusions of the understanding can at best be only so many intellectual matters of fact. Feeling, even destitute of conscious thought, stands a far better poetical chance; feeling being a sort of thought without the process of thinking—a grasper of the truth without seeing it. And what is very remarkable, feeling seldom makes the blunders that thought does. An idle distinction has been made between taste and judgment. Taste is the very maker of judgment. Put an artificial fruit in your mouth, or only handle it, and you will soon perceive the difference between judging from taste or tact, and judging from the abstract figment called judgment. The latter does but throw you into guesses and doubts. Hence the conceits that astonish us in the gravest and
tal perceptions; men like Donne, for instance; who, apart from accidental personal impressions, seem to look at nothing as it really is, but only as to what may be thought of it. Hence, on the other hand, the delightfulness of those poets who never violate truth of feeling, whether in things real or imaginary; who are always consistent with their object and its requirements; and who run the great round of nature, not to perplex and be perplexed, but to make themselves and us happy. And luckily, delightfulness is not incompatible with greatness, willing soever as men may be in their present imperfect state to set the power to subjugate above the power to please. Truth, of any kind whatsoever, makes great writing. This is the reason why such poets as Ariosto, though not writing with a constant detail of thought and feeling like Dante, are justly considered great as well as delightful. Their greatness proves itself by the same truth of nature, and sustained power, though in a different way. Their action is not so crowded and weighty; their sphere has more territories less fertile; but it has enchantments of its own which excess of thought would spoil-luxuries, laughing graces, animal spirits; and not to recognise the beauty and greatness of these, treated as they treat them, is simply to be defective in sympathy. Every planet is not Mars or Saturn. There is also Venus and Mercury. There is one genius of the south, and another of the north, and others uniting both. The reader who is too thoughtless or too sensitive to like intensity of any sort, and he who is too thoughtful or too dull to like anything but the greatest possible stimulus of refection or passion, are equally wanting in complexional fitness for a thorough enjoyment of books. Ariosto occasionally says as fine things as Dante, and Spenser as Shakspeare; but the business of both is to enjoy; and in order to partake their enjoyment to its full extent, you must feel what poetry is in the general as well as the particular, must be aware that there are different songs of the spheres, some fuller of notes, and others of a sustained delight; and as the former keep you perpetually alive to thought or passion, so from the latter you receive a constant harmonious sense of truth and beauty, more agreeable perhaps on the whole, though less exciting. Ariosto, for instance, does not tell a story with the brevity and concentrated passion of Dante; every sentence is not so full of matter, nor the style so removed from the indifference of prose; yet you are charmed with a truth of another sort, equally characteristic of the writer, equally drawn from nature, and substituting a healthy sense of enjoyment for intenser emotion. Exclusiveness of liking for this or that mode of truth, only shows, either that a reader's perceptions are limited, or that he would sacrifice truth itself to his favourite form of it. Sir Walter Raleigh, who was as trenchant with his pen as his sword, hailed the · Faerie Queene' of his friend Spenser in verses in which he said that “ Petrarch” was henceforward to be no more heard of; and that, in all English poetry, there was nothing he counted “ of any price" but the effusions of the new author. Yet Petrarch is still living ; Chaucer was not abolished by Sir Walter; and Shakspeare is thought somewhat valuable. A botanist might as well have said that myrtles and oaks were to disappear because acacias had come up. It is with the Poet's creations as with Nature's, great or small. Wherever truth and beauty, whatever their amount, can be shaped into verse, and answer to some demand for it in our hearts, there poetry is to be found; whether in productions grand and beautiful as some great event, or some mighty, leafy solitude, or no bigger and more pretending than a sweet face or a bunch of violets: whether in Homer's epic or Gray's · Elegy,' in the enchanted gardens of Ariosto and Spenser, or the very pot-herbs of the 'Schoolmistress' of Shenstone, the balms of the simplicity of a cottage. Not to know and feel this, is to be defi. cient in the universality of Nature herself, who is a poetess on the smallest as well as the largest scale, and who calls upon us to admire all her productions; not indeed with the same degree of admiration, but with no refusal of it, except to defect.
I cannot draw this essay towards its conclusion better than with three memorable words of Milton; who has said, that poetry, in comparison with science, is "simple, sensuous, and passionate." By simple, he means imperplexed and self-evident; by sensuous, genial and full of imagery; by passionate, excited and enthusiastic. I am aware that