Our Relish for the Beauties of Nature.
On Poetry, ;c.
Ataste for rural ſcenes, in the preſent ſtate of ſociety, appears to be very often an artificial ſentiment, rather inſpired by poetry and romances, than a real perception of the beauties of nature. But, as it is reckoned a proof of refined taſte to praiſe the calm pleaſures which the country affords, the theme is never exhauſted. Yet it may be made a queſtion, whether this romanticmantic 01 N8v 160 mantic kind of declamation, has much effect on the conduct of thoſe, who leave, for a ſeaſon, the crowded cities in which they were bred.
I have been led to theſe reflections, by obſerving, when I have reſided for any length of time in the country, how few people ſeem to contemplate nature with their own eyes. I have bruſhed the dew away in the morning; but, pacing over the printleſs graſs, I have wondered that, in ſuch delightful ſituations, the ſun was allowed to riſe in ſolitary majeſty, whilſt my eyes alone hailed its beautifying beams. The webs of the evening have ſtill been ſpread acroſs the hedged path, unleſs ſome labouring man, trudging to work, diſturbed the fairy ſtructure; yet, in ſpite of this ſupineneſs, when I joined the 02 M1r 161 the ſocial circle, every tongue rang changes on the pleaſures of the country.
Having frequently had occaſion to make the ſame obſervation, I was led to endeavour, in one of my ſolitary rambles, to trace the cauſe, and likewiſe to enquire why the poetry written in the infancy of ſociety, is moſt natural: which, ſtrictly ſpeaking (for natural is a very indefinite expreſſion) is merely to ſay, that it is the tranſcript of immediate ſenſations, in all their native wildneſs and ſimplicity, when fancy, awakened by the ſight of intereſting objects, was moſt actively at work. At ſuch moments, ſenſibility quickly furniſhes ſimiles, and the ſublimated ſpirits combine images, which riſing ſpontaneouſly, it is not neceſſary coldly to ranſack the underſtanding or memory, till the laborious efforts of judgmentIV. M ment 03 M1v 162 ment exclude preſent ſenſations, and damp the fire of enthuſiaſm.
The effuſions of a vigorous mind, will ever tell us how far the underſtanding has been enlarged by thought, and ſtored with knowledge. The richneſs of the ſoil even appears on the ſurface; and the reſult of profound thinking, often mixing, with playful grace, in the reveries of the poet, ſmoothly incorporates with the ebullitions of animal ſpirits, when the finely faſhioned nerve vibrates acutely with rapture, or when, relaxed by ſoft melancholy, a pleaſing languor prompts the long-drawn ſigh, and feeds the ſlowly falling tear.
The poet, the man of ſtrong feelings, gives us only an image of his mind, when he was actually alone, converſing with himſelf, and marking the impreſſion which nature had made on his M own 04 M2r 163 own heart.—If, at this ſacred moment, the idea of ſome departed friend, ſome tender recollection when the ſoul was moſt alive to tenderneſs, intruded unawares into his thoughts, the ſorrow which it produced is artleſsly, yet poetically expreſſed—and who can avoid ſympathizing?
Love to man leads to devotion— grand and ſublime images ſtrike the imagination—God is ſeen in every floating cloud, and comes from the miſty mountain to receive the nobleſt homage of an intelligent creature— praiſe. How ſolemn is the moment, when all affections and remembrances fade before the ſublime admiration which the wiſdom and goodneſs of God inſpires, when he is worſhipped in a temple not made with handſ, and the world ſeems to contain only the mind M2 that 05 M2v 164 that formed, and the mind that contemplates it! Theſe are not the weak reſponſes of ceremonial devotion; nor, to expreſs them, would the poet need another poet’s aid: his heart burns within him, and he ſpeaks the language of truth and nature with reſiſtleſs energy.
Inequalities, of courſe, are obſervable in his effuſions; and a leſs vigorous fancy, with more taſte, would have produced more elegance and uniformity; but, as paſſages are ſoftened or expunged during the cooler moments of reflection, the underſtanding is gratified at the expence of thoſe involuntary ſenſations, which, like the beauteous tints of an evening ſky, are ſo evaneſcent, that they melt into new forms before they can be analyzed. For however eloquently we may boaſt of our 06 M3r 165 our reaſon, man muſt often be delighted he cannot tell why, or his blunt feelings are not made to reliſh the beauties which nature, poetry, or any of the imitative arts, afford.
The imagery of the ancients ſeems naturally to have been borrowed from ſurrounding objects and their mythology. When a hero is to be tranſported from one place to another, acroſs pathleſs waſtes, is any vehicle ſo natural, as one of the fleecy clouds on which the poet has often gazed, ſcarcely conſcious that he wiſhed to make it his chariot? Again, when nature ſeems to preſent obſtacles to his progreſs at almoſt every ſtep, when the tangled foreſt and ſteep mountain ſtand as barriers, to paſs over which the mind longs for ſupernatural aid; an interpoſing deity, who walks on the waves, M3 and 07 M3v 166 and rules the ſtorm, ſeverely felt in the firſt attempts to cultivate a country, will receive from the impassioned fancy a local habitation and a name.
It would be a philoſophical enquiry, and throw ſome light on the history of the human mind, to trace, as far as our information will allow us to trace, the ſpontaneous feelings and ideas which have produced the images that now frequently appear unnatural, because they are remote; and diſguſting, becauſe they have been ſervilely copied by poets, whoſe habits of thinking, and views of nature muſt have been different; for, though the underſtanding ſeldom diſturbs the current of our preſent feelings, without diſſipating the gay clouds which fancy has been em bracing, yet it ſilently gives the colour to the whole tenour of them, and the dream 08 M4r 167 dream is over, when truth is groſsly violated, or images introduced, ſelected from books, and not from local manners or popular prejudices.
In a more advanced ſtate of civilization, a poet is rather the creature of art, than of nature. The books that he reads in his youth, become a hot-bed in which artificial fruits are produced, beautiful to the common eye, though they want the true hue and flavour. His images do not ariſe from ſenſations; they are copies; and, like the works of the painters who copy ancient ſta tues when they draw men and women of their own times, we acknowledge that the features are fine, and the proportions juſt; yet they are men of ſtone; inſipid figures, that never con vey to the mind the idea of a portrait taken from life, where the ſoul gives M4 ſpirit 09 M4v 168 ſpirit and homogeneity to the whole. The ſilken wings of fancy are ſhrivel led by rules; and a deſire of attaining elegance of diction, occaſions an at tention to words, incompatible with ſublime, impaſſioned thoughts.
A boy of abilities, who has been taught the ſtructure of verſe at ſchool, and been rouſed by emulation to compoſe rhymes whilſt he was reading works of genius, may, by practice, produce pretty verſes, and even be come what is often termed an elegant poet: yet his readers, without knowing what to find fault with, do not find themſelves warmly intereſted. In the works of the poets who faſten on their affections, they ſee groſſer faults, and the very images which ſhock their taſte in the modern; ſtill they do not appear as puerile or extrinſic in one as the other.— 10 M5r 169 other.—Why?—becauſe they did not appear ſo to the author.
It may ſound paradoxical, after obſerving that thoſe productions want vigour, that are merely the work of imitation, in which the underſtanding has violently directed, if not extinguiſhed, the blaze of fancy, to aſſert, that, though genius be only another word for exquiſite ſenſibility, the firſt obſervers of nature, the true poets, exerciſed their underſtanding much more than their imitators. But they exerciſed it to diſcriminate things, whilſt their followers were buſy to borrow ſentiments and arrange words.
Boys who have received a claſſical education, load their memory with words, and the correſpondent ideas are perhaps never diſtinctly comprehended. As a proof of this aſſertion, I muſt 11 M5v 170 I muſt obſerve, that I have known many young people who could write tolerably ſmooth verſes, and ſtring epithets prettily together, when their proſe themes ſhowed the barrenneſs of their minds, and how ſuperficial the cultivation muſt have been, which their underſtanding had received.
Dr. Johnſon, I know, has given a definition of genius, which would over turn my reaſoning, if I were to admit it.—He imagines, that a ſtrong mind, accidentally led to ſome particular ſtudy in which it excels is a genius.—Not to ſtop to inveſtigate the cauſes which produced this happy ſtrength of mind, experience ſeems to prove, that thoſe minds have appeared moſt vigorous, that have purſued a ſtudy, after nature had diſcovered a bent; for it would be abſurd to ſuppoſe, that a ſlight impreſſionſion 12 M6r 171 ſion made on the weak faculties of a boy, is the fiat of fate, and not to be effaced by any ſucceeding impreſſion, or unexpected difficulty. Dr. Johnſon in fact, appears ſometimes to be of the ſame opinion (how conſiſtently I ſhall not now enquire), eſpecially when he obſerves, that Thomſon looked on nature with the eye which ſhe only gives to a poet.
But, though it ſhould be allowed that books may produce ſome poets, I fear they will never be the poets who charm our cares to ſleep, or extort admiration. They may diffuſe taſte, and poliſh the language; but I am inclined to conclude that they will ſeldom rouſe the paſſions, or amend the heart.
And, to return to the firſt ſubject of diſcuſſion, the reaſon why moſt people are more intereſted by a ſcene deſcribeded 13 M6v 172 ed by a poet, than by a view of nature, probably ariſes from the want of a lively imagination. The poet contracts the proſpect, and, ſelecting the moſt pictureſque part in his camera, the judgment is directed, and the whole force of the languid faculty turned towards the objects which excited the moſt forcible emotions in the poet’s heart; the reader conſequently feels the enlivened deſcription, though he was not able to receive a firſt impreſſion from the operations of his own mind.
Beſides, it may be further obſerved, that groſs minds are only to be moved by forcible repreſentations. To rouſe the thoughtleſs, objects muſt be preſented, calculated to produce tumultuous emotions; the unſubſtantial, pictureſque forms which a contemplative man gazes on, and often follows with ardour 14 M7r 173 ardour till he is mocked by a glimpſe of unattainable excellence, appear to them the light vapours of a dreaming enthuſiaſt, who gives up the ſubſtance for the ſhadow. It is not within that they ſeek amuſement; their eyes are ſeldom turned on themſelveſ; conſequently their emotions, though ſometimes fervid, are always tranſient, and the nicer perceptions which diſtinguiſh the man of genuine taſte, are not felt, or make ſuch a ſlight impreſſion as ſcarcely to excite any pleaſurable ſenſations. Is it ſurpriſing then that they are often overlooked, even by thoſe who are delighted by the ſame images concentrated by the poet?
But even this numerous claſs is exceeded, by witlings, who, anxious to appear to have wit and taſte, do not allow their underſtandings or feelingsings 15 M7v 174 ings any liberty; for, inſtead of cultivating their faculties and reflecting on their operations, they are buſy collecting prejudices; and are predetermined to admire what the ſuffrage of time announces as excellent, not to ſtore up a fund of amuſement for themſelves, but to enable them to talk.
Theſe hints will aſſiſt the reader to trace ſome of the cauſes why the beauties of nature are not forcibly felt, when civilization, or rather luxury, has made conſiderable advanceſ—thoſe calm ſenſations are not ſufficiently lively to ſerve as a relaxation to the voluptuary, or even to the moderate purſuer of artificial pleaſures. In the preſent ſtate of ſociety, the underſtanding muſt bring back the feelings to nature, or the ſenſibility muſt have ſuch native ſtrength, as rather to be whetted than deſtroyed 16 175 deſtroyed by the ſtrong exerciſes of paſſion.
That the moſt valuable things are li able to the greateſt perverſion, is however as trite as true:—for the ſame ſenſibility, or quickneſs of ſenſes, which makes a man reliſh the tranquil ſcenes of nature, when ſenſation, rather than reaſon, imparts delight, frequently makes a libertine of him, by leading him to prefer the ſenſual tumult of love a little refined by ſentiment, to the calm pleaſures of affectionate friendſhip, in whoſe ſober ſatiſfactions, reaſon, mixing her tranquillizing convictions, whiſpers, that content, not happineſs, is the reward of virtue in this world.