On
Poetry,
and
Our Relish for the Beauties of Nature.

N8r

On
Poetry, &c.

A taste 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 N8v 160
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 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 judgmentVol. IV. M ment M1v 162
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 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 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 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 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 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 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.— 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 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 M6r 171
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 M6v 172
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 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 M7v 174
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 175
destroyed by the strong exercises of
passion.

That the most valuable things are liable
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.