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POETICAL CHARACTER AND WRITINGS
That amongst the chief favourites of the muse Pope is entitled to a distinguished rank, no one will be found to deny. The estimation in which he was held by his contemporaries has been acknowledged by their descendants; and has continued amidst the change of manners, the ordeal of criticism, and the efforts of rival genius, to the present day. Whatever may be the homage we pay to others, there is no author whose works have been more universally read, or are more fully remembered. From the great variety of subjects which they embrace, and the perspicuity, truth, and nature, with which every sentiment is expressed, they seem to have a relation to all our business and concerns, to be in unison with our thoughts and feelings, and to strike a corresponding chord in every bosom; insomuch that there is perhaps no poet, excepting Shakespear alone, whose works are applicable to so many purposes, or are quoted on so many different occasions.
Considerations of this nature have not however prevented some writers, and particularly the two last Editors of the works of Pope, from attempting to detract from the high reputation which he has so long enjoyed, and to assign to him only an inferior rank in the scale of poetical excellence. Accordingly, theories have been formed, and rules proposed, by which this decision is to be made. Dr. Warton informs us, that " the largest portion of the works of Pope is of the didactic, moral, and satiric kind, and consequently not of the most poetic species of poetry; whence it is manifest,” says he, “ that good sense and judgment were his characteristic excellences, rather than fancy and invention.” Mr. Bowles has asserted that “all images drawn from what is beautiful or sublime in the works of nature, are more beautiful and sublime than images drawn from the works of art;" whence he contends, that as Pope was conversant with the latter, rather than the former, “he is not to be classed amongst the highest order of poets ;” and that “the career which he opened to himself was in the second order of poetry.”
It cannot be disputed that poetical composition may with propriety be divided into different classes or departments, as epic, dramatic, didactic, or lyric; but that some of these classes are more poetical than others, is a proposition which will not perhaps meet with so ready an assent. The subjects of poetry are as various as nature herself. Poetry is the art of presenting these to the imagination in their most vivid and striking forms, throwing, like the mid-day sun, a brighter lustre on whatever object it touches; but there is in fact no poetry in any subject, except what is called forth by the genius of the poet. The objects presented to us may be magnificent, or terrific, or pleasing, or mournful, or ludicrous ; but whether they are poetical or not must wholly depend on the powers of the artist by whom they are represented.
The Odyssey is not so sublime as the Iliad, but it cannot be said that it is on that account less poetical. The subject of the Odyssey is of a different nature; but we find in each, as is justly observed by Pope, “the same vivacity and fecundity of invention, the same life and strength of imagery and colouring, the particular descriptions as highly painted, the figures as bold, the metaphors as animated, and the numbers as harmonious and various.”—“ The Battle of Constantine and the School of Athens are both pieces of Raffaelle : shall we censure the School of Athens as faulty, because it has not the fury and fire of the other ?”—“There is all the silence, and composure, and tranquillity in the one, and all the warmth, hurry, and tumult in the other, which the subjeet of either required: both of them had been imperfect if they had not been as they are.” Yet according to the rule now attempted to be established, Homer was a poet of the first order when he wrote the Iliad, and only of the second when he wrote the Odyssey.
But it may be asked whether a poet or a painter, who undertakes a great subject, and executes it in a suitable and efficient manner, must not on that account be esteemed a greater artist, than he who undertakes an inferior subject, and executes it in a suitable manner. The answer is, there are no great subjects but such as are made so by the genius of the artist. The descriptions of Milton present to us objects of sublimity which exalt and dignify our feelings; we wander with Ariosto, or Spenser, through enchanted castles, and interest ourselves in the stories of adventurous knights and distressed damsels; we weep over the fate of Desdemona, or of Juliet; we enjoy with a smile the nature and wit displayed in the character of Sir Roger de Coverley; and we relax our features into a broad laugh on the appearance of Sir John Falstaff, or of Tony Lumpkin; but the preference we may give to one of these over another, is a moral preference, and has no relation whatever to their merits as works of genius and imagination. Those who perceive in themselves a sympathy with high and dignified feelings, will be most gratified with those elevated subjects which are best calculated to excite them. Those who are what is called sentimental, may indulge their tenderness in the works of Rousseau or Richardson; whilst others may prefer the bolder pictures of human life and manners exhibited in the writings of Fielding or Smollet, and willingly relinquish the ideas of grandeur and sublimity, for the accurate representations of truth and nature which they there discover. But with these distinctions poetry has no concern.
Genius can ennoble the lowest subject, as the want of it may debase the highest. It would be endless to recapitulate the Epic Poems which have either been strangled in the birth, or have perished as soon as born. The Italians alone, in the sixteenth century, produced an incredible quantity, and every nation has its limbo of poets, flentes in limine primo ; whilst, on the other hand, poems on the most unfavourable and trivial subjects have, through the mere genius of their authors, been engraven on the tablets of immortality. Thus we have the Battle of the Frogs and Mice of Homer; the Georgics of Virgil ;