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THE MODERN POETS WITH EXTRACTS FROM
POETRY AND ITS NATURE.
In an intellectual nature, framed for progress and for higher modes of being, there must be creative energies, powers of original and ever-growing thought; and poetry is the form in which these energies are chiefly manifested. It is the glorious prerogative of this art, that it "makes all things new,” for the gratification of a divine instinct. It indeed finds its elements in what it actually sees and experiences in the worlds of matter and mind; but it combines and blends these into new forms and according to new affinities ; breaks down, if we may say so, the distinctions and bounds of nature ; imparts to material objects life, and sentiment, and emotion; and invests the mind with the powers and splendour of the outward creation; describes the surrounding universe in the colours which the passions throw over it, and depicts the mind in those modes of repose or agitation, of tenderness or sublime emotion, which manifest its thirst for a more powerful and joyful existence. To a man of a literal and prosaic character, the mind may seem lawless in these workings; but it observes higher laws than it transgresses, the laws of the immortal intellect; it is trying and developing its best faculties; and in the objects which it describes, or in the emotions which it awakens, anticipates those states of progressive power, splendour, beauty, and happiness, for which it was created. We accordingly believe that poetry, far from injuring society, is one of the great instruments of its refinement and exaltation. It lifts the mind above ordinary life, gives it a respite from depressing cares, and awakens the consciousness of its affinity with what is pure and noble. In its legitimate and highest efforts it has the same tendency and aim with Christianity; that is, to spiritualize our nature. True, poetry has been made the instrument of vice, the pander of bad passions ; but when genius thus stoops, it dims its fires, and parts with much of its power; and even when poetry is enslaved to licentiousness or misanthropy, she cannot wholly forget her true vocation. Strains of pure feeling, touches of tenderness, images of innocent happiness, sympathies with suffering virtue, bursts of scorn or indignation at the hollowness of the world, passages true to our moral nature, often escape in an immoral work, and show us how hard it is for a gifted spirit to divorce itself wholly from what is good. Poetry has a natural alliance with our best affections. It delights in the beauty and sublimity of the outward creation and of the soul. It indeed portrays with terrible energy the excesses of the passions; but they are passions which show a mighty nature, which are full of power, which command awe, and excite a deep though shuddering sympathy. Its great tendency and purpose is, to carry the mind beyond and above the beaten, dusty, weary walks of ordinary life; to lift it into a purer element, and to breathe into it more profound and generous emotions. It reveals to us the loveliness of nature, brings back the freshness of youthful feeling, revives the relish of simple pleasures, keeps unquenched the enthusiasm which warmed the spring-time of our being, refines youthful love, strengthens our interest in human nature by vivid delineations of its tenderest and loftiest feelings ; spreads our sympathies over all classes of society, knits us by new ties with universal being, and through the brightness of its prophetic visions helps faith to lay hold on the future life. We are aware that it is objected to poetry, that it gives wrong views and excites false expectations of life, peoples the mind with shadows and illusions, and builds up imagination on the ruins of wisdom. That there is a wisdom against which poetry wars, the wisdom of the senses, which makes physical comfort and gratification, the supreme good, and wealth the chief interest of life, we do not deny; nor do we deem it the least service which poetry renders to mankind, that it redeems them from the thraldom of this earthborn prudence. But, passing over this topic, we would observe, that the complaint against poetry as abounding in illusion and deception, is, in the main, groundless. In many poems there is more of truth than in many histories and philosophic theories. The fictions of genius are often the vehicles of the sublimest verities, and its flashes often open new regions of thought, and throw new light on the mysteries of our being. In poetry the letter is falsehood, but the spirit is often profoundest wisdom. And if truth thus dwells in the boldest fictions of the poet, much more may be expected in his delineations of life ; for the present life, which is the first state of the immortal mind, abounds in the materials of poetry, and it is the high office of the bard to detect this divine element among the grosser labours and pleasures of our earthly being. The present life is not wholly prosaic, precise, tame, and finite. To the gifted eye, it abounds in the poetic. The affections which spread beyond ourselves, and stretch far into futurity; the workings of mighty passions, which seem to arm the soul with an almost superhuman energy: the innocent and irrepressible joy of infancy; the bloom, and buoyancy, and dazzling hopes of youth; the throbbings of the heart, when it first wakes to love, and dreams of happiness too vast for earth; woman, with her beauty, and grace, and gentleness, and fulness of feeling, and depth of affection, and her blushes of purity, and the tones and looks which only a mother's heart can inspire: these are all poetical. It is not true that the poet paints a life which does not exist. He only extracts and concentrates, as it were, life's ethereal essences; arrests and condenses its volatile fragrance; brings together its scattered beauties, and prolongs its more refined, but evanescent joys: and in this he does well, for it is good to feel that life is not wholly usurped by cares for subsistence and physical gratifications, but admits, in measures which may be indefinitely enlarged, sentiments and delights worthy a higher being. This power of poetry to refine our views of life and happiness, is more and more needed as society advances. It is needed to stand against the encroachments of heartless and artificial manners, which make civilization so tame and uninteresting. It is needed to counteract the tendency of physical science, which being now sought, not as formerly, for intellectual gratification, but for multiplying bodily comforts, requires a new developement of imagination, taste, and poetry, to preserve men from sinking into an earthly, material, epicurean life.
MANNER OF READING VERSE.
WHATEVER difficulties we may find in reading prose, they are greatly increased when the composition is in verse; and more particularly if the verse be rhyme. The regularity of the feet and sameness of sound in rhyming verse strongly solicits the voice to a sameness of tone; and tone unless directed by a judicious ear is apt to degenerate into a song, and a song, of all others, the most disgusting to a person of just taste. If, therefore, there are few who read prose with propriety, there are still fewer who succeed in verse; they either want that equable and harmonious flow of sound which distinguishes it from loose unmeasured composition; or they have not a sufficient delicacy of ear to keep the harmonious smoothness of verse from sliding into a whining cant; nay, so agreeable is this cant to many readers that a simple and natural delivery of verse seems tame and insipid, and much too familiar for the dignity of the language. So pernicious are bad habits in every exercise of the faculties, that they not only lead us to false objects of beauty and propriety, but at last deprive us of the very power of perceiving the mistake. For those, therefore, whose ears are not just, and who are totally deficient in a true taste for the music of poetry the best method of avoiding this impropriety is to read verse exactly as if it were prose; for though this may be said to be an error, it is certainly an error on the safer side.
To say, however, as some do, that the pronunciation of verse is entirely destitute of song, and that it is no more than a just pronunciation of prose is as distant from truth as the whining cant we have been speaking of, is from true poetic harmony. Poetry without song is a body without soul; the tune of this song, is indeed difficult to hit; but when once it is hit, it is sure to give the most exquisite pleasure. It excites in the hearer the most eager desire of imitation; and if this desire be not accompanied by a just taste or good instruction, it generally substitutes the tum ti, tum ti, as it is called, for simple, elegant, poetic harmony.
It must, however, be confessed that elegant readers of verse often verge so nearly on what is called sing song, without falling into it, that it is no wonder those who attempt to imitate them, slide into that blemish which borders so nearly on a beauty.
The truth is the pronunciation of verse is a species of elocution very distinct from the pronunciation of prose ; both of them have nature for their basis; but one is common, familiar, and practical nature; the other beautiful, elevated, and ideal nature; the latter is as different from the former, as the elegant step of a minuet is from the common motions in walking. Accordingly we find there are many who can read prose well, who are entirely at a loss for the pronunciation of verse.
THE POET AND HIS POETRY.
(LORD BYRON, was born in London, on the 22d of January, 1788. He received his early education at Harrow School, and at the age of sixteen, was removed to Trinity College, Cambridge. At nineteen years of age, he took up his residence at the family seat, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, where he wrote and published his “Hours of Idlenesg.” These poems being received by the Edinburgh critics with unreasonable severity, his Lordship retorted upon them, in “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," one of the keenest satires of modern times.
On coming of age, he took his seat in the House of Lords, and shortly after proceeded on his travels with his friend Hobhouse. He visited Spain, Portugal, and Greece; and in 1811, returned to England. In a few months afterwards, he published the two first cantos of “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,” which were followed by the “Giaour,” the “Bride of Abydos,” the “Corsair,” “ Lara,” and an “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.”
In 1815, he married Miss Milbank, and in a short time after a formal separation took place. This circumstance produced a considerable sensation in the fashionable world, in the midst of which he quitted England. He lived for some time on the borders of the lake of Geneva, and then removed to Italy, where he fixed himself, first at Venice, then at Pisa. During this period he produced the two last cantos of “Childe Harold,” the dramas of " Manfred,” “ Marino Faliero,” “Sardanapalus," the “ Two Foscari,” and “Cain ;' the poems of the “Prisoner of Chillon,” the “Lament of Tasso," the “Prophecy of Dante,” the “Vision of Judgment,” “Heaven and Earth,” and “Don Juan."
In the year 1823, Lord Byron took up the Greek cause, and resolved to devote himself to it. He arrived first at Cephalonia, and here endeavoured to negotiate with the Greeks, in various places, from thence he proceeded to Missolonghi, but as the hopes of the Greeks failed, his enthusiasm deserted him, and he became gloomily sensible to the difficulties of his situation. This depression, added to the climate and the unfavorable state of the weather, to have greatly affected his bodily and mental powers. Under these impressions, he wrote the fine lines on his thirty-sixth birth-day, and the predominant idea of his mind was, that his last hour was approach. ing. In April 1824, he caught a violent cold, from remaining too long on horseback, exposed to the rain, and on the nineteenth of the same month, died of inflammation of the brain, at the early age of thirty-seven. The character of Lord Byron is to be found in his writings.
He made his heroes after his own likeness. “Childe Harold,” is Lord Byron, and so also is “Cain.” In the “Corsair,” and in the " Island,” the same identification of character is visible. Indeed, it seemed to be the poet's delight to paint a bad man, so that we might love him, and to find apologies for his vices. No man has succeeded better in laying open the dark and foul places of the human heart, or of bringing up the Gorgon visage of vice from her secret hiding place, or of applying the deistical sophistry of the French Philosophers, to English manners. In a word, the grand characteristic of Lord Byron's genius is, that he can dip his pen in earthquake and eclipse, and excite the grosser animal passions, and darken the feelings of the mind, without a rival in ancient or modern days.
As an English classic, Lord Byron's is, without doubt, the first name of his age. All his productions exhibit the most transcendant genius. To be unacquainted with his writings would bet extreme ignorance: but in perusing