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If we cast a transient view over the most celebrated of the modern lyrics, we may observe, that the stanza of Petrarch, which has been adopted by all his successors, displeases the ear, by its tedious uniformity, and by the number of identical cadences. And, indeed, to speak truth, there appears to be little valuable in Petrarch, except the purity of his diction. His sentiments, even of love, are metaphysical and far-fetched. Neither is there much variety in his subjects, or fancy in his method of treating them. Fulvio Testi, Chiabrera, and Metastasio, are much better lyric poets. When Boileau attempted an ode, he exhibited a glaring proof of what will frequently be hinted in the course of these notes, that the writer, whose grand characteristical talent is satiric or moral poetry, will never succeed, with equal merit, in the higher branches of his art. In his ode on the taking of Namur, are instances of the bombastic, of the prosaic, and of the puerile; and it is no small confirmation of the ruling passion of this author, that he could not conclude his ode, but with a severe stroke on his old antagonist Perrault, though the majesty of this species of composition is so much injured by descending to personal satire.
"We have had (says Mr. Gray) in our language, no other odes of the sublime kind, than that of Dryden on St. Cecilia's Day: for Cowley, who had his merit, yet wanted judgment, style, and harmony, for such a task. That of Pope is not worthy of so great a master. Mr. Mason, indeed of late days, has touched the true chords, and with a masterly hand, in some of his choruses; above all in the last of Caractacus;
"Hark! heard ye not yon footstep dread?" &c.
Gray's Works, 4to. page 25.
The foregoing observations on the character of Petrarch, as a Lyric Poet, will scarcely obtain the assent of the admirers of Italian poetry; who will be shocked by the assertions, that his stanza displeases the ear, and that there is not much variety in his subjects, or fancy in his manner of treating them. Such observations are sufficiently answered by the celebrity which still attends his writings, and by the avidity and pleasure with which they continue to be read; and which is now extended to the English reader, by the correctly beautiful translations of LADY DACRE, published by SIG. UGO FOSCOLO, in his very judicious and entertaining " Essays on Petrarch." Still more hazardous is the assertion, that Chiabrera, Fulvio Testi, and Metastasio, are better Lyric poets than Petrarch.
That the two former are brilliant and spirited writers may be allowed; but to prefer their extravagant figures, eccentric ideas, and impetuous flow of language, to the sustained dignity and purity of style of Petrarch, is, to say the least, not quite consistent with the good taste displayed by Dr. Warton on other occasions. If, instead of those examples, he had referred to their followers, Guidi, Filicaja and the other eminent Italian poets at the close of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, who have purified the manner, and chastened the style of their immediate predecessors, he would perhaps have had better grounds for his opinion; but not sufficient to dethrone the prince of Italian Lyric poets, from his supreme dominion.
Dr. Warton has also attempted to inforce an opinion, that "the writer whose grand characteristical talent is satiric, or moral poetry, will never succeed, with equal merit, in the higher branches of his art." If, by higher branches of his art, he meant Lyric Poetry, it is difficult to say upon what principle such preference is founded, or why the dignity and importance of many other departments of poetry should not intitle them to an equal rank. But, dismissing this point, on which enough has before been said, the assertion of Dr. Warton is not founded on experience. Horace was a moral and satiric, and at the same time a lyric poet; and although it has not perhaps been decided in which of these departments he excelled, yet it never was supposed that his excellence in one, defeated his claims in the other. The works of Ariosto, Epic, Lyric, and Satiric, are read with equal pleasure. Benedetto Menzini wrote satires and odes, both of which rank in the highest class. Dryden cultivated various departments with equal success. Gray excelled both in Elegiac and Lyric poetry. In fact, there are but few persons who have greatly distinguished themselves in any one department, without having also displayed their talents in another. If Pope has not succeeded in Lyric poetry as well as in some other respects, it is because he can scarcely be said to have attempted it. Even the very few pieces he has left were written at the solicitation of his friends; the Ode for Music, and the Dying Christian, at the request of Steele, and the two Choruses, at that of the Duke of Buckingham. He was probably also deterred by the preference generally given to Dryden's Ode, of the justice of which he was fully sensible, and was not disposed after his long toil of Homer, to devote himself again to lighter compositions.
ODE FOR MUSIC
ON ST. CECILIA'S DAY.*
DESCEND, ye Nine! descend and sing;
In a sadly-pleasing strain
Let the warbling lute complain :
The shrill echos rebound:
While in more lengthen'd notes and slow,
The deep, majestic, solemn organs blow.
Our Author, as Mr. Harte told me, frequently and earnestly declared, that if Dryden had finished a translation of the Iliad, he would not have attempted one, after so great a master: he might have said, with even more propriety, I will not write a music ode after Alexander's Feast; which the variety and harmony of its numbers, and the beauty, force, and energy of its images, have conspired to place at the head of modern Lyric compositions. The subject of Dryden's ode is superior to this of Pope's, because the former is historical, and the latter merely mythological. Dryden's is also more perfect in the unity of the action; for Pope's is not the recital of one great action, but a description of many of the adventures of Orpheus. Warton.