Page images

the Art of Versification really and practically affects the operations of the poet. “Art” is the term used, because versifying is an art beyond dispute. Horace, in fact, viewing the question in all its combinations and aspects, distinctly gives the name of an art to the poetical calling itself in the aggregate; and, by exhibiting the important influence of versification, with its varied and numerous Rules, on poetical composition, it may be possible here to demonstrate that Horace approached much nearer to the truth than Cicero. Which of them does the history of poetry countenance ?

Even in the cases of the illustrious poets, Greeks chiefly, who preceded Marcus Tullius, the maxim, “Poeta nascitur, non fit,” does not hold good; and Virgil, his own countryman, and in part his contemporary, forms a strong illustration of the very contrary fact—to wit, that “poets are made," at least, as much as “ born.” Though the “Aeneid” is perhaps the most polished production that ever came from the pen of man, its author, when on his deathbed, was so little satisfied with the condition in which he found himself forced to leave it, that he was anxious for its total destruction, and could only be kept by force from effecting that wild design. Not only the individual writings of Horace, again, but the literary axioms which he laid down for the service of others, evince that he considered Poetry to be at least as much of an art, resting on culture and study, as of an innate and congenital gift or endowment. All the mighty poets of the later epochs of the human annals bear out the same conclusion. If ever man possessed pretensions to be held a born or natural poet, that man, it will be allowed, was William Shakspere. And yet, even regarding Shakspere, one who knew him well has expressed the following sentiments:

“ Nature herself was proud of his designs,

And joyed to wear the dressing of his lines,
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit.
Yet must I not give Nature all; thy Art,
My gentle Shakspere, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet's matter Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion; and that he
Who casts to write a living line must sweat
(Such as thine are), and strike the second heat

[ocr errors]

Upon the Muses' anvil ; turn the same,
Aud himself with it, that he thinks to frame ;
Or, for the laurel, he may gain a scorn ;

For a good Poet's Made as well as Born.Of William Shakspere was this said by Ben Jonson, the most competent of all the contemporaries of the great poet, from powers and position, to pronounce on the relative shares which Nature and Art had in the constitution and development of his amazing genius. But the fact that Shakspere, to the vast powers which he assuredly had derived from Nature, added all the accomplishments (however acquired) of the masterly artist, is placed beyond a doubt by a comparison of the first edition of his works with the revised and later ones. The noblest passages of “ The Hamlet” itself, as is there seen, were second heats," struck on the “Muses' anvil”—to use the apt words of Rare Ben-himself one of the most elaborate and artistic of poets. Jonson rightly thought this circumstance no disparagement to his name and fame. When an epigram was addressed to him, asking satiricallywhy he entitled his dramatic compositions “Works," while others called theirs “ Plays,” the ensuing pithy answer was made:

“ The author's friend thus for the author says,

Ben's Plays are Works, while others' Works are plays.” All the greater poets who flourished betwixt the Elizabethan and Georgian periods of our literature, may be proved similarly to have been consummate artists. That Milton had carefully formed himself after the most perfect exemplars of composition, sacred and secular, and had studied at once measure, rhythm, and rhyme with the closest attention, could be proven incontestably by citations. To the beauty of congruous sound and sense, he was keenly alive; and, either at the impulse of a fine natural ear, or pursuing a rule of art, he even habitually distributed and varied the vowels in his lines, so as to attain the highest pitch of modulated harmony. That Pope, again, was a true artist few will deny; and Dryden, though trusting often to the rough vigour of first conceptions, was yet a thorough theoretic master of all the rules of Poesy, and, in his finest pieces, a close follower of these rules. Cowper, simple as his style often seems, has him



self told us with what diligence he laboured rightly “to build,” as Milton says emphatically, “the lofty rhyme."

“ There is a pleasure in poetic pains

Which poets only know. The shifts and turns,
The expedients and inventions multiform,
To which the mind resorts, in chase of terms,

Though apt, yet coy, and difficult to win.” These constitute an occupation so pleasing (says the bard of Olney), as well to repay all “the labour and the skill” called into action. Cowper likewise elsewhere


To touch, and retouch, is the secret of almost all good writing. I am never weary of it myself.” His Scottish contemporary, Robert Burns, was a fellow artist of no mean proficiency—“ Poet of Nature," as he has been often styled, and in some respects justly. The hard, favoured of Coila, had formed the clearest conceptions of the share which art has, or should have, in the composition of poetry. He himself says in his letters, that he wrote or sketched rapidly, but finished slowly, and with care. “Easy composition, but laborious correction,” are his own words. The exquisite simplicity of his songs was, indeed, the fruit of that high art which veils art. As an example in proof, it is but necessary to point to his own observations on the


of “ The Castle of Montgomerie.” In his correspondence, he asks one of his friends to note “the irregularity of the rhymes” in that lyric, as he thought that he had there not unhappily imitated the fine effect of similar imperfections in the old verses of " Gala Water.” This was a case of art covering itself even with the rent veil of simplicity.

The more recent poets of Britain, or those belonging to what must now be termed the last or past generation, were in their time exposed to the influences of peculiar and striking changes in the position and tastes of the reading world. Some of the poets in question were admittedly close and careful artists, and more especially Rogers, Campbell, Crabbe, Moore, and some others of note. But Scott and Byron, with Southey, and a few more of name, attached themselves to the Romantic School of literature, which emed that most suitable to likings of the times. The Reliques of Ancient Ballad Poetry, collected by Bishop Percy, seem to have laid the foundations of this school as respected verse; but it was Walter Scott, beyond doubt, who effectively revived the romantic poetry of his country, and made it predominant in his day and generation. He and his followers told tales or romances in verse, and naturally adopted a flowing and free style, the development of a plot constituting with them an object scarcely secondary to aptitude and beauty of thoughts and language. Not that they composed in general with carelessness. Far from it. Let those who think so make an attempt to imitate even the loosest ballad-pieces of Scott, and they will find out their mistake. There is much in these of that simplicity which is the acme of elaboration. Possessing an unforced command of poetic diction truly wonderful, Byron sacrificed less to the strictly artificial graces of composition, perhaps, than any modern bard of Britain whatever. However, even he disdained not to cultivate the most elaborate graces of style when occasion called.

Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats were not only poets in respect of the natural constitution of their minds, but they were also poetic “ artists” of the first order of excellence. They were indeed builders of the lofty rhyme in the true sense of the expression. Coleridge, no incompetent judge, commends specially the greatest of the three, Wordsworth, for “the sinewy strength and originality of single lines and paragraphs, and the frequent curiosa felicitas of his diction.” When we find passages startling us by the exquisite adaptation of the words, and the sound of the words, to the meaning, we must by no means assume these to be but “happy accidents.” They are, in truth, the well-meditated products and evidences of the masterhand in poesy. The artistic beauty of Shelley's diction is at all times surprising, and is occasionally even carried to excess, dazzling the reader out of a clear perception of the sense. Young as Keats was at the time of his decease, he also had attained to clear views of poetry as an art, and had thoroughly studied its principles and rules. If his fine practical application of these did not tell us as much, his own positive words would do so, in a piece wherein he thanks Charles Cowden Clarke as his instructor in all the niceties and refinements of perfect versification.

These general facts are premised, as proving that the Greatest Poets whom the world has yet seen, ancient and modern, are to be regarded, in the strictest sense of the term, as artists. At the same time it is equally clear that many individuals have been so endowed intellectually as to render poetical composition much more facile to them than to others, though these others, in not a few cases, might be superior in point of real genius. Ovid composed rapidly and corrected little, while Virgil composed slowly and corrected much; and Spenser, with several bards besides of the foremost class, appears to have written with a fluency that well nigh mocked all care, tutorage, and rules. But the vast majority of cases sustain broadly that

a true poet's made as well as born.” The matter may be summed in a word. Nature furnishes the quarry and the stone; both quantity and quality she determines; but Art fixes what the product shall be—a hovel or a palace—a cairn of the hill-tops or a temple for the Gods !

The poet, being so far an artist, requires, like other artists, to be acquainted with the aids and implements necessary to success in his calling Allusion

not now made to such helps as Rhyming Dictionaries, like that to which the present observations are prefixed-though true poets, as, for example, Byron, have not disdained to owe and own obligations to these—but to the various special Rules upon which all correct Versification is founded, and which have been followed by cultivators of the muses from time immemorial. Though the great poet is chiefly great through his proper genius—a fundamental truth which not one word here must be held to contravene—the successful development of that genius rests, as said, on the pursuit of such artistic rules. What these are must now be examined.

English Verse differs materially in construction from that of Greece, as also that of Rome; these two classical lands having composed their respective works of poetry upon

the same principles. The length, and not the number, of the syllables employed constituted the leading feature of their versification. The heroic (hexameter or six-foot) line of Homer and Virgil, for instance, might either have thirteen syllables, or seventeen, or some intermediate number. The following is an example of a hexameter in English, from the pen of S. T. Coleridge:

“ Strongly it bears us along in swelling and limitless billows." This is called the Homeric or Virgilian hexameter by the

« EelmineJätka »