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Imbitter'd all our blifs. Ye good distrest!
CHA P. XIV.
Of Didactic or Preceptive POETRY.
HE method of writing Precepts in verfe, and embellishing them with the graces of poetry, had its rife, we may suppose, from a due confideration of the frailties and perverfeness of human nature; and was intended to engage the affections, in order to improve the mind and amend the heart.
Were it poffible to infpect into the minds of men, and fee their inmoft thoughts, we fhould find, I am afraid, that most of the human race are fond of appearing wifer than they are, and though they wish for knowledge are unwilling to confefs the want of it, or to feek after science for fear of being thought ignorant. Yet there are others, efpecially amongst our youth, who are under no apprehenfion of this kind, but fly from knowledge only because the roads to it are rugged, and the approaches difficult of accefs. To footh therefore the vanity of the one, and to remove the indolence of the other, poetry was called in to the aid of science, which by its peculiar gracefulness and addrefs could foften the appearance of inftruction, and render rules that were dull and difagreeable, fprightly and entertaining. The inventor of didactic poetry knew not only the defects of mankind, but likewife the force and power of a genteel and winning addrefs: He confider'd that ignorance and inattention were not the only enemies to fcience; but that pride, impatience, and affectation, were likewife to be vanquished; and therefore adorned and enriched his precepts, that pleafure might allure the one, and keep the other in countenance,..
Men must be taught as if you taught them not,
Knowledge that is conveyed thus indirectly, and with. out the appearance of a dictator, will be learned with more eafe, fink deeper into the understanding, and fo fix itself in the mind as not to be eafily obliterated. And thefe confiderations, we may fuppofe, induced the priests and bards of old to deliver their laws and religious maxims in verse.
Didactic or Preceptive Poetry, has been usually employed either to illuftrate and explain our moral duties our philofophical enquiries; our bufinefs and pleasures; or in teaching the art of criticism or poetry itself. It may be adapted, however, to any other fubject, and may, in all cafes, where inftruction is defigned, be employed to good purpose. Some fubjects, indeed, are more proper than others, as they admit of more poetical orna→ ments, and give a greater latitude to genius; but what ever the fubject is, thofe precepts are to be laid down that are the most useful, and they should follow each other in a natural eafy method, and be delivered in the moft agreeable engaging manner. What the prose writer tells you ought to be done, the poet often conveys under the form of a narration, or fhews the neceffity of in a description; and by representing the action as done, or doing, conceals the precept that should enforce it. The poet, likewise, inftead of telling the whole truth, or laying down all the rules that are requifite, felects fuch parts only as are the moft pleafing, and communicates the reft indirectly, with out giving us an open view of them; yet takes care that nothing fhall escape the reader's notice with which he ought to be acquainted. He difcloses just enough to lead the imagination into the parts that are concealed, and the mind, ever gratified with its own discoveries, is compli mented with exploring and finding them out; which, tho' done with ease, seems so confiderable as not to be obtained but in confequence of its own adroitness and fagacity. But this is not fufficient to render didactic poetry always pleafing; for where precepts are laid down one after an
other, and the poem is of confiderable length, the mind will require fome recreation and refreshment by the way; which is to be procured by seasonable moral reflections, pertinent remarks, familiar fimiles and defcriptions naturally introduced, by allufions to ancient hiftories or fables, and by fhort and pleasant digreffions and excurfions into more noble subjects, fo aptly brought in that they may feem to have a remote relation, and be of a piece with the poem. By thus varying the form of inftruction the poet gives life to his precepts, and awakens and fecures our attention, without permitting us to fee by what means we are thus captivated and his art is the more to be admired, because it is fo concealed as to escape the reader's obfervation.
The style too must maintain a dignity fuitable to the fubject, and every part be drawn in fuch lively colours that the things defcribed may feem as if prefented to the reader's view.
But all this will appear more evident from example ; and tho' entire poems of this kind are not within the com. pafs of our defign, we shall endeavour to select such pasfages as will be fufficient to illuftrate the rules we have here laid down.
We have already obferved, that according to the usual divifions there are four kinds of didactic poems, viz. those that refpect our moral duties; our philofophical fpeculations; our bufinefs and pleasures; or that give precepts for poetry and criticism.
On the firft fubject, indeed, we have fcarce any thing that deferves the name of poetry, except Mr. Pope's Ejay on Man, and his Ethic Epifiles; from thefe therefore we shall extract fome paffages to fhew the method he has taken to render these dry fubjects entertaining.
The first treats of the nature and state of man with refpect to the universe; confiders him in the abstract, and obferves, that we can judge only with regard to our own fyftem, fince we are ignorant of the relations of other fyftems and things; that man is not to be deem'd imperfect; but a being perfectly fuited to his place and rank in the creation, agreeable to the general order of things, and conformable to ends and relations to him unknown; that it is partly upon his ignorance of future events, and partly upon the hope of a future ftate, that all his happiness in
the prefent depends. Which laft is thus beautifully expreffed.
Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions foar ;
Lo! the poor Indian, whofe untutor'd mind
He afks no angel's wing, no feraph's fire;
He then proceeds to prove that the more knowledge, and pretending to the cause of man's error and mifery; piety of his prefuming to judge of the
pride of aiming at more perfection, is and fhews the imfitness or unfitness,
perfection or imperfection, juftice or injuftice, of the difpenfations of the Almighty. He reprefents the abfurdity of man's conceiting himself the final cause of the creation, or expecting that perfection in the moral world, which is not in the natural. He fhews the unreasonableness of his complaints against Providence, while on the one hand he craves the perfections of angels, and on the other the bodily qualifications of brutes; tho' to poffefs any of the fenfitive faculties in a higher degree, would render him miferable; as he has thus proved.
The blifs of man (could pride that bleffing find)
He obferves that throughout the whole vifible world, an univerfal order and gradation in the fenfual and mental faculties may be feen, which caufes a fubordination of creature to creature, and of all creatures to man. He then treats of the gradations of fenfe, inftinct, thought, reflection, and reason; and obferves that reafon alone countervails all the other faculties. He enquires how far this order and fubordination of living creatures may extend, above and below us; were any part of which broken, not that part only, but the whole connected creation must be destroy'd ; and thus beautifully reprefents the extravagance, madnefs, and pride, of man's defiring to be other than what