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Remarks on ENGLISH VERSIFICATION.
ERSIFICATION may properly be confidered as the ftyle of poetry, or the art of compofition in metre; and though the tafte or mental perception of beauty or deformity is in this cafe affected by still more lively emotions of disgust or admiration than prose has power to excite, the ultimate caufes of thofe emotions are enveloped in exactly the fame degree of darkness and obfcurity. It is indeed perhaps fomewhat more eafy to lay down rules or reafons by which we are supposed to be influenced in forming our judgments refpecting the beauty of ftyle in poetry than in profe: but if we pretend to advance a single step farther, we have only the mortification to discover, that the rules which the most fagacious critics have laboured to establish, refolve themselves into this one fundamental and arbitrary dictate of nature, Such is our pleafurc. For inftance, the following canons of criticifm may, for aught I know, be as judicious, and of as much real utility, as any belonging to the Code. 1ft, That Verfification, in order to please, must be fmooth and harmoniQus, exact without stiffness, and eafy without negP 4
gligence. 2dly, That uniformity should be blend, ed with variety; and, while the first is obferved in adhering to the fame precife number of poetical feet in each verfe or stanza, the latter should be studied in the pauses, cadences, and accents. 3dly, That the found fhould, as far as poffible, be made to coincide with the sense, from which coincidencearifes what is called imitative harmony; and, in general, that the emotion excited by the tone of the verse should accord with the emotion excited by the sentiment expressed, or the object described. It were not difficult to add a multitude of rules of the fame kind, and to exemplify the rules by an induction of particular paffages, and to expatiate very learnedly upon each; or it were equally eafy to quote paffages without end, and to point out beauties without number, and to fupport our opinion by a reference to the fame rules, which would in that cafe be converted into reasons. By these ingenious contrivances, accompanied with a peculiar air of importance and felf-complacency, Lord Kaims has acquired, with many, the reputation of a profound critic; but I never could perceive for my own part that any great addition was made to real knowledge by this fort of information; though I must in justice to his Lordship acknowledge, that in his elaborate work are occafionally interfperfed many acute and fagacious obfervations. With regard to the few reflections I have to offer, I chufe to make my appeal rather to the taste than the reafon of the reader, because these
are fubjects which feem to me properly to come within the jurisdiction of taste; for either the rules themselves are liable to fufpicion, as not fufficiently confirmed by fact and experience, or if they are universally received as true, it is not the lefs difficult to demonftrate that they have their origin and foundation in reason. Why do we prefer, for inftance, the imitations of Dr. Donne's Satires by Pope to the originals? because it may be faid they are far more musical and harmonious. But why do we prefer the mufical and harmonious Verfification of the former, to the harsh and rugged numbers of the latter? Here we are at a stand, and the preference refolves itself into a mere matter of taste, without the fhadow of a reason on which to ground that preference. Is it not then better, without making an empty parade of knowledge which we do not really poffefs, at once to confefs our ignorance and inability to account for thofe fenfations of pleasure which we derive from these fources, than vainly to attempt to reduce those feelings to the dominion of reason, which refuse to acknowledge any authority but that of taste.
I do not, however, pretend to affert, that because the end of poetry is to please, and because it is by an appeal to tafte, and not to reafon, that the queftion must be decided, whether that end is actually attained; I fay, I do not therefore affert, that all rules of poetical compofition are to be decried as impertinent or useless; this would be running into a very abfurd ex
treme. As there is a certain degree of uniformity in our mental feelings and perceptions, there certainly is a foundation for that uniformity; and it is both entertaining and inftructive, by any fair process of induction, to point out the immediate, though we cannot trace the ultimate, caufes of those uniform emotions of difguft or admiration, which is in effect to point out the means of avoiding or exciting them; or, in other words, it is to establish certain fixed rules of compofition upon the authority of experience: but what I diflike is, the pedantry of appealing to fpeculative principles in oppofition to the decifions of tafte; and what I defpife is, the ridiculous vanity of attempting to demonftrate by argument, that men ought to admire, when experience proves that no one does or can admire; and, on the other hand, that men are in the wrong to be pleafed, when experience proves that it is impoffible to avoid it. In a word, of all kinds of literary affectation, that which is moft difgufting is, the affectation of judging in matters of taste by rule, and not by feeling; and this appears to me the fundamental defect of the work to which I have before alluded; I mean the Elements of Criticifm. Lord Kaims was lefs remarkable for delicacy of taste than acutenefs of understanding; and he evidently feems to have thought it much below the dignity of a critic to embrace any opinion even in a mere matter of tafte which was not fupported by fome rule. Where the rule was not already established, there
fore, he was obliged to have recourfe to his invention, which did not always supply him with fuch as were of the moft fatisfactory kind; and he seems through the whole of his elaborate work to entertain much too high an idea of the importance of those rules; for he feems to confider them as founded in reafon, and as laws by which tafte ought to be regulated, whereas they are properly founded in tafte, and the most judicious and best established rules are really nothing more than the different principles by which experience shows that the decisions of taste are governed. But “à priori” it is impofiible to prove, by any speculative reafoning, that thofe principles poffefs more of innate propriety than the opposite ones : for instance, it is a rule that the unity of action in an Epic poem ought to be preferved; and no one can read the Iliad and the Orlando Furiofo without being fenfible of the propriety of it; but if any one fhould afk the reafon upon which this rule is founded, we are compelled to confefs that it refolves itself entirely into a matter of taste. We might indeed retreat a step backward, and anfwer, that the reafon is, because the attention ought not to be divided; but the question immediately recurs, "Why ought not the attention to be divided?" And to this what can be replied, but that it is found by experience to be unpleasant, and to occafion wearinefs and disgust.
Having thus ftated my ideas on the fubject of fpeculative and theoretical criticism, I proceed to confider what it is that properly constitutes