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But among the arts, thus privileged by universal suffrage, poetry not only stands the first in point of rank, but preserves this elevation in nearly the same degree of superiority, as their productions surpass the inferiour works of invention. The powers by which the less exalted of these sister arts excite the emotions of taste, are nearly limited to the use they are enabled to make of material objects; they may be almost said to find their verge terminate where there is no beauty or sublimity of colour, sound, or form. But not only all the sublimity and beauty of matter, but of mind, come under the poet's controul; he not only raises a new creation more novel, more fanciful, and more perfect than exists any where in reality; he not only animates his scenery with characters, but informs his characters with sentiments, and endows them with language suitable to their ideal existence. Indeed poetry in its imagery, excels the other fine arts, not merely in the same degree that the intellectual world excels the corporeal: the power of a poet over his materials is nothing less than enchantment; he can as easily transfer the property of one object to another, as substitute one object for another; he can animate
matter into mind, and invest mind with the form and properties of matter.
On carrying up our inquiries into the nature of so extraordinary and considerable a portion of the materials of a poet to the source, and investigating the sentiments of the ancients on the subject before us, their opinions are found deserving of notice, more from the partiality which they have manifested towards this licentiousness in composition, than from the success which they have evinced in justifying or explaining it. In undertaking to account for those bolder effusions of the art, which they regarded as soaring too high for the controul of reason, or trammels of precept, they pronounced them to be the effects of a divine phrensy. Under this idea, which was no small favourite with antiquity, the votarist of the muse was feigned to receive by inspiration those sublime conceptions, which he imbibed with so much warmth, and delivered with so much enthusiasm. In vain did he, who was not thus favoured by heaven, endeavour to regulate his essays by art, or by labour; all his attempts must prove cold and lifeless, until animated with that effluence which could descend from the muse alone. While he
who received the divinity in tne moments when she was propitious, and wrote under her immediate inspiration, possessed the right of giving utterance to her dictates, how little conformable soever they might be found to the more rigid principles of criticism.
From the force of these descriptions of poeticalenthusiasm, much it is to be remarked should be subducted, and attributed to the extravagance of declamatory exaggeration. There is evidently displayed under the tissue of figurative language, an ambitious attempt at raising the description to the height of the subject described, and at accommodating it to the elevation of poetical expression. To a certain degree however they may be admitted; for they do not appear so difficult to be reconciled, as may be at first imagined, with notions which are at present very generally allowed. Few persons, it is presumed, will be found to deny the existence of that talent or aptitude for excelling in any of the arts of design, which we term genius; which, though capable of improvement or deterioration, is a natural endowment dispensed by the same Power which has bestowed on us our grosser organs. As few, it is presumed,
will be found to deny that it is to those persons alone, on whom this faculty is bestowed, that those happy irregularities of conception or execution, which we tolerate as licences, will be likely to occur. While they who are accustomed to attend to the motions of their minds, must have observed that there are propitious moments, when, from the accidental presentation of external objects to the senses, or the fortuitous recurrence of ideas previously acquired by sensation, those happy, combinations of imagery arise, which cannot be created at pleasure.
But of these opinions of the ancients, even with the aid of this explanation, little use can be made in elucidating the nature of those licences of poetry which it is the pose of these inquiries to investigate. They give the matter under discussion a dependance upon a mental faculty which is probably as inscrutable in its nature and movements, and as difficult to be brought within ascertainable limits, as these licences themselves. And surely if poetical genius or enthusiasm is of a nature which is difficult to be determined, much more difficult must it be to ascertain those effusions to which it gives birth, which are of themselves capable of an endless modification.
Neither does modern criticism afford us much greater assistance in entering on these inquiries. Though various writers have touched on the subject, and have sheltered many seeming anomalies in poetry, under the general term licence, yet they have no where defined with accuracy what the term signifies. Many expressions occur in the works both of poets and criticks, which infer the existence of such a principle in poetry as certain and acknowledged: some few passages might be pointed out, where a description of its nature is cursorily attempted, and others where bounds are partially prescribed to its power. But in the only attempts wherein they have undertaken to define its nature, they are found either to give too great a latitude to its meaning, or to circumscribe it within too narrow limits. The former seems to be the case, where poetick licence is described as being that particular character which distinguishes and sets bounds between poetry and mere prose:' for to
• Mr. Dryden thus defines this term, “ Poetical licence I take to be the liberty which poets have assumed to themselves, in all ages, of speaking things in verse, which are beyond the severity of prose. It is that particular character which distinguishes and sets the bounds betwixt oratio soluta and poetry.”
Pref. to State of Innoc.