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I UNDERTAKE, in the following discourse, to consider two QUESTIONS, in which the credit of almost all great writers, since the time of Homer, is vitally concerned.
First, “ Whether that Conformity in Phrase “or Sentiment between two writers of different times, which we call IMITATION, may “ not with probability enough, for the most “part, be accounted for from general causes,
arising from our common nature; that is, "from the exercise of our natural faculties on such objects as lie in common to all observers ?
Secondly, “ Whether, in the case of confessed Imitations, any certain and neces
sary conclusion holds to the disadvantage “ of the natural GENIUS of the imitator 9"QUESTIONS, which there seems no fit method of resolving, but by taking the matter pretty deep, and deducing it from its first principles.
All Poetry, to speak with Aristotle and the Greek critics (if for so plain a point authorities be thought wanting) is, properly, imitation, It is, indeed, the noblest and most extensive of the mimetic arts; having all creation for its object, and ranging the entire circuit of universal being. In this view every wondrous original, which ages have gazed at, as the offspring of creative fancy; and of which poets themselves, to do honour to their inventions, have feigned, as of the immortal panoply of their heroes, that it came down from heaven, is itself but a copy, a transcript from some brighter page of this vast volume of the uni
Thus all is derived; all is unoriginal. And the office of genius is but to select the fairest forms of things, and to present them in due place and circumstance, and in the richest colouring of expression, to the imagination. This primary or original copying, which in the ideas of Philosophy is Imitation, is, in the language of Criticism, called INVENTION.
Again ; of the endless variety of these original forms, which the poet's eye is incessantly traversing, those, which take his attention most, his active mimetic faculty prompts him to convert into fair and living resemblances. This magical operation the divine philosopher (whose fervid fancy, though it sometimes obscuresa his reasoning, yet never fails to clear and brighten his imagery) excellently illustrates by the similitude of a mirror; “ which,
says he, as you turn about and oppose to the surrounding world, presents you instantly “ with a sun, STARS, and skies ;
your OWN, and every other living form; with “ the Earth, and its several appendages of
TREES, PLANTS, and FLOWERSb." on whatever side the poet turns his imagination, the shapes of things immediately imprint themselves upon it, and a new corresponding creation reflects the old one. This shadowy ideal world, though unsubstantial as the American vision of souls, yet glows with such apparent life, that it becomes, thenceforth, the object of other mirrors, and is itself original
a Meaíva Tt, says Dionysius of Halicarnassus, speaking of his figurative manner, το σαφές και ζόφω ποιεί παραπλήσιον (T. ii. p. 204. Ed. Hudson.
b Plato De REPUB. lib. x. • Spectator, No. 56.
to future reflexions. This secondary or derivative image, is that alone which Criticism considers under the Idea of IMITATION.
And here the difficulty, we are about to examine, commences. For the poet, in his quick researches through all his stores and materials of beauty, meeting every where, in his progress, these reflected forms; and deriving from them his stock of imagery, as well as from the real subsisting objects of nature, the reader is often at a loss (for the poet himself is not always aware of it) to discern the original from the copy; to know, with certainty, if the sentiment, br image, presented to him, be directly taken from the life, or be itself, a lively transcript, only, of some former copy. And this difficulty is the greater, because the original, as well as the copy, is always at hand for the poet to turn to, and we can rarely be certain, since both were equally in his power, which of the two he chose to make the object of his own imitation. For it is not enough to say here, as in the case of reflexions, that the latter is always the weaker, and of course betrays itself by the degree of faintness, which, of necessity, attends a copy. This, indeed, hath been said by one, to whose judgment a peculiar deference is owing. Quic