Lectures on the English Poets; Delivered at the Surrey Institution

E-text prepared by R. W. Jones <rwj@freeshell.org>

Transcriber’s note: This file was proofed, using a text-to-speech reader,
against the hard copy 2nd. edition published in 1819.
No attempt has been made to change the text of any of
the quoted verse to reflect later editors’ amendments.
Italics are indicated thus. The footnotes are
serially numbered from the first to the last Lecture,
unlike in the original.


Delivered at the Surrey Institution










The best general notion which I can give of poetry is, that it is the
natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an
involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by
sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it.

In treating of poetry, I shall speak first of the subject-matter of
it, next of the forms of expression to which it gives birth, and
afterwards of its connection with harmony of sound.

Poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions. It
relates to whatever gives immediate pleasure or pain to the human mind.
It comes home to the bosoms and businesses of men; for nothing but what
so comes home to them in the most general and intelligible shape, can be
a subject for poetry. Poetry is the universal language which the heart
holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot
have much respect for himself, or for any thing else. It is not a mere
frivolous accomplishment, (as some persons have been led to imagine) the
trifling amusement of a few idle readers or leisure hours—it has been
the study and delight of mankind in all ages. Many people suppose that
poetry is something to be found only in books, contained in lines of ten
syllables, with like endings: but wherever there is a sense of beauty,
or power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, in the
growth of a flower that “spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and
dedicates its beauty to the sun,”—there is poetry, in its birth. If
history is a grave study, poetry may be said to be a graver: its
materials lie deeper, and are spread wider. History treats, for the most
part, of the cumbrous and unwieldly masses of things, the empty cases in
which the affairs of the world are packed, under the heads of intrigue
or war, in different states, and from century to century: but there is
no thought or feeling that can have entered into the mind of man, which
he would be eager to communicate to others, or which they would listen
to with delight, that is not a fit subject for poetry. It is not a
branch of authorship: it is “the stuff of which our life is made.” The
rest is “mere oblivion,” a dead letter: for all that is worth
remembering in life, is the poetry of it. Fear is poetry, hope is
poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry; contempt, jealousy, remorse,
admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry. Poetry is
that fine particle within us, that expands, rarefies, refines, raises
our whole being: without it “man’s life is poor as beast’s.” Man is a
poetical animal: and those of us who do not study the principles of
poetry, act upon them all our lives, like Moliere’s Bourgeois
, who had always spoken prose without knowing it. The child
is a poet in fact, when he first plays at hide-and-seek, or repeats the
story of Jack the Giant-killer; the shepherd-boy is a poet, when he
first crowns his mistress with a garland of flowers; the countryman,
when he stops to look at the rainbow; the city-apprentice, when he gazes
after the Lord-Mayor’s show; the miser, when he hugs his gold; the
courtier, who builds his hopes upon a smile; the savage, who paints his
idol with blood; the slave, who worships a tyrant, or the tyrant, who
fancies himself a god;—the vain, the ambitious, the proud, the
choleric man, the hero and the coward, the beggar and the king, the rich
and the poor, the young and the old, all live in a world of their own
making; and the poet does no more than describe what all the others
think and act. If his art is folly and madness, it is folly and madness
at second hand. “There is warrant for it.” Poets alone have not “such
seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cooler
reason” can.

      ”The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

      Are of imagination all compact.

      One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;

      The madman. While the lover, all as frantic,

      Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

      The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling,

      Doth glance from heav’n to earth, from earth to heav’n;

      And as imagination bodies forth

      The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

      Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing

      A local habitation and a name.

      Such tricks hath strong imagination.”

If poetry is a dream, the business of life is much the same. If it is
a fiction, made up of what we wish things to be, and fancy that they
are, because we wish them so, there is no other nor better reality.
Ariosto has described the loves of Angelica and Medoro: but was not
Medoro, who carved the name of his mistress on the barks of trees, as
much enamoured of her charms as he? Homer has celebrated the anger of
Achilles: but was not the hero as mad as the poet? Plato banished the
poets from his Commonwealth, lest their descriptions of the natural man
should spoil his mathematical man, who was to be without passions and
affections, who was neither to laugh nor weep, to feel sorrow nor anger,
to be cast down nor elated by any thing. This was a chimera, however,
which never existed but in the brain of the inventor; and Homer’s
poetical world has outlived Plato’s philosophical Republic.

Poetry then is an imitation of nature, but the imagination and the
passions are a part of man’s nature. We shape things according to our
wishes and fancies, without poetry; but poetry is the most emphatical
language that can be found for those creations of the mind “which
ecstacy is very cunning in.” Neither a mere description of natural
objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or
forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the
heightenings of the imagination. The light of poetry is not only a
direct but also a reflected light, that while it shews us the object,
throws a sparkling radiance on all around it: the flame of the passions,
communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of
lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole
being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms;
feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts a spirit
of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing, not the
fixed. It does not define the limits of sense, or analyze the
distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the
imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or
feeling. The poetical impression of any object is that uneasy, exquisite
sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself; that is
impatient of all limit; that (as flame bends to flame) strives to link
itself to some other image of kindred beauty or grandeur; to enshrine
itself, as it were, in the highest forms of fancy, and to relieve the
aching sense of pleasure by expressing it in the boldest manner, and by
the most striking examples of the same quality in other instances.
Poetry, according to Lord Bacon, for this reason, “has something divine
in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by
conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul, instead of
subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do.” It is
strictly the language of the imagination; and the imagination is that
faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as
they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite
variety of shapes and combinations of power. This language is not the
less true to nature, because it is false in point of fact; but so much
the more true and natural, if it conveys the impression which the object
under the influence of passion makes on the mind. Let an object, for
instance, be presented to the senses in a state of agitation or fear—
and the imagination will distort or magnify the object, and convert it
into the likeness of whatever is most proper to encourage the fear. “Our
eyes are made the fools” of our other faculties. This is the universal
law of the imagination,

      ”That if it would but apprehend some joy,

      It comprehends some bringer of that joy:

      Or in the night imagining some fear,

      How easy is each bush suppos’d a bear!”

When Iachimo says of Imogen,

            ”———The flame o’ th’ taper

      Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids

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