1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Hume

Percival Stockdale, in Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:647-55.



Mr. Hume's critical taste in poetry; the judgement with which he bestows the highest rank in poetry, shall now engage my attention. This great man; great, as a metaphysician, and a sceptical philosopher; was warmly admired by Dr. Smith; and he was, in many respects, worthy of esteem as well as admiration. We have an observation of this gentleman (if I recollect aright, it is in his essay on simplicity, and refinement in writing) to this effect; that "there is nothing new, or striking in the thoughts of our best poets, if we divest them of their style; of the happy choice, and arrangement of words in which they are presented." — Then there is not a great poet in the world. Mr. Hume here falls into a common errour; that of considering the style rather distinctly, and separately from the intellectual substance with which it is indissolubly connected; which gave it its being, form, and force. The style is always exactly congenial with the strength, and manner of thinking of its authour. Of these properties language is the accurately responsive organ; or rather it is the completion; the perfection of their energies. Shenstone was simple, and easy; because his soul was natural, and flowing; but with little strength: Pope was elegant; harmonious; pathetick, and sublime; because all these archetypes, or original qualities were in the essence of his accomplished mind. To the other beautiful qualities in Pope, there was united in Milton, the astonishing sublime; the sublime, in all its magnificence, and grandeur; — because his muse was predestined to describe the chariot of the Messiah; to launch the thunder of the Almighty.

Surely, then, mere style, or language, never was, as it never could, naturally, it never could, possibly be praised, by well-informed readers; by them, the poet's manner of expressing his ideas is admired, only as the vigorous, and splendid nature of those ideas give it a dignity, and lustre. A style deserves no commendation which is not impregnated with the spirit of genius; if it is not actuated, and burnished with that spirit, it must always be feeble, and lifeless, like its weak, and presumptuous authour. Infinitely various are the powers, and display of the human mind: sometimes a nervous, nay, a great writer, in his ardent intellectual progress, will be negligent of the style, or manner in which he expresses his thoughts; but still, aided by that ardour, even his negligent strokes will hit you; even in his roughness you will feel an interest. This is another proof, if another proof was wanting, that it is thought which gives a commanding character, and authority to style; and that style will attract, and fix, and gratify our attention; even when it is thrown out by a careless vigour. Amid the infinite variety of human faculties, and exertions, to which I have alluded, there are poets who deserve our esteem, and love; and moderate admiration, in whom we find more elegance, and brilliancy of language, than strength, and splendour of thought. Inadequate judges in the fine arts; inferiour criticks of the Gallick race; are apt to prefer this terse, and secondary excellence; these neat, and spruce dwarfs of Parnassus, to the muscular roughness; to the Herculean, and all-subduing force of our giants in poetry.

To this injudicious, and unaspiring preference there is an opposite analogy (here, again, I must beg leave to have my eye on France) in that puerile, and foppish taste which prefers the company, and conversation of a coxcomb, in a gay and fashionable dress, to the society of a man of great good sense, and virtue, in homely, and negligent apparel. Our truly great poets, however, have united, in their productions, every degree, and species of poetical excellence.

In the opinion of Mr. Hume, and in accurate consistency with his poetical theory, Catullus, and Parnell were the first of all poets. They, indeed, are two of the poets who are far more distinguished by an elegant, and happy turn, or manner of expression, than by strength, and variety of sentiment. This beauty of style, however; this "curiosa felicitas," was, in truth, a part; for it was the bright surface of the luminous, and equable current; or it was the immediate, and plastick result of the more calm, and regular graces of the mind.

"Each line, each word" (says Mr. Hume) "in Catullus, has its merit; but Parnell, after the fiftieth reading, is as fresh as at the first." — This is certainly, in a proportionable estimate of poetical excellence, a very exaggerated encomium on these two poets: it is exaggerated, with regard to the abated effect which even intellectual pleasure, often repeated, produces in the mind. But if it is deserved by any poets, it is certainly deserved by those poets who have traversed an extensive, and variegated field; and who are extremely interesting, from a diversity of genius as well as of subjects; — who have raised the elegant, and the beautiful, to the vigorous, and the sublime; and who, therefore, give us, not only a sedate, and easy, but a highly impassioned, pleasure; the agitation of delight; the enthusiasm of rapture. These effects may be produced by the poetry of Thomson; of Pope; of Young, and of Milton; but they are beyond the power of Catullus, and Parnell; who have no great variety; who are not eminently distinguished by strength, and elevation; and whose excellence lies not so much in the essence as in the manner. Indeed I have often wondered that a man of Mr. Hume's moral decorum should have chosen Catullus for an object of his particular praise; as the muse of that poet is, in general, prostituted to a horrid obscenity.

The same gentleman, in a letter to the late Dr. Robertson, mentions our justly celebrated Swift; — "whom" (says he) "I can often laugh with; whose style I can even approve; but surely can never admire. Were not their literature" [that of the English] "still in a somewhat barbarous state, that authour's place would not be so high among their classicks." — The style of Swift is, on the whole, chaste, elegant, and attick; simple, and not so animated, and metaphorical as I could wish; yet clearly, and strongly expressive of his ideas. That he can make us laugh, is his least praise; he gives us the most important moral, political, and religious instruction; enforced with a moderately adorned, yet commanding, and victorious eloquence; and with the, powerful auxiliaries of a fertile imagination; of an original invention. The literary judgement, and taste of the reader who does not see, and feel these excellences, "must be still in a "somewhat barbarous state." Our English literature, in the days of Swift, was in the complete reverse of a barbarous state; it was in its Augustan period. From the new, conceited, and vulgar phrases; from the laboured, and affected strain which it hath assumed, since that auspicious time; we have reason to apprehend, if not already to pronounce, its barbarous degeneracy.

If my preceding observations are just, we may infer that metaphysical criticks miss their aim as much as metaphysical poets. And it will be evident, I hope, that in what I have said of Mr. Hume, I have meant no disrespect to the literature, and philosophy of Scotland. If Swift was not admired by Mr. Hume, he is, undoubtedly, admired by many northern men of learning, and, taste. From the letter of Dr. Robertson, to which I have referred, it appears that he was a favourite of that celebrated writer; and his authority alone will, at least balance that of Mr. Hume; whom I never can deem an able critick on poetry. As a historian, I think that he is eminently the first in the English language. I esteem, I admire his philosophical, and argumentative talents; though on some important, and sacred subjects, which are eternally dear to the heart, and mind of man, I trust that he is mistaken. For freedom of rational disquisition, I shall ever be a sincere, and strenuous advocate: I am always as charmed when I contemplate the amiable image of a tolerant benevolent; and christian clergyman, as I am disgusted when I recollect the little creature that is meant by its representative monosyllable, of severe secular application; — "priest."