1772 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Jones

James Beattie to Elizabeth Montagu, 30 September 1772; Forbes, Life and Writings of James Beattie (1806) 1:233-35.



I have never seen Mr. Jones's imitations of the Asiatic poetry. From what you say of them, I am sure they will entertain me; though I am entirely of your opinion, that, if they had been translations, they would have been much more valuable, and the more literal the better. Such things deserve attention, not so much for the amusement they yield to the fancy, as for the knowledge they convey of the minds and manners of the people among whom they are produced. To those who have feelings, and are capable of observation, that poetical expression and description will be most agreeable, which corresponds most exactly to their own experience. I cannot sympathise with passions I never felt; and when objects are described in colours, shapes, and proportions quite unlike to what I have been accustomed to, I suspect that the descriptions are not just, and that it is not nature that is presented to my view, but the dreams of a man who had never studied nature.

What is the reason, madam, that the poetry, and indeed the whole phraseology, of the eastern nations (and I believe the same thing holds true of all uncultivated nations) is so full of glaring images, exaggerated metaphors, and gigantic descriptions? Is it, because that, in those countries, where art has made little progress, nature shoots forth into wilder magnificence, and every thing appears to be constructed on a larger scale? Is it that the language, through defect of copiousness, is obliged to adopt metaphor and similitude, even for expressing the most obvious sentiments? Is it, that the ignorance and indolence of such people, unfriendly to liberty, disposes them to regard their governors as of supernatural dignity, and to decorate them with the most pompous and high-sounding titles, the frequent use of which comes at last to infect their whole conversation with bombast? Or is it, that the passions of those people are really stronger, and their climate more luxuriant? Perhaps all these causes may conspire in producing this effect. Certain it is, that Europe is much indebted, for her style and manner of composition, to her ancient authors, particularly to those of Greece, by whose example and authority that simple and natural diction was happily established, which all our best authors of succeeding times have been ambitious to imitate; but whence those ancient Greek authors derived it, whether from imitating other authors, still more ancient; or from the operation of physical causes, or from the nature of their language, particularly its unrivalled copiousness and flexibility; or from some unaccountable and peculiar delicacy in their taste; or from the force of their genius, that, conscious of its own vigour, despised all adventitious support, and all foreign ornament — it is not perhaps easy to determine.