1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

James Montgomery, "Dr. Darwin's Theory of Poetic Style" Lectures on General Literature, Poetry, &c. (1833; 1836) 124-28.



The late Dr. Darwin, a poet of very different cast from Mr. Wordsworth, tells us, that the essential difference between prose and poetry consists, not solely in the melody or measure of language, because some prose has melody and even measure; nor in the sublimity, beauty, or novelty of the sentiments, because, as he asserts, sublime sentiments are sometimes better expressed in prose. Of this he gives an example from one of Shakspeare's historical plays: — "When Warwick is left wounded on the field after the loss of the battle, and his friend says to him, 'Oh! could you but fly!' what can be more sublime than his answer, 'Why then I would not fly!' No measure of verse could add dignity to this sentiment." — Without disputing his position, I answer that the words are verse already. I know not how they stand in the original; but placing the interjection "Oh!" as the closing syllable of a line, and laying the natural emphasis on the verb negative, and not merely on the sign of negation, we have a perfect heroic verse.

Oh!
Could you but fly!—
Why then I would not fly!

The doctor continues: — "In what, then, consists the essential difference between poetry and prose? Next to the measure of the language, the principal distinction appears to be this: that poetry admits of but few words expressive of very abstracted ideas; whereas prose abounds with them. And as our ideas derived from visible objects are more distinct than those derived from the objects of our other senses, the words expressive of these ideas belonging to vision make up the principal part of poetic language; that is, the poet writes principally to the eye, the prose-writer uses more abstracted terms. Mr. Pope has written a bad verse in the 'Windsor Forest: — 'And Kennet swift, for silver eels renown'd.' The word 'renown'd' does not present a visible object to the mind, and is thence prosaic. But change the line thus: — 'And Kennet swift, where silver graylings play,' and it becomes poetry; because the scenery is then brought before the eye. This maybe done in prose; so it is more agreeable to read in Mr. Gibbon's History, 'Germany was at that time overshadowed with extensive forests,' than that Germany was at that time full of extensive forests. But when this mode of expression occurs too frequently, the prose approaches to poetry; and in grave works, where we expect to he instructed rather than amused, it becomes tedious and impertinent."

Thus far Dr. Darwin. I reply: — this is arguing completely in a circle. "Why then I would not fly" is undoubtedly verse by the measure, and poetry by the sublimity of the sentiment; while, without the variation of a syllable, and simply reading it according to the prosaic accents, it is prose. "Oh! could you but fly! — Why then I would 'not' fly!" It follows, that thoughts of this character are common alike to prose and verse, and may be expressed in either. If Dr. Darwin's criticism excludes the phrase "for silver eels renown'd," from poetry, it proves too much, for then the poet must not give the eels at all that lie in the mud. He might, indeed, represent a fishwife stripping the kin from the writhing creature, but he could not even allude to their luxurious sloth in the slimy ooze, where they cannot be watched. This may be called quibbling; but it must be admitted, that the epithet "silver" gives an image to the eye which sufficiently vindicates the poetry of the line against the prosaic participle "renown'd;" while the latter conveys an idea which no object of vision whatever could imply. Is the poet, then, to be precluded from celebrating the peculiar pre-eminence of the river Rennet for its peculiar fish, because the word that designates its superiority is an abstract term? "Germany was at that time overshadowed with extensive forests!" The doctor acknowledges that the poetic verb here used, animates the prose; why then may not abstract terms (though in themselves prosaic) occasionally be employed to temper the ardour of verse, as snow in hot climates, sprinkled over the wine-cup, makes the draught more delicious? The whole range of language and of thought must be conceded to writers of both kinds; and it depends upon their own taste, at their own peril, to mingle, discreetly or otherwise, with the staple of their diction, terms which are conventionally understood to belong to poetry and prose, in precisely inverse proportions.

Dr. Darwin has splendidly exemplified the effects of his own theory, which certainly includes much truth, but not the whole truth. Endued with a fancy peculiarly formed for picture-poetry, he has limited verse almost within the compass of designing and modelling with visible colours and palpable substances. Even in this poetic painting, he seldom goes beyond the brilliant minuteness of the Dutch school of artists, while his groups are the extreme reverse of theirs, being rigidly classical. His productions are undistinguished by either sentiment or pathos. He presents nothing but pageants to the eye, and leaves next to nothing to the imagination; every point and object being made out in noonday clearness, where the sun is nearly vertical, and the shadow most contracted, he never touches the heart, nor awakens social, tender, or playful emotions. His whole "Botanic Garden" might be sculptured in friezes, painted in enamel, or manufactured in Wedgwood ware. "The Loves of the Plants" consists of a series of metamorphoses, all of the same kind, — plants personified, having the passions of animals, or rather such passions as animals might he supposed to have, if, instead of warm blood, cool vegetable juices circulated through their veins; so that, though every lady-flower has from one to twenty beaux, all slighted and favoured in turn, the wooings and the weddings are so scrupulously Linnaean, that no human affection is ever concerned in the matter. What velvet painting can be more exquisite than the following lines, in which the various insects are touched to the very life?—

Stay thy soft murmuring waters, gentle rill;
Hush, whispering winds; ye rustling leaves, he still;
Rest, silver butterflies, your quivering wings;
Alight, ye beetles, from your airy rings;
Ye painted moths, your gold-eyed plumage furl,
Bow your wide horns, your spiral trunks uncurl;
Glitter, ye glow-worms. on your mossy beds;
Descend, ye spiders, on your lengthen'd threads;
Slide here, ye horned snails, with varnish'd shells
Ye bee-nymphs, listen in your waxen cells.

In such descriptions Darwin excels, and his theory is triumphant; but to prove it of universal application, it must be put to a higher test. In the third canto of the "Botanic Garden," Part II., there is a fine scene — a lady, from the "wood-crowned height" of Minden, overlooking the battle in which her husband is engaged. As the conflict thickens, she watches his banner shifting from hill to hill, and when the enemy is at length beaten from every post,

Near and more near the intrepid beauty press'd,
Saw through the driving smoke his dancing crest;
Saw on his helm, her virgin hands inwove,
Bright stars of gold, and mystic knots of love;
Heard the exulting shout, "They run, they run!"
"Great God!" she cried, "he's safe, the battle's won!"
—A ball now hisses through the airy tides
(Some fury wing'd it, and some demon guides),
Parts her fine locks her graceful head that deck,
Wounds her fair ear, and sinks into her neck;
The red stream issuing from her azure veins,
Dies her white veil, her ivory bosom stains!

Every syllable here is addressed to the eye; there is not a word for the heart; the poet himself might have been the bullet that shot the lady, so insensible is he of the horror of the deed. Or he might have been a surgeon, deposing before a coroner's inquest over the body, under what circumstances said lady came to her death, so anatomically correct is the process of the wound laid down; yet, even in that case, he appears a petit-maitre of the scalpel, so delicately does he talk about-mark well the epithets! — the "fine locks," the "graceful head," the "fair ear," the "neck," the "'red stream," the "azure veins," the "white veil," and the "ivory bosom;" — a perfect inventory of the lady's charms; without a sigh, a tear, or the wink of an eyelid over the matron slain between her two children, the wife struck dead in the presence of her husband returning victorious from battle to her embrace. This may be poetry, but it is not nature; and such, in every instance, more or less, is the poetry which is formed according to artificial rules.

I have not time to discuss the sequel, — the lady's last words: they are equally out of character. Those who have the opportunity may compare the death-scene (much to the advantage of the living author) with that of Gertrude of Wyoming, which may have been suggested (very remotely and quite unconsciously) by Darwin's Eliza. Sir Walter Scott excels in painting battle-pieces, as overseen by some interested spectator. Eliza at Minden is circumstanced so nearly like Clara at Flodden, that the mighty Minstrel of the North may possibly have caught the idea of the latter from the Lichfield botanist; but, oh! how has he triumphed!