1765
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Observations on the Odes, Descriptive and Allegorical.

The Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins. With Memoirs of the Author; and Observations on his Genius and Writings. By J. Langhorne.

Rev. John Langhorne


John Langhorne gives a brief definition and derivation of allegory, which he regards as "coeval with literature itself": "At the birth of letters, in the transition from hieroglyphical to literal expression, it is not to be wondered if the custom of expressing ideas by personal images, which had so long prevailed, should still retain its influence on the mind, though the use of letters had rendered the practical application of it superfluous. Those who had been accustomed to express strength by the image of an elephant, swiftness by that of a panther, and courage by that of a lion, would make no scruple of substituting, in letters, the symbols for the ideas they had been used to represent" pp. 143-44. Langhorne stresses the instructional utility of allegory, but does not discuss Spenser or the other noted allegorists.

Oliver Elton: "Thomas Warton in his History remarks of his 'lamented friend,' that his Odes will be remembered while any taste for true poetry remains.' Nor was this merely an affectionate phrase: Collins's poems had been published in 1765 by John Langhorne, with an eulogy; and there were several more editions during the century. He was to be duly prized by Hazlitt and Wordsworth; the Golden Treasury of Palgrave and the praises of Swinburne placed him in his niche" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:45.




The genius of Collins was capable of every degree of excellence in lyric poetry, and perfectly qualified for that high province of the muse. Possessed of a native ear for all the varieties of harmony and modulation, susceptible of the finest feelings of tenderness and humanity, but, above all, carried away by that high enthusiasm which gives to imagination its strongest colouring, he was at once capable of soothing the ear with the melody of his numbers, of influencing the passions by the force of his Pathos, and of gratifying the fancy by the luxury of description.

In consequence of these powers, but, more particularly, in consideration of the last, he chose such subjects for his lyric essays as were most favourable for the indulgence of description and allegory; where he could exercise his powers in moral and personal painting; where he could exert his invention in conferring new attributes on images or objects already known, and described by a determinate number of characteristics; where he might give an uncommon eclat to his figures, by placing them in happier attitudes, or in more advantageous lights, and introduce new forms from the moral and intellectual world into the society of impersonated beings.

Such, no doubt, were the privileges which the poet expected, and such were the advantages he derived from the descriptive and allegorical nature of his themes.

It seems to have been the whole industry of our author (and it is, at the same time, almost all the claim to moral excellence his writings can boast) to promote the influence of the social virtues, by painting them in the fairest and happiest lights.

Melior fieri tuendo,

would be no improper motto to his poems in general, but of his lyric poems it seems to be the whole moral tendency and effect. If, therefore, it should appear to some readers, that he has been more industrious to cultivate description than sentiment; it may be observed that his descriptions themselves are sentimental, and answer the whole end of that species of writing, by embellishing every feature of virtue, and by conveying, through the effects of the pencil, the finest moral lessons to the mind.

Horace speaks of the fidelity of the ear in preference to the uncertainty of the eye; but if the mind receives conviction, it is, certainly, of very little importance through what medium, or by which of the senses it is conveyed. The impressions left on the imagination may possibly be thought less durable than the deposits of the memory, but it may very well admit of a question, whether a conclusion of reason, or an impression of imagination, will soonest make it sway to the heart. A moral precept conveyed in words is only an account of truth in its effects; a moral picture is truth exemplified; and which is most likely to gain upon the affections, it may not be difficult to determine.

This, however, must be allowed, that those works approach the nearest to perfection which unite these powers and advantages; which at once influence the imagination, and engage the memory; the former by the force of animated and striking description, the latter by a brief, but harmonious conveyance of precept: thus, while the heart is influenced through the operation of the passions or the fancy, the effect, which might otherwise have been transient, is secured by the cooperating power of the memory, which treasures up in a short aphorism the moral of the scene.

This is a good reason, and this, perhaps, is the only reason that can be given, why our dramatic performances should generally end with a chain of couplets. In these the moral of the whole piece is usually conveyed, and that assistance which the memory borrows from rhyme, as it was probably the original cause of it, gives it usefulness and propriety even there.

After these apologies for the descriptive turn of the following odes, something remains to be said on the origin and use of allegory in poetical composition.

By this we are not to understand the trope in the schools, which is defined "aliud verbis, aliud sensu ostendere"; and of which Quintilian says, "Usus est, ut tristia dicamus melioribus verbis, aut bonae rei gratia quaedam contrariis significemus," &c. It is not the verbal, but the sentimental allegory, not allegorical expression (which, indeed, might come under the term of metaphor) but allegorical imagery, that is here in question.

When we endeavour to trace this species of figurative sentiment to its origin, we find it coeval with literature itself. It is generally agreed, that the most ancient productions are poetical; and it is certain that the most ancient poems abound with allegorical imagery.

If, then, it be allowed that the first literary productions were poetical; we shall have little or no difficulty in discovering the origin of allegory.

At the birth of letters, in the transition from hieroglyphical to literal expression, it is not to be wondered if the custom of expressing ideas by personal images, which had so long prevailed, should still retain its influence on the mind, though the use of letters had rendered the practical application of it superfluous. Those who had been accustomed to express strength by the image of an elephant, swiftness by that of a panther, and courage by that of a lion, would make no scruple of substituting, in letters, the symbols for the ideas they had been used to represent.

Here we plainly see the origin of allegorical expression, that it arose from the ashes of hieroglyphics; and if to the same cause we should refer that figurative boldness of style and imagery which distinguish the oriental writings, we shall, perhaps, conclude more justly, than if we should impute it to the superior grandeur of eastern genius.

From the same source with the verbal, we are to derive the sentimental allegory, which is nothing more than a continuation of the metaphorical or symbolical expression of the several agents in an action, or the different objects in a scene.

The latter most peculiarly comes under the denomination of allegorical imagery; and in this species of allegory we include the impersonation of passions, affections, virtues, and vices, &c. on account of which, principally, the following odes were properly termed, by their author, allegorical.

With respect to the utility of this figurative writing, the same arguments that have been advanced in favour of descriptive poetry will be of weight likewise here. It is, indeed, from impersonation, or, as it is commonly termed, personification, that poetical description borrows its chief powers and graces. Without the aid of this, moral and intellectual painting would be flat and unanimated, and even the scenery of material objects would be dull without the introduction of fictitious life.

These observations will be most effectually illustrated by the sublime and beautiful odes that occasioned them; in those it will appear how happily this allegorical painting may be executed by the genuine powers of poetical genius, and they will not fail to prove its force and utility by passing through the imagination to the heart.


[pp. 137-46]