1753
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Adventurer 57 [On Personifications.]

The Adventurer No. 57 (22 May 1753) 337-42.

Rev. Joseph Warton


Posing as the Greek rhetorician Longinus, Joseph Warton extols the sublimity of the personifications ("prosopopoeia") in Hebrew poetry. While this conceit precludes comments on modern poets, the application of Warton's remarks to the allegorical odes written in the eighteenth century is sufficiently obvious. Compare, for example, the comments about the figure of Wisdom to the allegory in Collins's Ode on the Poetical Character.

Alexander Chalmers: "This elegant and instructive paper was projected by Dr. John Hawkesworth, soon after The Rambler of concluded, and in conjunction with Dr. Johnson, who, having experience in an undertaking of this kind, laid down a regular plan, and allotted distinct departments to certain writers. Of this plan we have some information from a letter written by Dr. Johnson to Mr., afterwards Dr. Joseph Warton. 'We have considered,' says Dr. J., 'that a paper should consist of pieces of imagination, pictures of life, and disquisitions of literature. The part which depends on the imagination is very well supplied, as you will find when you read the paper; for descriptions of life, there is now a treaty almost made with an author and an authoress; and the province of criticism and literature they are very desirous to assign to the commentator on Virgil.' This letter is dated March 8, 1753, and about a month afterwards Mr. Warton accepted the province of criticism and literature, for which he was certainly eminently qualified" British Essayists (1802-03; 1856) 19:9-10.

John Wooll: "Dr. Warton furnished twenty-four papers; amongst which are two most noble essays on the superior grandeur and sublimity of the sacred over the profane writers; a truly humorous paper on the poverty of poets; two inimitable criticisms on the Tempest, and three on the Lear of Shakespear; two panegyrics on the Odyssey; some very shrewd and accurate observations on Milton's Paradise Lost; two very excellent treatises indicative of those branches of literature in which the ancients excelled, or were surpassed by the moderns; and an oriental tale entitled Bozaldab, not exceeded in purity of sentiment or strength of expression by the Rambler, or any periodical work" Biographical Memoirs of Joseph Warton (1806) 28-29.

William Goodhugh: "Where can be found compositions uniting the politeness of the gentleman with the attainments of the scholar, blended in juster proportions, than in the Polymetis of Spence, the Athenian Letters, the Dialogues of Lord Lyttelton and Bishop Hurd, and the papers of the Adventurer and Observer? These are some of the sources from which may be derived a knowledge of the purity, the strength, the copiousness of the English language; and such are the examples by which the student ought to regulate his style" The English Gentleman's Library Manual (1827) 155-56.

P. W. Clayden: "It is difficult nowadays to understand the esteem in which The Adventurer was held. Horne Tooke told Rogers that he could never forget the pleasure he felt in retiring to read it at the age of seventeen; and Dr. Burney tells us that in his day it was in everyone's library. The scale of remuneration for it belongs to the day of small things for periodical literature" The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887) 307.

George Birkbeck Hill: "Hawkesworth, in the last number of The Adventurer says that he had help at first from A.; 'but this resource soon failing, I was obliged to carry on the publication alone, except some casual supplies, till I obtained from the gentlemen who have distinguished their papers by T. and Z., such assistance as I most wished.' In a note he says that the papers signed Z. are by the Rev. Mr. Warton. The papers signed A are written in a lighter style. In Southey's Cowper it is said that Bonnell Thornton wrote them" Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 1:292n.




SIR,

LONGINUS proceeds to address his friend Terentianus in the following manner.

It is the peculiar privilege of poetry, not only to place material objects in the most amiable attitudes, and to clothe them in the most graceful dress, but also to give life and motion to immaterial beings; and form, and colour, and action, even to abstract ideas; to embody the VIRTUES, the VICES, and the PASSIONS; and to bring before our eyes, as on a stage, every faculty of the human mind.

PROSOPOPOEIA, therefore, or personification, conducted with dignity and propriety, way be justly esteemed one of the greatest efforts of the creative power of a warm and lively imagination. Of this figure many illustrious examples may be produced from the Jewish writers I have been so earnestly recommending to your perusal; among whom, every part and object of nature is animated, and endowed with sense, with passion, and with language.

To say that the lightning obeyed the commands of GOD, would of itself be sufficiently sublime; but a Hebrew bard expresses this idea with far greater energy and life: "Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are!" And again, "God sendeth forth light, and it goeth; he calleth it again, and it obeyeth him with fear." How animated, how emphatical, is this unexpected answer: "Here we are!"

PLATO, with a divine boldness, introduces in his CRITO, the LAWS of Athens pleading with SOCRATES, and dissuading him from an attempt to escape from the prison in which he was confined; and the Roman rival of DEMOSTHENES has made his country tenderly expostulate with CATILINE, on the dreadful miseries which his rebellion would devolve on her head. But will a candid critic prefer either of these admired personifications, to those passages in the Jewish poets, where Babylon, or Jerusalem, or Tyre, are represented as sitting in the dust, covered with sackcloth, stretchiing out their hands in vain, and loudly lamenting their desolation? Nay, farther, will he reckon them even equal to the following fictions? Wisdom is introduced, saying of herself: "When GOD prepared the heavens, I was there; when he set a circle upon the face of the deep, when he gave to the sea his decree that the waters should not pass his commandments, when he appointed the foundations of the earth, then was I by him, as one brought up with him; and I was daily his delight, playing always before him." Where, TERENTIANUS, shall we find our MINERVA, speaking with such dignity and elevation? The goddess of the Hebrew bard, is not only the patroness and inventress of arts and learning, the parent of felicity and fame, the guardian and conductress of human life; but she is painted as immortal and eternal, the constant companion of the great CREATOR himself, and the partaker of his counsels and designs. Still bolder is the other Prosopopoeia: "DESTRUCTION and DEATH say (of WISDOM,) we have heard the fame thereof with our ears." If pretenders to taste and judgment censure such a fiction as extravagant and wild, I despise their frigidity and gross insensibility.

When JEHOVAH is represented as descending to punish the earth in his just anger, it is added, " Before him went the PESTILENCE." When the BabyIonian tyrant is destroyed, "the fir-trees rejoice at his fall, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us." And at the captivity of Jerusalem, the very ramparts and the walls lament, they languish together. Read likewise the following address, and tell me what emotion you feel at the time of perusal: "O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? Put up thyself into thy scabbard, rest and be silent." Art thou not amazed and delighted, my friend, to behold joy and anguish, and revenge ascribed to the trees of the forest, to walls, and warlike instruments?

Before I conclude these observations, I cannot forbear taking notice of two remarkable passages in the Hebrew writers, because they bear a close resemblance with two in our own tragedians.

SOPHOCLES, by a noble Prosopopoeia, thus aggravates the misery of the Thebans, visited by a dreadful plague — "Hell is enriched with groans and lamentations." This image is heightened by a Jewish author, who describes Hell as "an enormous monster, who hath extended and enlarged himself, and opened his insatiable mouth without measure."

CASSANDRA, in ESCHYLUS, struck with the treachery and barbarity of Clytemnestra, who is murdering her husband Agamemnon, suddenly exclaims in a prophetic fury: "Ssall I call her the direful mother of Hell!" To represent the most terrible species of destruction, the Jewish poet says, "The first born of death shall devour his strength."

Besides the attribution of person and action to objects immaterial or inanimate, there is still another species of the Prosopopoeia, no less lively and beautiful than the former, when a real person is introduced speaking with propriety and decorum. The speeches which the Jewish poets have put into the mouth of their JEHOVAH, are worthy the greatness and incomprehensible majesty of the ALL-PERFECT BEING. Hear him asking one of his creatures, with a lofty kind of irony, "Where wast thou, when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereon are the foundations thereof fastened, or who laid the cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of GOD shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth as if it had issued out of the womb? When I brake it up for my decreed place, and set bars, and doors, and said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further, and here shall the pride of thy waves be stayed." How can we reply to these sublime inquiries, but in the words that follow? " Behold, I am vile, what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth."

I have, in a former treatise, observed to you that HOMER has degraded his Gods into men; these writers alone have not violated the DIVINE MAJESTY by inadequate and indecent representations, but have made the great CREATOR act and speak in a manner suitable to the supreme dignity of his nature, as far as the grossness of mortal conceptions will permit. From the sublimity and spirituality of their notions, so different in degree and kind from those of the most exalted philosophers, one may, perhaps, be inclined to think their claim to a divine inspiration reasonable and just, since GOD alone can describe himself to man.

I had written thus far, when I received dispatches from the Empress ZENOBIA, with orders to attend her instantly at PALMYRA; but am resolved, before I set out, to add to this letter a few remarks on the beautiful comparisons of the Hebrew poets.

The use of similes in general consists in the illustration or amplification of any subject, or in presenting pleasing pictures to the mind by the suggestion of new images. HOMER and the HEBREW bards disdain minute resemblances, and seek not an exact correspondence with every feature of the object they introduce. Provided a general likeness appear, they think it sufficient. Not solicitous for exactness, which in every work is the sure criterion of a cold and creeping genius, they introduce many circumstances that perhaps have no direct affinity to the subject, but taken all together contribute to the variety and beauty of the piece.

The pleasures of friendship and benevolence are compared to the perfumes that flow from the ointments usually poured on the priest's head, which run down to his beard and even to the skirts of his clothing. The sun rising and breaking in upon the shades of night, is compared to a bridegroom issuing out of his chamber; in allusion to the Jewish custom of ushering the bridegroom from his chamber at midnight with great solemnity and splendor, preceded by the light of innumerable lamps and torches. How amiably is the tenderness and solicitude of GOD for his favourites expressed! "As the eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings, so the Lord alone did lead them!" On the other hand, how dreadfully is his indignation described! "I will be unto them as a lion, as a leopard by the way will I observe them. I will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps, and I will rend the caul of their heart." A little afterwards the scene suddenly changes, and divine favour is painted by the following similitudes: "I will be as the dew unto Judea; he shall grow as the lily; his branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive-tree, and his smell like Mount Libanus." MENANDER himself, that just characterizer of human life, has not given us a more apt and lively comparison than the following: "As the climbing a sandy way is to the feet of the aged, so is a wife full of words to a quiet man." Nor has one of our Grecian poets spoken so feelingly, so eloquently, or so elegantly of beauty, as the Emperor SOLOMON of his mistress or bride, in images perfectly original and new: "Thy hair," says he, "is as a flock of goats that appear upon Mount Gilead; thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, that come up from the washing:" by which similitude their exact equality, evenness, and whiteness, are justly represented. "Thy neck is like the tower of David, builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men:" that is, straight and tall, adorned with golden chains and the richest jewels of the East. "Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies:" the exquisite elegance and propriety of which similitude need not be pointed out, and cannot be excelled.

I have purposely reserved one comparison for a conclusion, not only for the sake of its beauty and justness, but because it describes a friendship so different from the constancy which I hope will ever be the character of yours and mine. "My brethren," says the writer, "have dealt deceitfully with me. They are like torrents which when swoln and increased, with winter showers and the meltings of ice, promise great and unfailing plenty of waters; but in the times of violent heats, suddenly are parched up and disappear. The traveller in the deserts of Arabia seeks for them in vain; the troops of Sheba looked, the caravans of Tema waited for them; they came to the accustomed springs for relief; they were confounded, they perished with thirst."

In giving you these short specimens of Jewish poesy, I think I may compare myself to those spies which the above-mentioned Moses dispatched, to discover the country he intended to conquer; and who brought from thence, as evidences of its fruitfulness, the most delicious figs and pomegranates, and a branch with one cluster of grapes, "so large and weighty," says the historian, "that they bare it between two upon a staff." Farewell.


[pp. 337-42]