Early this morning as I wandered in the gardens of Positive House, having just finished perusing the work of a new candidate for poetic fame, I fell into the following course of reflection on the immense numbers that now present to the public their almost daily offerings at the Shrine of Apollo; who encouraged by the increasing demand of a class of readers requiring daily supply, yet too idle to turn to the writings of their forefathers and seek for treasures of immortal excellence if ever so slightly tarnished with the rust of antiquity, rush upon the public with the effusions of every idle hour and however they may attain to present popularity, destroy by their prolixity at once their own fame and that of the age in which they live. How nearly connected with those is perhaps my present situation in Positive House. Formally educating myself as a candidate for honours to which I may never attain. Their pompous introduction is calculated to render my failures but more evident. Yet had I felt no internal call, had it been a subject on which I could have debated and reflected in the same manner as whether I would be a butcher or a baker or a brewer, I would not in this age have chosen to be a poet. Not that the commodity is unmarketable but that the trade is overstocked. Sismondi has observed that Fame being an incessant traveller is willing to arrive at future ages with as light a baggage as possible, and that being unable to choose among above twenty Italian poets of the 16th century, any of whom had they been single, might still have shone in full splendour, she at once discarded them all. So will it be with the present age. Some few great names will certainly float on the stream of time to all posterity, but by far the greater number of those whom reputation now bids look forward to immortality will sink, while many of their predecessors, perhaps far their inferiors, will be preserved. Where the heavens are barren a star of third or fourth magnitude may attract attention, but to the constellations of Orion or Ursa Major it would scarcely be noticed. Such will probably be my fate! Tho conscious that some of the things that I have written are nearly equal to some that have been handed down to us thro’ various ages, yet I confess that were mine the task of Fame they are not among those with which I would burthen myself. Indeed were I to share the fate of those poets whom she merely permits to live, were I never to aspire to emulate the reputation at least of Dryden or Pope, I would rather that she would toss me into the kennel at once than preserve me to such a living death.
Alison in one of his sermons had observed that he who devotes himself to science has the prospect of becoming an everlasting benefactor to mankind. If he make any discovery, any improvement, however small, that may be conducive either to use or pleasure, his name may be forgotten but his discovery never will. Poetry I fear cannot say so much for herself. Yet the possession, the enjoyment of poetry, is perhaps the proudest prerogative of our species. Many animals are susceptible of music and eagerly crowd to listen to it, tho’ they know not by what means it is produced. They may be deceived by the objects in a picture tho’ unconscious of the laws on which its deception depends, but Poesy! Heaven descended Poesy! Man alone can enjoy thee, alone be conscious of thy existence. Perhaps indeed it is only a cultivated and refined man that is really sensible to Poetry. Most untaught nations speak poetically, yet they are ignorant that they do so, unconscious of the colouring they are bestowing on every object. Their language, yet imperfect, is all derived from sensible objects; to express an abstract idea is necessarily yet a work of difficulty, and they naturally speak in metaphor. When their own progress in civilization, and the enlargement of their ideas, have rendered their language more copious, it naturally loses much of its picturesque expression, and satisfied, as we daily see in thousands, with giving free utterance to their thoughts, they seek not, they seem unconscious of the possibility of higher excellence. It is only when man, no longer content with arranging his ideas in the clearest and most lucid order, endeavours to clothe them with all the beauties of diction and the colouring of imagination, that poetry dawns upon his soul in the witchery of her sun-bright radiance and like Aurora opening with golden fingers the gates of light, introduces him to another and a lovelier world.
Learning, command of language, or even a brilliant imagination are, as has been commonly observed, insufficient to form a poem. There is an inspiration superior to them all. It is like the invisible connecting link, the unknown matter that evaporates, and when science has analysed a stone, forbids her to reproduce it. It is like the electric flash; we see it, feel its effects, but we know not what it is, nor how it acts.
I do not write for fame, for any motive I can discover, but because when once this power has seized me, it will not let me rest till I have given utterance to my thoughts, and when its influence is over, how great is the labour of composition to complete what was so delightful in its commencement.
Perhaps even superior to the pleasure of writing is that of reading the fine poem of another. There is no labour, none of the mechanical part to take the attention from that which is purely intellectual. You surrender up your thoughts, feelings, almost your existence into the hands of another. You drink in rapture at the eyes. Without a sound, you are sensible of all the harmony of verse. You behold nothing but the paper yet your mind’s eye is wandering delighted among mountains and valleys of more than earthly beauty. Unconscious of all the objects around, the imagination sees, feels, and hears; it sports in a world of its own.
But the condition on which the poet holds this power is that he shall never let his overdrawn chariot descend to Earth, or the illusion is destroyed. He must keep you in the world not of falsehood but of fiction, or if this unhappy word must still be misconstrued, the world not of real but of poetic truth. The object must be as correctly delineated as possible, but it must take its colour from the situation in which it is placed.
It may be asked why no poet of any age or country enjoys equal reputation with the great poets of antiquity. It is thus. They owe their fame to the decay of their country. Their language like their buildings survives, only to show what has been its former uses. The poets of Europe are dear to their countrymen but Homer and Virgil live in the eyes of the world. Should Mrs Barbauld’s fatal prophecy ever be accomplished, and Britain now in her zenith of power, decline like the great nations of antiquity, Shakespeare and Milton will rise upon her ruins. Like a saint who was persecuted while living, all her relics will be sought and prized. She will no longer be the friend or the enemy of one nation. All the civilised world will look on her remains with reverence. They will seek for the monuments of her genius or power. They will pause over buildings that were despised at their erection, and like Babylon, he who possesses a brick of what once was London will be happy. Britain is as great as ever were Greece or Rome or Carthage, but the inhabitants of Greece and Rome and Carthage exulted in their strength and thought that it would stand forever. Yet no countries are now sunk in more abject slavery and Britain may fall like them.
How universal is the love of immortality, from the poets who write for fame, from Erostratus who burnt the temple of Diana, to Mr Packwood who affixes his name to his razor strap. Yet there are some great minds that seem to despise this passion, who triumphing over all the vanity of man, seem to wish to fix the attention of posterity not on themselves but on their works. The monk who affixed the name of Turpin to his Chronicle of Charlemagne, the gentleman who assumed the name of Junius, I care not for the merit of their writing. It is not my object; but they cannot show a mind more truly noble than in this concealment. It is true they must feel that much of the reputation of their works depended on concealment, yet experience has shown that not one man in a thousand is capable of this self denial. Perhaps to them we may add the poet Hippolyto Pindemouti or our own days, who writes that his only monument may be a nameless stone.