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AMERICAN QUARTERLY REVIEW.
Arr. I.— The Loves of the Poets. By the Author of the
"Diary of an Ennuyée.” 2 vols. London: 1829.
It was a fine idea of the Ancients, that the mind resembles the eye, capable of discerning every object around it, yet remaining invisible to itself. With a few shining exceptions, mankind are denied the faculty to turn thought inwards; and the individual not privileged beyond the ordinary lot, who by this means would investigate his own nature, must fail in the attempt. Fortunately, however, this inability may be obviated by the exercise of powers granted in common to all: as in the above simile, the eye is impressed from the exterior world, with the image and structure of organs resembling itself, in like manner we may become acquainted with our own mental texture and capacity, from observing the phenomena of thought in others. The most pleasant mode known to us, of conducting this inquiry, is to select a single master passion, and watch its effects on the various temperaments and dispositions subjected to its influence; to detect it in a thousand disguises, conflicting, perhaps, with impulses the most opposite ; and frequently displaying results as essentially different as happiness and misery. Modern novel writers derive the interest of their romances from this source. We have prefixed to this article, the name of a work by the authoress of the Diary of an Ennuyée, which contains an exhibition of this nature, though on a limited scale, and without the aid of fiction. We must be permitted, however, at the very outset, to find fault with the title. “ The Loves of the Poets” conveys an impression of effeminacy, which is foreign to the graceful dignity pervading her volumes. We proceed, in our author's language, to unfold the design of her “Sketches.” VOL. VII.-No. 13.
“They are absolutely without any other pretension than that of exhibiting in a small compass, and under one point of view, many anecdotes of biography and criticism, and many beautiful poetical portraits, scattered through a variety of works, and all tending to illustrate a subject in itself full of interest ;-the influence which the beauty and virtue of women have exercised over the characters and writings of men of genius."
Poetry has been so long consecrated to the service of love, its incense so uniformly sacred to the God, that we naturally consider the recipients of bright eye'd Fancy, as oracles in all that relates to the passion. Yet Poets themselves, even in the plenitude of inspiration, have never surpassed Rochefoucauld's admirable definition: cold and penetrating, in a few lines he has exposed the very elements of the mystery. “Il est difficile de définir l'amour: ce qu'on en peut dire est que, dans l'ame, c'est une passion de regner; dans les esprits, c'est une sympathie; et dans le corps, ce n'est qu'une envie cachée et délicate de posséder ce que l'on aime, apres beaucoup de mysteres.” Perhaps a superior being, in his distant paradise, might reasonably question the value of that feeling, which derives its character of joy or grief from the will of a fellow-creature : yet were the same being to view more closely the nature of our happiness, which cannot exist without an attendant alloy, he would concede, that although through the impulse of love, we become more dependent, and of course individually weaker, we are recompensed in the mere article of power, by its tendency to knit society together. Without doubt, if we except the exquisite delight which at times will come over the mind on a new perception of abstract truth, but few things in this world can be more pleasant than a passion of this kind, undefiled and unreproved.
Our author devotes but a few pages to the ancient Bards of Greece and Rome; she pleads her womanly exemption from the painful research which a history of their attachments would require, and after adducing two instances of their delinquency as lovers, accuses them in the following strain:
“The passion they celebrated never seems to have inspired one ennobling or generous sentiment, nor to have lifted them for one moment above the grossest selfishness. They had no scruple in exhibiting their mistresses to our eyes, as doubtless they appeared in their own, degraded by every vice, and in every sense contemptible; beings, not only beyond the pale of our sympathy, but of our toleration. Throughout their works, virtue appears a mere jest. Love, stript of his divinity, even by those who first deified bim, is what we disdain to call by that name ; sentiment, as we now understand the word, that is, the union of fervent love with delicacy towards its object, a thing unknown and unheard of, and all is of the earth, carthy."
This is rather a sweeping denunciation, and like most other such, is not sustained by truth. We do not deny that Ovid may have beaten his mistress; and Cynthia, when overcome with liquor, thrown the cups at the head of Propertius; and, to say the least, such conduct was very unceremonious: but a more minute investigation would have apprized our author of "one” or even two “ennobling sentiments” of the classic Poets, which attest the influence of women. We doubt that the whole range of subsequent verse has any thing of the amatory kind to compare with the Invocation to Venus, by Lucretius, in his superb poem De Rerum Natura. But as our author has taken sanctuary in her feminine privilege, and atones for this heterodoxy by many correct views, it would be ungallant to dwell upon it longer. The period of the troubadours, whence she enters fully upon her design, together with the centuries immediately anterior, and those subsequent, form a deeply interesting epoch ; as illustrating the agencies employed by a Supreme Power, when it becomes necessary to regenerate nations. From the 6th to the 12th centuries, a great portion of Europe presents but a succession of discordant
and barbarous scenes. The feudal system, although beneficial to a crude association of mankind, became, after a few generations, replete with mischief. Each petty district, forming a distinct community, had an interest unnatural and separate from the surrounding mass; outrage and ignorance were the well known results. Yet throughout this saturnalia of evil passion, we may observe signal events tending to reclaim mankind, and nourish the germs of public and domestic improvement. It is true, that in some instances these lucid intervals were soon succeeded by frenzy, and their effects apparently merged; yet were they unquestionable and propitious. Who may tell how much more tempestuous the dark ages might have proved, had not the liberal genius and empire of Charlemagne been erected as a great landmark in the midst of the tumult ?
The rise and cultivation of the Provençal poetry, deserves to be considered as an event co-operative with the crusades, in giving a new aspect to human life, and preparing men for the discoveries of succeeding ages. By the crusades, a new channel was opened to those unquiet energies which before had expended themselves in domestic quarrel: le Gai Science modified and softened the energies themselves. Men insensibly lost their bitter feelings, when instead of brooding in their castles over some
feud or personal enmity, they were absorbed in dreams of womanly fascination. Nor was this renovation of moral feeling confined to the stronger sex;—the female character acquired intrinsic dignity with its increase of power; and though we may smile at the excessive reverence at first paid to it, and be disgusted with the absurdities of the courts of Love, we should recollect that the effervescence was natural and healthy; it was as if a new impulse had been given to a turbulent river; the element for a while disdained its limit, but gradually subsided to the just height and level. The succeeding extract from our author, is characteristic of this period.