« PreviousContinue »
Several of my friends are anxious for the success of these Poems from a belief, that if the views with which they were composed were indeed realized, a Class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the multiplicity and in the quality of its moral relations; and on this account, they have advised me to prefix a systematic defence of the theory upon which the Poems were written. But I was unwilling to undertake the task, because I knew that on this occasion, the Reader would look coldly upon my arguments, since I might be suspected of having been principally influenced by the selfish, and foolish hope, of reasoning him into an approtion of these particular Poems; and I was still more unwilling to undertake the task, because, adequately to display my opinions, and fully to enforce my arguments, would require a space wholly disproportionate to the nature of a Preface. For to treat the subject with the clearness and coherence, of which I believe it susceptible, it would be necessary, to give a full account of the present state of the public taste in this country, and to determine how far this taste is healthy or depraved; which again could not be determined, without pointing out in what manner language and the human mind act and re-act on each other, and without retracing the revolutions, not of literature alone, but likewise of society itself. I have therefore altogether declined to enter regularly upon this defence; yet I am sensible, that there would be some impropriety in abruptly obtruding upon the Public, without a few words of introduction, Poems so materially different from those, upon which general approbation is at present bestowed.
It is supposed, that by the act of writing in Verse, an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprizes the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be car fully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth by Metrical language, must in different æras of literature have excited very different expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus Terence and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian, and in our own country in the age of Shakespear, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and
Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which, by the act of writing in Verse, an Author in the present day makes to his Reader; but I am certain it will appear to many persons, that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. I hope therefore the Reader will not censure me, if I attempt to state what I have proposed to myself to perform, and also (as far as the limits of a Preface will permi:) to explain some of the chief reasons which have determined me in the choice of my purpose; that at least he may be spared any unpleasant feeling of disappointment, and that I myself may be protected from the most dishonorable accusation which can be brought against an Author, namely, that of an indolence which prevents him from endeavouring to ascertain what is his duty, or when his duty is afcertained, prevents him from performing it.
The principal object then which I proposed to myself in these Poems was, to make the incidents of common life interesting, by tracing in them, truly, though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our Nature; chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that situation, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because, in that situation, our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because, the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because, in that situation, the passions of 'men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language too of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appears to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society, and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the action of social
vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetites of their own creation.*
I cannot be insensible of the present outcry against the triviality and meanness both of thought and language, which some of my contemporaries have oc asionally introduced into their Metrical compositions; and I acknowledge, that this defect where it exists, is more dishonorable to the Writer's own character, than false refinement or arbitrary innovation, though I should contend at the same time that it is far less pernicious in the sum of its consequences. From such Verses, the Poems in these Volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark of difference, that each of them has a worthy purpose. Not that I mean to say that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but I believe, that my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If in this opinion I am mistaken, Ican have little right to the name of a Poet. For all good Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feelings are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we
*It is avorth while here to observe, that the affecting parts of Chaucer are almost always expressed in language pure and universally intelligible even to this day.
discover what is really important to men, so by the repetition and continuance of this act, feelings connected with important subjects will be nourished, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much organic sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that by obeying blindly, and mechanically the impul ses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments of such a nature, and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, his taste exalted, and his affections ameliorated.
I have said that each of these Poems has a purpose. I have also informed my Reader what this purpose will be found principally to be; namely, to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement. But speaking in less general language, it is to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature. This object I have endeavoured in these short essays to attain by various means; by tracing the Mater-nal passion through many of its more subtle windings, as in the Poems of the IDIOT BOY and the MAD MOTHER; by accompanying the last struggles of a human being at the approach of death, cleaving in solitude to life and society, as in the Poem of the FORSAKEN INDIAN; by shewing asin the Stanzas entitled WE ARE SEVEN, the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attends our notion of death, or rather our utter inability to admit that notion; or by displaying the strength of fraternal, or to speak more philosophically, of moral attachment, when early associated with the great and beautiful objects of Nature, as in the BROTHERS; or, as in the incident of SIMON LEE, by placing my Reader in the way of receiving from ordinary moral sensations, another and more salutary impression than we are accustomed to receive from them. It has also been part of my general purpose to attempt to sketch characters under the influence of less impassioned feelings, as in the OLD MAN TRAVELLING, the Two THIEVES, &c. characters of which the elements are simple, belonging rather to Nature than to manners,
such as exist now, and will probably always exist, and which from their constitution may be distinctly and profitably contemplated. I will not abuse the indulgence of my Reader by dwelling longer upon this subject; but it is proper that I should mention one other circumstance which distinguishes these Poems from the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling. My meaning will be rendered perfectly intelligible by referring my Reader to the Poems entitled POOR SUSAN and the CHILDLESS FATHER, particularly to the last Stanza of the latter Poem.
I will not suffer a sense of false modesty to prevent me from asserting, that I point my Readers attention to this mark of distinction far less for the sake of these particular Poems, than from the general importance of the subject. The subject is indeed important! For the human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity, who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services, in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all time, is especially so at the present day For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and by unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great National Events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves! The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespear and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic Novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant