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DISADVANTAGES OF HIS SUBJECTS.
duced into modern poetry; ---and such the grounds upon which we venture to predict the durability of the reputation which he is in the course of acquiring. That they have their disadvantages also, is obvious; and it is no less obvious, that it is to these we must ascribe the greater part of the faults and deformities with which this author is fairly chargeable. The two great errors into which he has fallen, are — that he has described many things not worth describing ; - and that he has frequently excited disgust, instead of pity or indignation, in the breasts of his readers. These faults are obvious—and, we believe, are popularly laid to his charge: Yet there is, in so far as we have observed, a degree of misconception as to the true grounds and limits of the charge, which we think it worth while to take this opportunity of correcting.
The poet of humble life must describe a great deal — and must even describe, minutely, many things which possess in themselves no beauty or grandeur. The reader's fancy must be awaked — and the power of his own pencil displayed :— a distinct locality and imaginary reality must be given to his characters and agents: and the ground colour of their common condition must be laid in, before his peculiar and selected groups can be presented with any effect or advantage. In the same way, he must study characters with a minute and anatomical precision ; and must make both himself and his readers familiar with the ordinary traits and general family features of the beings among whom they are to move, before they can either understand, or take much interest in the individuals who are to engross their attion. Thus far, there is no excess or unnecessary minuteness. But this faculty of observation, and this power of description, hold out great temptations to go further. There is a pride and a delight in the exercise of all peculiar power; and the poet, who has learned to describe external objects exquisitely, with a view to heighten the effect of his moral designs, and to draw characters with accuracy, to help forward the interest or the pathos of the picture, will be in great danger of describing scenes, and drawing characters, for no other
RISK OF EXCITING DISGUST.
purpose, but to indulge his taste, and to display his talents, It cannot be denied, we think, that Mr. Crabbe has, on many occasions, yielded to this temptation. He is led away, every now and then, by his lively conception of external objects, and by his nice and sagacious observation of human character, and wantons and luxu.
; riates in descriptions and moral portrait painting, while his readers are left to wonder to what end so much industry has been exerted.
His chief fault, however, is his frequent lapse into disgusting representations; and this, we will confess, is an error for which we find it far more difficult either to account or to apologise. We are not, however, of the opinion which we have often heard stated, that he has represented human nature under too unfavourable an aspect; or that the distaste which his poetry sometimes produces, is owing merely to the painful nature of the scenes and subjects with which it abounds. On the contrary, we think he has given a juster, as well as a more striking picture, of the true character and situation of the lower orders of this country, than any other writer, whether in verse or in prose; and that he has made no more use of painful emotions than was necessary to the production of a pathetic effect.
All powerful and pathetic poetry, it is obvious, abounds in images of distress. The delight which it bestows partakes strongly of pain ; and, by a sort of contradiction, which has long engaged the attention of the reflecting, the compositions that attract us most powerfully, and detain us the longest, are those that produce in us most of the effects of actual suffering and wretchedness. 1 The solution of this paradox is to be found, we think, in the simple fact, that pain is a far stronger sensation than pleasure, in human existence; and that the cardinal virtue of all things that are intended to delight the mind, is to produce a strong sensation. Life itself appears to consist in sensation; and the universal passion of all beings that have life, seems to be, that they should be made intensely conscious of it, by a succession of powerful and engrossing emotions. All the mere gratifications or natural pleasures that are in the power even
UNIVERSAL THIRST FOR STRONG SENSATIONS:
of the most fortunate, are quite insufficient to fill this vast craving for sensation : And accordingly we see every day, that a more violent stimulus is sought for by those who have attained the vulgar heights of life, in the pains and dangers of war the agonies of gaming or the feverish toils of ambition. To those who have tasted of those potent cups, where the bitter, however, so obviously predominates, the security, the comforts, and what are called the enjoyments of common life, are intolerably insipid and disgusting. Nay, we think we have observed, that even those who, without any effort or exertion, have experienced unusual misery, frequently appear, in like manner, to acquire a sort of taste or craving for it; and come to look on the tranquillity of ordinary life with a kind of indifference not unmingled with contempt. It is certain, at least, that they dwell with most apparent satisfaction on the memory of those days, which have been marked by the deepest and most agonising sorrows; and derive a certain delight from the recollections of those overwhelming sensations which once occasioned so fierce a throb in the languishing pulse of their existence.
If any thing of this kind, however, can be traced in real life — if the passion for emotion be so strong as to carry us, not in imagination, but in reality, over the rough edge of present pain — it will not be difficult to
explain, why it should be so attractive in the copies and fictions of poetry. There, as in real life, the great demand is for emotion ; while the pain with which it may be attended, can scarcely, by any possibility, exceed the limits of endurance. The recollection, that it is but a copy and a fiction, is quite sufficient to keep it down to a moderate temperature, and to make it welcome as the sign or the harbinger of that agitation of which the soul is avaricious. It is not, then, from any peculiar quality in painful emotions that they become capable of affording the delight which attends them in tragic or pathetic poetry — but merely from the circumstance of their being more intense and powerful than any other emotions of which the mind is susceptible. If it was the constitution of our nature to feel joy as keenly, or to
PAIN PREFERRED AS THE STRONGEST.
sympathise with it as heartily as we do with sorrow, we have no doubt that no other sensation would ever be intentionally excited by the artists that minister to delight. But the fact is, that the pleasures of which we are capable are slight and feeble compared with the pains that we may endure; and that, feeble as they are, the sympathy which they excite falls much more short of the original emotion. When the object, therefore, is to obtain sensation, there can be no doubt to which of the two fountains we should repair; and if there be but few pains in real life which are not, in some measure, endeared to us by the emotions with which they are attended, we may be pretty sure, that the more distress we introduce into poetry, the more we shall rivet the attention and attract the admiration of the reader.
There is but one exception to this rule — and it brings us back from the apology of Mr. Crabbe, to his condemnation. Every form of distress, whether it proceed from passion or from fortune, and whether it fall upon vice or virtue, adds to the interest and the charm of poetry
except only that which is connected with ideas of Disgust — the least taint of which disenchants the whole scene, and puts an end both to delight and sympathy. But what is it, it may be asked, that is the proper object of disgust ? and what is the precise description of things which we think Mr. Crabbe so inexcusable for admitting? It is not easy to define a term at once so simple and so significant; but it may not be without its use, to indicate, in a general way, our conception of its true force and comprehension.
It is needless, we suppose, to explain what are the objects of disgust in physical or external existences. These are sufficiently plain and unequivocal ; and it is universally admitted, that all mention of them must be carefully excluded from every poetical description. With regard, again, to human character, action, and feeling, we should be inclined to term every thing disgusting, which represented misery, without making any appeal to our love, respect, or admiration. If the suffering person be amiable, the delightful feeling of love and affection
WHAT OBJECTS MERELY DISGUSTING.
tempers the pain which the contemplation of suffering has a tendency to excite, and enhances it into the stronger, and therefore more attractive, sensation of pity. If there be great power or energy, however, united to guilt or wretchedness, the mixture of admiration exalts the emotion into something that is sublime and pleasing: and even in cases of mean and atrocious, but efficient guilt, our sympathy with the victims upon whom it is practised, and our active indignation and desire of vengeance, reconcile us to the humiliating display, and make a compound that, upon the whole, is productive of pleasure.
The only sufferers, then, upon whom we cannot bear to look, are those that excite pain by their wretchedness, while they are too depraved to be the objects of affection, and too weak and insignificant to be the causes of misery to others, or, consequently, of indignation to the spectators. Such are the depraved, abject, diseased, and neglected poor — creatures in whom every thing amiable
or respectable has been extinguished by sordid passions or brutal debauchery; - who have no means of doing the mischief of which they are capable — whom every one despises, and no one can either love or fear. On the characters, the miseries, and the vices of such beings, we look with disgust merely: and, though it may perhaps serve some moral purpose, occasionally to set before us this humiliating spectacle of human nature sunk to utter worthlessness and insignificance, it is altogether in vain to think of exciting either pity or horror, by the truest and most forcible representations of their sufferings or their enormities. They have no hold upon any of the feelings that lead us to take an interest in our fellow-creatures ; — we turn away from them, therefore,
with loathing and dispassionate aversion ; — we feel our imaginations polluted by the intrusion of any images connected with them; and are offended and disgusted when we are forced to look closely upon those festering heaps of moral filth and corruption.
It is with concern we add, that we know no writer who has sinned so deeply in this respect as Mr. Crabbe