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THE

EDINBURGH MAGAZINE,

AND

LITERARY MISCELLANY.

JULY 1820.

ON THE CAUSES OF THE EXCELLENCE OF EARLY POETRY.

In examining the early literary his tory of almost every nation with which we are acquainted, and in tracing the rise of the various branches of human knowledge, it will be found, that, among these, Poetry claims a priority of origin. At periods when ignorance and barbarity have precluded all progress in other walks of knowledge, this divine art has made advances to perfection which excite our astonishment even in the present advanced condition of society. The causes of this early progress of poetry are easily discoverable. They are to be found, in the first place, in that superior power which is gained by the faculty of imagination amid those dark and disastrous circumstances which seem to overwhelm all the other energies of the mind. 2d, However paradoxical it may at first appear, we may discover another cause in the imperfection and barrenness of language in these carly periods. 3dly, The occasions on which these poetical effusions, amongst rude tribes, are generally composed, and the persons or audience to whom they are addressed, will be found to have a great influence in conferring upon them that truth, nature, and energy, which we in vain look for in more modern productions.

Amongst the faculties of the human mind, the imagination is not only the most excursive, but the most independent. Reading, reasoning, and habits of patient thought, are necessary to the other powers. To it they are not only unnecessary, but in some measure hurtful. It needs no

assistance from the world of letters or of science, since it inhabits a far better world of its own. It is the only faculty which seems to prefer darkness rather than light; or, when it chooses to come forth from that secret cell where it performs its incantations, it will condescend to study from no other book than that great volume which Nature has spread before it. Hence, since this faculty must needs be as vigorous, and have as wide a field to expatiate in, amongst savage tribes as with civilized nations, and since it is itself the very soul of poetry, it follows, that, with them, this of poetry must be the first art which they cultivate, and one, too, which is likely to attain to no common perfection. But another cause is to be found in the imperfection of language.

the progress of every nation, is in a Language, in the early periods of very rude condition, and it is in this of the language that we shall find one imperfection and apparent barrenness cause for the lofty and simple tone assumed by the poetry. The words are few, it is true, but they are invariably expressive. scriptive of the strongest passions and They are dethe deepest feelings of the human' heart; of patriotism and valour, of grief and joy, of triumph and despair, of love and hatred. In the ancient language of a rude people, we find no

speare. It was in such like solitary musings that Burns imbibed the materials of his future fame; and it was from this retired conversation with Nature that all that is good and great in their productions was primarily derived.

Such was the education of our Shake

redundancy of expletives, as in the mo-
dern tongues, no unnecessary expres-
sions, no unmeaning synonymes. These
are not to be found, because those
fantastic modes of life, and artificial
and complicated ideas which arise
in the progress of civilization, and for
which corresponding terms must be
invented, have not then made their
Amongst rude tribes,
appearance.
therefore, even in their common dis-
course, and still more in their war
songs, or their solemn harangues, the
speakers were actually compelled,
both by the limited number of words
they had to select from, and by the
bold meaning attached to them, to
become nervous and metaphorical;
and it is thus that, in the early pe-
riods of society, the high-flown and
figurative style must have become as
much a matter of necessity as the ef-
Chil-
fect of taste or imagination.
dren, from the same cause, their ig-
norance of common language, are of
ten driven to make use of beautiful and
highly poetical expressions. We are
acquainted with a little boy of two
years of age, who, at sunset, asked if
the sun at night went to his cloud-
bed. This, which is a fine idea, arose
from the vocabulary from which he
selected his phrases being so limited in
its extent. A still more poetical expres-
sion was used by a child when it saw
ice for the first time, and said, "it was
The same causes,
water asleep."
whose effects we can thus trace in
the infancy of the individual, operate
equally, or rather more powerfully,
in the infancy of the species. Another
cause of the early cultivation of poe-
try, and the superior tone of Nature
and pathos which it assumes in these
rude periods, is to be found in the
occasions which call it forth, and the
persons to whom it is addressed.
Every one must be sensible, that when
poetry is the natural product of the
occasion,-when a song, for instance,
is composed or sung, for the first time,
in the midst of the scenery it de-
scribes, and accompanied by the cir-
cumstances which form its subject, it
receives from this circumstance a
stamp of vigour and of nature which
will impart to it something of that
same spirit which an original always
possesses over a copy; and again, if
the song or poem is descriptive of in-
dividual passion, if it is, for instance,
a father rejoicing over the victories

and prowess of his son,-or a lover pleading to his mistress,—or a mother singing her child to sleep,-who will not expect (we speak of poetry in its very first state, and before rhyme or measure was introduced) more truth and beauty in the expressions of these persons themselves, of the real mother or the real father, than in the more laboured productions of some bookish poet; the one flowing free, warm,

and unpremeditated from the heart; the other proceeding stiff, cold, and laboured from the library ? The last must partake of that conceit, that peculiar and characteristic manner which the prevailing taste of the age may have introduced; the other is written in the universal language of nature, tied and fettered by no rule, peculiar to no particular age or country, but intelligible to every human heart. As illustrations of what is here stated as to the early excellence of poetry, and the causes of this Much of excellence, we cannot, it is evident, offer many examples.

Every one, in the course of his own reading, will have noticed this excellence in the early poetry of most nations. It is perhaps no where more remarkable than in the ancient Welsh poems (whose authenticity has now become undisputed) of Merhim, Taleissin, and Aneurin, as well as in other Welsh poems written at a later era. The first belong to the sixth and seventh teenth. We refer to the ingenious dissertacenturies, the last to the twelfth and thirtion on these poems by Mr Sharon Turner. "May the Being who made the splendours of the west,

The sun, and chilling moon, glorious ha

bitations,

May he that rules above in universal light,

generously grant me The fulness of the glowing muse of Merdhim,

To sing the praise of heroes as Aneurin

sang

In the day that he composed the Godo

dia."

We cannot help adding here an extract from an ancient Welsh MS. quoted in Mr Owen's Preface to Llywarch Hen. It is the prayer of Talhairn, a bard of the sixth or seventh century.

"O God grant thy protection; and in thy protection strength; and in strength discretion; and in discretion justice; and in justice love; in love, to love God; and in loving God, to love all things."

In this same book of bardism we find a noble passage regarding Genius.

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