Leonard Withington.

The Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume 2) online

. (page 2 of 15)
Online LibraryLeonard WithingtonThe Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume 2) → online text (page 2 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


creation, and surrenders himself to the guidance of
the genius, under whose manuduction he was first led.
It has often been inquired, why poetry and orations
have lost so much of their interest ; and why the best
exertions of modern skill, never rise to that powerful
despotism over the will, which, in ancient times, no
man resisted or wished to resist. Surely the moderns
have some advantages. Arts have been improved ;
knowledge has been increased ; the passions have
been analyzed ; the fountains of the mind have been
explored. Why should not equal genius with more
materials, produce better success ? The reason,
however, is obvious. The power of a poet over his
admirers, or of an orator over his audience, is to be
estimated by a ratio between his genius arid their
sensibility. The percussion, and the object struck,
must both be considered. In older times, the lack of
knowledge, and the consequent want of refinement,
was eminently favorable to increase the sensibility of
the audience ; every impression was fresh and new ;
every passion was incited by novelty, and prolonged,
because the feelings of nature were unworn ; every
invention produced wonder ; the rapture of the au
dience increased the inspiration of the speaker ; there
was a reciprocal influence ; genius was warmed by
its own effects ; and the same powerful impulse
which first forced the mind into the paradise which
thought had made, gave sweetness to its flowers, and
magnitude and beauty to its shades. Ingenuity, and



THE PURITAN. 27

invention, melody, and voice, and action, may still
exist ; but the sensibility which increased them is lost
forever.

These remarks might be suggested by speculation,
but they are abundantly supported by the history of
our race. Let us suppose the wandering story-teller
and singer, whom, for the want of a more personal
name, we call Homer, to be surrounded by a ring of
barbarians, who, having no war on their hands, and
their bellies full, require him to amuse them for an
idle hour. He knows his audience ; with all his
superiority, he but just emerges above them ; and
indeed his very superiority consists in knowing how
to act on such materials. He knows well that he
must stir their passions, and draw their tears, or they
will hear him with stupid indifference ; indeed, the
choice in such an audience, is between rapture and
sleep. He begins with a prelude on the lyre ;

Hrot o (oouiLUjv avtuMtTO xaibv afiSnv.



And thus fills their ears with unideal sounds. The
wisdom of God seems to have made music as a kind
of passage between sensuality and thinking. He
then plunges into narrative ; sings of wars ; addresses
the strongest propensities of the age ; brings out (or
rather, it breaks upon him) his moral instructions,
as an accompaniment of the story ; and thus forces
his hearers to feel and think in the only way in which



28 THE PURITAN.

feeling and thinking in such an age can be excited.
There is no great art in all this ; or, at least, it is an
art forced upon him by the nature of his office, and
the circumstances in which he is thrown. He teaches,
to be sure, war, politics, navigation, the theology of
heaven, and the sciences of earth ; not because he
designed to combine these various things, but because
they naturally mingled in the only intellectual stream
that was then running. His language is simple, be
cause no other language could be understood ; his
figures are bold and striking, because he must strike
the minds he addresses ; his poetry is forcible, because
no other would excite interest ; and it has all the
freshness of nature, because the book of nature is
the only volume he has ever read. Thus the poet
becomes excellent ; and thus the earliest rhapsodies
of all nations, reflect not so much the genius of the
individual, as a picture of the age.

The Jews were a peculiar people ; and their poetry
is as peculiar. It was made the vehicle of teaching
them the most awful truths ; because, when God
speaks to men, he uses the language of men. Truth
itself may bear a majesty suitable to the mind from
which it originated ; but its garb must be as humble
as the minds to which it is addressed.

In speaking, however, of the poetry of the Hebrews,
we shall say nothing of that Supreme Mind, from
which it is believed to have originated ; we shall not
assume, as the ground of our remarks, the inspiration



THE PURITAN. 29

of the Scriptures. We believe, with Lowth and
others, that, however infallible the oracles which the
Hebrew prophet delivered, and in whatever way we
explain the divine superintendence, which guided
their thoughts, each author was left to the play of his
own genius, and reflects the manners of his own na
tion and age. We leave to the divines, the sublime
themes of theology ; we shall consider Hebrew poetry
as an effort of Hebrew genius ; and we shall endeavor
to compare its relative merits with the poetry of the
west.

The waters of the Hellespont, except a few Greeks
on the shores of Asia Minor, have always divided a
people very different in their tastes and manners.
We allude not now to the enterprise, the liberty, the
hardihood of the Greeks, and the tyranny and effem
inacy of the Asiatic nations. These are the effects
of the relative states of empires ; and the first Cyrus,
who founded the Persian dynasty, was as great a
warrior as Alexander, who conquered the last of his
degenerate successors ; he, perhaps, commanded an
army of equal heroes. The permanent difference is,
in their literary tastes. On the eastern side of the
Hellespont, we find hereditary dogmas never disputed;
a fixed philosophy ; great authority, and great credu
lity ; morality taught in apologues, sentences, and
aphorisms ; and in poetry, the wildest flights of en
thusiasm, rapid transitions, bold personifications ; the
very language destitute of those particles, (the last



30 THE PURITAN.

invention of acuteness,) which mark the slender
shades and turnings of a finer mind. On the western
side, we find all these things reversed. Whatever
may have been the cause, whether it was, as Diodorus
says, because their philosophers taught for reward,
i5 xard r^v egyokaftiuv xegdug aroxoi Co/Uf voi, or, such
was the bent of nature, they questioned every thing ;
supported their discourses by proofs, and not by au
thority ; gave us their systems in connected discourses,
and even in poetry taught us to reason, while they
compelled us to feel. The European nations have
inherited the taste of the Greeks; their language is
formed on the basis of the Greek tongue ; and had it
not been that the Bible, by being translated, has
preserved among us some elements of orientalism,
we should this day scarcely be capable of holding
intercourse with more than half our race. The most
literal translations would only throw darkness over
the most beautiful page.

The Hebrew nation have for ages been remarkable
for any thing rather than delicacy or refinement.
We cannot conceive of a race of bipeds, more coarse,
more callous, more boobyish, more trifling, than the
whole race of Jewish literati, into whose hands the
Scriptures have fallen. The Bible, with its native
commentators around it, is like one of its own island*
in the Babylonian desert ; you pass over the blazing
sand beneath the burning sun, before you reach the
grateful shades, and the bubbling spring. But be-



THE PURITAN. 31

cause this peculiar nation have shrivelled in captivity,
we must not suppose that they were destitute of genius
when they flourished in their glory. We might as
well take a degenerate Roman as he was described
by the Goths, as a semblance of Cicero, as to judge
of an ancient Jew, by one of the Masorites. The
minds of most men sink to the level of the estimation
in which they are held. The despised man becomes
despicable; the slave assumes a servile mind. Judea
was once the seat of empire and glory. She had her
city, her king, and her temple. She had all that ex
pansive power which the mind feels when left to an
open career. Her sons mounted up on wings like
eagles ; they ran and were not weary, they walked
and were not faint. Then the architect labored, the
warrior triumphed, and the poet sung. If she rivalled
not some other nations in refinement, one excellence
no one can deny her bards ; and that is they are
always idiomatic ; they have qualities and beauties
pre-eminently their own.

No man can have read the prophets with attention,
without observing that one of their chief charms is
they are exquisitely oriental. They write with a
mode of thought, and a mode of connecting their
thoughts, and with allusions, wholly impossible but to
one placed on the spot. If a reader approaches the
Hebrew poets with a standard formed in modern
times, he will be greatly disappointed. Much has
been said of the beauties of the Bible ; nor are we



32 THE PURITAN.

aware that its beauties have been overrated. But
loosely declaiming on the beauties of the Bible, some
fond critics have laid a snare for the reader s dissent.
The Bible is beautiful like most other primitive books,
in its own peculiar style of beauty. It has those very
beauties which a nascent age produces, and of which
its sacred subjects are susceptible. It cannot com
bine those artful images which are the invention of
later ages ; it cannot sympathize with the voluptuary
at his bowls, or the warrior on the field of battle ; it
cannot introduce the lover, pouring out vows to his
mistress ; nor surround the trifles of life with the my
thology of gods or fairies. It cannot address our imag
ination on the inflammable side of passion, or lead
us through descriptions which pamper the heart. All
these ends, the awful severity of its subjects refuses.
But its beauties are the fruits of its theme. They
are flowers of its own soil. - They are implements to
impress its own lessons. They are pictures of the
age, and the men, and the subject. Passing from
such a writer as Thomas More, for example, to the
Bible, there is an amazing contrast; and the reader
who has melted at the tawdry sentimentalism of the
Irish bard, (not without his beauties, we confess,)
would at first be shocked at the stern simplicity of
Ezekial or Isaiah. But has the Bible therefore no
beauties ? Must every subjeet be ornamented alike ?
Must a colossal statue have the coloring of a min
iature picture ? It was no more to be expected that



THE PURITAN.



33



the Bible should have these modern manners, than
that the Jordan or the Euphrates, should reflect the
trees or the shrubbery on the banks of the Ohio or
the Tweed.



THE PURITAN

No. 34.



But those frequent songs throughout the law and propheta beyond all
these, not in their divine argument alone, but in the very critical art of
composition, may be easily made to appear, over all the kinds of lyric
poesy, to be incomparable.

Milton against Prelaty, Book //., Introduction.



ONE of the pleasures of poetry, is the skill and
facility with which the author overcomes certain dif
ficulties, which the rules of the art impose upon him.
It is not copying nature, or painting the passions
solely, which gives us delight; but it is the adroitness
with which these things are done, though the work
was hampered by certain laws. In certain kinds of
verse, this is the chief pleasure. It is peculiarly so
in the Spenserian stanza, and in the sonnet ; and in
those artful involutions and balanced periods, which
some writers use. For example, in these lines in



THE PURITAN. 35

Pope s Windsor Forest, which he has copied from
Ond;_ ^-

Not half so swift the trembling doves can fly,

When the fierce eagle cleaves the liquid sky ;

Not half so swiftly the fierce eagle moves,

When through the clouds he drives the trembling doves.

In this case, we admire not only the smooth ver
sification, and the beautiful image, but the art with
which the poet has involved his eagles and doves in
the melodious illustration. The above is not, perhaps,
the highest beauty ; it lacks simplicity, and is per
fectly Ovidian. Nevertheless, in the simplest poetry
of Cowper and Milton, there is a secret reference to
the difficulties overcome ; and we never should ad
mire nature or passion in poetry, (for these may exist
in prose,) were there not a secret reference to the
skill of the poet. In easy poetry, we admire that the
bard can be so easy under so many restraints.

At first view, it might be supposed that there was
very little of this beauty among the Hebrew bards.
Nothing can be more simple than the structure of
their , sentences ; they have neither measure nor
rhyme. They have only to pour out their rhapsodies;
to communicate their feelings, and be admired.
They have only to indulge in the rantings of Mc-
Pherson, who has passed for Ossian ;

per audaces nova dithyrambos
Verba devolvit, numerisque fertur
Lege solutis.



36 THE PURITAN.

They may have the praise of simplicity, but cannot
aspire to the victories of art ; and yet, I hope to show
that a conquest over difficulties is one of the chief
beauties of their admirable odes.

The Hebrew is one of the most material languages
ever spoken. There is hardly an abstract term in its
whole vocabulary. In its entire formation, it seems
to be made by a people who are as far from spiritual
ideas, as we can possibly conceive. It has no tenses,
(those which have been called past and future, are
certainly aorists ;) no scientific or scholastic terms ;
no particles to express the nicest transitions of
thought ; very few adjectives, very few intellectual
expressions of any kind. Almost all its words which
express mental operations are material in their origin.
Let us mention a few instances without the formality
of quoting the original. The word to judge, comes
from the causative of to cut. I seem to see a tribe
of primitive hunters, who, having run down and taken
a deer, appoint one of the wisest of their number, to
cause it to be cut up in equal portions; and thus
comes the idea of judging. The word to mourn,
comes from the withering of a plant. The first man
who hung down his head in sorrow, was likened to
a plant blasted by the sun, and failing for want of
water. These instances might be multiplied ; but
they are sufficient to show that the language was
formed in very early times ; it bears all the marks of
the poverty and simplicity of a primitive age. It is



THE PURITAN. 37

well worthy of being studied as a beautiful specimen
of the infant efforts of men at expression and thought.
It completely transfers you to the ancient world, and
associates you with the intellectual habits of these
primitive beings. Its lexicon is a magazine of ma
terial forms, and you might look in vain for such
terms as decorum, grace, legislation, magnanimity, or
any other word that expresses the nicest shades of
thought. Le Clerc, in relating the dogmas of the
Pharisees, shows that they could not believe in the
fate of the Stoics, because there was no word in their
language, even in that late age, which could express
that notion.

Such was their speech a tongue which seemed to
be formed by beings immersed in the material world.
Yet when we pass to their themes, we find them the
most vast and intellectual that can possibly meet the
human mind. When they engage in their subjects,
they seem to leave sublunary nature behind them ;
and soar into the darkest regions of the closest
thought. They describe not battles and cities ; but
the conflicts of mind ; the agonies of conscience ;
the mysterious intercourse of man with his Maker.
They paint the sorrows of repentance ; the hopes of
faith, and the windings and snares through which the
errant soul returns to God. They are every where
like painters with the pencil put into their hands, and
compelled to draw only allegorical forms. They



38 THE PURITAN.

must not go to the landscape, and copy its lilies and
lakes. They are not to dwell on the

Sweet interchange

Of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains,
Now land, now sea, and shores with forest crowned,
Rocks, dens, and caves.

They are to transcribe only the moral landscape
they speak to the inner man. They sometimes pass
the flaming bounds of space and ti?nc, and deal with
the mysterious essence of the Deity ; and all this with
a language which seems at first view, entirely inad
equate to the object. It is impossible to conceive of
a greater contrast, than the materialism of the He-
br^v language, and the unembodied and exalted
nature of their favorite themes.

This, then, was their difficulty ; and they have
conquered it nobly. This contrast, was a far greater
obstacle to a Hebrew bard, than the hexameter verse
was to the heroic poets among the Greeks. The
critics have been in raptures at the invention of
Homer ; and all must allow that he has rolled through
every melodious note in his own beautiful language ;
and laid a contribution on all the stores of nature, to
enrich and adorn his theme. But every one must
see that he had previous facilities prepared at hand.
He collected his flowers in a garden ; while the He
brew poets collected them from a wilderness. What
a rich language did he inherit ! What charming



THE PURITAN. 39

expressions ! Every word a picture ! He was in
debted to those prior geniuses, who had invented
these expressions ; and thus prepared the field in
which his mind was to play in its own unbounded
luxuriance. We must take something from the glory
of Homer, and divide it with those perished names,
which, like unseen roots, nourished the tree on which
this Bird of the Muses, sat and sung. He could hang
his apples of gold in a net-work of silvtr ; while the
Hebrew bards were obliged to provide not only the
song, but the lyre and its strings. By the learned
reader who appreciates their language, the strains
must be read with perfect astonishment.

Let us take an example. I have already remarked
that their language had very few abstract terms ; ^ot
even those which seem absolutely necessary to de
scribe the character of the Deity. What would a
modern theologian do, if he were compelled to dis
course on God, without using the \\ords omnipotence,
omniscience, and omnipresence ? These seem to be
absolutely necessary to communicate our simplest
conceptions of the great Jehovah. Yet not one of
these words can be translated into Hebrew. There
is not a term in that restricted language, which
answers to these essential ideas. The truth is, an
infant people never abstract ; and when they first
approach these mighty conceptions, they approach
them by circumlocution. Let us see how completely






40 THE PURITAN.

the royal poet manages to communicate the omni
presence of God.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit ?
Whither shall I flee from thy face ?
If I ascend into heaven,

There THOU
If I make my bed in the nether world,

Behold THOU.

I take the wings of the east,
Or I dwell in the remotest west,
There thy hand shall lead me ;
Thy right hand shall hold me up.

Ps. cxxxix. 710.

Thus in the most beautiful and graphic poetry, the
omnipresence of God is brought out to the dullest
conception. We must remember that the upper, the
nether, and the middle world, was the whole universe
to a Hebrew mind.*

It is true the sacred poets gather their contributions
from all the stores which nature has spread out before
them ; they make the exterior world an illustration of
the operations of the mind ; and thus they have all
the beauties of description, without missing that moral
dignity, which mere description never can attain. I
allow the powers of Thomson ; I admire that mighty
genius, which, like Antaeus, gathers strength when
ever it touches the earth ; and yet the reader of the

* See Exodus xx. 4.



THE PURITAN. 41

Seasons feels something wanting. He feels as the
spectator at the theatre would, in seeing the shifting-
scenes (most beautifully painted) of one of Shaks-
peare s tragedies, and none of the moral sentiments
or actions with which these scenes should be filled.
Let a man take one of Thomson s best descriptions,
and compare it with one equally good in Milton, but
where the description is made subservient to a higher
result, and feel the difference.

As when from mountain tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the north-wind sleeps, o erspread
Heaven s cheerful face, the lowering element
Scowls o er the darkened landscape, snow or shower;
If chance the radiant sun with faiewell sweet
Extend his evening beam, the fields revive,
The birds their notes renew, and bleating herds
Attest their joy, that hill and valley ring.

Never was there a more beautiful or complete
scene brought to view. Had the author s object been
mere description, it could not have been more fin
ished ; and yet it is only an incidental gem, which he
picks up in his path, without going one step out of the
way to find it. He has a higher object than mere
poetry ; he wishes to illustrate the dawnings of tran
sient hope on fallen minds. We have the same dig
nity in the writings of the Hebrews. They make the
material world play around the pedestals of those
awful images with which their minds are filled. In
VOL. 11. 4



42 THE PURITAN.

the thirty-fourth chapter of Ezekiel, if it had been
the sole object of the prophet to describe pastoral life,
it could scarcely have been more beautiful. In this
respect, his description might rival one of the best
pastorals of Theocritus. But at the same time the
deepest moral beauty is spread over the whole. God
is the shepherd ; and he is watching over his people.
In a word, the beauties of biblical poetry, like
all the severe beauties, must be acquired by study.
They are so simple, so unlike modern sentimentalism,
that, when first seen, they strike the eye with disap
pointment. But look again, and your attention will
be arrested a third time, and you will admire ; and
once let the model impress your taste, and you will
admire forever. It seems to me, for touching the
deeper tones of the heart, the Hebrew poetry has an
internal grandeur, compared with which, the songs of
mythology, are cold and unmeaning.



THE PURITAN

No. 35.



It is also obvious, that, though the description of a passion or affection
may give us pleasure, whether it be described by the agent or spectator,
yet, to those who would apply the inventions of the poet to the uses of
philosophic invc^tiaation, it is far from being of equal utility with the
passion exactly imitated. The talent of imitation, is very different from
description, and far superior.

Richardson on Skakspeare.

MORALITY OF MACBETH.

I AM one of those who have no faith in the morality
of the theatre. It is long since I have entered those
dissolute walls ; and I know not that I ever carried
from a dramatic performance a salutary impression.
A sarcastic friend tells me the fault was my own ; he
assures me, I wanted the finer feelings which these
oblique instructions were designed to reach ; and that
it is only on the chords of a nicer sensibility, that the
tones of the drama will act. He informs me that I
never had wit enough to guess the riddle ; and that



44 THE PURITAN.

it was in the latent meaning of the well-wrought
scene, that the best instruction was found. It may
be so ; if there was any deep moral instruction in the
theatre, it was always latent to me ; and therefore I
have long since left the school from which no profit
was derived. Yet I once listened to the public ex
hibition of the drama, with the deepest interest and
delight. Though I never saw on our stage that per
fection of art which we read of in Garrick ; the art
which is lost in nature, and leads the spectator to
forget that it is acting which he sees ; yet, I used to
admire the fine tones of Cooper, the majesty of Fen
nel, and the simplicity of Mrs. Jones. Still I never
saw a tragedy^ (especially of Shakspeare s,) which I
thought, on the whole, improved in the acting.*

*This very tragedy, (Macbeth,) is a striking example, of
how completely the designs of the poet may fail in the public
exhibition. There can be no doubt that the author meant that
the appearance of the witches should be exceedingly solemn ;
he wished to thrill our blood, when these agents of the world
of darkness meet their victim, and allure him to perdition, by
their metaphysical aid. Yet 1 question, whether it is possible,
to introduce three great strapping men on the stage, in the
shape of women, with beards on their chins, and broomsticks
in their hands, and not make the whole theatre laugh. The
whole intended effect of such a scene, must be lost. Though


2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryLeonard WithingtonThe Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume 2) → online text (page 2 of 15)