Comedy, like tragedy, originally consisted of a chorus,
which derived its name from the god Comus. The rudi-
ments of the comic art may, it is thought, be detected in the
satyrs, a sort of interlude annexed to tragedies, in which the
scene was rural, and the personages, satyrs or sylvan deities.
It was not till the time of Aristophanes, that living characters
were introduced on the stage. This abuse a better taste cor-
rected ; and the .comedies of Menander, which were after-
wards imitated by Terence, exhibited interesting scenes of
domestic life. The chorus was gradually changed into the
prologue, a personage who carefully apprized the spectators
of all they were to see on the stage.
The Roman writers were modelled on those of Greece, and
it was long before they attempted to emulate their masters ;
but Ennius produced the satire. With equal originality,
Lucretius wrote his metaphysical poem, in which are deve-
loped the philosophical systems of his age. It was not till the
sera of Augustus that Horace transplanted all the lyric beau-
ties to his odes, opened a rich vein of satiric poetry ; and
Virgil, having equalled Theocritus, aspired to emulate Homer.
He frequently fell short of his master ; his characters do not
possess the same features of durability, and his scenes are not
equally animated and dramatic. To atone, however, for these
defects, he unites every charm that gives interest to narrative,
or lends enchantment to description. He rises occasionally to
the sublime ; but the beautiful is his natural element ; he can
excite terror, but he is more prone to inspire tenderness and
pity. In the Georgics, Virgil has left a model of didactic
composition, ennobled by a strain of philosophical sentiment,
pure, graceful, and persuasive.
Ovid adorned the fables of mythology with description, and
illustrated in his epistles almost every romantic story of anti-
quity. The style of his elegies is not unlike that of his
186 . BELLES LETTRES.
epistles : he paints to the eye, but he has often too rauch wit
and fancy to affect tlie heart. Tibullus has exceeded every
other elegiac writer in simplicity and tenderness. Lucan and
Statins were also epic poets ; but they are not often read.
LiUcan possessed a fine genius, but his subject was unfor-
tunate. Among the latter poets of Rome were Juvenal and
Persius, of whom the former was one of the most original
if\Titers she had produced.
Origin of modern poetry English versification.
The Gothic nations which over-ran Rome, and the countries
subjected to it, though ignorant of the poHte arts, were not
insensible to the charms of poetry. Their bards were no less
venerated than their priests ; and whatever instruction they re:-
ceived ; whatever knowledge they possessed, was communicated -^
in metre, and probably in rhyme. In the age of Charlemagne,
the minstrels of Provence, or, as they were called, the Trou-
badours, introduced the metrical tales or ballads, which, from
the dialect in which they were written, acquired the name of
Romances. The poems were all composed in rhyme ; but
whether this practice was borrowed from the Arabs or the
Goths is uncertain,
Mr. Ellis (see his introduction to " Specimens of early
English Metrical Romances") has given an account of the rise
and progress of the minstrels and their poetry. From whichT?:
it appears, that Normandy was the cradle of minstrelsy. The
Northmen, who wrested that province from the feeble suc-
cessors of Charlemagne, had, like all other barbarous people,
especially the Scandinavian tribes, their national poets. These,
it is believed, were carried by RoUo into France; where they
188 BELLES LETTRES.
probably introduced a certain number of their native tradi-
tions, relating to their lierocs, who were afterwards enlisted
into tlie tales of chivalry. Being compelled to a frequent exer-
cise of their talent in extemporaneous compositions, the min-
strels were probably like the improvisatori of Italy, and be-
came good judges of the public taste. By the progress of
translation, they became the depo^taries of nearly all the
knowledge of the age, which was committed to their memory :
it was natural, therefore, that they should form a variety of new
combinations from the numerous materials in their possession ;
and many of our most popular romances were probably
brought by their efforts to the state in which we now see
Facts in history prove, that the profession of a minstrel was
held in great reverence among the Saxon tribes, as well as
among their Danish brethren. Alfred, in 878, wishing to
ascertain the true situation of the Danish army, which had in-
vaded his realm, assumed the dress and character of a min-
strel ; and, under this character, though he could not but be
known to be a Saxon, ^obtained an honourable reception.
About sixty years after, a Danish king made use of the same
disguise to explore the camp of our king Athelstan. The
minstrel was, therefore, a privileged character with both these,
people. In the reign of Edward II. thp minstrels were ad-
mitted into the royal presence, an instance of which is men-
tioned by Stow. In the fourth year of Richard II. John of
Gaunt erected a court of minstrels, with full power to receive
suit and service from the men of this profession, within five
neighbouring counties, to enact laws and determine controver-
sies, 8lc., for which they had a charter.
The first compositions of the minstrels appear to have been
unadorned annals or histories, reduced to measure, for the
convenience of the reciter, who was to retain them upon his
memory. Their poems were all composed in rhyme ; but
whether this practice was borrowed from the Arabs or the
Goths is uncertain. The Italian language, which, of all the
corrupt dialects introduced by the barbarians, assimilated most
with the Roman, soon acquired a tincture of elegance. Dante
wrote in the middle ages ; Ariosto followed ; and Peirarch
appeared among the first founders of modern literature. The
passion for allegory, so long the characteristic of the Italian
school, was by Chaucer rendered as prevalent in England as it
had previously been on the continent. During several age;?,
Italy continued to be the Poet's land of Europe ; and in that
interval was produced the " Jerusalem Delivered," a poem of
great merit, and which still maintains a high character in mo-
dern literature. In Spain, poetry was early cultivated, but
without much attention to classical taste. In France, it did
Hot emerge from barbarism till the reign of Francis the First,
and it arrived at its highest perfection in the aera of Louis
XIV. La Fontaine and Boileau, Corneilie and Racine had,
at this period, produced works destined to immortalize their
names. The modern drama originated in the Mysteries, a
sort of religious farce imported from the East : to the myste-
ries succeeded allegorical plays, denominated Moralities.
These produced the Mask, which became the favourite amuse-
ment of the court in the time of Charles I., and is redeemed
from oblivion by Milton's Comus. Till the commencement
of the last century, the German language was almost a stranger
to poetry. Klopstock invented hexameter verse; and from
that period many fine \vriters have arisen in Germany, distin-
guished for poetic taste, genius, and real talents.
Of English versification. In our own language, versifica-
tion does not depend on the quantities, or the length and short-
ness of the syllables, but on the modulation of the accents,
and the disposition of the pauses ; to which is generally, though ^
not universally, added, the recurrence of rhyme. The heroic
verse consists of ten syllables, and its harmony is produced by
a certain proportionate distribution of accented and unaccented
syllables. Its specific character, whether lively or solemn,
5oft or slow, is determined by their order and arrangement,
190 BELLES LETTRES.
When the unaccented and accented syllables are regularly alter-
natedj it is called Iambic verse, as
A shepherd's boy, he seeks no higher name,
Led forth his flock beside the silver Thame.
With regard to the place of these accents, some liberty is
admitted, for the sake of variety. Sometimes the line begins
with an unaccented syllable ; and sometimes two unaccented
syllables follow each other. In general, there are either five,
or four accented syllables in each line. The number of sylla-
bles is ten, unless where an Alexandrian verse, or one of
twelve syllables, is occasionally admitted. Dryden was too
fond of introducing the Alexandrian line, to which Pope refers:
A needless Alexandrine ends the song.
Which , like a wounded snake, drags its slow length alonf .
Nevertheless, it often forms a noble termination, of which the
following is an instance :
Teach me to love and to forgive ;
Exact my own defects to scan,
What others are to feel, and know myself a man.
When the unaccented is preceded by an accented syllable,
it is called a trochaic verse ; as.
Ambition first sprung from the blest abodes;
The frequent intervention of the trochaic is apt to produce
harshness, which is carefully to be avoided.
Another essential circumstance in the constitution of Eng-
lish Verse, is the caesural pause which falls towards the middle
of each line. It is by the freedom with which this pause is
transferred from one syllable to another, that the monotony
that might be expected to result from a succession of Iambic
lines is obviated : a freedom which constitutes the charm, and
produces all the variety of our Verse. * The pause or cassura
is that interval of suspension which must naturally arise in every
verse ; it is in fact found in the Verse of most nations. Pains
have been taken to point it out in the Latin Hexameter. Id
the French Heroic verse of twelve syllables it is very sensible,
and falls in every line just after the sixth syllable, regularly and
indispensably, dividing the line into two equal hemisticks, the
one half always answering to the other, and the same chime re-
turning incessuntly on the ear without intermission or change,
which is a defect in their verse. In our own, it is a distin-
guishing advantage, that it allows the pause to be varied
through four different syllables in the line. The pause may
fall after the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, or the seventh syllable ;
and according as it is placed after one or other of these syl-
lables, the melody of the verse is much changed, and its air
and cadence are diversified.
When the pause falls after the fourth syllable, which is gene-
rally the earliest part on which it can fall, the briskest melody
is formed, and the most spirited air given to the line; of
which the following are instances :
Soft is the strain | when zephyr gently blows.
And the smooth stream | in smoother numbers flows.
On her white breast [ a sparkling cross she wore.
Which Jews might kisS, | and Infidels adore ;
Her lively looks, [ a sprightly mind disclose.
Quick as her eyes, 1 and as unfix'd as those.
Favours to none, | to all she smiles extends.
Oft she rejects | but never once offends.
When the pause falls after the fifth syllable, which divides
the line into two equal portions, the verse loses that brisk and
sprightly air, which it had with the former pause, and be-
comes more smooth, gentle, and flowing :
Eternal sunshine | of the spotless mind,
Each prayer accepted | and each wish resign'^.
When the pause follows the sixth syllable, the tenor of the
music becomes solemn and grave, and the verse proceeds with
a more slow and measured pace. But the grave and solemn
cadence becomes still more sensible, when the pause falls after
the seventh syllable, which is the nearest place to the end of the
192 BELLES LETTRES.
line that it can Mell occupy. This kind of verse occurs but
seldom, and it j)rodutes that slow Alexandrian air, which is
suited to a close. N<Hwithstanding what has been said, the
pause may occasionally dwtU on the first, the second, or even
penuiliuiaie syllable. The following may be given as instances
to elucidate these observations ;
Me I let tbe tender office long engage,
To rock the cradle of declining age.
O friend ! may each domestic bliss be thine.
Be no unpleasing melancholy | mine.
When the pause falls on the second syllable, the verse is
frequently accelerated, as :
Not so I when swift Camilla scours the plain.
A second pause in the same line is sometimes happily in>
O ever beanteons | ever lovely ! | tell
Is it ill heaven, a crime to love too well !
Triplets often occur in heroic verse, particularly in the works
of Dryden, but they are now generally avoided by correct
In English verse, we have different kinds of stanzas, as well
as difft;rent kinds of verses. Ilie stanza of nine lines in
imitation of the Italian was introduced by Spenser, and that
of eight lines such as Spenser employs, was generally used
in the reign of Elizabeth and her immediate successors, James
and Charles. Waller was the first who brought couplets into
use, and Dryden established the practice.
The most popular stanza is tliat appropriate to the ballad,
which is composed of four lines, of which the rhymes are
ranged alternately. Such is the measure of Goldsmith's
beautiful tale of Edwin and Angelina :
Turn, gentle hermit of the dale,
^ And guide my lonely way.
To wliere yon taper cliecrs the vale
With hospitable ray.
Such, with the remission of rhyme in the first and third
lines, is the measure of Chevy-Chase :
God prosper long onr noble king,
, Our lives and safetyes all ;
A woeful hunting once there did
la Chevy-Cliasc befal.
The elegiac stanza, consisting of four alternately responsive
lines of ten syllables each, is well adapted to short poems : the
celebrated elegy of Gray, is an example of this kind of
Tlie cuifew tolls the knell of parting day,
Tlie lowing herds wind slowly o'er the lea.
The ploughman homeward plods his weary 'way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
In Hammond's elegies, this kind of stanza is displayed to
great advantage :
Why should the lover quit his pleasing home.
In search of danger on some foreign ground ?
Or from his weeping fair ungrateful roam,
And risk in every stroke a double wound ?
The simplest and most fluent of all verse is the couplet of
eight syllables. It is often appropriated to ludicrous poetry, as
in some of Swift's pieces, and in Butler's Hudibras ; the fol-
lowing lines give a good specimen :
When civil dudgeon first grew high,
And men fell out, they knew not why ;
When hard words, jealousies and fears.
Set folks together by the ears;
And made them fight, like mad or drunk,
For dame Religion, as for punk ;
Whose honesty tiiey all durst swear for,
Tliough not a man of them knew wherefore.
VOL, I. O
194 BELLES LETTRES.
Tliis kind of verse is however used on more serious oc-
casions, and seems well adapted to tender expression. The
Allegro and Penseroso of Milton are written in this measure :
, And may at length my weary age
Find out a peaceful liermitage ;
Tlie hairy govrn and mossy cell,
Where I may sit, and rightly spell
Of every star that heaven doth shew.
And every herb that sips the dew,
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
The dactyl or anapaestic measure of eleven aiwl twelve
syllables, and some of less, is appropriated to humorous sub-
jects, especially songs :
My time, O ye Muses, was happily spent,
* When Phcebe was with me wherever I went.
This measure, when worked into a stanza, assugaes a dif-
ferent character, as in the war-song of Burns :
'Tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more:
I mourn, but, ye Moodlands, I mourn not for you ;
For mora is npproaching, your charms to restore,
Pcrfum'd with fresh fragrance, and glittering with dew.
Nor yet for the ravage of winter I mourn ;
Kind nature, the embryo blossom will save :
But when shall spring visit the mouldering urn?
Oil ! when shall it dawn on the night of tlie grave?
In the stanza employed by Cowper, constructed on similar
principles, tlie syllables are less numerous, and tlie cadence is,
in general, more harmonioijs :
I am monarch of all I sonrey,
My right there b none to dispute;
From the centre, all round to the sea,
1 am lord of the fowl aod the brute.
Of Blank verse. Our blank verse possesses great advaii-
tageSj^ and may be reckoned a noble^ bold, and disencum-
bered species of versification. The chief defect in rhyme is
the full close which it forces upon the ear, at the end of every
couplet. Blank verse is freed from this ; and allows the
lines to run into each other, with as great a liberty as occurs
in the Latin hfxameter. Hence it is adapted to subjects
of dignity and force, which demand more free and manly
numbers than can be obtained in rhyme. It is composed of
lines of ten syllables, which flow into each other without the
intervention of rhymes. Its metrical principle resides in its
pauses, which should be so spread as never to sufi'er the rhyme
to be missed. Of the few poets who have attempted and
succeeded in this species of composition, Milton is unques-
tionably the first ; and after him, Thomson, Armstrong, Aken-
side and Cowper, take the next rank, and are indeed 'pre-
eminent. Milton's verse is unequalled, it dilates with the
author's thoughts, it harmonizes with the reader's sentiment,
and its varied cadence rolls with majesty, or falls in a melli-
fluent strain of melody on the delighted ear. The following
is a fine specimen : it is Adam's address to Eve :
My fairest, my espous'd, my latest found,
Heaven's last best gift, my ever-new delight,
Awake ! the morning sliines, and the fresh field
Calls lis: we lose the prime, to mark how spring
Onr tended plants, how blows the citron grove.
What drops the myrrh, and what the balmy reed,
How nature paints her colours, how the bee
Sits on the bloom extracting liquid sweet. Book t.
Mr. Crowe, the public Orator of Oxford, has endeavoured
to account for. the excellence of Milton's verse, and he refers
the principle of|pits exquisite mechanism, to the author's bold
practice of distributing in separate lines, words that are so
nearly connected, such as the preposition governing the noun,
and the pronoun attached to the verb, as almost to appear iu-
196 BELLES LETTRESV
divisible. " That this practice," says another critic, " wfeicif
Mr. Crowe calls the breaking the natural joiyit of the sett"
tence, is favourable to the freedom of blank verse, cannot be
disputed ; but it may be questioned whether the poet was
himself conscious of the mechanism which he employed, or
that he was directed by any other principle than his own acute
sensibility to harmony."
Whether rhyme or blank verse be entitled to pre-eminence,
is a question not easily determined. In the choice of his
measure the poet must be influenced by the nature of his sub-
ject. In all gay and airy excursions of fancy, or the lighter
touches of feeling, rhyme will be found an auxiliary equally
pleasing and important : likewise in such compositions as require
a measure of spirited and vivacious nwvement. " To satire
it adds poignancy, to humour it gives elegance; it imparts
renovation to old ideas, and lends attraction to trivial sen-
timents; it renders familiar illustration graceful, and plain
sense eloquent." Wherever much originality of thought exists,
this metrical charm is unnecessary ; and where imaginatioii
reigns in luxuriance, it may be well resigned to Uank verse.
Of the tbonghts and language of poetry Remarkable differences between
prose and poetry Pastorals The Elegy Tlie Sonnet Lyric Poetry
Didactic Poetry Epic Poetry The Drama The Epigram The
XlAVING described the several sorts of verse, so as to
give a general idea of metre, we shall proceed to the different
forms of poetical productions. Previously to this, we may
make some observations on the thoughts and language of
.p6etry. Horace has given the requisites of a poet in the
following lines : , ^
Ingenium ciii sit, ciii mens divinior atqne os
Magna sonitnrum, des nomiuis faujus honorem.
HoR. Sat. 4. Lib. I,
Js there a man, vrhoija real genius fires,
Whom an enthusiasm divine inspires ;
Who talks true greatness ; let him boldly claim
The sacred honours of a Poet's name. Francis.
The Ingenium of Horace, means that invention ; and the
mens, that Enthusiasm, which form the Epic, Tragic, or Lyric
poet. Invention is the character of poetry in general : it is
that which can form a fable, plot, or story, and ornament it
with characters and circumstances ; the poet can create imagi*
198 BELLES LETTRES.
nary beings, describe what he never saw, and add fancied and
interesting erabellishnients to what he had seen.
The OS magna soniturum regards the language alone, which
is proper for the higher departments of poetry. A certain
strength and nobleness of style is so essential a part, that a poem,
which had both invention and enthusiasm in the highest degree,
would be ridiculous, if the language were cold and feeble.
The highest exercise of invention, is in the choice and ar-
rangement of the subject ; but here judgment must come in aid
of imagination, to ascertain what subject admits of poetical
embellishments. Unless that b interesting, all the ornaments
of poetry and language will be lavished in vain. But if the
subjecf be well conceived, appropriate beauties will seem na-
turally to arise out of it, and tlie execution will be propor-
tionally easy. -Attempts have been made to translate the
Bible into English verse ; the most however that could be done
in this way, would be to form it into rhymes, as the greater
part of it is not poetical. Milton selected almost the only
Scriptural subject that afforded scope for a brilliant imagination.
The fall of Adam and Eve was of itself well adapted to the
ornaments of poetry ; and from an obscure passage in the
Epistle of St. Jude, the vigorous fancy of the poet formed
the sublime episode of a war in heaven. Admirable, how-
ever, as the poem is, it is calculated to do much mischief, by
infusing into ignorant minds, false ideas respecting the Al-
mighty. Multitudes, no doubt, believe that the whole of the
Paradise Lost, is founded entirely upon facts recorded in the
Holy Scriptures, instead of being the work of the Poet's
Poetry has been denominated an imitative art : it must not,
however, be an imitation of nature in every particular, but of
what is dignified and exalted, as far as the human imagination
is capable of rising. Tlie poet must be capable of amplifi-
cation ; the very soul of fine poetry is detail ; and the strongest
mark of a vigorous imagination is the power of displaying all
tlicnice and discriminating features of the human character and
passions. Shakespeare surpasses every other poet in this ex-
cellence ; and in Milton, though the subject may seem un-
favourable to such a display, the most striking passages are of
this kind. With respect to the thoughts and ornaments, poetry
draws her resources from every quarter : of course he that
knows most, and has read most, will be the best poet. Mil-
ton's extensive knowledge serves perpetually to enrich his
poem, and keep alive the attention of his reader, and Shakes-
peare's fertile imagination, derived embellishments from every
thing existing in nature and art, by means of the slightest
Although we do not pretend to give rules for the execution
of a poetical composition, yet the following observations,
taken chiefly from Dr. George Gregory's Letters on Literature,
may be deserving the attention of young writers.
Every ornamental thought in poetry, should flow naturally
out of the subject : it should not be pressed into the service,
as if it were dragged in from a common-place book. Trite
and common thoughts and reflections, notwithstanding their
moral tendency, should be rejected, because in poetry we
expect novelty and ingenuity, both in thought and expression ;
at the same time, it must be remembered that too much
caution cannot be exerted in avoiding conceit or affectation.
It must be remembered that the language of poetry is essen-
tially difl^erent from that of prose : this every one knows, though
but few persons can assign for it the just reasons. They seem to
result partly from poetry being of a more durable character, and