Easy poetry is universally admired; but I know not whether any rule has yet been fixed, by which it may be decided when poetry can be properly called easy. Horace has told us, that it is such as “every reader hopes to equal, but after long labour finds unattainable.” This is a very loose description, in which only the effect is noted; the qualities which produce this effect remain to be investigated.
Easy poetry is that in which natural thoughts are expressed without violence to the language. The discriminating character of ease consists principally in the diction; for all true poetry requires that the sentiments be natural. Language suffers violence by harsh or by daring figures, by transposition, by unusual acceptations of words, and by any licence, which would be avoided by a writer of prose. Where any artifice appears in the construction of the verse, that verse is no longer easy. Any epithet which can be ejected without diminution of the sense, any curious iteration of the same word, and all unusual, though not ungrammatical structure of speech, destroy the grace of easy poetry.
The first lines of Pope’s Iliad afford examples of many licences which an easy writer must decline:
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heav’nly Goddess sing;
The wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain.
In the first couplet the language is distorted by inversions, clogged with superfluities, and clouded by a harsh metaphor; and in the second there are two words used in an uncommon sense, and two epithets inserted only to lengthen the line; all these practices may in a long work easily be pardoned, but they always produce some degree of obscurity and ruggedness.
Easy poetry has been so long excluded by ambition of ornament, and luxuriance of imagery, that its nature seems now to be forgotten. Affectation, however opposite to ease, is sometimes mistaken for it; and those who aspire to gentle elegance, collect female phrases and fashionable barbarisms, and imagine that style to be easy which custom has made familiar. Such was the idea of the poet who wrote the following verses to a countess cutting paper:
Pallas grew vap’rish once and odd,
She would not do the least right thing
Either for Goddess or for God,
Nor work, nor play, nor paint, nor sing.
Jove frown’d, and “Use (he cried) those eyes
So skilful, and those hands so taper;
Do something exquisite and wise”—
She bow’d, obey’d him, and cut paper.
This vexing him who gave her birth,
Thought by all Heaven a burning shame,
What does she next, but bids on earth
Her Burlington do just the same?
Pallas, you give yourself strange airs;
But sure you’ll find it hard to spoil
The sense and taste of one that bears
The name of Savile and of Boyle.
Alas! one bad example shown,
How quickly all the sex pursue!
See, madam! see the arts o’erthrown
Between John Overton and you.
It is the prerogative of easy poetry to be understood as long as the language lasts; but modes of speech, which owe their prevalence only to modish folly, or to the eminence of those that use them, die away with their inventors, and their meaning, in a few years, is no longer known.
Easy poetry is commonly sought in petty compositions upon minute subjects; but ease, though it excludes pomp, will admit greatness. Many lines in Cato’s soliloquy are at once easy and sublime:
‘Tis the Divinity that stirs within us;
‘Tis Heaven itself that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.
—If there’s a Power above us,
And that there is all Nature cries aloud
Through all her works, he must delight in virtue,
And that which he delights in must be happy.
Nor is ease more contrary to wit than to sublimity; the celebrated stanza of Cowley, on a lady elaborately dressed, loses nothing of its freedom by the spirit of the sentiment:
Th’ adorning thee with so much art
Is but a barb’rous skill;
‘Tis like the pois’ning of a dart,
Too apt before to kill.
Cowley seems to have possessed the power of writing easily beyond any other of our poets; yet his pursuit of remote thought led him often into harshness of expression.
Waller often attempted, but seldom attained it; for he is too frequently driven into transpositions. The poets, from the time of Dryden, have gradually advanced in embellishment, and consequently departed from simplicity and ease.
To require from any author many pieces of easy poetry, would be indeed to oppress him with too hard a task. It is less difficult to write a volume of lines swelled with epithets, brightened by figures, and stiffened by transpositions, than to produce a few couplets graced only by naked elegance and simple purity, which require so much care and skill, that I doubt whether any of our authors have yet been able, for twenty lines together, nicely to observe the true definition of easy poetry.