Jam nunc minaci murmure cornuum
Perstringis aures: jam litui strepunt.
Hor. Lib. ii. Ode i. 17.
Lo! now the clarion’s voice I hear,
Its threat’ning murmurs pierce mine ear,
And in thy lines with brazen breath
The trumpet sounds the charge of death.
It has been long observed, that the idea of beauty is vague and undefined, different in different minds, and diversified by time or place. It has been a term hitherto used to signify that which pleases us we know not why, and in our approbation of which we can justify ourselves only by the concurrence of numbers, without much power of enforcing our opinion upon others by any argument but example and authority. It is, indeed, so little subject to the examinations of reason, that Paschal supposes it to end where demonstration begins, and maintains, that without incongruity and absurdity we cannot speak of geometrical beauty.
To trace all the sources of that various pleasure which we ascribe to the agency of beauty, or to disentangle all the perceptions involved in its idea, would, perhaps, require a very great part of the life of Aristotle or Plato. It is, however, in many cases apparent, that this quality is merely relative and comparative; that we pronounce things beautiful because they have something which we agree, for whatever reason, to call beauty, in a greater degree than we have been accustomed to find it in other things of the same kind; and that we transfer the epithet as our knowledge increases, and appropriate it to higher excellence, when higher excellence comes within our view.
Much of the beauty of writing is of this kind; and therefore Boileau justly remarks, that the books which have stood the test of time, and been admired through all the changes which the mind of man has suffered from the various revolutions of knowledge, and the prevalence of contrary customs, have a better claim to our regard than any modern can boast, because the long continuance of their reputation proves that they are adequate to our faculties, and agreeable to nature.
It is, however, the task of criticism to establish principles; to improve opinion into knowledge; and to distinguish those means of pleasing which depend upon known causes and rational deduction, from the nameless and inexplicable elegancies which appeal wholly to the fancy, from which we feel delight, but know not how they produce it, and which may well be termed the enchantresses of the soul. Criticism reduces those regions of literature under the dominion of science, which have hitherto known only the anarchy of ignorance, the caprices of fancy, and the tyranny of prescription.
There is nothing in the art of versifying so much exposed to the power of imagination as the accommodation of the sound to the sense, or the representation of particular images, by the flow of the verse in which they are expressed. Every student has innumerable passages, in which he, and perhaps he alone, discovers such resemblances; and since the attention of the present race of poetical readers seems particularly turned upon this species of elegance, I shall endeavour to examine how much these conformities have been observed by the poets, or directed by the criticks, how far they can be established upon nature and reason, and on what occasions they have been practised by Milton.
Homer, the father of all poetical beauty, has been particularly celebrated by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as “he that, of all the poets, exhibited the greatest variety of sound; for there are,” says he, “innumerable passages, in which length of time, bulk of body, extremity of passion, and stillness of repose; or, in which, on the contrary, brevity, speed, and eagerness, are evidently marked out by the sound of the syllables. Thus the anguish and slow pace with which the blind Polypheme groped out with his hands the entrance of his cave, are perceived in the cadence of the verses which describe it.”
Κυκλωψ δε στεναχων τε και ωδινων οδυνησι,
Meantime the Cyclop raging with his wound,
Spreads his wide arms, and searches round and round.
The critick then proceeds to shew, that the efforts of Achilles struggling in his armour against the current of a river, sometimes resisting and sometimes yielding, may be perceived in the elisions of the syllables, the slow succession of the feet, and the strength of the consonants.
Δεινον δ’ αμφ’ Ἁχιληα κυκωμενον ἱστατο κυμα
Ωθει δ’ εν σακει πιπτων ῥοος· ουδε ποδεσσιν
So oft the surge, in wat’ry mountains spread,
Beats on his back, or bursts upon his head,
Yet, dauntless still, the adverse flood he braves,
And still indignant bounds above the waves.
Tir’d by the tides, his knees relax with toil;
Wash’d from beneath him, slides the slimy soil.
When Homer describes the crush of men dashed against a rock, he collects the most unpleasing and harsh sounds.
Συν δε δυω μαρψας, ὡστε σκυλακας ποτι γαιη
Κοπτ’· εκ δ’ εγκεφαλος χαμαδις ῥεε, δευε δε γαιαν.
———His bloody hand
Snatch’d two, unhappy! of my martial band,
And dash’d like dogs against the stony floor:
The pavement swims with brains and mingled gore.
And when he would place before the eyes something dreadful and astonishing, he makes choice of the strongest vowels, and the letters of most difficult utterance.
Τη δ’ επι μεν Γοργω βλοσυρωπις εστεφανωτο
Δεινον δερκομενη· περι δε Δειμος τε Φοβος τε.
Tremendous Gorgon frown’d upon its field,
And circling terrors fill’d th’ expressive shield.
Many other examples Dionysius produces; but these will sufficiently shew, that either he was fanciful, or we have lost the genuine pronunciation; for I know not whether, in any one of these instances, such similitude can be discovered. It seems, indeed, probable, that the veneration with which Homer was read, produced many suppositious beauties: for though it is certain, that the sound of many of his verses very justly corresponds with the things expressed, yet, when the force of his imagination, which gave him full possession of every object, is considered, together with the flexibility of his language, of which the syllables might be often contracted or dilated at pleasure, it will seem unlikely that such conformity should happen less frequently even without design.
It is not however to be doubted, that Virgil, who wrote amidst the light of criticism, and who owed so much of his success to art and labour, endeavoured, among other excellencies, to exhibit this similitude; nor has he been less happy in this than in the other graces of versification. This felicity of his numbers was, at the revival of learning, displayed with great elegance by Vida, in his Art of Poetry.
Haud satis est illis utcunque claudere versum.——
Omnia sed numeris vocum concordibus aptant,
Atque sono quæcunque canunt imitantur, et apta
Verborum facie, et quæsito carminis ore.
Nam diversa opus est veluti dare versibus ora,——
Hic melior motuque pedum, et pernicibus alis,
Molle Viam tacito lapsu per levia radit:
Ille autem membris, ac mole ignavius ingens
Incedit tardo molimine subsiden le.
Ecce aliquis subit egregio pulcherrimus ore,
Cui lætum membris Venus omnibus afflat honorem.
Contra alius rudis, informes ostendit et artus,
Hirsutumque supercilium, ac caudam sinuosam,
Ingratus visu, sonitu illætabilis ipso.——
Ergo ubi jam nautæ spumas salis ære ruentes
Incubere mari, videas spumare reductis
Convulsum remis, rostrisque stridentibus æquor.
Tunc longe sale saxa sonant, tunc et freta ventis
Incipiunt agitata tumescere: littore fluctus
Illidunt rauco, atque refracta remurmurat unda
Ad scopulos, cumulo insequitur præruptus aquæ mons.——
Cum vero ex alto speculatus cærula Nereus
Leniit in morem stagni, placidæque paludis,
Labitur uncta vadis abies, natat uncta carina.——
Verba etiam res exiguas angusta sequuntur,
Ingentesque juvant ingentia: cuncta gigantem
Vasta decent, vultus immanes, pectora lata,
Et magni membrorum artus, magna ossa, lacertique.
Atque adeo, siquid geritur molimine magno,
Adde moram, et pariter tecum quoque verba laborent
Segnia: seu quando vi multa gleba coactis
Æternum frangenda bidentibus, æquore seu cum
Cornua velatarum obvertimus antennarum.
At mora si fuerit damno, properare jubebo.
Si se forte cava extulerit mala vipera terra,
Tolle moras, cape saxa manu, cape robora, pastor:
Ferte citi flammas, date tela, repellite pestem.
Ipse etiam versus ruat, in præcepsque feratur,
Immenso cum præcipitans ruit Oceano nox,
Aut cum perculsus graviter procumbit humi bos.
Cumque etiam requies rebus datur, ipsa quoque ultro
Carmina paulisper cursu cessare videbis
In medio interrupta: quiêrunt cum freta ponti,
Postquam auræ posuere, quiescere protinus ipsum
Cernere erit, mediisque incœptis sistere versum.
Quid dicam, senior cum telum imbelle sine ictu
Invalidus jacit, et defectis viribus æger?
Num quoque tum versus segni pariter pede languet:
Sanguis hebet, frigent effœtæ in corpore vires.
Fortem autem juvenem deceat prorumpere in arces,
Evertisse domos, præfractaque quadrupedantum
Pectora pectoribus perrumpere, sternere turres
Ingentes, totoque, ferum dare funera campo.
Lib. iii. 365.
‘Tis not enough his verses to complete,
In measure, number, or determin’d feet.
To all, proportion’d terms he must dispense,
And make the sound a picture of the sense;
The correspondent words exactly frame,
The look, the features, and the mien the same.
With rapid feet and wings, without delay,
This swiftly flies, and smoothly skims away:
This blooms with youth and beauty in his face,
And Venus breathes on ev’ry limb a grace;
That, of rude form, his uncouth members shows,
Looks horrible, and frowns with his rough brows;
His monstrous tail, in many a fold and wind,
Voluminous and vast, curls up behind;
At once the image and the lines appear,
Rude to the eye, and frightful to the ear.
Lo! when the sailors steer the pond’rous ships,
And plough, with brazen beaks, the foamy deeps,
Incumbent on the main that roars around,
Beneath the lab’ring oars the waves resound;
The prows wide echoing through the dark profound.
To the loud call each distant rock replies;
Tost by the storm the tow’ring surges rise;
While the hoarse ocean beats the sounding shore,
Dash’d from the strand, the flying waters roar,
Flash at the shock, and gathering in a heap,
The liquid mountains rise, and over-hang the deep.
But when blue Neptune from his car surveys,
And calms at one regard the raging seas,
Stretch’d like a peaceful lake the deep subsides,
And the pitch’d vessel o’er the surface glides.
When things are small, the terms should still be so;
For low words please us when the theme is low.
But when some giant, horrible and grim,
Enormous in his gait, and vast in every limb,
Stalks tow’ring on; the swelling words must rise
In just proportion to the monster’s size.
If some large weight his huge arms strive to shove,
The verse too labours; the throng’d words scarce move.
When each stiff clod beneath the pond’rous plough
Crumbles and breaks, th’ encumber’d lines must flow.
Nor less, when pilots catch the friendly gales,
Unfurl their shrouds, and hoist the wide-stretch’d sails.
But if the poem suffers from delay,
Let the lines fly precipitate away,
And when the viper issues from the brake,
Be quick; with stones, and brands, and fire, attack
His rising crest, and drive the serpent back.
When night descends, or stunn’d by num’rous strokes,
And groaning, to the earth drops the vast ox;
The line too sinks with correspondent sound
Flat with the steer, and headlong to the ground.
When the wild waves subside, and tempests cease,
And hush the roarings of the sea to peace;
So oft we see the interrupted strain
Stopp’d in the midst—and with the silent main
Pause for a space—at last it glides again.
When Priam strains his aged arms, to throw
His unavailing jav’line at the foe;
(His blood congeal’d, and ev’ry nerve unstrung)
Then with the theme complies the artful song;
Like him, the solitary numbers flow,
Weak, trembling, melancholy, stiff, and slow.
Not so young Pyrrhus, who with rapid force
Beats down embattled armies in his course.
The raging youth on trembling Ilion falls,
Burns her strong gates, and shakes her lofty walls;
Provokes his flying courser to the speed,
In full career to charge the warlike steed:
He piles the field with mountains of the slain;
He pours, he storms, he thunders thro’ the plain.—Pitt.
From the Italian gardens Pope seems to have transplanted this flower, the growth of happier climates, into a soil less adapted to its nature, and less favourable to its increase.
Soft is the strain, when Zephyr gentle blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud billows lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Nor so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.
From these lines, laboured with attention, and celebrated by a rival wit, may be judged what can be expected from the most diligent endeavours after this imagery of sound. The verse intended to represent the whisper of the vernal breeze, must be confessed not much to excel in softness or volubility: and the smooth stream runs with a perpetual clash of jarring consonants. The noise and turbulence of the torrent, is, indeed, distinctly imaged, for it requires very little skill to make our language rough: but in these lines, which mention the effort of Ajax, there is no particular heaviness, obstruction, or delay. The swiftness of Camilla is rather contrasted than exemplified; why the verse should be lengthened to express speed, will not easily be discovered. In the dactyls used for that purpose by the ancients, two short syllables were pronounced with such rapidity, as to be equal only to one long; they, therefore, naturally exhibit the act of passing through a long space in a short time. But the Alexandrine, by its pause in the midst, is a tardy and stately measure; and the word unbending, one of the most sluggish and slow which our language affords, cannot much accelerate its motion.
These rules and these examples have taught our present criticks to inquire very studiously and minutely into sounds and cadences. It is, therefore, useful to examine with what skill they have proceeded; what discoveries they have made; and whether any rules can be established which may guide us hereafter in such researches.