Lectures on the English Poets by William Hazlitt

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Page 1





The best general notion which I can give of poetry is, that it is the
natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an
involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by
sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it.

In treating of poetry, I shall speak first of the subject-matter of
it, next of the forms of expression to which it gives birth, and
afterwards of its connection with harmony of sound.

Poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions. It
relates to whatever gives immediate pleasure or pain to the human mind.
It comes home to the bosoms and businesses of men; for nothing but what
so comes home to them in the most general and intelligible shape, can be
a subject for poetry. Poetry is the universal language which the heart
holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot
have much respect for himself, or for any thing else. It is not a mere
frivolous accomplishment, (as some persons have been led to imagine) the
trifling amusement of a few idle readers or leisure hours--it has been
the study and delight of mankind in all ages. Many people suppose that
poetry is something to be found only in books, contained in lines of ten
syllables, with like endings: but wherever there is a sense of beauty,
or power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, in the
growth of a flower that "spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and
dedicates its beauty to the sun,"--_there_ is poetry, in its birth. If
history is a grave study, poetry may be said to be a graver: its
materials lie deeper, and are spread wider. History treats, for the most
part, of the cumbrous and unwieldly masses of things, the empty cases in
which the affairs of the world are packed, under the heads of intrigue
or war, in different states, and from century to century: but there is
no thought or feeling that can have entered into the mind of man, which
he would be eager to communicate to others, or which they would listen
to with delight, that is not a fit subject for poetry. It is not a
branch of authorship: it is "the stuff of which our life is made." The
rest is "mere oblivion," a dead letter: for all that is worth
remembering in life, is the poetry of it. Fear is poetry, hope is
poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry; contempt, jealousy, remorse,
admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry. Poetry is
that fine particle within us, that expands, rarefies, refines, raises
our whole being: without it "man's life is poor as beast's." Man is a
poetical animal: and those of us who do not study the principles of
poetry, act upon them all our lives, like Moliere's _Bourgeois
Gentilhomme_, who had always spoken prose without knowing it. The child
is a poet in fact, when he first plays at hide-and-seek, or repeats the
story of Jack the Giant-killer; the shepherd-boy is a poet, when he
first crowns his mistress with a garland of flowers; the countryman,
when he stops to look at the rainbow; the city-apprentice, when he gazes
after the Lord-Mayor's show; the miser, when he hugs his gold; the
courtier, who builds his hopes upon a smile; the savage, who paints his
idol with blood; the slave, who worships a tyrant, or the tyrant, who
fancies himself a god;--the vain, the ambitious, the proud, the
choleric man, the hero and the coward, the beggar and the king, the rich
and the poor, the young and the old, all live in a world of their own
making; and the poet does no more than describe what all the others
think and act. If his art is folly and madness, it is folly and madness
at second hand. "There is warrant for it." Poets alone have not "such
seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cooler
reason" can.

"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
The madman. While the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heav'n to earth, from earth to heav'n;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination."

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