Lectures on the English Poets by William Hazlitt


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Page 2

If poetry is a dream, the business of life is much the same. If it is
a fiction, made up of what we wish things to be, and fancy that they
are, because we wish them so, there is no other nor better reality.
Ariosto has described the loves of Angelica and Medoro: but was not
Medoro, who carved the name of his mistress on the barks of trees, as
much enamoured of her charms as he? Homer has celebrated the anger of
Achilles: but was not the hero as mad as the poet? Plato banished the
poets from his Commonwealth, lest their descriptions of the natural man
should spoil his mathematical man, who was to be without passions and
affections, who was neither to laugh nor weep, to feel sorrow nor anger,
to be cast down nor elated by any thing. This was a chimera, however,
which never existed but in the brain of the inventor; and Homer's
poetical world has outlived Plato's philosophical Republic.

Poetry then is an imitation of nature, but the imagination and the
passions are a part of man's nature. We shape things according to our
wishes and fancies, without poetry; but poetry is the most emphatical
language that can be found for those creations of the mind "which
ecstacy is very cunning in." Neither a mere description of natural
objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or
forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the
heightenings of the imagination. The light of poetry is not only a
direct but also a reflected light, that while it shews us the object,
throws a sparkling radiance on all around it: the flame of the passions,
communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of
lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole
being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms;
feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts a spirit
of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing, not the
fixed. It does not define the limits of sense, or analyze the
distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the
imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or
feeling. The poetical impression of any object is that uneasy, exquisite
sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself; that is
impatient of all limit; that (as flame bends to flame) strives to link
itself to some other image of kindred beauty or grandeur; to enshrine
itself, as it were, in the highest forms of fancy, and to relieve the
aching sense of pleasure by expressing it in the boldest manner, and by
the most striking examples of the same quality in other instances.
Poetry, according to Lord Bacon, for this reason, "has something divine
in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by
conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul, instead of
subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do." It is
strictly the language of the imagination; and the imagination is that
faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as
they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite
variety of shapes and combinations of power. This language is not the
less true to nature, because it is false in point of fact; but so much
the more true and natural, if it conveys the impression which the object
under the influence of passion makes on the mind. Let an object, for
instance, be presented to the senses in a state of agitation or fear--
and the imagination will distort or magnify the object, and convert it
into the likeness of whatever is most proper to encourage the fear. "Our
eyes are made the fools" of our other faculties. This is the universal
law of the imagination,

"That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy:
Or in the night imagining some fear,
How easy is each bush suppos'd a bear!"

When Iachimo says of Imogen,

"------The flame o' th' taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids
To see the enclosed lights"--

this passionate interpretation of the motion of the flame to accord with
the speaker's own feelings, is true poetry. The lover, equally with the
poet, speaks of the auburn tresses of his mistress as locks of shining
gold, because the least tinge of yellow in the hair has, from novelty
and a sense of personal beauty, a more lustrous effect to the
imagination than the purest gold. We compare a man of gigantic stature
to a tower: not that he is any thing like so large, but because the
excess of his size beyond what we are accustomed to expect, or the usual
size of things of the same class, produces by contrast a greater feeling
of magnitude and ponderous strength than another object of ten times the
same dimensions. The intensity of the feeling makes up for the
disproportion of the objects. Things are equal to the imagination, which
have the power of affecting the mind with an equal degree of terror,
admiration, delight, or love. When Lear calls upon the heavens to avenge
his cause, "for they are old like him," there is nothing extravagant or
impious in this sublime identification of his age with theirs; for there
is no other image which could do justice to the agonising sense of his
wrongs and his despair!

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 18th Aug 2019, 19:37