« AnteriorContinuar »
Quis tubicen me imponet equo? (licet artis equestris
Certa sequi, accipite hæc, et nostra revolvite dicta.
Læta favore novo, quibus, ut mihi, non domus, aut res,
Hæc mea tum, magno magnum plaudente patrono,—
ALFREDUS CONSTANTINUS MULGRAVE TIMMS TIMMS,
* Doctor illustris ille, et comitiis suburbanis pergratus.
NO. CCXCVI. VOL. XLVII.
-En. lib. 6,
THE disposition of our minds to invest inanimate objects with imaginary life and feeling, is more deeply implanted and more variously displayed than superficial observers are ready to believe. "Homo sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto," was the principle of Terence's philanthropist. But the affections of man are not circumscribed even by the limits of his own species. The meanest of nature's works may sometimes excite or occupy his most passionate emotions.
"The centre moved, a circle straight suc ceeds,
Another still, and still another spreads: Friend, parent, neighbour, first it will embrace,
His country next, and next all human
Wide and more wide the o'erflowings of the mind
Take every creature in, of every kind." When our feelings are thus strongly affected towards insensate objects, we have a tendency to see in them, as in a mirror, the features of our own moral frame, and to bestow on them a community or correspondence of sentiment with ourselves. In our ordinary mood we look at existence as it is: we recognise in the material world merely the mechanical qualities which move our senses: and with some persons this condition is seldom or never exchanged for livelier or loftier impressions. But those who are condemned to see things always in their literal and everyday aspect, are little to be envied and not greatly to be loved. There is generally some torpor of the heart where this peculiarity is perceptible; and, even supposing it to proceed from a defect of imagination, it is not likely that one important faculty should be thus deficient without implying or producing a corresponding inefficiency in the other powers, and among the rest, in the moral qualities. The unregenerate state of Wordsworth's potter was indicated by symptoms of this description.
"He roved among the vales and streams,
In the green wood, and hollow dell: They were his dwellings night and day; But Nature ne'er could find the way Into the heart of Peter Bell.
"In vain through every changeful year
And it was nothing more."
Nor was it till the face of Nature had looked on him with a fearful intelligence, and her voice had sounded in his mind's ear with an awakening solemnity, that the outcast's heart began to exchange its stony hardness for a softer structure, and his eyes to collect those drops which, descending in a plenteous shower, were to wash out the stains of his guilt and revive his deadened spirit.
Not less salutary, as a preservative of virtue, is the kindly communion which good men habitually hold with inanimate nature; and the alacrity with which they interpret her looks and language when fit occasion arises, bears a proportion to the healthiness of their feelings and the
innocence of their lives. We see how readily the pure and pliant minds of children give admission to an affection for inanimate things, and yield to the pleasing illusions which clothe the objects of their love with life and sensibility; and in this respect, as in others, it is well for us, if, as far as permissi ble, we become "as these little ones."
There seems to be scarcely any strong emotion which may not place inanimate objects in such a relation towards us as to give them the aspect of living beings. Terror, wonder, love, joy, grief, are each able to pro duce this marvellous change.
"A potent wand doth sorrow wield: What spell so strong as guilty fear!" The lifeless objects of any violent desire or aversion assume in the whirlwind of our passion the characters of buoyant with happiness, the face of human expression. When we are
nature seems to reflect our smiles: extended to surrounding scenes, as when we are sorrowful, the gloom is if they shared our sadness: when dejected beyond the point to which external things can be brought to harmonize with our sufferings, we reproach them for withholding their sympathy, and regard the light of heaven and the beauty of earth as if they were
the mockery of an insulting spectator. Meditation on the works of external creation, and even on the abstractions of our own intellect, has power, when animated by a moral spirit, to convert the subjects of our contemplation into creatures who return a warm and significant answer to the affections with which they are regarded, and the enquiries with which they are addressed. Even fancy, taking the place of feeling, can imitate in sport those vivid impersonations which originally spring from the fountain of an overflowing heart.
The successful employment of the personifying faculty in poetical composition has been always acknowledged as a source of pleasure and a test of genius. Personification is not essential to poetry any more than it is sufficient to produce it. But, in its proper place, it is a powerful auxiliary to the poet's other resources; and it is impossible for the true poet to deal with some of the most poetical feelings and situations without being impelled to seek its aid.
The art of poetry, and consequently of criticism, must in this part of its province be guided by a mixed consideration of two points: the one, the state of mind which produces or justifies personification; the other, the character of the objects on which personification is to be exerted. If either of these elements is overlooked or miscalculated, there will be a failure in the result; and the same process which would otherwise have thrilled the heart and satisfied the understanding, will appear weak or ridiculous from being unseasonably attempted or incongruously pursued. There can be no greater absurdity than a startling personification unsupported by strong feeling, or a display of strong feeling, employed in personify ing an unworthy object.
We propose to bestow a pretty full consideration on this curious chapter of poetical criticism; but before proceeding to do so, we think it material to notice two remarkable forms which the personifying principle has assumed in human history, and which demonstrate the prevalence and permanence of its operation, at the same time that they have a singular and close con
nexion with the proper subject of our present enquiry.
1. It is certain that most systems of religious superstition have owed a great part of their structure to a misuse of this principle. The visible forms or invisible powers of Nature, the multitudinous attributes of the Divine unity, and even the qualities of our own frail and feeble minds, have been endowed by religious fear or enthusiasm with an individual and living existence; nor does it matter much to this question whether, in some of the forms of Paganism, we suppose the worshippers to have converted the visible object itself into a god, or believed the Godhead to exist in some attendant genius presiding specially over the object. In either way, we have the same propensity displayed for connecting lifeless things with a living principle. In the furthest extreme of this feeling, combined with a blinded barbarism of soul, we meet with that form of worship which properly constitutes idolatry, where the image of the divinity, though perhaps the work of the worshipper's own hands, is converted into the ultimate object of adoration, the divinity himself.
It would be idle in us to expatiate on the operation of the personifying principle in connexion with misguided religious feeling, or to trace its strange yet natural inconsistencies, aiming sometimes at as high an intelligence as the imagination of man can compass, and sinking sometimes to as low a depth as his passions can descend to. The exposition of this important subject has been more than once successfully attempted, and in particular has been accomplished in a form at once attractive and satisfactory by the great philosophical poet of the age;* and we only refrain from inserting the noble lines in which it is conveyed, in the conviction that they must be as familiar to our readers as they deserve to be.
It is scarcely necessary to point out the connexion which subsists between the personifications of superstition, and those which poetry employs. The classical and other Pagan mythologies have tinged too deeply the current of literature to be easily overlooked, and the images supplied from them have
* Excursion, Book IV.
not only been profusely used, but have taught and encouraged our poets to add analogous fictions of their own creation.
2. The other example we would adduce, in which the spirit of personification has left a permanent impress of its power on the history of man, is different both in character and dignity from that of mythological superstition, though not without a strange similarity to it, both in its origin and in its effects. We allude to the almost universal prevalence, in the various forms of human language, of a principle which attributes the qualities of sex to inanimate objects, by means of a grammatical distinction of genders. Languages of the greatest antiquity present us with this remarkable, and apparently irrational tendency, of which it seems so difficult to get rid, that it has characterised almost the whole even of the most cultivated forms of speech; and has only been thrown off and eliminated from our own tongue by some peculiar process, of which the nature and operation are scarcely at all understood. It is extremely diffi. cult to explain, upon any clear grounds, the anomalies of a nomenclature of inanimate things diversified by grammatical gender. It is probable that a supposed analogy between certain physical qualities and the attributes of sex, have partly produced this phenomenon; and that a similarity in the mere form of words has acted as an important secondary element, in extending the distinction when it was once established. But after allowing fully for these influences, it seems yet undeniable that the personifying principle, in some shape or other, must have been the chief or primary agent in the operation. It is probable, that in many cases the personifications that led to the attribute of gender, originated in the superstitious feelings which we have already noticed.
There is a curious diversity in languages as to the extent to which the idea of imaginary gender has been carried. In some of them, such as the Romance languages, and we believe the Celtic, Lithuanian, and Hebrew, the neuter gender is entirely wanting, and every noun, whether the name of a person or of a thing, is ranged either under a masculine or under a feminine character. This is remarkable enough; but it is scarcely
less remarkable that other languages, though possessing a neuter gender, should not give it the full scope and compass that seems philosophically to belong to it, but should, with much apparent caprice and confusion, promote many nouns to the masculine or feminine class, that seem to have no pretensions to any sexual or personal character whatever. It may be observed, on the other hand, that the neuter gender seems sometimes, on very sound views of reason, to have assumed even a higher ground than the other distinctions of the same kind, as where in Sanscrit, the derivative deities of Indian mythology are masculine or feminine; but BRAHMA, in the sense of the abstract divine essence, or unknown God, is neuter or sexless, as a being far elevated above any participation in the bodily qualities of frail humanity.
There can be little doubt that, at certain stages in the progress of literature, the existence of artificial grammatical genders-if that should be called artificial which seems congenital with almost every language-has contributed to prompt the use and promote the reception of poetical personifications. According to a common result, however, what at first would facilitate the process, would come ultimately to weaken its effect; and there is much justice in the remark so frequently made, that the genderless character of the English language, in its ordinary form, in reference to the names of inanimate objects, gives it a higher prominence and relief when the appropriate diction of personification comes to be employed. This poetical figure has less power in languages where there is no room forgiving a further elevation to the expression, by bestowing on material things those characteristics of sex and personality, which already belong to them according to the ordinary rule of grammatical formation: just as there is nothing sublime in a wide range of table-land, and nothing emphatic in a book printed wholly in Italics. We think that we might make this further and analogous remark, that the extinction of superstition gives a greater effect to images of poetical personification than if there still remained a popular, though proba. bly not a very vivid conviction that the object personified has a real existence. It may require imaginative
"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork.
genius to invent a mythology, but it requires none to assent or adhere to it; and there is a greater feeling of poetical power when we are presented with impersonations which are not coldly adopted as parts of a received creed, but impressed upon us as the warm creations of individual enthu siasm.
Having made these preliminary remarks on collateral matters, to which we may occasionally wish to revert in the course of this discussion, we proceed, as we proposed, to examine in some detail the modes in which personification may be employed in poetry.
We shall endeavour first to illustrate the nature of the feelings which produce or justify personification.
We have already noticed the influence of religious emotions in producing a superstitious personification of the objects with which they may come to be connected. But, independently of superstition, and consistently with the purest piety and the clearest knowledge, devotional sentiments have a powerful tendency to excite the personifying faculties. The true worshipper of the Divine essence cannot indulge his meditations, or pursue his exercises of praise and prayer, in presence of those innumerable hosts of his fellow-creatures, whether animate or inanimate, that attest the power and goodness of their common Creator, without seeking and seeing, in all of them alike, a confirmation of his creed, and a sympathy with his adoration. At early morn and 'at the noon of night, the light or the darkness, the joyous revival of the awakening earth or the solemn vigils of the stars on high, will seem in the ear of piety not less audibly, and often, alas! more faithfully, than the tongues of men, to resound the excellences of the God that made them, and their own gratitude for the gracious gifts of existence and of beauty. Hear the royal singer of Israel, and say if his lofty imaginations are not reflected, however feebly, by your own hearts?
Lord from the heavens: praise him in the heights.
"Praise ye him, all his angels: praise
ye him, all his hosts.
"Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.
"Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens. "Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created.
"He hath also stablished them for ever and ever he hath made a decree which shall not pass.
"Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:
"Fire and hail; snow and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling his word:
"Mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars;
"Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things and flying fowl:
"Kings of the earth, and all people; princes, and all judges of the earth:
"Both young men and maidens; old men and children:
"Let them praise the name of the Lord for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven."
Or listen to the morning orisons of our first parents, while yet pure, in the words of him who of all uninspired men was the most inspired.
"These are thy glorious works, Parent of good,
In these thy lowest works; yet these declare