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THE

EDINBURGH MAGAZINE,

AND

LITERARY MISCELLANY.

JULY 1820.

ON THE CAUSES OF THE EXCELLENCE OF EARLY POETRY.

In examining the early literary his tory of almost every nation with which we are acquainted, and in tracing the rise of the various branches of human knowledge, it will be found, that, among these, Poetry claims a priority of origin. At periods when ignorance and barbarity have precluded all progress in other walks of knowledge, this divine art has made advances to perfection which excite our astonishment even in the present advanced condition of society. The causes of this early progress of poetry are easily discoverable. They are to be found, in the first place, in that superior power which is gained by the faculty of imagination amid those dark and disastrous circumstances which seem to overwhelm all the other energies of the mind. 2d, However paradoxical it may at first appear, we may discover another cause in the imperfection and barrenness of language in these early periods. 3dly, The occasions on which these poetical effusions, amongst rude tribes, are generally composed, and the persons or audience to whom they are addressed, will be found to have a great influence in conferring upon them that truth, nature, and energy, which we in vain look for in more modern productions.

Amongst the faculties of the human mind, the imagination is not only the most excursive, but the most independent. Reading, reasoning, and habits of patient thought, are necessary to the other powers. To it they are not only unnecessary, but in some measure hurtful. It needs no

assistance from the world of letters or of science, since it inhabits a far better world of its own. It is the only faculty which seems to prefer darkness rather than light; or, when it chooses to come forth from that secret cell where it performs its incantations, it will condescend to study from no other book than that great volume which Nature has spread before it. Hence, since this faculty must needs be as vigorous, and have as wide a field to expatiate in, amongst savage tribes as with civilized nations, and since it is itself the very soul of poctry, it follows, that, with them, this of poetry must be the first art which they cultivate, and one, too, which is likely to attain to no common perfection. But another cause is to be found in the imperfection of language.

the progress of every nation, is in a Language, in the early periods of very rude condition, and it is in this imperfection and apparent barrenness of the language that we shall find one cause for the lofty and simple tone assumed by the poetry. The words are few, it is true, but they are in

variably expressive. They are descriptive of the strongest passions and the deepest feelings of the human heart; of patriotism and valour, of grief and joy, of triumph and despair, of love and hatred. In the ancient language of a rude people, we find no

*Such was the education of our Shake.. speare. It was in such like solitary musings that Burns imbibed the materials of his future fame; and it was from this retired conversation with Nature that all that is good and great in their productions was primarily derived.

and prowess of his son,-or a lover pleading to his mistress, or a mother singing her child to sleep,-who will not expect (we speak of poetry in its very first state, and before rhyme or measure was introduced) more truth and beauty in the expressions of these persons themselves, of the real mother or the real father, than in the more laboured productions of some bookish poet; the one flowing free, warm, and unpremeditated from the heart; the other proceeding stiff, cold, and laboured from the library? The last must partake of that conceit, that peculiar and characteristic manner which the prevailing taste of the age may have introduced; the other is written in the universal language of nature, tied and fettered by no rule, peculiar to no particular age or country, but intelligible to every human heart. As illustrations of what is here stated as to the early excel-. lence of poetry, and the causes of this excellence, we cannot, it is evident, offer many examples. Much of

redundancy of expletives, as in the modern tongues, no unnecessary expressions, no unmeaning synonymes. These are not to be found, because those fantastic modes of life, and artificial and complicated ideas which arise in the progress of civilization, and for which corresponding terms must be invented, have not then made their appearance. Amongst rude tribes, therefore, even in their common discourse, and still more in their war songs, or their solemn harangues, the speakers were actually compelled, both by the limited number of words they had to select from, and by the bold meaning attached to them, to become nervous and metaphorical; and it is thus that, in the early periods of society, the high-flown and figurative style must have become as much a matter of necessity as the effect of taste or imagination. Children, from the same cause, their ignorance of common language, are of ten driven to make use of beautiful and highly poetical expressions. We are acquainted with a little boy of two years of age, who, at sunset, asked if the sun at night went to his cloudbed. This, which is a fine idea, arose from the vocabulary from which he selected his phrases being so limited in its extent. Á still more poetical expression was used by a child when it saw ice for the first time, and said, "it was water asleep." The same causes, whose effects we can thus trace in the infancy of the individual, operate equally, or rather more powerfully, in the infancy of the species. Another cause of the early cultivation of poetry, and the superior tone of Nature and pathos which it assumes in these rude periods, is to be found in the occasions which call it forth, and the persons to whom it is addressed. Every one must be sensible, that when poetry is the natural product of the occasion,-when a song, for instance, is composed or sung, for the first time, in the midst of the scenery it describes, and accompanied by the circumstances which form its subject, it receives from this circumstance a stamp of vigour and of nature which will impart to it something of that same spirit which an original always possesses over a copy; and again, if the song or poem is descriptive of individual passion, if it is, for instance, a father rejoicing over the victorics

*

* Every one, in the course of his own reading, will have noticed this excellence in the early poetry of most nations. It is perhaps no where more remarkable than in the ancient Welsh poems (whose authenticity has now become undisputed) of Merhim, Taleissin, and Aneurin, as well as in other Welsh poems written at a later era. The first belong to the sixth and seventh centuries, the last to the twelfth and thirtion on these poems by Mr Sharon Turner. teenth. We refer to the ingenious disserta"May the Being who made the splendours of the west, The sun, and chilling moon, glorious ha

bitations,

May he that rules above in universal light, generously grant me The fulness of the glowing muse of Merdhim,

To sing the praise of heroes as Aneurin sang

In the day that he composed the Gododin."

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We cannot help adding here an extract from an ancient Welsh MS. quoted in Mr It is Owen's Preface to Llywarch Hen. the prayer of Talhairn, a bard of the sixth or seventh century.

thy protection strength; and in strength "O God grant thy protection; and in discretion; and in discretion justice; and in justice love; in love, to love God; and in loving God, to love all things."

In this same book of bardism we find a

noble passage regarding Genius.

the earliest poetry of every nation must have been lost in the darkness and ignorance of those ages in which it arose. But that the earliest language of uncivilized man is poetical, and that the poetry thus formed is abounding in expressions of uncommon eloquence and beauty,-all that has been preserved to us of the aboriginal poetry of those countries which are now civilized, and many fragments which travellers have collected amongst nations, at the present moment in a barbarous state, do most fully prove. Need we refer here to the poetry of our native Ossian,-to the figurative and striking eloquence in the harangues of the North American savages,-to the odes and war songs of the Danish and Scandinavian nations,-to the song of the Laplander as he turns his reindeer to the cottage of his mistress,or the lullaby of the Finland woman as she sings to her sleeping infant? The examples of Ossian must be familiar to every reader. Perhaps the following fine description of the Celtic Paradise is not so.

L

"The Isle spread large before me like a pleasing dream of the soul, where distance fades not on the sight: where nearness fatigues not the eye. It had its gently sloping hills of green, nor did they wholly want their clouds. But the clouds were bright and transparent: and each involved in its bosom the source of a stream: a beauteous stream, which, wandering down the steep, was like the faint notes of the half touched harp to the distant ear. The valleys were open free to the ocean trees loaded with leaves which scarcely waved to the light breeze, were scattered on the green declivities and rising grounds. The rude winds walked not on the mountain: no storm took its course through the sky-all was calm and bright: the pure sun of autumn shone from the sky on the fields: he hastened not to the west for repose, nor was he seen to rise in the east. He sits in his noon-day height, and looks obliquely on the noble isle."

"In each valley is its slow-moving stream. The pure waters swell over

"The three requisites of Genius." "An eye to see Nature,- —a heart to feel it, a resolution that dares follow it."

and

the banks, yet abstain from the fields. On the rising hills are the halls of the departed; the high-roofed dwellings of the heroes of old.”

We have mentioned the poetical language of the American Indians. In illustration of this we may quote a very beautiful anecdote which is preserved by M. de St Lambert. Were we to attempt to abridge it, some of its finest pathetic features would be lost. It will be better to transcribe it as literally translated from the original.

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During the war a company of Indians attacked a small body of British troops and defeated them. Few of the British escaped, and those who fell into their hands were treated with the greatest cruelty. Two of the Indians came up to a young man and attacked him with great fury. Another Indian came up who was advanced in years, and armed with a bow and arrows. The old man instantly drew his bow, but after having taken aim at the officer, he suddenly dropt the point of his arrow, and interposed between him and his pursuers. They retired with respect. The old man then took the officer by the hand, soothed him into confidence by caresses, and having conducted him to his hut, treated him with a kindness which did honour to his professions.

"He made him less a slave than a companion, taught him the language of the country, and instructed him in the rude arts that are practised by the inhabitants. They lived together in the most perfect harmony; and the officer, in the treatment he met with, found nothing to regret, but that sometimes the old man fixed his eyes upon him, and after having regarded him for some time with a steady and silent attention, burst into tears.

"In the mean time the spring returned, and the Indians again took the field. The old man, who was still vigorous, set out with them, and was accompanied by his prisoner. They marched above 200 leagues across the forest, and came at length to the plain where the British troops were encamped. The old man shewed his prisoner the tents at a distance. There,' said he, are thy countrymen, there are the enemy who wait to give us battle. Remember that I have saved thy life: that I have taught thee to conduct a canoe: to arm thyself with a bow and arrows: and to

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surprise the beaver in the forest. What wast thou when I first took thee to my hut? Thy hands were those of an infant; they could procure thee neither subsistence nor safety. Thy soul was in utter darkness: thou wast ignorant of every thing. Thou owedst all things to me. Wilt thou go over to thy nation and take up the hatchet against us?' The of ficer replied, that he would rather lose his own life than turn himself against his deliverer. The Indian bending down his head, and covering his face with his hand, stood some time silent. Then looking earnestly at the prisoner, he said in a voice which was, at once softened by tenderness and grief, 'Hast thou a father?' My father, said the young man, · was alive when I left my country. 'Alas,' said the Indian,how wretched must he be.' He paused a moment, and then added, Dost thou know that I have been a father-I am a father no more. saw my son fall in battle, he fell at my side, he was covered with wounds when he fell at my feet.' He pronounced these words with the utmost vehemence. His body shook with a universal tremor. He was almost stifled with sighs, which he would not suffer to escape him. There was a keen restlessness in his eyes, but no tears flowed to their relief. At length he became calm by degrees, and turning towards the east where the sun had just risen, Dost thou see,' said he to the young officer, dost thou see the beauty of that sky which sparkles with prevailing day, and hast thou pleasure in the sight? Yes,' replied the officer, 'I have pleasure in the beauty of so fine a day.' 'I have none,' said the Indian, and his tears then found their way. A few minutes after he showed the officer a

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Magnolia in full bloom. 'Dost thou see," said he, 'that beautiful tree, and dost thou look with pleasure on it?' 'Yes,' replied the officer, I look with pleasure on that beautiful tree.' I have no longer any pleasure in looking on it,' replied the Indian has tily; and immediately added, Go, return to thy father, that he may have pleasure when he sees the sun rise in the morning, and the trees blossom in the spring.'

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feel the full force of it, who will not be sensible that the whole conduct and language of the old Indian is full of poetry.

It would be impertinent to offer any remarks on this beautiful picture. There are few, very few, who will not

We have no doubt that another cause of this metaphorical tone and high wrought poetical expression, assumed by the first compositions of savage nations, is to be discovered in the prevalence of the language of signs amongst them in their earlier periods. In the first attempts towards any thing like language, in their first ef forts to make themselves understood by each other, all savages have recourse to signs, to what Degerando has termed the language of Analogy." If they are desirous of showing a friendly disposition, they have recourse to the symbols of those actions which would be used by none but those who were on terms of peace and amity with each other. They present either the branch of some green tree, or come forward with flowers in their hands, which they hold out to those they wish to conciliate, or they bring in their rude chair of state, and invite their enemy to sit down in it. If they wish to express hostility, they brandish their hatchets, and strike their breasts with their palms, and throw their bodies into attitudes of defiance or contempt. Such is the beginning of the language of signs, and there can be little doubt, that previous to the language of expression having attained any thing like perfection, this language of signs must have made great progress, and they who are accustomed to observe the common performers of pantomime, to the dumb show of any great dramatic actor, or even to the graceful and expressive gestures of children, will have some idea of the perfection to which it must have been carried by those who at first had nothing to supply its place. Now, there can be little doubt, that in this universal and necessary prevalence of the language of signs, we are to find one cause of the prevalence of metaphor, and the figurative and hyperbolical style in the spoken language, and early poetry of all nations. Metaphors and figures are, in fact, nothing else than the last

Degerando, Des Signes et de l'Art de Penser, c. v.-Institution du Langage.A most ingenious and eloquent chapter on the Formation of Language.

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