« Of the Samaritan… | ‘Lost Articles’ | On the Poetry of Baron Haller »

On the Use of the Pagan Mythology in Poetry

A REVOLUTION has taken place in modern Poetry, which is of the greatest importance to the lovers of the art. This is no less than a total banishment of the Heathen Mythology from our Poetry. The great Johnson preferring, not infrequently, a singularity of opinion to an enforcing of truth—or, let us confess, who has given strong marks of a deficiency in poetical taste—has confounded the beauties of the Pagan Mythology with its abuse. We are to read the criticisms of this great man with caution; we must recollect that, in his examination of Milton, his prejudices warp his judgment; and, in his animadversions on Gray, his criticisms were uncandid and unpoetical. He tells us, in his Life of Prior, “That his fictions are Mythological, and that they are surely despicable:” for he adds—“By the help of such easy fictions, and vulgar topics, without acquaintance with life, and without knowledge of art or nature, a poem of any length, cold and lifeless like this, may be easily written on any subject.”

This is dictated by the uncharitable spirit of criticism. It is strange, that a man of such active faculties, and of such critical sagacity, should not have perceived, that when the Poet wanders in the unbounded regions of Fancy, he hath little to do with the mere state of Nature; that, expatiating in the wide range of Imagination, he does not so much borrow from Nature, but rather adorns her by the creation of new beings. Hence the pipe of the shepherd is the shrill shell of Pan; the murmuring of the waters is the sigh of the Naiad; and the dewy flowers, that sparkle on the eye, are the glittering tears of Aurora.”

I will allow that a Pedant, well-read in his Pantheon, may produce, what some may be apt to take for a Poem, by a mere mechanical effort. He may call Apollo and the Muses, Minerva and Venus; but let him beware of what he is about. These celestial beings are no less dangerous than what, in our British Solomon’s time, was thought to be the railing of the devil; of whom one said, that he doubted not, with book in hand, he could raise him easily enough; but, when he had done that, the danger lay in the manner he was to employ his devilship. The Pedant may, indeed, lug into his verse the reluctant gods and goddesses; but they will not have the air of divinities. It requires the most skilful hand, and some of the finest touches of genius, to place them in a novel situation; to polish the finished piece into classical beauty, and exhaust on them the pomp and brilliancy of his imagination.

Let us not, then, hastily resign our faith, in the theology of ancient Poetry. If it appears trite and insipid in the hands of a mere versifier, let us reflect, that every thing in such a writer will have the same effect. It is certain, that no order of beings have yet been found so agreeable to the imagination, when this poetic machinery is displayed by the address of superior genius. How admirably has Gray, in his Progress of Poetry, embellished with these beautiful forms the third stanza of the first Antistrophe. Allegorical Personages, which Spenser has unfortunately employed, soon weary. The enchantment of mythological fiction is continued, and is susceptible of continual variety.

The omnipotence of the divinities of Poetry is eternal: it is true, they do not always yield their inspiration, Venus still resides in Paphos; Diana still embellishes the woods; the Nymphs inhabit their accustomed oak; and there is not a pure stream but, in its crystaline cave, is still honoured with the presence of its Naiad.

I venerate the abilities of this our late Coryphæus; but, if we are blindly to follow the dictum of our leader, farewel to that free discussion by which, through the medium of contrary opinions, we at length attain to truth. The critical powers of Boileau may well be opposed to those of Johnson; and however the English dress, which Sir William Sloane has given him, may be inferior to the original Boileau, he may yet be understood.

“IN the narration of some great design,
  Invention, art, and fable, all must join:
  Here fiction must employ it’s utmost grace;
  All must assume a body, mind, and face.
  Each virtue a divinity is seen;
  Prudence is PallasBeauty, Paphos’ Queen;
  ’Tis not a cloud from whence swift lightnings fly,
  But Jupiter that thunders from the sky.
  Echo’s no more an empty, airy sound,
  But a fair nymph, that weeps her lover drown’d.
  Thus, in the endless treasures of his mind,
  The poet does a thousand figures find:
  Around the work his ornaments he pours.
                  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
  Without these ornaments before our eyes,
  Th’ unsinew’d poem languishes and dies:
  Your Poet in his art will always fail,
  And tell you but a dull, insipid tale.
  In vain have our mistaken Authors try’d
  To lay these ancient ornaments aside.
                  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
  And, in a common subject, to reject
  The Gods, and Heathen ornaments neglect;
  To banish Tritons, who the sea invade,
  To take Pan’s whistle, &c.
                  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
  And ev’ry where, as ’twere idolatry,
  Banish descriptions from our Poetry.
  Leave them their pious follies to pursue;
  But let our reason such vain fears subdue.”

If the little I have ventured to give of my own, supported by the critical authority of Boileau, should fail to relieve the modern Poet from the harsh and severe tyranny of our present Critics; if we must quit Greece, the land of invention, to live in our colder climate, I will submit to it with all possible resignation: but let me at least testify my veneration to the Divinities of Poetry, in taking as poetical a farewel of them as the time will permit.

    “O YE! who felt the FANCIED POWER,
Illuminate the mental hour!
We feebler Scribes of later days,
Have lost the beam that warm’d your lays.
For ye how wide th’ enchantment stream’d!
The UNIVERSE, one TEMPLE seem’d.
What vivifying POWERS have stood,
In the still horrors of the wood.
AURORA’S TEARS impearl’d the flowers;
And ZEPHYR shook the fragrant bowers.
A NAIAD’S SIGH, the murmuring rill,
Some SYLVAN POWER protects each hill.
If in the stream a Nymph would lave,
She felt the God’s embracing wave.
On every plain, in every grove,
Sported the rosy train of LOVE:
And tripping FAUNS, and SATYRS rude,
Were seen to wander every wood.
’Mid bleeding vines young BACCHUS lay,
Tir’d with the labours of the day.
Rich sheaves of corn kind CERES bears;
And orchards feel POMONA’S cares.
If breathes his reed some shepherd swain,
Enamour’d ECHO steals the strain!
Or shakes the field with horns and hounds;
’Tis DIAN’S self the shrill notes sounds.
Old Ocean’s realms are NEPTUNE’S boast;
Who swells the storm that threats the coast;
Or, if his lovely QUEEN to please,
He chains his waves, and smooths his seas,
Seated in their pearly car,
The TRITONS’ song is heard afar!
And green-hair’d Nymphs their raptures tell,
Dancing to the vocal shell.
The winged HOURS, so shady seat,
From the hot fainting earth retreat;
But where OLYMPUS' GATES disclose,
Jove sat, and shook his awful brows!
His EAGLE, basking in his sight,
Wav'd oft his plumes of beamy light,
And Venus bends her soften'd face,
Or leans on some enchanting GRACE;
While on her looks each GOD has hung,
White-handed HEBE scarce seem'd young.
    Of past delight, this Classic theme
Once form’d in youth my early dream.
Farewel, ye Forms of Grecian art!
That must no more inflame my heart.
Our harsher souls, and colder clime,
Claim sentiment, in polish’d rhyme.
FANCY to REASON must submit;
And glowing IMAGERY to WIT.
Yet, Bards! be taught from ancient source,
Your rapid flight to urge with force;
Or still, with baffled wing ye rise,
Hurl’d from the Poet’s starry skies!”