« הקודםהמשך »
TO THE “ LYRIC POEMS.”
IT has been a long complaint of the virtuous and refined world, that poesy, whose original is divine, should be enslaved to vice and profaneness; than an art inspired from heaven, should have so far lost the memory of its birth-place, as to be engaged in the interests of hell. How unhappily is it perverted from its most glorious design! How basely has it been driven away from its proper station in the temple of God, and abused to much dishonour! The iniquity of men las constrained it to serve their vilest purposes, while the sons of piety mourn the sacrileges and the shame.
The eldest song which history has brought down to our ears, was a noble act of worship paid to the God of Israel, when his “right-hand became glorious in power; when thy right-hand, O Lord, dashed in pieces the enemy: the chariots of Pharaoh and his hosts were cast into the red-sea : Thou didst blow with thy wind, the deep covered them, and they sank as lead in the mighty waters,” Ex. xv. This art was maintained sacred through the following ages of the church, and employed by kings and prophets, by David, Solomon, and Isaiah, in describing the nature and the glories of God, and in conveying grace or vengeance to the hearts of men. By this method they brought so much of heaven down to this lower world, as the darkness of that dispensation would admit: And now and then a divine and poetic rap. ture lifted their souls far above the level of that economy of shadows, bore them away far into a brighter region, and gave them a glimpse of evangelic day. The life of angels was harmoniously breathed into the children of Adam, and their minds raised near to heaven in melody and devotion at once.
In the younger days of heathenism the muses were devoted to the same service; The language in which old Hesiod addresses them is this:
Μεσαι Πιεριηθεν αοιδησι κλειoυσαι,
“Descend, and sing the God your Father's praise." And he pursues the subject in ten pious lines, which I could not forbear to transcribe, if the aspect and sound of so much Greek were not terrifying to a nice reader.
But some of the latter poets of the pagan world have debased this divine gift ; and many of the writers of the first rank, in this our age of national christians, have, to tbeir eternal shame, surpassed the vilest of the Gentiles. They have not only disrobed religion of all the ornaments of verse, but have employed their pens in impious mischief, to deform her natire beauty, aud defile her honours. They have exposed her most sacred character to drollery, and dressed her up in a most vile and ridiculous disguise, for the scorn of the ruder herd of mankind. The vices have been painted like so many goddesses, the charms of wit have been added to de. bauchery, and the temptation heightened where nature needs the strongest restraints. With sweetness of sound, and delicacy of expression, they have given a relish to blasphernies of the harshest kind; and when they rant at their Maker in sonorous numbers, they fancy themselves to have acted the hero well.
Thus almost in rain have the throne and the pulpit cried reformation; while She stage and licentious poems have waged open war with the pious design of church and state. The press has spread the poison far, and scattered wide the mortal infection : Unthinking youth bave becu enticed to sin beyond the vicious propensities 220
of nature, plunged early into diseases and death, and sunk down to damnation in multitudes. Was it for this, that poesy was endued with all those allurements that lead the mind away in a pleasing captivity? Was it for this, she was furnished with 60 many intellectual charms, that she might seduce the heart from God, the original beauty, and the most lovely of beings? Can I ever be persuaded, that those sweet and resistless forces of metaphor, wit, sound, and number, were given with this design, that they should be all ranged under the banner of the great malicious spirit, to invade the rights of heaven, and to bringø swift and everlasting destruction upon men? How will these allies of the nether world, the lewd and profane versifiers, stand aghast before the great Judge, when the blood of many souls, whom they never saw, shall be laid to the charge of their writings, and be dreadfully required at their hands? The Rev. Mr. Collier has set this awfulscene before them in just and fiaming colours. Iftie application were not too rude and uncivil, that noble stanza of my lord Roscommon, on psalm cxlviii. might be addressed to them.
“ Ye dragons, whose contagious breath
“ And praise your Maker with your forked tongues.” This profanation and debasement of so divine an art, has tempted some weaker christians to imagine that poetry and vice are naturally a-kin; or, at least, that verse is fitonly to recommend trifles, and entertain our looser hours, but it is too light and trivial a method to treat any thing that is serious and sacred. They submit, indeed, to use it in divine psalmody, but they love the driest translation of the psalm best. They will venture to sing a dull hymn or two at church, in tunes of equal dulness; but still they persuade themselves, and their children, that the beauties of poesy are vain and dangerous. All that arises a degree above Mr. Sternhold is too airy for worship, and hardly escapes the sentence of unclean and abominable. It is strange, that persons that have the bible in their hands, should he led away by. thoughtless prejudices to so wild and rash an opinion. Let me entreat them not to indulge this sour, this censorious humour too far, lest the sacred writers fall under the lash of their unlimited and unguarded reproaches. Let me entreat them to look into their bible, and remember the style and way of writing that is used by the ancient prophets. Have they forgot, or were they never told, that many parts of the Old Testament are hebrew verse? And the figures are stronger, and the metaphors bolder, and the images more surprising and strange than ever I read in any profane writer. When Deborah sings her praises to the God of Israel, while he marched from the field of Edom, she sets the “ Earth a trembling, the heavens drop, and the mountains dissolve from before the Lord. They fought from heaven, the stars in their courses fought against Sisera : When the river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.” Judges, F. &c. When Eliphaz, in the book of Job, speaks his sense of the holiness of God, he introduces a machine in a vision : “ Pear came upon me, trembling on all my bones, the bair of my fiesh stood up; a spirit passed by and stood still, but its form was undiscernible; an image before mine eyes; and silence ; tben I heard a voice, saying, Shall mortal man be more just than God? &c.” Job ir. Wben he describes the safety of the righteous, he hides hiin “from the scourge of the tongue, he makes him laugh at destruction and fainine, he brings the stones of the field into league with him, and makes the brute animals enter into a covenant of peace," Job v. 21, &. When Job speaks of the grave, how melancholy is the gloom that he spreads over it! It is a region to which I must shortly go, “and whence I shall not return: it is a land of darkness, it is darkness itself, the land of the shadow of death ; all confusion and lisorder, and where the light is as darkness. This is, my house, there have I made my bed: I have said to corruption, Thon ait my father, and to the worm, Thou art my mother and my sister:
As for my bope, who shall see it? I and ny hope go down together to the bars of the pit.” Job x. 21. and xvii, 13. When he humbles himself in complainings before the almighéiness of God, what contemptible and feeble images doth he use ! "Wilt thou break a leaf driven to and fro? Wilt thou pursue the dry stubble? I cousuine away like a rotten thing, a garinent eaten by the moth;" Job xiii. 25. &c.
Thou liftest me up to the wind, thou causest me to ride upon it, and dissolvest my substance.” Job xxiii. 22. Can any man invent more despicable ideas to represent the scoundrel herd and refuse of mankind, than those which Job uses? chap. xxx. and thereby he aggravates his own sorrows and reproaches to amazement: “ They that are younger than I have me in derision, whose fathers I would have disdained to have set with the dogs of my flock: For want and famine they were solitary; fleeing into the wilderness desolate and waste : They cut up mallows by the bushes, and juniper-roots for their meat: They were driven forth from among men, (they cried after them as after a thief) to dwell in the clifts of the vallies, in caves of the earth, and in rocks: Among the bushes they brayed, under the vettles they were gathered together; they were children of fools; yea, children of base men; they were viler than the earth: And now am I their song, yea, I a'n their by-word, &c.” How mournful and dejected is the language of his own sorrons! “ Terrors are turned upon him, they pursue his sonl as the wind, and his welfare passes away as a cloud; his bones are pierced within him, and his soul is poured out; he goes mourning without the sun, a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls; while his barp and organ are turned into the voice of them that weep." I must transcribe one half of this holy book, if I would shew the grandeur, the variety, and the justness of his ideas, or the pomp and beauty of bis expression: I must copy out a good part of the writings of David and Isaiah, if I would represent the poetical excellencies of their thougbts and style: Nor is the language of the lesser prophets, especially in some paragraphs, much inferior to these.
Now while they paint human nature in its various forms and circumstances, if their designing be so just and noble, their disposition so artful, and their colouring so bright, beyond the most famed human writers, how much more must their descriptions of God and heaven exceed all that is possible so be said by a meaner tongue? When they speak of the dwelling-place of God, “ He inbabits eternity, and sits upon the throne of his holiness, in the midst of light inaccessible. When his holiness is mentioned, The heavens are not clean in his sight, he charges his angels with folly: He looks to the moon, and it shineth not, and the stars are not pure before bis eyes: He is a jealous God, and a consuming fire. If we speak of strength, Behold, he is strong : He removes the mountains, and they know it not : He overturns them in his anger: He shakes the earth from her place, and her pillars tremble; He makes a path through the mighty waters, he discovers the foundations of the world: The pillars of heaven are astonished at his reproof. And after all, These are but a portion of his ways: The thunder of his power who can understand? His sovereignty, bis knowledge, and his wisdom, are revealed to us in language vastly superior to all the poctical accounts of heathen divinity. “ Let the potsherds strive with the potsherds of the earth; but shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? He bids the heavens drop down from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. He commands the sun, and it riseth not, and he sealeth up the stars. It is he that saith to the deep, Be dry, and he drieth up the rivers. Woe to them that seek deep to hide their counsel froin the Lord; bis eyes are upon all their ways, he understands their thoughts afar off, Hell is naked before him, and destruction hath no covering. He calls out all the stars by their pames, he frustrateth the tokens of the liars, and makes the diviners mad: He turns wise men backward, and their knowledge becomes foolish.” His transcendent eminence above all things is most nobly represented, when he “ sits upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers: All nations before him are as the drop of a bucket, and as the small dust of the balance: He takes up the isles as a very little thing: Lebanon, with all her beasts, is not sufficient for a sacrifice to this God, nor are all her trees sufficient for the burning.” This God, before whom “ the whole creation is as nothing, yea, less than nothing and vanity. To which of all the heathen gods then wi!l ye compare me, saith the Lord, and what shall I be likened to ?” And to which of all the heathen poets shall we liken or compare this glorious Orator, the sacred Describer of the godhrad? The orators of all nations are as nothing before him, and their words are vanity and emptiness. Let us turn our eyes now to some of the holy writings, where God is creating the world: How meanly do the best of the Gen
tiles talk and trifle upon this subject, when brought into comparison with Moses, whom Longinus himself, a Gentile critic, cites as a master of the sublime style, when he chose to use it; and the Lord said, “ Let there be light," and there was light : Let there be clouds and seas, sun and stars, plants and animals, and behold they are: He commanded, and they appear and obey : By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth: This is working like a God, with infinite ease and omnipotence. His wonders of providence for the terror and rnin of his adversaries, and for the succour of his saints, is set before our eyes in the scripture with equal magnificence, and as becomes divinity. When “ he arises out of his place, the earth trembles, the fomndations of the hills are shaken because he is wroth: There goes a smoke up out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoureih, coals are kindled by it. He bows the heavens, and comes down, and darkness is under his feet. The mountains melt like wax, and flow down at his presence.” If Virgil, Homer, or Pindar were to prepare an equipage for a descending God, they might use thunder and lightnings too, and clouds and fire, to form a chariot and horses for the battle, or the triumph; but there is none of them provides him a flight of cherubs instead of horses, or seats him in chariots of salvation. David beholds him riding “ upon the heaven of heavens, by his name JAH: He was mounted upon a cherub, and did fly, he flew on wings of the wind: and Habbakkuk sends the pestilence before him.” Homer keeps a mighty stir with his Napranyepsia Zeus, and Hesiod with bis Zeu; utoßprpeetus. Jupiter, that raises up the clouds, and that makes a noise, or thunders on high. But a divine poet makes the “clouds but the dust of his fect; and when the highest gives his voice into the heavens, hailstones and coals of fire follow.” A divine poet “ discovers the channels of the waters, and lays open the foundations of nature ; at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils. When the holy One alighted upon mount Sinai, “ his glory covered the heavens: He stood and measured the earth: He beheld and drove asunder the nations, and the everlasting mountains were scattered: The perpetual hills did bow ; his ways are everlasting.”
Then the prophet “saw the tents of Cushan in affliction, and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble," Hab. iii. Nor did the blessed Spirit which animated these writers forbid them the use of visions, dreams, the opening of scenes dreadful and delightful, and the introduction of machines upon great occasions; The divine licence in this respect is admirable and surprising, and the images are often too bold and dangerous for an uninspired writer to imitate. Mr. Dennis bas made a noble essay to discover how much superior is inspired poesy to the brightest and best descriptions of a mortal pen. Perhaps, if his proposal of criticism had been encouraged and pursued, the nation might have learnt more value for the word of God, and the wits of the age might have been secured from the danger of deism ; while they must have been forced to confess at least the divinity of all the poetical books of scripture, when they see a genius running through them more than human.
Who is there now will dare to assert, that the doctrines of our holy faith will not indulge or endure a delightful dress? Shall the French poet * affright us, by saying,
“De la foy d'un chrétien les mysteres terribles,
“ D'ornemens egayez ne sont point susceptibles ?
" That the majesty of our religion, the holiness of its law, the purity of its morals, the height of its mysteries, and the importance of every subject that belongs to it, requires a grandeur, a nobleness, a majesty, and elevation of style suited to the theme: Sparkling images and magnificent expressions must be used, and are best borrowed from scripture: Let the preacher, that aims at eloquence, read the prophets incessantly, for their writings are an abundant source of all the riches and orgaments of speech.” And, in my opinion, this is far better counsel than Hotace gives us, when he says,
.“ Vos exemplaria Græca