Page images
[merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors]


IT is somewhere observed in the writings of FLETCHER of Saltoun, a man endeared to every Scottish bosom for his profound wisdom and exalted independence, that "he knew a very wise man who believed, that if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws, of a nation." This remark is undoubtedly expressive of the author's conviction, that such compositions have a very powerful influence on the manners, feelings, and actions, of a people, and that, under proper guidance and di. rection, they might even supersede the influence and terror of law itself in the government of mankind.

But be this as it may, it is beyond dispute that legislators and rulers, both in ancient and in modern times, have, to a certain extent, subscribed to the justice of the observation, and shown their sense of the influence of poetry, by the assistance they have occasionally condescended to derive from it: for the same FLETCHER goes on to observe, that few of the legislators of antiquity entered upon any great plan of reform in a city, without the assistance of a dramatic, and even a lyric poet; and STEELE, in one of his Spectators, says, that he had “ heard of a minister of state, in the reign of queen ELIZABETH, who had all manner of books and ballads brought to him, of what kind soever, and took great notice how much they took with the people; upon which he would, and certainly might, very well judge of their present dispositions, and the most proper way of applying them according to his own purposes."

Now it will certainly appear that there is a very great deal of reason in all this, if the fact be taken into consideration, that no species of composition leaves a more indelible impression upon the human mind than poetry, or stands in higher estimation amongst the most savage as well as the most civilized nations. Indeed, it may be safely said of poetry, that it is the only language of nature, or more properly speaking, that it is the first medium through which nature teaches the savage and untutored mind to think, to feel, and to act; for at the present day, the most barbarous nations of which we have any knowledge, though entirely ignorant of every other species of literary composition, have yet an acquaintance with poetry, more or less rude indeed, in proportion to the progress they have made, but proving beyond a doubt, that though art may be necessary to heighten its polish, yet its origin is to be traced to the time when it issues naked and unadorned from the heart of the uncultivated savage.

It would be extremely difficult to point out any nation, either in ancient or in modern times, where poetry was al. together unknown. Though the simple productions of nature have constantly something about them of a character unformed, rough, and savage, yet the literary annals of all nations afford vestiges of poetry from the remotest ages. They are found among the most wild of all the ancient bar. barians, and among the most desolate of all the modern A. mericans. Nature asserts her rights in every country, and in every age.

Ancient historians mention the verses and hymns of the Germans, at the time when that rough people yet inhabited the woods, and when their manners were still savage. The first inhabitants of Runnia, those of Gaul, Al. bion, Iberia, Ausonia, and other nations of Europe, had their poetry, as well as the ancient people of Asia, and of the known borders of Africa. The use to which they applied it was to transmit to their children a knowledge of the princi. ples of their worship, their religious ceremonies, their laws, and the renowned actions of their sages and heroes; and this was done by a kind of hymns or songs which fathers sung to their children, in order to impress the subjects more forci. bly upon their hearts.

Co-extensive with the existence of poetry of some kind among every rude people, is the influence which it possesses over their minds. Not only has it always been the medium through which their notions of religion were acquired, and their respect for the gods inculcated, but it has also been the chief instrument of exciting their passions good and bad, and more particularly, of animating to the performance of all those actions and exploits where a more than ordinary degree of courage and enterprise was required. Let any man picture to himself a North American Indian preparing for a warlike expedition- let him observe with what coolness and deliberation he puts in order the instruments of death—he exhibits no more concern or anxiety than if he were going about the most ordinary affair of life-he appears rather indifferent to the business than otherwise;—but let him follow the warrior on his expedition till he has approached the enemy-let him hear the war song raised, and mark its wonderful effects the savage is no longer the same passive being—the gathering fury flashes from his eyes,--as it proceeds, his dark brows are more strongly knit--his whole soul seems convulsed with a rage more than human, -and, as it reaches the climax, he rushes on the foe with all the sternness and rage of the blood-thirsty tyger;-let any man picture to himself all this,

« PreviousContinue »