Page images

While the gaunt mastiff, growling at the gate,
Afrights the beggar, whom he longs to eat.*

In the worst inn's worst room, with mat half-hung,
The floors of plaister, and the walls of dung,
On once a flock-bed, but repair'd with straw,
With tape-ty'd curtains, never meant to draw,
The George and Garter dangling from that bed
Where tawdry yellow strove with dirty red,
Great Villiers lies.t-

The use, the force, and the excellence of language, certainly consists in raising clear, complete, and circumstantial images, and in turning readers into spectators. I have quoted the two preceding passages as eminent examples of this excellence, of all others the most essential in poetry. Every epithet here used, paints its object, and paints it distinctly. After having passed over the moat full of cresses, do you not actually find yourself in the middle court of this forlorn and solitary mansion, overgrown with docks and nettles ? And do you not hear the dog that is going to assault you? Among the other fortunate circumstances that attended Homer, it was not one of the least, that he wrote before general


[blocks in formation]

and abstract terms were invented. Hence his Muse (like his own Helen standing on the walls of Troy) points out every person, and thing, accurately, and forcibly. All the views and

prospects he lays before us, appear as fully and perfectly to the eye, as that which engaged the attention of Neptune when he was sitting, (Iliad, b. 13. v. 12.)

Υψό επ' ακροτατης κορυφης Σαμε υληεσσης,
Θρηικιης ενθεν γαρ εφαινετο σασα μεν Ιδη, ,
Φαινετο δε Πριαμοιο σολις, και νηες Αχαιών.

Those who are fond of generalities, may think the number of natural, little circumstances, introduced in the beautiful narration of the

expedition of Dolon and DIOMEDE, (Book the 10th,) too particular and trifling, and below the dignity of Epic poetry.

But every reader of a just taste, will always admire the minute description of the helmet and crest at verse the 257th; the clapping of the wings of the heron, which they could not see; the squatting down among the dead bodies till Dolon had passed ; Ulysses hissing to Diomede as a signal; the striking the




horses with his bow, because he had forgotten to bring his whip with him; and the innumerable circumstances which make this narration so lively, so dramatic, and so interesting. Half the Iliad and the Odyssey might be quoted as examples of this way of writing: So different from the unfinished, half-formed figures, presented to us by many modern writers. How much is the pathetic heightened by Sophocles, when, speaking of Deianira determined to destroy herself, and taking leave of her palace, he adds a circumstance that Voltaire would have disdained !


oprawwe oT8 Ψαυσειεν, οις εχρητο δειλαια παρος.

Among the Roman poets, Lucretius will furnish many instances of this sort of strong painting. Witness his portrait of a jealous man, Book the 4th, v. 1130.

Aut quod in ambiguo verbum jaculata reliquit;
Aut nimium jactare oculos, aliumve tueri
Quod putat, in vultûque videt vestigia risûs.


* Trachiniæ, v. 922.

Of Iphigenia going to be sacrificed at the moment when

mæstum ante aras astare parentem
Sensit, & hunc propter ferrum celare ministros.*

Of Fear, in Book iii. v. 155.

Sudorem itaque & palloren existere toto
Corpore ; & infringi linguam ; vocemque aboriri;
Caligare oculos; sonere aures; succidere artus.

Without specifying the various strokes of nature with which Virgil has described the prognostics of the weather in his first Georgic, let us only consider with what energy he has enumerated and particularized the gestures and attitudes of his dying Dido : No five verses ever contained more images, or images more distinctly expressed:


oculos conata attollere, rursus
Deficit ; infixum stridet sub pectore vulnus :
Ter sese attollens, cubitoque innixa levavit,
Ter revoluta toro est: oculisque errantibus, alto
Quæsivit cælo lucem, ingenuitque repertà.t



* Book i. v. 21.

+ Æn. iv. 688.

The words of Virgil have here painted the dying Dido as powerfully as the pencil of Reynolds has done when she is just dead.

But none of the Roman writers has displayed a greater force and vigour of imagination than Tacitus, who was, in truth, a great poet. * With what an assemblage of masterly strokes has he exhibited the distress of the Roman army under Cæcina, in the first book of the Annals ! Nox per diversa inquies; cum barbari festis epulis, læto cantu, aut truci sonore, subjecta vallium ac resultantes saltus, complerent. Apud Romanos, invalidi ignes, interruptæ voces, atque ipsi passini adjacerent vallo, oberrarent tentoriis, insomnes magis quam pervigiles, ducemque terruit dira quies. And what a spectre he then immediately calls up, in the style of MichAEL ANGELO ! Nam Quintilium Varum, sanguine oblitum, & paludibus emersum, cernere & audire visus est, velut


* “ The Cyropædia of Xenophon is vague and languid; the Anabasis circumstantial and animated ;" says the learned and ingenious Historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. ii. p. 467.

« PreviousContinue »