The second of the intellectual operations to be performed in the exercise of imagination, is that of the comparison and association together of ideas. The exercise of invention can, however, but seldom be aided by this process, if, indeed, in any case, it is strictly available for this purpose.
As I have already remarked, the arts of painting and sculpture, as a means of describing nature and different transactions that may occur, claim a superiority in one respect over all the other arts, inasmuch as by bringing before the eye the actual re-presentation of the object, they speak in a language which all persons of whatever nation or tongue, can understand. In like manner it may be observed, that there are certain subjects and circumstances which will create in the minds of all associations of ideas of a particular quality, whether allied to grandeur or beauty, although they may be neither transactions of great importance, nor objects of striking interest or excitement. In a painting, as also in a poem, we may therefore on some occasions with propriety introduce many things not necessarily connected with the event we represent, in order to add to its grandeur or effect ; as in Homer and Milton we find many topics availed of for this purpose, which are otherwise irrelevant to the subject.
The comparison and association together of various objects and ideas is calculated in two different modes to add to the imaginative effect of the description. 1. By raising it through the comparisons and associations so introduced, and with which it is assimilated, when they are of a nature resembling and superior to it. By affording a contrast between the description and the objects alluded to, when they are very dissimilar and inferior to it, and thus also adding much to the effect of the former. Sympathy, and also combination and association, belong, indeed, not to description and narration, or to the principles of design, as some writers have classed them, but they are employed entirely in imaginative processes. They are of little or no use in simple description or narration, and can be availed of only in original efforts described, and not too far-fetched or remote in their kind. They should be also of a higher nature than the subject represented, at least so far as regards the particular quality of it alluded to, so as to raise it by the simile. Both Milton and Shakespeare, and also Homer and Virgil, in this respect are very skilful. The first of them, as we shall have occasion to observe in the illustrations of imaginative operation afforded in the following pages, considerably raises his highest imaginative descriptions by the apt and noble nature of the comparisons he institutes respecting them, and the associations he calls forth in the mind. Shakespeare, too, is very successful in this respect.
Although in an imaginative representation of any being in painting we cannot, as in poetry, introduce a simile to which it may be compared as is done by Milton when he compares Satan to a comet burning ;* yet we may in the manner of effecting the representation give to it an air that may indirectly convey, or serve to suggest such an idea. The poet, in-deed, does not actually say that Satan was a comet, or even that he looked like one; but that he “like a comet burn’d.”
In some instances, however, the idea of a subject is raised, although the comparison instituted with regard to it is actually essentially inferior to it, provided that those qualities which in the immediate transaction before us would command most attention, are more abundant in the subject of comparison than in the original subject; or where the subject compared derives greatness or extent as regards itself from the association. Thus, when we are viewing the peaks of some stupendous mountain which towers high above those surrounding it, rearing its head into the clouds, and fancy that through the haze it resembles the form of some vast minster; our notions as to the dignity and grandeur and imaginative appearance of the mountain are exalted by the similitude, although it is compared to an object very inferior in extent. In Homer the comparison of a warrior to a lion much raises our idea of the warrior; not, however, because a lion is superior to a man, but be-cause the qualities of courage and strength, so essential to a warrior, are found to a larger extent in a lion than in a man. So also Homer’s comparison of Hector rushing to the battle, to a soaring eagle descending from the clouds to snatch a hare or lamb,* contributes greatly to the imaginative effect of the description from the extensive power of action which the eagle possesses. On the other hand, the comparison of the brightness of Achilles’ spear to the star Hesperus, the brightest star in Heaven, directly exalts the description, from the association created being far nobler than the original object.
In the description by Homer of the contest between Hector and the two Ajaxes over the body of Patroclus, the action of each of the heroes is exceedingly fine and effective and imaginative, both as regards the movements which they make, and the attitudes they assume, as also the fierce passions by which they are agitated. But the comparisons instituted are what mainly contribute to the imaginative power of the scene. Hector is here assimilated, first as regards his fury, to a raging flame; and next, as regards his courage and firmness, to a hungry lion over a carcass, undaunted by the efforts of the shepherds to drive him away. Homer’s comparison of Achilles advancing through the ranks of the battlefield, to a furious fire blazing through a dry forest, which the wind agitates, and impels on all sides in its impetuosity,§ is also very sublime and imaginative, as the quotation of the passage will serve to show :
As when a flame the winding valley fills, And runs on crackling shrubs between the hills ; Then o’er the stubble up the mountain flies, Fires the high woods, and blazes to the skies, This way and that the spreading torrent roars ; So sweeps the hero through the wasted shores.”
The representation by the same great poet of Achilles armed, is also one of great splendour, and of considerable imaginative power; and the glorious appearance of the armour which he wears, is particularly set forth His helmet is compared to a star, his shield to the moon, and the magnificence of the picture is much heightened by the comparison of the effect of the refulgence from his shield against the sky, to the reflection at sea from a blazing fire on a mountain. His flashing eyes are assimilated to a flame, and he is described as much agitated by passion, which adds considerably to the effect of the representation.
As regards the effect of comparison in giving vigour to the description of a vast multitude, this is very successfully attained by Homer, and great magnificence is conferred on the representation by comparing the number of helmets leaving the Grecian ships to thick flakes of snow falling down from heaven.* The account also of the Trojan forces, with their numerous fires at night, blazing before Ilium, the ships and chariots and horses being seen near, t is much heightened by the comparisons with which it is introduced to the stars in heaven round the clear moon in a fine night, when all the groves and mountains are illumined, and all the planets are visible :
” As when the moon, refulgent lamp of night ! O’er heaven’s clear azure spreads her sacred light, When not a breath disturbs the deep serene, And not a cloud o’ercasts the solemn scene ; Around her throne the vivid planets roll, And stars unnumber’d gild the glowing pole, O’er the dark trees a yellow verdure shed, And tip with silver every mountain’s head ; Then shine the vales, the rocks in prospect rise, A flood of glory bursts from all the skies : The conscious swains, rejoicing in the sight, Eye the blue vault, and bless the useful light. So many flames before proud Ilion blaze, And brighten glimmering Xanthus with their rays The long reflections of the distant fires Gleam on the walls, and tremble on the spires. A thousand piles the dusky horror gild, And shoot a shady lustre o’er the field, Full fifty guards each flaming pile attend, Whose number’d arms, by fits, thick flashes send, Loud neigh the coursers o’er their heaps of corn, And ardent warriors wait the rising morn.”
Dante as regards his imaginative power, and his mode of attempting efforts of this kind, is, in general, far inferior to both Milton and Homer, and also to Virgil and Shakespeare. His comparisons, and also his ideas, are frequently but mean and vulgar and trivial, and in many cases are too material and sensual,a fault which is seldom to be discerned in either Homer or Milton. The comparison by Dante of the doomed sinners in the fiery lake, more especially as regards their action, to frogs in a moat,* is, nevertheless, very effective, and greatly heightens the imaginative force of the description, although the metaphor itself is considerably in every respect less dignified than the original object :
“E’en as the frogs, that of a watery moat Stand at the brink, with the jaws only out, Their feet and of the trunk all else conceal’d, Thus on each part the sinners stood; but soon As Barbariccia was at hand, so they Drew back under the wave.”
The following account of the spirits shrined in ice, and the comparison of their notes to those of the stork, is also very striking, and highly imaginative :
” Blue pinch’d and shrined in ice the spirits stood, Moving their teeth in shrill note like the stork. His face each downward held ; their mouth the cold, Their eyes express’d the dolour of their heart.”