Of Poetry

The direct province or distinctive department of the art of poetry is, by its tasteful and harmonious, and even musical arrangement of the order of the words used in a verbal composition, whether spoken or written, according to the principles already referred to, and through the excitement of apt ideas and emotions for this purpose, to narrate or describe in the most affecting and elevating manner, any subject, sentiment, or feeling, either real or imaginary, that may be calculated to interest us. Its essential element is language. The ear is consequently the organ which is directly availed of in the exercise of this art; but indirectly, the eye, or at any rate the mental vision, and the sense of feeling, are also employed in the appeals made to the mind by practical efforts.

Poetry is the flower of thought, culled from the wild field of ordinary expression and cogitation, and separated from the stem and leaves of general commonplace reflection and observation. Poetical excitement, like the presence of flowers, is directly calculated to produce pleasure; although, on the other hand, it is pleasure only, and not fruit, that it yields.

Poetry has an advantage over both painting and sculpture, in that it possesses the element of motion as regards its progressive narration, and also sound; although, on the other hand, it is destitute of form and colour.

The fullest description of events is indeed afforded by poetry, which narrates them, not only as regards the moment of their performance, but details the various attendant occurrences connected with them, and introduces every circumstance adapted to give effect to the scene. All the characters in the transaction are also separately described; and, by causing them to speak for themselves, an idea is presented of their nature and capacities, which may in some degree atone for the want of that visual perception which is supplied by representations in painting and sculpture.

It has been asserted by high authority, that in painting the execution seems more difficult than the invention, while in poetry the reverse is the case. But this is certainly not true as regards the highest efforts of either, which are alike difficult to conceive or to carry out.

It has also been said that painting is mute poetry, and poetry speaking painting. This is, however, true only as a very general rule, and admits of many and important exceptions.

It may be determined that the descriptions which are afforded by poetry, are less forcible than those effected by painting and sculpture, but that they are at the same time more general and comprehensive, and are better adapted to rouse the passions of the soul by sympathy; as where we put sentiments into, the mouth of one of the heroes in the piece, which may lead those who hear them to associate their feelings with his own.

Representations in painting strike us with the greatest force at first; but I believe that the descriptions rendered by the poetic art sink deeper into the mind. In the latter, much is left to the imagination to supply, and that of a kind which it is well able to effect, being the ideas of visible objects, and which it will also accomplish in a more perfect manner than can be attained by any efforts of graphic art. On the other hand, what in painting is left for the mind to furnish, in order to complete the reality, is more difficult to afford, on account of the abstract nature of the ideas required. The aid of language is also in the latter case altogether wanting. Paintings are, for the reasons above stated, better and more easily re-membered than poems. Memory is more skilled in retaining sensual than abstract ideas.

In the description of invisible subjects, such as sentiments and intellectual operations, poetry is as superior to painting in power and efficiency, as painting is beyond poetry in the re-presentation of corporeal objects.

As poetry is the most liberal of all the arts in describing any events, so is it the most free as regards the liberty allowed to it in effecting its descriptions. Poetry mainly excels in suggestion; painting in representation.

In the delineation of visible corporeal beauty, although the poet cannot draw lines and depict colours, he can describe shapes and hues, so that the ideas of them in the mind may be as clear and as vivid as those conveyed by pictorial representation; at least as regards the leading features of the object, this can be as efficiently attained by poetry as by painting. In respect to the minutia and the details of the different parts, painting alone can adequately portray them. Poetry, indeed, to some extent, may accomplish this also, but only with great labour, and seldom, if ever, with the same success that painting does; and, as already observed, such an effort as this is quite out of its legitimate province.

But in certain cases, poetry may as efficiently describe different things by a mere reference to them, as regards their general qualities, and by affording an account of their particular characteristics, as can be done in painting. This is especially the case with common objects, such as flowers or trees or cattle. Thus, if the flowers are referred to as violets only, as vivid an idea of them is conveyed to the mind as if they were painted. And if to this general description it is particularized that they were of a dark blue colour, or of large size, as complete a notion is afforded of them as any representation could effect; so also of trees and cattle.

As regards the main distinction between the empire of the painter and that of the poet, it might be said that the authority of the former is the most absolute, while the territory of the latter is the most extensive. What the painter describes, he delineates with exactness and completeness, but his dominion is very circumscribed. What the poet describes, he delineates imperfectly and loosely, but his dominion is almost unbounded.

It might, however, be urged that, when the ideas of any object have once been conveyed to the mind, it matters not whether they sprang from a representation in painting or a description in poetry, and that therefore both these arts must be alike adapted for the same subjects and province.

It should, nevertheless, be considered that although both these arts are adapted to convey the same ideas, they are adapted to convey thew with very different degrees of vigour and clearness. Both painting and poetry may present ideas of a particular man ; but who will say that a poem describing him affords as vivid an idea of him as his portrait does ? Where the feelings are sought to be affected, painting is so far more powerful than poetry, as being more real. Painting appeals directly to the senses, while poetry appeals directly only to the understanding. But when the mind is addressed, and not the emotions, poetry is more forcible than painting.