Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Poetical Imitations and Similarities.

Tantus amor florum, et generandi gloria mellis.

Georg. Lib. iv. v. 204.

Such rage of honey in our bosom beats,

And such a zeal we have for flowery sweets!

DRYDEN.

This article was commenced by me many years ago in the early volumes of the Monthly Magazine, and continued by various correspondents, with various success. I have collected only those of my own contribution, because I do not feel authorised to make use of those of other persons, however some may be desirable. One of the most elegant of literary recreations is that of tracing poetical or prose imitations and similarities; for assuredly, similarity is not always imitation. Bishop Hurd’s pleasing essay on “The Marks of Imitation” will assist the critic in deciding on what may only be an accidental similarity, rather than a studied imitation. Those critics have indulged an intemperate abuse in these entertaining researches, who from a single word derive the imitation of an entire passage. Wakefield, in his edition of Gray, is very liable to this censure.

This kind of literary amusement is not despicable: there are few men of letters who have not been in the habit of marking parallel passages, or tracing imitation, in the thousand shapes it assumes; it forms, it cultivates, it delights taste to observe by what dexterity and variation genius conceals, or modifies, an original thought or image, and to view the same sentiment, or expression, borrowed with art, or heightened by embellishment. The ingenious writer of “A Criticism on Gray’s Elegy, in continuation of Dr. Johnson’s,” has given some observations on this subject, which will please. “It is often entertaining to trace imitation. To detect the adopted image; the copied design; the transferred sentiment; the appropriated phrase; and even the acquired manner and frame, under all the disguises that imitation, combination, and accommodation may have thrown around them, must require both parts and diligence; but it will bring with it no ordinary gratification. A book professedly on the ‘History and Progress of Imitation in Poetry,’ written by a man of perspicuity, an adept in the art of discerning likenesses, even when minute, with examples properly selected, and gradations duly marked, would make an impartial accession to the store of human literature, and furnish rational curiosity with a high regale.” Let me premise that these notices (the wrecks of a large collection of passages I had once formed merely as exercises to form my taste) are not given with the petty malignant delight of detecting the unacknowledged imitations of our best writers, but merely to habituate the young student to an instructive amusement, and to exhibit that beautiful variety which the same image is capable of exhibiting when retouched with all the art of genius.

Gray, in his “Ode to Spring,” has

The Attic warbler POURS HER THROAT.

Wakefield in his “Commentary” has a copious passage on this poetical diction. He conceives it to be “an admirable improvement of the Greek and Roman classics:”

——κἑεν αυδἡν: HES. Scut. Her. 396.

—— Suaves ex ore loquelas

Funde.                      LUCRET. i. 40.

This learned editor was little conversant with modern literature, as he proved by his memorable editions of Gray and Pope. The expression is evidently borrowed not from Hesiod, nor from Lucretius, but from a brother at home.

Is it for thee, the Linnet POURS HER THROAT?

Essay on Man, Ep. iii, v. 33.

Gray, in the “Ode to Adversity,” addresses the power thus,

Thou tamer of the human breast,

Whose IRON SCOURGE and TORTURING HOUR

The bad affright, afflict the best.

Wakefield censures the expression ”torturing hour,“ by discovering an impropriety and incongruity. He says, “consistency of figure rather required some material image, like iron scourge and adamantine chain.“ It is curious to observe a verbal critic lecture such a poet as Gray! The poet probably would never have replied, or, in a moment of excessive urbanity, he might have condescended to point out to this minutest of critics the following passage in Milton:—

—— When the SCOURGE

Inexorably, and the TORTURING HOUR

Calls us to penance.

Par. Lost, B. ii. v. 90.

Gray, in his “Ode to Adversity,” has

Light THEY DISPERSE, and with them go

The SUMMER FRIEND.

Fond of this image, he has it again in his “Bard,”

They SWARM, that in thy NOONTIDE BEAM are born,

Gone!

Perhaps the germ of this beautiful image may be found in Shakspeare:—

—— for men, like BUTTERFLIES,

Show not their mealy wings but to THE SUMMER.

Troilus and Cressida, Act iii. s. 7.

And two similar passages in Timon of Athens:—

The swallow follows not summer more willingly than we your lordship.

Timon. Nor more willingly leaves winter; such summer birds are

men. — Act iii.

Again in the same,

—— one cloud of winter showers

These flies are couch’d. — Act ii.

Gray, in his “Progress of Poetry,” has

In climes beyond the SOLAR ROAD.

Wakefield has traced this imitation to Dryden; Gray himself refers to Virgil and Petrarch. Wakefield gives the line from Dryden, thus:—

Beyond the year, and out of heaven’s high-way;

which he calls extremely bold and poetical. I confess a critic might be allowed to be somewhat fastidious in this unpoetical diction on the high-way, which I believe Dryden never used. I think his line was thus:—

Beyond the year, out of the SOLAR WALK.

Pope has expressed the image more elegantly, though copied from Dryden,

Far as the SOLAR WALK, or milky way.

Gray has in his “Bard,”

Dear as the light that visits these sad eyes,

Dear as the ruddy drops that warm my heart.

Gray himself points out the imitation in Shakspeare of the latter image; but it is curious to observe that Otway, in his Venice Preserved, makes Priuli most pathetically exclaim to his daughter, that she is

Dear as the vital warmth that feeds my life,

Dear as these eyes that weep in fondness o’er thee.

Gray tells us that the image of his “Bard,”

Loose his beard and hoary hair

Streamed like a METEOR to the troubled air,

was taken from a picture of the Supreme Being by Raphael. It is, however, remarkable, and somewhat ludicrous, that the beard of Hudibras is also compared to a meteor: and the accompanying observation of Butler almost induces one to think that Gray derived from it the whole plan of that sublime Ode — since his Bard precisely performs what the beard of Hudibras denounced. These are the verses:—

This HAIRY METEOR did denounce

The fall of sceptres and of crowns.

Hudibras, c. 1.

I have been asked if I am serious in my conjecture that “the meteor beard“ of Hudibras might have given birth to the ”Bard“ of Gray? I reply, that the burlesque and the sublime are extremes, and extremes meet. How often does it merely depend on our own state of mind, and on our own taste, to consider the sublime as burlesque! A very vulgar, but acute genius, Thomas Paine, whom we may suppose destitute of all delicacy and refinement, has conveyed to us a notion of the sublime, as it is probably experienced by ordinary and uncultivated minds; and even by acute and judicious ones, who are destitute of imagination. He tells us that “the sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.” May I venture to illustrate this opinion? Would it not appear the ridiculous or burlesque to describe the sublime revolution of the Earth on her axle, round the Sun, by comparing it with the action of a top flogged by a boy? And yet some of the most exquisite lines in Milton do this; the poet only alluding in his mind to the top. The earth he describes, whether

—— She from west her silent course advance

With inoffensive pace that spinning sleeps

On her soft axle, while she paces even.

Be this as it may! it has never I believe been remarked (to return to Gray) that when he conceived the idea of the beard of his Bard, he had in his mind the language of Milton, who describes Azazel sublimely unfurling

The imperial ensign, which full high advanced,

Shone like a meteor streaming to the wind.

Par. Lost, B. i. v. 535.

Very similar to Gray’s

Streamed like a meteor to the troubled air!

Gray has been severely censured by Johnson for the expression,

Give ample room and verge enough,

The characters of hell to trace. — The Bard.

On the authority of the most unpoetical of critics, we must still hear that the poet has no line so bad. —”ample room“ is feeble, but would have passed unobserved in any other poem but in the poetry of Gray, who has taught us to admit nothing but what is exquisite. ”Verge enough“ is poetical, since it conveys a material image to the imagination. No one appears to have detected the source from whence, probably, the whole line was derived. I am inclined to think it was from the following passage in Dryden:

Let fortune empty her whole quiver on me,

I have a soul that, like an AMPLE SHIELD,

Can take in all, and VERGE ENOUGH for more!

Dryden’s Don Sebastian.

Gray in his Elegy has

Even in our ashes live their wonted fires.

This line is so obscure that it is difficult to apply it to what precedes it. Mason in his edition in vain attempts to derive it from a thought of Petrarch, and still more vainly attempts to amend it; Wakefield expends an octavo page to paraphrase this single verse. From the following lines of Chaucer, one would imagine Gray caught the recollected idea. The old Reve, in his prologue, says of himself, and of old men,

For whan we may not don than wol we speken;

Yet in our ASHEN cold is FIRE yreken.

TYRWHIT’S Chaucer, vol. i. p. 153, v. 3879.

Gray has a very expressive word, highly poetical, but I think not common:

FOR WHO TO DUMB FORGETFULNESS a prey —

Daniel has, as quoted in Cooper’s Muses’ Library,

And in himself with sorrow, does complain

The misery of DARK FORGETFULNESS.

A line of Pope’s, in his Dunciad, “High-born Howard,” echoed in the ear of Gray, when he gave, with all the artifice of alliteration,

High-born Hoel’s harp.

Johnson bitterly censures Gray for giving to adjectives the termination of participles, such as the cultured plain; the daisied bank: but he solemnly adds, I was sorry to see in the line of a scholar like Gray, “the honied spring.” Had Johnson received but the faintest tincture of the rich Italian school of English poetry, he would never have formed so tasteless a criticism. Honied is employed by Milton in more places than one.

Hide me from day’s garish eye

While the bee with HONIED thigh

Penseroso, v. 142.

The celebrated stanza in Gray’s Elegy seems partly to be borrowed.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathom’d eaves of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is torn to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness in the desert air.

Pope had said:

There kept by charms conceal’d from mortal eye,

Like roses that in deserts bloom and die.

Rape of the Lock.

Young says of nature:

In distant wilds by human eye unseen

She rears her flowers and spreads her velvet green;

Pure gurgling rills the lonely desert trace,

And waste their music on the savage race.

And Shenstone has —

And like the desert’s lily bloom to fade!

Elegy iv.

Gray was so fond of this pleasing imagery, that he repeats it in his Ode to the Installation; and Mason echoes it in his Ode to Memory.

Milton thus paints the evening sun:

If chance the radiant SUN with FAREWELL SWEET

Extends his evening beam, the fields revive,

The birds their notes renew, &c.

Par. Lost, B. ii. v. 492.

Can there be a doubt that he borrowed this beautiful farewell from an obscure poet, quoted by Poole, in his “English Parnassus,” 1657? The date of Milton’s great work, I find since, admits the conjecture: the first edition being that of 1669. The homely lines in Poole are these,

To Thetis’ watery bowers the sun doth hie,

BIDDING FAREWELL unto the gloomy sky.

Young, in his “Love of Fame,” very adroitly improves on a witty conceit of Butler. It is curious to observe that while Butler had made a remote allusion of a window to a pillory, a conceit is grafted on this conceit, with even more exquisite wit.

Each WINDOW like the PILLORY appears,

With HEADS thrust through: NAILED BY THE EARS!

Hudibras, Part ii. c. 3, v. 301.

An opera, like a PILLORY, may be said

To NAIL OUR EARS down, and EXPOSE OUR HEAD.

YOUNG’S Satires.

In the Duenna we find this thought differently illustrated; by no means imitative, though the satire is congenial. Don Jerome alluding to the serenaders says, “These amorous orgies that steal the senses in the hearing; as they say Egyptian embalmers serve mummies, extracting the brain through the ears.“ The wit is original, but the subject is the same in the three passages; the whole turning on the allusion to the head and to the ears.

When Pope composed the following lines on Fame,

How vain that second life in others’ breath,

The ESTATE which wits INHERIT after death;

Ease, health, and life, for this they must resign,

(Unsure the tenure, but how vast the fine!)

Temple of Fame.

he seems to have had present in his mind a single idea of Butler, by which he has very richly amplified the entire imagery. Butler says,

Honour’s a LEASE for LIVES TO COME,

And cannot be extended from

The LEGAL TENANT.

Hudibras, Part i. c. 3, v. 1043.

The same thought may be found in Sir George Mackenzie’s “Essay on preferring Solitude to public Employment,” first published in 1665: Hudibras preceded it by two years. The thought is strongly expressed by the eloquent Mackenzie: ”Fame is a revenue payable only to our ghosts; and to deny ourselves all present satisfaction, or to expose ourselves to so much hazard for this, were as great madness as to starve ourselves, or fight desperately for food, to be laid on our tombs after our death.”

Dryden, in his “Absalom and Achitophel,” says of the Earl of Shaftesbury,

David for him his tuneful harp had strung,

And Heaven had wanted one immortal song.

This verse was ringing in the ear of Pope, when with equal modesty and felicity he adopted it in addressing his friend Dr. Arbuthnot.

Friend of my life; which did not you prolong,

The world had wanted many an idle song!

Howell has prefixed to his Letters a tedious poem, written in the taste of the times, and he there says of letters, that they are

The heralds and sweet harbingers that move

From East to West, on embassies of love;

They can the tropic cut, and cross the line.

It is probable that Pope had noted this thought, for the following lines seem a beautiful heightening of the idea:

Heaven first taught letters, for some wretch’s aid,

Some banish’d lover, or some captive maid.

Then he adds, they

Speed the soft intercourse from soul to soul,

And waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole.

Eloisa.

There is another passage in “Howell’s Letters,” which has a great affinity with a thought of Pope, who, in “the Rape of the Lock,” says,

Fair tresses man’s imperial race ensnare,

And beauty draws us with a single hair.

Howell writes, p. 290, “’Tis a powerful sex:— they were too strong for the first, the strongest and wisest man that was; they must needs be strong, when one hair of a woman can draw more than an hundred pair of oxen.

Pope’s description of the death of the lamb, in his “Essay on Man,” is finished with the nicest touches, and is one of the finest pictures our poetry exhibits. Even familiar as it is to our ear, we never examine it but with undiminished admiration.

The lamb, thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,

Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?

Pleased to the last he crops the flowery food,

And licks the hand just rais’d to shed his blood.

After pausing on the last two fine verses, will not the reader smile that I should conjecture the image might originally have been discovered in the following humble verses in a poem once considered not as contemptible:

A gentle lamb has rhetoric to plead,

And when she sees the butcher’s knife decreed,

Her voice entreats him not to make her bleed.

DR. KING’S Mully of Mountown.

This natural and affecting image might certainly have been observed by Pope, without his having perceived it through the less polished lens of the telescope of Dr. King. It is, however, a similarity, though it may not be an imitation; and is given as an example of that art in composition which can ornament the humblest conception, like the graceful vest thrown over naked and sordid beggary.

I consider the following lines as strictly copied by Thomas Warton:

The daring artist

Explored the pangs that rend the royal breast,

Those wounds that lurk beneath the tissued vest.

T. WARTON on Shakspeare.

Sir Philip Sidney, in his “Defence of Poesie,” has the same image. He writes, “Tragedy openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue.

The same appropriation of thought will attach to the following lines of Tickell:

While the charm’d reader with thy thought complies,

And views thy Rosamond with Henry’s eyes.

TICKELL to ADDISON.

Evidently from the French Horace:

En vain contre le Cid un ministre se ligue;

Tout Paris, pour Chimene, a les yeux de Rodrigue.

BOILEAU.

Oldham, the satirist, says in his satires upon the Jesuits, that had Cain been of this black fraternity, he had not been content with a quarter of mankind.

Had he been Jesuit, had he but put on

Their savage cruelty, the rest had gone!

Satire ii.

Doubtless at that moment echoed in his poetical ear the energetic and caustic epigram of Andrew Marvel, against Blood stealing the crown dressed in a parson’s cassock, and sparing the life of the keeper:

With the Priest’s vestment had he but put on

The Prelate’s cruelty — the Crown had gone!

The following passages seem echoes to each other, and it is but justice due to Oldham, the satirist, to acknowledge him as the parent of this antithesis:

On Butler who can think without just rage,

The glory and the scandal of the age?

Satire against Poetry.

It seems evidently borrowed by Pope, when he applies the thought to Erasmus:—

At length Erasmus, that great injured name,

The glory of the priesthood and the shame!

Young remembered the antithesis when he said,

Of some for glory such the boundless rage,

That they’re the blackest scandal of the age.

Voltaire, a great reader of Pope, seems to have borrowed part of the expression:—

Scandale d’Eglise, et des rois le modèle.

De Caux, an old French poet, in one of his moral poems on an hour-glass, inserted in modern collections, has many ingenious thoughts. That this poem was read and admired by Goldsmith, the following beautiful image seems to indicate. De Caux, comparing the world to his hour-glass, says beautifully,

C’est un verre qui luit,

Qu’un souffle peut détruire, et qu’un souffle a produit.

Goldsmith applies the thought very happily —

Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;

A breath can make them, as a breath has made.

I do not know whether we might not read, for modern copies are sometimes incorrect,

A breath unmakes them, as a breath has made.

Thomson, in his pastoral story of Palemon and Lavinia, appears to have copied a passage from Otway. Palemon thus addresses Lavinia:—

Oh, let me now into a richer soil

Transplant thee safe, where vernal suns and showers

Diffuse their warmest, largest influence;

And of my garden be the pride and joy!

Chamont employs the same image when speaking of Monimia; he says —

You took her up a little tender flower,

—— and with a careful loving hand

Transplanted her into your own fair garden,

Where the sun always shines.

The origin of the following imagery is undoubtedly Grecian; but it is still embellished and modified by our best poets:—

—— While universal Pan,

Knit with the graces and the hours, in dance

Led on th’ eternal spring.

Paradise Lost.

Thomson probably caught this strain of imagery:

Sudden to heaven

Thence weary vision turns, where leading soft

The silent hours of love, with purest ray

Sweet Venus shines.

Summer, v. 1692.

Gray, in repeating this imagery, has borrowed a remarkable epithet from Milton:

Lo, where the rosy-bosom’d hours,

Fair Venus’ train, appear.

Ode to Spring.

Along the crisped shades and bowers

Revels the spruce and jocund spring;

The graces and the rosy-bosom’d hours

Thither all their bounties bring.

Comus, v. 984.

Collins, in his Ode to Fear, whom he associates with Danger, there grandly personified, was I think considerably indebted to the following stanza of Spenser:

Next him was Fear, all arm’d from top to toe,

Yet thought himself not safe enough thereby:

But fear’d each sudden movement to and fro;

And his own arms when glittering he did spy,

Or clashing heard, he fast away did fly,

As ashes pale of hue and wingy heel’d;

And evermore on Danger fix’d his eye,

‘Gainst whom he always bent a brazen shield,

Which his right hand unarmed fearfully did wield.

Faery Queen, B. iii. c. 12, s. 12.

Warm from its perusal, he seems to have seized it as a hint to the Ode to Fear, and in his “Passions” to have very finely copied an idea here:

First Fear, his hand, his skill to try,

Amid the chords bewildered laid,

And back recoil’d, he knew not why,

E’en at the sound himself had made.

Ode to the Passions.

The stanza in Beattie’s “Minstrel,” first book, in which his “visionary boy,” after “the storm of summer rain,” views “the rainbow brighten to the setting sun,” and runs to reach it:

Fond fool, that deem’st the streaming glory nigh,

How vain the chase thine ardour has begun!

’Tis fled afar, ere half thy purposed race be run;

Thus it fares with age, &c.

The same train of thought and imagery applied to the same subject, though the image itself be somewhat different, may be found in the poems of the platonic John Norris; a writer who has great originality of thought, and a highly poetical spirit. His stanza runs thus:

So to the unthinking boy the distant sky

Seems on some mountain’s surface to relie;

He with ambitious haste climbs the ascent,

Curious to touch the firmament;

But when with an unwearied pace,

He is arrived at the long-wish’d-for place,

With sighs the sad defeat he does deplore,

His heaven is still as distant as before!

The Infidel, by JOHN NORRIS.

In the modern tragedy of The Castle Spectre is this fine description of the ghost of Evelina:—“Suddenly a female form glided along the vault. I flew towards her. My arms were already unclosed to clasp her — when suddenly her figure changed! Her face grew pale — a stream of blood gushed from her bosom. While speaking, her form withered away; the flesh fell from her bones; a skeleton loathsome and meagre clasped me in her mouldering arms. Her infected breath was mingled with mine; her rotting fingers pressed my hand; and my face was covered with her kisses. Oh! then how I trembled with disgust!”

There is undoubtedly singular merit in this description. I shall contrast it with one which the French Virgil has written, in an age whose faith was stronger in ghosts than ours, yet which perhaps had less skill in describing them. There are some circumstances which seem to indicate that the author of the Castle Spectre lighted his torch at the altar of the French muse. Athalia thus narrates her dream, in which the spectre of Jezabel, her mother, appears:

C’étoit pendant l’horreur d’une profonde nuit,

Ma mère Jezabel devant moi s’est montrée,

Comme au jour de sa mort, pompeusement paree. —

—— En achevant ces mots epouvantables,

Son ombre vers mon lit a paru se baisser,

Et moi, je lui tendois les mains pour l’embrasser,

Mais je n’ai plus trouvé qu’un horrible mélange

D’os et de chair meurtris, et trainée dans la fange,

Des lambeaux pleins de sang et des membres affreux.

RACINE’S Athalie, Acte ii. s. 5.

Goldsmith, when, in his pedestrian tour, he sat amid the Alps, as he paints himself in his “Traveller,” and felt himself the solitary neglected genius he was, desolate amidst the surrounding scenery, probably at that moment applied to himself the following beautiful imagery of Thomson:

As in the hollow breast of Apennine

Beneath the centre of encircling hills,

A myrtle rises, far from human eyes,

And breathes its balmy fragrance o’er the wild.

Autumn, v. 202.

Goldsmith very pathetically applies a similar image:

E’en now where Alpine solitudes ascend,

I sit me down a pensive hour to spend,

Like yon neglected shrub at random cast,

That shades the steep, and sighs at every blast.

Traveller.

Akenside illustrates the native impulse of genius by a simile of Memnon’s marble statue, sounding its lyre at the touch of the sun:

For as old Memnon’s image, long renown’d

By fabling Nilus, to the quivering touch

Of Titan’s ray, with each repulsive string

Consenting, sounded through the warbling air

Unbidden strains; even so did nature’s hand, &c.

It is remarkable that the same image, which does not appear obvious enough to have been the common inheritance of poets, is precisely used by old Regnier, the first French satirist, in the dedication of his Satires to the French king. Louis XIV. supplies the place of nature to the courtly satirist. These are his words:—“On lit qu’en Ethiope il y avoit une statue qui rendoit un son harmonieux, toutes les fois que le soleil levant la regardoit. Ce même miracle, Sire, avez vous fait en moi, qui touché de l’astre de Votre Majesté, ai reçu la voix et la parole.”

In that sublime passage in “Pope’s Essay on Man,” Epist. i. v. 237, beginning,

Vast chain of being! which from God began,

and proceeds to

From nature’s chain whatever link you strike,

Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

Pope seems to have caught the idea and image from Waller, whose last verse is as fine as any in the “Essay on Man:"—

The chain that’s fixed to the throne of Jove,

On which the fabric of our world depends,

One link dissolv’d, the whole creation ends.

Of the Danger his Majesty escaped, &c. v. 168.

It has been observed by Thyer, that Milton borrowed the expression imbrowned and brown, which he applies to the evening shade, from the Italian. See Thyer’s elegant note in B. iv., v. 246:

—— And where the unpierced shade

Imbrowned the noon tide bowers.

And B. ix., v. 1086:

—— Where highest Woods impenetrable

To sun or star-light, spread their umbrage broad,

And brown as evening.

Fa l’imbruno is an expression used by the Italians to denote the approach of the evening. Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso, have made a very picturesque use of this term, noticed by Thyer. I doubt if it be applicable to our colder climate; but Thomson appears to have been struck by the fine effect it produces in poetical landscape; for he has

—— With quickened step

Brown night retires.

Summer, v. 51.

If the epithet be true, it cannot be more appropriately applied than in the season he describes, which most resembles the genial clime with the deep serenity of an Italian heaven. Milton in Italy had experienced the brown evening, but it may be suspected that Thomson only recollected the language of the poet.

The same observation may be made on two other poetical epithets. I shall notice the epithet “LAUGHING” applied to inanimate objects; and “PURPLE” to beautiful objects.”

The natives of Italy and the softer climates receive emotions from the view of their WATERS in the SPRING not equally experienced in the British roughness of our skies. The fluency and softness of the water are thus described by Lucretius:—

—— Tibi suaveis Dædala tellus

Submittit flores: tibi RIDENT æquora ponti.

Inelegantly rendered by Creech,

The roughest sea puts on smooth looks, and SMILES.

Dryden more happily,

The ocean SMILES, and smooths her wavy breast.

But Metastasio has copied Lucretius:—

A te fioriscono

Gli erbosi prat:

E i flutti RIDONO

Nel mar placati.

It merits observation, that the Northern Poets could not exalt their imagination higher than that the water SMILED, while the modern Italian, having before his eyes a different Spring, found no difficulty in agreeing with the ancients, that the waves LAUGHED. Modern poetry has made a very free use of the animating epithet LAUGHING. Gray has LAUGHING FLOWERS: and Langhorne in two beautiful lines personifies Flora:—

Where Tweed’s soft banks in liberal beauty lie,

And Flora LAUGHS beneath an azure sky.

Sir William Jones, in the spirit of Oriental poetry, has “the LAUGHING AIR.” Dryden has employed this epithet boldly in the delightful lines, almost entirely borrowed from his original, Chaucer:—

The morning lark, the messenger of day,

Saluted in her song the morning gray;

And soon the sun arose, with beams so bright,

That all THE HORIZON LAUGHED to see the joyous sight.

Palamon and Arcite, B. ii.1

It is extremely difficult to conceive what the ancients precisely meant by the word purpureus. They seem to have designed by it anything BRIGHT and BEAUTIFUL. A classical friend has furnished me with numerous significations of this word which are very contradictory. Albinovanus, in his elegy on Livia, mentions Nivem purpureum. Catullus, Quercus ramos purpureos. Horace, Purpureo bibet ore nectar, and somewhere mentions Olores purpureos. Virgil has Purpuream vomit ille animam; and Homer calls the sea purple, and gives it in some other book the same epithet, when in a storm.

The general idea, however, has been fondly adopted by the finest writers in Europe. The PURPLE of the ancients is not known to us. What idea, therefore, have the moderns affixed to it? Addison, in his Vision of the Temple of Fame, describes the country as “being covered with a kind of PURPLE LIGHT.” Gray’s beautiful line is well known:—

The bloom of young desire and purple light of love.

And Tasso, in describing his hero Godfrey, says, Heaven

Gli empie d’onor la faccia, e vi riduce

Di Giovinezza il bel purpureo lume.

Both Gray and Tasso copied Virgil, where Venus gives to her son Æneas —

—— Lumenque Juventæ

Purpureum.

Dryden has omitted the purple light in his version, nor is it given by Pitt; but Dryden expresses the general idea by

—— With hands divine,

Had formed his curling locks and made his temples shine,

And given his rolling eys a sparkling grace.

It is probable that Milton has given us his idea of what was meant by this purple light, when applied to the human countenance, in the felicitous expression of

CELESTIAL ROSY-RED.

Gray appears to me to be indebted to Milton for a hint for the opening of his Elegy: as in the first line he had Dante and Milton in his mind, he perhaps might also in the following passage have recollected a congenial one in Comus, which he altered. Milton, describing the evening, marks it out by

—— What time the laboured ox

In his loose traces from the furrow came,

And the swinkt hedger at his supper sat.

Gray has

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way.

Warton has made an observation on this passage in Comus; and observes further that it is a classical circumstance, but not a natural one, in an English landscape, for our ploughmen quit their work at noon. I think, therefore, the imitation is still more evident; and as Warton observes, both Gray and Milton copied here from books, and not from life.

There are three great poets who have given us a similar incident.

Dryden introduces the highly finished picture of the hare in his Annus Mirabilis:—

Stanza 131.

So I have seen some fearful hare maintain

A course, till tired before the dog she lay,

Who stretched behind her, pants upon the plain,

Past power to kill, as she to get away.

132.

With his loll’d tongue he faintly licks his prey;

His warm breath blows her flix up as she lies:

She trembling creeps upon the ground away

And looks back to him with beseeching eyes.

Thomson paints the stag in a similar situation:—

—— Fainting breathless toil

Sick seizes on his heart — he stands at bay:

The big round tears run down his dappled face,

He groans in anguish.

Autumn, v. 451.

Shakspeare exhibits the same object:—

The wretched animal heaved forth such groans,

That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat

Almost to bursting; and the big round tears

Coursed one another down his innocent nose

In piteous chase.

Of these three pictures the beseeching eyes of Dryden perhaps is more pathetic than the big round tears, certainly borrowed by Thomson from Shakspeare, because the former expression has more passion, and is therefore more poetical. The sixth line in Dryden is perhaps exquisite for its imitative harmony, and with peculiar felicity paints the action itself. Thomson adroitly drops the innocent nose, of which one word seems to have lost its original signification, and the other offends now by its familiarity. The dappled face is a term more picturesque, more appropriate, and more poetically expressed.

1 The old poet is the most fresh and powerful in his words. The passage is thus given in Wright’s edition:—

The busy lark, messenger of day,

Saluteth in her song the morrow gray;

And fiery Phoebus riseth up so bright,

That all the orient laugheth of the light.

Leigh Hunt remarks with justice that “Dryden falls short of the freshness and feeling of the sentiment. His lines are beautiful, but they do not come home to us with so happy and cordial a face.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37