Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Philosophical Descriptive Poems.

The ”Botanic Garden“ once appeared to open a new route through the trodden groves of Parnassus. The poet, to a prodigality of Imagination, united all the minute accuracy of Science. It is a highly-repolished labour, and was in the mind and in the hand of its author for twenty years before its first publication. The excessive polish of the verse has appeared too high to be endured throughout a long composition; it is certain that, in poems of length, a versification, which is not too florid for lyrical composition, will weary by its brilliance. Darwin, inasmuch as a rich philosophical fancy constitutes a poet, possesses the entire art of poetry; no one has carried the curious mechanism of verse and the artificial magic of poetical diction to a higher perfection. His volcanic head flamed with imagination, but his torpid heart slept unawakened by passion. His standard of poetry is by much too limited; he supposes that the essence of poetry is something of which a painter can make a picture. A picturesque verse was with him a verse completely poetical. But the language of the passions has no connexion with this principle; in truth, what he delineates as poetry itself, is but one of its provinces. Deceived by his illusive standard, he has composed a poem which is perpetually fancy, and never passion. Hence his processional splendour fatigues, and his descriptive ingenuity comes at length to be deficient in novelty, and all the miracles of art cannot supply us with one touch of nature.

Descriptive poetry should be relieved by a skilful intermixture of passages addressed to the heart as well as to the imagination: uniform description satiates; and has been considered as one of the inferior branches of poetry. Of this both Thomson and Goldsmith were sensible. In their beautiful descriptive poems they knew the art of animating the pictures of Fancy with the glow of Sentiment.

Whatever may be thought of the originality of Darwin’s poem, it had been preceded by others of a congenial disposition. Brookes’s poem on “Universal Beauty,” published about 1735, presents us with the very model of Darwin’s versification: and the Latin poem of De la Croix, in 1727, entitled ”Connubia Florum,“ with his subject. There also exists a race of poems which have hitherto been confined to one subject, which the poet selected from the works of nature, to embellish with all the splendour of poetic imagination. I have collected some titles.

Perhaps it is Homer, in his battle of the Frogs and Mice, and Virgil in the poem on a Gnat, attributed to him, who have given birth to these lusory poems. The Jesuits, particularly when they composed in Latin verse, were partial to such subjects. There is a little poem on Gold, by P. Le Fevre, distinguished for its elegance; and Brumoy has given the Art of making Glass; in which he has described its various productions with equal felicity and knowledge. P. Vanière has written on Pigeons, Du Cerceau on Butterflies. The success which attended these productions produced numerous imitations, of which several were favourably received. Vanière composed three on the Grape, the Vintage, and the Kitchen Garden. Another poet selected Oranges for his theme; others have chosen for their subjects, Paper, Birds, and fresh-water Fish. Tarillon has inflamed his imagination with gunpowder; a milder genius, delighted with the oaten pipe, sang of Sheep; one who was more pleased with another kind of pipe, has written on Tobacco; and a droll genius wrote a poem on Asses. Two writers have formed didactic poems on the Art of Enigmas, and on Ships.

Others have written on moral subjects. Brumoy has painted the Passions, with a variety of imagery and vivacity of description; P. Meyer has disserted on Anger; Tarillon, like our Stillingfleet, on the Art of Conversation; and a lively writer has discussed the subjects of Humour and Wit.

Giannetazzi, an Italian Jesuit, celebrated for his Latin poetry, has composed two volumes of poems on Fishing and Navigation. Fracastor has written delicately on an indelicate subject, his Syphilis. Le Brun wrote a delectable poem on Sweetmeats; another writer on Mineral Waters, and a third on Printing. Vida pleases with his Silk-worms, and his Chess; Buchanan is ingenious with the Sphere. Malapert has aspired to catch the Winds; the philosophic Huet amused himself with Salt and again with Tea. The Gardens of Rapin is a finer poem than critics generally can write; Quillet’s Callipedia, or Art of getting handsome Children, has been translated by Rowe; and Du Fresnoy at length gratifies the connoisseur with his poem on Painting, by the embellishments which his verses have received from the poetic diction of Mason, and the commentary of Reynolds.

This list might be augmented with a few of our own poets, and there still remain some virgin themes which only require to be touched by the hand of a true poet. In the “Memoirs of Trevoux,” they observe, in their review of the poem on Gold, “That poems of this kind have the advantage of instructing us very agreeably. All that has been most remarkably said on the subject is united, compressed in a luminous order, and dressed in all the agreeable graces of poetry. Such writers have no little difficulties to encounter: the style and expression cost dear; and still more to give to an arid topic an agreeable form, and to elevate the subject without falling into another extreme. — In the other kinds of poetry the matter assists and prompts genius; here we must possess an abundance to display it.”

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