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Pope And Didactic Poetry
by [?]

We do and must concede consideration even to the one-sided pleadings of an advocate. But it is under the secret assumption of the concurrent pleadings equally exaggerated on the adverse side. Without this counterweight, how false would be our final summation of the evidence upon most of the great state trials! Nay, even with both sides of the equation before us, how perplexing would be that summation generally, unless under the moderating guidance of a neutral and indifferent eye; the eye of the judge in the first instance, and subsequently of the upright historian–whether watching the case from the station of a contemporary, or reviewing it from his place in some later generation.

Now what we wish to observe about Criticism is, that with just the same temptation to personal partiality and even injustice in extremity, it offers a much wider latitude to the distortion of things, facts, grounds, and inferences. In fact, with the very same motives to a personal bias swerving from the equatorial truth, it makes a much wider opening for giving effect to those motives. Insincerity in short, and every mode of contradicting the truth, is far more possible under a professed devotion to a general principle than any personal expression could possibly be.

If the logic of the case be steadily examined, a definition of didactic poetry will emerge the very opposite to that popularly held: it will appear that in didactic poetry the teaching is not the power, but the resistance. It is difficult to teach even playfully or mimically in reconciliation with poetic effect: and the object is to wrestle with this difficulty. It is as when a man selects an absurd or nearly impracticable subject, his own chin,[2] suppose, for the organ of a new music: he does not select it as being naturally allied to music, but for the very opposite reason–as being eminently alien from music, that his own art will have the greater triumph in taming this reluctancy into any sort of obedience to a musical purpose. It is a wrestle with all but physical impossibility. Many arts and mechanic processes in human life present intermitting aspects of beauty, scattered amongst others that are utterly without interest of that sort. For instance, in husbandry, where many essential processes are too mean to allow of any poetic treatment or transfiguration, others are picturesque, and recommended by remembrances of childhood to most hearts. How beautiful, for instance, taken in all its variety of circumstances, the gorgeous summer, the gay noontide repast, the hiding of children in the hay, the little toy of a rake in the hands of infancy, is the hay-harvest from first to last! Such cases wear a Janus aspect, one face connecting them with gross uses of necessity, another connecting them with the gay or tender sentiments that accidents of association, or some purpose of Providence, may have thrown about them as a robe of beauty. Selecting therefore what meets his own purpose, the poet proceeds by resisting and rejecting all those parts of the subject which would tend to defeat it. But at least, it will be said, he does not resist those parts of the subject which he selects. Yes, he does; even those parts he resists utterly in their real and primary character, viz., as uses indispensable to the machinery of man’s animal life; and adopts them only for a collateral beauty attached to the accidents of their evolution; a beauty oftentimes not even guessed by those who are most familiar with them as practical operations. It is as if a man, having a learned eye, should follow the track of armies–careless of the political changes which they created, or of the interests (all neutral as regarded any opinion of his) which they disturbed–but alive to every form of beauty connected with these else unmeaning hostilities–alive to the beauty of their battle-array, to the pomp of their manoeuvres, to the awning of smoke-wreaths surging above the artilleries, to the gleaming of sabres and bayonets at intervals through loopholes in these gathering smoky masses. This man would abstract from the politics and doctrines of the hostile armies, as much as the didactic poet from the doctrinal part of his theme.