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Undertake, in the following discourse, to confider Two QUESTIONS, in which the credit of almoft all great writers, fince the time of Homer, is vitally concerned.
First, "Whether that Conformity in Phraje "or Sentiment between two writers of differ"ent times, which we call IMITATION, may not with probability enough, for the "most part, be accounted for from general causes, arifing from our common nature; "that is, from the exercife of our natural faculties on fuch objects as lie in common "to all obfervers.`.
Secondly, "Whether, in the cafe of confelfed Imitations, any certain and necessary "conclufion holds to the disadvantage of the "natural GENIUS of the imitator?" QUESTIONS, which there feems no fit meVOL. III.
thod of refolving, but by taking the matter pretty deep, and deducing it from its first principles.
ALL Poetry, to fpeak with Aristotle
and the Greek critics (if for fo plain a point authorities be thought wanting) is, properly, imitation. It is, indeed, the noblest and most extenfive of the mimetic arts; having all creation for its object, and ranging the entire circuit of universal being. In this view every wondrous original, which ages have gazed at, as the offspring of creative fancy; and of which poets themselves, to do honour to their inventions, have feigned, as of the immortal panoply of their heroes, that it came down from heaven, is itfelf but a copy, a tranfcript from fome brighter page of this vaft volume of the univerfe. Thus all is derived; all is unoriginal. And the office of genius is but to felect the fairest forms of things, and to present them in due place and circumftance, and in the richest colouring of expreffion, to the imagination. This primary or original copying, which in the
ideas of Philofophy is Imitation, is, in the language of Criticifm, called INVENTION.
Again; of the endless variety of thefe original forms, which the poet's eye is inceffantly traverfing, thofe, which take his attention most, his active mimetic faculty prompts him to convert into fair and living refemblances. This magical operation the divine philofopher (whofe fervid fancy, though it fometimes obfcures [a] his reasoning, yet never fails to clear and brighten his imagery) excellently illuftrates by the fimilitude of a mirror; "which, fays "he, as you turn about and oppofe to the fur"rounding world, prefents you inftantly with "a SUN, STARS, and SKIES; with your "OWN, and every OTHER living form; with "the EARTH, and its feveral appendages "of TREES, PLANTS, and FLOWERS ." Juft fo, on whatever fide the poet turns his imagination, the fhapes of things immediately imprint themselves upon it, and a new correfponding creation reflects the old one.
[a] Meλalves Te, fays Dionyfius of Halicarnaffus, fpeaking of his figurative manner, rò capis Lópe work waarnowo [T. ii. p. 204. Ed. Hudfon.] [b] PLATO DE REPUB. lib. x.
This fhadowy ideal world, though unsubftantial as the American vifion of fouls [c], yet glows with fuch apparent life, that it becomes, thenceforth, the object of other mirrors, and is itself original to future reflexions. This fecondary or derivative image, is that alone which Criticifm confiders under the Idea of IMITATION.
And here the difficulty, we are about to examine, commences. For the poet, in his quick refearches through all his stores and materials of beauty, meeting every where, in his progrefs, these reflected forms; and deriving from them his flock of imagery, as well as from the real fubfifting objects of nature, the reader is often at a lofs (for the poet himfelf is not always aware of it) to difcern the original from the copy; to know, with certainty, if the fentiment or image, prefented to him, be directly taken from the life, or be itfelf, a lively tranfcript, only, of fome former copy. And this difficulty is the greater, because the original, as well as the copy, is always at hand for the poet to turn to, and we can rarely be certain, fince both were equally in his pow[c] Spectator No. 56.