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opinion of descriptive poetry.
« The author of the Gei nius of Christianity,” says he, “ascribes the origin of descriptive poetry to the Christian religion, which, in de. stroying the charm attached to the mythological fables, has reduced the poets to seek the interest of their pictures in their truth and exactness."
The author of the poem on Spring thinks that we are here mistaken. But, in the first place, we have not ascrib. ed the origin of descriptive poetry to the Christian religion, we have only attributed to it the developement of this species of poetry; which seems to me a very different thing. Moreover, we have been careful not to say that Christianity has destroyed the charm of the mythological fables; we have endeavoured, on the contrary, to prove that every thing beautiful which is to be found in mythology, such, for example, as the moral allegories, may well be employed by a Christian poet, and that the true religion has only deprived the Muses of the minor, or disgusting fictions of paganism. And is the loss of the phy. sical allegories so much to be regretted? What does it signify to us whether Jupiter means the æther, Juno the air, &c.
But since M. de Fontanes, a critic whose judgments are laws, has thought that he also ought to combat our opi. nion
upon the employment of mythology, let us be permitted to revert to the passage which has given occasion to this discussion. After showing that the ancients were scarcely acquainted with descriptive poetry, in the sense which we attach to this term; after having shown that neither their poets, their philosophers, their naturalists, nor their historians have given descriptions of nature, I add: “We cannot suspect men endowed with the sensibility of the ancients to have wanted eyes to discern the beauties of nature, or talents to paint them. Some powerful cause must then have blinded their eyes. Now this cause was
their mythology; which, peopling the earth with elegant phantoms, took from the creation its solemnity, its gran. deur, its solitude, and its melancholy. It was necessary that christianity should chase all this people of fauns, of satyrs, of nymphs, to restore to the grottoes their silence, to the woods their disposition to excite meditation. The deserts have assumed, under our worship, a more sad, a more vague, a more sublime character. The domes of the forests are raised, the rivers have broken their petty urns, to pour out their waters, drawn from the summits of the mountains, only into the great deep. The true God, in being restored to his works, has given to nature his own immensity
Sylvans and Naiads may strike the imagination agreeably, provided always that we are not incessantly presented with them. We would not
Of their empire o'er the sea
“But what does all this leave in the soul? What re. sults from it to the heart? What fruit can the thoughts derive from it? How much more favoured is the Christian
poet, in the solitude where God walks with him! free from this multitude of ridiculous deities, which surrounded him on every side, the woods are filled with one immense Divinity. The gifts of wisdom and prophecy, the mysteries of religion, seem to reside eternally in their sacred recesses. Penetrate into the American forests, as ancient as the world itself,” &c. &c.
It appears to us, that the principle, as thus laid down, cannot be attacked fundamentally, though some disputes may be admitted as to the details. It may perhaps be asked, whether nothing fine is to be found in the ancient
allegories? We have answered this question in the chapter where we distinguish two sorts of allegories, the moral and the physical. M. de Fontanes has urged that the an cients equally knew this solitary and formidable deity who inhabits the woods. But have we not ourselves assented to this, in saying, “As to those unknown gods, whom the ancients placed in the deep woods and in the barren deserts, they undoubtedly produced a fine effect, but they formed no part of the mythological system ; the human mind here recurred to natural religion. What the trembling traveller adored in passing through these solitudes was something unknown, something the name of which he could not tell, whoin he called the divinity of the place. Sometimes he addressed it by the name of Pan, and Pan we know was the universal god. The great emotions which wild nature inspires have never been without existence, and the woods still preserve to us their formidable deity.”
The excellent critic whom we have already cited, maintains farther, that there have been Pagan people who were conversant with descriptive poetry. This is un. doubtedly true, and we have even availed ourselves of this circumstance to support our opinions, since the nations to whom the Gods of Greece were unknown, had a glimmer. ing view of thạt beautiful and simple nature which was masked by the mythological system.
It has been objected that the moderns have outraged descriptive poetry. Have we said any thing to the contrary; let us be permitted to recur to our own words: " Perhaps it may here be objected, that the ancients were in the right to consider descriptive poetry as the accessory part, not as the principal subject of the picture; in this idea we concur, and think that in our days there is a great abuse of the descriptive. But abuse is not the thing itself, and it is not the less true, that descriptive poetry, such as we are accustomed to it at present, is an additional engine in the hands of the poet; that it has extended the sphere of poetical imagery, without depriving us of painting the manners and the passions, such as those pictures existed for the ancients."
In short, M. Michaud thinks that the species of poetry which we call descriptive, such as is fixed at this day, has only begun to be a species since the last century. But is this the essential part of the question ? Will that prove that descriptive poetry has emanated from the Christian religion alone. Is it, in fact, very certain that this species of poetry is properly to be considered as having had its rise only in the last century. In our chapter entitled, The historic part of Descriptive Poetry among the Mo. derns, we have traced the progress of this poetry; we have seen it commence with the writings of the Fathers in the desert ; from thence spread itself into history, pass among the romance writers and poets of the Lower Em.
pire, soon mingle itself with the genius of the Moors, and attain under the pencils of Ariosto and Tasso, a species of perfection too remote from the truth. Our great wri. ters of the age of Louis XIV, rejected this sort of Italian descriptive poetry which celebrated nothing but roses, clear fountains and tufted woods. The English, in adopting it, stripped it of its affectation, but carried into it another species of excess in overloading it with detail. At length returning into France, in the last century, it grew to perfection under the pens of Messrs. Delille, St. Lam- . bert, and Fontaine, and acquired in the prose of Messrs. de Buffon and Bernardin de St. Pierre, a beauty unknown to it before.
We do not pronounce this judgment from ourselves alone, for our own opinion is of too little weight, we have not even like Chaulieu, for the morrow,
A little knowledge and a deal of hope,
but we appeal to M. Michaud himself. Would he have dispersed over his verses so many agreeable descriptions of nature, if christianity had not disencumbered the woods of the ancient Dryads and the eternal Zephyrs ? Has not the author of the Poem of Spring been deluded by his own success? He has made a delightful use of fable in his Letters upon the Sentiment of Pity, and we know that Pygmalion adored the statue which his own hands had formed. Psyche,” says
M. Michaud, “ was desirous of seeing Love, she approached the fatal lamp and Love disappeared for ever. Psyche, signifies the soul in the Greek language, and the ancients intended to prove by the allegory that the soul finds its most tender sentiments vanish in proportion as it seeks to penetrate the object of them.” This explanation is ingenious; but did the ancients really see all this in the fable of Psyche? We have endeavoured to prove that the charm of mystery in those things which may be called the sentimental part of life is one of the benefits which we owe to the delicacy of our religion. If Pagan antiquity conceived the fable of Psy. che, it appears to us that it is here a Christian who inter.
Still farther : Christianity, in banishing fable from nature, has not only restored grandeur to the deserts, it has even introduced another species of mythology full of charms for the poet, in the personification of plants. When the Heliotrope was always Clytia, the mulberrytree always Thisbe, &c. the imagination of the poet was necessarily confined ; he could not animate nature by any other fictions than the consecrated fictions, without being guilty of impiety; but the modern muse transforms at its pleasure all the plants into nymphs without any injury to the angels and the celestial spirits which it may spread over