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Of Poetical Language, considered as significant.
IF, as I have endeavoured to prove, poetry be imitative of nature, poetical fictions of real events, poetical images of real appearances in the visible creation, and poetical personages of real human characters; it would seem to follow, that the language of poetry must be an imitation of the language of nature. For nothing but what is supposed to be natural can please; and language, as well as fable, imagery, and moral description, may displease, by being unnatural. What then is meant by natural language? This comes to be our first inquiry.
An idea of Natural Language.
THE term natural language has sometimes been used by philosophers to denote those tones of the human voice, attitudes of the body, and
configurations of the features, which, being naturally expressive of certain emotions of the soul, are universal among mankind, and every where understood. Thus anger, fear, pity, adoration, joy, contempt, and almost every other passion, has a look, attitude, and tone of voice, peculiar to itself; which would seem to be the effect, not of men imitating one another, but of the soul operating upon the body; and which, when well expressed in a picture or statue, or when it appears in human behaviour, is understood by all mankind, as the external sign of that passion which it is for the most part observed to accompany. In this acceptation, natural language is contradistinguished to those articulate voices to which the name of speech has been appropriated; and which are also universal among mankind, though different in different nations; but derive all their meaning from human compact and artifice, and are not understood except by those who have been instructed in the use of them. But in this inquiry the term natural language denotes that use of speech, or of artificial language, which is suitable to the speaker and to the occasion. "Proper words in 66 proper places," is Swift's definition of a good style; and may with equal propriety, serve for a definition of that style, or mode of language,
which is here called natural, in contradistinction, not to artificial (itself being artificial) but to unnatural; and which it is the poet's business to imitate. I say, to imitate: for as poets (for a reason already given) copy nature, not as it is, but in that state of perfection, wherein consistently with verisimilitude, and with the genius of their work, it may be supposed to be; and are there. fore said to imitate nature, that is, to give a view of nature similar to, but somewhat different from the reality: so, in forming poetical language, they must take for their model human speech, not in that imperfect state wherein it is used on the common occasions of life, but in that state of perfection, whereof, consistently with verisimilitude, it may be supposed to be susceptible.
But, as we cannot estimate the perfection or imperfection of poetical imagery, till we know the natural appearance of the thing described; so neither can we judge of this perfection of human speech, till we have formed some idea of that quality of language which we express by the epithet natural. That some modes of language are more natural than others, and that one mode may be natural at one time which at another would be unnatural, must be evident even to those who never studied criticism. Would soft words, for example, be natural in
the mouth of a very angry man? or do even the vulgar expect blustering expressions from him who melts with pity or love or sorrow? Between groans and pain, tears and grief, laughter and jocularity, trembling and fear, the connexion is not more natural, than between certain sentiments of the human mind and certain modificaons of human language.
Natural language and good language are not the same: and Swift's definition, which is equally applicable to both, will not perhaps be found to express adequately the characteristick of either. The qualities of good language are perspicuity, simplicity, elegance, energy, and harmony. But language may possess all these qualities, and yet not be natural. Would the Anacreontick or Ovidian simplicity be natural in the mouth of Achilles, upbraiding Agamemnon with his tyranny and injustice; or of Lear defying the tempestuous elements, and imprecating perdition upon his daughters? Would that perspicuity which we justly admire in Cato's soliloquy,* be accounted natural in Hamlet's, † by those who know, that the former is supposed to speak with the rationality of a philosopher, and the latter
* It must be so. Plato, thou reason'st well, &c.
with the agitation of a young man tortured to madness with sorrow and love, disappointment and revenge? Would language so magnificent as that in which the sublime Othello speaks of the pomp and honours of war, be natural in the mouth of the soft, the humble, the brokenhearted Desdemona bewailing her unhappy fate? Or would the sonorous harmony of the dithyrambick song or epick poem, suit the simplicity of shepherds, contending in alternate verse, and praising their mistresses, putting forth riddles, or making remarks upon the weather? Yet language must always be so far simple as to have no superfluous decoration; so far perspicuous, as to let us see clearly what is meant; and so far elegant, as to give no ground to suspect the author of ignorance, or want of
Good language is determinate and absolute. We know it wherever we meet with it; we may learn to speak and write it from books alone. Whether pronounced by a clown or a hero, a wise man or an idiot, language is still good if it be according to rule. But natural language is something not absolute but relative; and can be estimated by those only, who have studied men as well as books; and who attend to the real or