« PreviousContinue »
old man's joy and elation of heart, by displaying a scene which produces in every spectator a corresponding train of pleasing emotions; the declining sun looking forth in his brightness after a storm; the cheerful face of all nature; and the still life finely animated by the circumstance of the aged hero, with his staff and his gray locks: a circumstance both extremely picturesque in itself, and peculiarly suited to the main object of the comparison. Such analogies and associations of ideas as these, are highly pleasing to the fancy. They give opportunity for introducing many a fine poetical picture. They diversify the scene; they aggrandize the subject; they keep the imagination awake and sprightly. For as the judgment is principally exercised in distinguishing objects, and remarking the differences among those which seem alike, so the highest amusement of the imagination is to trace likenesses and agreements among those which seem different.
The principal rules which respect poetical comparisons are, that they be introduced on proper occasions, when the mind is disposed to relish them; and not in the midst of some severe and agitating passion, which cannot admit this play of fancy; that they be founded on a resemblance neither too near and obvious, so as to give little amusement to the imagination in tracing it, nor too faint and remote, so as to be apprehended with difficulty; that they serve either to illustrate the principal object, and to render the conception of it more clear and distinct; or, at least, to heighten and embellish it, by a suitable association of images.
Every country has a scenery peculiar to itself; and the imagery of a good poet will exhibit it. For as he copies after nature, his allusions will of course be taken from those objects which he sees around him, and which have often struck his fancy. For this reason, in order to judge of the propriety of poetical imagery, we ought to be in some measure acquainted with the natural history of the country where the scene of the poem is laid. The introduction of foreign images betrays a poet, copying not from nature, but from other writers. Hence so many lions, and tigers, and eagles, and serpents, which we meet with in the similes of modern poets; as if these animals had acquired some right to a place in poetical comparisons for ever, because employed by ancient authors. They employed them with propriety, as objects generally known in their country, but they are absurdly used for illustration by us, who know them only at second hand, or by description. To most readers of modern poetry, it were more to the purpose to describe lions or tigers by similes taken from men, than to compare men to lions. Ossian is very correct in this particular. His imagery is, without exception, copied from that face of nature which he saw before his eyes; and by consequence may be expected to be lively. We meet with no Grecian or Italian scenery; but with the mists, and clouds, and storms, of a northern mountainous region.
No poet abounds more in similes than Ossian. There are in this collection as many, at least, as in the whole Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. I am indeed inclined to think, that the works of both poets are too much crowded with them. Similes are sparkling ornaments; and, likeall things that sparkle, are apt to dazzle and tire us by their lustre. But if Ossian's similes be too frequent, they have this advantage, of being commonly shorter than Homer's; they interrupt his narration less; he just glances aside to some resembling object, and instantly returns to his former track. Homer's similes include a wider range of objects: but, in return, Ossian's are, without exception, taken from objects of dignity, which cannot be said for all those which Homer employs. The sun, the moon, and the stars, clouds and meteors, lightning and thunder, seas and whales, rivers, torrents, winds, ice, rain, snow, dews, mist, fire and smoke, trees and forests, heath and grass and flowers, rocks and mountains, music and songs, light and darkness, spirits and ghosts; these form the circle within which Ossian's comparisons generally run. Some, not many, are taken from birds and beasts: as eagles, sea-fowl, the horse, the deer, and the mountain bee; and a very few from such operations of art as were then known. Homer has diversified his imagery, by many more allusions tothe animal world; to lions, bulls, goats, herds of cattle, serpents, insects; and to various occupations of rural and pastoral life. Ossian's defect in this article, is plainly owing to the desert, uncultivated state of his country, which suggested to him few images beyond natural inanimate objects, in their rudest form. The birds and animals of the country were probably not numerous; and his acquaintance with them was slender, as they were little subjected to the uses of man.
The great objection made to Ossian's imagery, is its uniformity, and the too frequent repetition of the same comparison. In a work so thick-sown with similes one could not but expect to find images of the same kind sometimes suggested to the poet by resembling objects; especially to a poet like Ossian, who wrote from the immediate impulse of poetical enthusiasm, and without much preparation of study or labour. Fertile as Homer's imagination is acknowledged to be, who does not know how often his lions, and bulls, and flocks of sheep, recur with little or no variation; nay, sometimes, in the very same words? The objection made to Ossian is, however, founded, in a great measure, upon a mistake. It has been supposed by inattentive readers, that wherever the moon, the cloud, or the thunder, returns in a simile, it is the same simile, and the same moon, or cloud, or thunder, which they had met with a few pages before. Whereas very often the similes are widely different. The object, from whence they are taken, is indeed in substance the same; but the image is new; for the appearance of the object is changed; it is presented to the fancy in another attitude; and clothed with new circumstances, to make it suit the different illustration for which it is employed. In this lies Ossian's great art; in so happily varying the form of the few natural appearances with which he was acquainted, as to make them correspond to a great many different objects.
Let us take for one instance the moon, which is very frequently introduced in his comparisons; as in northern climates, where the nights are long, the moon is a greater object of attention than in the climate of Homer; and let us view how much our poet has diversified its appearance. The shield of a warrior is like "the darkened moon when it moves a dun circle through the heavens.' The face of a ghost, wan and pale, is like 'the beam of the setting moon.' And a different appearance of a ghost, thin and indistinct, is like 'the new moon seen through the gathered mist, when the sky pours down its flaky snow, and the world is silent and dark;' or, in a different form still, is like "the watery beam of the moon, when it rushes from between two clouds, and the midnight shower is on the field." A very opposite use is made of the moon in the description of Agandecca: 'She came in all her beauty, like the moon from the cloud of the east." Hope succeeded by disappointment, is "joy rising on her face and sorrow returning again, like a thin cloud on the moon." But when Swaran, after his defeat, is cheered by Fingal's generosity, 'his face brightened like the full moon of heaven, when the clouds vanish away, and leave her calm and broad in the midst of tho ■ky." Venvela is "bright as the moon when it trembles o'er the western wave;' but the soul of the guilty Uthal is " dark as the troubled face of the moon, when it foretels the storm." And by a very fanciful and uncommon allusion, it is said of Cormac, who was to die in his early years, 'Nor long shalt thou lift the spear, mildly-shining beam of youth! Death stands dim behind thee, like the darkened half of the moon behind its growing light."
Another instance of the same nature may be taken from mist, which, as being a very familiar appearance in the country of Ossian, he applies to a variety of purposes, and pursues through a great many forms. Sometimes, which one would hardly expect, he employs it to heighten the appearance of a beautiful object. The hair of Morna is 'like the mist of Cromla, when it curls on the rock, and shines to the beam of the west." "The song comes with its music to mi It and please the ear. It is like soft mist, that rising from the lake pours on the silent vale. The green flowers are filled with dew. The sun returns in its strength, and the mist is gone." But, for the most part, mist is employed as a similitude of some disagreeable or terrible object. "The soul of Nathos was sad, like the sun in the day of mist, when his face is watery and dim."— "The darkness of old age comes like the mist of tho desert." The face of a ghost is 'pale as the mist of Cromla."—"The gloom of battle is rolled along as mist that is poured on the valley, when storms invade the silent sunshine of heaven.' Fame, suddenly departing, is likened to "mist that flies away before the rustling wind of the vale.' A ghost, slowly vanishing, to "mist that melts by degrees on the sunny hill.' Cairbar, after his treacherous assassination of Oscar, is