The Humourist (April 2, 1754)

[2 April 1754]

The HUMOURIST.  No. XIV

— — Facies non omnibus una,

Nec diversa tamen.  — —1

I have made an Observation in the Course of my Reading, that no Part of Poetry strikes like Descriptions; and I believe most People will agree in Opinion with me.  Descriptions are generally formed from Ideas drawn the Senses, and consequently have as great an Effect upon the Mind, as a Picture upon the Sight; but moral Discourses operate very differently, and as they act with less Vivacity, of Course they require more Reason and Consideration to determine our Judgments.

Who does not instantaneously form to himself the exact Resemblance of Nature in a lively Description of a Storm, a Battle, or a Garden?  But who can, with equal Ease, perceive the proper Beauties necessary to distinguish an Orator, a King, or a General.  These several Characters require a peculiar Turn of Sentiment and Expression, which very few People have Judgment to distinguish.

As the Propriety or Impropriety of a Description is immediately perceived, so there is a general and almost uniform Similitude in those of the same Object, drawn by different Authors.  A picture of the same Person by several Artists, may resemble each other, so that one may fix upon the Object which they intended to represent; and yet at the same Time, the Degrees of Likeness, and the various Manner of expressing it, make a very apparent and pleasing Variety.

Amongst the numerous kinds of Descriptions, I think, none have been more generally received than those of the Morning.  The Heroic Poets seem to have exercised all their Talents in varying them:  They have sported with their Imaginations almost to Extravagance.  I have collected together some few Instances which may not be unacceptable to the Reader.  The following is from Virgil, in Mr. Dryden’s Translation.2

Aurora now had left her saffron bed,

And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread.

The morn began from Ida to display

Her rosy cheeks, and Phospor led the day.

It will be endless and indeed unnecessary, to multiply Examples out of all the Antients, and therefore I have produced some from our modern Writers.  Both Tasso3 and Spencer4 have succeeded admirably in this Description, but superior to them all are those of Shakespeare, and the following Instance is a striking one.

Look where the morn, in russet mantle clad,

Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.5

In another Place he has embellish’d it thus,

— — — — Look what streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east,

Night’s tapers are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops.6

The two following Descriptions are quite poetical.

The glow-worm shews the mattin to be near,

And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire.7

— — — — — Yon grey lines

That fret the clouds, are messengers of day.8

That admirable Description in Otway’s Orphan, affords more Diversity of Images than any of the rest.

Wish’d morning’s come9

I am not so attached to the Antients, as to give them the Preference in this Part of Poetry, tho’ most People are so bigoted to their Beautie, that they will allow little or no Excellence in the modern Writers:  For my Part, I must confess, that I cannot find in any of the Antients, that Elegance of Sentiment, ort Luxuriancy of Fancy, which many modern Writers have exemplified in their beautiful Descriptions of the Morning.

NOTES

1 From Ovid: “Their faces were not all alike, nor yet unlike, but such as those of sisters ought to be.”

2 From John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

3 Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), Italian poet.

4 Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), Renaissance English Poet.

5 Hamlet, Act I, scene 1, line 166.

6 Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 5.

7 Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, lines 89-90.

8 Julius Caesar, Act II, scene 1.

9 Thomas Otway (1652-1685), English dramatist. The Orphan is considered to be one of his two tragic masterpieces.