Poets by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

In all ages there has existed an anti-poetical party. This faction consists of those frigid intellects incapable of that glowing expansion so necessary to feel the charms of an art, which only addresses itself to the imagination; or of writers who, having proved unsuccessful in their court to the muses, revenge themselves by reviling them; and also of those religious minds who consider the ardent effusions of poetry as dangerous to the morals and peace of society.

Plato, amongst the ancients, is the model of those moderns who profess themselves to be ANTI-POETICAL.

This writer, in his ideal republic, characterises a man who occupies himself with composing verses as a very dangerous member of society, from the inflammatory tendency of his writings. It is by arguing from its abuse, that he decries this enchanting talent. At the same time it is to be recollected, that no head was more finely organised for the visions of the muse than Plato’s: he was a true poet, and had addicted himself in his prime of life to the cultivation of the art, but perceiving that he could not surpass his inimitable original, Homer, he employed this insidious manner of depreciating his works. In the Phaedon he describes the feelings of a genuine Poet. To become such, he says, it will never be sufficient to be guided by the rules of art, unless we also feel the ecstasies of that furor, almost divine, which in this kind of composition is the most palpable and least ambiguous character of a true inspiration. Cold minds, ever tranquil and ever in possession of themselves, are incapable of producing exalted poetry; their verses must always be feeble, diffusive, and leave no impression; the verses of those who are endowed with a strong and lively imagination, and who, like Homer’s personification of Discord, have their heads incessantly in the skies, and their feet on the earth, will agitate you, burn in your heart, and drag you along with them; breaking like an impetuous torrent, and swelling your breast with that enthusiasm with which they are themselves possessed.

Such is the character of a poet in a poetical age!–The tuneful race have many corporate bodies of mechanics; Pontypool manufacturers, inlayers, burnishers, gilders, and filers!

Men of taste are sometimes disgusted in turning over the works of the anti-poetical, by meeting with gross railleries and false judgments concerning poetry and poets. Locke has expressed a marked contempt of poets; but we see what ideas he formed of poetry by his warm panegyric of one of Blackmore’s epics! and besides he was himself a most unhappy poet! Selden, a scholar of profound erudition, has given us his opinion concerning poets. “It is ridiculous for a lord to print verses; he may make them to please himself. If a man in a private chamber twirls his band-strings, or plays with a rush to please himself, it is well enough; but if he should go into Fleet-street, and sit upon a stall and twirl a band-string, or play with a rush, then all the boys in the street would laugh at him.”–As if “the sublime and the beautiful” can endure a comparison with the twirling of a band-string or playing with a rush!–A poet, related to an illustrious family, and who did not write unpoetically, entertained a far different notion concerning poets. So persuaded was he that to be a true poet required an elevated mind, that it was a maxim with him that no writer could be an excellent poet who was not descended from a noble family. This opinion is as absurd as that of Selden:–but when one party will not grant enough, the other always assumes too much. The great Pascal, whose extraordinary genius was discovered in the sciences, knew little of the nature of poetical beauty. He said “Poetry has no settled object.” This was the decision of a geometrician, not of a poet. “Why should he speak of what he did not understand?” asked the lively Voltaire. Poetry is not an object which comes under the cognizance of philosophy or wit.

Longuerue had profound erudition; but he decided on poetry in the same manner as those learned men. Nothing so strongly characterises such literary men as the following observations in the Longueruana, p. 170.

“There are two books on Homer, which I prefer to Homer himself. The first is Antiquitates Homericae of Feithius, where he has extracted everything relative to the usages and customs of the Greeks; the other is, Homeri Gnomologia per Duportum, printed at Cambridge. In these two books is found everything valuable in Homer, without being obliged to get through his Contes a dormir debout!” Thus men of science decide on men of taste! There are who study Homer and Virgil as the blind travel through a fine country, merely to get to the end of their journey. It was observed at the death of Longuerue that in his immense library not a volume of poetry was to be found. He had formerly read poetry, for indeed he had read everything. Racine tells us, that when young he paid him a visit; the conversation turned on poets; our erudit reviewed them all with the most ineffable contempt of the poetical talent, from which he said we learn nothing. He seemed a little charitable towards Ariosto.–“As for that madman,” said he, “he has amused me sometimes.” Dacier, a poetical pedant after all, was asked who was the greater poet, Homer or Virgil? he honestly answered, “Homer by a thousand years!”

But it is mortifying to find among the anti-poetical even poets themselves! Malherbe, the first poet in France in his day, appears little to have esteemed the art. He used to say that “a good poet was not more useful to the state than a skilful player of nine-pins!” Malherbe wrote with costive labour. When a poem was shown to him which had been highly commended, he sarcastically asked if it would “lower the price of bread?” In these instances he maliciously confounded the useful with the agreeable arts. Be it remembered, that Malherbe had a cynical heart, cold and unfeeling; his character may be traced in his poetry; labour and correctness, without one ray of enthusiasm.

Le Clerc was a scholar not entirely unworthy to be ranked amongst the Lockes, the Seldens, and the Longuerues; and his opinions are as just concerning poets. In the Parhasiana he has written a treatise on poets in a very unpoetical manner. I shall notice his coarse railleries relating to what he calls “the personal defects of poets.” In vol. i. p. 33, he says, “In the Scaligerana we have Joseph Scaliger’s opinion concerning poets. ‘There never was a man who was a poet, or addicted to the study of poetry, but his heart was puffed up with his greatness.’–This is very true. The poetical enthusiasm persuades those gentlemen that they have something in them superior to others, because they employ a language peculiar to themselves. When the poetic furor seizes them, its traces frequently remain on their faces, which make connoisseurs say with Horace,

Aut insanit homo, ant versus facit.

There goes a madman or a bard!

“Their thoughtful air and melancholy gait make them appear insane; for, accustomed to versify while they walk, and to bite their nails in apparent agonies, their steps are measured and slow, and they look as if they were reflecting on something of consequence, although they are only thinking, as the phrase runs, of nothing!” I have only transcribed the above description of our jocular scholar, with an intention of describing those exterior marks of that fine enthusiasm, of which the poet is peculiarly susceptible, and which have exposed many an elevated genius to the ridicule of the vulgar.

I find this admirably defended by Charpentier: “Men may ridicule as much as they please those gesticulations and contortions which poets are apt to make in the act of composing; it is certain, however, that they greatly assist in putting the imagination into motion. These kinds of agitation do not always show a mind which labours with its sterility; they frequently proceed from a mind which excites and animates itself. Quintilian has nobly compared them to those lashings of his tail which a lion gives himself when he is preparing to combat. Persius, when he would give us an idea of a cold and languishing oration, says that its author did not strike his desk nor bite his nails.”

Nec pluteum caedit, nec demorsos sapit ungues.

These exterior marks of enthusiasm may be illustrated by the following curious anecdote:–Domenichino, the painter, was accustomed to act the characters of all the figures he would represent on his canvas, and to speak aloud whatever the passion he meant to describe could prompt. Painting the martyrdom of St. Andrew, Carracci one day caught him in a violent passion, speaking in a terrible and menacing tone. He was at that moment employed on a soldier who was threatening the saint. When this fit of enthusiastic abstraction had passed, Carracci ran and embraced him, acknowledging that Domenichino had been that day his master; and that he had learnt from him the true manner to succeed in catching the expression–that great pride of the painter’s art.

Thus different are the sentiments of the intelligent and the unintelligent on the same subject. A Carracci embraced a kindred genius for what a Le Clerc or a Selden would have ridiculed.

Poets, I confess, frequently indulge reveries, which, though they offer no charms to their friends, are too delicious to forego. In the ideal world, peopled with all its fairy inhabitants, and ever open to their contemplation, they travel with an unwearied foot. Crebillon, the celebrated tragic poet, was enamoured of solitude, that he might there indulge, without interruption, in those fine romances with which his imagination teemed. One day when he was in a deep reverie, a friend entered hastily: “Don’t disturb me,” cried the poet; “I am enjoying a moment of happiness: I am going to hang a villain of a minister, and banish another who is an idiot.”

Amongst the anti-poetical may be placed the father of the great monarch of Prussia. George the Second was not more the avowed enemy of the muses. Frederic would not suffer the prince to read verses; and when he was desirous of study, or of the conversation of literary men, he was obliged to do it secretly. Every poet was odious to his majesty. One day, having observed some lines written on one of the doors of the palace, he asked a courtier their signification. They were explained to him; they were Latin verses composed by Wachter, a man of letters, then resident at Berlin. The king immediately sent for the bard, who came warm with the hope of receiving a reward for his ingenuity. He was astonished, however, to hear the king, in a violent passion, accost him, “I order you immediately to quit this city and my kingdom.” Wachter took refuge in Hanover. As little indeed was this anti-poetical monarch a friend to philosophers. Two or three such kings might perhaps renovate the ancient barbarism of Europe. Barratier, the celebrated child, was presented to his majesty of Prussia as a prodigy of erudition; the king, to mortify our ingenious youth, coldly asked him, “If he knew the law?” The learned boy was constrained to acknowledge that he knew nothing of the law. “Go,” was the reply of this Augustus, “go, and study it before you give yourself out as a scholar.” Poor Barratier renounced for this pursuit his other studies, and persevered with such ardour that he became an excellent lawyer at the end of fifteen months; but his exertions cost him at the same time his life!

Every monarch, however, has not proved so destitute of poetic sensibility as this Prussian. Francis I. gave repeated marks of his attachment to the favourites of the muses, by composing several occasional sonnets, which are dedicated to their eulogy. Andrelin, a French poet, enjoyed the happy fate of Oppian, to whom the emperor Caracalla counted as many pieces of gold as there were verses in one of his poems; and with great propriety they have been called “golden verses.” Andrelin, when he recited his poem on the Conquest of Naples before Charles VIII., received a sack of silver coin, which with difficulty he carried home. Charles IX., says Brantome, loved verses, and recompensed poets, not indeed immediately, but gradually, that they might always be stimulated to excel. He used to say, that poets resembled race-horses, that must be fed but not fattened, for then they were good for nothing. Marot was so much esteemed by kings, that he was called the poet of princes, and the prince of poets.

In the early state of poetry what honours were paid to its votaries! Ronsard, the French Chaucer, was the first who carried away the prize at the Floral Games. This meed of poetic honour was an eglantine composed of silver. The reward did not appear equal to the merit of the work and the reputation of the poet; and on this occasion the city of Toulouse had a Minerva of solid silver struck, of considerable value. This image was sent to Ronsard, accompanied by a decree, in which he was declared, by way of eminence, “The French Poet.”

It is a curious anecdote to add, that when, at a later period, a similar Minerva was adjudged to Maynard for his verses, the Capitouls, of Toulouse, who were the executors of the Floral gifts, to their shame, out of covetousness, never obeyed the decision of the poetical judges. This circumstance is noticed by Maynard in an epigram, which bears this title: On a Minerva of silver, promised but not given.

The anecdote of Margaret of Scotland, wife of the Dauphin of France, and Alain the poet, is generally known. Who is not charmed with that fine expression of her poetical sensibility? The person of Alain was repulsive, but his poetry had attracted her affections. Passing through one of the halls of the palace, she saw him sleeping on a bench; she approached and kissed him. Some of her attendants could not conceal their astonishment that she should press with her lips those of a man so frightfully ugly. The amiable princess answered, smiling, “I did not kiss the man, but the mouth which has uttered so many fine things.”

The great Colbert paid a pretty compliment to Boileau and Racine. This minister, at his villa, was enjoying the conversation of our two poets, when the arrival of a prelate was announced: turning quickly to the servant, he said, “Let him be shown everything except myself!”

To such attentions from this great minister, Boileau alludes in these verses:–

Plus d’un grand m’aima jusqnes a la tendresse;
Et ma vue a Colbert inspiroit l’allegresse.

Several pious persons have considered it as highly meritable to abstain from the reading of poetry! A good father, in his account of the last hours of Madame Racine, the lady of the celebrated tragic poet, pays high compliments to her religious disposition, which, he says, was so austere, that she would not allow herself to read poetry, as she considered it to be a dangerous pleasure; and he highly commends her for never having read the tragedies of her husband! Arnauld, though so intimately connected with Racine for many years, had not read his compositions. When at length he was persuaded to read Phaedra, he declared himself to be delighted, but complained that the poet had set a dangerous example, in making the manly Hippolytus dwindle to an effeminate lover. As a critic, Arnauld was right; but Racine had his nation to please. Such persons entertain notions of poetry similar to that of an ancient father, who calls poetry the wine of Satan; or to that of the religious and austere Nicole, who was so ably answered by Racine: he said, that dramatic poets were public poisoners, not of bodies, but of souls.

Poets, it is acknowledged, have foibles peculiar to themselves. They sometimes act in the daily commerce of life as if every one was concerned in the success of their productions. Poets are too frequently merely poets. Segrais has recorded that the following maxim of Rochefoucault was occasioned by reflecting on the characters of Boileau and Racine. “It displays,” he writes, “a great poverty of mind to have only one kind of genius.” On this Segrais observes, and Segrais knew them intimately, that their conversation only turned on poetry; take them from that, and they knew nothing. It was thus with one Du Perrier, a good poet, but very poor. When he was introduced to Pelisson, who wished to be serviceable to him, the minister said, “In what can he be employed? He is only occupied by his verses.”

All these complaints are not unfounded; yet, perhaps, it is unjust to expect from an excelling artist all the petty accomplishments of frivolous persons, who have studied no art but that of practising on the weaknesses of their friends. The enthusiastic votary, who devotes his days and nights to meditations on his favourite art, will rarely be found that despicable thing, a mere man of the world. Du Bos has justly observed, that men of genius, born for a particular profession, appear inferior to others when they apply themselves to other occupations. That absence of mind which arises from their continued attention to their ideas, renders them awkward in their manners. Such defects are even a proof of the activity of genius.

It is a common foible with poets to read their verses to friends. Segrais has ingeniously observed, to use his own words, “When young I used to please myself in reciting my verses indifferently to all persons; but I perceived when Scarron, who was my intimate friend, used to take his portfolio and read his verses to me, although they were good, I frequently became weary. I then reflected, that those to whom I read mine, and who, for the greater part, had no taste for poetry, must experience the same disagreeable sensation. I resolved for the future to read my verses only to those who entreated me, and to read but a few at a time. We flatter ourselves too much; we conclude that what please us must please others. We will have persons indulgent to us, and frequently we will have no indulgence for those who are in want of it.” An excellent hint for young poets, and for those old ones who carry odes and elegies in their pockets, to inflict the pains of the torture on their friends.

The affection which a poet feels for his verses has been frequently extravagant. Bayle, ridiculing that parental tenderness which writers evince for their poetical compositions, tells us, that many having written epitaphs on friends whom they believed on report to have died, could not determine to keep them in their closet, but suffered them to appear in the lifetime of those very friends whose death they celebrated. In another place he says, such is their infatuation for their productions, that they prefer giving to the public their panegyrics of persons whom afterwards they satirized, rather than suppress the verses which contain those panegyrics. We have many examples of this in the poems, and even in the epistolary correspondence of modern writers. It is customary with most authors, when they quarrel with a person after the first edition of their work, to cancel his eulogies in the next. But poets and letter-writers frequently do not do this; because they are so charmed with the happy turn of their expressions, and other elegancies of composition, that they perfer the praise which they may acquire for their style to the censure which may follow from their inconsistency.

After having given a hint to young poets, I shall offer one to veterans. It is a common defect with them that they do not know when to quit the muses in their advanced age. Bayle says, “Poets and orators should be mindful to retire from their occupations, which so peculiarly require the fire of imagination; yet it is but too common to see them in their career, even in the decline of life. It seems as if they would condemn the public to drink even the lees of their nectar.” Afer and Daurat were both poets who had acquired considerable reputation, but which they overturned when they persisted to write in their old age without vigour and without fancy.

What crowds of these impenitently bold,
In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,
They run on poets, in a raging rein,
E’en to the dregs and squeezings of the brain:
Strain out the last dull droppings of their sense,
And rhyme with all the rage of impotence.


It is probable he had Wycherley in his eye when he wrote this. The veteran bard latterly scribbled much indifferent verse; and Pope had freely given his opinion, by which he lost his friendship!

It is still worse when aged poets devote their exhausted talents to divine poems, as did Waller; and Milton in his second epic. Such poems, observes Voltaire, are frequently entitled “sacred poems;” and sacred they are, for no one touches them. From a soil so arid what can be expected but insipid fruits? Corneille told Chevreau several years before his death, that he had taken leave of the theatre, for he had lost his poetical powers with his teeth.

Poets have sometimes displayed an obliquity of taste in their female favourites. As if conscious of the power of ennobling others, some have selected them from the lowest classes, whom, having elevated into divinities, they have addressed in the language of poetical devotion. The Chloe of Prior, after all his raptures, was a plump barmaid. Ronsard addressed many of his verses to Miss Cassandra, who followed the same occupation: in one of his sonnets to her, he fills it with a crowd of personages taken from the Iliad, which to the honest girl must have all been extremely mysterious. Colletet, a French bard, married three of his servants. His last lady was called la belle Claudine. Ashamed of such menial alliances, he attempted to persuade the world that he had married the tenth muse; and for this purpose published verses in her name. When he died, the vein of Claudine became suddenly dry. She indeed published her “Adieux to the Muses;” but it was soon discovered that all the verses of this lady, including her “Adieux,” were the compositions of her husband.

Sometimes, indeed, the ostensible mistresses of poets have no existence; and a slight occasion is sufficient to give birth to one. Racan and Malherbe were one day conversing on their amours; that is, of selecting a lady who should be the object of their verses. Racan named one, and Malherbe another. It happening that both had the same name, Catherine, they passed the whole afternoon in forming it into an anagram. They found three: Arthenice, Eracinthe, and Charinte. The first was preferred, and many a fine ode was written in praise of the beautiful Arthenice!

Poets change their opinions of their own productions wonderfully at different periods of life. Baron Haller was in his youth warmly attached to poetic composition. His house was on fire, and to rescue his poems he rushed through the flames. He was so fortunate as to escape with his beloved manuscripts in his hand. Ten years afterwards he condemned to the flames those very poems which he had ventured his life to preserve.

Satirists, if they escape the scourges of the law, have reason to dread the cane of the satirised. Of this kind we have many anecdotes on record; but none more poignant than the following:–Benserade was caned for lampooning the Duc d’Epernon. Some days afterwards he appeared at court, but being still lame from the rough treatment he had received, he was forced to support himself by a cane. A wit, who knew what had passed, whispered the affair to the queen. She, dissembling, asked him if he had the gout? “Yes, madam,” replied our lame satirist, “and therefore I make use of a cane.” “Not so,” interrupted the malignant Bautru, “Benserade in this imitates those holy martyrs who are always represented with the instrument which occasioned their sufferings.”

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