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1 All that our poet says here may be referred, in general, to three heads, the fable, the manners, and the diction. We should take notice that this piece particularly regards epic and dramatic poetry, and that our author only occasionally mentions any other kind. The most important precept for the composition of a poem is unity and simplicity of design. There should be only one action, to which all the incidents ought to refer; and this point of perfection, every regular work requires. To show the necessity of this rule, Horace compares an irregular poem to pictures formed by a wild assortment of many parts entirely unlike each other. Every part, considered in itself, may have its proper, natural perfection, while their union produces nothing but what is monstrous and ridiculous. FRAN. The critic's rules must be taken either, 1. from the general standing laws of composition; or, 2. from the peculiar ones, appropriated to the kind. Now the direction to be fetched from the former of these sources will of course precede, as well on account of its superior dignity, as that the mind itself delights to descend from universals to the consideration of particulars. Agreeably to this rule of nature, the poet, having to correct, in the Roman drama, these three points, 1. a misconduct in the disposition; 2. an abuse of language; and, 3. a disregard of the peculiar characters and colorings of its different species, hath chosen to do this on principles of universal nature; which, while they include the case of the drama, at the same time extend to poetic composition at large. These prefatory, universal observations being delivered, he then proceeds, with advantage, to the second source of this art, viz., the consideration of the laws and rules peculiar to the kind.
3 These preparatory observations, concerning the laws of poetic composition at large, have been thought to glance more particularly at the epic poetry which was not improper: for, 1. the drama which he was about to criticise, had its rise and origin from the epos. Thus we are told by the great critic, that Homer was the first who invented dramatic imitations “μόνος — ὅτι μιμήσεις δραματικὰς ἐποίησε”. 2. The several censures, here pointed at the epic, would bear still more directly against the tragic poem; it being more glaringly inconsistent with the genius of the drama to admit of foreign and digressive ornaments, than of the extended, episodical epopaeia. For both these reasons, it was altogether pertinent to the poet's purpose, in a criticism on the drama, to expose the vicious practice of the epic models. Though, to preserve the unity of his piece, and for a further reason (see note on v. 1), he hath artfully done this under the cover of general criticism.
4 Boughs of cypress were carried in funeral processions, and placed before the houses of the great, upon particular occasions of sorrow, “Et non plebeios luctus testata cupressus.” Lucan. From hence, perhaps, this tree was usually drawn in votive tablets; in pictures carried by beggars, to excite charity; and in those used by lawyers in courts of justice, to raise the compassion of the judges, by representing the distresses of their clients. A painter might, by frequent practice, excel in drawing a tree for which there was such demand; and he therefore absurdly determines to show his skill upon all occasions, even by painting it in the middle of the ocean, and making it overshadow the storm. The commentators understand this passage in a different manner.
5 The word prodigialiter apparently refers to that fictitious monster, under which the poet allusively shadows out the idea of absurd and inconsistent composition. The application, however, differs in this, that, whereas the monster, there painted, was intended to expose the extravagance of putting together incongruous parts, without any reference to a whole, this prodigy is designed to characterize a whole, but deformed by the ill-judged position of its parts. The former is like a monster, whose several members as of right belonging to different animals, could by no disposition be made to constitute one consistent animal. The other, like a landscape which hath no objects absolutely irrelative, or irreducible to a whole, but which a wrong position of the parts only renders prodigious. Send the boar to the woods, and the dolphin to the waves; and the painter might show them both on the same canvas.Each is a violation of the law of unity, and a real monster: the one, because it contains an assemblage of natural incoherent parts; the other, because its parts, though in themselves coherent, are misplaced and disjointed.
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