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It has been often said, and the concurring voice of all antiquity affirms, that poetry is older than prose. But in what sense this seemingly strange paradox holds true, has not always been well understood. There never, certainly, was any period of society in which men conversed together in poetical numbers. It was in very humble and scanty prose, as we may easily believe, that the first tribes carried on intercourse among themselves, relating to the wants and necessities of life. But from the very beginning of society, there were occasions on which they met together for feasts, sacrifices, and public assemblies; and on all such occasions, it is well known, that music, song and dance, made their principal entertain. ment. It is chiefly in America, that we have had the opportunity of being made acquainted with men in their savage state. We learn from the particular and concurring accounts of travellers, that among all the nations of that vast continent, especially among all the northern tribes, with whom we have had most intercourse, music and song, are, at all their meetings, carried on with an incredible degree of enthusiasm; that the chiefs of the tribe are those who signalize themselves most on such occasions; that it is in songs they celebrate their religious rites; that, by these, they lament their public and private calamities, the death of friends, or the loss of warriors; express their joy on their victories ; celebrate the great actions of their nation and their heroes; excite each other to perform brave exploits in war, or to suffer death and torments with unshaken constancy.
Here then we see the first beginnings of poetic composition, in those rude effusions, which the enthusiasm of fancy or passion suggested to untaught men, when roused by interesting events, and by their meeting together in public assemblies. Two particulars would early distinguish this language of song from that in which they conversed on the common occurrences of life; namely, an unusual arrangement of words, and the employment of bold figures of speech. It would invert words, or change them from that order in which they are commonly placed, to that which most suited the train in which they rose in the speaker's imagination : or which was most accommodated to the cadence of the passion by which he was moved. Under the influence too of any strong emotion, objects do not appear to us such as they really are, but such as passion makes us see them. We magnify and exaggerate; we seek to interest all others in what causes our emotion; we compare the least things to the greatest; we call upon the absent as well as the present, and even address ourselves to things inanimate. Hence, in congruity with those various movements of the mind, arise those turns of expressions, which we now distinguish by the learned names of hyperbole, prosopopeia, simile, &c. but which are no other than the native original language of poetry among the most barbarous nations.
Man is both a poet, and a musician, by nature. The same impulse which prompted the enthusiastic. poetic style, prompted a certain melody, or wodulation of sound, suited to the emotions of joy or, grief, of admiration, love, or anger. There is a power in sound, which, partly from nature, partly from habit and association, makes such pathetic impressions upon the fancy, as delight even the most wild barbarians. Music and poetry, therefore, had the same rise; they were prompted by the same occasions ; they were united in song; and, as long as they continued united, they tended, without doubt, mutually to heighten and exalt each other's power. The first poets sung their own verses : and hence the beginning of what we call versification, or words arranged in a more artful manner-than prose, so as to be suited to some tune or melody. The liberty of transposiz tion, or inversion, which the poetic style, as I observed, would naturally assume, made it easier to form the words into some sort of numbers that fell in with the music of the song. Very harsh and uncouth, we may easily believe, these numhers would be at first. But the pleasure was felt; it was studied; and versification, by degrees, passed into an art.
OF THE RISE OF POETRY AMONG THE ROMANS. The Romans, in the infancy of their fate, were entirely rude and unpolished. They came from shepherds; they were increased from the refuse of the nations around them; and their manners agreed with their original. As they lived wholly on tilling their ground at home, or on plunder from their neighbours, war was their business, and agriculture the chief art they followed. Long
after this, when they had spread their conquests over a great part of Italy, and began to make a considerable figure in the world ;-even their great men retained a roughness, which they raised into a virtue, by calling it Roman Spirit; and which might often much better have been called Roman Barbarity. It seems to me, that there was more of austerity than justice, and more of insolence than courage, in some of their most celebrated actions. However that be, this is certain, that they were at first a nation of soldiers and husbandmen: roughness was long an applauded character among them; and a sort of rusticity reigned, even in their senate-house.
In a nation originally of such a temper as this, taken up almost always in extending their territories, very often in settling the balance of power among themselves, and not unfrequently in both these at the same time, it was long before the politer arts made any appearance; and very long before they took root or flourished to any degree. Poetry was the first that did so; but such a poetry, as one might expect among a warlike, bnsied, unpolished people.
Not to inquire about the songs of triumph, mentioned even in Romulus's time, there was certainly something of poetry among them in the next reigu under Numa: a prince, who pretended to converse with the Muses, as well as with Egeria; and who might possibly himself have made the verses which the Salian priests sung in his time. Pythagoras, either in the same reign, or if you please some time after, gave the Romans #tincture of poetry as well as of philosophy; for Cicero assures us, that the Pythagoreans made great use of poetry and music: and probably they, like our old Druids, delivered most of their precepts in verse. Indeed the chief employment of poetry, in that and the following ages, among the Romans, was of a religious kind. Their very prayers, and perhaps their whole liturgy, was poetical. They had also a sort of prophetic or sacred writers, who seem to have written generally in verse; and were so numerous, that there were above two thousand of their volumes remaining even to Augustus's time. They had a kind of plays too, in these early times, derived from what they had seen of the Tuscan actors, when sent for to Rome to expiate a plague that raged in the city. These seem to have been either like our dumb-shows, or else a kind of extempore farces; a thing to this day a good deal in use all over Italy, and in Tuscany. In a more particular manner add to these, that extempore kind of jesting dialogues begun at their harvest and vintage feasts; and carried on so rudely and abusively afterwards, as to occasion a very severe law to restrain their licentiousness—and those lovers of poetry and good eating, who seem to have attended the tables of the richer sort, much like the old provincial poets, or our own British bards, and sang there, to some instrument of music, the achievements of their ancestors, and the noble deeds of those who had gone before them, to inAame others to follow their great examples.