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MY DEAR MARY, When I congratulated you on the elegant present you had received of a set of the English Poets, I did not foresee that I was laying myself open to a resquest on your part of no trifling extent. You desire that “ I would instruct you in the most profitable use of a treasure which I have represented as so valuable.” I cannot affirm either that the wish itself is unreasonable ; or that your claim upon me to gratify it, as far as I am able, is in any respect defective. The tie of affection and kindred is
strong enough to bear the injunction of a task much less agrecable to my taste than this will be; though the time it will occupy is a consideration of some moment. For, in a cursory way to give you my opinion on the merits of our principal poets, would be very imperfectly fulfilling the purpose of your request ; which comprehends, as I understand it, such directions for a course of poetical reading, as may best conduce to the forming of your taste and cultivating your understanding.
These are the objects which I shall attempt to attain; and as this cannot be effected in the compass of two or three sheets, you must patiently prepare yourself for the perusal of a series of letters, which may amount altogether to a moderate sized volume: so, you see that the task you have imposed upon me recoils with no small weight upon yourself. I shall not, however, increase the burthen by any grave lectures upon the moral use of poetry. I take it for granted that you are already well
grounded in the principles of morality, and therefore may be trusted to extract what is most valuable from a set of authors who, in general, are friends to virtue and decorum, while you pass lightly and unhurt over the dubious matter which may be mingled with the rest. Yet I shall not neglect to point out to you, as we pass, such works and passages as you may dwell upon with most advantage to your moral as well as to your literary taste; and, on the other hand, shall suppress in merited oblivion all such pieces as appear cntirely unfit for your perusal.
There is one particular topic, however, concerning which I feel a degree of hesitation. Poctry has in all ages and countries been the servant and interpreter of love : from that passion it has received some of its most rapturous inspiration, and to its interests has devoted its choicest powers. The strains of love are not only occasionally met with in the works of the poets : they are the animating soul of many, and are intimately blended with almost all.
there not danger, then, in lending to an affection already, perhaps, too seductive to a young and susceptible mind, the auxiliary allurements of eloquence and harmony? I will not affirm that such danger is altogether imaginary; but, in my opinion, love in poetry is a more harmless thing than love in prose. The more of fancy is mixed with it—the more it is removed from common life-the less is its influence over the heart and the conduct; and it is probable that the refinement and elevation of sentiment fostered by a taste for poetry may prove a protection from that light and vulgar passion which enters merely at the eyes, and is too sensual to be disgusted with coarseness and stupidity. Since, then, it is impossible to separate love from poetry, I shall not fear to recommend it to your notice in its purest, most tender, and fanciful form. Poets themselves, who have written upon it all their lives, have very soberly felt its influence.
As it will be my plan to aim at forming your taste by practice only, that is, by fa
miliarising you with the perusal of the best models, I shall also spare you the tediousness of any preliminary discussions of the theoretical kind concerning the abstract nature of poetry in general, and its several species. Opportunities will be offered, as we proceed, of making some remarks on these points, with the advantage of immediate illustration by examples; the sole mode in which they can be rendered interesting. It is enough if you set out with the
persuasion, that there is something in the measured succession of sounds called verse, which has in all nations and languages been found agreeable to the ear, and a means of impressing the sense of words upon the mind with peculiar force and sweetness. To assist you in acquiring an ear for the melody of verse, will therefore be the first object of my directions: but I reserve my practical commencement for a second letter; and in the meantime remain, Yours very affectionately,