Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, AN EPISTLE TO A FRIEND, by JOHN BYROM

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AN EPISTLE TO A FRIEND, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The art of english poetry, I find
Last Line: With righter verdict, tho' the court's a dream.
Subject(s): Art & Artists; Books; English Language; Language Poetry; Poetry & Poets; Reading


THE art of English Poetry, I find,
At present, Jenkins, occupies your mind;
You have a vast desire to it, you say,
And want my help to put you in the way,
Want me to tell what books you are to read,
How to begin at first, and how proceed.

Now tho' in short-hand, my Salopian friend,
To give directions I may well pretend,
As having had the honour to impart
Its full perfection to that English art,
Which you and many a sagacious youth
By sure experience know to be the truth;
Yet how in matters of poetic reach
Shall I, myself untaught, pretend to teach?
Well I remember that my younger breast
The same desire, that reigns in yours, possess'd.
Me,—numbers flowing to a measur'd time,
Me,—sweetest grace of English verse, the Rhyme,
Choice epithet, and smooth, descriptive line,
Conspiring all to finish one design,
Smit with delight;—full negligent of prose,
And thro' mere liking tempted to compose,
To rate according to my school-boy schemes,
Ten lines in verse worth half a hundred themes.

Without one living person to consult,
The years went on from tender to adult;
And as for poring to consult the dead,
Truly, that never came into my head.—
"Not Homer, Virgil, Horace?"—do you ask?
Why, yes; the rod would send me to the task.
But all the consultation that came out
Had this in view—to scape the whipping bout.
Was any subject waiting to be sung?
The Muse was question'd in the vulgar tongue;
Who, if she could not answer well in that,
Would hardly mend herself in Greek or Lat.—
'Tis poor encouragement for you to hope
That my instructions will attain the scope.
Yet since the help which you are pleas'd to seek,
Does not concern the Latin or the Greek;
In ancient Classics tho' but little read,
I know and care as little what they said,
In plain, familiar English for your sake,
This untried province I will undertake,
And rules for verse as readily instil,
As if ability had equall'd will:
Fair stipulation first on either side,
In form and manner here annex'd, imply'd,—
Conditions are—that if the Muse should err,
You gave th' occasion and must pardon her;
If aught occur, on sitting down to try,
That may deserve the casting of your eye,—
If hint arise in any sort to suit
With your intent, you shall be welcome to't.

You may remember when you first began
To learn the truly tachygraphic plan,
How, tracing step by step the simplest line,
We grounded, rais'd, and finish'd our design;
How we examin'd language and its pow'rs,
And then adjusted ev'ry stroke to ours.
Whilst the same method, follow'd in the main,
Made other matters more concisely plain,—
Made English, French, Italian, Hebrew too,
Appear the clearest in a short-hand view;
Which in all points where language was concern'd,
Explain'd how best and soonest they were learn'd,
Shew'd where to end as well as to commence
At that one central point of view—GOOD SENSE.

There fix your eye, then, if you mean to write
Verse that is fit to read or to recite,
A Poet slighting this initial rule
Is but at best an artificial fool;
Needless of learning verse were the expense,—
Plain prose might serve to shew his want of SENSE.

But you who have IT, and would give to prose
The grace that English Poetry bestows,
Consider how the short-hand scheme in part
May be apply'd to the poetic art:
To write or read in that, you understood,
There must be sense, and sense that must be good;
The more where words were proper and exact,
In book or speech, the more we could contract;
The HAND, you know, became a kind of test,
In this respect what writings were the best.
If incorrect the language or absurd,
It cost the fuller noting of each word;
But when more apt, grammatical, and true,
Full oft a letter for a word would do.

Form to yourself directly the design
Of so constructing a poetic line,
That it may cost in writing it our way,
The least expence of ink, as one may say;
That word or phrase, in measure that you please,
May come the nearest to prosaic ease.
Whilst this directs in gen'ral your attempt,
You'll see the cases from the rule exempt,—
How word or sentence you may oft transpose,
And verse be still as natural as prose.

"As natural,"—for, tho' we call it art,
The worth in Poetry is nature's part.
Here "artis est celare artem," here
Art must be hid that nature may appear,
So lie conceal'd behind the shining glass
That nature's image may the best repass;
All o'er, indeed, must quicksilver be spread,
But all its useless motion must lie dead.

The art of swimming, that comes next to mind,
Perhaps may shew you what is here design'd;
A young beginner struggling, you may see,
With all his might,—'twas so at least with me,—
With all the splutter of his limbs, to swim
And keep his brains and breath above the brim;
Whilst the more eager he to gain his art
The sooner ev'ry limb is thrown athwart,
Till by degrees he learns, with less ado
And gentler stroke, the purpose to pursue.
To nature's motions, poising, he conforms,
Nor puts th' unwilling element in storms,
Taught, as the smoother wave shall yield, to yield,
And rule the surface of the wat'ry field.

Soon as you can, then, learn to lay aside
All wild endeavours against nature's tide;
Which way she bends take notice, and comply;
What verses will not,—burn, or throw them by.
Perhaps the subject does not suit your skill,
Dismiss it then, till one comes up that will.
If sense, if nature succour not the theme,
All art or skill is strife against the stream;
If they assist to waft your verses o'er,
Stretch forward, and possess the wish'd-for shore.

This, from a certain native sense and wit
Arose,—"Poeta nascitur, non fit,"—
Adage forbidding any rhyming blade,
Who was not born a poet, to be made.
For, if to sing, in Music, or to hear
Require a nat'rally good voice and ear;
If art and rule but awkwardly advance,
Without a previous pliant shape, to dance,
Well may the Muse of supple wit require
Versatile force before she can inspire.

Of this if Critics should demand a sign,
STRONG INCLINATION should be one of mine.
A fair desire is seldom known to spring
But where there is some fitness for the thing;
Tho' by untoward circumstances check'd
There lies a genius, but without effect.
Many a fine plant, uncultivated, dies,
And worse, with more encouragement, may rise.
"Des Mecaenates;"—what had Maro been,
Had not Mecænas rais'd the MUSE within?

YOURS, honest pupil, when you are inclin'd,
May versify according to your mind;
She has no reason, to no patron tied,
To prostitute her favours to a side;
Nor to false taste, (if into such the age
Shall plunge itself) to sacrifice her page;
Much less with any vicious topic vile
An art of chaster offspring to defile.
All verse unworthy of an English Muse
Of short-hand race, she may, and must refuse.

Ancient and modern aptitude to run
Into some errors which you ought to shun
Will now and then occasion, I foresee,
In place or out, a præcipe from me.
When this shall happen, never stand to try
The WHERE of its appearance, but the WHY;
Lest by authorities, or old or new,
You should be tempted to incur them too;
Since the most celebrated names infer
No sort of privilege in you to err.
Far from it:—Even where they may excel,
Barely to imitate is not so well;
Much less should their authority prevail,
Or warrant you to follow where they fail.

'Tis not to search for precedents alone,
But how to form a judgment of your own,—
In writing verse that is your main affair,
Main end of all my monitory care,
Who hate servility to common law
That keeps an equitable right in awe;
By use and custom justifies its lot,
Its modes and fashions, whether right or not;
Cramps the free genius, clips the Muse's wing,
And to one poet ties another's string,
Producing from their hardly various lines,
So many copies and so few designs.

Neither by names nor numbers be deterr'd,
Nor yield to mix amongst the servile herd:
Exert the liberty which all avow,
Tho' slaves in practice, and begin just now;
Begin with me, and construe what I write
Not to preclude your judgment, but t' excite;
Just as you once examin'd what I taught
From first to last, with unaddicted thought,
So while at your request I venture here
To play the master, see that all be clear,
Preserve the freedom which you always took,
Nor, if it teach amiss, regard the book.

Thus unencumber'd let us move along,
As road shall lead us, to the mount of song;
Still keeping, so far by agreement tied,
Good verse in prospect, and good sense for guide.


SENSE presuppos'd and resolute intent,
To regulate thereby poetic bent,
Let us examine language once again,
As erst we did to regulate the pen;
And then observe how the peculiar frame
Of words in English may assist your aim.

The end of speech vouchsaf'd to human kind,
Is to express conceptions of the mind.
By painted speech, or writing's wond'rous aid,
The lines of thought are legibly display'd,
In any place, at any time appear,
And silent figure speaks to mental ear,
Surprising permanence of meaning found
For distant voice and momentary sound.
Whether by heav'n at first the huge effect
Reveal'd, or by inventive wit,—reflect
What good may follow if a man exert
The talent right,—what ill, if he pervert;
And to exertion, whether good or bad,
What strength engaging poetry may add;
That if successful in your present drift,
You may not risk to desecrate the gift.

You see, in speaking, or by sound or ink,
The grand inceptive caution is—to think,
To measure, ponder, ruminate, digest,
Or any phrase that will betoken best
A due attention to make art and skill
Turn all to good, or least of all to ill,
Never to give on any warm pretence,
To just observers cause of just offence.
To truth, to good undoubtedly belong
The skill of poets and the charm of song.

In verse or prose, in nature or in art,
The head begins the movement, or the heart;
If both unite, if both be clear and sound,
Then may perfection in a work be found,
Then does the preacher, then the poet shine,
And justly take the title of Divine.
By common sense the world has been all led
To make distinction of the heart and head—
Distinction worthy of your keenest ken
In passing judgment upon books and men,
Upon yourself, before you shall submit
To other judges what yourself has writ.

The heart, the head, it may suffice to note,
Two diff'rent kinds of poetry promote;
One more sublime, more sacred, and severe,
That shines in Poetry's celestial sphere;
One of a useful, though a humbler birth,
That ornaments its lower globe of earth.
These we shall here ascribe, if you think fit,
One to good sense, the other to good wit;
And grant that whichsoever be display'd,
It must have something of the other's aid;
Without some with solidity is dull,
As bad the sprightly nonsense, to the full.

To clothe them both in language and by rule,
Let us again revise the short-hand school,
And trace the branching stamens of discourse
From their most plain and primerly resource.
Four parts of speech, you know, we us'd to make
The best arrangement for enquiry's sake;
And how spontaneous to determine those,
The noun and adnoun, verb and adverb rose.
Occurring hints, but to no stiffness tied
Of formal method, let these four divide;
They do in fact partition out, you know,
The sense of words as far as words can go;
For of a thing the clear ideal sense,
The properties that really spring from thence,
Actions and modes of action that ensue,
Must all unite to make the language true:
If false, some one or other of these four
Unvails delusion ent'ring at its door;
But wonted lessons I shall here pass by,
Trusting to your remembrance and apply.

The noun, the name, the substantive, or thing,
May represent the subject that you sing,
The main, essential matter whereupon
You mean to set the muse at work anon.
Ere you begin the verse that you intend,
"Respice finem"—think upon its end.
One single point on which you are to fix,
Must govern all that you shall intermix;
Before you quest for circumstances round,
Peg down at first the centre of your ground;
Each periodic incident when past,
Examine gently whether that be fast.
How can you help, if it should e'er come out,
Mistaking quite the point you are about?
How help,—no tether fix'd to your designs,—
Unmeaning, loose, and incoherent lines?

You need not ask of classic Rome or Greece
Whether your work should all be of a piece;
The thing is plain, and all that rule can tell
Is—Memorandum to observe it well,
To frame,—whatever you shall intersperse
Of decoration,—well connected verse;
That shall, whatever may across be spread,
From end to end maintain an equal thread;
That botch, or patch, or clumsy, awkward seam
Mar not poetic unity of theme.

This theme or subject for your English Muse
Belongs of right to you and her to choose.
Your own unbiass'd inclinations best
The freer topics for a verse suggest.
All within bound of innocence is free;
And you may range without consulting me,
The just, delightful, and extensive sphere;
All else—what need of caution to forbear?
None; if the bards, and some of them renown'd,
Had not transgress'd and overleap'd the bound.
This may indeed bid you to have a care,
Me to renew the warning to beware:
While unrestrain'd you set yourself the task,
Let it be harmless, and 'tis all I ask.

Some, to be sure, more excellent and grand,
Your practis'd genius may in time demand;
To these in view, no doubt, you may in will
Devote at present your completer skill;
And whilst in little essays you express,
Or clothe a thought, in versifying dress,
On fair ideas they may turn, and just,
And pave the way to something more august.
If well your earlier specimens intend,
From small beginnings you may greatly end,
Write what the good may praise as they peruse,
And bless, with no unfruitful fame, the Muse.

A youthful Muse, a sprightly one may crave
To intermix the cheerful with the grave;
Indulge her choice, nor stop the flowing stream
Where verse adorns an inoffensive theme.
Unwill'd endeavour is the same as faint,
And brisk will languish if it feel constraint.
From task impos'd, from any kind of force,
A stiff and starch'd production comes of course,
Unless it suit, as it may chance to do,
The present humour of the Muse and you;
Sooner, so ask'd, that willing numbers flow
The more acceptable and a propos.
Tho' prompt, if proper the occasion rise,
Her nimbler aid no gen'rous Muse denies;
But if a fair and friendly call invite,
Speeds on the verse to opportune delight,
Cuts all delays to satisfaction short
When friends and seasons are in temper for't;
As by this present writing one may see,
Dear Muse of mine, is just the case with thee.

A gen'rous Muse, I must again repeat,
Disdains the poor poetical conceit
Of poaching verse for personal repute,
And writing only to be thought to do't,
Without regarding one of its chief ends,
At once to profit and to please one's friends.
Tho' to the bard she dictate first the line,
The reader's benefit is her design.
Mistaken poets seek for private fame;
'Tis gen'ral use that sanctifies the name.
Be free and choose what subject then you will;
But keep your readers in remembrance still,
Your future judges,—tho' 'tis in your choice
In what committees who shall have a voice;
Their satisfaction if the Muse prefers,
And their esteem who justly merit hers,
They who do not, however prompt of throat,
Stand all excluded from the legal vote.
Verse, any readers, for whom verse is writ,
May to the press or to the flames commit;
A poet signs the judgment on his verse,
If readers worthy to be pleas'd, rehearse;
But when the blockheads meddle in the cause,
Laughs at their blame, and smiles at their applause.

'Twill add to future versifying ease
To think on judges whom you ought to please,
To fancy some of your selected friends
Discussing points to which a subject tends,
By whom, you guess, it would be well discuss'd,
And judgment form'd that you might safely trust.
If you conceive them sitting on the bench,
Hints what is fit to add or to retrench
Anticipating fancy may supply,
And save the trouble to the real eye;
Judgment awaken'd may improve the theme
With righter verdict, tho' the court's a dream.

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