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He grins, and opens wide his greedy jaws,
The reader will perceive that Virgil has improved the simile in one particular, and in another fallen short of his original. The description of the lion shaking his mane, opening his hideous jaws distained with the blood of his prey, is great and picturesque; but on the other hand, he has omitted the circumstance of devouring it without being intimidated, or restrained by the dogs and youths that surround him; a circumstance that adds greatly to our idea of his strength, intrepidity, and importance.
Of all the figures in poetry, that called the hyperbole, is managed with the greatest difficulty. The hyperbole is an exaggeration with which the muse is indulged for the better illustration of her subject, when she is warmed into enthusiasm. Quintilian calls it an ornament of the bolder kind. Demetrius Phalereus is still more severe. He says the hyperbole is of all forms of speech the most frigid; Μάλιστα δὲ ἡ Υπερβολὴ ψυχρ' τατον πάντων; but this must be understood with some grains of allowance. Poetry is animated by the passions; and all the passions exaggerate. Passion itself is a magnifying medium. There are beautiful instances of the hyperbole in the Scripture, which a reader of sensi
bility cannot read without being strongly affected. The difficulty lies in choosing such hyperboles as the subject will admit of; for, according to the definition of Theophrastus, the frigid in style is that which exceeds the expression suitable to the subject. The judgment does not revolt against Homer for representing the horses of Ericthonius running over the standing corn without breaking off the heads, because the whole is considered as a fable, and the north wind is represented as their sire; but the imagination is a little startled, when Virgil, in imitation of this hyperbole, exhibits Camilla as flying over it without even touching the tops:
Illa vel intactæ segetis per summa volaret
This elegant author, we are afraid, has upon some other occasions degenerated into the frigid, in straining to improve upon his great master.
Homer in the Odyssey, a work which Longinus does not scruple to charge with bearing the marks of old age, describes a storm in which all the four winds were concerned together.
Σὺν δ ̓ Ευρός τε, Νοτός τ ̓ ἔπεσε, Ζεφυρός τε δυσαής,
We know that such a contention of contrary blasts could not possibly exist in nature; for even in hurricanes the winds blow alternately from different points of the compass. Nevertheless Virgil adopts the description, and adds to its extravagance.
Incubuere mari, totumque à sedibus imis
Unà Eurusque Notusque ruunt, creberque procellis
Here the winds not only blow together, but they turn the whole body of the ocean topsy-turvy.
East, west, and south, engage with furious sweep,
The north wind, however, is still more mischievous :
Stridens aquilone procella
Velum adversa ferit, fluctusque ad sidera tollit.
The sail then Boreas rends with hideous cry,
The motion of the sea between Scylla and Charybdis is still more magnified; and Etna is exhibited as throwing out volumes of flame, which brush the stars.' Such expressions as these are not intended as a real representation of the thing specified; they are designed to strike the reader's imagination; but they generally serve as marks of the author's sinking under his own ideas, who, apprehensive of injuring the greatness of his own conception, is hurried into excess and extravagance.
Quintilian allows the use of hyperbole, when words are wanting to express any thing in its just strength or due energy: then, he says, it is better to exceed in expression than fall short of the conception; but he likewise observes, that there is no figure or form of speech so apt to run into fustian. Nec alia magis via in xaxoyedıav itur.
'Speaking of the first, he says,
Tollimur in cœlum curvato gurgite, et idem
Of the other,
Attollitque globos flammarum, et sidera lambit.
If the chaste Virgil has thus trespassed upon poetical probability, what can we expect from Lucan but hyperboles even more ridiculously extravagant? He represents the winds in contest, the sea in suspense, doubting to which it shall give way. He affirms, that its motion would have been so violent as to produce a second deluge, had not Jupiter kept it under by the clouds; and as to the ship during this dreadful uproar, the sails touch the clouds, while the keel strikes the ground:
Nubila tanguntur velis, et terra carinâ.
This image of dashing water at the stars, Sir Richard Blackmore has produced in colours truly ridiculous. Describing spouting whales in his Prince Arthur, he makes the following comparison :
Like some prodigious water-engine made
The great fault in all these instances is a deviation fron propriety, owing to the erroneous judgment of the writer, who, endeavouring to captivate the admiration with novelty, very often shocks the understanding with extravagance. Of this nature is the whole description of the Cyclops, both in the Odyssey of Homer, and in the Æneid of Virgil. It must be owned, however, that the Latin poet, with all his merit, is more apt than his great original to dazzle us with false fire, and practise upon the imagination with gay conceits, that will not bear the critic's examination. There is not in any of Homer's works now subsisting such an example of the false sublime, as Virgil's description of the thunderbolts forging under the hammers of the Cyclops.
Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosæ
Three rays of writhen rain, of fire three more,
This is altogether a fantastic piece of affectation, of which we can form no sensible image, and serves to chill the fancy, rather than warm the admiration of a judging reader.
Extravagant hyperbole is a weed that grows in great plenty through the works of our admired Shakspeare. In the following description, which hath been much celebrated, one sees he has had an eye to Virgil's thunderbolts.
O, then I see queen Mab hath been with
Her waggon-spokes made of long spinner's legs;
The traces, of the smallest spider's web;
Even in describing fantastic beings there is a propriety to be observed; but surely nothing can be more revolting to common sense, than this numbering of the moon-beams among the other implements of queen Mab's harness, which, though extremely slender and diminutive, are nevertheless objects of the touch, and may be conceived capable of use.
The ode and satire admit of the boldest hyperboles :