S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
There is another kind of virtue that may find employment for those retired hours in which we are altogether left to ourselves and destitute of company and conversation; I mean that intercourse and communication which every reasonable creature ought to maintain with the great Author of his being. The man who lives under an habitual sense of the divine presence keeps up a perpetual cheerfulness of temper, and enjoys every moment the satisfaction of thinking himself in company with his dearest and best of friends. The time never lies heavy upon him: it is impossible for him to be alone. His thoughts and passions are the most busied at such hours when those of other men are the most inactive. He no sooner steps out of the world but his heart burns with devotion, swells with hope, and triumphs in the consciousness of that presence which everywhere surrounds him; or, on the contrary, pours out its fears, its sorrows, its apprehensions, to the great Supporter of its existence.
It has been observed by some writers, that man is more distinguished from the animal world by devotion than by reason, as several brute creatures discover in their actions something like a faint glimmering of reason, though they betray in no single circumstance of their behaviour anything that bears the least affinity to devotion. It is certain, the propensity of the mind to religious worship, the natural tendency of the soul to fly to some superior being for succour in dangers and distresses, the gratitude to an invisible superintendent which arises in us upon receiving any extraordinary and unexpected good fortune, the acts of love and admiration with which the thoughts of men are so wonderfully transported in meditating upon the divine perfections, and the universal concurrence of all the nations under heaven in the great article of adoration, plainly show that devotion or religious worship must be the effect of tradition from some first founder of mankind, or that it is conformable to the natural light of reason, or that it proceeds from an instinct implanted in the soul itself. For my own part, I look upon all these to be the concurrent causes; but whichever of them shall be assigned as the principle of divine worship, it manifestly points to a Supreme Being as the first author of it.
The devout man does not only believe, but feels, there is a Deity. He has actual sensations of him; his experience concurs with his reason; he sees him more and more in all his intercourses with him, and even in this life almost loses his faith in conviction.
An eminent degree and vigour of the religious affections, then, ought not to be denominated fanaticism, unless they arise from wrong views of religion, or are so much indulged as to disqualify for the duties of society. Within these limits, the more elevated devotional sentiments are, the more perfect is the character, and the more suited to the destination of a being who has, indeed, an important part to act here, but who stands on the confines of eternity.
Let no pious ear be offended if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. The doctrines of religion may indeed be defended in a didactic poem; and he who has the happy power of arguing in verse will not lose it because his subject is sacred. A poet may describe the beauty and the grandeur of nature, the flowers of the spring and the harvests of autumn, the vicissitudes of the tide and the revolutions of the sky, and praise the Maker for his works, in lines which no reader shall lay aside. The subject of the disputation is not piety, but the motives to piety; that of the description is not God, but the works of God.
Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man, admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.
The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topics of devotion are few, and being few are universally known; but, few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression.
There is something so natively great and good in a person that is truly devout, that an awkward man may as well pretend to be genteel, as a hypocrite to be pious. The constraint in words and actions are equally visible in both cases; and anything set up in their room does but remove the endeavours farther off from their pretensions. But, however the sense of true piety is abated, there is no other motive of action that can carry us through all the vicissitudes of life with alacrity and resolution.