[The Introduction to Dallas's early monograph Poetics (1852), which was followed by three brief chapters on The Laws of Activity, Harmony and Unconsciousness, respectively. - Graham Law]

Book First. The Nature of Pleasure

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here is often so much pleasure in the midst of trouble that one is not seldom tempted to agree with the old philosopher who held that there is no such thing as pain. And in fact, without mocking our own distress, we might be infidel of pain, as men of science are infidel of cold. For even at the freezing point of carbonic acid gas, between which and freezing water there is a greater difference than between freezing water and boiling; even when he has thus attained the utmost degree of cold, the man of science must allow that there is not cold, but only a great exhaustion of heat, which, however, is not wholly exhausted. In like manner, there is an under-song of pleasure amid the wailing of sorrow; the fiercest pain is dashed with enjoyment; the remembrance of suffering is often a pleasure unalloyed.

But while our joys thus far outweigh and outnumber our sorrows, we seem to be little aware of it; and we seem to be better acquainted with the miseries than with the happiness of life. This is shadowed forth by the fact, that in at least the English language the words to express what is good and pleasurable are fewer by great deal than those for the bad and painful. We have colours to paint every shade of wickedness, and strokes for every stage of woe: let the crime be the blackest, we can give it a name; let the cup be the bitterest, we can tell of the very lees. But to tell of the varying lights of pleasure, and all the winning ways of goodness, we are wholly at a loss; and the most we can say of the greatest goodness is, that there is an unknown, indescribable charm about it; the most we can say of the highest bliss, that it is unutterable.

Whether this be owing to that vein of sadness which runs through the whole Saxon mind, or whether it be a difference traceable in all languages alike, we need not at present stay to inquire. It is enough to remark the failures that have always and everywhere been made in defining happiness. Very many who have defined it, like those who have defined poetry, tell not what is, but what gives happiness, or that short happiness called pleasure. Thus Helvetius wrote a poem showing that it lies in the cultivation of letters and the fine arts. Those, again, who have truly attempted a definition of the feeling itself, have often made it dark and loose, and always awanting. A good reason will afterwards be forthcoming why in our notions of happiness, as in those of poetry, we have ever been and still are to seek, and may never reach a perfect knowledge of all, and especially of its higher, manifestations. Meanwhile must be given as full an explanation of it as lies in our power; and this I shall endeavour to do, overlooking entirely the outward circumstances favourable to it, health, wealth, and the like, which are so thoroughly accidental that as Clement of Rome has well said — often the very abundance of those things which we hope and run after, becomes at once the fire and the fuel . . . of all that we dread and shun. We must confine ourselves to inward and necessary conditions.

Pleasure, then, may be defined to be - The harmonious and unconscious activity of the soul. This definition recognises three great laws, which are to be considered in their order. . . . [15-17]

Links to Related Material


Dallas, Eneas Sweetland. Poetics: An Essay on Poetry. London: Smith, Elder, 1852. A HathiTrust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 24 January 2024.

Created 2 February 2024