Page images

No. XIX.


KNOWLEDGE of the human heart is a science of the highest dignity. It is recommended not only by its own importance, but also by this, that none but an exalted genius is capable of it. To delineate the objects of the material world requires a fine imagination, but to penetrate into the mental system, and to describe its different objects with all their distinguishing (though sometimes almost imperceptible) peculiarities, requires an imagination far more extensive and vigorous. It is this kind of imagination which appears so conspicuous in the works of Shakspeare and Homer, and which, in my opinion, raises them above all other poets whatsoever : I mean not only that talent by which they can adapt themselves to the heart of their readers, and excite whatever affection they please, in which the former plainly stands unrivalled; I mean also that wonderfully penetrating and plastic faculty, which is capable of representing every species of character, not, as our ordinary poets do, by, a high shoulder, a wry mouth, or gigantic stature, but by hitting off, with a delicate hand, the distinguishing feature, and that in such a manner as makes it easily known from all others whatsoever, however similar to a superficial eye. Hotspur and Henry V. are heroes resembling one another, yet very distinct in their characters; Falstaff, and Pistol, and Bardolph, are buffoons, but each in his own way; Desdemona and Juliet are not the same; Bottom and Dogberry, and the grave-diggers, are different characters; and the same may be said of the most similar of Homer's characters : each has some mark that makes him essentially different from the rest. But these great masters are not more eminent in distinguishing than in completing their characters. I am a little acquainted with a Cato, a Sempronius, a Tinsel, a Sir Charles Easy, &c. ; but I am perfectly acquainted with Achilles, Hector, Falstaff, Lear, Pistol, and Quickly ; I know them more thoroughly than any other persons of my acquaintance.


& Forbes's Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, LL.D. vol. i. p. 72.

No. XX.


There is no ancient poet that bears so close a resemblance in point of genius to any of the moderns, as Æschylus bears to Shakspeare.Æschylus is justly styled the father of tragedy, but this is not to be interpreted as if he was the inventor of it: Shakspeare, with equal justice, claims the same title, and his originality is qualified with the same exception. The Greek tragedy was not more rude and undigested when Æschylus brought it into shape, than the English tragedy was when Shakspeare began to write; if, therefore, it be granted that he had no aids from the Greek theatre, (and I think this is not likely to be disputed,) so far these great masters are upon equal ground. Æschylus was a warrior of high repute, of a lofty generous spirit, and deep as it should seem in the erudition of his times. In all these particulars he has great advantage over our countryman, who was humbly born, and, as it is generally thought, unlearned. Æschylus had the whole epic of Homer in his hands, the Iliad, Odyssey, and that prolific source of dramatic fahle, the Ilias Minor ; he had also a great fabu


lous creation to resort to amongst his own divinities, characters ready defined, and an audience whose superstition was prepared for every thing he could offer; he had, therefore, a firmer and broader stage (if I may be allowed the expression) under his feet than Shakspeare had. His fables in general are Homeric, and yet it does not follow that we can pronounce for Shakspeare that he is more original in his plots, for I understand that late researches have traced him in all, or nearly all. Both poets added so much machinery and invention of their own in the conduct of their fables, that whatever might have been the source, still their streams had little or no taste of the spring they flowed from. In point of character we have better grounds to decide, and yet it is but justice to observe that it is not fair to bring a mangled poet in comparison with one who is entire. In his divine personages Æschylus has the field of heaven, and indeed of hell also, to himself; in his heroic and military characters he has never been excelled ; he had too good a model within his own bosom to fail of making those delineations natural. In his imaginary beings also he will be found a respectable, though not an equal, rival of our poet; but in the variety of character, in all the nicer touches of nature, in all the extravagances of caprice and humour, from the boldest feature down to the minuteșt foible, Shakspeare stands alone: such persons as he delineates never came into the contemplation of Æschylus as a poet; his tragedy has no dealing with them; the simplicity of the Greek fable, and the great portion of the drama filled up by the chorus, allow of little variety of character; and the most which can be said of Æschylus in this particular is, that he never offends against nature or propriety, whether his cast is in the terrible or pathetic, the elevated or the simple. His versification with the intermixture of lyric composition is more various than that of Shakspeare; both are lofty and sublime in the extreme, abundantly metaphorical and sometimes extravagant:

Nubes et inania captat.


may be said of each poet in his turn; in each the critic, if he is in search for defects, will readily enough discover

In scenam missus magno cum pondere versus.

Both were subject to be hurried on by an uncontrollable impulse, nor could nature alone suffice for either. Æschylus had an apt creation of imaginary beings at command

He could call spirits from the vasty deep, and they would come.—Shakspeare having no such creation in resource, boldly made one of his own; if Æschylus therefore was invincible, he owed it to his armour, and that, like the armour of Æneas, was the work of the gods; but the unassisted in

« PreviousContinue »