Page images

ruin of their heroes, I may mention among the tragedies of the moderns, Wallenstein, Macbeth, and the Faustus of the people. The dramatic art of the ancients had a peculiar fondness for this altogether tragical catastrophe, which accorded well with their belief in a terrible and predestinating fate. Yet a tragedy of this kind is perhaps the more perfect in proportion as the destruction is represented not as any thing external, capricious, or predestinated, but as a darkness into which the hero has sunk step by step, descending not without free will, and in consequence of his own guilt.Such is the case in those three great modern tragedies which I have cited.

This is, upon the whole, the favourite species among the ancients, yet their theatre is not without some beautiful specimens of the second and milder termination ; examples of it occur in both of the two greatest of the Greek tragedians. It is thus that Æschylus, after he has opened before us the darkest abyss of sorrow and guilt, in the death of Agamemnon, and the vengeance of Orestes, closes his mighty picture in the Eumenides with a pleasing feeling, and the final quelling of the spirit of evil by the intervention of a milder and propitious deity. Sophocles in like manner, after representing the blindness and the fate of Edipus, the miserable fate and mutual fratricide of his sons, the long sorrows of the sightless old man and his faithful daughter, is careful to throw a ray of cheering light upon the death of his hero, and to depict in such colours his departure into the protection of pitying and expecting deities, as to leave upon our minds an impression rather of soothing and gentle melancholy than of tragical distress. There are many instances of the same kind both in the ancient theatre and the modern; but few wherein the working of the passions is adorned with so much beauty of poetry as in these.

The third method of dramatic conclusion, which by its representation makes a spiritual purification to be the result of external sorrows, is the one most adapted for a Christian poet, and in this the first and greatest of all masters is Calderon. Among the great variety of his pieces, I need only refer you to the Devotion to the Cross, and the Stedfast Prince, plays which have been very frequently translated, and the remarkable excellence of which has been, upon the whole, pretty generally recognised. The Christianity of this poet, however, does not consist so much in the external circumstances which he has selected, as in his peculiar feeling, and the method of treating his subject which is most common with him. Even where his materials furnish him with no opportunity of drawing the perfect developement of a new life out of death and suffering, yet every thing is conceived in the spirit of this Christian love, and every thing seen in its light, and clothed in the splendour of its heavenly colouring.

I am very far, however, from wishing to see the Spanish drama or Calderon adopted as a perfect and exclusive model for our theatre; but I am so sensible of the high perfection to which the Christian tragedy and drama attained in the hands of that great and divine master, that I think he cannot be too much studied as a distant and inimitable specimen of excellence, by any one who would make the bold attempt to rescue the modern stage, either in Germany or elsewhere, from the feeble and ineffectual state into which it has fallen.

The chief fault of Calderon is, that he carries us too quickly to the great dénouement of which I have spoken above; for the effect which this produces on us would have been very much increased by our being kept longer in doubt, had he more frequently characterised the riddle of human life with the profundity of Shakspeare,—had he been less sparing in affording us, at the commencement, glimpses of that light which should be preserved and concentrated upon the conclusion of the drama. Shakspeare has exactly the opposite fault, of too often placing before our eyes, 'in all its mystery and perplexity, the riddle of life, like a sceptical poet, without giving us any hint of the solution. Even when he does bring his drama to a last and a proper dénouement, it is much more frequently to one of utter destruction after the manner of the old tragedians, or at least to one of an intermediate and half satisfactory nature, than to that termination of perfect purification which is predominant in Calderon.—In short in every situation and circumstance, Calderon is, of all dramatic poets, the most

Christian; whilst in the deepest recesses of his feeling and thought, it has always struck me that Shakspeare is far more an ancient, -I mean an ancient not of the Greek, but of the Northern or Scandinavian cast.


j Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, vol. ii. p. 130 et seq.—It is astonishing that Calderon, considering the high estimation in which he is held in his native land, is so little known in this country. A selection from his dramas, which, with his Autos Sacramentales, occupy fifteen volumes 4to, could not fail, I should imagine, to be well received.





VOLTAIRE's comparison of Corneille to our Shakspeare is neither judiciously nor fairly drawn. He does justice to neither. He is at evident pains, but is unable to disguise a peevish envy at his countryman's great fame, and a remarkably partial prejudice against the English poet. It is perfectly evident that he did not sufficiently understand the language, and consequently could not discern the beauties of Shakspeare; yet he pronounces many intolerable censures on him, in the tone of an absolute and authorised judge. It seems very clear that if Corneille had been able, from the nature of his language, and the taste of his cotemporaries, to disengage himself from rhyme and rigid critical rules, he would have resembled Shakspeare more than he does. If Shakspeare had laboured under the prodigious constraint of rhyme, had he been constrained by a systematical art of poetry, as it is called, he would have resembled Corneille very much. However, there is a force of genius in Corneille which often surmounts the

. This is Voltaire's expression.

« PreviousContinue »