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tffour of imagination are Lucretius and Catullus. The Augustan age produced nothing equal to their finer passages.
In France, that licensed jester, whose jingling cap and motley coat concealed more genius than ever mustered in the saloon of Ninon or of Madame Geoffrin, was succeeded by writers as decorous and as tiresome as gentlemenushers.
The poetry of Italy and of Spain has undergone the same change. Bat nowhere has the revolution been more complete and violent than in England. The same person who, when a boy, had clapped his thrilling hands at the first representation of the Tempest, might, with nut attaining to a marvellous longevity, have lived to read the earlier works of Prior and Addison. The change, we believe, must, sooner or later, have taken place. But its progress was accelerated and its character modified by the political occurrences of the times, and particularly by two events, the closing of the theatres under the Commonwealth, and the restoration of the house of Stuart.
We have said that the critical and poetical faculties arc not only distinct, but almost incompatible. The state of our literature during the reigns of Elizabeth and James the First is a strung confirmation of this remark. The greatest works of imagination that the world has ever seen were produced at that period. The national taste, in the mean time, was to the last degree detestable. Alliterations, puns, antithetical forms of expression lavishly employed where no " rorresponding opposition existed between the thoughts expressed, strained allegories, pedantic allusions, every thing, If. short, quaint and affected in matter and manner, made np what was then considered as fine writing. The eloquence of the bar, the pulpit, and the council-board was deformed by conceits which would have disgraced the rhyming shepherds of an Italian academy. The king quibbled on the throne. We might, indeed, console ourselve's by reflecting that his majesty was a fool. But the chancellor quibbled in concert from the woolsack, and the chancellor was Francis Bacon. It is needless to mention Sidney and the whole tribe of Euphaists. For Shakspeare himself, the greatest P"et that ever lived, falls into the same fault whenever he means to be particularly fine. While he abandons himself to the impulse of his imagination, his compositions are not only the sweetest and the most sublime, but also the most faultless that the world hiis ever seen. Bnt as soon as his critical powers come into' play, he sinks to the level of Cowley, or rather he does ill what Cowley did well. All that is bad in his works is bad elaborately, and of malice aforethought. The only thing wanting m make them perfect was, that he should j never have troubled himself with thinking \ whether they were good or not. Like the anffls in Milton, he sinks "with compulsion and laborious flight." His natural tendency is up-; wards. That he may soar it is only necessary thai he should not struggle to fall. He resembled the American cacique wl.o, possessing in lnmeasured abundance the metals which in pousbed societies are esteemed the most preVoi_ \^JR
cious, was utterly unconscious of their value, and gave up treasures more valuable than the imperial crowns of other countries, to secure some gaudy and far-fetched but worthless bau ble, a plated button, or a necklace uf coloured glass.
We have attempted to show that, as knowledge is extended, and as the reason developes itself, the imitative arts decay. We should, therefore, expect that the corruption of poetry would commence in the educated classes r.f society. And this, in fact, is almost constantly the case. The few great works of imagination which appear in a critical age are, almost without exception, the works of uneducated men. Thus, at a time when persons of quality translated French romances, and when the Universities celebrated royal deaths in verses about Tritons and Fauns, a preaching tinker produced the Pilgrim's Progress. And thus a ploughman startled a generation, which had thought Hayley and Beattie great poets, with the adventures of Tam O'Shanter. Even in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth the fashionable poetry had degenerated. It retained few vestiges of the imagination of earlier times. It had not yet been subjected to the rules of good taste. Affectation had completely tainted madrigals and sonnets. The grotesque conceits and the tuneless numbers of Donne were, in the time of James, the favourite models of composition at Whitehall and at the Temple. But though the literature of the Court was in its decay, the literature of the people was in its perfection. The Muses had taken sanctuary in the theatres, the haunts of a class whose taste was not better than that of the Right Honourables and singular geud Lords who admired metaphysical love-verses, but whose imagination retained all its freshness and vigour; whose censure and approbation might be erroneously bestowed, but whose tears and laughter were never in the wrong. The infection which had tainted lyric and didactic poetry had but slightly and partially touched the drama. While the noble and the learned were comparing eyes to burningglasses, and tears to terrestrial globes, coyness to an enthymeme, absence to a pair of coinpasses, and an unrequited passion to the fortieth remainderman in an entail, Juliet leaning from the balcony, and Miranda smiling over the chess-board, sent home many spectators, as kind and simple-hearted as the master and mistress of Fletcher's Ralpho, to cry themselves to sleep. •
No species of fiction is so delightful to us as the old English drama. Even its inferior pro ductions possess a charm not to be found in any other kind of poetry. It is the most lucid mirror that ever was held up to nature. The creations of the great dramatists of Allien:, produce the effect of magnificent sculptures, conceived by a mighty imagination, polished with the utmost delicacy, imbodying ideas of ineffable majesty and beauty, but cold, pale, and rigid, with no bloom on the check, and no speculation in the eye. In all the draperies the figures, and the faces, in the lovers an' the tyrants, the Bacchanals and the Furis> there is the same riarble chUlnew, and ''ea/ a »
ness. Most of the characters of the French stage resemble the waxen gentlemen anil ladies in the window of a perfumer, rouged, curled, and bedizened, but fixed in such stiff attitudes, and staring with eyes expressive of such utter unmeauingness, that they cannot produce an illusion for a single moment. In the English plays alone is to be found the warmth, the mellowness, and the reality of painting. We know the minds of the men and women, as we know the faces of the men and women of Vandyke.
The excellence of these works is in a great measure the result of two peculiarities, which the critics of the French school consider as defects—from the mixture of tragedy and comedy, and from the length and extent of the action. The former is necessary to render the drama a just representation of a world, in which the laughers and the weepers are perpetually jostling each other—in whicn every event has its serious and its ludicrous side. The latter enables us to form an intimate acquaintance with characters, with which we could not possibly become familiar during the few hours to which the unities restrict the poet. In this respect the works of Shakspeare, in particular, are miracies of art. In a piece, which may be read aloud in three hours, we »ee a character gradually unfold all its recesses to us. We see it change with the change of circumstances. The petulant youth rises into the politic and warlike sovereign. The profuse and courteous philanthropist sours into a hater and scorner of his kind. The tyrant is altered, by the chastening of affliction, into a pensive moralist. The veteran general, distinguished by coolness, sagacity, and self-command, sinks under a conflict between love, strong as death, and jealousy, cruel as the grave. The brave and loyal subject passes, step by step, to the extremities of human depravity. We trace his progress from the first dawnings of unlawful ambition, to the cynical melancholy of his impenitent remorse. Yet, in these pieces, there are no unnatural transitions. Nothing is omitted: nothing is crowded. Great as are the changes, narrow as is the compass within which they are exhibited, they shock us as little as the gradual alterations of those familiar faces which we see every evening and every morning. The magical skill of the poet resembles that of the Dervise in the Spectator, who condensed all the events of seven years into the single moment during which the king held his head nnde» the water.
It is deserving of remark, that at the time of which we speak, the plays even of men not eminently distinguished by genius—such, for example, as Jonson—were far superior to the best works of imagination in other departments. Therefore, though we conceive that, from causes which we have already investigated, our poetry must necessarily have declined, we think that, unless its fate had been accelerated by external attacks, it might have •Mijoyedan euthanasia—that genius might have li'-en kept alive by the drama till its place could, in some degree, be supplied by taste— tnat there would have been scarcely any in
terval between the age of sublime invention and that of agreeable imitation. The works of Shakspeare, which were not appreciated with any degree of justice before the middle of the eighteenth century, might then have been the recognised standards of excellence during the latter part of the seventeenth; and he and the great Elizabethan writers might have been almost immediately succeeded by a generation of poets, similar to those who adorn our own times.
But the Puritans drove imagination from its last asylum. They prohibited theatrical representations, and stigmatized the whole race of dramatists as enemies of morality and religion. Much that is objectionable may be found in the writers whom they reprobated; but whether they took the best measures for stopping the evil, appears to us very doubtful, and must, we think, have appeared doubtful to themselves, when, after the lapse of a few years, they saw the unclean spirit whom they had cast out, return to his old haunts, with seven others fouler than himself.
By the extinction of the drama, the fashionable school of poetry—a school without truth of sentiment or harmony of versification— without the powers of an earlier or the correctness of a later age—was left to enjoy undisputed ascendency. A vicious ingenuity, a morbid quickness to perceive resemblances and analogies between things apparently heterogeneous, constituted almost its only claim to admiration. Suckling was dead. Milton was absorbed in political and theological controversy. If Waller differed from the Cowleian sect of writers, he differed for the worse. He had as little poetry as they, and much less win nor is the languor of his verses less offensive than the ruggedness of theirs. In Denham alone the faint dawn of a better manner was discernible.
But, low as was the state of our poetry during the civil war and the Protectorate, a still deeper fall was at hand. Hitherto our literature had been idiomatic. In mind as in situation, we had been islanders. The revolutions in our taste, like the revolutions in oar government, had been settled without the interference of strangers. Had this stale of things continued, the same just principles of reasoning, which, about this time, were applied with unprecedented success to every part of philosophy, would soon have conducted our ancestors to a sounder code of criticism. There were already strong signs of improvement. Our prose had at length worked itself clear from those quaint conceits which still deformed almost every metrical composition. The parliamentary debates and the diplomatic correspondence of that eventful period had contributed much to this reform. In such bustling times, it was absolutely necessary to speak and write to the purpose. The absurdities of Puritanism had, perhaps, done more. At the time when that odious style, which deforms the writings of Hall and of Lord Bacon, was almost universal, "had appeared that stupendous work, the English Bible—a book which, if every thing else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power. The respect which the translators felt for the original prevented ihem from adding any of the hideous decorations then in fashion. The groundwork of the version, indeed, was of an earlier age. The familiarity with which the Puritans, on almost every occasion, used the scriptural phrases, was no doubt very ridiculous; but it produced good effects. It was a cant; but it drove out a cant far more offensive.
The highest kind of poetry is, in a great measure, independent of those circumstances which regulate the style of composition in prose. But with that inferior species of poetry which succeeds to it, the case is widely different. In a few years, the good sense and good taste which had weeded out affectation from moral and political treatises would, in the natural course of things, have effected a simila- reform in the sonnet and the ode. The rigour of the victorious sectaries had relaxed. A dominant religion is never ascetic. The government connived at theatrical representations. The influence of Shakspeare was once more felt. But darker days were approaching. A foreign yoke was to be imposed on our literature. Charles, surrounded by the companions of his long exile, returned to govern a nation which ought nevertohave cast him out, or never to have received him back. Every year which he had passed among strangers had rendered him more unfit to rule his countrymen. In France he had seen the refractory magistracy hnmbred, and royal prerogative though exercised by a foreign priest in the name of a child, victorious over all opposition. This spectacle naturally gratified •& prince to whose family the opposition of parliaments had been so fatal. Politeness was his solitary good quality. The insults which he had suffered in Scotland had taught him to prize it. The effeminacy and apathy of his disposition fitted him to excel in it. The elegance and vivacity of the French manners fascinated him. With the political maxims and the social habits of his favourite people, he adopted their taste in composition; and, when seated on the throne, soon rendered it fashionable, partly by direct patronage, but still more by that contemptible policy which, for a time, made England the last of the nations, and raised Louis the Fourteenth to a height of power and fame, such as no French sovereign had ever before attained.
It was to please Charles that rhyme was first introduced into our plays. Thus, a rising blow, which would at any time have been mortal, was dealt to the English drama, then just recovering from its languishing condition. Two detestable manners, the indigenous and the imported, were now in a state of alternate conflict and amalgamation. The bombastic meanness of the new style was blended with the ingenious absurdity of the old; and the mixture produced something which the world had never before seen, and which, we hope, it will never see again—something, by the side of which the worst nonsense of all other ages -appears to advantage—something, which those who have attempted to caricature it, have,
against their will, been forced Ir flatter—of which the tragedy of Bayes is a very favourable specimen. What Lord Dorset observed to Edward Howard, might have been addressed to almost all his contemporaries:—
"As skilful divers to the bottom fall.
From this reproach some clever men of the world must be expected, and among them Dorset himself. Though by no means great poets, or even good versifiers, they always wrote with meaning, and sometimes with wit. Nothing indeed more- strongly shows to what a miserable state literature had fallen, than the immense superiority which the occasional rhymes, carelessly thrown on paper by men of this class, possess over the elaborate productions of almost all the professed authors. The reigning taste was so bad, that the success of a writer was in inverse proportion to his labour, and to his desire of excellence. An exception must be made for Butler, whohad-as much wit and learning as Cowley, and who knew, what Cowley never knew, how to use them. A great command of good homely English distinguishes him still-more from the other writers of the time. As for Gondiberl, those may criticise it who can read it. Imagination was extinct. Taste was depraved. Poetry, driven from palaces, colleges, and theatres, had found an asylum in the obscure dwelling, where a great man, born out of due season, in disgrace, penury, pain, and blind hess, still kept uncontaminated a character and a genius worthy of a better age.
Every thing about Milton is wonderful; bu> nothing is so wonderful as that, in an age ss unfavourable to poetry, he should have pro duced the greatest of modern epic poems We are not sure that this is not in some dt. gree to be attributed to his want of sight. Tim imagination is notoriously most active when the external world is shut out. In sleep its illusions are perfect. They produce all the effect of realities. In darkness its visions are always more distinct than in the light. Every person who amuses himself with what is called building castles in the air, must have experienced this. We know artists, who, before they attempt to draw a face from memory, close their eyes, that they may recall-a more perfect image of the features and the expression. We are therefore inclined to believe, that the genius of Milton may have been preserved from the influence of times so unfavourable to it, by his infirmity. Be this as it may, his works at first enjoyed a very small share of popularity. To be neglected by his contemporaries was the penalty which he paid for surpassing them. His great poem was not generally studied or admired, till writers far inferior to him had, by obsequiously cringing to the public taste, acquired sufficient favour to reform iu
Of these Drydcn was the Bust eminent. Amidst the crowd of authors, who, during the earlier years of Charles the Second, conned notoriety by every species of absurdity am1 affectation, he speedily became conspicuous No man exercised so much influence on the ape. The reason is obvious. On no man did the age exercise so much influence. He was perhaps the greatest of those whom we have designated as the critical poets; and his literary career exhibited, on a reduced scale, the whole history of flic school to which he belonged, the rudeness and extravagance of its infancy, the propriety, the grace, the dignified good sense, the temperate splendour of its maturity. His imagination was torpid, till it was awakened by his judgment. He began with quaint parallels and empty mouthing. He gradually acquired the energy of the satirist, the gravity of the moralist, the rapture of the lyric poet. The revolution through which English literature has been passing, from the time of Cowley to that of Scott, may be seen in miniature within the compass of his volumes.
His life divides itself into two parts. There is some debatable ground on the common frontier; but the line may be drawn with tolerable accuracy. The year 1678 is that on which we should be inclined to fix as the date of a great change in his manner. During the preceding period appeared some of his courtly panegyrics—his Annus Mirabilis, and most of his plays; indeed, all his rhyming tragedies. To the subsequent period belong his best dramas—All for Love, The Spanish Friar, and Sehastian—his satires, his translations, his didactic poems, his fables, and his odes.
Of the small pieces which were presented to chancellors and princes, it would scarcely be fair to speak. The greatest advantage which the fine arts derive from the extension of knowledge is, that the patronage of individuals becomes unnecessary. Some writers still affect to regret the age of patronage. None but bad writers have reason to regret it. It is always an age of general ignorance. Where ten thousand readers are eager for the appearance of a book, a small contribution from each makes up a splendid remuneration for the author. Where literature is a luxury, confined to few, each of them must pay high. If the Empress Catherine, for example, wanted an epic poem, she must have wholly supported the poet;—just as, in a remote country village, a man who wants a mutton-chop is sometimes forced to take the whole sheep;—a thing which never happens where the demand is large. But men who pay largely for the gratification of their taste, will expect to have it united with some gratification to their vanity. Flattery is carried to a shameless extent; and the habit of flattery almost inevitably introduces a false taste into composition. Its language is made up of hyperbolical commonplaces— offensive from their triteness—and still more offensive from their extravagance. In no school is the trick of overstepping the modesty of nature so speedily acquired. The writer, accustomed to find exaggeration acceptable and necessary on one subject, uses it on all. It is not strange, therefore, that the early panepvriral verses of Dryden should be made up of meanness and bombast. They abound with the conceits which his immediate predecessors had brought into fashion. But liis language
and his versification were already far mperior to theirs.
The Annus Mirabilis shows great command of expression and a fine ear for heroic rhyme. Here its merits end. Not only has it no claim to be called poetry ; but it seems to be the work of a man who could never, by any possibility, write poetry. Its affected similes are the best part of it. Gaudy weeds present a more encouraging spectacle than utter barrenness. There is scarcely a 'single stanza in this long work, to which the imagination seems to have contributed any thing. It is produced, not by creation, but by construction. It is made up, not of pictures, but of inferences. We will give a single instance, aud certainly a favourable instance—a quatrain which Johnson has praised. Dryden is describing the sea-fight with the Dutch.
"Amidst whnle heaps of spires lights a ball;
The poet should place his readers, as nearly as possible, in the situation of the sufferers or the spectators. His narration ought to produce feelings similar to those which would be excited l>v the event itself. Is this the case here! Who, in a sea-fight, ever thought of the price of the china which beats out the brains of a sailor; or of the odour of the splinter which shatters his leg? It is not by an act of the imagination, at once calling up the scene before the interior eye, but by painful meditation —by turning the subject round and round—by tracing out facts into remote consequences, that these incongruous topics are introduced into the description. Homer, it is true, perpetually uses epithets which are not peculiarly appropriate. Achilles is the swift-fooled, when he is silting still. Ulysses is the much-enduring, when he has nothing to endure. Every spear casts a long shadow; every ox has crooked horns; and every woman a high bosom, though these particulars may be quile beside the purpose. In our old ballads a similar practice prevails. The gold is always red. and the ladies always gay, though nothing whatever may depend on the hue of gold, or the temper of the ladies. But these adjectives are mere customary additions. They merge in the sub stantives to which they are attached. If ther at all colour the idea, it is with a tinge so sligh as in no respect to alter the general effect. In ihe passage which we have quoted from Dryden, ihe case is very different. Prerinuily and aromatic divert our whole attention to themselves, and dissolve the image of the battle in a moment. The whole poem reminds us of Lncan, and of the worst pans of'Lucan, the sea-fight in the bay of Marseilles, for example. The description of the two fleets during the night is perhaps the only passage which ought to be exempted from this censure. If it was from the Annus Mirabilis that Milton lormed his opinion, when he pronounced Dryden a good rhymer, but no poet, he certainly judged correctly. But Dryden was, as we have said, one of those writers, in whom the period of imagination does not precede, but follow, the period of observation and reflection.
His plays, his rhyming plays in particular, are admirable subjects for those who wish to study the morbid anatomy of the drama. He was utterly destitute of the power of exhibiting real human beings. Even in the far inferior talent of composing characters out of those elements into which the imperfect process of our reason can resolve them, he was very deficient. His men are not even good personifications; they are not well-assorted assemblages of qualities. Now and then, indeed, he seizes a very coarse and marked distinction; and gives up, not a likeness, but a strong caricature, in which a single peculiarity is protruded, and every thing else neglected ; like the Marquis of Granby at an inndoor, whom we know by nothing but his baldness; or Wilkes, who is Wilkes only in his squint. These are the best specimens of his skill. For most of his pictures seem, like Turkey carpets, to have been expressly designed not to resemble any thing in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the ear'h.
The latter manner he practises most frequently in his tragedies, the former in his comedies. The comic characters are, without mixture, loathsome and despicable. The men of Etherege and Vanbrugh are bad enough. Those of Smollet are perhaps worse. But they do not approach to the Celadons, the Wildbloods, the Woodalls, and the Rhodophils of Dryden. The vices of these last are set off by a certain fierce, hard impudence, to which we know nothing comparable. Their love is the appetite of beasts; their friendship the confederacy of knaves. The ladies seem to have been expressly created to form helps meet for such gentlemen. In deceiving and insulting their old fathers, they do not perhaps exceed the license which, by immemorial prescription, has been allowed to heroines. But they also cheat at cards, rob strong boxes, put up their favours to auction, betray their friends, abuse their rivals in a style of Billingsgate, and invite their lovers in the language of the Piazza. These, it must be remembered, are not the valets and waiting-women, the Mascarilles and Nerines, but the recognised heroes and heroines, who appear as the representatives of good society, and who, at the end of the fifth act, marry and live very happily ever after. The sensuality, baseness, and malice of their natures are unredeemed by any quality of a different description, by any touch of kindness, or even by an honest burst of hearty hatred and revenge. Wc are in a world where there is ao humanity, no veracity, no sense of shame —a world for which any good-natured man would glarMy take in exchange the society of Milton's devils. But as soon as we enter the regions of Tragedy, we find a great change. Then is no lack of the fine sentiment there. Metastasio is surpassed in his own department. 8caderi is out-scuderied. We are introduced lo people whose proceedings we can trace to ■o motive—nf whose feelings we can form no mnre idea than of a sixth sense. We have left a race of creatures, whose love is as delitale and affectionate as the passion which an alderman feels for a turtle. We find ourselves among beings, whose love is purely disinte
rested emotion—a loyalty extending to passive obedience—a religion like that of the Quietisls, unsupported by any sanction of hope or fear. We see nothing but despotism without power, and sacrifices without compensation.
We will give a few instances:—In Aurengzebe, Ariraant, governor of Agra, falls in love with his prisoner Indamora. She rejects his suit with scorn; but assures him that she shall make great use of her power over him. He threaten* to be angry. She answers, very coolly:
"Do not: your anger, tike your love, is vain:
This is no idle menace. She soon brings a letter, addressed lo his rival, orders him to read it, asks him whether he thinks it sufficiently tender, and finally commands him to carry it himself. Such tyranny as this, it may be thought, would justify resistance. Arimant does indeed venture to remonstrate:
"This fruit paper rather let me tear.
The answer of the lady is incomparable:
"You may; but 'twill not be your beet advice j
Poor Arimant seems to be of the same opinion. He mutters something about fate and freewill, and walks off with the hillet-doux.
In the Indian Emperor, Montezuma present* Almeria with a garland as a token of his love, and offers to make her his queen. She replies;
"I take this garland, not as given by you;
In return for such proofs of tenderness as these, her admirer consents to murder his two sons, and a benefactor, to whom he feels the warmest gratitude. Lyndaraxa, in the Conquest of Granada, assumes the same lolly tone with Abdelmelech. He complains that sht smiles upon his rival.
"ijmrf. And when did I my power so far resin,
'I liit you should regulate earh look of mlnel Jlbdtl. Then, when you gave your love, you gave that
power. Lttnd. 'Twas during pleasure—'lis revoked this hour. Jlbdtl. I'll hale you, and Ibis visit i* my last Lynd. Do, if you can; you know 1 hold you fast."
That these passages violate all historical propriety; that sentiments, to which nothing similar was ever even affected except by the' cavaliers of Europe, are transferred to Mexico and Agra, is a light accusation. We have no objection lo a conventional world, an Illyriau puritan, or a Bohemian seaport. While the faces are good, we care little about the background. Sir Joshua Reynolds says, that tne curtains and hanginss in an historical painting ought to be, not velvet or collon, but merely drapery. The same principle should be artplied to poetry and romance. The truth ot character is the first object; the trmh of place and time is to be considered only in the second place. Puff himself could tell lite actor to tun