Page images



in poetry and dramatic skill are unfettered by the artificial unities and by rhyme, like those of Corneille and Racine. Within the compass of a play of Shakspere is a condensed historical novel, with every proper variety of time and place,—the events of a lifetime in the space

of a few hours. The scenes change, not only from England to Denmark, from one part of Scotland or of Italy to another, but from the events and persons of actual life to realms of the imagination, where the wonder working poet wanders fancy free and transports the reader or spectator along with him, obedient to the spell by which he creates the supernatural according to nature. Shakspere's knowledge of the Bible and his appropriate and effective use of that knowledge is apparent in many of his plays. In what other uninspired writer shall we find the course of crime from its first conception to its final catastrophe described so impressively as in Macbeth? Satanic agents make a promise to the ear to be broken to the hope. The serpent and the woman tempt the man. The evil thoughts suggested by the witches are fed and fostered into evil designs. Then come opportunity and a wicked wife to work upon his weaker but better nature, and to urge him to stain his name, tarnish his glory, and destroy his peace by a foul crime. She stimulates his flagging ambition to win the crown, dissuades his fears, upbraids his cowardice, “had he not resembled my father as he slept I had done it.” The crown is gained by murder, but with it come fear, hypocrisy, falsehood, remorse, misery, more murders to conceal the first, and to secure the bad and worthless prize. Henceforth the lives of the two criminals are a downward course of guilt and of misery, which their royal honours cannot mitigate. The ghastly shadows of crime and an accusing conscience haunt and affright their feasts, and disturb their repose, with the agony of unrest and dreams of terror. What a vivid commentary on that passage of scripture, “when lust hath conceived it bringeth forth sin, and sin when it is finished bringeth forth death” has Shakspere provided in that masterpiece!



you will.”

Dryden adopted the practice of writing tragedies in rhyme which was introduced by the Earl of Orrery in compliance with the acquired French taste of Charles the Second. He wrote a defence of it, which he refuted by his own experience; for having composed a great many rhyming tragedies which were failures “he seems says Dr. Johnson “to have grown ashamed of making them any longer.” Before he abandoned that practice he and Sir William Davenant took upon themselves to alter Shakspere's beautiful play of the Tempest.

Mr. Aubrey who wrote a life of Milton and was acquainted with Dryden said that he asked Milton's permission to put the “Paradise Lost” into rhyme. Ay!” said its great author "you may tag my verses if

Milton had indeed fallen upon evil days of degenerate taste when Rymer in an essay addressed to Fleetwood Sheppard in 1678 presumed to write. “With the remaining tragedies I shall also send you “some reflections on that Paradise Lost of Milton's “which some are pleased to call a poem.

Four years before that idle sarcasm was written, Milton had passed from “ever during dark” into “ Holy Light,” and to the exalted rank which a grateful country now assigns to him amongst her most illustrious dead.

Although Dryden was the best writer of heroic verse in our language, his plays in blank verse are considered to be his best; while his rhyming plays are pronounced by the best judges to have been utterly unworthy of his genius. His comic characters says Lord Macaulay “are without mixture loathsome and despicable.” “He was utterly destitute of the power of exhibiting real human beings." His best portraits were not likenesses but strong caricatures. “For most of his pictures seem “like Turkey carpets to have been expressly designed “not to resemble anything in the heavens above, or on “the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth.”

“He was perhaps the greatest of those designated as “the critical poets; and his literary career exhibited on

[blocks in formation]

a reduced scale, the whole history of the 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 " judgement. 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.”

The time of Cowley who lived during the reign of Charles the First, and died seven years after the restoration in 1660, marked the starting point of that revolution in literature to which Lord Macaulay refers.

Cowley was the last and the best of the metaphysical poets, an accomplished scholar, a man of great learning and of brilliant wit. His Ode on Wit is very celebrated; Dr. Johnson highly commends the following passage in which Cowley condemns exuberance of wit.

Yet 'tis not to adorn and gild each part,
That shows more cost than art.
Jewels at nose and lips but ill appear ;
Rather than all things wit, let none be there.
Several lights will not be seen,
If there be nothing else between.
Men doubt, because they stand so thick-i-th’sky,
If those be stars that paint the galaxy.

The Chronicle, in which he gives a playful, fanciful enumeration and description of the long line of female sovereigns supposed to have ruled his fickle heart, is an “airy frolick of genius" flowing with ease, sprightliness, and a mirthful gaiety said to have been characteristic of Cowley and is unequalled in its way by any other writer.




Margarita first possest,

If I remember well, my breast,

Margarita first of all;
But when awhile the wanton maid


restless heart had play'd Martha took the flying ball.

Martha soon did it resign

To the beauteous Catherine;

Beauteous Catherine gave place (Though loth and angry to part With the possession of my heart)

To Eliza's conquering face.

Eliza till this hour might reign,

Had she not evil counsels ta'en

Fundamental laws she broke
And still new favorites she chose,
Till up in arms my passions rose,

And cast away her yoke.

Mary then, and gentle Anne,

Both to reign at once began,

Alternately they sway'd;
And sometimes Mary was the fair,
And sometimes Anne the crown did wear,

And sometimes both I obey'd.

Another Mary then arose,

And did rigorous laws impose

A mighty tyrant she!
Long alas should I have been
Under that iron-scepter'd queen,

Had not Rebecca set me free.



When fair Rebecca set me free,

'Twas then a golden time with me;

But soon those pleasures fled :
For the gracious Princess dy'd
In her youth and beauty's pride,

And Judith reigned in her stead.
One month three days and half an hour,

Judith held the sovereign power ;

Wondrous beautiful her face! But so weak and small her wit, That she to govern was unfit,

And so Susanna took her place. But when Isabella came

Arm’d with a resistless flame,

And th' artillery of her eye, Whilst she proudly march'd about Greater conquests to find out,

She beat out Susan by the bye. But in her place I then obey'd

Black ey'd Bess her viceroy maid,

To whom ensued a vacancy; Thousand worse passions then possest The interregnum of my breast;

Bless me from such an anarchy! Gentle Henrietta then

And a third Mary, next began;

Then Joan, and Jane, and Audria,
And then a pretty Thomasine,
And then another Katharine,

And then a long et cætera.
But should I now to you relate

The strength and riches of their state,
The powder, patches and the pins,
The ribbons, jewels, and the rings,
The lace, the paint, and warlike things,

That make up all their magazines.

« PreviousContinue »