« AnteriorContinuar »
our old friend Christian : sometimes we meet Mistrust and Timorous ; sometimes Mr. Hate-good and Mr. Love-lust; and then again Prudence, Piety, and Charity.
That critical discernment is not sufficient to make men poets, is generally allowed. Why it should keep them from becoming poets, is not perhaps equally evident. But the fact is, that poetry requires not an examining, but a believing frame of mind. Those feel it most, and write it best, who forget that it is a work of art ; to whom its imitations, like the realities from which they are taken, are subjects not for connoisseurship, but for tears and laughter, resentment and affection, who are too much under the influence of the illusion to admire the genius which has produced it; who are too much frightened for Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus, to care whether the pun about Outis be good or bad ; who forget that such a person as Shakspeare ever existed, while they weep and curse with Lear. It is by giving faith to the creations of the imagination that a man becomes a poet. It is by treating those creations as deceptions, and by resolving them, as nearly as possible, into their elements, that he becomes a critic. In the moment in which the skill of the artist is per. ceived, the spell of the art is broken.
These considerations account for the absurdities into which the greatest writers have fallen, when they have attempted to give general rules for composition, or to pronounce judgment on the works of others. They are unaccustomed to analyze what they feel ; they, therefore, perpetually refer their emotions to causes which have not in the slightest degree tended to produce them. They feel plea. sure in reading a book. They never consider that this pleasure may be the effect of ideas, which some unmeaning expression, striking on the first link of a chain of associations, may have called in their own minds, that they VOL. I.
have themselves furnished to the author the beauties which they admire.
Cervantes is the delight of all classes of readers. Every schoolboy thumbs to pieces the most wretched translations of his romance, and knows the lantern jaws of the Knight Errant, and the broad cheeks of the Squire, as well as the faces of his own playfellows. The most experienced and fastidious judges are amazed at the perfection of that art which extracts inextinguishable laughter from the greatest of human calamities, without once violating the reverence due to it; at that discriminating delicacy of touch, which makes a character exquisitely ridiculous, without impairing its worth, its grace, or its dignity. In Don Quixote are several dissertations on the principles of poetic and dramatic writing. No passages in the whole work exhibit stronger marks of labor and attention ; and no passages in any work with which we are acquainted are more worthless and puerile. In our time they would scarcely obtain admittance into the literary department of the Morning Post. Ev. ery reader of the Divine Comedy must be struck by the veneration which Dante expresses for writers far inferior to himself. He will not lift up his eyes from the ground in the presence of Brunetto, all whose works are not worth the worst of his own hundred cantos. He does not venture to walk in the same line with the bombastic Statius. His admiration of Virgil is absolute idolatry. If indeed it had been excited by the elegant, splendid, and harmonious diction of the Roman Poet, it would not have been altogether unreasonable ; but it is rather as an authority on all points of philosophy, than as a work of imagination, that he values the Æneid. The most trivial passages he regards as oracles of the highest authority, and of the most recondite meaning. He describes his conductor as the sea of all wisdom, the sun which heals every disordered sight. As he judged of Virgil, the Italians of the fourteenth century judged of him; they were proud of him ; they praised him ; they struck' medals bearing his head ; they quarrelled for the honor of possessing his remains ; they maintained professors to expound his writings. But what they admired was not that mighty imagination which called a new world into existence, and made all its sights and sounds familiar to the eye and ear of the mind. They said little of those awful and lovely creations on which later critics delight to dwell, - Farinata lifting his haughty and tranquil brow from his couch of everlasting fire, - the lion-like repose of Sordello, or the light which shone from the celestial smile of Beatrice. They extolled their great poet for his smattering of ancient literature and history ; for his logic and his divinity ; for his absurd physics, and his more absurd metaphysics ; for everything but that in which he preëminently excelled. Like the fool in the story, who ruined his dwelling by digging for gold, which, as he had dreamed, was concealed under its foundations, they laid waste one of the noblest works of human genius, by seeking in it for buried treasures of wisdom, which existed only in their own wild reveries. The finest passages were little valued till they had been debased into some monstrous allegory. Louder applause was given to the lecture on fate and free-will, or to the ridiculous astronomical theories, than to those tremendous lines which disclose the secrets of the tower of hunger ; or to that half-told tale of guilty love, so passionate and so full of tears.
We do not mean to say, that the contemporaries of Dante read, with less emotion than their descendants, of Ugolino groping among the wasted corpses of his children, or of Francesca, starting at the tremulous kiss, and dropping the fatal volume. Far from it. We believe that they admired these things less than ourselves, but that they felt them
We should perhaps say, that they felt them too much to admire them. The progress of a nation from barbarism to civilization prodduces a change, similar to that which takes place during the progress of an individual from infancy to mature age. What man does not remember with regret the first time that he read Robinson Crusoe? Then, indeed, he was unable to appreciate the powers of the writer ; or rather, he neither knew nor cared whether the book had a writer at all. He probably thought it not half so fine as some rant of Macpherson about dark-browed Foldath, and white-bosomed Strinadona. He now values Fingal and Temora only as showing with how little evidence a story may be believed, and with how little merit a book may be popular. Of the romance of Defoe he entertains the highest opinion. He perceives the hand of a master in ten thousand touches, which formerly he passed by without notice. But though he understands the merits of the narrative better than formerly, he is far less interested by it. Xury, and Friday, and pretty Poll, the boat with the shoulder-ofmutton sail, and the canoe which could not be brought down to the water's edge, the tent with its hedge and ladders, the preserve of kids, and the den where the old goat died, can never again be to him the realities which they were. The days when his favorite volume set him upon
making wheel-barrows and chairs, upon digging caves and fencing huts in the garden, can never return. Such is the law of our nature. Our judgment ripens, our imagination de. cays. We cannot at once enjoy the flowers of the spring of life, and the fruits of its autumn, the pleasures of close investigation, and those of agreeable error. We cannot sit at once in the front of the stage and behind the scenes. We cannot be under the illusion of the spectacle, while we are watching the movements of the ropes and pulleys which dispose it.
The chapter in which Fielding describes the behavior of Partridge at the theatre, affords so complete an illustration of our proposition, that we cannot refrain from quoting some parts of it.
Partridge gave that credit to Mr. Garrick which he had denied to Jones, and fell into so violent a trembling that his knees knocked against each other. Jones asked him what was the matter, and whether he was afraid of the warrior upon the stage?—“O, la, sir,” said he, “ I perceive now it is what you told me. I am not afraid of anything, for I know it is but a play; and if it was really a ghost, it could do one no harm at such a distance and in so much company ; and yet, if I was frightened, I am not the only person.” — “Why, who,” cries Jones, “ dost thou take to be such a coward here be-' sides thyself?” —“ Nay, you may call me a coward if you will ; but if that little man there upon the stage is not frightened, I never saw any man frightened in my life.”.... He sat with his eyes fixed partly on the ghost and partly on Hamlet, and with his mouth open; the same passions which succeeded each other in Hamlet, succeeded likewise in him, ....
• Little more worth remembering occurred during the play, at the end of which Jones asked him which of the players he liked best. To this he answered, with some appearance of indignation at the question, “ The King, without doubt.” - “ Indeed, Mr. Partridge,” says Mrs. Miller, “ you are not of the same opinion with the town; for they are all agreed that Hamlet is acted by the best player who was ever on the stage.” –“ He the best player!' cries Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer; " why I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I shold have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did. And then, to be sure, in that scene, as you called it, between him and his mother, where you told me he acted so fine, why, any man, that is, any good man, that had such a mother, would have done exactly the same. I know you are only joking with me; but indeed, madam, though I never was at a play in London, yet I have seen acting before in the country, and the King for my money ; he speaks all his words distinctly, and half as loud again as the other. Anybody may see he is an actor.”.?