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poets would have written they merely mimic their manner, and ape their peculiarities; and consequently, though they profess to imitate the freest and most careless of all versifiers, their style is more remarkably and offensively artificial than that of any other class of writers. They have mixed in, too, so much of the mawkish tone of pastoral innocence and babyish simplicity, with a sort of pedantic emphasis and ostentatious glitter, that it is difficult not to be disgusted with their perversity, and with the solemn self-complacency, and keen and vindictive jealousy, with which they have put in their claim for public admiration. But we have said enough elsewhere of the faults of these authors; and shall only add at present, that, notwithstanding all these faults, there is a fertility and a force, a warmth of feeling and an exaltation of imagination, about them, which classes them, in our estimation, with a much higher order of poets than the followers of Dryden and Addison; and justifies an anxiety for their fame in all the admirers of Milton and Shakspeare.
Of Scott, or of Campbell, we need scarcely say any thing, with reference to our present object, after the very copious accounts we have given of them on former occasions. The former profess to copy something a good deal older than what we consider as the golden age of English poetry, and, in reality, has copied every stile, and borrowed from every manner that has prevailed, from the times of Chaucer to his own,-illuminating and uniting, if not harmonising them all by a force of colouring, and a rapidity of succession, which is not to be met with in any of his many models. The latter, we think, can scarcely be said to have copied his pathos, or his energy, from any models whatever, either recent or early. The exquisite harmony of his versification is elaborated, perhaps, from the Castle of Indolence of Thomson, and the serious pieces of Goldsmith;—and it seems to be his misfortune, not to be able to reconeile himself to any thing which he cannot reduce within the limits of this elaborate harmony. This extreme fastidiousness, and the limitation of his efforts to themes of unbroken tenderness, or sublimity, distinguish him from the careless, prolific, and miscellaneous authors of our primitive poetry;-while the enchanting softness of his pathetic passages, and the power and originality of his more sublime conceptions, place him at a still greater distance from the wits, as they truly called themselves, of Charles II. and Queen Anne.
We do not know what other apology to offer for this hasty, and, we fear, tedious sketch of the history of our poetry, but that it appeared to us to be necessary, in order to explain the peculiar merit of that class of writers to which the author before us belongs :-and that it will very greatly shorten what we have still to say on the characteristics of the older dramatists. An opinion prevails very generally on the Continent, and with foreign-bred scholars among ourselves, that our national taste has been corrupted chiefly by our idolatry of Shakspeare;-and that it is our patriotic and traditional admiration of that singular writer, that reconciles us to the monstrous compound of faults and beauties that occur in his performances, and must to all impartial judges appear quite absurd and unnatural. Before entering upon the character of a contemporary dramatist, it was of some importance, therefore, to show, that there was a distinct, original, and independent school of literature in England in the time of Shakspeare, to the general tone of whose productions his works were sufficiently unfavourable; and that it was owing to circumstances in a great measure accidental, that this native school was superseded about the time of the Restoration, and a foreign
standard of excellence introduced upon us, not in the drama only, but in every other department of poetry. This new style of composition, however, though adorned and recommended by the splendid talents of many of its followers, was never perfectly naturalised, we think, in this country; and has ceased, in a great measure, to be cultivated by those who have lately aimed with the greatest success at the higher honours of poetry. Our love of Shakspeare, therefore, is not a solitary and unaccountable infatuation, but is merely the natural love which all men bear to those forms of excellence that have been devised with a reference to their peculiar character, temperament, and situation; and will return, and assert its power over their affections, long after authority has lost its reverence, fashions been antiquated, and artificial tastes passed away. In endeavouring, therefore, to bespeak some share of favour for such of his contemporaries as had fallen out of notice during the prevalence of an imported literature, we conceive that we are only enlarging that foundation of native genius on which alone any lasting superstructure can be raised, and invigorating that deep-rooted stock upon which all the perennial blossoms of our literature must still be engrafted.
The notoriety of Shakspeare may seem to make it superfluous to speak of the peculiarities of those old dramatists, of whom he will be admitted to be so worthy a representative. Nor shall we venture to say any thing of the confusion of their plots, the disorders of their chronology, their contempt of the unities, or their imperfect discrimination between the provinces of Tragedy and Comedy. Yet there are characteristics which the lovers of literature may not be displeased to find enumerated, and which may constitute no dishonourable distinction for the whole fraternity, independent of the splendid talents and incommunicable graces of their great chieftain.
Of the old English dramatists, then, including under this name (besides Shakspeare) Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Jonson, Ford, Shirley, Webster, Dekkar, Field, and Rowley, it may be said, in general, that they are more poetical, and more original in their diction, than the dramatists of any other age or country. Their scenes abound more in varied images, and gratuitous excursions of fancy. Their illustrations, and figures of speech, are more borrowed from rural life, and from the simple occupations, or universal feelings of mankind. They are not confined to a certain range of dignified expressions, nor restricted to a particular assortment of imagery, beyond which it is not lawful to look for embellishments. Let any one compare the prodigious variety, and wide ranging freedom of Shakspeare, with the narrow round of flames, tempests, treasons, victims, and tyrants, that scantily adorn the sententious pomp of the French drama, and he will not fail to recognise the vast superiority of the former, in the excitement of the imagination, and all the diversities of poetical delight. That very mixture of styles, of which the French critics have so fastidiously complained, forms, when not carried to any height of extravagance, one of the greatest charms of our ancient dramatists. It is equally sweet and natural for personages toiling on the barren heights of life, to be recalled to some vision of pastoral innocence and tranquillity, as for the victims or votaries of ambition to cast a glance of envy and agony on the joys of humble content.
These charming old writers, however, have a still more striking peculiarity in their conduct of the dialogue. On the modern stage, every scene is visibly studied and digested beforehand,-and every thing from beginning
to end, whether it be description, or argument, or vituperation, is very obviously and ostentatiously set forth in the most advantageous light, and with all the decorations of the most elaborate rhetoric. Now, for mere rhe→ toric, and fine composition, this is very right;-but, for an imitation of nature, it is not quite so well; and however we may admire the powers of the artist, we are not very likely to be moved with any very lively sympathy in the emotions of those very rhetorical interlocutors. When we come to any important part of the play, on the Continental or modern stage, we are sure to have a most complete, formal and exhausting discussion of it in long flourishing orations,-argument after argument propounded and answered with infinite ingenuity, and topic after topic brought forward in welldigested method, without any deviation that the most industrious and practised pleader would not approve of,-till nothing more remains to be said, and a new scene introduces us to a new set of gladiators, as expert and persevering as the former. It is exactly the same when a story is to be told, -a tyrant to be bullied,—or a princess to be wooed. On the old English stage, however, the proceedings were by no means so regular. There the discussions always appear to be casual, and the argument quite artless and disorderly. The persons of the drama are made to speak like men and women who meet without preparation, in real life. Their reasonings are perpetually broken by passion, or left imperfect for want of skill. They wander from the point in hand, in the most unbusiness like manner in the world;—and after hitting upon a topic that would afford a judicious playwright room for a magnificent see-saw of pompous declamation, they have always the awkwardness to let it slip, as if perfectly unconscious of its value, and uniformly leave the scene without exhausting the controversy, or stating half the plausible things for themselves that any ordinary advisers might have suggested after a few weeks' reflection. As specimens of eloquent argumentation, we must admit the signal inferiority of our native favourites; but as true copies of nature,—as vehicles of passion, and representations of character, we confess we are tempted to give them the preference. When a dramatist brings his chief characters on the stage, we readily admit that he must give them something to say,- and that this something must be interesting and characteristic ;-but he should recollect also, that they are supposed to come there without having anticipated all they were to hear, or meditated on all they were to deliver; and that it cannot be characteristic, therefore, because it must be glaringly unnatural, that they should proceed regularly through every possible view of the subject, and exhaust in set order the whole magazine of reflections that can be brought to bear upon their situation.
It would not be fair, however, to leave this view of the matter, without observing, that this unsteadiness and irregularity of dialogue, which gives such an air of nature to our older plays, and keeps the curiosity and attention so perpetually awake, is very frequently carried to a most blamable excess; and that, independent of their passion for verbal quibbles, there is an inequality and capricious uncertainty in the taste and judgment of these good old writers, which excites at once our amazement and our compassion. If it be true, that no other man has ever written so finely as Shakspeare has done in his happier passages, it is no less true, that there is not a scribbler now alive who could possibly write worse than he has sometimes written, who could, on occasion, devise more contemptible ideas, or misplace them so abominably, by the side of such incomparable excellence.
That there were no critics, and no critical readers in those days, appears to us but an imperfect solution of the difficulty. He who could write so admirably, must have been a critic to himself. Children may play with the most precious gems, and the most worthless pebbles, without being aware of any difference in their value; but the very powers which are necessary to the production of intellectual excellence, must enable the possessor to recognise it as excellence; and he who knows when he succeeds, can scarcely be unconscious of his failures. Unaccountable, however, as it is, the fact is certain, that almost all the dramatic writers of this age appear to be alternately inspired and bereft of understanding; and pass, apparently without being conscious of the change, from the most beautiful displays of genius to the most melancholy exemplifications of stupidity.
There is only one other peculiarity which we shall notice in these ancient dramas; and that is, the singular, though very beautiful, style in which the greater part of them are composed,- -a style which we think must have been felt as peculiar by all who peruse them, though it is by no means easy to describe in what its peculiarity consists. It is not, for the most part, a lofty or sonorous style, nor is it finical or affected, or strained, quaint, or pedantic, but it is, at the same time, a style full of turn and contrivance, -with some little degree of constraint and involution,-very often characterised by a studied briefness and simplicity of diction, yet relieved by a certain indirect and figurative cast of expression,- and almost always coloured with a modest tinge of ingenuity, and fashioned, rather too visibly, upon a particular model of elegance and purity. In scenes of powerful passion, this sort of artificial prettiness is commonly shaken off; and, in Shakspeare, it disappears under all his forms of animation: but it sticks closer to most of his contemporaries. In Massinger (who has no passion), it is almost always discernible; and, in the author before us, it gives a peculiar tone to almost all the estimable parts of his productions.
It would be useless, and worse than useless, to give our readers an abstract of the fable and management of each of the nine plays contained in the volumes before us. A very few brief remarks upon their general character, will form a sufficient introduction to the extracts, by which we propose to let our readers judge for themselves of the merits of their execution.
The comic parts are all utterly bad. With none of the richness of Shakspeare's humour, the extravagant merriment of Beaumont and Fletcher, or the strong colouring of Ben Jonson, they are as heavy and indecent as Massinger, and not more witty, though a little more varied, than the buffooneries of Wycherly or Dryden. Fortunately, however, the author's merry vein is not displayed in very many parts of his performances. His plots are not very cunningly digested; nor developed, for the most part, by a train of very probable incidents. His characters are drawn rather with occasional felicity than with general sagacity and judgment. Like those of Massinger, they are very apt to startle the reader with sudden and unexpected transformations, and to turn out, in the latter half of the play, very differently from what they promised to do in the beginning. This kind of surprise has been represented by some as a master-stroke of art in the author, and a great merit in the performance. We have no doubt at all, however, that it arises merely from the writer's carelessness, or change of purpose; and have never failed to feel it a great blemish in every serious piece where it
The author has not much of the oratorical stateliness and imposing flow
of Massinger; nor a great deal of the smooth and flexible diction, the wandering fancy, and romantic sweetness of Beaumont and Fletcher; and yet he comes nearer to these qualities than to any of the distinguishing characteristics of Jonson or Shakspeare. He excels most in representing the pride and gallantry and high-toned honour of youth, and the enchanting softness or the mild and graceful magnanimity of female character. There is a certain melancholy air about his most striking representations; and, in the tender and afflicting pathetic, he appears to us occasionally to be second only to him who has never yet had an equal. The greater part of every play, however, is bad; and there is not one which does not contain faults sufficient to justify the derision of those who are incapable even of comprehending its contrasted beauties.
There is a great treasure of poetry, we think, still to be brought to light in the neglected writers of the age to which this author belongs; and poetry of a kind which, if purified and improved, as the happier specimens show that it is capable of being, would be far more delightful to the generality of English readers than any other species of poetry.
CHANGES IN THE CHARACTER OF ENGLISH POETRY FROM THE REIGN OF QUEEN ANNE TO THE PRESENT TIMES..
By far the most considerable change which has taken place in the world of letters in our days, is that by which the wits of Queen Anne's time have been gradually brought down from the supremacy which they had enjoyed, without competition, for the best part of a century. When we were at our studies, some twenty-five years ago, we can perfectly remember that every young man was set to read Pope, Swift, and Addison, as regularly as Virgil, Cicero, and Horace. All who had any tincture of letters were familiar with their writings and their history; allusions to them abounded in all popular discourses and all ambitious conversation; and they and their contemporaries were universally acknowledged as our great models of excellence, and placed without challenge at the head of our national literature. New books, even when allowed to have merit, were never thought of as fit to be placed in the same class, but were generally read and forgotten, and passed away like the transitory meteors of a lower sky; while they remained in their brightness, and were supposed to shine with a fixed and unalterable glory.
All this, however, we take it, is now pretty well altered; and in so far as persons of our antiquity can judge of the training and habits of the rising generation, those celebrated writers no longer form the manual of our studious youth, or enter necessarily into the institution of a liberal education. Their names, indeed, are still familiar to our ears; but their writings no longer solicit our habitual notice, and their subjects begin already to fade from our recollection. Their high privileges and proud distinctions, at any rate, have evidently passed into other hands. It is no longer to them that the ambitious look up with envy, or the humble with admiration ; nor is it
* The Works of Jonathan Swift, D. D., Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin: containing additional Letters, Tracts, and Poems, not hitherto published: with Notes, and a Life of the Author, by Walter Scott, Esq.-Vol. xxvii. p. 1. September, 1816.