« AnteriorContinuar »
were signalised will do this most effectually. Battles, tournaments, penances, deliverance of damsels,-instalments of knights, etc.; and, intermixed with these, we must admit some description of arms, armorial bearings, castles, battlements, and chapels : but the least and lowest of the whole certainly is the description of servants' liveries, and of the peaceful operations of eating, drinking, and ordinary salutation. These have no sensible connection with the qualities or peculiarities which have conferred certain poetical privileges on the manners of chivalry. They do not enter either necessarily or naturally into our conception of what is interesting in those manners; and, though protected, by their strangeness, from the ridicule which would infallibly altach to their modern equivalents, are substantially as unpoetic, and as little entitled to indulgence from impartial criticism.
We would extend this censure to a larger proportion of the work before us than we now choose to mention, certainly to all the stupid monkish legends about St. Hilda and St. Cuthbert, to the ludicrous description of Lord Gifford's habiliments of divination, and to all the various scraps and fragments of antiquarian history and baronial biography, which are scattered profusely through the whole narrative. These we conceive to be put in purely for the sake of displaying the erudition of the author; and poetry, which has no other recommendation, but that the substance of it has been gleaned from rare or obscure hooks, has, in our estimation, the least of all possible recommendations. Mr. Scolt's great talents, and the novelty of the style in which his romances are written, have made even these defects acceptable to a considerable part of his readers. His genius, seconded by the omnipotence of fashion, has brought chivalry again into temporary favour ; but he ought to know, that this is a taste too evidently unnatural to be long prevalent in the modern world. Fine ladies and gentlemen now talk, indeed, of donjons, keeps, tabards, scutcheons, tressures, caps of maintenance, portcullises, wimples, and we know not what besides; just as they did, in the days of Dr. Darwin's popularity, of gnomes, sylphs, oxygen, gossamer, polygynia, and polyandria. That fashion, however, passed rapidly away; and if it be now evident to all the world, that Dr. Darwin obstructed the extension of his fame, and hastened the extinction of his brilliant reputation, by the pedantry and ostentatious learning of his poems, Mr. Scott should take care that a different sort of pedantry does not produce the same effects. The world will never be long pleased with what it does not readily understand; and the poetry which is destined for immortality, should treat only of feelings and events which can be conceived and entered into by readers of all descriptions.
What we have now mentioned is the cardinal fault of the work before us; but it has other faults, of too great magnitude to be passed altogether without notice. There is a debasing lowness and vulgarity in some passages, which we think must be offensive to every reader of delicacy, and which are not, for the most part, redeemed by any vigour or picturesque
There are many other blemishes, both of taste and of diction, which we had marked for reprehension, but now think it unnecessary to specify; and
† la justificatiou of this harsh censure, several pasages are quoted. Amongst others, the commemoration of Sir Hugh Herou's troopers, the account of Friar John, the speeches of Squire Blount, and the Abbess's explanation to De Wilton.
which, with some of those we have mentioned, we are willing to ascribe to the haste in which much of the poem seems evidently to have been composed. Mr. Scott knows too well what is due to the public, to make any boast of the rapidity with which his works are written; but the dates and the extent of his successive publications show sufficiently how short a time could be devoted to each ; and explain, though they do not apologise for, the many imperfections with which they have been suffered to appear. He who writes for immortality should not be sparing of time; and if it be true, that in every thing which has a principle of life, the period of gestation and growth bears some proportion to that of the whole future existence, the author now before us should tremble when he looks back on the miracles of his own facility.
We have dwelt longer on the beauties and defects of this poem, than we are afraid will be agreeable either to the partial or the indifferent; not only because we look upon it as a misapplication, in some degree, of very extraordinary talents, but because we cannot help considering it as the foundation of a new school, which may hereafter occasion no little annoyance both to us and to the public. Mr. Scott has hitherto filled the whole stage himself; and the very splendour of his success has probably operated, as yet, rather to deter, than to encourage, the herd of rivals and imitators : but if, by the help of the good parts of his poem, he succeeds in suborning the verdict of the public in favour of the bad parts also, and establishes an indiscriminate taste for chivalrous legends and romances in irregular rhyme, he may depend upon having as many copyists as Mrs. Radcliffe or Schiller, and upon becoming the founder of a new schism in the catholic poetical church, for which, in spite of all our exertions, there will probably be no cure, but in the extravagance of the last and lowest of its followers. It is for this reason that we conceive it to be our duty to make one strong effort to bring back the great apostle of the heresy to the wholesome creed of his instructors, and to stop the insurrection before it becomes desperate and senseless, by persuading the leader to return to his duty and allegiance. We admire Mr. Scott's genius as much as any of those who may be misled by its perversion; and, like the curate and the barber in Don Quixote, lament the day when a gentleman of such endowments was corrupted by the wicked tales of knight-errantry and enchantment.
We have left ourselves no room to say any thing of the epistolary effusions which are prefixed to each of the cantos. They certainly are not among
. the happiest productions of Mr. Scott's muse. They want interest in the subjects, and finish in the execution. There is too much of them about the personal and private feelings and affairs of the author; and too much of the remainder about the most trite commonplaces of politics and poetry. There is a good deal of spirit, however, and a good deal of nature intermingled. There is a fine description of St. Mary's Loch in that prefixed to the second canto; and a very pleasing representation of the author's early tastes and prejudices, in that prefixed to the third. The last, which is about Chrisimas, is the worst; though the first, containing a threnody on Nelson, Pitt, and Fox, exhibits a more remarkable failure. We are unwilling to quarrel with a poet on the score of politics ; but the manner in which he has chosen to praise the last of those great men, is more likely, we conceive, to give offence to his admirers, than the most direct censure. The only deed for which he is praised is, for having broken off the negotiation for peace; and for this act of firmness, it is added, Heaven rewarded him
with a share in the honoured grave of Pitt! It then said, that his errors should be forgotten, and that he died a Briton-a pretty plain insinuation, that, in the author's opinion, he did not live one; and just such an encomium, as he himself pronounces over the grave of his villain hero Marmion. There was no need, surely, to pay compliments to ministers or princesses, either in the introduction or in the body of a romance of the sixteenth century. Yet we have a laboured lamentation over the Duke of Brunswick, in one of the epistles; and, in the heart of the poem, a triumphant allusion to the siege of Copenhagen-the last exploit, certainly, of British valour, on which we should have expected a chivalrous poet to found his patriotic gratulations. We have no business, however, on this occasion, with the political creed of the author; and we notice these allusions to objects of temporary interest, chiefly as instances of bad taste, and additional proofs that the author does not always recollect, that a poet should address himself to more than one generation.
This is a very strange-not a very pleasing—but unquestionably a very powerful and most poetical production. The noble author, we fiod, still deals with that dark and overawing Spirit by whose aid he has so often subdued the minds of his readers, and in whose might he has wrought so many wonders. In Manfred, we recognise at once the gloom and potency of that soul which burned and blasted and fed upon itself in Harold, and Conrad, and Lara-and which comes again in this piece, more in sorrow than in anger-more proud, perhaps, and more awful than ever-but with the fiercer traits of its misanthropy subdued, as it were, and quenched in the gloom of a deeper despondency. Manfred does not, like Conrad and Lara wreak the anguish of his burning heart in the dangers and daring of desperate and predatory war-nor seek to drown bitter thoughts in the tumult of perpetual contention—nor yel, like Harold, does he sweep over the peopled scenes of the earth with high disdain and aversion, and make his survey of the business and pleasures and studies of man, an occasion for taunts and sarcasms, and the food of an unmeasurable spleen. He is fixed by the genius of the poet in the majestic solitudes of the central Alpswhere from his youth up, he has lived in proud but calm seclusion from the ways of men, conversing only with the magnificent forms and aspects of nature by which he is surrounded, and with the Spirits of the Elements, over whom he has acquired dominion, by the secret and unhallowed studies of Sorcery and Magic. He is averse indeed from mankind, and scorns the low and frivolous nature to which he belongs ; but he cherishes no animosity or hostility to that feeble race. Their concerns excite no interest -their pursuits no sympathy—their joys no envy. It is irksome and vexatious for him to be crossed by them in his melancholy musings,-but he treats them with gentleness and pity; and, except when stung to impatience by too importunate an intrusion, is kind and considerate of the comforts of all around him.
+ Manfred. A Dramatic Poein. By Lord Byron.-Vol. xxviii. p. 4180. Augast, 1817.
This piece is properly entitled a dramatic poem-for it is merely poetical, and is not at all a drama or play, in the modern acceptation of the term. It has no action; no plot-and no characters; Manfred merely muses and suffers from the beginning to the end. His distresses are the same at the opening of the scene and at its closing-and the temper in which they are borne is the same. A hunter and a priest, and some domestics, are indeed introduced; but they have no connection with the passions or sufferings on which the interest depends; and Manfred is substantially alone throughout the whole piece. He holds no communion but with the memory of the being he had loved; and the immortal Spirits whom he evokes to reproach with his misery, and their inability to relieve it. These unearthly beings approach nearer to the character of persons of the drama-but still they are but choral accompaniments to the performance; and Manfred is, in reality, the only actor and sufferer on the scene. To delineate his character, indeed—to render conceivable his feelings—is plainly the whole scope and design of the poem; and the conception and execution are, in this respect, equally admirable. It is a grand and terrific vision of a being invested with superhuman attributes, in order that he may be capable of more than human sufferings, and be sustained under them by more than human force and pride. To object to the improbability of the fiction is, we think, to mistake the end and aim of the author. Probabilities, we apprehend, did not enter at all into his consideration-his object was, to produce effect-to exalt and dilate the character through whom he was to interest or appal us—and to raise our conception of it, by all the helps that could be derived from the majesty of nalure, or the dread of superstition. It is enough, therefore, if the situation in which he has placed him is conceivable-and if the supposition of its reality enhances our emotions and kindles our imagination ;-for it is Manfred only that we are required to fear, to pity, or admire. If we can once conceive of him as a real existence, and enter into the depth and the height of his pride and his sorrows, we may deal as we please with the means that have been used to furnish us with this impression, or to enable us to altain to this conception. We may regard them but as types, or metaphors, or allegories : but he is the thing to be expressed, and the feeling and the intellect of which all these are but shadows.
The events, such as they are, upon which the piece may be said to turn, have all taken place long before its opening, and are but dimly shadowed out in the casual communications of the agonising being to whom they relate. Nobly born, and trained in the castle of his ancestors, he had very soon sequestered himself from the society of men ; and after running through the common circle of human sciences, had dedicated himself to the worship of the wild magnificence of nature, and to those forbidden studies by which he had learned to command its presiding powers. One companion, however, he had, in all his tasks and enjoyments-a female of kindred genius, taste, and capacity-lovely, too, beyond all loveliness : but, as we gather, too nearly related to be lawfully beloved. The catastrophe of their unhappy passions is insinuated in the darkest and most ambiguous terms-all that we make out is, that she died untimely and by violence, on account of this fatal attachment—though not by the act of its object. He killed her, he says, not with his handbut his heart; and her blood was shed, though not by him. From that hour, life is a burden to him, and memory a torture--and the extent of his
power and knowledge serves only to show him the hopelessness and endlessness of his misery.
The piece opens with his evocation of the Spirits of the Elements, from whom he demands the boon of forgetfulness-and questions them as to his own immortality. The scene is in his Gothic tower at midnight-and opens with a soliloquy that reveals at once the state of the speaker, and the genius of the author :
“ The lamp must be replenish'd--but even then
It will not burn so long as I must watch:
When his evocation is completed, a star is seen at the far end of a gallery, and celestial voices are heard reciting a great deal of poetry. After they have answered that the gift of oblivion is not at their disposal, and intimated that death itself could not bestow it on him, they ask if he has any further demand to make of them. He answers
“ No, none : yet stay-one moment, ere we part
I would behold ye face to face. I hear
SPIRIT. We have no forms beyond the elements
MAN. I bave no choice; there is no form on earth
Oh God! if it be thus, and thou
(The figure vanishes.
(MANFRED falls senseless." P. 15, 16. The first scene of this extraordinary performance ends with a long poetical incantation, sung by the invisible spirits over the senseless victim before them. The second shows him in the bright sunshine of morning; on the top of the Jungfrau mountain, meditating self-destruction—and uttering forth in solitude as usual the voice of his habitual despair, and those intermingled feelings of love and admiration for the grand and beautiful objects with which he is environed, that unconsciously win him back to a certain kindly sympathy with human enjoyments.