Sayfadaki görseller


DR. JOHNSON was accustomed to maintain that Pope brought English verse to its utmost possible perfection. He regarded the writers of the Elizabethan period as little better than inspired barbarians. In this respect, he was almost as great a heathen as Voltaire himself, whose opinion of Shakspearef is a much more powerful argument against the character of the critic's own mind, than against the genius of our unrivalled dramatist. The French taste for the smart and artificial in style, introduced into England at the Restoration, lasted much longer than any critic of that day who had a sense of truth and nature, would have at all anticipated. But though truth and nature must at last prevail, it is wonderful for how long a period the influence of fashion may keep them in a state of complete subjection. For a season, and under peculiar circumstances, custom is a second nature, more powerful than the first.

When we look back at the different stages in the progress of English literature, we are struck with the extraordinary similarity of character displayed by contemporary writers. superficial view it would almost seem as if genius itself were produced by accidents and conventionalisms. Why should the poets

At a

* THEALMA AND CLEARCHUS:-A 'Pastoral History, in smooth and easy verse. Written long since by John Chalkhill, Esq., an acquaintant and friend of Edmund Spenser. London: Printed for Benj. Tooke, at the ship in St. Paul's Church-yard, 1683.

+ Johnson forced himself to speak well of Shakspeare in his preface to the Plays, but he had perhaps no real relish for the great Prince of Dramatists. He seems in his heart to have liked Addison's Cuto better than any of Shakspeare's dramas. His own Irene shows his leaning to the artificial and declama. tory style. He speaks of the “barbarity of the age,” in which so many men of might, besides Shakspeare himself, shed a glory upon our literature that has not been equalled in later times.


of the time of Elizabeth and James be a race of giants, and those of Anne comparatively a race of pigmies? In both eras, the poets were equally human beings, and of English origin. In the first mentioned period, there was an extraordinary abundance of all the higher faculties of the mind; in the second, there was an equally extraordinary dearth. The richness and facility of invention, the prodigality of fancy, the profound knowledge of human nature, which the old dramatists displayed, seem to be utterly beyond the reach of the intellects of later times. The former had such an entire sympathy with the world at large, that they could afford to forget their own identity, when pourtraying the minds and passions of other men. Hence the truth and variety of their delineations. But we have since had no writer gifted with that degree of the dramatic faculty which seemed so common an endowment in the time of Shakspeare. Cowper has spoken of a period when

The sacred name
Of Poet and of Prophet was the same;

And there was this two-fold character displayed by our good old poet and prophet, Daniel, when, in his dedication to the tragedy of Philotas, he thus expressed his opinion of the reign of Elizabeth :

And it may be, the genius of that time
Would leave to her the glory in that kind,
And that the utmost powers of English rhyme
Should be within her peaceful reign confined ;
For since that time, our songs could never thrive,
But lain as if forlorn; though in the prime
Of this new raising season, we did strive
To bring the best we could unto the time.

The serious drama in the reign of Anne is, generally speaking, beneath contempt. Even as a work of mere art, without reference to its utter dearth of inspiration, it has very little claim to the respect of criticism. In the present day, through the study of our elder dramatists, to which the nation has been urged by a small class of original-minded critics, some struggles have been made by several popular writers to return to the longdeserted paths of truth and nature. But it is melancholy to remark with what small success. Our poets are almost all mere egotists. They attempt to lift the curtain of the general human heart, and, instead of discovering, as through a transparent glass, the internal movements of other men, they but behold, as in a mirror, their own self-complacent images. Thus, Lord Byron reproduced himself perpetually, not only in his miscellaneous poems, but in all his dramas. He fancied he was looking into a thousand hearts, while he was only looking into one. He dipped his pencil in his own inflamed and feverish blood, and thought every other man's was of the same colour.

No work since the time of Elizabeth may be looked upon as an original draught from nature by the hand of genius, in which the curtain of the human heart is lifted, and the secrets of our inner being are disclosed as by the power of a God. This degree of excellence was reserved exclusively for Shakspeare and his nobly-gifted contemporaries. There were no such miracles before his time, and there have been none since. It is strange that Nature, who is so sparing of the dramatic faculty, should have reserved all England's share of it, for one particular age. Since that period, we have had highly beautiful poems and romances in the dramatic form, but no genuine drama. In modern tragedy we have not a single new creation. The characters have all a hundred prototypes. They are mere outlines, and are the hereditary property of the stage. The interest depends not upon the minute and full development of character, but upon the nature of the incidents. They are like the poems of Scott, that borrow almost all their charm from the story. It is not that the characters in modern plays are absolutely unnatural, but that they are too vague and general. The consequence is that we look more to the development of the plot than to the exhibition of the secret springs of action and of mental or moral idiosyncrasies. Take away from the dramatic writer of the present day his incidents and plots, and you leave him poor indeed; but we do not think so much of what happens to the persons of Shakspeare's drama, as of the nature of their hearts or intellects. Their character and not their fate is most present to our minds. Hamlet is an intensely interesting personage, without any reference whatever to his position ; and equally so is Macbeth, though a being of a directly opposite nature. When we are presented with such full length pictures of humanity as these, so distinct and animated, we receive an impression that can never fade but with life itself. Did any man, woman, or child, that has been introduced to Hamlet or Macbeth or Othello or Lear, ever happen to forget them? But he who wishes to keep up his acquaintance with the personages of the modern drama, must have a strong memory indeed, if he does not find it necessary to refresh it with occasional re-perusals.

They all wear out of us, like forms, with chalk
Painted on rich men's floors, for one feast-night.

We never look in the drama of the day for profound or original delineations of human nature, though it is not to be denied that we often find in it a great deal of elegant poetry, much refined thought and noble feeling, and many striking and pathetic incidents.

It would take up too much space and time on the present occasion, and lead us too far from the main object of this article, to attempt the arduous task of a philosophical explanation of the causes which have operated on the intellectual character of the literature of different periods. Of course, human nature must be always the same, but the development of its energies depends upon an infinite variety of accidents.

All that I now wish to insist upon, is a fact suggested by the curious old volume, the title of which is on the first page of the present paper. It has been asserted by the critics of the artificial school, that we had neither accuracy nor harmony of verse before the time of Waller ; and that Pope brought our versification to a. state of excellence, which it would be impossible to surpass. Now, if we even put aside all reference to the elder dramatists, and confine ourselves to the miscellaneous poets, it might easily be shown (unless one unvaried tone be harmony) that Waller and Pope were greatly inferior, as mere versifiers, to the author of the Fairy Queen, and perhaps even his obscure“ acquaintant and friend,” John Chalkhill. We might, if necessary, go so far back as old Chaucer, whose verse, when rightly read, has a fluency, a sweetness, and a variety of modulation, that put to shame the sing-song of the French school

“ That creaking lyre,

That whetstone of the teeth, monotony in wire." Mr. Tyrwhitt has shown that Chaucer's versification, whenever his genuine text is preserved, was uniformly correct, although the harmony of his lines has, in many instances, been lost by the changes that have taken place in the mode of accenting our language. Chaucer was the inventor of the ten syllable or heroic verse to which Pope was so partial, and of which its original inventor left specimens, that Dryden despaired of improving.

That a very favourable change has come over the spirit of our poetical literature since the time of Anne, must be sufficiently obvious to the most casual observer ; and that this change is to be attributed partly to the weariness and disgust occasioned by the vast flocks of rhyming parrots, who have given us perpetual repetitions of the easily echoed verse of Pope, and partly to the attention that has been recalled to our elder writers, will hardly be disputed : but it is perhaps not so generally understood that many even of our miscellaneous poets, who pretend to originality of style, have

« ÖncekiDevam »