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Volsces in Corioli.
Thus sends their mighty chief to mourn in hell!”
Who does not now appreciate the sad lot of Shakespearso feelingly bewailed by Mr. Dennis—that he had not a critic, of the age of King William, by his side, to refine his stile and elevate his conceptions ?
It is edifying to observe, how the canons of Mr. Dennis's criticism, which he regarded as the imperishable laws of genius, are now either exploded, or considered as matters of subordinate importance, wholly unaffecting the inward soul of poetry. No one now regards the merits of an Epic poem, as decided by the subservience of the fable and the action to the moral—by the presence or the absence of an allegory—by the fortunate or unfortunate fate of the hero-or by any other rules of artificial decorum, which the critics of former times thought fit to inculcate. We learn, from their essays, whether the works which they examine are constructed, in externals, according to certain fantastic rules ; but, whether they are frigid or impassioned, harmonious or prosaic, filled with glorious imaginations, or replete with low common-places ;-whether, in short, they are works of genius or of mere toil-are questions entirely beneath their con
The critique on the tragedy of Cato, ingenious and just as it is, omits one material objection to that celebrated piecethat it is good for nothing, and would be so if all the faults selected for censure could be, in an instant, corrected. There is a French essay on Telemachus, framed on the same superficial principles of criticism, which, after a minute examination of the moral, fable, characters, allegory, and other like requisites of excellence, triumphantly proves its claim to be ranked with, if not above, the great poems of Homer and of Virgil. Mr. Dennis seems, in general, to have applied the rules of criticism, extant in his day, to the compositions on which he passed judgment; but there was one position respecting which his contemporaries were not agreed, and on which he combated with the spirit of a martyr. This disputed point, the necessity of observing poetical justice in works of fiction, we shall briefly examine, because we think that it involves one of those mistakes in humanity, which it is always desirable to expose. But first we must, in fairness, lay one of our author's many arguments, on this subject, before our readers.
“ The principal character of an epick poem must be either morally good or morally vicious ; if he is morally good, the making him end unfortunately will destroy all poetical justice, and, consequently, all instruction : such a poem can have no moral, and, consequently, no fable, no just and regular poetical action, but must be a vain fiction and an empty amusement. Oh, but there is a retribution in futurity! But I thought that the reader of an epick poem was to owe his instruction to the poet, and not to himself: well then, the poet may tell him so at the latter end of his poem : ay, would to God I could see such a latter end of an epick poem, where the poet should tell the reader, that he has cut an honest man's throat, only that he may
have an opportunity to send him to heaven; and that, tho’ this would be but an indifferent plea upon an indictment for murder at the Old Baily, yet that he hopes the good-natur'd reader will have compassion on him, as the gods have on his hero. But raillery apart, sir, what occasion is there for having recourse to an epick poet to tell ourselves by the bye, and by occasional reflection, that there will be a retribution in futurity, when the Christian has this in his heart constantly and directly, and the Atheist and Free-thinker will make no such reflection ? Tell me truly, sir, would not such a poet appear to you or me, not to have sufficiently consider'd what a poetical moral is? And should not you or I, sir, be oblig'd, in order to make him comprehend the nature of it, to lay before him that universal moral, which is the foundation of all morals, both epick and dramatick, and is inclusive of them all, and that is, That he who does good, and perseveres in it, shall always be rewarded; and he who does ill, and perseveres in it, shall always be punish'd ? Should we not desire him to observe, that the foresaid reward must always attend and crown good actions, not sometimes only, for then it would follow, that sometimes a perseverance in good actions has no reward, which would take away all poetical instruction, and, indeed, every sort of moral instruction, resolving Providence into chance or fate. Should we not, sir, farther put him in mind, that since whoever perseveres in good actions, is sure to be rewarded at the last, it follows, that a poet does not assert by his moral, that he is always sure to be rewarded in this world, because that would be false, as you
very justly observ’d, p. 60; and, therefore, never can be the moral of an epick poem, because what is false may delude, but only truth can instruct. Should we not let him know, sir, that this universal moral only teaches us, that whoever perseveres in good actions, shall be always sure to be rewarded either here or hereafter; and that the truth of this moral is prov'd by the poet, by making the principal character of his poem, like all the rest of his characters, and like the poetical action, at the bottom, universal and allegorical, even after distinguishing it by a particular name, by making this principal character at the bottom, a meer poetical phantom of a very short duration, thro' the whole extent of which duration we can see at once, which continues no longer than the reading of the poem, and that being over, the phantom is to us no
ing, so that unless our sense is satisfy'd of the reward that is given to this poetical phantome, whose whole duration we see thro’ from the very beginning to the end; instead of a wholsome moral, there would
be a pernicious instruction, viz. That a man may persevere in good actions, and not be rewarded for it thro' the whole extent of his duration, that is, neither in this world nor in the world to come.”
be sufficient to answer to all this and to much more of the same kind which our author has adduced--that little good can be attained by representations which are perpetually at variance with our ordinary perceptions. The poet may represent humanity as mightier and fairer than it appears to a common observer. In the mirror which he holds
to nature,” the forms of might and of beauty may look more august, more lovely, or more harmonious, than they appear, in the “ light of
common day,” to eyes which are ungifted with poetic vision. But if the world of imagination is directly opposed to that of reality, it will become a cold abstraction, a baseless dream, a splendid mockery. We shall strive in vain to make men sympathise with beings of a sphere purely ideal, where might shall be always right, and virtue its own present as well as exceeding great reward. Happily, the exhibition is as needless for any moral purposes, as it would be inadequate to attain them. Though the poet cannot make us witnesses of the future recompense of that virtue, which here struggles and suffers, he can cause us to feel, in the midst of its very struggles and sufferings, that it is eternal. He makes the principle of immortality manifest in the meek submission, in the deadly wrestle with fate, and even in the mortal agonies of his noblest characters. What, in true dignity, does virtue lose, by the pangs which its clay tenement endures, if we are made conscious of its high prerogatives, though we do not visibly gaze on the immunities which shall ultimately be its portion? Hereafter it may be rewarded, but now it is triumphant. We require no dull epilogue to tell us, that it shall be crowned in another and happier state of being; for our souls gush with admiration and sympathy with it, amidst its sorrows. We love it, and burn to imitate it, for its own loveliness, not for its gains. Surely it is a higher aim of the poet to awaken this emotion—to inspire us with the awe of goodness, amidst its deepest external debasements, and to make us almost desire to share in them, than to invite us to partake in her rewards, and to win us by a calculating sympathy. The hovel or the dungeon does not, in the pictures of a genuine poet, give the coloring to the soul which inhabits it, but receives from its majesty a consecration beyond that of temples, and a dignity more exalted than that of palaces. For it is his high prerogative to exhibit the spiritual part of man triumphant over that about him, which is mortal—to shew, in his far-reaching hope, his moveless constancy, his deep and disinterested affections, his enthusiasm which no disappointment can quench, that
there is a spirit within him, which time and death can never destroy. Low and wretched is the morality-still weaker and more despicable the imaginative power—which aspires to affect men by nothing beyond the poor and childish lesson, that to be virtuous is to be happy. Virtue is no dependant on earthly expediencies for its excellence. It has a beauty to be loved, as vice has a deformity to be abhorred, which are unaffected by the consequences experienced by their votaries. Do we admire the triumph of vice, and scoff at goodness, when we think on the divine Clarissa, violated, imprisoned, heart-broken, or dying ? Must Parson Adams receive a mitre, to direct us that we should love him? Our best feelings and highest aspirations are not yet of so mercantile a cast, as those who contend for
poetical justice” would imagine. The mere result, in respect of our sympathies, is as nothing. The only real violation of poetical justice is in the violation of nature, to array vice in attractive qualities, which excite an interest in its favour, whatever may be its destiny. When, for example, a wretch, whose trade is murder, is represented as cherishing the purest and the deepest love for an innocent being--when chivalrous delicacy of sentiment is conferred on a pirate, tainted with a thousand crimesthe effect is immoral, whatever doom may, at last, await him. If the barriers of virtue and of evil are melted down by the current of spurious sympathy, there is no catastrophe which can remove the mischief; and, while these are preserved in our feelings, there is none which can truly harm us. Virtue makes even the deeper impression when it is afflicted.
- The best of men, that e'er wore earth about him, was a sufferer.” In viewing images of greatness and of anguish, our hearts are, at once, elevated and softened—they feel intensely the immortality of their now suffering nature, and the stability of its noblest principles
" and all the crooked paths
The critics of the age of Dennis held, in their claims, a middle course between their predecessors of old time, and their living successors. The men who first exercised the art of criticism, imbued with a deep veneration for the loftiest works of genius, sought to deduce rules from them, which future poets should observe. They did not assume the right of passing individual judgments on their contemporaries--nor did they aim at deciding even abstract questions of taste on their own personal authority—but attempted, by fixing the laws of composition, to mark out the legitimate channels in which the streams of thought, passion, and sentiment, should be bounded throngh all ages. Their dogmas, therefore, whether they contained more or less of truth, carried with them no extrinsic weight, were influenced by no personal feelings, excited no personal animosities, but simply appealed, like poetry itself, to those minds which alone could give them sanction. In the first critical days of England-those of the Rymers and the Dennises—the professors of the art began to regard themselves as judges, not merely of the principles of poetry, but of their application by living authors. Then commenced the arrogance on the side of the supervisors, and the impatience and resentment on that of their subjects, which contemporary criticism necessarily inspires. The worst passions of man were brought into exercise in reference to those pure and ennobling themes, which should be sacred from all low contentions of “ the ignorant present time." the battle was, at least, fair and open. The critic still appealed to principles, however fallacious or imperfect, which all the world might examine. His decrees had no weight, independent of his reasons, nor was his name, or his want of one, esteemed of magical virtue. He attacked the poets on equal termssometimes, indeed, with the poisoned weapons of derision and personal slander-but always as a foe to subdue, not as a judge to pass sentence on them. Criticism, in our own times, has first assumed the air of “ sovereign sway and masterdom” over the regions of fantasy. Its professors enforce not established laws, contend no longer for principles, attack poets no more with chivalrous zeal, as violating the cause of poetic morals, or sinning against the regularities of their art. They pronounce the works, of which they take cognizance, to be good or badoften without professing to give any reason for their decisionor referring to any standard, more fixed or definite than their own taste, partiality, or prejudice. And the public, without any knowledge of their fitness for their office_without even knowing their names-receive them as the censors of literature, the privileged inspectors of genius! This strange supremacy of criticism, in our own age, gives interest to the investigation of the claims, which the art itself possesses to the respect and gratitude of the people. If it is on the whole beneficial to the world, it must either be essential to the awakening of geniusor necessary to direct its exertions or useful in repressing abortive and mistaken efforts—or conducive to the keeping alive and fitly guiding public admiration and sympathy with the poet's noblest and holiest creations. On each of these grounds, we shall now very briefly examine its value.