Sivut kuvina

spot, as in the Wiad; or that the hero voyages from sea to sea, as in the Odyssey; whether he be furious like Achilles, or pious like Eneas; whether the action pass on land or sea; on the coast of Africa, as in the Luziada of Camoens; in America, as in the Araucana of Alonzo d'Ercilla; in heaven, in hell, beyond the limits of our world, as in the Paradise Lost; all these circumstances are of no consequence, the poem will be for ever an epic poem, an heroic poem ; at least till another new title be found proportioned to its merit. “ If you scruple (says Addison) to give the title of an Epic Poem to the Paradise Lost of Milton, call it, if you choose, a Divine Poem; give it whatever name you please, provided you confess, that it is a work as admirable in its kind as the Iliad.”

It has become a fashionable attempt of late, to censure and decry an obedience to the rules laid down by ancient Critics ; while one party, loudly and frequently exclaim,

Vos exemplaria Græca

Nocturnà versate manu, versate diurnâ ; Another, instantly answers,

O imitatores servum pecus ! One of the ablest defenders of literary liberty expresses himself

thus :

" From the time of Homer, epic poetry became an artificial composition, whose rules were, in reality, drawn from the practice of the Grecian Bard, rather than from the principles of nature. Lyric and dramatic poetry were in like manner fixed, though at a later period, by Grecian models ; so that the Roman writers of similar performances could not be said to bring any thing of their own to their works. The same shackles of imitation have hung upon the poetry of modern Europe ; whence a fair comparison of the powers and genius of different periods is rendered scarcely practicable. The leading species of poetry, like the orders of architecture, have come down to us subject to certain proportions, and requiring certain ornamental accompaniments, which perhaps, have had no foundation whatever, but the casual practice of the earliest masters; nay, possibly, the whole existence of some of the species has had the same accidental origin.

Meantime the veneration for the ancients has been raised to the highest pitch by this perpetual reference to them as models; and it has been concluded, that works which have engaged the study, and called forth the imitation of so many succeeding ages,

must possess a superior degree of excellence. But after all, their reputation may have been much more owing to accident than is commonly supposed. That the Grecian poets, continually recording the deeds of their countrynlen, and offering incense to the national vanity, should have been held in high esteem at home, was natural. That the Romans, receiving all their literature from Greece, should adopt its principles and prejudices, was also to be expected. But that they should transmit them to so large a portion of the civilized world, and this, not only during the period of their domination, but to new races of men, so many centuries after the downfall of their empire, must be reckoned accident, as far as any thing in human affairs can be called accidental. Had not the Christian religion established a kind of second Roman empire, even more capable of swaying the opinions of mankind than the first, it is highly improbable that we should at this day have been commenting upon the classical writers of Greece and Rome. It is indeed astonishing to reflect, by what a strange concatenation of cause and effect, the youth of Christian Europe should be instructed in the fables of Greek and Latin mythology, which were fallen into contempt even before Rome ceased to be heathen.

“ It certainly has not been on account of their wisdom and beauty that they have survived the wreck of so many better things. They have been embalmed in the languages which contained them, and which, by becoming likewise the depositaries of Christian doctrine, have been rendered sacred languages.”

To this sort of reasoning, the imitators of the Ancients, by way

answer, must say, that all they mean in adhering to rules, is to adopt, “ that method of treating any subject, that may render it most interesting to a reader.” This, for instance, was the reason why Aristotle gives the preference to those Tragedies, where there is a discovery and peripetic. And hence, they will say, the Edipus of Sophocles is as perfect a model of dramatic, as the Medicean Venus is of female beauty. The learned and ingenious translator of Aristotle's Treatise on Poetry, is of a different opinion. “ When we speak (says he) of the Greek tragedies, as perfect and correct models, we seem merely to conform to the established language of prejudice, and content ourselves with echoing without reflection or examination, what has been said before us. I should be sorry to be ranked in the class of those critics, who prefer that poetry which has the fewest faults, to that which has the greatest beauties. I


mean only to combat that conventional and hearsay kind of praise, which has so often held out the tragedies of the Greek poets, as elaborate and perfect models, such as had received the last polish of art and meditation. The true praise of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, is (in kind at least, if not in degree,) the praise of Shakespear; that of strong, but irregular, unequal, and hasty genius. Every thing which this genius, and the feeling of the moment would produce, in an early period of the art, before time and long experience, and criticism, had cultivated and refined it, these writers possess in great abundance; what meditation, and the labour and delay of the file only can effect, they too often want ; of Shakespear however, compared with the Greek Poets, it may justly I think be pronounced, that he has much more both of this want, and of that abundance."-Twining's Aristotle, p. 207.

In no polished nation, after criticism has been much studied, and the rules of writing established, has any very extraordinary work appeared. This has visibly been the case in Greece, in Rome, and in France ; after Aristotle, Horace, and Boileau, had written their Arts of Poetry. In our own country the rules of the drama, for instance, were never more completely understood than at present; yet what uninteresting, though faultless, tragedies have we lately seen? So much better is our judgment than our execution. How to account for the fact here mentioned, adequately and justly, would be attended with all those difficulties that await discussions relative to the productions of the human mind; and to the delicate and secret causes that influence them. Whether or no, the natural powers be not confined and debilitated by that timidity and caution which is occasioned by a rigid regard to the dictates of art ? or whether that philosophical, that geometrical, and systematical spirit so much in vogue, which has spread itself from the sciences even into polite literature, by consulting only reason, has not diminished and destroyed sentiment; and made our poets write from and to the head, rather than the heart? or whether, lastly, when just models, from which the rules have necessarily been drawn, have once appeared, succeeding writers, by vainly and ambitiously striving to surpass those just models, and to shine and surprise, do not become stiff, and forced and affected, in their thoughts and diction?

It is not improper to observe what great improvements the Art of Criticism has received since this Essay was written. For without recurring to pieces of earlier date, and nearer the time in which it was written; namely, the Essays in the Spectator and Guardian ; Shaftesbury's Advice to an Author ; Spence on the Odyssey; Fenton on Waller; Blackwell's Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer : even of late years, we have had the Treatises of Harris; Hurd's Remarks on Horace; Observations on the Fairy Queen ; Webb on Poetry and Music ; Brown's Dissertation on the same; the Dissertations of Beattie; the Elements of Criticism of Kaims; the Lectures of Blair ; the editions of Milton, by Newton and Warton ; and of Shakespear and Spenser, by Malone, Stevens, and Upton; the History of English Poetry; the critical papers of the Rambler, Adventurer, World, and Connoisseur; and The Lives of the Poets, by Johnson ; the Biographia Britannica ; and the Poetics of Aristotle, translated, and accompanied with judicious notes, by Twining and Pye; and the translation, with notes, of Horace's Art of Poetry, by Hurd and Colman; and the Epistles of Hayley.


Dr. Warton's observation that few poetical pieces of high merit have appeared, after criticism has been studied, and the rules of writing established, is undoubtedly just; but there is nothing very extraordinary in the circumstance. As the wildest countries are by nature more picturesque, the rude banks, the aged forests, and unsubdued scenery of the Mississippi, more romantic than the course of the Thames through its domain of elegant cultivation ; so in Poetry, those ages that are comparatively rude and simple, in which the language is figurative, the traditions wild, the cast of manners original, or tinctured with ideas of superstition, chivalry, and romance, are most favourable to works of fancy.

When we consider the works of genius which imply great art and design in the structure, such as Epic Poems and Tragedies, we shall find in general that the time most favourable to their production, is when civilization has advanced beyond the limits of simplicity and rudeness, but still is marked with energy, originality, and native vigour. This period is peculiarly friendly to works of high yet cultivated imagination. Criticism implies an age of reason and refinement, when Imagination is subdued to Truth. This is as it should be, for Poetry is certainly secondary to Truth, and we cannot have from the same tree, at the same time, blossoms and

fruits. It often however happens, that an age becomes too refined either for Poetry or Truth, and we know extravagunt Philosophy is much more dangerous than romantic Poetry; it is for this reason that the mind often flies from vain and visionary systems of licentious philosophy, to repose upon the ideas of virtue, the dignified consolations, the enchanting pictures, or the pathetic incidents which the Muse presents.


From the foregoing opinions of the preceding editors, I must be allowed to express my intire dissent. I can neither admit that an acquaintance with the laws of criticism is injurious to the efforts of genius, nor that few poetical pieces of high merit have appeared since such laws were established. Are the powers of the human mind debilitated, or restrained, by an attention to such rules as are insisted on in the foregoing Essay, which chiefly consist in recommending an adherence to nature, simplicity, and truth? or were the works which Pope himself produced, after he had so deeply studied the laws of poetical composition, less distinguished by genius and imagination than those of his earlier years? Yet if the observations of these critics were just, this Essay, instead of advancing, would retard the progress of the art; instead of directing the flight of genius, would only be a clog attached to his heel.

More than two thousand years have elapsed since “criticism has been studied," and the laws of poetic composition laid down almost as explicitly as at the present day. Have “ few poetical pieces of high merit” appeared in this interval ? or have not our greatest works been produced by those who were the best acquainted with those rules? Were not Virgil, and Horace, and Tasso, and Boileau, and Milton, and Dryden, and Pope, eminently distinguished by their intimate knowledge of the rules of art, as laid down by the ancients? And will it be contended that such knowledge has restricted their powers and deteriorated their works? Are the former editors of Pope really of opinion that their own unremitting labours, in inculcating from his writings the laws of just composition, are not only useless, but injurious ? and that the more that is known of an art, the less likely it is to arrive at excellence ?

Nor does there seem to be any justice or propriety in the idea that poetry is peculiar to a wild and picturesque country, or to rude and simple ages. On the contrary, all the works which have sur

« EdellinenJatka »