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AUGUSTUS W. VON SCHLEGEL'S
ON THE DRAMATIC ART AND LITERATURE OF THE ANCIENT
GREEKS AND ROMANS.
TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN.
The Lectures, from which the following selection has been made for the purposes of this Work, are upon the Dramatic Art and Literature of the Ancients and Moderns. They were originally delivered to a mixed auditory at Vienna, in the year 1808, and published in 1809, with a second edition in 1816. Although the Author has not since their first delivery made any alteration with a view of bringing them up to the standard of discoveries subsequently made in the field of the Ancient Drama by professed philologists, (to which discoveries indeed these very Lectures contributed some impulse,) and therefore some of his statements require to be modified, as the reader will see in the original portion of the Work now in his hands, yet, so far as the Translator of these pages is aware, this popular and perspicuous history and critique has not been superseded by any work of similar plan and extent.
In this Edition ? the First and Second Lectures have been added, almost entire, to the Selection, and the whole translation has been carefully revised. FIRST LECTURE.
1 That of 1836.
Modern and Ancient Taste, how contrasted. Both to be fairly recognized. Classical and Romantic Poetry, how based on the collective mental Culture of the Ancient and Modern World. * * * Preliminary exposition of the fundamental Ideas, dramatic, theatrical : tragic, comic. Cursory Survey of the Drama in different Ages and Countries of the World. * *
* * * * * It is well known that about three and a half centuries
the study of ancient literature was revived by the diffusion of the Greek language (the Latin never became extinct): the classical authors were brought to light and rendered universally accessible by the art of printing; the monuments of ancient genius were diligently disinterred. All this supplied manifold excitements to the human mind, and formed a marked epoch in the history of our mental culture; it was fertile in effects, which extend even to us, and will extend to an incalculable series of ages. But at the same time the study of the ancients was perverted to a deadly abuse. The learned, who were chiefly in possession of it, and were incompetent to distinguish themselves by works of their own, asserted for the ancients an unconditional authority; in fact with great show of reason, for in their kind they are models. They maintained, that only from imitation of the ancient writers is true salvation for human genius to be hoped for; in the works of the moderns they appreciated only what was, or seemed to be, similar to those of the ancients; all else they rejected as barbarous degeneracy. Quite otherwise was it with the great poets and artists. Lively as might be the enthusiasm with which the ancients inspired them, much as they might entertain the design of vying with them, still their independence and originality of mind constrained them to strike out into their own path, and to impress upon their productions the stamp of their own genius. Thus fared it, even before that revival, with Dante, the father of modern poetry : he avouched that he took Virgil as his teacher, but produced a work which, of all mentionable works, most differs in its make from the Æneid, and in our opinion very far surpassed his fancied master, in power, truth, compass, and profoundness. So was it likewise, at a later period, with Ariosto, who has perversely been compared with Homer: nothing can be more unlike. So, in art, with Michel-Angelo and Raphael, who nevertheless were unquestionably great connoissieurs in the antiques. As the poets for the most part had their share of scholarship, the consequence was a schism in their own minds, between the natural bent of their genius, and the obligation of an imaginary duty. Where they sacrificed to the latter, they were commended by the learned : so far as they followed the bent of the former, they were favourites with the people. That the heroic lays of a Tasso and a Camoens still survive on the lips of their fellow-countrymen is assuredly not owing to their imperfect affinity with Virgil, or even with Homer; in Tasso it is the tender feeling of chivalrous love and honour, in Camoens the glowing inspiration of patriotic enthusiasm.
Those ages, nations, and ranks, which found the imitation of the ancients most to their liking, were precisely such as least felt the want of a self-formed poetry. The result was dead school-exercises, which at best can excite but a frigid admiration. Bare imitation in the fine arts is always fruitless of good: even what we borrow from others must, as it were, be born again within us, if ever it is to issue forth in the nature of poetry. What avails the dilettantism of composing with other people's ideas? Art cannot subsist without Nature, and man can give his fellow-men nothing but himself.
Genuine successors of the ancients and true co-rivals with them, walking in their path and working in their spirit by virtue of congenial talents and cultivation of mind, have ever been as rare as your handicraftsmanlike insipid copyists were and are numerous. The critics, bribed to their verdict by the mere extrinsicality of form, have for the most part very liberally sanctioned even these serviles. These were correct modern classics," while the great and truly living popular poets, whom a nation, having once got them, would not consent to part with, and in whom moreover there were so many sublime traits that
could not be overlooked, these they were fain at most to tolerate as rude wild geniuses. But the unconditional separation thus taken for granted between genius and taste is an idle evasion. Genius is neither more nor less than the faculty of electing, unconsciously in some measure, whatever is most excellent, and therefore is taste in its highest activity.
Pretty much in this way matters proceeded, until, no long time since, some thinking men, especially Germans, set themselves to adjust the misunderstanding; and at once to give the ancients their due, and yet fairly recognize the altogether different peculiarity of the moderns. They did not take fright at a seeming contradiction. Human nature is indeed in its basis one and indivisible, but all investigation declares that this cannot be predicated in such a sense concerning any one elementary power in all nature, as to exclude a possibility of divergence into two opposite directions. The whole play of vital motion rests upon attraction and repulsion. Why should not this phenomenon recur on the great scale in the history of mankind likewise ? Perhaps in this thought we have discovered the true key to the ancient and modern history of poetry and the fine arts. They who assumed this, invented for the characteristic spirit of modern art, as contrasted to the antique or classical, the designation romantic. And not an inappropriate term either : the word is derived from romance, the name originally given to the popular languages which formed themselves by intermixture of the Latin with the dialects of the Old-German, in just the same way as modern culture was fused out of the foreign elements of the northern national character and the fragments of antiquity, whereas the culture of the ancients was much more of one piece.
This hypothesis, thus briefly indicated, would carry with it a high degree of self-evidence, could it be shown that the self-same contrast between the endeavour of the ancients and moderns does symmetrically, I might say systematically, pervade all the manifestations of the artistic and poetic faculty, so far as we are acquainted with the phases of ancient mind : that it reveals itself in music, sculpture, painting, architecture, &c. the same as in poetry : a problem which still remains to be worked out in its entire extent and compass, though much has been excellently well remarked and indicated in respect of the individual arts.
To mention authors who have written in other parts of