« PreviousContinue »
critic, who professes himself an admirer of the tragedies of Corneille, object to the barbarism of Shakspeare's. There never was a more barbarous mode of writing than that of the French romances in the last age, nor which, from its tediousness, languor, and want of truth of character, is less fit to be copied on the stage: and what are most parts of Corneille's boasted tragedies, but the romantic dialogue, its tedious soliloquy, and its extravagant sentiments, in the true Gothic livery of rhyme ?
The French poets assume a superiority over Shakspeare, on account of their more constant adherence to Aristotle's unities of time and . place.
The pedant who bought at a great price the lamp of a famous philosopher, expecting that by its assistance his lucubrations would become equally celebrated, was little more absurd' than those poets, who suppose their dramas must be excellent, if they are regulated by Aristotle's clock. To bring within a limited time, and an
assigned space, a series of conversations (and French plays are little more) is no difficult matter ; for of every art perhaps, and in poetry without dispute, that is the easiest part in which the connoisseur can direct the artist.
I do not suppose the critic imagined that a mere obedience to his laws of drama would make a good tragedy, though it might prevent a poet more bold than judicious, from writing a very absurd one. A painter can define the just proportion of the human body, and the anatomist knows what muscles constitute the strength of the limbs; but grace of motion, and exertion of strength, depend on the mind, which animates the form. The critic but fashions the body of a work; the poet must add the soul, which gives force and direction to its actions and gestures : when one of these critics has attempted to finish a work by his own rules, he has rarely been able to convey into it one spark of divine fire; and the hero of his piece, whom he designed for a man, remains a cold inanimate statue; which, moving on the wood and wire 3
of the great masters in the mechanical part of the drama, presents to the spectators a kind of heroic puppet-show.. As these pieces take their rise in the school of criticism, they return thither again, and are as good subjects for the students in that art, as a dead body to the professors in anatomy. Most minutely too have they been anatomized in learned academies : but works, animated by genius, will not abide this kind of dissection
Mr. Pope says, that, in order to form a judgment of Shakspeare's works, we are not to apply to the rules of Aristotle, which would be like trying a man by the laws of one country, who lived under those of another. Heaven-born genius acts from something superior to rules, and antecedent to rules; and has a right of appeal to nature herself.
Great indulgence is due to the errors of original writers, who, quitting the beaten track which others have travelled, make daring incursions into unexplored regions of invention, and b 2
boldly strike into the pathless Sublime: it is no wonder if they are often bewildered, sometimes benighted: yet surely it is more eligible to partake the pleasure and the hazard of their adventures, than still to follow the cautious steps of timid imitators through trite and common roads. Genius is of a bold enterprizing na-, ture, ill adapted to the formal restraints of critic institutions, or indeed to lay down to itself rules of nice discretion. If perfect and faultless composition is ever to be expected from human faculties, it must be at some happy period, when a noble and graceful simplicity, the result of well regulated and sober magnanimity, reigns through the general manners.
Then the Muses and the Arts, neither effeminately delicate, nor audaciously bold, assume their highest character, and in all their compositions seem to respect the chastity of the public taste, which would equally disdain quaintness of ornament, or the rude neglect of elegance and decorum. Such periods had Greece, had Rome! Then were produced immortal works of every kind! But when the living manners degenerated, in vain did an 2
Aristotle and a Quintilian endeavour to restore by doctrine, what had been inspired by sentiment, and fashioned by manners.
If the severer muses, whose sphere is the library and the senate, are obliged, in complaisance to this degeneracy, to trick themselves out with meretricious and frivolous ornaments, as is too apparent from the compositions of the bistorians and orators in declining empires ; can we wonder that a dramatic poet, whose chief interest it is to please the people, should, more than any
other writer, conform himself to their humour; and appear more strongly infected with the faults of the times, whether they be such as belong to unpolished, or corrupted taste?
Shakspeare wrote at a time, when learning was tinctured with pedantry; wit was unpolished; and mirth ill-bred. The court of Elizabeth spoke a scientific jargon, and a certain obscurity of style was universally affected. James brought an addition of pedantry, accompanied