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Closely connected with this difficulty there was another over which Racine triumphed no less completely, and which proved equally fatal to his successors. Hitherto we have been discussing the purely dramatic aspect of classical tragedy; we must not forget that this drama was also literary. The problem that Racine had to solve was complicated by the fact that he was working, not only with a restricted dramatic system, but with a restricted language. His vocabulary was an incredibly small one the smallest, beyond a doubt, that ever a great poet had to deal with. But that was not all: the machinery of his verse was hampered by a thousand traditional restraints; artificial rules of every kind hedged round his inspiration; if he were to soar at all, he must soar in shackles. Yet, , even here, Racine succeeded: he did soarthough it is difficult at first for the English reader to believe it. And here precisely similar considerations apply, as in the case of Racine's dramatic method. In both instances the English reader is looking for variety, surprise, elaboration; and when he is given, instead, simplicity, clarity, ease, he is apt to see nothing but insipidity and flatness. Racine's poetry differs as much from Shakespeare's as some calm-flowing river of the plain from a turbulent mountain torrent. To the dwellers in the mountain the smooth river may seem at first unimpressive. But still waters run deep; and the proverb applies with peculiar truth to the poetry of Racine. Those ordinary words, that simple construction—what can there be there to deserve our admiration? On the surface, very little no doubt; but if we plunge below the surface we shall find a great profundity and a singular strength. Racine is in reality a writer of extreme force but it is a force of absolute directness that he wields. He uses the commonest words, and phrases which are almost colloquial; but every word, every phrase, goes straight to its mark, and the impression produced is ineffaceable. In English literature there is very little of such writing. When an English poet wishes to be forceful he almost invariably flies to the gigantic, the unexpected, and the out-of-the-way; he searches for strange metaphors and extraordinary constructions; he surprises us with curious mysteries and imaginations we have never dreamed of before. Now and then, however, even in English literature, instances arise of the opposite the Racinesquemethod. In these lines of Wordsworth, for example
“The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills”— there is no violent appeal, nothing surprising, nothing odd-only a direct and inevitable beauty; and such is the kind of effect which Racine is constantly producing. If he wishes to suggest the emptiness, the darkness, and the ominous hush of a night by the seashore, he does so not by strange similes or the accumulation of complicated details, but in a few ordinary, almost insignificant words
“Mais tout dort, et l'armée, et les vents, et
If he wishes to bring before the mind the terrors of nightmare, a single phrase can conjure them up “C'était pendant l'horreur d'une profonde
By the same simple methods his art can describe the wonderful and perfect beauty of innocence
“Le jour n'est pas plus pur que le fonds de
and the furies of insensate passion
“C'est Vénus toute entière à sa proie at
But the flavour of poetry vanishes in quotation-and particularly Racine's, which depends to an unusual extent on its dramatic surroundings, and on the atmosphere that it creates. He who wishes to appreciate it to the full must steep himself in it deep and long. He will be rewarded. In spite of a formal and unfamiliar style, in spite of a limited vocabulary, a conventional versification, an unvaried and uncoloured form of expression-in spite of all these things—(one is almost inclined, under the spell of Racine's enchantment, to say because of them he will find a new beauty and a new splendour—a subtle and abiding grace.
But Racine's extraordinary powers as a writer become still more obvious when we consider that besides being a great poet he is also a great psychologist. The combination is extremely rare in literature, and in Racine's case it is especially remarkable owing to the smallness of the linguistic resources at his disposal and the rigid nature of the conventions in which he worked. That he should have succeeded in infusing into his tiny commonplace vocabulary, arranged in rhymed couplets according to the strictest and most artificial rules, not only the beauty of true poetry, but the varied subtleties of character and passion, is one of those miracles of art which defy analysis. Through the flowing regularity of his Alexandrines his personages stand out distinct and palpable, in all the vigour of life. The presentment, it is true, is not a detailed one; the accidents of character are not shown us-only its essentials; the human spirit comes before us shorn of its particulars, naked and intense. Nor is it-as might, perhaps, have been expected-in the portrayal of intellectual characters that Racine particularly excels; it is in the portrayal of passionate ones. His supreme mastery is over the human heart—the subtleties, the profundities, the agonies, the triumphs, of love. His gallery of lovers is a long one, and the greatest portraits in it are of women. There is the jealous, terrific Hermione; the delicate, melancholy Junie; the noble, exquisite, and fascinating Bérénice; there is Roxane with her voluptuous ruthlessness, and Monime with her purity and her courage; and there is the dark, incomparable splendour of Phèdre.