« PreviousContinue »
As the genius of Shakspeare, through the whole extent of the Poet's province, is the object of our enquiry, we should do him great injustice, if we did not attend to his peculiar felicity in those fictions and inventions, from which Poetry derives its highest distinction, and from whence it first assumed its pretensions to divine inspiration, and appeared the associate of Religion.
The ancient poet was admitted into the synod of the gods · he discoursed of their natures, he repeated their counsels, and, without the charge of impiety or presumption, disclosed their dissensions, and published their vices; He peopled the woods with
nymphs, nymphs, the rivers with deities; and, that he might still have some being within call to his assistance, he placed responsive echo in the vacant regions of air.
In the infant ages of the world, the credulity of ignorance greedily received every marvellous tale: but, as mankind increased in knowledge, and a long series of traditions had established a certain mythology and history, the poet was no longer permitted to range, uncontrolled, through the boundless dominions of fancy, but became restrained, in some measure, to things believed, or known.---Though the duty of Poetry to please and to surprize still subsisted, the means varied with the state of the world, and it soon grew necessary to make the new inventions lean on the old traditions.--The human mind delights in novelty, and is captivated by the marvellous, but, even in fable itself, requires the credible.--The poet, who can give to splendid inventions, and to fictions new and bold, the air and authority of reality and truth, is master of the genuine sources of the Castalian spring, and may justly be said to draw his inspiration from the well-head of pure poesy.
Shakspeare saw how useful the popular superstitions had been to the ancient poets: he felt that they were necessary to poetry itself. We need only read some modern French heroic poems, to be convinced how poorly epic poetry subsists on the pure elements of history and philosophy.-Tasso, though he had a subject so popular, at the time he wrote, as the deliverance of Jerusalem, was obliged to employ the operations of magic, and the interposition of angels and dæmons, to give the marvellous, the sublime, and, I may add, that religious air to his work, which ennobles the enthusiasm, and sanctifies the fiction of the poet. Ariosto’s excursive muse wanders through the regions of romance, attended by all the superb train of chivalry, giants, dwarfs, and enchanters ; and however these poets, by severe and frigid critics, may have been condemned for giving ornaments not purely
classical, classical, to their works; I believe every reader of taste admires, not only the fertility of their imagination, but the judgment with which they availed themselves of the superstition of the times, and of the customs and modes of the country, in which they laid the scenes of action,
To recur, as the learned sometimes do, to the theology and fables of other ages, and other countries, has ever a poor effect : Jupiter, Minerva, and Apollo, only embellish a modern story, as a print from their statues adorns the frontispiece. We admire indeed the art of the sculptors who give their images with grace and majesty; but no devotion is excited, no enthusiasm kindled, by the representations of characters whose divinity we do not acknowledge.
When the pagan temples ceased to be revered, and the Parnassian mount existed no longer, it would have been difficult for the poet of later times to have preserved the divinity of his muse inviolate, if the Western
world too had not had its sacred fables. While there is any national superstition which credulity has consecrated, any hallowed tradition long revered by vulgar faith; to that sanctuary, that asylum, may the poet resort. Let him tread the holy ground with reverence; respect the established doctrine; exactly observe the accustomed rites, and the attributes of the object of veneration; then shall he not vainly invoke an inexorable or absent deity. Ghosts, fairies, goblins, elves, were as propitious, were as assistant to Shakspeare, and gave as much of the sublime, and of the marvellous, to his fictions, as nymphs, satyrs, fawns, and even the triple Geryon, to the works of ancient bards. Our poet never carries his præternatural beings beyond the limits of the popular tradition. It is true, that he boldly exerts his poetic genius, and fascinating powers in that magic circle, in which none e'er durst walk but he : but as judicious as bold, he contains himself within it. He calls
up all the stately phantoms in the regions of superstition, which our faith will