« PreviousContinue »
all this, it may not be very easy to say how we are to find him out to be a low man, or what marks can remain of the ordinary language of conversation in the inferior orders of society. If there be any phrases that are not used in good society, they will appear as blemishes in the composition, no less palpably than errors in syntax or quantity; and if there be no such phrases, the style cannot be characteristic of that condition of life, the language of which it professes to have adopted. All approximation to that language, in the same manner, implies a deviation from that purity and precision, which no one, we believe, ever violated spontaneously.
It has been argued, indeed (for men will argue in support of what they do not venture to practise), that as the middling and lower orders of society constitute by far the greater part of mankind, so their feelings and expressions should interest more extensively, and may be taken, more fairly than any other, for the standards of what is natural and true. To this it seems obvious to answer, that the arts that aim at exciting admiration and delight do not take their models from what is ordinary, but from what is excellent; and that our interest in the representation of any event does not depend upon our familiarity with the original, but on its intrinsic importance, and the celebrity of the parties it concerns. The scupltor employs his art in delineating the graces of Antinous or Apollo, and not in the represenlation of those ordinary forms that belong to the crowd of his admirers. When a chieftain perishes in battle, his followers mourn more for him than for thousands of their equals that may have fallen around him.
After all, it must be admitted, that there is a class of persons (we are afraid they cannot be called readers), to whom the representation of vulgar manners, in vulgar language, will afford much entertainment. We are afraid, however, that the ingenious writers who supply the hawkers and ballad-singers, have very nearly monopolised that department, and are probably better qualified to hit the taste of their customers, than Mr. Southey, or any of his brethren, can yet pretend to be. To fit them for the higher task of original composition, it would not be amiss if they were to undertake a translation of Pope or Milton into the vulgar tongue, for the benefit of those children of nature,
There is still another disagreeable effect of this affected simplicity, which, though of less importance than those which have been already noliced, it may yet be worth while to mention : this is, the extreme difficulty of supporting the same tone of expression throughout, and the inequality that is consequently introduced into the texture of the composition. To an author of reading and education, it is a style that must always be assumed and unnatural, and one from which he will be perpetually tempted to deviate. He will rise, therefore, every now and then, above the level 10 which he has professedly degraded himself; and make amends for that transgression, by a fresh effort of descension. His composition, in short, will be like that of a person who is attempting to speak in an obsolete or provincial dialect ; he will betray himself by expressions of occasional purity and elegance, and exert himself to efface that impression, by passages of unnatural meanness or absurdity.
in making these strictures on the perverted taste for simplicity that seems to distinguish our modern school of poetry, we have no particular allusion to Mr. Southey, or the production now before us : on the contrary, he appears to us to be less addicted to this fault than most of his fraternity; and if we were in want of examples to illustrate the preceding observations, we should certainly look for them in the effusions of that poet who commemorates, with so much effect, the chattering of Harry Gibbs's teeth; tells the tale of the one-eyed huntsman “who had a cheek like a cherry;' ' and beautifully warns his studious friend of the risk he ran of growing double.”
At the same time, it is impossible to deny that the author of the “ English Eclogues” is liable to a similar censure ; and few persons, we believe, will peruse the following verses taken almost at random from the Thalaba), without acknowledging that he still continues to deserve it.
“ At midnight Thalaba started up;
He called on Allah aloud,
What ails thee, Thalaba ?' he cried,
Dost thou not see,' the youth exclaimed,
Not poor miserable man!
Now, this style, we conceive, possesses no one character of excellence : it is feeble, low, and disjointed ; without elegance, and without dignity; the offspring, we should imagine, of mere indolence and neglect ; or the unhappy fruit of a system that would teach us to undervalue that vigilance and labour which sustained the loftiness of Milton, and gave energy and direction to the pointed and fine propriety of Pope.
The style of our modern poets, is that, no doubt, by which they are most easily distinguished : but their genius has also an internal character ; and the peculiarities of their taste may be discovered, without the assistance of their diction. Next after great familiarity of language, there is nothing that appears to them so meritorious as perpetual exaggeration of thought. There must be nothing moderate, natural, or easy, about their sentiments. There must be a “ qu'il mourût,” and a “let there be light," in every line : and all their characters must be in agonies and ecstasies, from their entrance to their exit. To those who are acquainted with their productions, it is needless to speak of the fatigue that is produced by this
unceasing summons to admiration, or of the compassion which is excited by the spectacle of these eternal strainings and distortions. Those authors appear to forget, that a whole poem cannot be made up of striking passages ; and that the sensations produced by sublimity are never so powerful and entire as when they are allowed to subside and revive, in a slow and spontaneous succession. It is delightful, now and then, to meet with a rugged mountain or a roaring stream ; but where there is no sunny slope, nor shaded plain, to relieve them—where all is beetling cliff and yawning abyss, and the landscape presents nothing on every side but prodigies and terrors—the head is apt to grow giddy, and the heart to languish for the repose and security of a less elevated region.
The effect even of genuine sublimity, therefore, is impaired by the injudicious frequency of its exhibition, and the omission of those intervals and breathing-places, at which the mind should be permitted to recover from ils perturbation or astonishment : but where it has been summoned upon a false alarm, and disturbed in the orderly course of its attention, by an impotent attempt at elevation, the consequences are still more disastrous. There is nothing so ridiculous (at least for a poet) as to fail in great attempts. If the reader foresaw the failure, he may receive same degree of mischievous satisfaction from its punctual occurrence; if he did not, he will be vexed and disappointed ; and in both cases, he will very speedily be disgusted and fatigued. It would be going loo far, certainly, to maintain, that our modern poets have never succeeded in their persevering endeavours at elevation and emphasis ; but it is a melancholy fact, that their successes bear but a small proportion to their miscarriages ; and that the reader who has been promised an energetic sentiment, or sublime allusion, must often be contented with a very miserable substitute. of the many contrivances they employ to give the appearance of uncommon force and animation to a very ordinary conception, the most usual is, to wrap it up in a veil of mysterious and unintelligible language, which flows past with so much solemnity, that it is difficult to believe it conveys nothing of any value. Another device for improving the effect of a cold idea is, to embody it in a verse of unusual harshness and asperity. Compound words, too, of a portentous sound and conformation, are very useful in giving an air of energy and originality; and a few lines of scripture wrillen out into verse from the original prose, have been found to have a very happy effect upon those readers to whom they have the recommendation of novelty.
The qualities of style and imagery, however, form but a small part of the characteristics by which a literary faction is to be distinguished. The subject and object of their compositions, and the principles and opinions they are calculated to support, constitute a far more important criterion, and one to which it is usually altogether as easy to refer. Some poets are sufficiently described as the flatterers of greatness and power, and others as the champions of independence. One set of writers is known by its antipathy to decency and religion ; another, by its methodistical cant and intolerance. Our new school of poetry has a moral character also; though it may not be possible, perhaps, to delineate it quite so concisely.
A splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society, seems to be at the bottom of all their serious and peculiar sentiments. Instead of contemplating the wonders and the pleasures which civilisation has created for mankind, they are perpetually brooding over the disorders by which its progress has been attended. They are filled with horror and compassion at the sight of poor men spending their blood in the quarrels of princes, and brutifying their sublime capabilities in the drudgery of unremilling labour. For all sorts of vice and profligacy in the lower orders of society, they have the same virtuous horror, and the same tender compassion. While the existence of these offences overpowers them with grief and confusion, they never permit themselves to feel ihe smallest indignation or dislike towards ihe offenders. The present vicious constitution of society alone is responsible for all these enormities: the poor sinners are but the helpless victims or instruments of its disorders, and could not possibly have avoided the errors into which they have been betrayed. Though they can bear with crimes, therefore, they cannot reconcile themselves to punishments; and have an unconquerable antipathy to prisons, gibbets, and houses of correction, as engines of oppression, and instruments of atrocious injustice. While the plea of moral necessity is thus artfully brought forward to convert all the excesses of the poor into innocent misfortunes, no sort of indulgence is shown to the offences of the powerful and rich. Their oppressions, and seductions, and debaucheries, are the theme of many an angry verse; and the indignation and abhorrence of the reader is relentlessly conjured up against those perturbators of society, and scourges of mankind.
It is not easy to say, whether the fundamental absurdity of this doctrine, or the partiality of ils application, be entitled to the severest reprehension. If men are driven to commit crimes, through a certain moral necessity, other men are compelled, by a similar necessity, to hate and despise them for their commission. The indignation of the sufferer is at least as natural as the guilt of him who makes him suffer; and the good order of society would probably be as well preserved, if our sympathies were sometimes called forth in behalf of the former. At all events, the same apology ought certainly to be admitted for the wealthy, as for the needy offender. They are subject alike to the overruling influence of necessity, and equally affected by the miserable condition of society. If it be natural for a poor man to murder and rob, in order to make himself comfortable, it is no less natural for a rich man to gormandise and domineer, in order to have the full use of his riches. Wealth is just as valid an excuse for the one class of vices as indigence is for the other. There are many other peculiarities of false sentiment in the productions of this class of writers, that are sufficiently deserving of commemoration. But we have already exceeded our limits in giving these general indications of their character, and must now hasten back to the consideration of the singular performance which has given occasion to all this discussion.
EXAMINATION OF MISS JOANNA BAILLIE'S PLAN. OF HER
PLAYS ON THE PASSIONS. No. I.*
These plays require a double criticism ; first, as to the merit of the peculiar plan upon which they are composed; and, secondly, as to their own intrinsic excellence.
* Miss Baillie's Plays on the Passions.-Vol. ij. p. 269. July, 1803.
To such peculiar plans, in general, we confess that we are far from being partial: they necessarily exclude many beauties, and ensure nothing but constraint. The only plan of a dramatic writer should be to please and to interest as much as possible; but when, in addition to this, he resolves to write upon nothing but scriptural subjects, or to imitate the style of Shakspeare, or to have a siege, or the history of a passion, in every one of his pieces, he evidently cuts himself off from some of the means of success, puls fetters upon the freedom of his own genius, and multiplies the difficulties of a very arduous undertaking.
The writer of the pieces before us has espoused the patronage of what she has been pleased to call characteristic truth, the great charm of dramatic composition; and in order to magnify its importance, has degraded all the other requisites of a perfect drama to the rank of very weak and unprofitable auxiliaries. With a partiality not at all unusual in the advocates of a peculiar system, she admits, indeed, that a play may have qualities that give nearly as much pleasure; but maintains, that this is altogether owing to the folly of mankind, and that if we were constituted as we ought to be, we should care very little for any thing but the just representation of character in our dramatic performances. This sentiment, we think, is pretty clearly expressed in the following passage of the "Introductory Discourse," prefixed to the present volume :
"Our love of the grand, the beantiful, the novel, and, above all, of the marvellous, is very strong; and if we are richly fed with what we have a good relish
for, we may be weaned to forget our gative and favourite aliment; yet we can never su far forget it, but that we shall cling to, and acknowledge it again, whenever it is presented before us. In a work abounding with the marrelbous and unnatural, if the author has any how stumbled upon an unsophisticated genuine stroke of nature, we shall immediately perceive and be delighted with it; though we are foolish enough at the same time to admire all ihe nonsense with which it is surrounded.”
Now, we really cannot perceive why the admiration of novelty and grandeur should be considered as more foolish than the admiration of just sentiments, or consistent character. The same power that gave us a relish for the one, formed us to be delighted with the other; and the wisdom that guides us to the gratification of the first propensity, can scarcely condemn our indulgence in the second. Where the object is to give pleasure, nothing that pleases can be foolish ; and a striking trait of character, or of nature, will only please the more, when it occurs in a performance which has already delighted us with its grandeur, ils novelty, and its beauty. The skilful delineation of character is, no doubt, among the highest objects of the drama; but this has been so generally admilted, that it was the less necessary to undervalue all the rest. The true object of the drama is to interest and delight; and this it can frequently accomplish by incident as effectually as by character. There are innumerable situations that excite our sympathy in the strongest degree, though the characters of those who are placed in them be left almost entirely to be filled up from our general conceptions of human nature. Mothers bereaved of their children; lovers separated or restored to each other; the young and valiant cut off by untimely deaths; tyrants precipitated from their thrones; and many other occurrences or representations, are capable of awakening the highest interest, and the most anxious curiosity, although the character should be drawn only with those vague and undistinguishing features that fancy has associated with the situation.
But, even if we could agree with Miss Baillie, that the striking deline