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Baillie's plan of composing separate plays upon the passions is, in so far as it is at all new or original, in all respects extremely injudicious; and we have been induced to express this opinion more fully and strongly, from the anxiety that we feel to deliver her pleasing and powerful genius from the trammels that have been imposed upon it by this unfortunate system. It is paying no great compliment, perhaps, to her talents, to say that they are superior to those of any of her contemporaries among the English writers of tragedy; and that, with proper management, they bid fair to produce something that posterity will not allow lo be forgotten. Without perplexing hersell with the observances of an arbitrary system, she will lind that all tragical subjects imply the agency of the greater passions ; and that she will have occasion for all her skill in the delineation of character, and all her knowledge of the human heart, although she should only aim (as Shakspeare and Otway have done before her) at the excitation of virtuous sympathy, and the production of a high pathetic effect. Her readers, and her critics, will then discover those moral lessons, which she is now a little too eager to obtrude upon their notice; and will admire, more freely, the productions of a genius that seems less encumbered with its task, and less conscious of its exertions.
ON THE SUBJECTS OF CRABBE'S POETRY. *
Mr. Crabbe is distinguished from all other poets, both by the choice of his subjects, and by his manner of treating them, All his persons are taken from the lower ranks of life; and all his scenery from the most ordinary and familiar objects of nature or art. His characters and incidents, too, are as common as the elements out of which they are compounded are humble; and, not only has he nothing prodigious or astonishing in any of his representations, but he has not even attempted to impart any of the ordinary colours of poetry to those vulgar materials. He has no moralising swains or sentimental tradesmen; and scarcely ever seeks to charm us by the artless manners or lowly virtues of his personages. On the contrary, he has represented his villagers and humble burghers as altogether as dissipated, and more dishonest and discontented, than the profligates of higher life; and, instead of conducting us through blooming groves and pastoral meadows, has led us along filthy lanes and crowded wharfs, lo hospitals, alms-houses, and gin-shops. In some of these delineations, he may be considered as the satirist of low life,-an occupation sufficiently arduous, and in a great degree new and original in our language. But by far the greater part of his poetry is of a different and a higher character; and aims at moving or delighting us by lively, touching, and finely contrasted representations of the dispositions, sufferings, and occupations of those ordinary persons who form the far greater part of our fellow-creatures. This, too, he has sought to effect, merely by placing before us the clearest, most brief, and most striking sketches of their external condition, the most sagacious and unexpected strokes of character, -and the truest and most pathetic pictures of natural feeling and common
* The Borough, a Poem. Vol. xvi. p. 30. April, 1810.
suffering. By the mere force of his art, and the novelty of his style, he forces us to attend to objects that are usually neglected, and to enter into feelings from which we are in general but too eager to escape ;-and then trusts to nature for the effect of the representation.
It is obvious, at first sight, that this is not a task for an ordinary hand; and that many ingenious writers, who make a very good figure with battles, nymphs, and moonlight landscapes, would find themselves quite helpless if set down among streets, harbours, and taverns. The difficulty of such subjects, in short, is sufficiently visible—and some of the causes of that difficulty: but they have their advantages also ;--and of these, and their hazards, it seems natural to say a few words, before entering more minutely into the merits of the work before us.
The first great advantage of such familiar subjects is, that every one is necessarily perfectly well acquainted with the originals ; and is therefore sure to feel all that pleasure, from a faithful representation of them, which results from the perception of a perfect and successful imitation, In the kindred art of painting, we find that this single consideration has been sufficient to stamp a very high value upon accurate and lively delineations of objects, in themselves the most uninteresting, and even disagreeable; and no very considerable part of the pleasure which may be derived from Mr. Crabbe's poetry may be referred to its mere truth and fidelity, and to the brevity and clearness with which he sets before his readers objects and characters with which they have been all their days familiar.
In his happier passages, however, he has a higher merit, and imparts a far higher gratification. The chief delight of poetry consists not so much in what it directly supplies to the imagination, as in what it enables it to supply to itself;—not in warming the heart with its passing brightness, but in kindling its own lasting stores of light and heat ;—not in hurrying the fancy along by a foreign and accidental impulse, but in setting it agoing, by touching its internal springs and principles of activity. Now, this highest and most delightful effect can only be produced by the poet's striking a note to which the heart and the affections naturally vibrate in unison ;by his rousing one of a large family of kindred impressions ;-by his dropping the rich seed of his fancy upon the fertile and sheltered places of the imagination. But it is evident that the emotions connected with common and familiar objects,-with objects which fill every man's memory, and are necessarily associated with all that he has felt or fancied, are of all others the most likely to answer this description, and to produce, where they can be raised to sufficient height, this great effect in its utmost perfection. It is for this reason that the images and affections that belong to our universal, nature are always, if tolerably represented, infinitely more captivating, in spite of their apparent commonness and simplicity, than those that are peculiar to certain situations, however they may come recommended by novelty or grandeur. The familiar feeling of maternal tenderness and anxiety which is every day before our eyes, even in the brute creation,--and the enchantment of youthful love, which is nearly the same in all characters, ranks, and situations,—still contribute more to the beauty and interest of poetry than all the misfortunes of princes, the jealousies of heroes, and the feats of giants, magicians, or ladies in armour. Every one can enter into the former set of feelings; and but a few into the latter. The one calls up a thousand familiar and long-remembered emotions, -and are answered and reflected on every side by the kindred impressions which experience
or observation have traced upon every memory; while the other lights up but a transient and unfruitful blaze, and passes away without perpetuating ilself in any corresponding sensation.
Now the delineation of all that concerns the lower and most numerous classes of society is, in this respect, on a footing with the pictures of our primary affections, - that their originals are necessarily familiar to all men, and are inseparably associated with a multitude of their most interesting impressions. Whatever may be our own condition, we all live surrounded with the poor, from infancy to age ;-we hear daily of their sufferings and misfortunes; and their loils, their crimes, or their pastimes, are our hourly spectacle. Many diligent readers of poetry know little, by their own experience, of palaces, castles, or camps; and still less of princes, warriors, and banditti ;-but every one thoroughly understands every thing about collages, streets, and villages; and conceives, pretty correctly, the character and condition of sailors, ploughmen, and artificers. If the poet can contrive, therefore, to create a sufficient interest in subjects like these, they will infallibly sink deeper into the mind, and be more prolific of kindred trains of emotion, than subjects of greater dignity. Nor is the difficulty of exciting such an interest by any means so great as is generally imagined. It is human nature, and human feelings, after all, that form the true source of interest in poetry of every description ;-and the splendour and the marvels by which it is sometimes surrounded, serve no other purpose than to fix our attention on those workings of the heart, and those energies of the understanding, which alone command all the genuine sympathies of human beings,—and which may be found as abundantly in the breasts of collagers as of kings. Wherever there are human beings, therefore, with feelings and characters to be represented, our attention may be fixed by the art of the poel,—by his judicious selection of circumstances, -by the force and vivacity of his style, and the clearness and brevity of his representations. In point of fact, we are all touched more deeply, as well as more frequently, in real life, with the sufferings of peasants than of princes; and sympathise much oftener, and more heartily, with the successes of the poor, than of the rich and distinguished. The occasions of such feelings are indeed so many, and so common, that they do not often leave any very permanent traces behind them, but pass away, and are effaced by the very rapidity of their succession. The business and the cares and the pride of the world obstruct the developement of the emotions to which they would naturally give rise, and press so close and thick upon the mind, as to shut it, at most seasons, against the reflections that are perpetually seeking for admission. When we have leisure, however, to look quietly into our hearts, we shall find in them an infinite multitude of little fragments of sympathy with our brethren in humble lise,-abortive movements of compassion, and embryos of kindness and toncern, which had once fairly begun to live and germinate within them, though whithered and broken off by the selfish bustle and fever of our daily occupations. Now, all these may be revived and carried on to maturity by the art of the poet;-and, therefore, a powerful effort to interest us in the feelings of the humble and obscure, will usually call forth more deep, more numerous, and more permanent emotions, than can ever be excited by the fate of princesses and heroes. Independent of the circumstances to which we have already alluded, there are causes which make us at all times more ready to enter into the feelings of the humble than of the exalted part of our species.
Our sympathy with their
enjoyments is enhanced by a certain mixture of pity for their general condilion, which, by purising it from that taint of envy which almost always adheres to our admiration of the great, renders it more welcome and satisfactory to our bosoms; while our concern for their sufferings is at once softened and endeared to us by the recollection of our own exemption from them, and by the feeling that, we frequently have it in our power to relieve them.
From these, and from other causes, it appears to us to be cerlain, that where subjects taken from humble life can be made sufficiently interesting to overcome the distaste and the prejudices with which the usages of polished society too generally lead us to regard them, the interest which they excite will commonly be more profound and more lasting than any that can be raised upon loftier themes ; and the poet of the Village and the Borough be oftener and longer read, than the poet of the Court or the Camp. The most popular passages of Shakspeare and Cowper, we think, are of this description; and there is much, both in the volume before us, and in Mr. Crabbe's former publications, to which we might now venture to refer, as proofs of the same doctrine. When such representations have once made an impression on the imagination, they are remembered daily, and for ever. We can neither look around nor within us, without being reminded of their truth and their importance; and, while the more brilliant effusions of romantic fancy are recalled only at long intervals, and in rare situations, we feel that we cannot walk a step from our own doors, nor cast a glance back on our departed years, without being indebted to the poet of vulgar life for some striking image or touching reflection, of which the occasions were always before us, but till he taught us how to improve them-were almost always allowed to escape.
Such, we conceive, are some of the advantages of the subjects which Mr. Crabbe has in a great measure introduced into modern poetry ;and such the grounds upon which we venture to predict the durability of the reputation which he has acquired. That they have their disadvantages also is obvious; and it is no less obvious, that it is to these we must ascribe the greater part of the faults and deformities with which this author is fairly chargeable. The lwo great errors into which he has fallen, are—that he has described many things not worth describing;-and that he has frequently excited disgust, instead of pity or indignation, in the breasts of his readers. These faults are obvious,-and, we believe, are popularly laid to his charge : yet there is, in so far as we have observed, a degree of misconception as to the true grounds and limits of the charge, which we think it worth while to take this opportunity of correcting.
The poet of humble life must describe a great deal,--and must even describe minutely many things which possess in themselves no beauty or grandeur. The reader's fancy must be awakened, and the power of his own pencil displayed :-a distinct locality and imaginary reality must be given to his characters and agents, and the ground colour of their common condition must be laid in, before his peculiar and selected groups can be presented with any effect or advantage. In the same way he must study characters with a minute and anatomical precision ; and must make both himself and his readers familiar with the ordinary traits and general family features of the beings among whom they are to move, before they can either understand or take much interest in the individuals who are to engross their attention. Thus far, there is no excess or unnecessary minuleness.
But this faculty of observation, and this power of description, hold out great temptations to go farther. There is a pride and a delight in the exercise of all peculiar power; and the poet, who has learned to describe external objects exquisitely with a view to heighten the effect of his moral designs, and to draw characters with accuracy to help forward the interest or the pathos of the picture, will be in great danger of describing scenos, and drawing characters, for no other purpose but to indulge his taste, and to display his lalents. It cannot be denied, we think, that Mr. Crabbe has on many occasions proved unequal to this templation. He is led away, every now and then, by his lively conception of external objects, and by his nice and sagacious observation of human character, and wantons and luxuriates in descriptions and moral portrait-painting, while his readers are left to wonder to what end so much industry has been exerted.
His chief fault, however, is his frequent lapse into disgusting representations; and this, we will confess, is an error for which we find it far more difficult either to account or to apologise. We are not, however, of the opinion which we have often heard stated, that he has represented human nature under too unfavourable an aspect, or that the distate which his poetry sometimes produces, is owing merely to the painful nature of the scenes and subjects with which it abounds. On the contrary, we think he has given a juster, as well as a more striking picture, of the true character and situation of the lower orders of this country, than any other writer, whether in verse or in prose; and that he has made no more use of painful emotions than was necessary to the production of a pathetic effect.
All powerful and pathetic poetry, it is obvious, abounds in images of distress. The delight which it bestows parlakes strongly of pain ; and by a sort of contradiction which has long engaged the attention of the reflecting, the compositions that attract us most powerfully, and detain us the longest, are those that produce in us most of the effects of actual suffering and wretchedness. The solution of this paradox is to be found, we think, in the simple fact, that pain is a far stronger sensation than pleasure in human existence; and that the cardinal virtue of all things that are intended to delight the mind, is to produce a strong sensation. Life itself appears to consist in sensation; and the universal passion of all beings that have life seems to be, that they should be made intensely conscious of it, by a succession of powerful and engrossing emotions. All the mere gratifications or natural pleasures that are in the power even of the most fortunate, are quite insufficient to fill this vast craving for sensation; and a more violent stimulus is sought for by those who have attained the vulgar heights of life, in the pains and dangers of war,—the agonies of gaming, -or the feverish toils of ambition. To those who have tasted of these potent cups, where the bitler however so obviously predominates, the security, the comforts, and what are called the enjoyments of common life, are intolerably insipid and disgusting. Nay, we think we have observed, that even those who without any effort or exertion have experienced unusual misery frequently appear, in like manner, to acquire a laste for it, and come to look on the tranquillity of ordinary life with a kind of indifference not unmingled with contempt. It is certain, at least, that they dwell with most apparent satisfaction on the memory of those days which have been marked by the deepest and most agonising sorrows, and derive a certain delight from the recollections of those overwhelming sensations which once occasioned so fierce a throb in the languishing pulse of their existence.
If any thing of this kind, however, can be traced in real life,-if the passion for emotion be so strong, as to carry us, not in imagination, but in