« PreviousContinue »
dramatists as enemies of morality and religion. Much that is objectionable may be found in the writers whom they reprobated; but whether they took the best measures for stopping the evil, appears to us very doubtful, and must, we think, have appeared doubtful to themselves, when, after the lapse of a few years, they saw the unclean spirit whom they had cast out return to his old haunts, with seven others fouler than himself.
By the extinction of the drama, the fashionable school of poetry, -a school without truth of sentiment or harmony of versification, --without the powers of an earlier, or the correctness of a later age, -was left to enjoy undisputed ascendancy. A vicious ingenuity, a morbid quickness to perceive resemblances and analogies between things apparently heterogeneous, constituted almost its only claim to admiration. Suckling was dead. Milton was absorbed in political and theological controversy. If Waller differed from the Cowleian sect of writers, he differed for the worse. He had as little poetry as they, and much less wit; nor is the languor of his verses less offensive than the ruggedness of theirs. In Denham alone the faint dawn of a better manner was discernible.
But, low as was the state of our poetry during the civil war and the protectorate, a still deeper fall was at hand. Hitherto our literature had been idiomatic. Io mind, as in situalion, we had been islanders. The revolutions in our taste, like the revolutions in our government, had been settled without the interference of strangers. Had this state of things continued, the same just principles of reasoning, which, about this time, were applied with unprecedented success to every part of philosophy, would soon have conducted our ancestors to a sounder code of criticism. There were already strong signs of improvement. Our prose had at length worked itself clear from those quaint conceits which still deformed almost every metrical composition. The parliamentary debates and the diplomatic correspondence of That eventful period, had contributed much to this reform. In such bustling times, it was absolutely necessary to speak and write to the purpose. The absurdities of Puritanism had, perhaps, done more. At the time when that odious style, which deforms the writings of Hall and of Lord Bacon, was almost universal, had appeared that stupendous work, the English Bible, a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power. The respect which the translators felt for the original, prevented them from adding any of the ideous decorations then in fashion. The groundwork of the version, indeed, was of an earlier age. The familiarity with which the Puritans, of almost every occasion, used the scriptural phrases, was no doubt very ridiculous; but it produced good effects. It was a cant; but it drove out a cant far more offensive.
The highest kind of poetry is, in a great measure, independent of those circumstances which regulate the style of composition in prose. But with that inferior species of poetry which succeeds to it, the case is widely different. In a few years, the good sense and good taste which had weeded out affectation from moral and political treatises, would, in the natural course of things, have effected a similar reform in the sonnet and the ode. The rigour of the victorious sectaries had relaxed. A dominant religion is never ascetic. The government connived at theatrical representations. The influence of Shakspeare was once more felt. But darker days were approaching. A foreign yoke was to be imposed on our literature. Charles, surrounded by
the companions of his long exile, returned to govern a nation which ought never to have cast him out, or never to have received him back. Every year which he had passed among strangers, had rendered him more unfit to rule his countrymen. In France he had seen the refractory magistracy humbled, and royal prerogative, though exercised by a foreign priest in the name of a child, victorious over all opposition. This spectacle naturally gratified a prince lo whose family the opposition of parliaments had been so fatal. Politeness was his solitary good quality. The insults which he had suffered in Scotland, had taught him to prize it. The effeminacy and apathy of his disposition, fitted him to excel in it. The elegance and vivacity of the French manners, fascinated bim. With the political maxims and the the social habits of his favourite people, he adopted their taste in composition; and, when seated on the throne, soon rendered it fashionable, partly by direct patronage, but still more by that contemptible policy which, for a time, made England the last of the nations, and raised Louis the Fourteenth to a height of power and fame, such as no French sovereign had ever before atlained.
It was to please Charles that rhyme was first introduced into our plays. Thus, a rising blow, which would at any time have been mortal, was dealt to the English Drama, then just recovering from its languishing condition. Two detestable manners, the indigenous and the imported, were now in a state of alternate conflict and amalgamation. The bombastic meanness of the new style was blended with the ingenious absurdity of the old; and the mixture produced something which the world had never before seen, and which, we hope, it will never see again,--something, by the side of which the worst nousense of all other ages appears to advantage, --something which those who have attempted to caricature it, have, against their will, been forced to flalter, -of which the tragedy of Bayes is a very favourable
specimen. What Lord Dorset observed to Edward Howard, might have been addressed to almost all his contemporaries:
46 As skilful divers to the bottom fall,
Swifter than those who cannot swim at all;
Thou hast a strange alacrity in sinking.”
Every thing about Milton is wonderful; but nothing is so wonderful as
that, in an age so unfavourable to poetry, he should have produced the greatest of modern epic poems. We are not sure that this is not in some degree to be attributed to his want of sight. The imagination is notoriously most active when the external world is shut out. In sleep its illusions are perfect. They produce all the effect of realities. In darkness its visions are always more distinct than in the light. Every person who amuses himself with what is called building castles in the air, must have experienced this. We know artists who, before they attempt to draw a face from memory, close their eyes, that they may recall a more perfect image of the features and the expression. We are therefore inclined to believe, that the genius of Milton may have been preserved from the influence of times so unfavourable to it, by his infirmity. Be this as it may, his works at first enjoyed a very small share of popularity. To be neglected by his contemporaries was the penalty which he paid for surpassing them. His great poem was not generally studied or admired, till writers far inferior to him had, by obsequiously cringing to the public taste, acquired sufficient favour to reform it.
ON THE VICISSITUDES IN THE HISTORY AND PROGRESS OF
Lord Byron has clear titles to applause, in the spirit and beauty of his diction and versification, and the splendour of many of his descriptions : but it is to his pictures of the stronger passions, that he is indebted for the fulness of his fame. He has delineated, with unequalled force and fidelity, the workings of those deep and powerful emotions, which alternately enchant and agonise the minds that are exposed to their inroads; and represented, with a terrible energy, those struggles and sufferings and exaltations, by which the spirit is at once torn and transported, and trails of divine inspiration, or demoniacal possession, thrown across the tamer features of humanity. It is by this spell, chiefly, we think, that he has fixed the admiration of the public; and while other poets delight by their vivacity, or enchant by their sweetness, he alone has been able to command the sympathy, even of reluctant readers, by the natural magic of his moral sublimity, and the terrors and attractions of those overpowering feelings, the depths and the heights of which he seems to have so successfully explored. All the considerable poets of the present age have, indeed, possessed this gift in a greater or lesser degree: but there is no man, since the time of Shakspeare himself, in whom it has been made manifest with greater fulness and splendour, than in the noble author before us : and there are various considerations that lead us to believe, that it is chiefly by its means that he has altained the supremacy with which he seems now to be invested.
It must have occurred, we think, to every one who has allended to the general history of poetry, and to its actual condition among ourselves, that it is destined to complete a certain cycle, or great revolution, with respect at least to some of its essential qualities; and that we are now coming round to a laste and tone of composition, more nearly akin to that which • See the opinions of the writer of this Essay on Dryden's talents as a poet. in Part II.
Lord Byron's Corsair and Bride of Abydos. Vol. xxiii. p. 198. April, 1811.
distinguished the beginning of its progress, than any that has prevailed in the course of it.
In the rude ages, when such compositions originate, men's passions are violent, and their sensibility dull. Their poetry deals therefore in strong emotions, and displays the agency of powerful passions; both because these are the objects with which they are most familiar in real life, and because nothing of a weaker cast could make any impression on the rugged natures for whose entertainment they are devised.
As civilisation advances, men begin to be ashamed of the undisguised vehemence of their primitive emotions; and learn to subdue, or at least to conceal, the fierceness of their natural passions. The first triumph of regulated society, is to be able to protect its members from actual violence; and the first trait of refinement in manners, is to exclude the coarseness and offence of unrestrained and selfish emotions. The complacency, however, with which these achievements are contemplated, naturally leads to too great an admiration of the principle from which they proceed. Allmanifestation of strong feeling is soon proscribed as coarse and vulgar; and first a cold and ceremonious politeness, and afterwards a more gay and heartless dissipation, represses, and in part eradicates, the warmer affections and generous passions of our nature, along with its more dangerous and turbulent emotions. It is needless to trace the effects of this revolution in the manners and opinions of society upon that branch of literature, which necessarily reflects all its variations. It is enough to say, in general, that, in consequence of this change, poetry becomes first pompous and stately—then affectedly refined and ingenious—and finally gay, witty, discursive, and familiar.
There is yet another stage, however, in the history of man and his inventions. When the pleasures of security are no longer new, and the dangers of excessive or intemperate vehemence cease to be thought of in the upper ranks of society, it is natural that the utility of the precautions which had been taken against them should be brought into question, and their severity in a great measure relaxed. There is in the human breast a certain avidity for strong sensations, which cannot be long repressed even by the fear of serious disaster. The consciousness of having subdued and disarmed the natural violence of mankind, is sufficiently lively to gratify this propensity, so long as the triumph is recent, and the hazards still visible from which it has effected our deliverance. In like manner, while it is a new thing, and somewhat of a distinction, to be able to laugh gracefully at all things, the successful derision of affection and enthusiasm is found lo do pretty nearly as well as their possession; and hearts comfortably hardened by dissipation feel little want of gratifications which they have almost lost the capacity of receiving. When these, however, come to be but vulgar accomplishments
when generations have passed away, during which all persons of education have employed themselves in doing the same frivolous things, with the same despair either of interest or glory, it can scarcely fail to happen, that the more powerful spirits will awaken to a sense of their own degradation and unhappiness ;-a disdain and impatience of the petty pretensions and joyless elegances of fashion will gradually arise, and strong and natural sensations will again be sought, without dread of their coarseness, in every scene which promises to supply them. This is the stage of society in which fanaticism has its second birth, and political enthusiasm its first true development--when plans of visionary
reform and schemes of boundless ambition are conceived, and almost realised, by the energy with which they are pursued—the era of revolutions and projects of vast performances, and infinite expectations.
Peetry, of course, reflects and partakes in this great transformation. It becomes more enthusiastic, authoritative, and impassioned ; and feeling the necessity of dealing in more powerful emotions than suited the tranquil and frivolous age which preceded, naturally goes back to those themes and characters which animated the energetic lays of its first rude inventors. The feats of chivalry, and the loves of romance,* are revived with more than their primitive wildness and ardour. For the sake of the nalural leeling they contain, the incidents and diction of the old vulgar ballads are once more imitated and surpassed; and poetry does not disdain, in pursuit of her new idol of strong emotion, to descend to the very lowest conditions of society, and to stir up the most revolting dregs of utter wretchedness and depravity.
This is the age to which we are now arrived :--and if we have rightly seized the principle by which we think its peculiarities are to be accounted for, it will not be difficult to show, that the poet who has devoted himself most exclusively, and most successfully, to the delineation of the stronger and deeper passions, is likely to be its reigning favourite. Neither do we think that we can have essentially mistaken that principle :—at least it is a fact, independent of all theory, not only that all the successful poets of the last twenty years have dealt much more in powerful sensations, than those of the century that went before; but that, in order to attain this object, they have employed themselves upon subjects which would have been rejected as vulgar and offensive by the fastidious delicacy of that age of fine writing. Instead of ingenious essays, elegant pieces of gallantry, and witty satires all stuck over with classical allusions, we have, in our popular poetry, the dreams of convicts, and the agonies of gipsy Fomen,-and the exploits of buccaneers, freebooters, and savages-and pictures to shudder at, of remorse, revenge, and insanity—and the triumph of generous feelings in scenes of anguish and terror--and the heroism of lowborn affection, and the tragedies of vulgar atrocity. All these various subjects have been found interesting, and have succeeded, in different degrees, in spite of accompaniments which would have disgusted an age more recently escaped from barbarity: and as they agree in nothing but in being the vehicles of strong and natural emotions, and have generally pleased nearly in proportion to the quantity of that emotion they conveyed, it is difficult not to conclude, that they have pleased only for the sake of that quality—a growing appetite for which may be regarded as the true characteristic of this age of the world.
Io selecting subjects and characters for this purpose, it was not only natural, but in a great measure necessary, to go back to the only ages when strong passions were indulged, or at least displayed without control, by persons in the better ranks of society; in the same way as, in order to set perfect models of muscular force and beauty, we still find that we must go back to the works of those days when men went almost naked, and
The Greek and Roman classics afford no resource in this emergency; partly because by far the greater part of them belong to a period of society as artificial, and as averse to the undisguised exhibition of natural passions, as that which preceded this revulsion; and partly because, at all events, the study of them is associated with the coldest and dullest period of modern literature, and their mythology and other jargon incorporated with the compositions that come now to be looked upon with ibe greatest derision and disdain.