Imágenes de página
PDF

of Jerusalem, and the shock of Europe and Asia, almost exactly as Homer had done the contest of the same forces, on the same shores, two thousand five hundred years before. Milton's old age, when blind and poor, was solaced by hearing the verses recited of the poet, to whose conceptions his own mighty spirit had been so much indebted; and Pope deemed himself fortunate in devoting his life to the translation of the Iliad.

No writer in modern times has equalled the wide-spread fame of the Grecian bard; but it may be doubted whether, in the realms of thought, and in sway over the reflecting world, the influence of Dante has not been almost as considerable. Little more than five hundred years, indeed, have elapsed— not a sixth of the thirty centuries which have tested the strength of the Grecian patriarch—since the immortal Florentine poured forth his divine conceptions; but yet there is scarcely a writer of eminence since that time, in works even bordering on imagination, in which traces of his genins are not to be found. The Inferno has penetrated the world. If images of horror are sought after, it is to his works that all subsequent ages have turned; if those of love and divine felicity are desired, all turn to the Paradise and the Spirit of Beatrice. When the historians of the French Revolution wished to convey an idea of the utmost agonies they were called on to portray, they contented themselves with saying it equalled all that the imagination of Dante had conceived of the terrible. Sir Joshua Reynolds has exerted his highest genins in depicting the frightful scene described by him, when Ugolino perished of hunger in the tower of Pisa. Alfieri, Metastasio, Corneille, Lope de Vega, and all the great masters of the tragic muse, have sought in his works the germs of their finest conceptions. The first of these tragedians marked two-thirds of the Inferno and Paradiso as worthy of being committed to memory. Modern novelists have found in his prolific mind the storehouse from which they have drawn their noblest imagery, the chord by which to strike the profonndest feelings of the human heart. Eighty editions of his poems

have been published in Europe within the last half century; and the public admiration, so far from being satiated, is augmenting. Every scholar knows how largely Milton was indebted to his poems for many of his most powerful images. Byron inherited, though often at second hand, his mantle, in many of his most moving conceptions. Schiller has embodied them in a noble historic mirror; and the dreams of Goethe reveal the secret influence of the terrible imagination which portrayed the deep remorse and hopeless agonies of Malebolge.

Michael Angelo has exercised an influence on modern art little, if at all, inferior to that produced on the realms of thought by Homer and Dante. The father of Italian painting, the author of the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel, he was, at the same time, the restorer of ancient sculpture, and the intrepid architect who placed the Pantheon in the air. Raphael confessed, that he owed to the contemplation of his works his most elevated conceptions of their divine art. Sculpture, under his original hand, started from the slumber of a thousand years, in all the freshness of youthful vigour; architecture, in subsequent times, has sought in vain to equal, and can never hope to surpass, his immortal monument in the matchless dome of St Peter's. He found painting in its infancy—he left it arrived at absolute perfection. He first demonstrated of what that noble art is capable. In the Last Jndgment he revealed its wonderful powers, exhibiting, as it were, at one view, the whole circles of Dante's Inferno— portraying with terrible fidelity the agonies of the wicked, when the last trumpet shall tear the veil from their faces, and exhibit in undisguised truth that most fearful of spectacles—a naked human heart. Casting aside, perhaps with undue contempt, the adventitious aids derived from finishing, colouring, and execution, he threw the whole force of his genins into the design, the expression of the features, the drawing of the figures. There never was such a delineator of bone and muscle as Michael Angelo. His frescoes stand out in bold relief from the walls of the Vatican, like the sculptures of Phidias from the pediment of the Parthenon. He was the founder of the school of painting both at Rome and Florence —that great school which, disdaining the representation of still life, and all the subordinate appliances of the art, devoted itself to the representation of the grand and the beautiful; to the expression of passion in all its vehemence—of emotion in all its intensity. His incomparable delineation of bones and muscles was but a means to an end; it was the human heart, the throes of human passion, that his master-hand laid bare. Raphael congratulated himself, and thanked God that he had given him life in the same age with that painter; and Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his last address to the Academy, "reflected, not without vanity, that his Discourses bore testimony to his admiration of that truly divine man, and desired that the last words he pronounced in that academy, and from that chair, might be the name of Michael Angelo." *

The-fame of these illustrious men has long been placed beyond the reach of cavil. Criticism cannot reach, envy cannot detract from, emulation cannot equal them. Great present celebrity, indeed, is no guarantee for future and enduring fame; in many cases, it is the reverse; but there is a wide difference between the jndgment of the present and that of future ages. The favour of the great, the passions of the multitnde, the efforts of reviewers, the interest of booksellers, a clique of authors, a coterie of ladies, accidental events, degrading propensities, often enter largely into the composition of present reputation. But opinion is freed from all these disturbing influences by the lapse of time. The Cve is the greatest of all purifiers, erary jealousy, interested partiality, vulgar applause, exclusive favour, alike disappear before the hand. of death. We never can be sufficiently distrustful of present opinion, so largely is it directed by passion or interest. But we may rely with confidence on the jndgment of successive generations on departed eminence; for it is detached from the chief cause of present aberration. So various are the prejndices, so contradictory the partialities and predilections of men, in

different countries and ages of the world, that they never can concur through a course of centuries in one opinion, if it is not founded in truth and justice. The vox populi is often little more than the vox diaboli; but the voice of ages is the voice of God.

It is of more moment to consider in what the greatness of these illustrious men really consists—to what it has probably been owing—and in what particulars they bear an.analogy to each other.

They are all three distinguished by one peculiarity, which doubtless entered largely into their transcendent merit—they wrote in the infancy of civilization. Homer, as all the world knows, is the oldest profane author in existence. Danto flourished about the year 1300: he lived at a time when the English barons lived in rooms strewed with rushes, and few of them could sign their names. The long life of Michael Angelo, extending from 1474 to 1564, over ninety years, if not passed in the infancy of civilization, was at least passed in the childhood of the arts: before his time, painting was in its cradle. Cimabue had merely unfolded the first dawn of beauty at Florence; and the stiff figures of Pietro Perugino, which may be traced in the first works of his pupil Raphael, still attest the backward state of tho arts at Rome. This peculiarity, applicable alike to all these three great men, is very remarkable, and beyond all question had a powerful influence, both in forming their peculiar character, and elevating them to the astonishing greatness which they speedily attained.

It gave them—what Johnson has justly termed the first requisite to human greatness — self-confidence. They were the first—at least the first known to themselves and their contemporaries^—who adventured on their several arts; and thus they proceeded fearlessly in their great career. They had "neither critics to fear, nor lords to flatter, nor former excellence to imitate. They portrayed with the pencil, or in verse, what they severally felt, undisturbed by fear, unswayed by example, nnsolicitous about fame, unconscious of excellence. They did so for the first time. Thence the freshness and originality, the vigour and truth, the simplicity and raciness by which they are distinguished. Shakspeare owed much of his greatness to the same cause; and thence his similarity, in many respects, to these great masters of his'own or the sister arts. When Pope asked Bentley what he thought of his translation of the Iliad, the scholar replied, "You have written a pretty book, Mr Pope; but you must not call it Homer." Bentley was right. With all its pomp of language and melody of versification, its richness of imagery and magnificence of diction, Pope's Homer is widely different from the original. He could not avoid it. The " awful simplicity of the Grecian bard, his artless grandeur and unaffected majesty," will be sought for in vain in the translation; but if they had appeared there, it would have been unreadable in that age. Michael Angelo, in his bold conceptions, energetic will, and rapid execution, bears a close resemblance to the father of poetry. In both, the same faults, as we esteem them, are conspicuous, arising from a too close imitation of nature, and a carelessness in rejecting images or objects which are of an ordinary or homely description. Dante was incomparably more learned than either: he followed Virgil in his descent to the infernal regions; and exhibits an intimate acquaintance with ancient history, as well as that of the modern Italian states, in the account of the characters he meets in that scene of torment. But in his own line he was entirely original. Homer and Virgil had, in episodes of their poems, introduced a picture of the infernal regions; but nothing on the plan of Dante's/n/entohad before been thought of in the world. With much of the machinery of the ancients, it bears the stamp of the spiritual faith of modern times. It lays bare the heart in a way unknown even to nomer and Euripides. It reveals the inmost man in a way which bespeaks the centiyies of self-reflection in the cloister which had preceded it. It is the basis of all the spiritual poetry of modern, as the Iliad is of all the external imagery of ancient, times. In this respect there is a most

* Reynolds' Discourses, No. 16, adfinem.

grievous impediment to genins in later, or, as we term them, more civilized times, from which, in earlier ages, it is wholly exempt. Criticism, public opinion, the dread of ridiculethen too often crush the strongest minds. The weight of former examples, the influence of early habits, the halo of long-established reputation, force original genins from the untrodden path of invention into the beaten one of imitation. Early talent feels itself overawed by the colossus which all the world adores; it falls down and worships, instead of conceiving. The dread of ridicule extinguishes originality in its birth. Immense is the incubus thus laid upon the efforts of genins. It is the chief cause of the degradation of taste, the artificial style, the want of original conception, by which the literature of old nations is invariably distinguished. The early poet or painter who portrays what he feels or has seen, with no anxiety but to do so powerfully and truly, is relieved of a load which crushes his subsequent compeers to the earth. Mediocrity is ever envious of genins— ordinary capacity of original thought. Such envy in early times is innocuous or does not exist, at least to the extent which is felt as so baneful in subsequent periods. But in a refined and enlightened age, its influence becomes incalculable. Whoever strikes out a new region of thought or composition, whoever opens a fresh vein of imagery or excellence, is persecuted by the critics. He disturbs settled ideas, endangers established reputations, brings forward rivals to dominant fame. That is sufficient to render him the enemy of all the existing rulers in the world of taste. Even Jeffreyscrionslylamentedjinoncof his first reviews of Scott's poems, that he should have identified himself with the uupicturesque and expiring images of fendality, which no effort could render poetical. Racine's tragedies were received with such a storm of criticism as wellnigh cost the sensitive author his life; and Rousseau was so rndely handled by contemporary writers on his first appearance, that it confirmed him in his morbid hatred ot civilization. The vigour of these great men, indeed, overcame the obstacles created by contemporary envy; but how seldom, especially in a refined age, can genins effect such a prodigy? how often is it crushed in the outset of its career, or turned aside into the hnmble and unobtrusive path of imitation, to shun the danger with which that of originality is beset!

Milton's Paradise Lost contains many more lines of poetic beauty than Homer's Iliad; and there is nothing in the latter poem of equal length, which will bear any comparison with the exquisite picture of the primeval innocence of our First Parents in his fourth book. Nevertheless, the Iliad is.a more interesting poem than the Paradise Ixist; and has produced and will produce a much more extensive impression on mankind. The reason is, that it is much fuller of event, is more varied, is more filled with images familiar to all mankind, and is less lost in metaphysical or philosophical abstractions. Homer, though the father of poets, was essentially dramatic; he was an incomparable painter; and it is his dramatic scenes, the moving panorama of his pictures, which fascinates the world. He often speaks to the heart, and is admirable in the delineation of character; but he is so, not by conveying the inward feeling, but by painting with matchless fidelity its external symptoms, or putting into the mouths of his characters the precise words they would have used in similar circumstances in real life. Even his immortal parting of Hector and Andromache is no exception to this remark; he paints the scene at the Swean gate exactly as it would have occurred in nature, and moves ns a* if we had seen the Trojan hero taking off his helmet to assuage the terrors of his infant son, and heard the lamentations of his mother at parting with her husband. But he dues not lay bare the heart, with the terrible force of Dante, by a line or a word. There is nothing in Homer which conveys so piercing an idea of misery as the line in the Inferno, where the Florentine bard assigns the reason of the lamentations of the spirits in Malebolge— "Questi non hanno speranza di morte."

"These have not the hope of death." There speaks the spiritual poet; he does not paint to the eye, he does not even convey character by the words

he makes them utter; he pierces, by a single expression, at once to the heart.

Milton strove to raise earth to heaven: Homer brought down heaven to earth. The latter attempt was a much easier one than the former; it was more consonant to human frailty; and, therefore, it has met with more success. The gods and goddesses in the Iliad are men and women, endow. ed with human passions, affections, and desires, and distinguished only from sublunary beings by superior power and the gift of immortality. We are interested in them as we arc in the genii or magicians of an eastern romance. There is a sort of aerial epic poem going on between earth and heaven. They take sides in the terrestrial combat, and engage in the actual strife with the heroes engaged in it. Mars and Venus were wounded by Diomede when combating in the Trojan ranks; their blood, or rather the "Ichor which blest immortals shod,"

flowed profusely; they fled howling to the palaces ol heaven. Enlightened by a spiritual faith, fraught with sublime ideas of the divine nature and government, Milton was incomparably more just in his descriptions of the Supreme Being, and more elevated in his picture of the angels and archangels who carried on the strife in heaven; but he frequently falls into metaphysical abstractions or theological controversies, which detract from the interest of his poem.

Despite Milton's own opinion, the concurring voice of all subsequent ages and countries has assigned to the Paradise Regained a much lower place than to the Paradise Lost. The reason is, that it is less dramatic—it has less incident and action. Great part of the poem is but an abstract theological debate between ourSaviour and Satan. The speeches he makes them utter are admirable, the reasoning is close, the arguments cogent, the sentiments elevated in the speakers, but dialectic too. In many of the speeches of the angel Raphael, and in the council of heaven, in the Paradise Lost, there is too much of that species of discussion for a poem which is to interest the generality of men. Dryden says, that Satan is Milton's real hero; and every reader of the Paradise Lost must have felt, that in the Prince of Darkness, and Adam and Eve, the interest of the poem consists. The reason is, that the vices of the first, and the weakness of the two last, bring them nearer than any other characters in the poem to the standard of mortality; and we are so constituted, that we cannot take any great interest but in persons who share in our failings.

[graphic]

Perhaps the greatest cause of the sustained interest of the Iliad is the continued and vehement action which is maintained. The attention is seldom allowed to flag. Either in the council of the gods, the assembly of the Grecian or Trojan chiefs, or the contest of the leaders on the field of battle, an incessant interest is maintained. Great events are always on the wing: the issue of the contest is perpetually hanging, often almost even, in the balance. It is the art with which this is done, and a state of anxious suspense, like the crisis of a great battle kept up, that the great art of the poet consists. It is done by making the whole dramatic—bringing the characters forward constantly to speak for themselves, making the events succeed each other with almost breathless rapidity, and balancing success alternately from one side to the other, without letting it ever incline decisively to either. Tasso has adopted the same plan in his Jerusalem Delivered, and the contests of the Christian knights and Saracen leaders with the lance and the sword, closely resemble those of the Grecian and Trojan chiefs on the plain of Troy. Ariosto has carried it still further. The exploits of his Paladins—their adventures on earth, in air, and water; their loves, their snfferings, their victories, their dangers— keep the reader in a continual state of suspense. It is this sustained and varied interest which makes so many readers prefer the Orlando Furioso to the Jerusalem Delivered. But Ariosto has pushed it too far. In the search of variety, he has lost sight of unity. His heroes are not congregated round the banners of two rival potentates; there is no one object or mterest in his poem. No narrow plain, like that watered by the Scaman

der, is the theatre of their exploits. Jupiter, from the summit of Gargarns, could not have beheld the contending armies. The most ardent imagination, indeed, is satiated with his adventures, but the closest attention can hardly follow their thread. Story after story is told, the exploits of knigbt after knight are recounted, till the mind is fatigued, the memory perplexed, and all general interest in the poem lost.

Milton has admirably preserved the unity of his poem; the grand and allimportant object of the fall of man could hardly admit of subordinate or rival interests. But the great defect in the Paradise Lost, arising from that very unity, is want of variety. It is strung throughout on too lofty a key; it does not come down sufficiently to the wants and cravings of mortality. The mind is awe-struck by the description of Satan careering through the immensity of space, of the battle of the angels, of the fall of Lucifer, of the suffering, and yet unsubdued spirit of his fellow rebels, of the adamantine gates, and pitchy darkness, and burning lake of hell. But after the first feeling of surprise and admiration is over, it is felt by all, that these lofty contemplations are not interesting to mortals like ourselves. They are too much above real life—too much out of the sphere of ordinary event and interest.

The fourth book is the real scene of interest in the Paradise Lost; it is its ravishing scenes of primeval innocence and bliss which have given it immortality. We are never tired of recurring to the bower of Eve, to her devotion to Adam, to the exquisite scenes of Paradise, its woods, its waters, its flowers, its enchantments. We are so, because we feel that it paints the Elysinm to which all aspire, which all have for a brief period felt, but which none in this world can durably enjoy.

No one can doubt that Homer was endowed with the true poetic spirit, and yet there is very little of what we now call poetry in his writings. There is neither sentiment nor declamation —painting nor reflection. He is neither descriptive nor didactic. With great powers for portraying nature, as the exquisite choice of his epithets, and the occasional force of his

« AnteriorContinuar »