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PROSPECTIVE LETTER CONCERNING POETRY.
MR CHRISTOPHER NORTH, MEANING to address to you some remarks, I shall say for the present that I am a young poet wishing to distinguish, by new literary exploits, the reign of George the Fourth. You must remember that all the celebrated bards of the present time have come out under George the Third; but I must turn over a new leaf; and my present perplexity arises from the difficulty of ascertaining what department will be the best for genius to exert itself in. Looking round, I find the external at mosphere filled with scattered phenomena, betokening past commotions. But many clouds of delusion are driving away, and retreating far behind
The atmosphere seems no longer the same as when it was weighed down and rendered heavy by the powerful bad angel Napoleon. Lest, however, you should think there may be more words than meaning in these metaphors, I shall proceed to speak of my doubts, Mr Christopher, opening them to you in a confidential manner. But, in the first place, I throw aside all use less and narrow-minded fears of the materials of poetry being exhausted, for every new generation being placed in different circumstances, is made to feel what requires to be differently expressed. Poetry may be said to be exhausted historically, and also in the natural or descriptive departments. The books of Homer, Lucretius, and so forth, remain from age to age, and do not require to be succeeded by other productions; but the kind of poetry which each generation is fitted to produce successively, consists of the expression of problems of feeling which occur to itself, according as external circumstances, or the progress of reflection, throw the mind into new positions. We must look towards that kind which is inquisitive and philosophical, and more intent upon exemplifying the general truths of feeling than upon causing a blind sympathy. It is most likely that no good dramatic pieces will be written unless upon a new plan. When minds of strong feeling become reflective and deliberative, their disposition will not accord with those dramas which require an unreflecting surrender of personal sympathy to moving events. And any thing very profound or true would, at
present, be read with more satisfaction in a poem or a novel, than seen represented upon the stage. For, when we commune with the heart, it is best done in private, and in a state of perfect liberty from the multitude. The stage is the fit place for buffoonery, for music, for all the arts of grimace, and the display of personal situation. But it will scarcely, at present, be found the place for what is most serious and true in poetry. Some poets have lately been heard complimenting each other in dramatic talent, and pressing and imploring each other to write tragedies; but if this had been the time, and if nature had prompted them, they probably would have done so before now. Most to be desired are the productions of bold, inventive, and inquisitive genius, untrammelled by subjection to any particular form or extrinsic purpose. For enlarging the mind, there can even be nothing bet ter than the exercises of mere fancy; for in works of fancy, the laws of combination cannot be drawn from clumsy experience, or from an adherence to the probability of events. Therefore, in making them, there is no guide but intellect, taste, and the strong feeling of what is agreeable in the transitions of thought and conception. In the same manner that in a piece of instrumental music, which neither expresses the situation or passion of any person, there is no guide but a knowledge of the relations of the different keys, and abstract taste in choosing the means of modulating through
Fearing, however, that these general remarks may sound vague and unsatisfactory, I shall proceed to something more particular. I have said already that I am a young poet, yet I am still doubtful whether to write in verse or prose. In the English language, there is not much gained as to harmony, or the delight of the ear, by writing verse. It is a mistake to suppose that the final purpose of rhyme is the correspondence of sounds, for the real use of the recurrence of rhyme is to mark the place which terminates a certain number of syllables. Thus rhyme, occurring at the end of each eight or ten, strikes the ear, and makes the regularity of the intermediate quantities perceptible. But as some
lines are read faster and others slower, it is evident that such verse is regular only in the number of syllables, and does not attain to a musical regularity of quantity, in which every line would occupy precisely the same time. This lessens my esteem for verse. Nevertheless, in many sorts of composition, it is still worth while to write in verse, for the pleasure it gives, as well as for the form's sake. The Italian stanza is coming into fashion, but has this fault, that, for the number of rhymes, it requires so much straining and misplacing of words as to be injurious to correctness. This sextuple rudder of thought does best for those who, in sailing, trust more to the wind than to the compass. If I were to write a tragedy for private perusal, and not for the stage, I think it would be best to take a certain kind of verse which resembles the French Alexandrine, namely, the rhyming couplet of twelve syllables. This is a fine sounding measure, full of declamatory pomp and emphasis, and well fitted for conveying the groans of a labouring bosom. Monotony is no fault in verse, if the meaning be good and full; for the very monotony of verse implies its regularity of measure-one of the greatest perfections. I am tired of the blank verse of ten syllables in trage dies; and poets, by adopting a new measure, should get quit of the old spiritless thoughts connected with this.
Having thus expressed the difficulty which a poetical mind finds in chusing between verse and prose, I shall next speak of the choice of themes for poetry. Here the worst error lies in subjection to the opinion of the public, and a wish to light upon some subject that will be sure of immediately arresting its attention. Whoever seeks to enlarge the boundaries of poetry must proceed upon more dignified principles, and turn disinterestedly towards those subjects his mind most strongly draws him to inquire into. That which is built immediately upon the temporary state of popular opinion produces its strongest effect at the first moment it is brought into contact with the public, but diminishes in power ever after, till it comes to appear empty and unmeaning. Such has been the fate of Lallah Rookh, for instance, and will be of all poems that follow after public opinion, which never yet was capable of
having one clear or fixed idea, or of recollecting what it was doing six weeks before
Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind, It rules, in native anarchy, the mind. If the world had obstinacy or perseverance in any thing, it would be an unruly force; but happily it partakes of" semper varia et mutabilis" of the female nature, and its tendencies have the same steadiness as the tumbling of a wave, or the succession of thoughts in a sick man's dream. It is not, therefore, made to be obeyed by those who seek for certainty or real good in any department of intellectual cultivation.
Next to be spoken of is the mode of treating a subject. On this subject I feel not many doubts, being convinced that all large and formal plans are as a snare to the poet, and bring him into saying feeble, false, or unseasonable things, which do not come either from his own genius or from the subject. The best plan is that which results immediately from the nature of the theme, and terminates with it. Elegance of form, and pure and perfect arrangement, give but small delight in poetry, compared with what they give in music and painting. Poetry must be more versant in the interests of the human affections.
Of all the poets who write at present, the freest in expressing his thoughts in any way they occur to him, is Lord Byron. The freest inventor of fictions is Sir Walter Scott; but they are expressive only of human character, and not of opinion, which has little connection with the active energy of the olden time. Words. worth's genius does not tend much towards the delights of fiction. Being more fit for meditative self-examina tion, his thoughts are always called in from inventive flights by an anxious wish to separate truth from falsehood. But his mode of writing is sometimes not entirely freed from something like a puritanical grudge, making him wish still to retain " a stern self-respect, and to take too much pleasure in his own modes of action. One would think it would only be necessary for him to look at those vulgar religionists, who are just, chiefly, for the sake of being proud, and who, although they obey the law, are destitute of all feeling the beauty of abstract relations; that they would wish almost to stop at the virtue of mere faith, which is
compatible with every sort of mental deformity. But I do not throw out these reflections with an intention to apply them to Wordsworth. His fault is not that he participates in such vices, but that he does not keep sufficiently far from the region where they exist. It may be said in his defence, that to accomplish what he has done, required, besides sensibility, also personal resolution and rigidity of will to persevere, in defiance of what was passing around him. If Wordsworth is sometimes harsh, Milton was sourer in the tendency of his sentiments, and his mind never softened at all into passive love, which sometimes appears, in Wordsworth's poetry, with all the =graces of true humility and gentle good-will. The nature of Wordsworth's poetical pursuits must always have hindered him from a wandering freedom of invention; and it is easy to perceive that his mode of imagining is not very graceful or easy. From the third canto of Don Juan, it appears that Lord Byron looks upon him with contempt and disapprobation, especially for this fault. His lordship's mode of thinking and conceiving appears with better effect in Don Juan, than
in any former poem. He leans entirely towards natural passions and affections, as opposed to the mind's subjection to the ideal; and, consequently, his most general and absolute sentiment is that of universal relationship with nature, and of the community of substances-a "thorny" creed. In the exercises of fancy, (in which his lordship excels,) he seeks most for a rapid change of colours, and for bold oppositions. The narration of the first intrigue in Don Juan produces a strong sensation. Nevertheless, the successive narrations of amours would require to diminish in warmth, and to increase in philosophical reflections upon the ultimate results of passion, and its various depths; and this, perhaps, is the design of Don Juan, which his lordship promises is to be a moral poem.
Such are the opinions I entertain concerning the lines chosen by the poets who now write. But, for myself, I hesitate, not like a student before the two ways of the Samian letter, but rather doubt and wonder, like a mathematician, among the possible radii of a circle. Yours, &c.
NOTICES OF OLD ENGLISH COMEDIES.
Eastward Hoe-JONSON, CHAPMAN, AND MARSTON.
In the analytical essays on the old English dramatists, which have made their appearance in the former numbers of our work, our readers will observe the design has been confined exclusively to plays of tragic interest and complexion. We have not yet strayed, or attempted to stray, on the comic ground of our ancient drama. Yet this has been occasioned, not so much by our undervaluing the humour and heartiness of our old comedy, as from a conviction of the surpassing excellence of those plays which abound most in scenes of passion and high-wrought feeling, from which, if from any thing, our modern tragic drama must be recreated and refreshed. Their scenes of humour none can estimate more highly than we do; and were it not for those absorbing excellencies we have before alluded to, we are satisfied their claim to attention
and admiration would have been more frequently noticed and allowed. We have therefore been induced to commence a new series, with reference to this particular object, in which we purpose to bring a few of these productions before the view of our readers; entreating them at the same time to remember, that we do not promise more than a brief and unpretending analysis of the different plays, with a few concluding observations; and that the present series is not in any wise intended to interfere with or conclude the former, of which we hope shortly to give our readers some fresh and valuable specimens.
With the faculty of opening the sluices of the heart, and awaking the most sacred sympathies of our being, our early dramatists possessed in an equal degree that keen consciousness of the ridiculous, and graphical force of
delineation, which are required for the production of characters and situations of humour. The same natural and intuitive feeling which led them to comprehend and fathom the graver emotions and higher mysteries of our kind, was never wanting when the object was to discern, analyze, and seize hold of the laughter-raising anxieties, strifes, passions, and humours of common life. Nature, in short, lay before them; and whether their inclination prompted them to call up tears or smiles, to harrow the soul with terror, or expand it with lofty and generous ebullitions of feeling-to strike upon the common and catholic sensibilities of which none are devoid, or to give to the heart new workings, aspirations, and fashionings-or, lastly, to entertain, by the ludicrous or comic exhibitions of our species, their success was ever great, triumphant, and prevailing. Indeed it was impossible they should not be equally potent in the lighter as well as the more serious representations of life, since almost all the qualities of mind which ministered to the one were, as the drama then stood, accessory to the development of the other. Besides, their comprehensiveness of observation was too extensive, their outpouring of faculty too great, to take in only one department of the mighty theatre which lies open for scenical imitation. Like the Roman epicures, they put the whole world in contribution to furnish the magnificence of their table. Human life, not in its fragments, not in its fractured parts, not in its separated portions of hill, dale, champain, or valley, but in its whole chequered and variegated vastness, was the vision it was permitted them to contemplate. The veil of the temple, if our reverence can permit us to make use of the expression, was rent in twain; and thus, with them, those twin-sovereigns, Tragedy and Comedy, which in other times, and with other nations, have risen to life and sunk into extinguishment singly and unallied, with them burst forth into existence at once, and pursued their way, not diversely and apart, but walked together hand in hand, prosecuting their various but not irreconcileable functions, and manifesting at once the approximation of their natures, and the nearness of their relationship.
Accordingly we find, that amongst
the number of our elder dramatists, a large proportion were at once writers of comedies and tragedies, and in each line unquestionably and paramountly successful. We do not here speak of those plays which are compounded partly of ludicrous and partly of tragic scenes, such as the histories of Shakespeare,-but of comedies and tragedies, properly so called, in which this chequer-work was not admitted. Middleton, Rowley, Chapman, Heywood, Marston, and Webster, with many others, might be named, amongst these double functionaries of the drama. In none is this exertion of power more remarkable than in Webster.-Who could possibly conceive or imagine the shadowy and awful pencil which delineated the death of the Duchess of Malfy, in scenes which terror has steeped with its darkest colouring, could ever, quitting the province of clouds and tempests in which its master sat enthroned, the very peλnyepeтa Zeus of the drama, descend to embody forth the lighter and lowlier scenes of comedy? Yet this we see it has done, and in a manner which demonstrates it to have been an easy and uninforced attempt. To attribute this to versatility of talent is ridiculous. It had a much deeper root. It was the result of a connexion between the two orders and characters of composition. It shews that tragedy was then pitched in a proper key,that it had not then forsook the language of common life,-that it had not then interposed a deep gulph between itself and comedy. It shows that a secret and invisible line of communication was then subsisting between them, which, while it served as a
connecting chain to both, was the link which bound both to nature. I manifests that no divorce had the taken place, or destroyed that salutary connexion, from which, as neighbour ing trees from the intertwining of thei roots, each gathered strength. Thi connexion was indeed the very essenc and soul of both. Without it, ou ancient drama could not have subsist ed, and without it, perhaps, no moder national drama can subsist. As lon as they are united by the mutual tie of relationship, tragedy will be check ed in its aberrations from life and na ture by its less ambitious neighbour which will, in its turn, borrow dignit from tragedy; but as soon as these ar
severed, the former will evaporate in bombast, and the latter degenerate into farce. So the event has proved. When, by the introduction of stiff modes of criticism, and superinduced insensibility of feeling, the nice and delicate medium of connexion between these twin powers was lost, then immediately departed the excellence of our drama, and thenceforward we meet no more with those touches of nature, strokes of feeling, bursts of passion, and electrifying energies of expression, which abound in our early tragic scenes; and, in their stead, we have little else but frothy declamation, and cold extravagance. Comedy also has lost its sterling dignity, and degenerated first into witty licentiousness, and next into farcical buffoonery and common-place. The comedies of the time of Vanburgh and Congreve are as little worthy of being compared to the substantially excellent productions of Fletcher and Ben Jonson, as any of the tawdry and despicable performances of the present day. The sickly mixture of sentiment and farce, by which the latter are characterized, is absolutely insufferable, after perusing such plays as The Alchymist,' and 'Every Man in his Humour.' In them, and in the comedies of their time, all the strong and healthy lineaments of dramatic excellence are manifest and prominent; there is nothing ricketty or unfashioned in their make, and little extravagant or out of place in their situations; they have wit, as it is regulated by nature, and sentiment, as it is controuled by truth.
But these considerations are out of the compass of our design, and we will drop them. The play which we have taken, as the first subject of our specimens, is the joint production of Ben Jonson, Chapman, and Marston. Perhaps it is not one of the most excellent of our early comedies, yet is unquestionably, even as a picture of ancient city manners, an interesting piece of writing. Our reverence, however, for the former of those writers has chiefly induced us to give it an examination, and few, we think, can feel indifferent to any thing in which Ben Jonson had a part, whilst yet in the vigour of his strength. As the joint composition of three eminent dramatists, it is still more interesting; nothing is more pleasing about the performances of these writers than
their partnerships of fame. Even surly Ben, self-relying and jealous as he was, we see did not scruple to enter into alliances of this kind, and, besides the present instance, has written in conjunction with Middleton and Fletcher. This is a pleasing indication of a common interest, a heartening spirit, in the literature of the time, which was sufficient to raise and dignify the drama of any country. Yet it is painful to remark, that Marston, who, in the comedy before us, is the coadjutor of Ben Jonson, was, within a short time after the writing of it, one of the most violent of his enemies ;so short and insecure. is the continuance of literary friendships.
The present play is one of the many of which city manners are the subject. With most of the comic writers of the time, they were a favourite theme. The prosperous reign of Elizabeth, and the peaceful one of James, gave full opportunity for industry and perseverance to rise to wealth; and commerce multiplied the means and enlarged the resources. Luxury, and extravagance the attendant of luxury, marched forward with rapid strides, and stocked the metropolis daily with fresh temptations for the prodigal and the unexperienced. Attracted by these allurements, the landed inheritors left the country for the town and the court, and frequently launched into extravagancies which their purses were unable to support, while their hospitable firesides were deserted; and what had been the abiding place of their forefathers, was left comfortless and bare. Thus many ancient families were reduced to beggary. On the ruins of these sprung up the race of opulent citizens and shopkeepers; and gradually increasing in importance, began to shoulder out the better educated and better bred gentlemen of the day. Every method which money could supply of hiding the original obscurity of birth and family was resorted to; and the degree of knighthood, which the hand of James, ever poor in purse and prodigal in honours, extended to all who could pay for it, was gladly caught hold of by opulent upstarts as a factitious means of gentility. Hence the frequent introduction of knights in our old comedies, and particularly in those of Ben Jonson, as the licensed subjects of ridicule. Amongst so many instances, it is reasonable to suppose that exam