« AnteriorContinuar »
ter, to write for the world. It may be fairly admitted, too, that it is equally free from that obscurity, mysticism, or want of logical precision, with which much of the German criticism may be reproached, and from that arbitrary and capricious distribution of praise or censure, referable to no principle except the personal feeling of the critic, with which our modern English criticism is not less justly chargeable. The principles of the French critics are indeed drawn from a narrow sphere, and, as universal rules, are unquestionably false; but their deductions from them are clearly and logically inade; the opinion is put in a tangible shape, in which it either admits of refutation or compels assent. To clear and consequent reasoning, though from narrow premises, they join a corresponding precision and clearness of style; their learning, though far from extensive, is respectable; in the perception of the ridiculous or the incongruous, their tact is rarely mistaken; where the point and application of the criticism can be heightened by wit, it is seldom wanting. Now that our literary horizon is enlarged, and our principles of taste drawn from a wider experience, much advantage, we humbly think, might be gained from the judicious study of the French criticism of the last century. It would do much to explode that vicious and exaggerated school of criticism, to which the vast increase of periodical writing at the present day has given rise, in which the extravagance of the sentiments is equalled by the inflation of the style; in which praise and blame are equally in extremes, and neither is bestowed upon any consistent, intelligible, or even conscientious principle.
We have said that the tendency to
wards criticism is not less visible in Voltaire than in his successors; and, all things considered, he remains the best representative of the French criticism of the eighteenth century, With the true spirit of antiquity, indeed, he was but partially acquainted. His ideas of it were taken at second hand from the writings of the dramatists and critics of the seventeenth
century. To the manly, bold, and picturesque outlines of Homer, he has done justice. If his criticism on the father of poetry contains nothing profound or novel, it is at least just and discriminating, so far as it
goes. But the simple, statue-like, grandeur of the Greek theatre, he ap pears to have been altogether unable to appreciate; he is constantly bla. ming its poverty of dramatic resources, its defect of skill in the exposition of plot, the want of a stirring and antithetic dialogue. One of his remarks on a passage in the Edipus Tyrannus, is characteristic of this ignorance of the Greek original, and his incapacity of entering into the spirit of ancient manners. In the first scene of that tragedy, Edipus, alarmed at the groans and lamentations of his people thronging to the altar, comes out to enquire the cause, and addresses then
"I could have sent to learn the fatal cause,
But see, your anxious sovereign comes himself,
To know of all of you; Behold your king,
Whereupon Voltaire thus remarks"The scene opens with a chorus of Thebans prostrate at the foot of the altar. Edipus, their liberator and their king, appears among them. I am Edipus, says he, so renowned through all the world. There is some
likelihood that the Thebans were not ignorant that his name was Edipus. This is no great proof of that perfection to which, it has been maintained some years since," (by Racine and Boileau,) "that tragedy had been brought by Sophocles. It does not appear that we are much in the wrong in refusing our admiration to a poet, who employs no better artifice to make his personages known than to make them say I am Edipus.' We no longer call such rudeness a noble simplicity." La Harpe justly remarks,
which is, indeed, sufficiently obvious, that Sophocles does not say, " I am Edipus;" but, after stating that he might have employed a meaner mesking himself the world-renowned vicsenger, goes on to say, that he, their hesitated to come in person to answer tor of the Sphynx-Edipus-had not the call of his subjects. But if Sophocles be in the wrong, what becomes, line of the Iphigenie of Racine on the same principle, of the opening
"Oui, c'est Agamemnon, c'est son Roi que l'eveille ?"
Might not a critic with as much justice say " There is some likeli
hood that Arcas was not ignorant that his master's name was Agamemnon?"
One other instance may be noticed of the false views of Greek tragedy, which the criticisms and analyses of Voltaire on that subject are calculated to convey. He is giving an account of that scene in the Alcestis of Euripides, where the servant describes the conduct of Hercules, who had been received as a guest by Admetus into the mansion of death, after the death of his wife.
"A servant enters alone, speaking of the arrival of Hercules: he describes him as a stranger who opens the door for himself, places himself immediately at table, grumbles that his repast is not served soon enough, fills his cup incessantly with wine, drinks long draughts of white and red, and bellows forth bad songs that resemble howlings, without troubling himself about the king and his wife, whom we are lamenting. He must be some rascal, some vagabond, some assassin."
"There is no disputing about tastes," adds Voltaire; "but it is certain that with us such scenes would not be suffered at the Foire," (a second-rate theatre, chiefly frequented by the lower classes.) And La Harpe, who really seems to have formed his idea of the Alcestis from this travestie of Voltaire, expresses a similar opinion.
Now first, let it be kept in view that the scene is not represented at all, but merely described by the servant; for Sophocles would have no more thought of actually introducing such a scene as passing on the stage, than Voltaire himself; and, next, (although we fairly admit the scene even as described by Euripides appears singular,) the ironical description of Voltaire is very far from giving an idea of the reality.
Most readers will recollect under what circumstances the scene to which Voltaire alludes takes place. Overpowered with grief for the loss of his wife, who has just expired, Admetus sees a stranger approaching his threshold. According to the ideas of the ancients, there was something sacred in the presence of a guest; he was considered as a man sent by Jupiter and the gods to receive the rites of hospitality. Admetus tries to disguise his grief from the stranger; he excuses the disorder in which every thing appears, by alleging the death of a female inmate of the family; but he conceals the fact that this was Alcestis. Hercules, unconscious of the grief under which Admetus labours, accepts the invitation; and, it must be admitted, takes his ease in his apartment, in a manner not very consistent with modern usages, which is thus described by the servant who had attended him;
"To many strangers and from various lands,
Presented, though apprised of our distress.
* Wodhull's Euripides-Alcestis.
"But what is the result," says Villemain," of this contrast of the tragic and the comic, of sorrow and merriment, which surprises us a little, notwithstanding the literary eclecticism of our time? This noisy guest, who delivers himself up to joy beside a mourning of which he is unconscious,
learns at last, from the grief of the slave, that Admetus, through regard for the laws of hospitality, has deceived him; that she whose death had been spoken of is no stranger, but Alcestis herself, who has died for her husband. Struck with pain and regret, he exclaims
'I with reluctance pass'd
The threshold, and the foaming goblet drain'd
Regaled myself, and cover'd o'er these brows
"This was what charmed and enchanted the Greeks. What a power of religious illusion was necessary to make them adopt this fable of a wife rescued from death and restored to the husband, who is lamenting her loss? But that belief once admitted, what a pathetic charm in such a spectacle! What becomes of those vulgar rules, so often repeated, which insist that the progress of tragedy shall always be from happiness to misfortune? The pathetic and theatrical, in such a subject, is to be found in the return of Alcestis, still pallid from the tomb, and the unexpected happiness of her husband; the tragic, in the contrast between the funeral preparations of Alcestis, the grief of her children, the lamentations of her husband-and the merriment of that stranger who sits indifferent at table.
"Do we not recognise those vicissitudes of human life which are so striking in Shakspeare? That beautiful Juliet who had glittered at the ball, two days after is dead. The musicians who had been invited for the celebration of her nuptials are come ; there are now no nuptials to be celebrated they are to assist at a very different ceremony-at her funeral. And beside that chamber where Juliet is extended in death, and where the family are mourning, they are conversing and uttering their pleasantries."
In one point, however to do justice
to Voltaire-he had the good sense to perceive the incongruity of the form in which the Greek drama had been recast by Corneille and Racine, namely, the perpetual introduction of love scenes, and the language of modern gallantry into the austere tragic pathos of the Greek mythology. He had himself, in his earliest piece, "The Edipus," adopted this conventional absurdity; but he had the sense to perceive, and the candour afterwards to admit, his error. In the epistle dedicatory of his "Orestes," addressed to the Duchess of Maine, speaking of the reception of Edipus, he observes, "Every thing which was in the taste of Sophocles was generally applauded, and all which savoured a little of the passion of love, was condemned by every enlightened critic. And, in truth, what room for gallantry amidst the parricide and incest which are desolating a family, and the plague which is ravaging a country? What more striking example of the absurdities of our theatre, and of the force of habit, than Corneille on the one hand making Theseus say—
Quelque ravage affreux qu'etale ici la peste
L'absence aux vrais amans est encore plus funeste!'
And myself, on the other, sixty years after him, addressing the language of antiquated love to an ancient Jocasta, and all this to flatter the emptiest and falsest taste that ever corrupted literature.'
The criticisms of Voltaire on the literature of modern Europe, are unequal. Spain he has treated with great injustice, arising probably from a very inadequate acquaintance with
its highly peculiar literature. To the profundity, and even romantic beauty which mingles, with broad humour, in the wonderful romance of Cervantes, he appears to have been insensible. Lope is dealt with only as a brilliant barbarian ; and Calderon, from whose rich and inventive genius Corneille had more than once borrowed his sources of inspiration, is judged of by one of the wildest of his plays, though full of traits of grandeur, La Vida es Sueno, from which the Heraclius of Corneille was mainly derived. On the other hand, Voltaire has conferred an undue importance on the Araucana of Ercilla—a work which derives its chief interest from its embodying the personal experiences and adventures of its amiable author; but which is no more entitled to the character of an epic, than the many other productions of the same kind, in which an attempt was made to celebrate the triumphs of Charles V., the very names of which are now forgotten.
In his criticisms on Italian literature he has been less unjust, though he is far enough from being satisfactory. The gloomy grandeur of Dante, and the religious mysticism which he has incorporated with his pictures of human feelings and human sufferings, appear to have revolted him, and he speaks of the Divina Commedia with comparative coldness and severity. Petrarch is blamed for his tediousness and monotony; but some translations from this poet which Voltaire has executed, are among the best specimens of the kind which French literature possesses. But justice, on the whole, is done to Tasso; and between himself and Ariosto there were sufficient points in common, particularly in the light ironical and irreligious vein which pervades the compositions of both, to render his estimate of that poet eminently true and happy.
Voltaire piqued himself upon having been the first to make known to his countrymen that England possessed what they wanted, a great epic poem, in the Paradise Lost of Milton. objects, as might be expected, to the war between the good and evil angels, "where the sublime too often merges in the extravagant;" to the harangues and repartees of the infernal council; to the employment of cannon in the great encounter of the warring hosts, and to the manœuvres
of the battle in general; to the needless erection of the Doric palace in hell, for the purpose of addressing the infernal host, "to whom Satan might just as well have spoken in the open air;" and he is clear that "the devil speaks too much, and harps too long on the same strain." He quotes Boileau's distich :—
"Eh! quel objet enfin à presenter aux yeux
Que le diable toujours heurlaut contre les cieux !"
In these objections there is a mixture of truth and falsehood; the following passage, however, is in better taste:—
"There are two causes, I believe, of the popularity which Paradise Lost will always retain; the first, the interest we take in a happy and innocent pair whom a powerful and jealous being renders guilty and miserable by his seductions; the second, the beauty of the details.
"The French smiled when they were told that England possessed an epic poem of which the subject was the combat of the devil against God, and the serpent persuading the woman to eat an apple; they conceived that such a subject could afford matter for nothing but vaudevilles. They were afterwards astonished to find in a subject which appeared so barren, such fertility of imagination displayed. They admired the majestic traits with which Milton has dared to delineate God, and the still more striking cha racter which he has given to the devil. They read with delight the description of the garden of Eden, and the innocent loves of Adam and Eve. It is, indeed, worthy of remark, that in other poems, love is regarded as a weakness; in Milton alone, it is a virtue. He has raised, with a chaste hand, the veil which elsewhere covers the pleasures of this passion; he transports the reader into Paradise; he makes him taste the pure delights with which the hearts of Adam and Eve are filled; he does not elevate himself above buman nature, but only above the corruptions of human nature; and as there is no example of similar love, there is no instance of similar poetry."
Voltaire's treatment of Shakspeare less admits of defence; for his depreciating estimation of the prince of dramatic poets was evidently dictated
by mere jealousy and envy. As long as he conceived that the reputation of Shakspeare could not possibly interfere with his own; he was willing to extend to him a condescending patronage. Though certainly unable to comprehend the deep mechanism of Shakspeare's tragedies, he was perfectly alive to some of his excellencies, as the many passages which he has borrowed from him, and ingeniously interwoven into his dramas, sufficiently show. But when he found that his protege was likely to become his rival that the French were beginning to study Shakspeare, and to relish his beauties, even when conveyed through the stilted prose translation of Letourneur-that in this way the source of his depredations would be discovered, and restitution to the right owner enforced, if indeed the whole artificial fabric of the French theatre were not threatened with subversion by the native and masculine boldness of the English dramatist;-he instantly retracted his praises, and passed from the expression of admiration to that of the most unmeasured invective. Villemain compares him to the nobles invoking the States-General in 1788, and emigrating two years afterwards in disgust at the consequences of the innovation which they had caused. In 1730 Voltaire writes:-" I have found among the English what I was in search of; and the paradox of Homer's reputation has been explained to me. Shakspeare, their first tragic poet, has in England no other epithet than the divine.' When I had acquired a sufficient acquaintance with the language, I perceived that the English were in the right; and that it is impossible that a whole nation should be deceived in a matter of feeling, or be wrong in the pleasure which it enjoys."
Years afterwards, when the increasing reputation of Shakspeare in France had begun to suggest the idea of a future rival, Voltaire, in speaking of Letourneur's translation (which it may be fairly admitted was worthy of all vituperation), bursts forth into the following tirade; in which it is not difficult to perceive that, under the pretext of vindicating the fame of Racine and Corneille, the chief object of his apprehension is the reputation of Voltaire.
"Have you read his abominable
scrawls, of which there are still five volumes to come? Have you a sufficiently vigorous hatred against this impudent imbecile? Will you submit to the affront which he has put upon us? In the whole of France there are not pillories and fools' caps enough for such a scoundrel! The blood boils in my old veins while speaking of him. The frightful part of the business is, that the monster has a party in France. And to crown this calamity and horror, it was I who was the first to speak of this Shakspeare: I was the first to exhibit to the French some pearls which I had picked up in his enormous dunghill. Little did I expect that I should one day be instrumental in treading into the dust the crowns of Racine and Corneille, to ornament with them the brow of a barbarian player. The Gilles and Pierrots (clowns and harlequins) of the Foire St Germain fifty years ago, were Cinnas and Polyeucteses in comparison with the personages of this drunkard Shakspeare (cet yvrogne de Shakspeare), whom M. Letourneur styles the god of the theatre."
This sally Voltaire followed up by regular indictment against Shakspeare, in the shape of a long letter addressed to the French Academy, and read to them officially by their secretary D'Alembert, written with more than his usual wit and ingenuity, in which he took a rapid review of the plays of Shakspeare, selecting from them an anthology of quibbles, ob. scenities, specimens of bombast, and so forth; and concluding, "Figure to yourselves, gentlemen, Louis the XIV,, in his gallery at Versailles, surrounded by his brilliant court; a clown advances covered with rags, and gravely proposes to this assembly to leave the tragedies of Racine for a mountebank, who makes contortions, and exhibits some happy sallies of wit." It is needless to add, that, with the Academy, such an appeal as this was considered as decisive of the whole question.
But enough of Voltaire, who, as Villemain remarks, meets us at every turn in our progress through the literature of his period. We will only add that the best specimens of his criticism, as may be expected, are his estimates of the works of French writers, or writings avowedly com posed in the French taste. In these, his clear judgment, his intuitive per