« ForrigeFortsæt »
and acrimony which the editor has displayed in his very numerous notices of the errors of his predecessors. He never makes a silent correction, when he has an opportunity of expressing his malignant triumph over the ruin of another's fame. He seems to speak with the bitterness of personal hatred of men whom he never saw, or who were at rest in the grave before he himself was in his cradle. This virulence and ferocity introduced into questions of no moral consequence, not only interferes materially with the more pleasurable and peaceful emotions which the contemplation of the poet's beauties is calculated to excite, but leads us to call in question even the personal character of the editor, and makes us less disposed than we otherwise should be, to recognise the indications of his laborious care and his critical acumen. Mr. Gifford is guilty of another, but a more amiable and more common fault-a highly exaggerated estimate of the genius of the poet on whom he comments. There is no question that Massinger was a most distinguished ornament of what is called the age of Elizabeth, which, in reference to the History of our Literature, is generally made to include the reign of James the first. But I cannot agree with Gifford, that Massinger is, in any one respect that has relation to the higher qualities of genius, a rival of the immortal Shakespeare, or that his superiority to all his other contemporaries is quite so decided as he would have us think. Some commendatory verses, addressed to Massinger by a friend, ought to have suggested to Mr. Gifford the propriety of praising his favorite poet with somewhat more reserve. The following passage in these verses reminds me of a correspondent sentiment in Pope*.
“ Yet whoso e'er beyond desert commends,
Errs more by much than he that reprehends;
* Praise undeserved is censure in disguise. - Pope.
It is but fair to presume from the following compliment, (a very awkward one if not well founded,) that Massinger did not himself pretend to an equality with the greatest of his contemporaries.
“ You are not, I assure
With too much weight, ruin what it would raise." In fact, Massinger's modesty is placed beyond a doubt by the fact, that the same poetical friend subsequently wrote a similar address to him, in which he says, somewhat inconsistently with his first epistle :
“ You remember how you chid me, when
I ranked you equal with those glorious men,
I did but justice when I placed you so." Perhaps after all, Mr. Gifford's fault was not so much an undue partiality as defective judgment. For though an acute and clever critic within a certain limit, and endowed with a quick sense of the lesser proprieties, the minor morals of literature, he had not a true relish of poetical excellence of the highest order. He would have written a better essay on Pope than on Shakespeare. As a critic he was of the school of Johnson, who wrote so much more ably on Dryden than on Milton. He was readier at the discovery of slight errors than of great beauties. He was a kind of legal critic, who deemed it more his business and found it a more congenial task to discover a flaw or condemn an infraction of certain arbitrary laws, than to recognize and applaud those noble but irregular virtues that rise above them. He had evidently no sympathy for those poets
“ Who snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.” When he criticised the poetry of Shelley, he could discover not a single indication of sense or genius in the rich and wild imaginings of that daring genius. To him it was a midnight chaos, fitfully illumined by unwholesome meteors-a darkness visible, that served only to discover dismal vapours and demoniac phantoms. A critic of this sort is precisely the kind of person to prefer Massinger to Shakespeare. Mr. Monk Mason had remarked the general harmony of the former's versification, which he pronounced superior to that of any other writer with the exception of the generally acknowledged monarch of the English Drama. Mr. Gifford most unreasonably objects to this exception and asserts that rhythmical modulation is not in the list of Shakespeare's merits! He thinks that Shakespeare has been overrated; that Beaumont is as sublime, Fletcher as pathetic, and Jonson as nervous ; and that wit is the only quality by which he is raised above all competitors ! Here is a critic that would have pleased Voltaire. It would have been amusing enough if Mr. Gifford had been compelled to give a reason for the faith that was in him. He would have afforded a strong illustration of the absurdity and presumption of a mere satirist—an acute faultfinder
“ A word-catcher that lives on syllables,"
attempting to take the measure of such a gigantic mind as that of Shakespeare. It is not difficult to understand why a critic who counts syllables upon his fingers should prefer the verse of Massinger to that of Shakespeare. It is more uniformly smooth, correct, and regular. But it has nothing of the freedom, the variety and expression that characterize the voice of
“ Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warbling his native wood-notes wild." I wish not to underrate the real merit of Massinger's versifi. cation. The march of his verse is noble and majestic, and his diction is singularly pure and perspicuous. The latter has quite a modern air, though written two hundred years ago. Perhaps both his metre and his diction are preferable to those of Jonson ; but in neither respect does he equal Shakespeare. For though Massinger's language and metre have fewer faults, they have also incomparably fewer beauties, and the beauties very rarely indeed compete with those of the Prince of Dramatic Poets. They have not the same irresistible enchantment. The anticipated tones of Massinger always satisfy, but never surprize or ravish us. But the wild music of Shakespeare is like that of the Æolian harp touched by the wandering breeze, It reminds us of the music of the genius, who, in the habit of a shepherd, appeared before Mirza on the hills of Bagdad. He had a little musical instrument in his hand. As Mirza looked towards him, the genius applied it to his lips, and began to play upon it. “ The sound of it,” says Mirza, “ was exceeding sweet, and wrought into a variety of tunes that were inerpressibly melodious, and altogether different from any thing I had ever heard.” We may describe the enchanting melody of Shakespeare's softer passages in bis own delightful words,
“O it comes o'er the ear, like the sweet South
Stealing and giving odour." Coleridge once remarked, that he thought he might possibly catch the tone and diction of Milton, but that Shakespeare was absolutely inimitable. This was a very just and discriminating observation. We need be under no apprehension that the music of Shakespeare will ever pall upon the ear in consequence of its frequent repetition by a servile flock of mocking birds. It will never be said of him, as it was said of Pope, that he
“ Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
And every warbler had his tune by heart." The only superiority to Shakespeare that can be discovered in Massinger, is in the greater general clearness and more sustained dignity of his language, and in the judicious abstinence from those puns and quibbles which so unhappily deform the pages of a writer who would otherwise be almost too perfect for humanity.
“ Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.” The texture of Shakespeare's composition is often most vexatiously involved, and many of his passages are riddles still unsolved by the most patient and clear-headed of his commentators. These are his weightiest sins, and every school-boy can point them out for reprobation ; but, as it is hardly necessary to observe, they are redeemed by a galaxy of beauties that may be sought in vain in any other region of the world of literature.
Massinger has comparatively few of those fine and unaffected strokes of nature, for which Shakespeare is so remarkable. The “ What man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows,” addressed to Macduff when he receives the afflicting intelligence of the destruction of his family, and endeavours to suppress and conceal his agony ;-the single exclamation, “Ah!" in Othello, when a lightning-flash of jealousy first breaks upon the Moor's tempestuous soul ;-his “ Not a jot, not a jot,” when Iago observes that he is moved ;—the “ Pray you undo this button," of Lear when his heart swells almost to bursting ;-and a thousand other simple but most expressive touches of a similar kind, are amongst the truly characteristic excellencies of Shakespeare and are never to be found in the stately lines of Massinger. But yet, if we