Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

any apparent effort or labour, and yet are such as no effort or labour can mend. Like the sudden and delightful breathings of an Æolian harp, his overflowings of thought seem to burst forth unstimulated and unexcited, deriving none of their melody from the promptings of a musician's finger, and having in them nothing of earthly aid or human operation. His power does not seem so much to lie in the intellect as in the heart: not so much in the conflicting strife of intellectual prowess, or in the gigantic grasp of mental mightiness, as in the deep-drawn sighings of the soul-as in officiating as the high priest of its sanctuary as in exhaling from thence its clouds of imprisoned myrrh and frankincense

to heaven. The current of his emotions flows on in unperturbed and imperturbable serenity, undisturbed by troublous eddy or agitated ferment, catching and reflecting all the beauties which expanded nature presents, and receiving splendour and brightness from the silvery gleams which his fancy sheds upon it in its course. Around it are all the luxuriant delights of earth, above it is all the varied grandeur of heaven, and the voice of sadly pleasing and melancholy inspiration is heard along its shores. He appears, indeed, to have followed the counsel which he reports his muse to have given him“ Looke in thy heart and write;" and never was that writing unworthy of his character, when he gave utterance to the voice of inspiration within. When left to his own delightful windings along the green and bowery bye-paths he loved to frequent, when undriven from his haunts to join and commune with the vulgar herd of pilgrims to the sacred fountains of Castaly, when uncontaminated by bad example and uncorrupted by imitation, he never fails to awaken in the mind those feelings of ineffable transport, so seldom called forth to refresh and resuscitate it. Inferior as he must be acknowledged to be, to his contemporary, Shakspeare, it was not in the province of tenderness or the art of exciting pity. There, Sidney reigns pre-eminent and almighty, established on the eternal foundations of nature. With all the sweetness of Fletcher, without his fantastical wildness; with all the lovely pensiveness of Spenser, without his allegorical hardness; with much of the delicacy of Carew, and of the fanciful richness of Jeremy Taylor; our author possessed a kind of peculiar and subtle spirit so completely his own, as to be equally indescribable and inimitable. We may compare it to that finishing touch which evening gives to a beautiful landscape, where the want of glare and distinctness is well compensated by the mellowing softness of twilight's first approach; or to that fairy-like and round-circling line which appears, to the wanderer on the waves of the ocean, to connect and join its distant blue waters to the sky, thus uniting the opposite harmonies and assimilating the amalgamating tints of earth and

[blocks in formation]

heaven. This, whether proceeding from some perfection of fancy or exquisite refinement of nature, is, perhaps, the cause which renders the perusal of Sir Philip Sidney's works so exceedingly soothing and delicious in the open presence of nature; when, upon some green bank or near some shady fountain, we hang enamoured over his pages, and, dividing ourselves between the sequestered delights of nature herself and the deep-toned inspirations of her favoured prophet, enjoy the rich draughts of intellectual luxury. There is also another circumstance which perhaps contributes to heighten our satisfaction in his compositions, and this is, the constant recurring recollection of the author which forces itself upon our minds, and compels us with his writings continually to associate the memory of the writer. Every great and noble sentiment, every peaceful image of happiness, and touching expression of sadness, which his works contain, seem so manifestly and closely identified with his own feelings, so narrowly and essentially connected with and derived from his own heart, so undeniably the outpourings and workings of his own soul, that it is as impossible, in reading the productions of Sidney, not to revert to and remember himself, as in the dark and gloomy personifications of Byron not to recognise his own personal and individual character. As we read the imaginations of the former, we can almost fancy him breathing through his own pages, or that we are holding a colloquy with his disembodied spirit: we participate in the distresses of his personages as if they were parts of himself, and therefore to be worshipped; as if they were the representatives and continuations of his own mind, and therefore to be respected. Our minds are filled with

mingling remembrances of himself and his fate, of the promise of his youth and the brightness of his manhood, of the radiant progress of that star, which shed its first beams upon the peaceful glades of Penshurst, and diffused its dying glories over the bloody field of Zutphen. If with such emotions we peruse the works of Sidney, who would wish to rob him of that additional splendour, which his personal charaeter has given to his writings and associated with his works? Who would wish to remove that sacred veil of protection, which the nobleness of his life has spread over the meanest of his productions ? Little need as there is of such a protection, yet surely the immunities of virtue should never be destroyed. Such a deprivation will, however, little affect the fame of Sir Philip Sidney. He will, we may venture to predict, as long as living language and vivid description shall have attraction, be considered by posterity not less admirable as a writer than memorable as a man.

It has been the fate of the Arcadia to be the sport of popular caprice, and to experience all the extremes of admiration and neglect. Immediately on its publication, it was

received with unbounded applause. To this, many causes contributed--the high reputation of the author, his rank, his bravery, his unfortunate and premature death, and the real excellence of the work. The ladies were desirous of perusing what might be considered as the testament of so accomplished a courtier; the nobility regarded with eagerness the production of him who was their model and pattern; and the scholars turned with respect to the words of one who was equally qualified to shine in a college or a court. Thus the Arcadia became the favourite promptuary and text-book of the public: from it was taken the language of compliment and love: it gave a tinge of similitude to the colloquial and courtly dialect of the time, and from thence its influence was communicated to the lucubrations of the poet, the historian, and the divine.--Imitators in abundance came forth to add their supplements and continuations to it, and the works and person of Sir Philip Sidney were for a long time held up to universal and unqualified admiration.

But the enthusiasm of praise, like all other enthusiasm, will at length have an end, and happy may its victims account themselves, if the height which momentary fondness has raised them to, does not in the end contribute to increase the rapidity of their descent, and precipitate the violence of their fate. What a speaking illustration is furnished on this subject, by the fates of Aquinas, Ramus, Malbranche, and Picus of Mirandula; who would, in the zenith of their reputation, have ever believed that the world would one day be as silent of them as it is now? And, indeed, it is remarkable enough, how few of those who have astonished their contemporaries by their wit and genius, and whose names were in their own age held up to an almost idolatrous admiration, have left behind them memorials sufficient to justify their fame. In the scanty remains which time has left us of the genius of Crichton, we seek in vain for that intellectual vigour and refinement, which, pervading science at a glance, left all others at an immeasurable distance; and before which, universities themselves and assemblages of the learned shrunk dismayed and confounded. In the compositions of Rochester, what foundation can we find for that reputed predominancy of wit which all his contemporaries allowed him, and which seemed almost to excuse his profligacy and extenuate his vice. We look in vain, in the productions of such men, to find an adequate cause for the lavishness and superabundance of praise which was heaped on them by the devotion of their co-evals. It is as if some vivifying charm, some exquisite but fugacious investment of brightness, which hallowed them to the eyes of our forefathers, had departed and left us to inquire what could be that radiance of which we see no vestige or spark behind. It is as if there was in them a spirit volatile and escaping, which, animating the mass for awhile, at length vanishes like a mockery, and remains incommunicable and imperceptible to posterity. When time has effaced the light and evanescent strokes of genius, and brought with it other rules of taste and systems of opinion; when distance has cooled the fervor of admiration and the fondness of personal regard; when the loud and undistinguishing voice of applause has subsided to a scarcely perceptible murmur, and the favouring examination of friendship has given place to the sharp dissection of critical anatomy; how great is the variance we find between the judgments of contemporaneous and succeeding critics. The difference is hardly less than that perceived by him, who visits in winter the tree which in summer was his favourite retreat. He finds the same tree still remaining, under which he has so often reposed; but where is the verdure which apparelled and adorned it; where are the blossoms with which it was overspread; where are the sunbeams that played upon its branches; and where is the melody which enchanted him in its shade?

It would appear, from the fate which the Arcadia has experienced in the present age, that a similar disparity existed between its real intrinsic merit and the accredited character of its author; and that, so far from being capable of sustaining his reputation, its only claim to regard was derived from its bearing his name on its title-page. The present generation seem determined to disallow the lavish praises of their forefathers, and to equalize the balance by as lavish and heedless censures. It was enough that the work was written after a bad model; that it was interspersed with uninteresting pastoral interludes; that the author had endeavoured to form the English versification after the Latin, and had not succeeded; that there was in it an occasional occurrence of quaintness and conceit; and that the story was in some degree complicated and interwoven ; to. induce them to consign it to neglect, or to mention it with slighting and ungenerous criticism. The judgment of Horace Walpole is well known and remains on record, an indelible proof of the insensibility of his feelings and the depravity of his

His perception, indeed, limited to studious trifles and literary gewgaws, was ill qualified for discussing or appreciating the highest efforts of talent. What could Chatterton hope for from a man who had slighted Sir Philip Sidney? In the footsteps of Horace Walpole, follow Mr. Todd and Mr. Hazlitt. Mr. Campbell mentions the works of Sidney with much coldness; and the ingenious author of the History of Fiction, though upon the whole less unfavourable, yet ends by pronouncing the Arcadia a very tedious story.

taste.

Against these criticisms the best defence will be found in the work itself, to which we confidently refer our readers. That it has many faults, we do not deny; but they are faults to which all the writers of his time were subject, and generally in a greater degree. It has been said, that his language is very quaint; but we may safely ask, what author is there of his age in whose language there is in reality so little of quaintness? Let us remember a work, which the Arcadia contributed more than any thing else to consign to oblivion : a work, which for a long time was in high fashion and celebrity; and the style of which is, perhaps, more elaborately and systematically bad, than that of any work in the whole extent of literature.-We mean, Lilly's Euphues. With it, let us compare Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia--the style he introduced, with the style he contributed to banish ; and we shall then regard him as the restorer of the purity of our language, and as meriting our eternal gratitude and respect. The language of the Arcadia is, indeed, as much superior to that of the Euphues, as is the varied melody of the nightingale to the monstrous harshness of the jay.

Another radical fault in the Arcadia, is the defect of the species of writing of which it is a part—the heroic and pastoral romance, either disjunctively or commixed. But so far from lowering, this primary disadvantage ought rather to increase our admiration of his genius, who has been able to give attraction to so preposterous a kind of composition. Who would not applaud the ingenuity of him, who could engraft with success the apricot on the sloe, or the nectarine on the crab ? When we see a structure irregular and clumsy, but built of massy gold; however we may censure its defective plan, yet surely we must admire the richness of its materials. We wish every one, who dislikes for this reason the Arcadia, were compelled, as a punishment, to wade through all the voluminous tomes of its models, the French romances; and we think they would perceive how different an edifice the powers of genius and dullness will erect on the same narrow foundation. After all, notwithstanding all its disadvantages, the flashes of the gifted mind will force their way; and he, who, like Sir Philip Sidney, writes from the heart and describes from the

eye,

will readers, or be destitute of admirers, as long as the common feelings in which all human kind participate shall endure, and as long as the common scenery of nature, and the unfading garniture of creation, shall live and flourish undestroyed.

In an examination of the Arcadia, we cannot but observe the power which its author possesses of laying hold of the feelings, and exciting the interest, of his readers; an interest, which gradually augments and heightens to the end. If this be one, as assuredly it is, of the chief arts of imaginative composition,

never want

« ForrigeFortsæt »