Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

" *

wreck of moral nature,” in which “ the storm of life surpasses its strength.

The scenes which are necessarily required for the developement of villany and its artifices, must, of course, disclose many deeds of atrocity and vice, from which the unpolluted mind recoils with shuddering astonishment; but vividly, and justly too, as these have been portrayed by our poet, in all their native deformity, he has, with only one or two exceptions, so managed the exhibition, that, unless to very feeble minds, the impression never becomes too painful to be borne. Some qualifying property in the head or heart of the offender, or some repose from the intervention of more amiable or more cheerful characters, occurs to subdue to its proper tone what would otherwise amount to torture. Thus the disgust which would be apt to arise from contemplating the gigantic iniquity of Richard the Third, is corrected by an almost involuntary admiration of his intellectual vigour; and the merciless revenge of Shylock, being perpetually broken in upon by the alleviating harmonies of love and pity in the characters of those who surround him, passes not beyond the due limits of tragic emotion. +

* “ The Influence of Literature upon Society," by Madame De Stael-Holstein, vol. i. p. 305. Translation, 2d edit. 1812.

+ Of the soothing and delightful effect of this contrasted repose, Homer, more than any other writer, affords us abundant examples; perpetually introducing, in the midst of slaughter and contention, similes fraught with pathetic incident or picturesque description. One of these, for the purpose of being followed by an imitation which, in my opinion, greatly transcends the original, I shall now transcribe. The Grecian bard, after mentioning the fall of Simoisius, slain by Ajax, in the bloom of youth and beauty, thus proceeds: –

Him, what time she went
From Ida, with her parents to attend
Their flocks on Simois' side, his mother bore,
And thence they named him. But his days were few,
Too few to recompense the care that rear'd
His comely growth; for Ajax, mighty Chief,
Received him on his pointed spear, and, pierced
Through breast and shoulder, in the dust he fell.

The inimitable felicity, indeed, with which Shakspeare has intermingled the finest chords of pity and of terror, such as we listen to, with unsated rapture in his Romeo, his Lear, and his Othello, has been a subject of eulogium to thousands, but never can it meet, from mortal tongue, with praise of corresponding worth. For who shall paint the beauty of those transitions, when on a night of horror breaks the first

of heaven, the dawn of light and hope; when, like the sounds of an Æolian harp amid the pauses of a tempest, the still soft voice of love succeeds the tumult of despair, and whispers to the troubled spirit accents of mercy, peace, and pardon ?

bright ray

So, nourish'd long in some well-water'd spot,
Crown'd with green boughs, the smooth-skinn'd poplar falls,
Doom'd by the builder to supply with wheels
Some splendid chariot, on the bank it lies,
A lifeless trunk, to parch in summer airs."

Cowper, Iliad IV.

[ocr errors]

Tender and beautiful as this must be deemed, greatly am I mistaken, if the following lines be not preferred. They are taken from an unpublished poem, entitled Alfred, the composition of Mr. John Fitchett of Warrington, whom I have the pleasure of personally knowing, and who, I trust, will pardon the liberty thus assumed, of endeavouring to accelerate the publication of his work, by the production of one of its numerous beauties. Alfred consists of twenty books, ten of which, in a printed form, lie now before me. In the eighth book, Berthun, a brave and youthful thane, is slain by the pagan Amund :

a

Down the hero fell,
Riv'n through the brain. Sleep overcast his eyes.
Full many a tear his early fate shall mourn
Where on the woody side of Axham's vale
His pleasant dwelling stands. In vain shall look
At dawn or eve his tender wife to hail
His glad return, but hopeless to her heart
Press his fair image in her smiling babe.
He fell, as by some murm'ring riv'let's side
The tow'ring poplar, whose broad branches shade
A rural cottage, guardian of its peace,
Sinks crashing, and up tears the flow'ry bank,
Whelm’d by the tempest; the defenceless cot
Howls to the moaning wind: the birds behold
Their nests, their young, in ruin lost: the brook
Rolls o'er the tree whose image long it loved.”

It is perhaps only of Shakspeare that it can be said with truth, that his comic possesses the same unrivalled merit as his tragic drama. The force and versatility of his painting in this department, its richness, its depth, and its expression, and, more than all, the originality and fecundity of invention which it every where exhibits, astonish, and almost overwhelm the mind in its endeavour to form an estimate of

powers so gigantic, and which may not be altogether incommensurate with its scope and comprehensiveness. Whether we consider his delineations of this kind as the product of pure fiction, or founded on the costume of his age, they alike delight us by their novelty and 'their adhesion to nature. Falstaff and Parolles are, in many respects, as much the birth of fancy as Caliban or Ariel ; but being strictly confined within the pale of humanity, and displaying all its features with living truth and distinctness, the inventive felicity of their combination is apt to escape us through our familiarity with its component parts. His Fools, or Clowns, on the contrary, were, in his time, of daily occurrence, and not only to be found in the court of the monarch, and the castle of the baron, but in the hall of the squire, and even beneath the roof of the churchman; yet, from comparing what history has recorded of this motley tribe with the spirited sketches of our author, how has he heightened their wit and sarcasm !—to such a degree, indeed, that they have frequently become in his hands

personages of poetic growth, wild and grotesque, it is true, yet powerfully original.

This pre-eminence of Shakspeare in the characterisation of his fools probably led to their dramatic extinction ; for it must have been found very difficult to support their tone and spirit after such a model. Beaumont and Fletcher, it has been observed, have but rarely introduced them; Ben Jonson and Massinger never * ; and yet the courtfool had not ceased to exist in the reign of Charles the First, nor the domestic until the commencement of the eighteenth century. +

a

* Douce's Illustrations of Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 327.

+ Of court-fools, it is observed by Mr. Douce, that “ Muckle John, the fool of Charles the First, and the successor of Archee Armstrong, is perhaps the last regular personage of the kind." - Illustrations, vol. ii. p. 308.

.

Another of the great distinctions which have elevated Shakspeare so completely above the dramatic class of poets, is the splendour and infinity of his imagination

[blocks in formation]

was deemed, even by his contemporaries, the peculiar destiny of our bard; a destination that has been still more thoroughly felt and acknowledged by succeeding ages, and by which, without sacrificing any of the more legitimate provinces of the drama, he has acquired for his poetry that stamp of glowing inspiration, which more than places it on a level with the daring flights of Homer, of Dante, or of Milton ; while, at the same time, there exclusively belongs to him an insinuating loveliness of fancy that endears him to our feelings, and brings with it a recognition of that visionary happiness which charmed our earliest youth, when all around us breathed enchantment, and the heart alone responded to the fairy melodies of love and hope.

What contrast, for instance, of poetic power has ever exceeded that which we experience in passing from the mysterious horrors of Hamlet and Macbeth, from the visitations of the midnight spectre, and the unhallowed rites of witchcraft, to the sportive revelry of the tripping elves, and the exquisite delights of Ariel; from the fiend-like character of Iago, from the soul-harrowing distraction of Lear, and the unearthly wildness of Edgar, to that music of paradise which falls melting from the tongue of Juliet or Miranda!

We also find an epitaph by Dean Swift, on Dicky Pierce, the Earl of Suffolk's fool, who was buried in Berkeley church-yard, June 18. 1728, in the same ingenious essay. Vide Dissertation on the Clowns and Fools of Shakspeare, — Illustrations, vol. ii. p. 309.

[ocr errors]

a

Were we to lengthen this summary by any dissertation on the morality of our author's drama, it might justly be considered as a work of supererogation. So completely, indeed, does this, the most valuable result of composition, pervade every portion of his dramatic writings, that we can scarcely open a page of his best plays without being forcibly struck by its lessons of virtue and utility ; such as are applicable, not only to extraordinary occasions, but to the common business and routine of life; and such as, while they must make every individual better acquainted with his own nature and conditional destiny, are calculated, beyond any other productions of unrevealed wisdom, to improve that nature, and to render that destiny more happy and exalted.

Still less is it necessary to comment on the faults of Shakspeare, for they lie immediately on the surface. When we add, that some coarsenesses and indelicacies which, however, as they excite no passion and flatter no vice, are, in a moral light, not injurious; some instances of an injudicious play on words, and a few violations, not of essential, but merely of technical, costume, form their chief amount, no little surprise, it is possible, may be excited; but let us recollect, that many of the defects which prejudice and ignorance have attributed to Shakspeare, have, on being duly weighed and investigated, assumed the character of positive excellences. Among these, for example, it will be sufficient to mention the composite or mixed nature of his drama, and his general neglect of the unities of time and place, features in the conduct of his plays which, though they have for a long period heaped upon his head a torrent of contemptuous abuse, are, at length, acknowledged to have laid the foundation, and to have furnished the noblest model of a dramatic literature, in its principles and spirit infinitely more profound and comprehensive than that which has descended to us from the shores of Greece.

It was in reference to the narrow and mistaken views which were once entertained of the genius of Shakspeare ; it was in refutation of the calumnies of Rymer, and the senseless invective of Voltaire, who had charged us with an extravagant admiration of this barbarian,

« ForrigeFortsæt »