ple, any of us were to put ourselves into the stage-coach from Salisbury to London, it is more than probable we should not meet with the same number of odd accidents, or ludicrous distresses on the road, that befell Parson Adams; but why, if we get into a common vehicle, and submit to the conveniences of modern travelling, should we complain of the want of adventures? Modern manners may be compared to a modern stage-coach; our limbs may be a little cramped with the confinement, and we may grow drowsy, but we arrive safe, without any very amusing or very sad accident, at our journey's end.

In this theory I have, at least, the authority of Sterne and the 'Tatler' on my side, who attribute the greater variety and richness of comic excellence in our writers, to the greater variety and distinctness of character among ourselves; the roughness of the texture and the sharp angles not being worn out by the artificial refinements of intellect, or the frequent collision of social intercourse.—It has been argued on the other hand, indeed, that this circumstance makes against me; that the suppression of the grosser indications of absurdity ought to stimulate and give scope to the ingenuity and penetration of the comic writer who is to detect them; that the progress of wit and humour ought to keep pace with critical distinctions and metaphysical niceties; [that the more we are become like one another, or like nothing, the less distinction of character we have, the greater discrimination must it require to bring it out; that the less ridiculous our manners become, the more scope do they afford for art and ingenuity in discovering our weak sides and shades of infirmity, and that the greatest sameness and monotony, must in the end produce the most exquisite variety. What a pity it is, that so ingenious a theory should not have. the facts on its side; and that the perfection of satire should not be found to keep pace with the want of materials. It is rather too much to assume on a mere hypothesis, that the present manners are equally favourable to the production of the highest comic excellence, till they do produce it. Even in France, where encouragement is given to the noblest and most successful exertions of genius by the sure prospect of profit to yourself or your descendants, every time your piece is acted in any

corner of the empire,-we find the best critics going back to the grossness and illiberality of the age of Louis XIV. for the production of the best comedies; which is rather extraordinary, considering the infinitely refined state of manners in France, and the infinite encouragement given to dramatic talent. But there is a difference between refinement and imbecility, between general knowledge and personal elegance, between metaphysical subtlety and stage-effect. All manners, all kinds of folly, and all shades of character are not equally fit for dramatic representation. There is a point where minuteness of distinction becomes laborious foolery, and where the slenderness of the materials must baffle the skill and destroy the exertions of the artist. A critic of this sort will insist, indeed, on pulling off the mask of folly, by some ingenious device, though she has been stripped of it long ago, and forced to compose her features into a decent appearance of gravity; and apply a microscope of a new construction to detect the freckles on her face and inequalities in her skin, in order to communicate amusing discoveries to the audience, as some philosophical lecturer does the results of his chemical experiments on the decomposition of substances to the admiring circle. There is no end to this. His penetrating eye is infinitely delighted with the grotesque appearance of so many imperceptible deviations from a right line, and mathematical inclinations from the perpendicular. The picture of the Flamborough Family,' painted with each an orange in his hand, must have been a master-piece of nice discrimination and graceful inflection. Upon this principle of going to work the wrong way, and of making something out of nothing, we must reverse all our rules of taste and common No comedy can be perfect till the dramatis persona might be reversed without creating much confusion; or the ingredients of character ought to be so blended and poured repeatedly from one vessel into another, that the difference would be perceptible only to the finest palate. Thus, if Moliere had lived in the present day, he would not have drawn his 'Avare,' his Tartuffe,' and his Misanthrope with those strong touches and violent contrasts which he has done, but with those delicate traits which are common to human nature in general, that is,


his Miser without avarice, his Hypocrite without design, and his Misanthrope without disgust at the vices of mankind;] these theorists, in short, have been sanguine enough to expect a regular advance from grossness to refinement in wit and pleasantry, on the stage and in real life, marked on a graduated scale of human perfectibility, and have been hence led to imagine that the best of our old comedies were no better than the coarse jests of a set of country clowns-a sort of comedies bourgeoises, compared with the admirable productions which might, but have not, been written in our times. I must protest against this theory altogether, which would go to degrade genteel comedy from a high court lady into a literary prostitute. I do not know what these persons mean by refinement in this instance. Do they find none in Millamant and her morning dreams, in Sir Roger de Coverley and his widow? Did not Etherege, Wycherley, Suckling, and Congreve, approach tolerably near

the ring Of mimic statesmen and their merry king?"


[ocr errors]

Is there no distinction between an Angelica and a Miss Prue, a Valentine, a Tattle, and a Ben? Where, in the annals of modern literature, shall we find anything more refined, more deliberate, more abstracted in vice than the nobleman in Amelia? Are not the compliments which Pope paid to his friends, to Murray and to Cornbury, equal in taste and elegance to any which have been paid since? Are there no traits in Sterne ? Is not Richardson minute enough? Must we part with Sophia Western and her muff, and Clarissa Harlowe's "preferable regards" for the loves of the plants and the triangles? Or shall we say that the Berinthias and Alitheas of former times were mere rustics, because they did not, like our modern belles, subscribe to circulating libraries, read Beppo,' prefer 'Gertrude of Wyoming' to the Lady of the Lake,' or the 'Lady of the Lake' to 'Gertrude of Wyoming,' differ in their sentiments on points of taste or systems of mineralogy, compose learned treatises, and deliver dissertations on the arts with Corinna of Italy? They had something else to do and to talk about. They were employed in reality, as we see them on the stage, in setting off their


charms to the greatest advantage, in mortifying their rivals by the most pointed irony, and trifling with their lovers with infinite address. The height of comic elegance and refinement is not to be found in the general diffusion of knowledge and civilization, which tends to level and neutralise, but in the pride of individual distinction, and the contrast between the conflicting pretensions of different ranks in society. [The beauty of these writers in general was that they gave every kind and gradation of character, and they did this because their portraits were taken from life. They were true to nature, full of meaning, perfectly understood and executed in every part. Their coarseness was not mere vulgarity, their refinement was not a mere negation of precision. They refined upon characters, instead of refining them away. Their refinement consisted in working out the parts, not in leaving a vague outline. They painted human nature as it was, and as they saw it with individual character and circumstances, not human nature in general, abstracted from time, place, and circumstance. Strength and refinement are so far from being incompatible, that they assist each other, as the hardest bodies admit of the finest touches and the brightest polish. But there are some minds that never understand anything, but by a negation of its opposite. There is a strength without refinement, which is grossness, as there is a refinement without strength or effect, which is insipidity. Neither are grossness and refinement of manners inconsistent with each other in the same period. The grossness of one class adds to the refinement of another, by circumscribing it, by rendering the feeling more. pointed and exquisite, by irritating our self-love, &c. There can be no great refinement of character where there is no distinction of persons. The character of a gentleman is a relative term. The diffusion of knowledge, of artificial and intellectual equality, tends to level this distinction, and to confound that nice perception and high sense of honour, which arises from conspicuousness of situation, and a perpetual attention to personal propriety, and the claims of personal respect. It is common, I think, to mistake refinement of individual character for general knowledge and intellectual subtlety, with which it has little. more to do than with the dexterity of a rope dancer or juggler.

The age of chivalry is gone with the improvements in the art of war, which superseded personal courage, and the character of a gentleman must disappear with those refinements in intellect which render the advantages of rank and situation common almost to any one. The bag-wig and sword followed the helmet and spear, when these outward insignia no longer implied a real superiority, and were a distinction without a difference. Even the grossness of a state of mixed and various manners receives a degree of refinement from contrast and opposition, by being defined and implicated with circumstances. The Upholsterer in The Tatler' is not a mere vulgar politician. His intense feeling of interest and curiosity about what does not at all concern him, displays itself in the smallest things, assumes the most eccentric forms, and the peculiarity of his absurdity masks itself under various shifts and evasions, which the same folly, when it becomes epidemic and universal, as it has since done, would not have occasion to resort to. In general it is only in a state of mere barbarism or indiscriminate refinement that we are to look for extreme grossness or complete insipidity. Our modern dramatists, indeed, have happily contrived to unite both extremes. Omne tulit punctum. On a soft ground of sentiment they have daubed in the gross absurdities of modern manners void of character, have blended romantic waiting-maids with jockey noblemen, and the humours of the four-in-hand club, and fill up the piece by some vile and illiberal caricature of particular individuals known on the town.

Some persons are for refining comedy into a pure intellectual abstraction, the shadow of a shade. Will they forgive me if I suggest, as an addition to this theory, that the drama in general might be constructed on the same abstruse and philosophical principles? As they imagine that the finest comedies may be formed without individual character, so the deepest tragedies might be composed without real passion. The slightest and most ridiculous distresses might be improved, by art and metaphysical aid, into the most affecting scenes. A young man might naturally be introduced as the hero of a philosophic drama, who had lost the gold medal for a prize-poen; or a young lady, whose verses had been severely criticised in the re

« ElőzőTovább »