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ON THE CHARACTERISTICS OF SHAKSPEARE.
TO JUDGE with fairness of an author's works, we must observe, firstly, what is essential; and secondly, what arises from circumstances. It is essential, as in Milton, that poetry be simple, sensuous, and impassionate :simple, that it may appeal to the elements and the primary laws of our nature; sensuous, since it is only by sensuous images that we can elicit truth as at a flash; impassionate, since images must be vivid, in order to move our passions, and awaken our affections.
In judging of different poets, we ought to enquire what authors have brought into fullest play our imagination, or have created the greatest excitements, and produced the completest harmony.Considering only great exquisiteness of language, and sweetness of metre, it is impossible to deny to Pope the title of a delightful writer: whether he be a poet must be determined as we define the word; doubtless, if every thing that pleases be poetry, Pope's satires and epistles must be poetry. Poetry, however, as distinguished from general modes of composition, does not rest in metre; it is not poetry if it make no appeal to our imagination, our passions, and our sympathy.-One character attaches to all true poets,—they write from a principle within, independent of every thing without. The work of a true poet, in its form, its shapings and modifications, is distinguished from all other works that assume to belong to the class of poetry, as a natural from an artificial flower; or as the mimic garden of a child from an enamelled meadow. In the former the flowers are broken from their stems, and stuck in the ground; they are beautiful to the eye, and fragrant to the sense; but their colours soon fade, and their odour is transient as the smile of the planter: while the meadow may be visited again and again with renewed delight; its beauty is innate in the soil, and its bloom is of the freshness of nature.”
The next ground of judging is, how far a poet is influenced by accidental circumstances-he writes not for past ages, but for that in which he lives, and that which is to follow. It is natural that he should conform to the circumstances of his day; but a true genius will stand independent of these circumstances; and it is observable of Shakspeare, that he leaves little to regret that he was born in such an age. The great era in modern times was what is called the restoration of literature; the ages which preceded it were called the dark ages; it would be more wise, perhaps, to say the ages in
The distinction between the mere fabricator of harmonious metre and the genuine poet, was never more impressively drawn than through the medium of this lovely and truly original simile.
which we were in the dark. It is usually overlooked that the supposed dark era was not universal, but partial and successive, or alternate ; that the dark age of England was not the dark age
of Italy; but that one country was in its light and vigour, while another was in its gloom and bondage. The Reformation sounded through Europe like a trumpet; from the king to the peasant there was an enthusiasm for knowledge; the discovery of a manuscript was the subject of an embassy. Erasmus read by moonlight because he could not afford a torch, and begged a penny, not for the love of charity, but for the love of learning. The three great points of attention were morals, religion, and taste; but it becomes necessary to distinguish in this age mere men of learning from men of genius; all, however, were close copyists of the ancients, and this was the only way by which the taste of mankind could be improved, and the understanding informed. Whilst Dante imagined himself a copyist of Virgil, and Ariosto of Homer, they were both unconscious of that greater power working within them, which carried them beyond their originals; for their originals were polytheists. All great discoveries bear the stamp of the age in which they were made: hence we perceive the effect of their purer religion, which was visible in their lives; and in reading their works, we should not content ourselves with the narration of events long since passed, but apply their maxims and conduct to our own.
Having intimated that times and manners lend their form and pressure to the genius, it may be useful to draw a slight parallel between the ancient and modern stage, as it existed in Greece and in England.— The Greeks were polytheists; their religion was local ; the object of all their knowledge, science, and taste, was their Gods: their productions were, therefore, (if the expression may be allowed) statuesque ; the moderns we may designate as picturesque ; the end complete harmony. The Greeks reared a structure, which, in its parts and as a whole, filled the mind with the calm and elevated impression of perfect beauty and symmetrical proportion. The moderns, blending materials, produced one striking whole; this may be illustrated by comparing the Pantheon with York Minster or Westminster Abbey. Upon the same scale we may compare Sophocles with Shakspeare: in the one there is a completeness, a satisfying, an excellence on which the mind can rest; in the other we see a blended multitude of materials; great and little; magnificent and mean; mingled, if we may so say, with a dissatisfying, or falling short of perfection; yet so promising of our progression, that we would not exchange it for that repose of mind which dwells on the forms of symmetry in acquiescent admiration of grace. This general characteristic of the ancient and modern poetry might be exemplified in a parallel of their ancient and modern music: the ancient music consisted of melody by the succession of pleasing sounds; the modern
embraces harmony, the result of combination, and effect of the whole.
Great as was the genius of Shakspeare, his judgment was at least equal. Of this we shall be convinced, if we look round on the age, and compare the nature of the respective dramas of Greece and England, differing from the necessary dissimilitude of circumstances by which they are modified and influenced. The Greek stage had its origin in the ceremonies of a sacrifice, such as the goat to Bacchus ;-it were erroneous to call him only the jolly god of wine: among the ancients he was venerable; he was the symbol of that power which acts without our consciousness from the vital energies of nature, as Apollo was the symbol of our intellectual consciousness. Their heroes under his influence performed more than human actions ; hence tales of their favourite champions soon passed into dialogue. On the Greek stage the chorus was always before the audience--no curtain dropped-change of place was impossible; the absurd idea of its improbability was not indulged. The scene cannot be an exact copy of nature, but only an imitation. If we can believe ourselves at Thebes in one act, we can believe ourselves at Athens in the next. There seems to be no just boundary but what the feelings prescribe. In Greece, however, great judgment was necessary where the same persons were perpetually before the audience. If a story lasted twenty-four hours or twenty-four years, it was equally improbable—they never attempted to