Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

instantly heightened to a sort of pleasing horror. The classical idea or form of any thing, it may also be observed, remains always the same, and suggests nearly the same impressions ; but the associations of ideas belonging to the romantic character may vary infinitely, and take in the whole range of nature and accident. Antigone, in Sophocles, waiting near the grove of the FuriesElectra, in Æschylus, offering sacrifice at the tomb of Agamemnon-are classical subjects, because the circumstances and the characters have a correspondent dignity, and an immediate interest, from their mere designation. Florimel, in Spenser, where she is described sitting on the ground in the Witch's hut, is not classical, though in the highest degree poetical and romantic : for the incidents and situation are in themselves mean and disa. greeable, till they are redeemed by the genius of the poet, and converted, by the very contrast, into a source of the utmost pathos and elevation of sentiment. Othello's handkerchief is not classical, though “there was magic in the web:”-it is only a powerful instrument of passion and imagination. Even Lear is not classical; for he is a poor crazy old man, who has nothing sublime about him but his afflictions, and who dies of a broken heart.

"Schlegel somewhere compares the Furies of Æschylus to the Witches of Shakspeare—we think without much reason. Perhaps Shakspeare has surrounded the weird sisters with asso. ciations as terrible, and even more mysterious, strange and fan. tastic, than the Furies of Æschylus; but the traditionary beings themselves are not so petrific. These are of marble—their look alone must blast the beholder ;—those are of air, bubbles; and though so withered and so wild in their attire,' it is their spells alone which are fatal. They owe their power to metaphysical aid: but the others contain all that is dreadful in their corporeal figures. In this we see the distinct spirit of the classical and the romantic mythology. The serpents that twine round the head of the Furies are not to be trifled with, though they implied no preternatural power. The bearded Witches in Macbeth are in themselves grotesque and ludicrous, except as this strange deviation from nature staggers our imagination, and leads us to ex. pect and to believe in all incredible things. They appal the fa.

culties by what they say or do ;—the others are intolerable, even to sight.

“Our author is right in affirming, that the true way to understand the plays of Sophocles and Æschylus, is to study them before the groupes of the Niobe or the Laocoon. If we can succeed in explaining this analogy, we shall have solved nearly the whole difficulty. For it is certain, that there are exactly the same powers of mind displayed in the poetry of the Greeks as in their statues. Their poetry is exactly what their sculptors might have written. Both are exquisite imitations of nature; the one in marble, the other in words. It is evident that the Greek poets had the same perfect idea of the subjects they described as the Greek sculptors had of the objects they represented; and they give as much of this absolute truth of imitation as can be given by words.

But in this direct and simple imitation of nature, as in describing the form of a beautiful woman, the poet is greatly inferior to the sculptor; it is in the power of illustration, in comparing it to other things, and suggesting other ideas of beauty or love, that he has an entirely new source of imagination opened to him: and of this power the moderns have made at least a bolder and more frequent use than the ancients. The description of Helen in Homer is a description of what might have happened and been seen, as' that she moved with grace, and that the old men rose up with reverence as she passed;' the description of Belphabe in Spenser is a description of what was only visible to the eye of the poet:

“Upon her eyelids many graces sat,
Under the shadow of her even brows."

1

The description of the soldiers going to battle in Shakspeare, all plumed like ostriches, like eagles newly baited, wanton as goats, wild as young bulls,' is too bold, figurative, and profuse of dazzling images, for the mild, equable tone of classical poetry, which never loses sight of the object in the illustration. The ideas of the ancients were too exact and definite, too much attached to the mate. rial form or vehicle by which they were conveyed, to admit of those rapid combinations, those unrestrained flights of fancy, which, glancing from heaven to earth, unite the most opposite

extremes, and draw the happiest illustrations from things the most remote. The two principles of imitation and imagination, indeed, are not only distinct, but almost opposite.

“The great difference, then, which we find between the classi. cal and the romantic style, between ancient and modern poetry, is, that the one more frequently describes things as they are in. teresting in themselves—the other for the sake of the associations of ideas connected with them; that the one dwells more on the immediate impressions of objects on the senses—the other on the ideas which they suggest to the imagination. The one is the poetry of form, the other of effect. The one gives only what is necessarily implied in the subject, the other all that can possibly arise out of it. The one seeks to identify the imitation with the external object-clings to it-is inseparable from it-is either that or nothing; the other seeks to identify the original impression with whatever else, within the range of thought or feeling, can strengthen, relieve, adorn, or elevate it. Hence the severity and simplicity of the Greek tragedy, which excluded everything foreign or unnecessary to the subject. Hence the Unities: for, in order to identify the imitation as much as possible with the reality, and leave nothing to mere imagination, it was necessary to give the same coherence and consistency to the different parts of a story, as to the different limbs of a statue. Hence the beauty and grandeur of their materials; for, deriving their power over the mind from the truth of the imitation, it was necessary that the subject which they made choice of, and from which they could not depart, should be in itself grand and beautiful. Hence the perfection of their execution ; which consisted in giving the utmost harmony, delicacy, and refinement to the details of a given subject. Now, the characteristic excellence of the moderns is the reverse of all this. As, according to our author, the poetry of the Greeks is the same as their sculpture; so, he says, our own more nearly resembles painting—where the artist can relieve and throw back his figures at pleasure-use a greater variety of contrasts—and where light and shade, like the colours of fancy, are reflected on the different objects. The Muse of clas. sical poetry should be represented as a beautiful naked figure; the Muse of modern poetry should be represented clothed, and

with wings. The first has the advantage in point of form; the last in colour and motion.

“ Perhaps we may trace this difference to something analogous in physical organization, situation, religion, and manners. First, the physical organization of the Greeks seems to have been more perfect, more susceptible of external impressions, and more in harmony with external nature than ours, who have not the same advantages of climate and constitution. Born of a beautiful and vigorous race, with quick senses and a clear understand ing, and placed under a mild heaven, they gave the fullest development to their external faculties: and where all is perceived easily, every thing is perceived in harmony and proportion. It is the stern genius of the North which drives men-back upon their own resources, which makes them slow to perceive, and averse to feel, and which, by rendering them insensible to the single, successive impressions of things, requires their collective and combined force to rouse the imagination violently and unequally. It should be remarked, however, that the early poetry of some of the Eastern nations has even more of that irregularity, wild enthusiasm, and disproportioned grandeur, which has been considered as the distinguishing character of the Northern nations.

“ Again, a good deal may be attributed to the state of manners and political institutions. The ancient Greeks were warlike tribes encamped in cities. They had no other country than that which was enclosed within the walls of the town in which they lived. Each individual belonged, in the first instance, to the state ; and his relations to it were so close as to take away, in a great measure, all personal independence and free-will. Every one was mortised to his place in society, and had his station assigned him as part of the political machine, which could only subsist by strict subordination and regularity. Every man was, as it were, perpetually on duty, and his faculties kept constant watch and ward. Energy of purpose and intensity of observation became the necessary characteristics of such a state of so. ciety; and the general principle communicated itself from this ruling concern for the public, to morals, to art, to language, to every thing. The tragic poets of Greece were among her best soldiers; and it is no wonder that they were as severe in their

poetry as in their discipline. Their swords and their styles carved out their way with equal sharpness. After all, however, the tragedies of Sophocles, which are the perfection of the classical style, are hardly tragedies in our sense of the word.* They do not exhibit the extremity of human passion and suffering. The object of modern tragedy is to represent the soul utterly subdued as it were, or at least convulsed and overthrown, by passion or misfortune. That of the ancients was to show how the greatest crimes could be perpetrated with the least remorse, and the greatest calamities borne with the least emotion. Firm. ness of purpose and calmness of sentiment are their leading characteristics. Their, heroes and heroines act and suffer as if they were always in the presence of a higher power, or as if human life itself were a religious ceremony, performed in honour of the Gods and of the State. The mind is not shaken to its centre; the whole being is not crushed or broken down. Con. tradictory motives are not accumulated; the utmost force of imagination and passion is not exhausted to overcome the repugnance of the will to crime; the contrast and combination of outward accidents are not called in to overwhelm the mind with the whole weight of unexpected calamity. The dire conflict of the feelings, the desperate struggle with fortune, are seldom there. All is conducted with a fatal composure; prepared and submit. ted to with inflexible constancy, as if Nature were only an instrument in the hands of Fate.

“ This state of things was afterwards continued under the Ro. man empire. In the ages of chivalry and romance, which, after a considerable interval, succeeded its dissolution, and which have stamped their character on modern genius and literature, all was reversed. Society was again resolved into its component parts; and the world was, in a manner, to begin anew. The ties which bound the citizen and the soldier to the state being loosened, each person was thrown back into the circle of the domestic affections, or left to pursue his doubtful way to fame and fortune alone. This interval of time might be accordingly supposed to give birth to all that was constant in attachment, ad

• The difference in the tone of moral sentiment is the greatest of all others.

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »