Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

narrow view. It may be accepted as certain that works of imagination, more or less high and durable, will be produced at all times and in all circumstances, and for the simple reason that so it seems to have been ordained, our beneficent Maker not choosing to leave us at any time without proper interpreters of the glories of His creation, or destitute of food for our admiration, love, and tears. We know at least that from very early times there were poets in England-and, not to carry the illustration any further back, it may be curious to note the close succession of great writers for the last 300 years-a succession not effected by sudden starts, but of the most close and personal character. Here are the facts, verified by biography. Shakspere was born in 1564. He lived eight years after the birth of his proper successor Milton, and it is pleasing to indulge the fancy that these two great poets—« not of an age but for all time” – should have seen, as they actually might have seen, each other face to face. A step further, and we know as certain that Dryden-who “ profaned his God-given gifts" in that licentious court from which Milton's purity recoiled in disgust-frequently visited the author of " Paradise Lost." Most readers will also remember of the boyish Alexander Pope snatching 6 a fearful joy” in Willis's coffee-house listening to the conversation of glorious John." A fourth step onwards, and we learn that Cowper, although he did not, might from his age have seen and conversed with the illustrious bard of Twickenham. And the history of these five sons of genius, Shakspere, Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Cowper, embraces a period of 236 years—that is, from the date of Shakspere's birth to the year 1800, when Cowper died. How singular to think that these great men, whose names form the very highest landmarks in our literary history, might, if they actually did not, have shaken hands each in turn with his successor. And to carry the reflection a little further, it may be noted that Cowper lived to see the birth and death of perhaps a greater genius than himself in the person of our own Burns, the worth of whose productions he was happily able to appreciate, and that the youthful Walter Scott had on one occasion the high satisfaction of conversing with the wonderful ploughman. Leaving out many names of high renown, we are still able to trace the chain of poetical genius in a direct line for three centuries down to our own day, when the great bards of old are not unfitly represented by Alfred Tennyson, who, whether or not entitled to rank with the

names already mentioned, is at all events a legitimate successor of Wordsworth, and is probably destined to be the next torch-bearer in the region of high imaginative literature.

O deem not, ’mid thy worldly strife,
An idle art the poet brings.
Let high philosophy control,
And sages calm the stream of life ;
'Tis he refines its fountain springs,
The nobler passions of the soul.

CHAPTER FIFTH--THE SHAKSPERIAN MANNER OF

LOOKING AT EXTERNAL NATURE.

To a scholar equal to the task in intelligence and in sympathy, a fertile and most instructive theme would be opened up by the effort to illustrate and describe the Shaksperian manner of dealing with the features of natural scenery, in comparison and contrast to the modes adopted by his predecessors and successors in the poetical art-to show what seems to have been the gradual development and opening up of the soul for the reception of impressions from the outward world, until in our own days the feeling of love and reverence for the glories of external nature has become amongst the great poets a predominating and all-pervading passion;-more than a passion, indeed—a source whence to draw illustrations of the goodness of God, and a base on which to found arguments for his wisdom and beneficence. With adequate information, and with an intellect properly disciplined for the effort, this subject might be made to yield infinite delight and instruction. What we propose to do is of a humbler character, and involves little more than to make a few scattered gleanings from a field seemingly waving in abundance.

Shakspere wrote at a time when, in so far as we are aware, the appreciation of the beauties of Nature was of a very different character to what it is now, or perhaps ever was until long subsequent to his death. The ancients generally-if not universally-used the external world for the purpose of yielding to them illustrative imagery; as special subjects of description or of admiration for their own sakes, the varied features of Nature were not considered of much account. Homer is a remarkable instance of this peculiarity in the mind of antiquity. Neither in the to Iliad” nor in the 66 Odyssey” does this sublime genius dwell on the multitudinous sea” or on the varied aspects of the wide-spread landscape, unless as an aid to the other business he has in hand--the only exception that we are acquainted with being his slight description of the

grotto of Calypso in the 66 Odyssey." A fine example of Homer's style of treatment, as also of his occasional profuse wealth of imagery, may be seen in Book Second, where Nestor succeeds in persuading Agamemnon to muster the Grecian troops for battle (Pope's Translation, line 534):

As on some mountain, through the lofty grove,
The crackling flames ascend, and blaze above ;
The fires expanding as the winds arise,
Shoot their long beams, and kindle half the skies :
So from the polish'd arms, and brazen shields,
A gleamy splendour flash'd along the fields.
Not less their number than th' embody'd cranes,
Or milk-white swans in Asius' wat’ry plains,
That o'er the windings of Cayster's springs,
Stretch their long necks, and clap their rustling wings,
Now tow'r aloft, and course in airy rounds;
Now light with noise ; with noise the field resounds.
Thus num'rous and confus’d, extending wide,
The legions crowd Scamander's flow'ry side;
With rushing troops the plains are cover'd o'er,
And thund'ring footsteps shake the sounding shore.
Along the river's level meads they stand,
Thick as in spring the flow'rs adorn the land,
Or leaves the trees; or thick as insects play,
The wand'ring nation of a summer's day ;
That drawn by milky steams, at ev'ning hours,
In gather'd swarms surround the rural bow'rs;
From pail to pail with busy murmur run
The gilded legions, glitt'ring in the sun.
So throng'd, so close, the Grecian squadrons stood

In radiant arms, and thirst for Trojan blood. . Such is the method of Homer, almost invariably pursued throughout his works. In the “ Iliad,” his subject is the wrath of Achilles, and every object he can see in the wide world is rendered subsidiary to the illustration of the idea. Professor Wilson (“ Homer and His Translators," p. 121), apparently without perceiving the depth of his own remark, makes the strong observation, that 6 Homer was not the man to bother people about the moon and stars, and, except for illustration of life, he cared not a straw for such luminaries”—we repeat that the Professor did not seemingly observe the force of his observation, since in the course of his volume he does not again allude to a subject which his extended reading and wide poetical sympathies would have enabled him to treat with a masterly band. *

* Dr Blair. in his dissertation on the poems of Ossian, makes a learned and elaborate comparison between Homer and Ossian, in which the latter is made to shine to occasional advantage over the great bard of old. We are inclined to think that more acute and comprehensive scholarship than Blair possessed might have shown the decided dissimilarity existing between the two writers in some important respects, especially in their use of similes drawn from nature, thus going far to prove that the manner of Ossian was essentially modern and having little affinity with ancient modes of thought. Possessed with the requisite amount of knowledge, a critic should thus have triumphantly overset the pretensions of Macpherson.

We shall not attempt to indicate the characteristics of the writers who flourished in the great interval between the ages of Homer and Virgil, as these characteristics bear on the present subject; but it is not a little striking to find that Virgil, in his Æneid particularly, follows exactly the style of his great master. Like Homer, he cares not for sun, moon, or stars, seas, mountains, forests, precipices, or any other material object, unless in so far as these can be used in subservience to the purpose of his great design, the illustration of human passion and the fluctuations of human affairs. We give only one example, which may be multiplied to hundreds by the curious reader (Æneid, Book IV., line 757—Dryden) :

'Twas dead of night, when weary bodies close
Their eyes in balmy sleep and soft repose.
The winds no longer whisper through the woods,
Nor murmuring tides disturb the gentle floods.
The stars in silent order moved around,
And Peace, with downy wings, was brooding on the ground.
The flocks and herds, and parti-coloured fowl
Which haunt the woods or swim the weedy pool,
Stretched on the quiet earth, securely lay,
Forgetting the past labours of the day.
All else of Nature's common gift partake-

Unhappy Dido was alone awake. Wittingly or unwittingly-for no one can say what precise meaning is to be attached to Ben Jonson's 6 little Latin and less Greek”-Shakspere will be found to have faithfully followed in the footsteps of these his illustrious predecessors. In all his descriptive passages, there is a distinct purpose to serve apart from the allusions themselves. His glances at material things do not appear to spring so much from love of Nature as from love of Art. They are designed much more to set off to advantage the particular action or position in prospect than to indicate admiration of the grand or beautiful because he derives pleasure from these attributes. In all his works, the main object of the poet rises over every other consideration; the adornments are palpably subsidiary, and their presence at all seems, indeed, to be occasionally of an accidental character. Á few examples may be adduced to show this feature of the poet's art.

In pourtraying the death of Ophelia, we have presented to us a most touching and beautiful little picture of certain material objects—the brook, the willow that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream” – (what marvellous minuteness of touch!)—with the poor girì « crowned with

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »