« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
-and perhaps the least tender or fancisul. The greater part of his works being occupied with politics and personalities that have long since lost all interest, can now attract but little attention, except as memorials of the manner in which politics and personalities were then conducted. In other parts, however, there is a vein of peculiar humour and strong satire, which will always be agreeable—and a sort of heartiness of abuse and contempt of mankind, which produces a greater sympathy and animation in the reader than the more elaborate sarcasms that have since come into fashion. AItogether his merits appear to be more unique and inimitable than those of any of his contemporaries.
COMPARISON BETWEEN ENGLISH AND FRENCH POETRY.
There is nothing in which the opinions of the French and English differ so irreconcilably as in Poetry, -and therefore, perhaps, the critics of the one nation ought not to pass judgment on the poets of the other. We can exchange our cottons for their wines-our cut-steel for their or moulu our blankets for their cambrics, and find ground for mutual satisfaction in the bargain ;-but the pricee current of Poetry are so outrageously different in the two countries, that we would not part with a scene of Shakspeare for the whole body of their dramatists ; -nor would they give up a canto of Voltaire-Henriade, or Pucelle either for the whole of our Spenser, and Milton into the bargain.,
Now, it will not do to account for this contradiction of sentiment by the mere effect of national partiality, or the habit of considering the same substantial excellences as exclusively connected with certain external accompaniments ;-for both nations admit the merit of other foreign competitors. There is, in truth, a radical difference in the excellences at which they respectively aim-and each admires its own for qualities which the other disdains. There are some points of contact undoubtedly—but not many. The admirers of our Pope, in his satyrical and didactic parts at least, cannoi but admire their Boileau ; and those who are captivaled with the tragedy of Addison, must admit, we should think, his inferiority to Racine. But we really cannot carry the parallel any farther. What is most poetical in our poetry, has no counterpart in theirs,-nor have we anything at all akin to whal they chiefly boast of and value in their favourites.
If we were called upon to stale, in a few words, the grand distinction of the lwo schools, we should probably say, that our poelry derives its ma-terials chiesly from nature, and theirs from art—that our images are borrowed for the most part from the country, and theirs from the town-that we deal fearlessly with the primitive and universal passions of our kind, and they almost exclusively with the pretensions and prejudices of persons of rank and condition—that their great dread is to be ignoble, and ours to be insipid-their triumph to surmount difficulties, and ours to give emotion.
The grand difference is the deeper sympathy we have with Nature-and
1. Méditations Poétiques. Par Alphonse Delamartine. 2. Trois Messeniennes. Elégies sur les Malheurs de la France. Deux Messenjepnes sur la Vie et la Mort de Jeanne d'Arc. Par Casimir Delavigne. 3. Chansons, &c. Por J. B. Béranger.-Vol. xxxvii. p. 407. November,
the greater veneration they pay to Art; and this requires a word of explanatio–for all civilisation, it may be said, is art; and no nation has pursued it so far, or carried into so many departments, as the English. And this in Sade sense is true. But the leading distinction we take to be this : the English employ art to improve and imitale nature--the French to correct and supersede her. The one approach her with veneration, as humble ministrants to her energies, or dutiful observers of her course; the other with contempt, and as pitying her rudeness, or distrustful of her power. This is most conspicuous, perhaps, in the way in which they respectively seek to embellish their country residences. An English park is a reverend and feeling imitation of what is most beautiful in the landscapes which Nature herself has contrived in similar situations and is effected, in truth, rather by removing the accidental obstructions that are opposed to her developement, than by subjecting her to any degree of force or constraint-by giving the trees room to assume their natural proportions—letting the grass be equally cropped by the flocks, and opening up the glades and distances in their natural gradations. A French park, on the other hand, is throughout, and in every part, an ostentatious and presumptuous attempt to supersede and expel Nature altogether, and to raise a triumph on her complete subjugation the trees planted in square masses and pruned into regular alleys—the banks notched into terraces—the streams built into canals
, or forced up into jets—and the shrubs paraded in rows of painted boxes! Among the middling and lower orders of the people, there is the same remarkable want of sympathy with nature, or respect for her. They cultivate their fields, but never adorn them—they plant, or spare, no trees for beauty—but for fuel only, or carpentry; and around their cottages you see no more blossoms and verdure without, than cleanliness or neatness within.
They have treated the human form very much as they have the landscape. It is to France we owe the horrible invention, or at least the general introduction, of such abominations as wigs, hair-powder, coats, waistcoats
, and breeches, tight stays, hooped petticoats, and high heeled shoesof all, in short, that makes us laugh or shudder at the pictures of our progenitors in the last century, and that still continues to give such meanness and deformity, at least to our male figures, as to render them unfit for sculpture, and perilous even for painting. Compared with these characleristic French inventions, the ancient dress of all the European nations was both graceful and expressive--the Celtic and Sarmatian–the Spanish,—the Polish--the Venetian,--the Russian, the Norwegian. It was either ample and flowing, to give dignity and grace to the figure; or tight and succinct, to express its form and savour its activity. The French, by which it has been unluckily superseded, has no character at all, but that of heaviness, meanness, and constraint. The same antipathy to nature led them to repress and overwhelm her with their helps and ornaments, almost from the first moment of birth. Infants were manacled in swaddling clothes, and scarcely allowed to walk till they were taught to dance. The lectures of Rousseau, and their recent passion for having every thing'à la Grecque,' have at last produced some relenting ; but we can ourselves remember, when every Well-born male of seven years old had a tail fastened to the hinder part of its head, and a loupet on its front, with rows of stiff curls en ailes de pigeon on each side, while every female form of the same age was compressed in whalebone stays and iron busks, to the danger of suffocation; and all these
little wretches, with the manners, language, and gestures of persons of sixty, paid set compliments to the company, in the second and fourth positions!
It was, of course, impossible that this contempt for nalure should not appear in their poetry, and their delineations of passion and character. Accordingly, their love is not love but gallantry-their heroism not much better than ostentation—and the chief concern of their poetical personages, in all their agitations, is rather to maintain their consideration among people of their own condition, than to express those emotions which level all conditions, and overwhelm all vanities in the tide of impetuous feeling.
These considerations go far to explain why French poetry should be different from ours — and, we must add, inferior to it-and that from causes that belong to the general character and habits of the nation. We must be permitted to say farther, that they appear, in this as in every thing else, to have less force of Imagination, and a less elevated Taste , than most other polished nations—incredible as these imputations must appear in their ears.
That the French lay claim to a greater portion of imagination than has been bestowed on any other people, may be learned from the gentle accusations they prefer against themselves in certain emergencies; for, in truth, nothing ever goes amiss with them but by an excess of this quality! When they draw too hasty conclusions in argument, or venture imprudently in battle—when they linger under despotism out of love to their Sovereign, or overshoot the boundaries of human liberty out of philanthropy-when they exterminate a rival sect, or deny the existence of a God—when, in a single moment, they become all or any thing to excess, they lay it to the account of that uncontrollable vivacily which hurries them away. 'Nous autres Français nous avons des têtes si vives ! nous avons tant d'imagination !'—that they cannot submit to the rule and compass, like the dull races around them. In short, the only defect in their character is too lavish a proportion of the highest faculty with which creative genius is endowed! T'he regularity with which we conduct the common concerns of life; the guardian forms with which we surround the dearest of our public blessings, are, in their opinion, but so many proofs that the English have no imagination; though in their most indulgent humour, they allow we are good machines ourselves, and have produced some that are not altogether contemptible. This, however, is of less consequence; but it is quite necessary to observe, that imagination may be predominant in two different cases.
The one is when it really is very abundant; the other, when its antagonist faculty is so weak as to be easily subdued. Now, the antagonist faculty of imagination is judgment, or the vulgar thing called common sense. A very little imagination, therefore, joined to a very little common sense, may, in many respects, produce the same derangement of balance as a large portion of imagination with a large portion of common sense; and we suspect it would not be difficult to refer to instances in which imagination seem to act too great a part in French affairs, only because reason acts too little.
The language of common life abounds in small metaphors, suited to its small occasions; and we should think it ridiculous either to increase their number, or to exchange them for loftier tropes. Yet, one great exercise of French imagination is in this department. The story which Sterne relates of his French barber who proposed immersing his periwig in the ocean, to show that damp could not uncurl it, is not a bad specimen of such grandiloquism. Dipping it in a pail of water would have been more
natural, but there would have been no fancy in thal—and this, it seems, was a case for fancy! even in sober reasoning, the French are too apt to take a figure of speech for an argument; to assume similitude upon too slight grounds, and then to confound this similitude with identily. Even in science, the common language is more figurative in France than in England, and less vigour, both of thought and of expression, is by them deemed necessary in those very branches the perfection of which depends upon the accuracy of language. Neither is this precipitancy confined to their thoughts alone; it influences their most serious actions: and they are always ready to enter into any project which promises fair to fancy without reflecting upon its real probability or advantages. As a Frenchman once said, "C'est toujours l'impossible qu'il faut demander au Français et il l'exécutera.” They treat the great affairs of life, in short, with levity, the smaller concerns with importance. On the other hand, there are cases in which a little more imagination would be acceptable ; and the most remarkable of these perhaps is the subject of our present consideration, Poetry. Of all the nations of the globe, ancient and modern, Hebrews, Hindoos, Greeks, Romans, Scandinavians, Italians, Spaniards, Germans, English, there is not one that, having any poetry at all, does not surpass the French in strength, originality, sublimity, invention-in a word, in all the qualities which are dependent upon reach and grandeur of imagination. But, if this faculty were as abundant among them as they pretend, should we not find it bursting out in poetry, rather than in things which are essentially under the dominion of sound judgment and common sense; in epic poems rather than in declarations of the rights of man; in dithyrambic odes, rather than in election laws; among dramatic authors rather than deliberative assemblies? In France, however, the place of these faculties seems long to have been confounded, and this dislocation of their imagination is produced as a proof of its actual strength and abundance! In what other country would a national academy propose the institution of Jury Trial as the subject of a prize poem in the nineteenth century?
Upon the delicate chapter of Taste we have but little to say, after what we have already ventured to remark as to their contempt for nature, and the way in which they have treated the landscape and the costumi of their country. In sculpture, and in music, their taste has always been pitiable ; and though their country has given birth to some admirable painters, they have always been formed and generally resided abroad — while, for nearly a century, the race appears to have been extinct. To make amends, however, we do not mean to deny, that they have a good taste in millinery, in jewellery, in ornamental furniture, in fireworks, processions, dances, ceremonies, and grand entertainments — that is to say, in all things that belong to parade, rather than passion, or to the gratification of vanity, rather than the suggestion of lofty emotion. In all the nobler arts, we deny that their taste is respectable.
The last characteristic of French poetry we shall mention is that which it derives from the defects of the language : and here we do not allude so much to its want of sonorousness or melody, as to the poorness of its idiom, and the unpoetical character of the metaphors which enter into its structure. Languages, though they at last re-act upon the intellects of those who use them, were originally formed by men, and always bear the impress of the spirit from which they proceeded. Among an ardent and imaginative people, the commonest expressions savour of passion and of
fancy, and the idiom itself breathes of poetry. In a colder and more courtly tribe, it takes a tinge of precision and politeness, and grows up into an apt instrument for flattery or facetiousness. It was the lot of French poetry, from the beginning, to be under the patronage of courtiers. The madrigals and ballads in which the Muse there made her essay, were composed for princesses, and sung in the courts of kings. From the time of Louis XII. There are the clearest traces of this; and the fashion was continued through the whole reign of Louis XIV. The judge whose opinion Boileau and Racine courted the most, was the monarch; and, next to him, the princes of the blood ; and then, in succession, the ducs et pairs de France, and the gentlemen of his court and household. Such was their public; and the language which was nol current there, could not be used in poetry! But is it not better that a thousand exuberances, nay, that some daring improprieties should occasionally disfigure speech, than that passion should be deprived of half its eloquence, or that a language should be prescribed to the soul by cold academies and heartless courts ? Our neighbours, however, judge so very differently, that there are few things of which they are more vain than the courtliness of their poetical diction. Whenever a stranger happens not to feel as much rapture as they express for their poels, he is told that a foreigner cannot feel the beauties and the finesses of the French language. Now, nothing, we think can be so cerlain, as that the poetry which consists chiefly in the beauties and finesses of language must be the lowest of all poetry-and the language of which the beauties are the most difficult to discover, the most unpoetical of languages. The essence of poetry consists in sentiment, passion, imagery, and the universal feelings which are dependent upon no turns of expression ; and which, in whatever garb they may be disguised, are instantly recognised as the disjecta membra of the poet. How comes it, we would ask, that Homer is admired by all nations ? Are there no finesses in the language of that poetical patriarch which a stranger cannot feel? Have Sophocles, Eschylus, Virgil, Horace, none of these ?-or the inspired strains of the Hebrews, although they had no academy? Certainly it appears to us, that a residence of a year or two in any country, wilh a good will to learn its dialect, must do more to let us into these mysteries, than twice the time employed among dead authors. Neither do we conceive the French language to be so much more atticised than that of Athens, that its beauties and finesses are inscrutable to all whose first breath was not drawn in the atmosphere of Paris.
Upon those principles relating to imagination, taste, and language, the heartlessness of French poetry, and its want of originality, sublimity, invention, force, are easily explained. Twenty-seven millions of men could not be found in Europe, who, in proportion to the antiquily and 1he degree of their civilisation, have produced so small a number of poets, and whose poets have received so small a share of inspiration.
Before Corneille, very few had given proof of strong and true genius, or have Jest any durable and still admired monuments of their art : while, long before that period, we had poets in Britain, one of whom never was equalled, and many have not yet been excelled.
It is owing to these circumstances, we believe, and is a new proof of the truth with which they are alleged, that great poetical genius has indicated itself both among the uneducated and among the very young, much more frequently in England than in the neighbouring country. The inspiration