« PreviousContinue »
Over thy corpse, triumph not, neither mourn;
A mixed character no doubt is fitted to tragedy; but a dubious character is fitted to no dramatic art whatever. This is not the case of a complex character not easily decipherable, but of two simple enough sets of opposite qualities ascribed to one man; and the play must be read to appreciate how nicely the see-saw between the two is kept up, and how distracting an influence it exerts. From the preface, indeed, we may gather which way the balance was intended to incline; and we presume (though even with this assistance we walk very uncertainly) that Polyphontes is intended to be represented as a man of noble nature, and whose rebellion was actuated in the main by noble motives; but in whose breast lay a vein of personal and selfish ambition half concealed, and but half concealed, from the consciousness of its owner. The fate of such a man might take a tragic interest which would deserve not to be eclipsed even by separate interests gathered round another: but if such was indeed the writer's aim, he has shot wide of his mark. The fact is, the forms of the Greek drama scarcely afford scope for the full development of such a character, which demands greater detail and variety of circumstance in its exhibition than can there be possibly afforded. Indeed, in placing such a character on the stage at all, Mr. Arnold can scarcely be said to be true to his model. The general language which Aristotle uses of a man not wholly good or bad, but leaning one way rather than the other, is very descriptive of the amount of human character which the Greek drama required. It uses the men to bring out the story. It does not dwell upon or seek to display the self-originating springs of action. Man stands there as a more or less passive instrument, on which destiny, the gods, and circumstance play; and the character assigned him is only as it were the setting of that instrument at a certain pitch. A character like that which we have presumed the author intends for Polyphontes confuses a Greek play; it raises a crowd of moral questions and dilemmas which have no place there. Merope's simple dictum on his death,
“just in either case the stroke
Which laid thee low, for blood requires blood,”—
does not satisfy us. We are launched on the inquiry whether the blood was rightly shed: we seek to know whether the man was true to himself,-whether his own conscience exonerated him; and these are not questions either to be asked or solved in Greek tragedy. It concerns itself full little with the motives of action. Herein Mr. Arnold has scarcely been true either to the outward destiny-controlled morality of ancient Greece, or the
placid acquiescences of modern Oxford. It is not this, however, but the duality of nature we have before spoken of, which prevents our taking an interest in Polyphontes, or even grasping him at all by the imagination. We read his speeches, and admire them; but have no notion of the man, and therefore care not for his fate. When Epytus slays him, we feel indifferent whether he had struck the steer or the king: our only impression is, that an elderly insoluble riddle is dead. We are grateful, but not moved.
These are faults, and they are such as were to be looked for from our former experience of the author's writings. We suppose the phrenologists would say he wants individuality. He does not grasp wholes, or even the larger aspects of things. It is in his details we learn how fine a poetic faculty he really possesses. His is not a creative, it is an expressive genius. Hence some of his best poems are those in which he gives a direct voice to his own feelings. He has not that tranquil and complete imagination which without effort embraces a wide field, and compels it into a small and perfect circle of creative art; and which, working outward from an inner conception, stamps the harmony of its own nature on its work. Few indeed are the poets that possess it. Matthew Arnold's is a symmetrical rather than a harmonious genius. He creates parts, and adjusts them together. He wants depth and largeness of artistic power; but he has an exquisite taste, the faculty that detects at least minor disproportions and discrepancies. He has a nice sense of fitness and proportion, and, in all that goes to furnish beauty and finish of execution, it would not be easy to rival him among living poets. His poetry wants power: this play does not move you deeply, nor leave as a whole any profound impression; but step by step it is to be read with a high degree of pleasure, and of a high kind. For the author is rich in poetic instincts, and not devoid of the true poet's insight, and his work is informed throughout with an unfailing life of imagination and fancy. Moreover, his faculties are never strained-he strikes no note above his natural compass. The whole conception of the tragedy perhaps taxes his powers fully as far as they can bear; but in the conduct of it he every where displays the decent composure of moderate strength, none of the spasmodic effort of weakness. He has a reticence which enables you to enjoy him with a sense that there is more power in reserve, and sometimes a glowing coal breaks out through the lambent play of imaginative diction which generally characterises him-and it is imaginative, not fanciful. Almost always he writes from the deeper hold of the imagination, not from the lighter grasp of fancy. It is fancy, perhaps, though in her very highest mood, that speaks of
"lightning passion, that with grasp of fire Advancest to the middle of a deed
Almost before 'tis planned;"
but it is imagination that gives their beauty to so many of the choruses, and to that exquisite piece of descriptive writing detailing the supposed death of Epytus. He has come nearer, we think, than any other candidate to giving the effect of the Greek chorus. Though his verse wants something of varied cadence and music, and the changes lie within too limited a range: and though, too, the sharp incessant ictus strikes with something of an artificial sound on the ear, yet he has caught something of that warbling lyric effect which is most characteristic of the ancient choruses, and makes them more like the singing of birds than any other music.
From the oak-built, fiercely-burning pyre,
Drove them screaming from their eyries!
When the shirt-wrapt, poison-blister'd Hero
Living, his own funeral-pile,
And stood, shouting for a fiery torch;
Coming swiftly through the sad Trachinians,
That the flame tower'd on high to the Heaven;
To the side of Hebe,
To immortal delight,
O heritage of Neleus,
O town, high Stenyclaros,
With new walls, which the victors
From the four-town'd, mountain-shadow'd Doris,
For their Hercules-issu'd princes
Built in strength against the vanquish'd!
Another, another sacrifice on this day
Ye witness, ye new-built towers!
When the white-rob'd, garland-crowned Monarch
Approaches, with undoubting heart,
Living, his own sacrifice-block,
And stands, shouting for a slaughterous axe;
And the stern, Destiny-brought Stranger,
The inheritor of the realm,
Coming swiftly through the jocund Dorians,
Drives the axe to its goal:
That the blood rushes in streams to the dust;
To the Gods of Hades,
To the dead unaveng'd,
The fiercely-requir'd Victim.
ART. II.-STRAUSS'S LIFE OF ULRICH VON HUTTEN.
Ulrich von Hutten. Von David Friederich Strauss. 2 vols. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1858.
Epistola Obscurorum Virorum, aliaque Evi Decimi Sexti Monimenta rarissima. Die Briefe der Finsterlinge an Magister Ortuinus von Deventer, nebst andern sehr seltenen Beiträgen zur Litteratur- Sitten- und Kirchengeschichte des sechzehnten Jahrhun derts. Herausgegeben und erläutert durch Dr. Ernst Münch. (Letters of Obscure Men to Master Ortuinus of Deventer, with other very rare Contributions to the History of Letters, Manners, and the Church in the 16th Century. Edited and elucidated by Dr. Ernest Münch.) Leipzig, 1827.
CONSIDERING the important part which Ulrich von Hutten played in the history of the Reformation, singularly little is known concerning him. To men in other respects well informed he is scarcely more than a name. A few paragraphs, a sentence, an allusion, are all that is afforded him in the popular histories of his time. Those histories, it is true, have been mainly written by theologians; and Hutten's, though in many respects a manly and noble character, is not one to find favour with divines. His faults are those at which they are always ready to cast the first stone; and which the Lutheranism of his latter days, though, like charity, it will cover a multitude of sins, has not been able entirely to veil.
And yet Hutten, more fitly perhaps than any of his contemporaries, might stand as the representative man of his age. He did not, it is true, like Erasmus, "lay the egg of the Reformation," nor, like Luther, "hatch it." He was not so great a man, it is needless to say, as either of these. But while they embodied single tendencies, the religious and the humanistic, in unbalanced excess, in Hutten all the conflicting forces of the age were epitomised. In him, we see his own time, as it were in microcosm. Scholar, knight, soldier, a partisan of the Emperor against the Pope, and of Luther against the corruptions and "heresies" of Rome; a vindicator of the privileges of the feudal nobility against the encroachments of the sovereign princes, there is scarcely an aspect of his age, political, social, religious, or literary, to which his character does not present a corresponding phase. When to this we add the romantic interest of his life, whose vicissitudes and troubles St. Paul's words describe without exaggeration,-"In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, . . . in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren,