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After carrying on together epic and dramatic composition, I shall mention circumstances peculiar to each; beginning with the epic kind. In a theatrical entertainment, which employs both the eye and the ear, it would be a gross absurdity, to introduce upon the stage superior beings in a visible shape. There is no place for such objectiv in an epic poem; and Boileau,* with many other critics, declares strongly for that sort of machinery in an epic poem. But waving authority, which is apt to impose upon the judgment, let us draw what light we can from reason. I begin with a preliminary remark that this matter is but indistinctly handled by critics: the poetical privilege of animating insensible objects for enlivening a description, is very different from what is termed machinery, where deities, angels, devils, o her supernatural powers, are introduced as real personages, mixing in the action, and contributing to the catastrophe; and yet these are constantly jumbled together in the reasoning. The former is founded on a natural principle;† but can the latter claim the same authority? far from it; nothing is more unnatural. Its effects, at the same time, are deplorable. First, it gives an air of fiction to the whole; and prevents that impression of reality, which is requisite to interest our affections, and to move our passions. This of itself is sufficient to explode machinery, whatever entertainment it may afford to readers of a fantastic taste or irregular imagination. And, next, were it possible, by disguising the fiction, to delude us into a notion of reality, which I think can hardly be; an insuperable objection would still remain, that the aim or end of an epic poem can never be attained in any perfection, where machinery is introduced; for an evident reason, that virtuous emotions cannot be raised successfully, but by the actions of those who are endued with passions and affections like our own; that is, by human actions: and as for moral instruction, it is clear, that none can be drawn from beings who act not upon the same principles with us. A fable in Æsop's manner is no objection to this reasoning his lions, bulls, and goats, are truly men in disguise: they act and feel in every respect as human beings; and the moral we draw is founded on that supposition. Homer, it is true, introduces the gods into his fable: but the religion of his country authorised that liberty; it being an article in the Grecian creed, that the gods often interpose visibly and bodily in human affairs. I must, however, observe, that Homer's deities do no honor to his poems: scrupuleusement banni de la scène Françoise que des écrits de Port Royal; et les passions humaines, aussi modestes que l'humilité Chrétienne, n'y parlent jamais que par on. Il y a encore une certaine dignité maniérée dans le geste et dans le propos, qui ne permet jamais à la passion de parler exactement son language, ni à l'auteur de revêtir son personage, et de se transporter au lieu de la scène; mais le tient toujours enchainé sur le théâtre, et sous les yeux des spectateurs. Aussi les situations les plus vives ne lui font-elles jamais oublier un bel arrangement de phrases, ni des attitudes élégantes; et si le désespoir lui plonge un poignard dans ie cœur, non content d'observer la décence en tombant comme Polixène, il ne tombe point; la décence le maintient debout aprés sa mort, et tous ceux qui viennent d'expirer s'en retournent l'instant d'après sur leurs jambes." Rousseau.
Third Part of his Art of Poetry.
↑ Chap. 20. Sect. 1.
* See Chap. 2. Part 1. Sect. 7.
fictions that transgress the bounds of nature, seldom have a good effect; they may inflame the imagination for a moment, but wil not be relished by any person of correct taste. They may be of some use to the lower rank of writers; but an author of genius has much finer materials of Nature's production, for elevating his subject, and making it interesting.
One would be apt to think, that Boileau, declaring for the Heathen deities as above, intended them only for embellishing the diction but unluckily he banishes angels and devils, who undoubtedly make a figure in poetic language, equal to the Heathen deities. Boileau, therefore, by pleading for the latter in opposition to the former, certainly meant, if he had any distinct meaning, that the Heathen deities may be introduced as actors. And, in fact, he himself is guilty of that glaring absurdity, where it is not so pardonable as in an epic poem. In his ode upon the taking of Namur he demands with a most serious countenance, whether the walls were built by Apollo or Neptune? and in relating the passage of the Rhine, anno 1672, be describes the god of that river as fighting with all his might to oppose the French monarch; which is confounding fiction with reality at a strange rate. The French writers in general run into this error: wonderful the effect of custom, to hide from them how ridiculous such fictions are!
That this is a capital error in the Gierusalemme Liberata, Tasso's greatest admirers must acknowledge: a situation can never be intricate, nor the reader ever in pain about the catastrophe, as long as there is an angel, devil, or magician, to lend a helping hand. Voltaire, in his essay upon epic poetry, talking of the Pharsalia, observes judiciously, "That the proximity of time, the notoriety of events, the character of the age, enlightened and political, joined with the solidity of Lucan's subjects, deprived him of poetical fiction." Is it not amazing, that a critic who reasons so justly with respect to others, can be so blind with respect to himself? Voltaire, not satisfied to enrich his language with images drawn from invisible and superior beings, introduces them into the action in the sixth canto of the Henriade, St. Louis appears in person, and terrifies the soldiers; in the seventh canto, St. Louis sends the god of Sleep to Henry; and, in the tenth, the demons of Discord, Fanaticism, War, &c. assist Aumale in a single combat with Turenne, and are driven away by a good angel brandishing the sword of God. To blend such fictitious personages in the same action with mortals, makes a bad figure at any rate; and is intolerable in a history so recent as that of Henry IV. But perfection is not the lot of man."
* When I commenced author, my aim was to amuse, and perhaps to instruct, but never to give pain. I accordingly avoided every living author, till the Henriade occurred to me as the best instance I could find for illustrating the doctrine in the text; and I yielded to the temptation, judging that my slight criticisms would never reach M. de Voltaire. They have however reached him; and have, as I am informed, stirred up some resentment. I am afflicted at this information; for what title have I to wound the mind more than the body? It would beside show ingratitude to a celebrated writer, who is highly entertaining, and who has bestowed on me many a delicious morsel. My only excuse for giving offence is, that it was undesigned; for to plead that the censure is just, is no excuse. As the offence
I have tried serious reasonings upon this subject; but ridicule, I suppose, will be found a more successful weapon, which Addison has applied in an elegant manner: "Whereas the time of a general peace is, in all appearance, drawing near; being informed that there are several ingenious persons who intend to show their talents on so happy an occasion, and being willing, as much as in me lies, to prevent that effusion of nonsense, which we have good cause to apprehend; I do hereby strictly require every person who shall write on this subject, to remember that he is a Christian, and not to sacrifice his catechism to his poetry. In order to it, I do expect of him, in the first place, to make his own poem, without depending upon Phoebus for any part of it, or calling out for aid upon any of the muses by name. I do likewise positively forbid the sending of Mercury with any particular message or dispatch relating to the peace; and shall by no means suffer Minerva to take upon her the shape of any plenipotentiary concerned in this great work. I do farther declare, that I shall not allow the destinies to have had an hand in the deaths of the several thousands who have been slain in the late war; being of opinion that all such deaths may be well accounted for by the Christian system of powder and ball. I do therefore strictly forbid the fates to cut the thread of man's life upon any pretence whatsoever, unless it be for the sake of the rhyme. And whereas I have good reason to fear, that Neptune will have a great deal of business on his hands in several poems which we may now suppose are upon the anvil, I do also prohibit his appearance, unless it be done in metaphor, simile, or any very short allusion; and that even here he may not be permitted to enter, but with great caution and circumspection. I desire that the same rule may be extended to his whole fraternity of Heathen gods; it being my design, to condemn every poem to the flames in which Jupiter thunders, or exercises any other act of authority which does not belong to him. In short, I expect that no Pagan agent shall be introduced, or any fact related which a man cannot give credit to with a good conscience. Provided always, that nothing herein contained shall extend, or be construed to extend, to several of the female poets in this nation, who shall still be left in full possession of their gods and goddesses, in the same manner as if this paper had never been written."*
The marvellous is indeed so much promoted by machinery, that it is not wonderful to find it embraced by the plurality of writers, and perhaps of readers. If indulged at all, it is generally indulged to excess. Homer introduces his deities with no greater ceremony than though they were mortals: and Virgil has still less moderation: a pilot spent with watching cannot fall asleep, and drop into the sea by natural means: one bed cannot receive the two lovers, Æneas and Dido, without the immediate interposition of superior powers. The ridiculous in such fictions, must appear even through the thickest vail of gravity and solemnity.
was public, I take this opportunity to make the apology equally so. I hope it will be satisfactory: perhaps not.-1 owe it however to my own character.
* Spectator, No. 523.
Angels and devils serve equally with heathen deities as materials for figurative language; perhaps better among Christians, because we believe in them, and not in heathen deities. But every one is sensible, as well as Boileau, that the invisible powers in our creed make a much worse figure as actors in a modern poem, than the invisible powers in the heathen creed did in ancient poems; for the cause of which we have not far to seek. The heathen deities, in the opinion of their votaries, were beings elevated one step only above mankind, subject to the same passions, and directed by the same motives; therefore not altogether improper to mix with men in an important action. In our creed, superior beings are placed at such a mighty distance from us, and are of a nature so different, that with no propriety can we appear with them upon the same stage: man, a creature much inferior, loses all dignity in the comparison.
There can be no doubt, that an historical poem admits the embellishment of allegory, as well as of metaphor, simile, or other figure. Moral truth, in particular, is finely illustrated in the allegorical manner it amuses the fancy to find abstract terms, by a sort of magic, metamorphosed into active beings; and it is highly pleasing to discover a general proposition in a pictured event. But allegorical beings should be confined within their own sphere, and never be admitted to mix in the principal action, nor to co-operate in retarding or advancing the catastrophe. This would have a still worse effect than invisible powers; and I am ready to assign the reason. The impression of real existence, essential to an epic poem, is inconsistent with that figurative existence which is essential to an allegory; and therefore no means can more effectually prevent the impression of reality, than to introduce allegorical beings co-operating with those whom we conceive to be really existing. The loveepisode, in the Henriade,† insufferable by the discordant mixture of allegory with real life, is copied from that of Rinaldo and Armida, in the Gierusalemme Liberata, which has no merit to entitle it to be copied. An allegorical object, such as Fame in the Æneid, and the Temple of Love in the Henriade, may find place in a description: But to introduce Discord as a real personage; imploring the assistance of Love, as another real personage, to enervate the courage of the hero, is making these figurative beings act beyond their sphere, and creating a strange jumble of truth and fiction. The allegory of Sin and Death in the Paradise Lost, is, I presume, not generally relished, though it is not entirely of the same nature with what I have been condemning: in a work comprehending the achievements of superior beings, there is more room for fancy than where it is confined to human actions.
What is the true notion of an episode? or how is it to be distinguished from the principal action? Every incident that promotes or retards the catastrophe, must be part of the principal action. This clears the nature of an episode; which may be defined, “An incident connected with the principal action, but contributing neither to advance nor to retard it." The descent of Eneas into hell does not
advance nor retard the catastrophe, and therefore is an episode The story of Nisus and Euryalus, producing an alteration in the affairs of the contending parties, is a part of the principal action. The family scene in the sixth book of the Iliad is of the same nature; for by Hector's retiring from the field of battle to visit his wife, the Grecians had opportunity to breathe, and even to turn upon the Trojans. The unavoidable effect of an episode, according to this definition, must be, to break the unity of action; and, therefore, it ought never to be indulged, unless to unbend the mind after the fatigue of a long narration. An episode, when such is its purpose, requires the following conditions: it ought to be well connected with the principal action: it ought to be lively and interesting it ought to be short and a time ought to be chosen when the principal action relents.*
In the following beautiful episode, which closes the second book of Fingal, all these conditions are united:
Comal was the son of Albion; the chief of a hundred hills. His deer drank of a thousand streams; and a thousand rocks replied to the voice of his dogs. His face was the mildness of youth; but his hand the death of heroes. One was his love, and fair was she! the daughter of mighty Conloch. She appeared like a sun-beam among women, and her hair was like the wing of the raven. Her soul was fixed on Comal, and she was his companion in the chase. Often met their eyes of love, and happy were their words in secret. But Gormal loved the maid, the chief of gloomy Ardven. He watched her lone steps on the heath, the foe of unhappy Comal.
One day tired of the chase, when the mist had concealed their friends, Comal and the daughter of Conloch met in the cave of Ronan. It was the wonted haunt of Comal. Its sides were hung with his arms; a hundred shields of thongs were there, a hundred helms of sounding steel. Rest here, said, he, my love Galvina, thou light of the cave of Ronan: a deer appears on Mora's brow; I go, but soon will return. I fear, said she, dark Gormal my foe: I will rest here; but soon return, my love.
He went to the deer of Mora. The daughter of Conloch, to try his love, clothed her white side with his armor, and strode from the cave of Ronan. Thinking her his foe, his heart beat high, and his color changed. He drew the bow: the arrow flew Galvina fell in blood. He ran to the cave with hasty steps, and called the daughter of Conloch. Where art thou, my love? but no answer.-He marked, at length, her heaving heart beating against the mortal arrow. O Conloch's daughter, is it thou! he sunk upon her breast.
The hunters found the hapless pair. Many and silent were his steps round the dark dwelling of his love. The fleet of the ocean came: he fought, and the strangers fell: he searched for death over the field; but who could kill the mighty Comal? Throwing away his shield, an arrow found his manly breast. He sleeps with his Galvina: their green tombs are seen by the mariner, when he bounds on the waves of the north.
Next, upon the peculiarities of a dramatic poem. And the first I shall mention is a double plot; one of which must resemble an episode in an epic poem; for it would distract the spectator, instead of entertaining him, if he were forced to attend, at the same time, to two capital plots equally interesting. And even supposing it an under-plot like an episode, it seldom has a good effect in tragedy, of which simplicity is a chief property; for an interesting subject
Homer's description of the shield of Achilles is properly introduced at a time when the action relents, and the reader can bear an interruption. But the author of Telemachus describes the shield of that young hero in the heat of battle: a very Improper time for an interruption.