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Constance de Castile, a Poem in ten Cantos. By William
The author of Constance de Castile has, we suppose, long since overcome the maiden diffidence, of a first appearance on the public stage. The flutter and anxiety of spirits, the hopes and fears inevitably incident to a season so important, have subsided into the calm of conviction and confidence. Although this timidity may no longer be felt, there are nevertheless appropriate cares and apprehensions, which he is still destined to encounter, and these result from the success that attended his debut. The public now look towards him with enlarged expectations, justified by his former efforts, and will hardly be disposed to treat him with that indulgent lenity, which is sometimes extended to mediocrity of talents. He has already taught them to anticipate something more;— something decidedly and positively good. Critics likewise are inclined to be severe in proportion to the celebrity of the subject they handle, and although their opinions are not endued with oracular infallibility, they have a formidable claim to being heard. Whether a pledge once given to the public, of what they are fairly intitled to expect afterwards, does not cost an author, who has tasted the sweets of admiration, as much anxiety for its redemption, and as much pain and apprehension, as a first appearance excites, is a point which we shall not presume to investigate. It must rest in most instances in speculation merely, for how very few on this subject can speak from personal knowledge! Campbell, Southey, Scott, and Sotheby are judges of these "high matters."
The latter gentleman by his translation of Virgil's Georgics, first presented himself as a candidate for public favour. Dryden, who had once won the palm, and continued to enjoy it, was never able, from the peculiarity of his destiny, to bring his undivided forces to the field. His mind was rich with me lore of ancient and modern time, his judgment solid and sagacious; his fancy vigorous, excursive and alert. Master of a boundless and ever varying melody, he wanted, notwithstanding all these advantages, the sensibility of a poet. While, moreover, the Muse solicited his company and conversation, and was ever ready to await those moments of leisure he could devote to her interviews, Poverty stood scowling impatiently at the door, and disturbed the conference. From this ghastly and teazing intruder, we understand Mr. Sotheby is happily exempted. His lines possess a smoothness and delicacy truly Virgilian, and bear the marks of what Dryden needed so much, and thus translates:
*' Happy the man, who studying nature's laws,
Mr. Sotheby does not, it is true, manifest that condensed vigour of thought which is displayed throughout the pages of
* Dryden, as it would appear from the history of his life, was not overburthened with the careless philosophy recommended in the 29th ode of the third book of Horace, which he has translated in so admirable a manner into his native tongue. The following lines of his version are, we think, of the most exquisite beauty; a chef-d'auvrc of poetical merit.
"Enjoy the present smiling hour,
And put it out of fortune's power:
Is sometimes high and sometimes low,
A quiet ebb or .1 tempestuous flow,
It keeps within the middle bed,
Anon it lifts aloft the head,
And trunks of trees come rolling down,
Sheep and their folds together drown:
Happy the man and happy he alone,
He who can call to-day his own:
"Be fair or foul, or rain, or shine,
"The joys I have possess'd in spite of fate are mine.
Fortune, that, with malicious joy,
Proud of her office to destroy,
Still various and unconstant still,
But with an inclination to be ill,
I can enjoy her while she's kind,
But when she dances in the wind,
The little or the much she gave, is quietly resign'd:
his illustrious competitor; and which produces alternate admiration for his genius, and compassion for his fate. But, to counterbalance this, he exhibits a piece of finished workmanship beautiful as a whole, and shining with uniformity of splendor. We read and are delighted, but if called upon to point out the particular passage affording gratification, it recedes from view, and mingles with the general mass. With Dryden, the case is precisely the reverse. Our minds are summoned to certain spots; the leaves doubled down are evidence of the labour attending unguided research. In the page of Dryden, we see rather what he could have done than what he did; in Sotheby's we have a fair exemplar of what the poet is capable of accomplishing.
Mr. Sotheby, cheered by the success which followed his first attempt, exerted himself once more in the humble field of translation. Unaspiring as yet to the claim of originality, he sought his fame a second time in the glory of others. Casting his eyes on Germany, a country which at that time enjoyed an almost exclusive monopoly of English admiration, he tookthe Oberon of Weiland for his model. It is highly creditable to him, that he did not become auxiliary to that depravity of taste, among his countrymen which followed the gratification of their appetite for public monsters. While the unnatural and disgusting creations of Germany thronged in endless procession, it was quite refreshing to the reader of his pages to fall into the company of his old friends the fairies again. This seemed a bond of alliance between English and German lliterature, which was in danger of being broken by the " horrid shapes and sights unholy" then recently imported. It was consoling evidence, that public taste in both countries was not corrupted to the core, and led the disciples of the old school of English poesy to augur from this auspicious harbinger, the return of better days. It was hoped from this delicate and beautiful specimen of supernatural agency, that Jhe very country from whence the infection was brought, might in time afford a cure for the malady. To what extent the interesting tale of Oberon, was successful in reclaiming English taste, it is foreign to our present purpose to inquire. The fact is, however, undeniably true, that the appetite of the public, whether owing to that disgust and nausea that succeeds a surfeit, or to a milder regimen, became reinstated in its natural tone.
Mr. Sotheby's Oberon has survived the wreck, and is still admired, and still continues to make new proselytes. We incline with an easy credulity to the belief, that his supernatural agents do exist,—that Oberon and Titania, in all the dangers and adventures of Sir Huon, form a body in reserve, and are constantly on the watch whenever mortal means of extrication are inadequate. A familiar acquaintance with beings of this nature on the part of his readers, is requisite before a poet can introduce them to advantage. We must be from the days of childhood conversant with such fictions, before incredulity can be conquered. Hence the startling novelties of the German school, are ever at war with those plausible pretexts, that are alone able to give to our wonder and surprise the air of truth.
With regard to the poem of Oberon, it may be stated, that nothing but the appearance of Mr. Sotheby's name in the title page, indicates him to be the translator of the work. It is free from that stiffness so often discovered, when we are employed with the thoughts of other men: there is an easy elegana pervading the whole, which clearly proves Sotheby to hare made the ideas of his author, his own. The translator appears to have entered into the spirit of his original, and instead of following him with the punctilious precision of a special pleader, to have allowed himself a graceful and justifiable latitude of expression. It may well be doubted whether any English poet now living knows better than Sotheby, the rights and duties of a translator. He wears his foreign chains with an air of such perfect freedom, that they do not seem badges of servility, but the ornaments of his person. While he glows with his author's heat, he manages the inspiration with consummate judgment, delicacy and skill, and it comes forth new burnished from his hands.
The office of a translator is, with all its attendant difficulties, and notwithstanding it requires so much delicacy and judgment in the exercise of its legitimate functions, humble and subordinate. The materials are ready furnished to his hands, and he can claim no other merit than what results from elegance and skilful arrangement. Mr. Sotheby was not satisfied with the acquisition of such subordinate glory. The bird of the Muses disdains a borrowed plumage, however gracefully disposed, or brilliant, and loves to display the splendor of his own.
The author has in the present poem, intitled Constance de Castile, selected a portion of history auspicious to Romance. Pedro, the king of Castile, surnamed the cruel, was expelled from his kingdom by his illegitimate brother, Henry, count of
Trastamere. He applied for, and finally obtained succour from the Black Prince. A desperate battle was fought at Navaret on the 3d of August, 1367, in which Trastamere was defeated, with great slaughter, and fled for protection to France. Constance, the heroine of the poem, was the daughter of Pedro, by his first queen Maria de Padilla. This marriage he disowned, and afterwards united himself in wedlock to lady Blanche of Bourbon. The latter was afterwards poisoned, and Pedro in full cortes solemnly recognised the validity of his marriage with Maria de Padilla. Constance, the heiress of Castile, was, after the victor}' of Navaret, married to John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. These are the principal historical facts on which the present poem is founded. It is divided into ten cantos, the first of which opens with a vivid representation of the city of Corunna besieged by the count of Trastamere.
The inhabitants of the city preserve their loyalty ushaken, although oppressed by famine and every species of distress, while their monarch is gone in quest of foreign assistance. The monarch returns without succour, and is shortly after visited by the Moorish Almanzor, a former suitor of Constance, who proffers his succour, and obtains a conditional promise of her hand. Julian, a page of Constance, intercedes with the British monarch in behalf of Pedro, and John, duke of Lancaster, proffers his services, which are thankfully received by this unhappy lady. Pedro and Constance visit the camp of Edward on the same embassy with Julian, and are followed by Almanzor. Lancaster, smitten with the beauty of Constance, avows himself her defender, and fights and slays Almanzor. Edward, moved by the intreaties of the supplicating monarch, grants the necessary aid; and the army, while marching towards the theatre of action, is accosted by a hermit, who foretells the success of the anticipated battle, with which prediction the poem concludes.
This broad outline of the story, is agreeably filled up with several interesting incidents. The private history of Pedro's marriage with Maria de Padilla, the happiness he enjoyed in that wedlock, and the melancholy reverse of his fortune when allied to lady Blanche,are interwoven with peculiar grace and beauty. The incidents illustrating these facts slide in so naturally with the'progress of the story, that the reader receives the intelligence before he is aware of the deception. The author in another instance dexterously avoids the detail of cold and unanimating narrative, by making Pedro the herald of his own disgrace when he implores succour from the Er yish monarch.
Vol. III. 2 L