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of Cambridge (Class 1) 1815)
NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE.
LECTURES ON POETRY, BY T. CAMPBELL.
In my last lecture, I took a summary view of the extent and variety to which Greek poetry was cultivated in its different provinces of epic, didactic, lyric, and prophetic composition. I forbore to speak of the drama of Greece, until I should have treated more fully of her lyrical bards. But, for reasons which I trust I shall be able to explain satisfactorily on a future occasion, I shall, for the present, drop the consideration of the Greek Lyrics, and proceed with no great delay to the Athenian drama.
To go at once into the central ground of this subject, would not be treating it with justice. Though most people may know, that Eschylus flourished at the era of Marathon, and in the glorious days of Athens; yet the bulk of readers have probably no very distinct recollections of the particular circumstances of the Athenian state, at that interesting period. Those circumstances are highly worthy of being placed in the clearest attainable view, before we venture to investigate the character and genius of the drama itself. It would be bad taste to cross the threshold of the Attic theatre, even in imagination, without paying some previous attention, to the age, the place, and the people, where that theatre arose, and without meditating on
Athens, the eye of Greece-mother of arts
In these preliminary remarks on Athens, and on the general state of Greece, as it was connected with Athens, I would rather run the risk of being redundant to make sure of being perspicuous, than be concise at the hazard of obscurity. It is my main and specific object to give some idea of the beauties of the Greek Muse, to those who may have had few or no opportunities of otherwise attending to the subject. And barring distrust in my own competency, I can imagine no reason for considering this attempt to be impracticable from the nature of the subject. It is true that no conception of the harmony or expression of poetry can be conveyed to those who know nothing of the language in which it is written. Yet on the other hand let it be demanded, whether harmony and expression be the all in all of Poetry; and it will certainly be acknowledged, that, however important they may be, they are less essentially important attributes, than invention, passion, and the portraiture of character. These are to Poetry what drawing and grouping are to Painting. Their effect is heightened by the colours of
VOL. IX. No. 49.-1825.
harmonious diction, but can still be enjoyed in the absence of the heightening charm. And if graceful fiction, generous sentiment, and glowing draughts of nature exist in any national strains, they are capable of being brought home to the sympathy and sense of all mankind. Either Greek poetry is nothing, or it has much that can be made interesting to the world at large. I feel, therefore, that I am undertaking a task, which, if it should have difficulties beyond my reach, is certainly not a fallacious shadow that would elude a stronger grasp.
I shall mention some of those difficulties, not for the sake of meanly bespeaking indulgence, but in order to account for some peculiarities which may appear in my manner of meeting the subject.
It is a subject, which I believe to be capable of yielding popular amusement; but being connected with research, and, at the same time, addressed to promiscuous readers, it evidently needs considerable management, to treat it accurately without being dry, and to make it entertaining without becoming superficial. The ground to be gone over presents, now and then, a thorny question, which must be removed before the path can be rendered clear and smooth. A writer of literary history is incompetent to address any class of readers, unless he has formed, and can account for opinions on important debatable points of literature, and unless he feels himself above both the ignorant debility and the palsified scepticism that would shrink from such investigation. He may be conscious that he is not ambitiously attempting to add to the knowledge of the learned, but, on the contrary, that he is repeating much which must be trite information to them-without forgetting that he is still eventually amenable to the ordeal of their judgment, and to their just condemnation, if he should be found giving publicity to false views, unweighed opinions, or inaccurate assertions, on a venerable subject.
A writer thus situated has the problem before him, of uniting, as far as it is possible, the solidity of truth with the lightness of popular attraction. In attempting the former object, he has to reason on opinions as well as to offer them. In matters of antiquity, as in most others, the opinions of the best informed will often be found to be at variance. He must make his election when he comes to such questions, and account for the side which he adopts. For even if his views should not have a general air of erroneousness to competent judgments, yet still they will appear dogmatical, if delivered without some justifying arguments. It is on this account, namely, from unwillingness to make unexplained assertions, that I have quoted my authorities, and entered into special pleadings on several contested points, to a length which may have tried the patience of my lighter readers. This is, no doubt, a drawback on my power of sustaining their attention, but it is unavoidable, though it may be alleviated by the drier discussions being thrown into separate notes. If the scholar should look into such passages, he will see what was meant for his contingent perusal; but he will please to consider my call upon his attention in no other light, than as an appeal to his arbitration, on points where I wish to show that I am not misleading the less informed.
I have said that I would rather hazard being too full on my subject, than being unsatisfactorily brief. I shall not scruple to introduce a good deal of preliminary matter, which is not in itself the history of
Greek poetry, but which may nevertheless tend to throw preparatory illustration on the subject. There is no entering into the spirit of any national poetry with hearty sympathy, until we know something of the people whose passions it records. For though the passions of men are the same in all places and ages, yet the objects and the intensity of their enthusiasm differ very widely, according to circumstances, and manners, and religious belief. Poetry, as a dramatic or epic art, is nothing, unless it introduces us into a landscape of life peculiarized by locality, and by the forms and customs of the times. It should make us breathe, as it were, the moral atmosphere of the scene and age, and amuse us either with the moral lights, or dazzling electric prejudices, that rendered the scene and the age sublime. The Muse should cause us to dream for the moment that we are her countrymen and contemporaries; and her thoughts should be like odours reminding us either of the wild, or cultivated sweets of her native soil. It is not only easily, but involuntarily, that we enjoy this native spirit in our own true poetry; for there we are on hospitable ground, in our natural climate, amidst familiar paths, and prospects endeared by our earliest recollections. Every allusion of the poet is instantaneously caught,-every chord of prepossession which he would touch in our breasts, is prepared and strung. Universally speaking, there is no comparison between the enjoyableness* of native and exotic poetry, though this, perhaps, like all general truths, may be exaggerated. Has nobody tasted from Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles, sensations which he would dare to put in competition, yea even with those which he has derived from Shakspeare? Many will undoubtedly reply with sincerity, that no creations in fiction can well be dearer to them than the images of Hector and Andromache, or of Dido and Antigone.
But allowing, in general, that exotic poems have less charms for us than those which are native, is the case the same with the critical history of poetry, as with poetry itself? In the first place, are we as curious to know about our own poetry as about that which is extraneous ? Is a guide in the one scene as useful as in the other? Say that Sophocles could amuse us in description a hundred times less than Shaks peare; are we a hundred times more anxious to know what sort of poet Shakspeare was, than what sort of poet was Sophocles?-No, the genius of our own countrymen is a feast open to all, and we can relish his spirit better from his own works than from the breath of his most intoxicated admirers.
A man of genius, and great sensibility to beautiful scenery, used to tell of his having visited, at daybreak, a mountain in Wales, that commanded peculiarly charming prospects, in order to view the effects of a sunrise. It was unfortunately necessary, however, to have a Welsh guide, and the Welshman thought himself in duty bound to explain all the beauties that lay around him. He concluded his long jargon by saying, whilst he pointed to the orb of day, " and there you see the sun rising as naturally as possible." Was not this man a near resemblance to many critics on Shakspeare?
Real indigenous poetry is a sweet flower; the hand that recomme ads it to us, may be acceptable, or may not; but the very apparent
* The word enjoyable is English, and seems to legitimate this substantive.
facility of criticizing native poetry, is the cause of much false criticism. The subject invites an overstocked competition of superficial judges to swarm upon it, merely because they can fasten on no other. The critic addresses the public on topics too popular for moderation; he speaks from the hustings, and must vociferate. In a country already enthusiastic for or against particular poets, his readiest resource for advantage over his hearers is exaggeration. In order to be popular, he must be ahead of popular prejudices in whatever direction they may march. What are the beauties which he can discover in a poet accessible to all hearts and eyes, but like those which the Welshman discovered in the naturalness of the rising sun? He is tempted to discover latent and minute beauties or faults, by hypercriticism,-to feign them when unobserved, to exaggerate them when discovered; or to give them a false novelty by new description. In short, if the dissertator* on classical poetry is in danger of being dull over his prejudices, the critic of well-known works is under at least equal temptation to get riotously intoxicated with his subject.
But even dropping this view of the case, and supposing that pure sense and spirit were always brought to the criticism of our native poetry, still there would be no good grounds, for the history of foreign or ancient literature not being a popular subject. Because there is no spot on earth so sweet as the scene of our first loves and friendships, are we therefore to shut ourselves up for ever at home? and because we would exchange no country for our own, are we to be indifferent about all other countries? I have adverted to the truism, that it requires some attention to the history and manners of any people, to be able to enter with sympathy into the spirit of their strains. But let us not estimate too formidably, the knowledge required for giving the mind a considerable degree of such sympathy. Does any man need to study the whole history and heraldry of chivalrous times, in order to relish the best poems descriptive of nature in the days of chivalry? No, there is a luminous nature in poetry which illustrates its own subjects; and research far short of antiquarian will acquaint us with the forms of life in which Ariosto and Tasso have revelled, so as to understand and feel the force of their descriptions completely.-Nay more, a man would not seem to vaunt his own intellect, if he should say, that he believed he could kindle some interest in others, by describing the character of those poets. Surely, Greek poetry has some similar capability of being popularly explained, by a selection, rather than a compilation of the facts which throw light upon its characteristics. I shall confess what is a stale truth to those acquainted with the subject, in saying, that much less is known respecting ancient Greek life, than would enable any man's knowledge and industry to draw a picture of it at once complete, minute, and perfectly certain. There are no materials for such a picture in archæology. Barthelemi failed, with all his learning, in the overweening attempt to make the old world appear to us as familiar as the modern. His Anacharsis takes us into the theatre of Athens, and affects to look round him at his ease; but we soon discover that we are dreaming not with
* I am aware that I here bring a French word into English,-meo periculo; but I have bargained with the word to be turned out of doors in a moment, if its in troduction be disagreeable to the company.
an ancient eye-witness, but with Mr. Barthelemi; and his remarks have not only the general vagueness, but some of the particular inaccuracies that are apt to creep into a dream. History and Romance ought always to have separate establishments. When they live together, the gay sister ruins the sober one by her extravagant housekeeping.
Nevertheless, (thanks to Athens,) there are many extant documents of Greek manners: and the way to make those materials MOST useful to the subject, is also the way likely to make them LEAST formidable to the reader. The character of an object is often more clearly defined by a few significant traits, than by a multitude of elaborate touches. The circumstances well chosen from history to delineate national character, will tell the better for being disentangled from irrelevant historical matter. Would we enter into the tragic situation of a hero in the Greek drama, we ought to understand the spirit of those legends and superstitions, which exalted his pride, overawed his fears, or aggravated his misfortunes. But it is not necessary that we should wade through all the described battles and bloodshed of Greece, or unpile the minute lumbers of her mythology, or enter into all the dust of controversies respecting them, that would rather suffocate than refresh curiosity.
I wish to consult the spirit of Greek history, and not its bulky details. And if any people deserve to be thus spiritually studied, it is the ancient Greeks. I think, in the Homeric draught of manners, there are but few and faint, if any, traces of national difference between Greek and Greek. But at the period at which I resume the history of her poetry, viz. the rise of the Attic Drama, Greece exhibits a little world of diversified national character: a view of society certainly not at all points unrepulsive, but in many respects agreeable, and in all instructive. The most opposite institutions of government had indurated with time, and had left their correspondent and contrasted effects strongly impressed on the manners of different communities. The Arcadian addicted to song and indolence, with no towns nor arts nor sciences, and with little reputation for intellect or taste, except for his skill in making and playing on his lyre, or still sweeter flute-amidst streams too romantic for navigable commerce,-the Arcadian,-sensitive to music, and mixing, like the Swiss, as a mercenary in all wars, was as unlike the mercantile and polished and political Athenian, as the horrid Spartan was dissimilar to both. Feudal manners still lingered in the Doric states, whilst the public games, in which all the states partook, were a sort of prototype of modern chivalry. At the same time the Athenians had traits of policy in which England has the honour of resembling them more than is commonly imagined. A close parallel between the two countries is of course wholly out of the question. But the wooden walls of Athens; her naval empire; her colonial and commercial enterprise; her harbours crowded with the imports of ali the world; her streets and quarters occupied with beautiful manufactures; her rich corporations, and her truly English-like charitable institutions; the importance attached to her manufacturing and trading class of society-these and other circumstances which could be mentioned, establish a certain resemblance between the first nation of Europe which established the rights of man, and the nation which, it is to be hoped, will be the last to relinquish them.