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in the language of one of the most unfortunate, “to make madness beautiful ” in the eyes of others.
But, notwithstanding the interest and importance of literary history, it has hitherto received but little attention from English writers. No complete survey of the achievements of our native tongue has been yet produced, or even attempted. The earlier periods of the poetical developement of the nation have been well illustrated by various antiquaries. Warton has brought the history of poetry down to the season of its first vigorous expansion, — the age of Elizabeth. But he did not penetrate beyond the magnificent vestibule of the temple. Dr. Johnson's “ Lives of the Poets ” have done much to supply the deficiency in this department. But much more remains to be done, to afford the student any thing like a complete view of the progress of poetry in England. Johnson's work, as every one knows, is conducted on the most capricious and irregular plan. The biographies were dictated by the choice of the bookseller. Some of the most memorable names in British literature are omitted, to make way for a host of minor luminaries, whose dim radiance, unassisted by the magnifying lens of the Doctor, would never have penetrated to posterity. The same irregularity is visible in the proportion he has assigned to each of his subjects; the principal figures, or what should have been such, being often thrown into the background, to make room for some subordinate personage, whose story was thought to have more interest.
Besides these defects of plan, the critic was certainly deficient in sensibility to the more delicate, the minor beauties of poetic sentiment. He analyzes verse in the cold-blooded spirit of a chemist, until all the aroma, which constituted its principal charm, escapes in the decomposition. By this kind of process, some of the finest fancies of the Muse, the lofty dithyrambics of Gray, the ethereal effusions of Collins, and of Milton too, are rendered sufficiently vapid. In this sort of criticism, all the effect, that relies on impressions, goes for nothing. Ideas are alone taken into the account; and all is weighed in the same hard, matter-of-fact scales of common sense, like so much solid prose. What a sorry figure would Byron's Muse make, subjected to such an ordeal! The Doctor's taste in composition, to judge from his own style, was not of the highest order. It was a style, indeed, of extraordinary power, suited to the expression of his original thinking, bold, vigorous, and glowing, with all the lustre of pointed antithesis. But the brilliancy is cold, and the ornaments are much too florid and overcharged for a graceful effect. When to these minor blemishes we add the graver one of an obliquity of judgment, produced by inveterate political and religious prejudice, which has thrown a shadow orer some of the brightest characters subjected to his pencil, we have summed up a fair amount of critical deficiencies. With all this, there is no one of the works of this great and good man, in which he has displayed more of the strength of his mighty intellect, shown a more pure and masculine morality, more sound principles of criticism, in the abstract, more acute delineation of character, and more gorgeous splendor of diction. His defects, however, such as they are, must prevent his maintaining, with posterity, that undisputed dictatorship in criticism, which was conceded to him in his own day. We must do justice to his errors, as well as to his excellences, in order that we may do justice to the characters which have come under his censure. And we must admit, that his work, however admirable as a gallery of splendid portraits, is inadequate to convey any thing like a complete or impartial view of English poetry.
The English have made but slender contributions to the history of foreign literatures. The most important, probably, are Roscoe's works, in which literary criticism, though but a subordinate feature, is the most valuable part of the composition. As to any thing like a general survey of this department, they are wholly deficient. The deficiency, indeed, is likely to be supplied, to a certain extent, by the work of Mr. Hallam, now in progress of publication ; the first volume of which, — the only one which has yet issued from the press, — gives evidence of the same curious erudition, acuteness, honest impartiality, and energy of diction, which distinguish the other writings of this eminent scholar. But the extent of his work, limited to four volumes, precludes any thing more than a survey of the most prominent features of the vast subject he has undertaken.
The Continental nations, under serious discouragements, too, have been much more active than the British, in this field. The Spaniards can boast a general history of letters, extending to more than twenty volumes in length, and compiled with sufficient impartiality. The Italians have several such. Yet these are the lands of the Inquisition; where reason is hoodwinked, and the honest utterance of opinion has been recompensed by persecution, exile, and the stake. How can such a people estimate the character of compositions, which, produced under happier institutions, are instinct with the spirit of freedom ? How can they make allowance for the manifold eccentricities of a literature, where thought is allowed to expatiate in all the independence of individual caprice ? How can they possibly, trained to pay such nice deference to outward finish and mere verbal elegance, have any sympathy with the rough and homely beauties, which emanate from the people, and are addressed to the people ?
The French, nurtured under freer forms of government, have contrived to come under a system of literary laws, scarcely less severe. Their first great dramatic production gave rise to a scheme of critical legislation, which has continued, ever since, to press on the genius of the nation, in all the higher walks of poetic art. Ainidst all the mutations of state, the tone of criticism has remained essentially the same, to the present century, when, indeed, the boiling passions and higher excitements of a revolutionary age, have made the classic models, on which their literature was cast, appear somewhat too frigid ; and a warmer coloring has been sought by an infusion of English sentiment. But this mixture, or rather confusion of styles, neither French nor English, seems to rest on no settled principles, and is, probably, too alien to the genius of the people to continue permanent.
The French, forming themselves early on a foreign and antique model, were necessarily driven to rules, as a substitute for those natural promptings, which have directed the course of other modern nations in the career of letters. Such rules, of course, while assimilating them to antiquity, drew them aside from sympathy with their own contemporaries. How can they, thus formed on an artificial system, enter into the spirit of other literatures, so uncongenial with their own ?
That the French continued subject to such a system, with little change, to the present age, is evinced by the example of Voltaire ; a writer, whose lawless ridicule,
" like the wind,
but whose revolutionary spirit made no serious changes in the principles of the national criticism. Indeed, his commentaries on Corneille furnish evidence of a willingness to contract still closer the range of the poet, and to define more accurately the laws by which his movements were to be controlled. Voltaire's history affords an evidence of the truth of the Horatian maxim, “Naturam expellas,” &c. In his younger days he passed some time, as is well known, in England ; and contracted there a certain relish for the strange models which came under his observation. On his return, he made many attempts to introduce the foreign school, with which he had become acquainted, to his own countrymen. His vanity was gratified by detecting the latent beauties of his barbarian neighbours, and by being the first to point them out to his countrymen. It associated him with names venerated on the other side of the Channel, and, at home, transferred a part of their glory to himself. Indeed, he was not backward in transferring as much as he could of it, by borrowing on his own account, where he could venture, manibus plenis, and with very little acknowledgment. The French, at length, became so far reconciled to the monstrosities of their neighbours, that a regular translation of Shakspeare, the lord of the British Pandemonium, was executed by Letourneur, a littérateur of no great merit ; but the work was well received. Voltaire, the veteran, in his solitude of Ferney, was roused by the applause bestowed on the English poet in his Parisian costume, to a sense of his own imprudence. He saw, in imagination, the altars which had been raised to him, as well as to the other master-spirits of the national drama, in a fair way to be overturned, in order to make room for an idol of his own importation. “Have you seen," he writes, speaking of Letourneur's version, co his abominable trash? Will you endure the affront put upon France by it? There are no epithets bad enough, nor fool's-caps, nor pillories enough, in all France, for such a scoundrel. The blood tingles in my old veins in speaking of him. What is the most dreadful part of the affair is, the monster bas his party in France ; and, to add to my shame and consternation, it was I who first sounded the praises of this Shakspeare ; I, who first showed the pearls, picked here and there, from his overgrown dungheap. Little did I anticipate, that I was helping to trample under foot, at some future day, the laurels of Racine and Corneille, to adorn the brows of a barbarous player, - this drunkard of a Shakspeare.” Not content with this expectoration of his bile, the old poet transmitted a formal letter of remonstrance to D'Alembert, which was read publicly, as designed, at a regular séance of the Academy. The document, after expatiating, at length, on the blunders, vulgarities, and indecencies of the English bard, concludes with this appeal to the critical body he was addressing. “ Paint to yourselves, Gentlemen, Louis the Fourteenth in his gallery at Versailles, surrounded by his brilliant court :- a tatterdemalion advances, covered with rags, and proposes to the assembly to abandon the tragedies of Racine for a mountebank, full of grimaces, with nothing but a lucky hit, now and then, to redeem them.”
At a later period, Ducis, the successor of Voltaire, if we remember right, in the Academy, a writer of far superior merit to Letourneur, did the British bard into much better French than his predecessor ; though Ducis, as he takes care to acquaint us, " did his best to efface those startling impressions of horror, which would have damned his author in the polished theatres of Paris ”! Voltaire need not have taken the affair so much at heart. Shakspeare, reduced within the compass, as much as possible, of the rules, with all his eccentricities and peculiarities, — all that made him English, in fact, — smoothed away, may be tolerated, and to a certain extent countenanced, in the polished theatres of Paris." But this is not
" Shakspeare, Nature's child,
Warbling his native wood-notes wild.” The Germans present just the antipodes of their French neighbours. Coming late on the arena of modern literature, they would seem to be particularly qualified for excelling in criticism by the variety of styles and models for their study, supplied by other nations. They have accordingly done wonders in this department, and have extended their critical wand over the remotest regions, dispelling the mists of old prejudice, and throwing the light of learning on what before was dark and inexplicable. They certainly are entitled to the credit of a singularly cosmopolitan power of divesting themselves of local and national prejudice. No nation has done so much to lay the foundations of that reconciling spirit