« PreviousContinue »
respect-Neoptolemus gladdens us with a prototype of chivalrous truth -and Antigone is Cordelia with a loftier mien.
The tragedy of Ajax powerfully exhibits the despair and suicide of a proud soldier who has lived but for martial honour, and cannot survive the loss of it. The objects that are grouped around his tragic figure, finely contrast their imploring sympathy with his inexorable grief. It is surprising to find men who have taken the pains to translate this drama into English*, among its most illiberal critics-they object to the mental aberration of Ajax, to the deed in which it vents itself, and to the share of Ulysses in the opening scene. Ajax, indignant at the Greek chiefs for disgracing him by the denial of Achilles's armour, repairs, sword in hand, to their tents at night; but, struck with insanity by Minerva, he vents his rage upon their flocks and herds, imagining that he was slaughtering his enemies. After the deed is done, and whilst his phrenzy is still upon him, the goddess calls him out from his tent, and in the hearing of Ulysses, whom she renders invisible, makes the maniac relate and boast of his exploit. All this, we are told, savours of the ludicrous. The criticism certainly does. It is true that there is much incongruity between the pride of Ajax and the meanness of his victims; but it is this very incongruity, and the scorn and mockery that are to follow it, that make his situation truly tragic; and there is a Shakspearian power in this scene that turns the incongruous into an element of terror. As for mental aberration, do we find even its gaiety disfigure tragedy when Lear exclaims "Do thy worst, blind Cupid, I will not love;" or do we not rather sympathize with Gloucester's reply, "Thou ruined piece of nature!" The unwillingness of Ulysses to see his phrenzied foe is only the caution of a wise man; but, besides this caution, the poet gives him a deep sensibility to the misery of Ajax. Before seeing him Ulysses declares, I should little dread
"The sight of Ajax in his perfect mind." When he has seen him he exclaims,
"Even in a foe I pity such distress!"
and the manner in which he finally interposes to obtain for him the rites of sepulture, is in perfect keeping with this humane and honourable sentiment,
In the description of Ajax's mind returning to a state of reason still more dreadful than its past illusions, the workings of a heart abandoned to the sense of insulted pride are skilfully and naturally delineated.
His resolution to destroy himself is unalterably fixed from the moment that the light of his recovered reason discloses the prospects that surround him. Whither, indeed, could he betake himself? He had fallen among the Greeks, from the height of glory and regard, to the abyss of derision and hatred. To his father's house he could not repair, without a spoil or a trophy, and with ridicule cast on his reputation; and to throw himself on the swords of the Trojans, would be only to gratify the insolent Atridæ. Thus situated, he excites an interest in the poetry of Sophocles, which, from his character in the Iliad, we should hardly suppose it possible to attach to him. Yet he is kept true to his Homeric character; and even in his prayer to Jupiter before his death, we recognize the self-dependence and stubbornness of
The Rev. Dr. Francklin and the Rev. Thomas Dale.
his pride, when he tells the chief of the gods, that he had but a slight boon to implore of him. But, like Shakspeare, Sophocles is cautious of overcharging characters; and in disgrace and despair Ajax is neither inhumanly impassive nor repulsively fierce. On the contrary, he displays both the natural feelings of a man and the dignity of a hero. He gives a calm consideration to the state of those who are to survive him he calls for his boy, and embraces him with a most touching valediction::-
"May'st thou, my boy, be happier than thy father!
To copy me. I envy thee, my child,
For that thou seest not thine own wretchedness.--
Of you, my friends, companions of the war, The only boon I ask is, that ye urge This last request to Teucer :-say I begg’d, That straight to Telamon and Eriboa, My aged parents, he would bear my child, To be the joy of their declining years." The feint which he makes to have changed his purpose, in order to escape and to perpetrate it without disturbance, may seem at first sight foreign to his character; but if a little considered, it will appear a natural exception to his general habits, when he stoops for once in his life to dissimulation; being at once unshaken in his design of suicide, and anxious to accomplish it undisturbed, and yet so far touched by the tenderness of Tecmessa as to wish to spare her the horror of witnessing the deed. Accordingly before he departs, he speaks with honour and affection of his wife.
In the mean time his brother arrives in the Greek camp, and is warned by the prophet Chalcas to cause Ajax to be confined for the passing day, which the Oracles had foretold would be fatal to him. But the message arrives too late. Tecmessa and the Chorus go to search for Ajax, and his wife discovers him on the spot where he had fallen on his sword. Here the tragedy, according to modern ideas, ought to conclude; but to the rites of burial the Greeks attached an awfully religious importance: and it is not till these have been decreed to the hero, that Sophocles concludes the piece. Nor does the interest at all flag in the remainder of the tragedy. Indeed it is then, when all is over with the hero, that we feel his virtues to be told with the deepest effect-when his widow and child kneel, as suppliants to Heaven and human mercy, beside his corpse; when his spirited brother defies the threats of the Atride to deny him sepulchral honours; and when Ulysses, with politic magnanimity, interposes to prevent the mean insult being offered to his fallen enemy. By his triumph in assuaging the vindictiveness of Agamemnon, and attaching the gratitude of Teucer, the piece leaves our sympathies calmed and elevated at its conclusion.
The Philoctetes, the Electra, the Edipus at Colonus, and the Antigone of this great poet, are such interesting master-pieces, that I have been tempted to take an ampler synopsis of them than it would suit my limits in this work to insert in the present Number, I shall therefore defer its insertion till the next.
MRS. RADCLIFFE'S POSTHUMOUS ROMANCE."
CURIOSITY has seldom been more strongly excited by any announcement than by that of Mrs. Radcliffe's new romance. The great and genuine popularity of her successive works, which peopled the imagination with so many grand and fearful pictures, and which have been to so many "fair and innocent" novel-readers as a first love; her retirement, suddenly adopted in the height of her reputation and preserved till her death; and the strange mistakes which were so long prevalent respecting her personal history; were calculated to rivet the attention of the public to a production which her admirers had ceased to hope for. Long as the interval is since the "Italian" was published, and rich as it has been in works of fiction, "the great Enchantress of Udolpho" held lone and unquestioned supremacy over that delicious region of romance which was first disclosed at her bidding. Her popularity has stood a severe test; but, instead of fading away, has strengthened into fame. Since she ceased to write, Maturin has developed the processional magnificence for his genius, aided by startling contrasts and moral paradoxes; Miss Porter and her sister have finished a series of pictures replete with smooth, glossy, and transparent beauty; Miss Edgeworth has exhibited views of human life from the nursery to the grave, from the hovel of Irish beggars to the saloons of English noblemen, illuminated by the glancing lights of wit, and replete with splendour, which "borrowed all its rays from sense;" Mrs. Inchbald has stripped oppression of its disguises, and bade the heart bleed for others and itself; Miss Austen has displayed all the delicacy of female observation, and developed all the fervour of the female heart; and the author of Waverley has brought old histories before us instinct with present life, and filled with almost every variety of human character; yet Mrs. Radcliffe's best works have continued to excite the girl's first wonder, and to supply the last solace to her grandame's age, thumbed over, begged, borrowed, and thought of as often as ever! To the fancies of her numberless readers, she seemed to hold august sway over the springs of terror, almost as the Siddons of novelists.
"It were to inquire too curiously," if we should attempt nicely to investigate how far this effect is attributable to mere intellectual power, and to what extent it may be ascribed to the charm of the subjects which the authoress selected. If the fascination was chiefly in her range of imagery, she, at least, first showed how to employ it, and has alone been able to mould and arrange its varieties so as to produce a deep and lasting impression. If she derived any hint from the farcical extravagances of the Castle of Otranto, or the insipidity of the Old
* Gaston de Blondeville; or the Court of Henry III. keeping Festival in Ardenne, a Romance; St. Alban's Abbey, a Metrical Tale; with other poetical pieces. By Anne Radcliffe, author of "The Mysteries of Udolpho;" "Romance of the Forest;" &c. To which is prefixed a Memoir of the Author, with extracts
English Baron, our idea of her faculty is rather heightened than reduced that on such cold suggestions she could devise solemn and decorous terrors, and spread out vast, sombre, and consistent pictures before the eye of the fancy. The ground which she chose was, no doubt, well adapted to her purpose; but the enchantments she raised there did not derive their influence from mere melo-dramatic artifices and ingenious trickery. There was a fine knowledge of the pulses of curiosity and fear in the human heart; and a nice discrimination in apportioning the degree and the kind of excitement which would call forth their fondest throbbings, which has never else been employed by the novelist. It may be true that her persons are cold and formal; but her readers are the virtual heroes and heroines of her story as they read; and when they rise from the perusal, instead of having become intimate with a rich troop of characters, they seem to have added a long series of interesting adventures to their individual history. It is idle, however, to dispute about the means, when the end is so apparent; to contend that that which has endured so long, had no principle of vitality; that books which have been devoured by thousands, have no legitimate hold on the sympathies; or that an effect is easily produced, which a hundred well-trained imitators have attempted to produce in vain!
Mrs. Radcliffe's first work, "The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne" -a very vapid and common-place performance-was published in 1789; and her last, "The Italian," in 1797. The developement of her powers was rapid and progressive; for though "The Mysteries of Udolpho" is touched with a dreamy softness which "The Italian" wants, the latter, on the whole, displays a higher energy, and is conducted with severer taste. It has been surmised, among other conjectures, that the romance now published was the work of her declining age; but, in fact, it was written in the winter of 1802, when her powers were in full vigour. From the Memoir prefixed to the tale, which is evidently authentic, we learn the real cause why she withheld it from the press, and why she afterwards rested from her delightful labours. She had been educated in the principles and honourable prejudices of the old school, which taught her to regard all publicity as an evil; and though her genius, when prompted by the desirableness of increased pecuniary resources, for a time overcame the force of habit, her old feeling resumed its sway as soon as this stimulus was withdrawn. The splendour of her own reputation alarmed her feminine apprehensiveness and pride, and she shrunk from it into entire seclusion. According to her biographer, her years seem to have been as happy as they were tranquil; diversified by frequent journeys in the company of an affectionate husband, whose tastes accorded with her own; and embellished by occasional productions of sentiment and fancy, from which a selection has been made for the work before us.
This complete retirement from the public, who were little able to guess its true causes, gave birth to a rumour that Mrs. Radcliffe, overmastered by the terrors she had infused into others, was suffering under derangement of mind; and her misfortune was asserted in prose, lamented in verse, and taken as the basis of critical theories. Never was a report more groundless in fact, or more improbable in speculation; yet it was a most genuine compliment to her powers. A cool reader of her works will perceive that her chief fault is an insensibility
to the fears she awakens; a want of sympathy with her readers, whose expectations of the supernatural she disappoints :-how potent, therefore, must be the art which induced them to attribute to her all they had experienced themselves, even after she had taken the deceptive machinery to pieces! "These rumours," (says the writer of the Memoir)" sometimes reached her; but she could not endure the thought of writing in the newspapers that she was not insane; and learned at last to smile at the pity of some who thought her lingering in confinement, as at the charity of others who had kindly permitted her to find a release in death from her supposed intellectual sufferings."
"Gaston de Blondeville," the romance now published, unquestionably displays no falling off, at least in point of vigour, from the authoress's most popular works. Instead of tediousness increasing with age, the reader will find it more rapid in its action, and more compressed in its description, than any of her former productions. There is the same disposition to present every scene with all its characteristic accompaniments; but the effect is produced by bolder and by fewer strokes. The plot is more simple; the tone of feeling is more rigid; and as the scene is laid not in the luxurious South, but in England, there is an entire absence of that effeminate softness which pervades even the crimes and sufferings of Italy. It is a dark and terrible picture richly set in a massive framework of old English manners and courtly splendour. In one respect there is a great improvement in the machinery by which the effect is produced-the change from falsehood to truth-for the supernatural agency is real. The reader is not mocked with a false show; he is not teased by a thousand improbabilities, instead of being asked at once to believe what at least is possible to his imagination; nor having, throughout the tale, given his faith to the last, is he put off at the end with the first, which his reason and feeling alike revolt from. He will miss the involution of story; the voluptuousness of scenery tinged with the hues of romance; the accompaniments of mouldering castles, horrid recesses, and stealthy-paced assassins; but he will have, instead, the air of English antiquity cast on a tale of strange and thrilling adventures, over the developement of which a solemn visitant from the grave presides. In the introduction of the spectre, and of the illusions which attend him, there is a happy and wise audacity: the authoress has relied on no note of preparation; but has left her solemn fancies to vindicate by their own force a claim to a place in the imagination of others.
This romance is introduced to the reader as decyphered from an illustrated manuscript found in a chest which was dug up among the ruins of Kenilworth Castle, and purchased by an enthusiastic young man travelling with a more sober-minded friend through the probable scene of Shakespear's Ardenne. It is supposed to have been written afresh, though with some sprinkling of antique manner and language, which would naturally tinge the style of a lover of old time engaged in such an office. It contains the history of eight days spent by Henry the Third with his Court at Kenilworth, and abounds in images of the rude magnificence of the time, which have at least an apparent truth; and which set off and heighten the effect of the main adventure. As the King is entering the Portal of the Castle, a man of goodly appearance is seen forcing himself through the guards to address him; and presently, having fixed his eyes on Sir Gaston de Blondeville, a young