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REVIEW OF THE DRAMATIC LITERATURE
OF THE AGE OF ELIZABETH.
IF Mr. Hazlitt has not generally met with impartial justice from his contemporaries, we must say that he has himself partly to blame. Some of the attacks of which he has been the object, have, no doubt, been purely brutal and malignant; but others have, in a great measure, arisen from feelings of which he has himself set the example. His seeming carelessness of that public opinion which he would influencehis love of startling paradoxes—and his intrusion of political virulence, at seasons when the mind is prepared only for the delicate investigations of taste, have naturally provoked a good deal of asperity, and prevented the due appreciation of his powers. We shall strive, however, to divest ourselves of all prepossessions, and calmly to estimate those talents and feelings which he has here brought to the contemplation of such beauty and grandeur, as none of the low passions of this “ignorant present time” should ever be permitted to overcloud.
Those who regard Mr. Hazlitt as an ordinary writer, have little right to accuse him of suffering antipathies in philosophy or politics to influence his critical decisions. He possesses one excellent quality at least for the office which he has chosen, in the intense admiration and love which he feels for great authors
on whose excellences he chiefly dwells. His relish for their beauties is so keen, that while he describes them, the pleasures which they impart become almost palpable to the sense ; and we seem, scarcely in a figure, to feast and banquet on their “nectared sweets." He introduces,
us almost corporally into the divine presence of the Great of old time-enables us to hear the living oracles of wisdom drop from their lips-and makes us partakers, not only of those joys which they diffused, but of those which they felt in the inmost recesses of their souls. He draws aside the veil of Time with a hand tremulous with mingled delight and reverence; and descants, with kindling enthusiasm, on all the delicacies of that picture of geniuś which he discloses. His intense admiration of intellectual beauty seems always to sharpen his critical faculties. He perceives by a kind of intuitive power, how deeply soever it may be buried in rubbish; and separates it, in a moment, from all that would encumber or deface it. At the same time, he exhibits to us those hidden sources of beauty, not like an anatomist, but like a lover: He does not coolly dissect the form to show the springs whence the blood flows all eloquent, and the divine expression is kindled; but makes us feel it in the sparkling or softened eye, the wreathed smile, and the tender bloom. In a word, he at once analyzes and describes,—so that our enjoyments of loveliness are not chilled, but brightened, by our acquaintance with their inward sources. The knowledge communicated in his lectures, breaks no sweet enchantment, nor chills one feeling of youthful joy. His criticisms, while they extend our insight into the causes of poetical excellence, teach us, at the same time, more keenly to enjoy, and more fondly to revere it.
It must seem, at first sight, strange, that powers like these should have failed to excite universal sympathy. Much, doubtless, of the coldness and misrepresentation cast on them has arisen from causes at which we have already hinted from the apparent readiness of the author to “ give up to party what was meant for mankind"-and from the occasional breaking in of personal animosities on that deep harmony which should attend the reverent contemplation of genius. But we apprehend that there are other causes which have diminished the influence of Mr. Hazlitt's faculties, ori. ginating in his mind itself;—and these we shall endeavour briefly to specify.
The chief of these may, we think, be ascribed primarily to the want of proportion, of arrangement, and of harmony in his powers. His mind resembles the “ rich stronde” which
Spencer has so nobly described, and to which he has himself likened the age of Elizabeth, where treasures of every description lie, without order, in inexhaustible profusion. No ble masses of exquisite marble are there, which might be fashioned to support a glorious temple; and gems of peerless lustre, which would adorn the holiest shrine. He has no lack of the deepest feelings, the profoundest sentiments of humanity, or the loftiest aspirations after ideal good. But there are no great leading principles of taste to give singleness to his aims, nor any central points in his mind, around which his feelings may revolve, and his imaginations cluster. There is no sufficient distinction between his intellectual and his imaginative faculties. He confounds the truths of imagination with those of fact—the processes of argument with those of feeling—the immunities of intellect with those of virtue. Hence the seeming inconsistency of many of his doctrines. Hence the want of all continuity in his style. Hence his failure in producing one single, harmonious, and lasting impression on the hearts of his hearers. He never waits to consider whether a sentiment or an image is in place -so it be in itself striking. The keen sense of pleasure in intellectual beauty which is the best charm of his writings, is also his chief deluder. He cannot resist a powerful image, an exquisite quotation, or a pregnant remark, however it may dissipate or even sub ert the general feeling which his theme should inspire. Thus, on one occasion, in the midst of a violent political invective, he represents the objects of his scorn as “ having been beguiled, like Miss Clarissa Harlowe, into a house of ill-fame, and, like her, defending themselves to the last;" as if the reader's whole current of feeling would not be diverted from all political disputes, by the remembrance thus awakened of one of the sublimest scenes of romance ever embodied by human power. He will never be contented to touch that most strange and curious instrument, the human heart, with a steady aim, but throws his hand rapidly over the chords, mingling strange discord with“ most eloquent music.” Instead of conducting us onward to a given object, he opens so many delicious prospects by the way-side, and suffers us to gaze at them so long, that we forget the end of our journey. He is perpetually dazzled among the sunbeams of his fancy, and plays with them in elegant fan
tasy, when he should point them to the spots where they might fall on truth and beauty, and render them visible by a clearer and lovelier radiance than had yet revealed them.
The work before us is not the best verification of these remarks; for it has more of continuity and less of paradox than any of his previous writings. With the exception of some strong political allusions in the account of the Sejanus of Ben Jonson, it is entirely free from those expressions of party feeling which respect for an audience, consisting of men of all parties, and men of no party, ought always to restrain. There is also none of that personal bitterness towards Messrs. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, which disfigured his former lectures. His hostility towards these poets, the associates of his early days, has always indeed been mingled with some redeeming feelings which have heightened the regret occasioned by its public disclosure.While he has pursued them with all possible severity of invective, and acuteness of sarcasm, he has protected their intellectual character with a chivalrous zeal. He has spoken as if “his only hate had sprung from his only love;" and his thoughts of its objects, deep rooted in old affection, could not lose all traces of their “primal sympathy." His bitterest language has had its dash of the early sweets, which no changes of opinion could entirely destroy. Still his audiences and his readers had ample ground of complaint for the intrusion of personal feelings, in inquiries which should be sacred from all discordant emotions. We rejoice to observe, that this blemish is now effaced; and that full and free course is at last given to that deep humanity which has ever held its current in his productions, sometimes in open day, and sometimes beneath the soil which it fertilized, though occasionally dashed and thrown back in its course by the obstacles of prejudice and of passion. .
The first of these lectures consists of a general view of the subject, expressed in terms of the deepest veneration and of the most passionate eulogy. After eloquently censuring the gross prejudice, that genius and beauty are things of modern discovery, or that in old time a few amazing spirits shone forth amidst general darkness, as the harbingers of brighter days, the author proceeds to combat the notion that
Shakspeare was a sort of monster of poetical genius, and all his contemporaries of an order far below him.
“ He, indeed, overlooks and commands the admiration of posterity; but he does it from the table land of the age in which he lived. He towered above his fellows in shade and gesture proudly eminent;' but he was but one of a race of giants,—the tallest, the strongest, the most graceful and beautiful of them;- but it was a common and noble brood. He was not something sacred and aloof from the vulgar herd of men, but shook hands with Nature and the circumstances of the time; and is distinguished from his immediate contempo raries, not in kind, but in degree, and greater variety of ex. cellence. He did not form a class or species by himself, but belonged to a class or species. His age was necessary to him; nor could he have been wrenched from his place in the edifice, of which he was so conspicuous a part, without equal injury to himself and it. Mr. Wordsworth says of Milton, that his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.' This cannot be said with any propriety of Shakspeare, who certainly moved in a constellation of bright luminaries, and • drew after him the third part of the heavens.''
pp. 12, 13.
The author then proceeds to investigate the general causes of that sudden and rich development of poetical feeling which forms his theme. He attributes it chiefly to the mighty im. pulse given to thought by the Reformation—to the disclosure of all the marvellous stores of sacred antiquity, by the translation of the Scriptures and to the infinite sweetness, breathing from the divine character of the Messiah, with which he seems to imagine that the people were not familiar in darker ages. We are far from insensible to the exquisite beauty with which this last subject is treated; and fully agree with our author, that “there is something in the character of Christ, of more sweetness and majesty, and more likely to work a change in the mind of man, than any to be found in history, whether actual or feigned.” But we cannot think that the gentle influences which that character shed upon the general heart, were weak or partial even before the translation of the Scriptures. The young had received it,