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Undoubtedly most of these notions were credited and entertained in a much higher degree, in the preceding periods.
But the arts of composition had not then made a sufficient progress, nor would the poets of those periods have managed them with so much address and judgement. We were now arrived at that point, when the national credulity, chastened by reason, had produced a sort of civilized superstition, and left a set of traditions, fanciful enough for poetic decoration, and yet not too violent and chimerical for common sense. Hobbes, although no friend to this doctrine, observes happily, “In a good poem “ both judgement and fancy are required; but the fancy must “ be more eminent, because they please for the EXTRAVA
GANCY, but ought not to displease by INDISCRETION."
In the mean time the Gothic romance, although somewhat Thook by the classical fictions, and by the tales of Boccace and Bandello, still maintained its ground: and the daring machineries of giants, dragons, and inchanted castles, borrowed from the magic storehouse of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso, began to be employed by the epic muse. These ornaments have been censured by the bigotry of precise and servile critics, as abounding in whimsical absurdities, and as unwarrantable deviations from the practice of Homer and Virgil. The author of An ENQUIRY INTO THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF HOmer is willing to allow a fertility of genius, and a felicity of expression, to Tasso and Ariosto; but at the same time complains, that, “ quitting « life, they betook themselves to aerial beings and Utopian “ characters, and filled their works with Charms and Visions, “ the modern Supplements of the Marvellous and Sublime. The “ best poets copy nature, and give it such as they find it. When “ once they lose sight of this, they write false, be their talents
great'," But what shall we say of those Utopians, the Cyclopes and the Leftrigons in the Odyssey? The hippogrif of Ariosto may be opposed to the harpies of Virgil. If leaves
are turned into ships in the Orlando, nymphs are transformed into ships in the Eneid. Cacus is a more unnatural savage than Caliban. Nor am I convinced, that the imagery of Ismeno's necromantic forest in the Gierusalemme Liberata, guarded by walls and battlements of fire, is less marvellous and sublime, than the leap of Juno's horses in the Iliad, celebrated by Longinus for its fingular magnificence and dignity. On the principles of this critic, Voltaire's Henriad may be placed at the head of the modern epic. But I forbear to anticipate my opinion of a system, which will more properly be considered, when I come to speak of Spenser. I must, however, observe here, that the Gothic and pagan fictions were now frequently blended and incorporated. The Lady of the Lake floated in the suite of Neptune before queen Elisabeth at Kenilworth; Ariel assumes the semblance of a sea-nymph, and Hecate, by an easy association, conducts the rites of the weird sisters in Macbeth.
Allegory had been derived from the religious dramas into our civil spectacles. The masques and pageantries of the age of Elisabeth were not only furnished by the heathen divinities, but often by the virtues and vices impersonated, significantly decorated, accurately distinguished by their proper types, and represented by living actors. The antient fymbolical Thews of this fort began now to lose their old barbarism and a mixture of religion, and to assume a degree of poetical elegance and precision, Nor was it only in the conformation of particular figures that much fancy was thewn, but in the contexture of some of the fables or devices presented by groupes of ideal personages. These exhibitions quickened creative invention, and reflected back on poetry what
poetry had given. From their familiarity and public nature, they formed a national taste for allegory; and the allegorical
poets were now writing to the people. Even romance was turned into this channel. In the Fairy Queen, allegory is wrought upon chivalry, and the feats and figments of Arthur's round table
ILIAD, V. 770. Longin. $. ix.
are moralised. The virtues of magnificence and chastity are here personified : but they are imaged with the forms, and under the agency, of romantic knights and damsels. What was an afterthought in Tasso, appears to have been Spenser's premeditated and primary design. In the mean time, we must not confound these moral combatants of the Fairy Queen with some of its other embodied abstractions, which are purely and professedly allegorical.
It may here be added, that only a few critical treatises, and but one ART OF POETRY, were now written. Sentiments and images were not absolutely determined by the canons of composition : nor was genius awed by the consciousness of a future and final arraignment at the tribunal of taste. A certain dignity of inattention to niceties is now visible in our writers. Without too closely consulting a criterion of correctness, every man indulged his own capriciousness of invention. The poet's appeal was chiefly to his own voluntary feelings, his own immediate and peculiar mode of conception. And this freedom of thought was often expressed in an undisguised frankness of diction. A circumstance, by the way, that greatly contributed to give the flowing modulation which now marked the measures of our poets, and which foon degenerated into the opposite extreme of diffonance and asperity. Selection and discrimination were often overlooked. Shakespeare wandered in pursuit of universal nature. The glancings of his eye are from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. We behold him breaking the barriers of imaginary method. In the same scene, he descends from his meridian of the noblest tragic sublimity, to puns and quibbles, to the meanest merriments of a plebeian farce. In the midst of his dignity, he resembles his own Richard the second, the skipping king, who sometimes discarding the state of a monarch,
Mingled his royalty with carping fools".
b First P. Henry iv. Act iii. Sc. ii.
3 R 2
He seems not to have seen any impropriety, in the most abrupt transitions, from dukes to buffoons, from senators to failors, from counsellors to constables, and from kings to clowns. Like Virgil's majestic oak,
Quantum vertice ad auras
No Satires, properly so called, were written till towards the latter end of the queen's reign, and then but a few. Pictures drawn at large of the vices of the times, did not suit readers who loved to wander in the regions of artificial manners. The Muse, like the people, was too solemn and reserved, too ceremonious and pedantic, to stoop to common life. Satire is the poetry of a nation highly polished.
The importance of the female character was not yet acknowledged, nor were women admitted into the general commerce of fociety. The effect of that intercourse had not imparted a comic air to poetry, nor softened the severer tone of our versification with the levities of gallantry, and the familiarities of compliment, sometimes perhaps operating on serious subjects, and imperceptibly spreading themselves in the general habits of style and thought. I do not mean to infinuate, that our poetry has suffered from the great change of manners, which this assumption of the gentler sex, or rather the improved state of female education, has produced, by giving elegance and variety to life, by enlarging the sphere of conversation, and by multiplying the topics and enriching the stores of wit and humour. But I am marking the peculiarities of composition: and my meaning was to suggest, that the absence of so important a circumstance from the modes and constitution of antient life, must have influenced the cotemporary poetry. Of the state of manners among our ancestors respecting this point, many traces remain. Their style of courtThip may be collected from the love-dialogues of Hamlet, young
Percy, Henry the fifth, and Master Fenton. Their tragic heroines, their Desdemonas and Ophelias, although of so much consequence in the piece, are degraded to the back-ground. In comedy, their ladies are nothing more than MERRY WIves, plain and chearful matrons, who stand upon the chariness of their honesty. In the smaller poems, if a lover praises his mistress, she is complimented in strains neither polite nor pathetic, without elegance and without affection : she is described, not in the address of intelligible yet artful panegyric, not in the real colours, and with the genuine accomplishments, of nature, but as an eccentric ideal being of another system, and as inspiring sentiments equally unmeaning, hyperbolical, and unnatural.
All or most of these circumstances, contributed to give a descriptive, a picturesque, and a figurative cast to the poetical language. This effect appears even in the prose compositions of the reign of Elisabeth. In the subsequent age, prose became the language of poetry.
In the mean time, general knowledge was encreasing with a wide diffusion and a hafty rapidity. Books began to be multiplied, and a variety of the most useful and rational topics had been discussed in our own language. But science had not made:
advances. On the whole, we were now arrived at that: period, propitious to the operations of original and true poetry, when the coyness of fancy was not always proof against the approaches of reason, when genius was rather directed than
governed by judgement, and when taste and learning had so far only disciplined imagination, as to suffer its excesses to pass without censure or controul, for the sake of the beauties to which they were allied.
THE THIRD VOLUME..