תמונות בעמוד
PDF
ePub
[ocr errors]

for these repeated digressions, the scholar will regret, that subjects so attractive and copious in themselves are only passingly or superficially treated of. Without attempting to justify or deny the force of these objections, it may be more to our present purpose to inquire, what may have been the author's views of his duty, and the manner in which this was to be accomplished. In common with every one else who has duly canvassed the subject, Warton indisputably felt that the poetry of a rude and earlier age, with very few exceptions, can only command a share of later attention in proportion as it has exercised an influence over the times producing it, or conveys a picture of the institutions, modes of thinking or general habits of the society for which it was written.' To have given specimens of these productions in all their native nakedness, would have been to ensure for them neglect from the listless student, and misapprehension from the more zealous but uninformed inquirer. A commentary was indispensably necessary, not a mere gloss upon words, but things, a luminous exposition of whatever had changed its character, or grown obsolete in the lapse of time, and which, as it unfolded to the reader's view the forgotten customs of the day, assisted him to live and feel in the spirit of the poet's age. For such a purpose it was requisite to enter largely into the domestic and civil economy of our ancestors, their public and private sports, the entertainments of the baronial hall, the martial exercises of the tournament, the alternate solemnities and buffooneries of misdirected devotion, and those coarser pastimes and amusements, which relieve the toil of industry, and give a zest to the labours of the humbler classes. The spirit and gallant enterprize of chivalry was to be recorded in conjunction with the juggler's dexterity and the necromancer's art; the avocations of the cloister, the wode-craft of the feudal lord, and the services of his retainer, were each to receive a share

of the general notice; and though romance and minstrelsy might be the prominent characteristics of the age, the occult mysteries of alchemy were not to be overlooked. With these were to be ranged, the popular superstitions of a departed pagan faith, and the legendary marvels of a new religion; the relations of the citizen to the state, and of the ecclesiastic to the community; the effects produced by the important political events of five centuries, and their consequences on the progress of civilization and national literature. In addition to these varied topics, Warton considered it equally imperative upon him to account for the striking contrast existing between the poetry of the ancient and modern world; and, in developing what he has termed the origin of romantic fiction, to discuss the causes which embellished or corrupted it, and to explain those anomalies which appear to separate it both from more recent compositions and the classic remains of antiquity. He also knew, that though poetry be not the child of learning, it is modified in every age by the current knowledge of the country, and that as an imitative art, it is always either borrowing from the imagery of existing models, or wrestling with the excellencies which distinguish them. It was therefore not only necessary to investigate the degree of classic lore which still diffused its light amid the gloom of the earlier ages of barbarism, but to show the disguises and corruptions under which a still greater portion had recommended itself to popular notice, and courted attention as the memorials of ancient and occasionally of national enterprize. But the middle age had also produced a learning of its own, and the scholar and the poet were so frequently united in the same personage, that in this ill-assorted match of science 6 wedded to immortal verse," the muse was often made the mere domestic drudge of her abstruse and erudite consort. Of this once highly-valued knowledge, so little has descended to our own times, that the modern reader, with

out a guide to instruct him in his progress, feels like the traveller before the walls of Persepolis, who gazes on the inscriptions of a powerful but extinguished race, without a key to the character recording their deeds. Above all, it was of importance to notice the successive acquisitions, in the shape of translation or imitation, from the more polished productions of Greece and Rome; and to mark the dawn of that æra, which, by directing the human mind to the study of classical antiquity, was to give a new impetus to science and literature, and by the changes it introduced to effect a total revolution in the laws which had previously governed them. This is clearly the outline of what Warton proposed to himself as his duty :-of the mode in which this design has been fulfilled it must be left to others to determine. But let it not be hastily inferred, that when he has been excursive upon some collateral topic, he has consequently given it an importance disproportionate to its real bearing on his subject; or that the languor produced upon the reader's mind in certain periods of these annals, is exclusively the author's fault. The results attendant upon literary, as well as moral or political changes, are not always distinguished by that manifest equality to their exciting cause, which strikes the sense on a first recital; and the poetry of so many centuries, like the temper of the times, or the constitution of the seasons, must necessarily exhibit the same fitful vicissitudes of character, the same alternations of fertility and unproductiveness. Of the materials transmitted to his hands, whether marked by excellence, or proverbial for insipidity, it is still the historian's duty to record their existence; and though many of these may contain no single ray of genius to redeem their numerous absurdities, they yet may throw considerable light on the state of public opinion, and the ruling tastes or customs of their age. The most popular poetry of its day is well known not always to be the most meritorious, however

safely we may trust to the equity of time for repairing this injustice. The only question therefore will be, as to the degree in which such compositions ought to be communicated. In the earlier periods, where any memorials are exceedingly scanty, and those generally varying in their prevailing character, a greater latitude will be granted than in those where the invention of printing equally contributed to multiply the materials, and render the documents more generally accessible. Of Warton's consideration in this respect, it will be sufficient to remark, that in the sixteenth century (when every man seems to have been visited with a call to court the muse, and had an opportunity of giving publicity to his conceptions,) he has frequently consigned a herd of spiritless versifiers to the “ narrow durance” of a note. There is another point upon which it

may

be more difficult to rescue his fame at the bar of outraged criticism: but as this seems to have been a crime of malice prepense, rather than inadvertency, his name must be left to sanctify the deed. The want of order in the arrangement of his subject is a charge which has been repeated both by friends and foes. A part of this Warton seems to have intentionally adopted. In a letter to Gray, tracing the outline of his forthcoming history, he specifically states, “I should have said before, that although I proceed chronologically, yet I often stand still to give some general view, as perhaps of a particu" lar species of poetry, &c., and even to anticipate sometimes for this purpose. These views often form one section; yet are interwoven into the tenor of the work without interrupting my historical series*." He possibly thought, that as it is of the essence of romantic poetry “ to delight in an intimate commingling of extremes, in the blending and contrasting of the most opposing elements”,” it was equally so of its historian to

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]

deviate from established rules, and may have been so smitten with his antient masters as to conceive some of their distinguishing characteristics not unworthy of occasional imitation. But when it is said that his materials are ill digested, that we are frequently called upon in a later century, to travel back to one preceding, that we are then treated with specimens which ought to have found a place in an earlier chapter, the zeal of criticism is made to exceed the limits either of justice or candour. It is wholly overlooked, that Warton was the first adventurer in the extensive region through which he journeyed. and into which the usual pioneers of literature had scarcely penetrated. Beyond his own persevering industry, he had little to assist his researches; his materials lay widely scattered, and not always very accessible; new matter was constantly arising, as chance or the spirit of inquiry evolved the contents of our public libraries', and he had the double duty to perform of discovering his subject, and writing its history.

But these objections, whether founded in error, or justified by facts, have all been urged with temper, and are distinguished by that consideration for Warton's personal character, which every gentleman is entitled to, and every liberal scholar prides himself upon observing. In those now to be noticed, a widely different spirit was manifested; and one so opposite to every principle of decent or manly feeling, that it might be safely left to the contempt which Warton in the proud conviction of his own honour and integrity bestowed upon it, were it not

.See Monthly Review for 1793. Dr. is well known, that they were accidenMant, who has refuted some of these tally discovered by Mr. Tyrwhitt, while charges, states them to have been copied engaged in searching for MSS. of (without acknowledgement) by Dr. Chaucer. A similar accident led to the Anderson, in his Life of Warton. May discovery of the alliterative romance on we not rather infer, that Dr. Anderson the adventures of Sir Gawain, quoted felt no obligation to acknowledge a vol. i. p. 186, by the writer of this note; quotation from himself?

and which there is every reason to be. * The poems of Minot could only lieve, must have passed through the have been known to Warton by report, hands of Mr, Ritson, when he published his first volume. It

b

VOL. I.

« הקודםהמשך »