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ART. I.-Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and
Modern, from the Germun of Frederick Schlegel. 2 vols. 8vo.
Edinburgh. 1818. A
CONSIDERABLE time has now elapsed since we called
the attention* of the public to a writer who, in an age fruitful of extraordinary men, seemed to us to hold no humble place among the proudest of his contemporaries. Feelings, however, much too respectable in themselves to be rudely assaulted, existed on the subject, and our opinions were promulgated with the deference due to such feelings. The Schlegels have trod in our steps, but with more boldness—they have placed the great comic poet of his day on a groundhigh indeed, but which every scholar will allow to be no more than his due; and had they offered any clue for ascertaining the reasons by which Aristophanes and Socrates so rudely jostled against each other, the question as to the merits of the former might have been considered as completely at rest: what they have not done we shall attempt from our own resources to supply; the task may lead us somewhat back in Grecian history, but we presume that a discussion, in which the reputations of two men, the one the wittiest and the other the wisest in Athens, are canvassed, can only be made superfluous or uninteresting by the manner of treating it.
After some remarks equally just and forcible on the old COMEDY, the merits of the first of these two extraordinary men are admirably characterised by M. Schlegel; and as his remarks form in some measure the groundwork of what we shall have to offer, we shall not hesitate, though at some length, to insert them.
"If we would judge of Aristophanes as a writer and as a poet, we must transplant ourselves freely and entirely into the age in which he lived. In the modern ages of Europe it has often been made the subject of reproach against particular nations or periods, that literature in general, but principally the poets and their works, have too exclusively endeavoured to regulate themselves according to the rules of polished society, and, above all, the prejudices of the female sex. those nations, and in those periods which have been most frequently charged with this fault, there has been no want of authors who have loudly lamented that it should be so, and asserted and maintained, with
no inconsiderable zeal, that the introduction of this far-sought elegance and gallantry, not only into the body of literature as a whole, but even into those departments of it where their presence is most unsuitable, has an evident tendency to make literature tame, uniform, and unmanly. It may be that there is some foundation for this complaint: the whole literature of antiquity, but particularly that of the Greeks, lies open to a reproach of an entirely opposite nature. If our literature has sometimes been too exclusively feminine, theirs was at all times uniformly and exclusively masculine, not unfrequently of a nature far more rough and unpolished than might have been expected, from the general intellectual character and refinement of the ancients.'— p. 55.
After some further remarks on the degraded state of female society in Greece, and the baneful effect it had upon Grecian literature, M. Schlegel proceeds to consider more at length the character of the extraordinary man, who has pourtrayed the manners of his own times with such singular success. The glowing mind of the critic throws a warm colouring over his author; but to those who are intimately acquainted with him in the original (and all effective transfusion must, we are persuaded, be given up as hopeless) the encomiums bestowed will not appear fanciful or extravagant.
Here, where we are treating of the decline of Grecian manners, and of the writer who has painted that decline the most powerfully and the most clearly—the consideration of this common defect of antiquity has, I imagine, been not improperly introduced. But when this imperfection has once been distinctly recognised as one the reproach of which affects in justice not the individual writers, but rather the collective character, manners, and literature of antiquity ; it were absurd to allow ourselves to be any longer so much influenced by it, as to disguise from ourselves the great qualities often found in combination with it in writings which are altogether invaluable to us, both as specimens of poetical art, and as representations of the spoken wit of a very highly refined state of society; to refuse, in one word, to perceive in Aristophanes the great poet which he really is. It is true that the species and form of his writing---if indeed that can be said with propriety to belong to any precise species or form of composition-are things to which we have no parallel in modern letters. All the peculiarities of the Old Comedy may be traced to those deifications of physical powers, which were prevalent among
the ancients. Among them, in the festivals dedicated to Bacchus and the other frolicsome deities, every sort of freedom, even the wildest ebullitions of mirth and jollity were not only permitted, but were strictly in character, and formed, in truth, the consecrated ceremonial of the season. The fancy, above all things, a power by its very nature impatient of constraint, the birthright and peculiar possession of the poet, was on these occasions permitted to attempt the most audacious heights, and revel in the wildest world of dreams, loosened for a moment from all those fetters of law, custom, and propriety, which at other times, and in other species of writing, must ever regulate its
exertion even in the hands of poets. The true poet, however, at whatever time this old privilege granted him a Saturnalian licence for the play of his fancy, was uniformly impressed with a sense of the obligation under which he lay, not only by a rich and various display of his inventive genius, but by the highest elegance of language and versification, to maintain entire his poetical dignity and descent, and to show, in the midst of all his extravagances, that he was not animated by prosaic petulance, nor personal spleen, but inspired with the genuine audacity and fearlessness of a poet. Of this there is the most perfect illustration in Aristophanes. In language and versification his excellence is not barely acknowledged-it is such as to entitle him to take his place among the first poets to whom Greece has given birth. In many passages of serious and earnest poetry, which (thanks to the boundless variety and lawless formation of the popular comedy of Athens) he has here and there introduced, Aristophanes shews himself to be a true poet, and capable, had he so chosen, of reaching the highest eminence even in the more dignified departments of his art.
This might be abundantly sufficient, not indeed to represent Aristophanes as a fit subject of imitation, for that he can never be, but to set his merit as a poet in its true light. But if we examine into the use which he has made as a man, but more particularly as a citizen, of that liberty which was his poetical birthright, both by the manners of antiquity, and by the constitution of his country, we shall find many things which might be said still further in his vindication, and which cannot indeed fail to raise him personally in our esteem. His principal merit as a patriot consists in the fidelity with which he paints all the corruptions of the state, and in the chastisement which he inflicts on the pestilent demagogues who caused that corruption or profited by its effects. The latter duty was attended with no inconsiderable danger in a state governed by a democracy, and during a time of total anarchy; yet Aristophanes has performed it with the most fearless resolution. It is true that he pursues and parodies Euripides with unrelenting severity; but this is perfectly in character with the old spirit of merciless enmity which animated all the comic poets against the tragedians; and it is impossible not to perceive that not only the more ancient Æschylus, but even his contemporary Sophocles, is uniformly mentioned in a tone altogether different, in a temper moderate and sparing; nay, very frequently, with the profoundest feelings of admiration and respect. It forms another grievous subject of reproach against Aristophanes, that he has represented in colours so odious, Socrates, the most wise and the most virtuous of all his fellow-citizens ; it is, however, by no means improbable that this was not the effect of mere poetical wantonness ; but that Aristophanes selected, without any bad intention, that first and best of illustrious names, that he might under it render the Sophists, as ridiculous as they deserved to be, and as foolish and worthless in the eyes of the people as he could make them. The poet, it is not unlikely, in his own mind, mingled and confounded, even without wishing it, this inestimable sage with his enemies the sophists, whose schools he frequented in his maturer years, solely with the view of making
himself master of that which he intended to refute and overthrow.'-pp. 57 -62.
It is on this subject of reproach against Aristophanes, on which these two distinguished brothers seem to think something ought to be said, that our own remarks will be offered. We shall take it for granted that our readers are acquainted with some of the leading differences between the scenic representations of the Greeks and our own. We shall suppose them to know, that the dramas of that people grew out of and formed part of their religious ceremonies —that they were exhibited in theatres of a colossal size compared with ours—that the times of exhibition were at distant intervals, that when those few intervals did take place, the whole day was devoted to theatrical entertainments—that a prize was conferred on the most successful competitor—and that a piece once performed, was never, in the same shape at least, represented a second time. We shall also suppose them to know something of the general principles of that peculiar part of the ancient drama, the OLD COMEDY, as it is called, in contradistinction to what was afterwards named the MIDDLE, and the NEW;-as that it stood in the most extreme relation of parody to the tragedy of the Greeks, that it was directed chiefly to the lower orders of society at Athens --that it served in some measure the purposes of the modern Gazette, in which public measures and the topics of the day might be fully discussed, and that in consequence the dramatis persona were generally the poet's own contemporaries, speaking in their own names, and acting in masks, which, as they bore only a caricature resemblance of their faces, shewed that the poet in his observations upon them did not mean to be taken literally to his expression. The extreme and even profane gaiety of the old coMEDY is not also without its excuse. - That man was the plaything of the gods, was an opinion advanced by the gravest pbilosophers ;* the comic poet reversed the picture, and made the gods the plaything of men: in his hands indeed every thing was upon the broad grin; the gods laughed, men laughed, animals laughed: Nature was considered as a sort of fantastic being, with a turn for the humorous, and the world was treated as a species of extended jest book, where the poet pointed out the bons-mots, and acted in some degree as corrector to the press. If he discharged this office sonjetimes in the sarcastic spirit of a Mephistophilus, this too was considered as a part of his functions: he was the Terræ-Filius of the day, and lenity would have been considered, not as an act of discretion, but as a cowardly dereliction of duty.
Of the species of comedy thus described, whoever was the in
* Plato de Leg. lib. vii. p. 633. F. lib. i. 573. C.