Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

of peevishness, and satyric humour. The eagerness of creditors, and the fallacy of diflembling friends, would for å while sour his temper; his feelings were acute, and naturally fixed his attention to those objects from whence his uneasiness sprung, of course he became, very early in life, an observer of men and manners. Shrewd and piercing in his discernment, he saw the latent sources of human actions, and he could trace the various incongruities of conduct arising from them. As the study of man is delightful in itself, affording a variety of discoveries, and particularly interesting to the heart, it is no wonder that he fhould feel delight from it; and what we delight in foon grows into an habit. The various ruling paffions of men, their foibles their oddities, and their humours, engaged his attention; and from these principles he loved to accourt for the consequences which appeared in their behaviour. The inconsistencies that flow from vanity, from affectation, from hypocrisy, from pretended friendship, and in short, all the dissonant qualitics, which are often whimsically blended together by the folly of men, could not fail to strike a person who had so fine a sense of ridicule. A quick perception in this way, perhaps, affords as much real pleasure as the exercise of any

other faculty of the mind; and accordingly we find that the ridiculous is predominant through all our author's writings, and he never seems so happy, as when he is developing a character made up of motley and repugnant properties, and shews you a man of specious pretences, turning out in the end the very reverse of what he would appear. To search out, and to describe objects of this kind, seems to have been the favourite bent of Mr. Fielding's mind, as indeed it was of Theophrastus, Moliere, and others; like a vortex it drew in all his faculties, which were so happily employed in descriptions of the manners, that upon the whole he must be pronounced an admirable COMIC GENIUS.

" When I call our Author a Comic Genius, I would be understood in the largest acceptation of the phrase, implying humourous and pleasant imitation of men and manners, whether it be in the way of fabulous narration, or dramatic composition. In the former fpecies of writing lay the excellence of Mr. Fielding; but, in dramatic imitation, he must be allowed to fall sort of the great matters in that art; and how this hath happened to a COMIC GENIUS, to one eminently posiefed of the talents requisite in the humorous provinces of the drama, will appear at the first blush of the

1 i 2

question question something'unaccountable. But feveral causes concurred to produce this effect:. In the first place, without a tincture of delicacy running through an entire piece, and giving to good senfe an air of urbanity and politeness, it appears to me that no comedy will ever be of that kind, which Horace says, will be particularly defired, and seen, will be advertised again.”

This deficiency in our British Aristophanes (from whence, though.pofleffed of great comic talents, he proved not very successful in comedy) the Efayist ascribes “ to the woundings which every frcih disappointment gave him, before he was yet well disciplined in the school of life, and hackney'd in the ways of men ; for in a more advanced period, when he did not write recentibus odiis, with his uneafinefs just beginning to fofter, but with a calmer and more difpassionate temper, we perceive him giving all the graces of description to incidents and passions, which in his youth he would have dashed out with a rougher hand. An ingenious writer * has passed a judgment upon Ben Jonson, which, though Fielding did not attain the same drainatic eminence, may be juftly applied to him.

“ His taste for ridicule was strong, but indelicate, which made him not over-curious in the choice of his topics. And lastly, his style in picturing his characters, though masterly, was without that elegance of hand, which is required to correct and allay the force of in bold a colour. ing. Thus the byas of his nature leading him to Plautus, rather than Terence, for his model, it is not to be wondered that his wit is too frequently caustic; his raillery coarse; and bis humour exceflive. Perhaps the afperity of Fielding's muse was not a little encouraged by the practice of two great wits, who had fallen into the same Vein before him; I mean Wycherley and Congreve, who were in general painters of harsh features, attached more to subjects of deformity than grace; whose drawings of women are ever a fort of Harlet's Progress, and whofe men for the most part lay violent hands upon deeds and settlements, and generally deserve informations in the king's bench. Thefe two celebrated writers were not fond of copying the amiable part of human life; they had not lcarned the secret of giving the softer graces of composition to their tablature, by contrasting the fair and beautiful in characters and manners to the vicious and irregular, and thereby rendering their pieces more exact imitations of nature. By making Congreve bis model, it is no wonder * Mr. Hurd.

that

1

that our author contracted this vicious turn, and became
faulty in that part of his art, which the painters would call
Design. In his style, he derived an error from the same
source: he sometimes forgot that humour and ridicule were
the two principal ingredients of comedy; and, like his mal-
ter, he frequently aimed at decorations of wit, which do not
appear to make part of the ground, but seem rather to be
embroidered upon it. There is another circumstance respect-
ing the drama, in which Fielding's judgment seems to have
failed him: the strength of his genius certainly lay in fabu-
lous narration, and he did not sufficiently consider that some
incidents of a story, which, when related, may be worked
up into a deal of pleasantry and humour, are apt, when
thrown into action, to excite sensations incompatible with
humour and ridicule. I will venture to say, that if he had
resolved to shape the business and characters of his last co-
medy (the Wedding Day) into the form of a novel, there is
not one scene in the piece, which, in his hands, would not
have been very susceptible of ornament; but as they are ar-
ranged at present in dramatic order, there are few of them
from which the taste and good sense of an audience ought
not, with propriety, to revolt.
.“ To these causes of our author's failure in the province
of the drama, may be added that sovereign contempt he al-
ways entertained for the understandings of the generality of
mankind. It was in vain to tell him that a particular scene
was dangerous on account of its coarseness, or because it re-
tarded the general bufiness with feeble efforts of wit; he
doubted the discernment of his auditors, and so thought him-
self secured by their stupidity, if not by his own humour
and vivacity. A very remarkable instance of this disposition
appeared, when the comedy of the Wedding Day was put
into rehearsal. An actor, who was principally concerned in
the piece, and, though young, was then, by the advantage
of happy requisites, an early favourite of the public, told
Mr. Fielding he was apprehensive that the audience would
make free with him in a particular paffage; adding, that a
repulse might so flurry his spirits as to disconcert him for the
rest of the night, and therefore begged that it might be omit-
ted.” “ No, d-mn 'em, replied the bard, if the scene is
not a good one, let them find that out.” Accordingly the
play was brought on without alteration, and, just as had
been foreseen, the disapprobation of the house was provoked
at the passage before objected to ; and the performer, alarmed
Ii3

and

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

and uneasy at the hisses he had met with, retired into the

greenroom, where the author was indulging his genius, and solacing himself with a bottle of champain. He had by this time drank pretty plentifully; and cooking his eye at the actor, while streams of tobacco trickled down from the corner of his. mouth, What's the matter, Garrick? says he, what are they hilling now? Why the scene that I begged you to retrench; I knew it would not do, and they have so frightened me, that I shall not be able to collect myself again the whole night. Oh! d-- mn 'em, replies the author, they HAVE found it out; have they?

“ If we add to the foregoing remarks an observation of his own, namely, that he left off writing for the stage, when he ought to have begun; and together with this consider his extreme hurry and dispatch, we ihall be able fully to account for his not bearing a more distinguished place in the rank of dramatic writers. It is apparent, that in the frame and constitution of his genius there was no defect, but some faculty or other was suífered to lie dormant, and the rest of course were exerted with less efficacy: at one time we see his wit superceding all his other talents ; at another his invention runs riot, and multiplies incidents and characters in a manner repugnant to all the received laws of the drama. Generally his judgment was very little consulted. And indeed, how could it be otherwise? When he had contracted to bring on a play, or a farce, it is well known by many of his friends now living, that he would go home rather late from a tavern, and would, the next morning, deliver a scene to the players, written upon the papers which had wrapped the tobacco, in which he so much delighted.

“ As it was the lot of Henry Fielding to write always with a view to profit, it cannot but mortify a benevolent mind to perceive, from our author's own account, (for he is generally honeft enough to tell the reception his pieces met with) that he derived but Imall aids towards his subsistence from the treasurer of the playhouse. One of his farces he has printed as it was damned at the theatre royal in Drury-lane; and that pe might he more generous to his enemies than they were willing to be to him, he inforins chern, in the general preface to his Mircellanies, that for the Wedding Day, though acted fix nights, his profits from the house did not exceed fifty pounds. A fate not much better attended him in his earlier productions: but the severity of the public, and the malice of his enemies, met with a noble alleviation from the patronage of the late

Duke

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

Duke of Richmond, John Duke of Argyle, the late Duke Roxborough, and many persons of distinguished rank and character; among whom may be numbered the present Lord Lyttelton, whose friendship to our author softened the rigour of his misfortunes, while he lived, and exerted itself towards his memory, when he was no more, by taking pains to clear up imputations of a particular kind, which had been thrown out against his character.

“ Mr. Fielding had not been long a writer for the stage, when he married Miss Craddock, a beauty from Salisbury, About that time his mother dying, a moderate estate at Stower in Dorsetshire devolved to him. To that place he retired with his wife, on whom he doated, with a refolution to bid adieu to all the follies and intemperancies to which he had addicted himself in the career of a town-life. But unfortunately a kind of family-pride here gained an ascendant over him, and he began immediately to vie in splendor with the neighbouring country squires. With an eftite not much above two hundred pounds a-year, and his wife's fortune, which did not exceed fifteen hundred pounds, he encumbered bimself with a large retinue of servants, all clad in costly yellow liveries. For their master's honour, these people could not descend so low as to be careful in their apparel, but in a month or two were unfit to be seen; the squire's dignity required that they fhould be new equipped; and his chief pleasure consisting in society and convivial mirth, hora pitality threw open his doors, and, in less than three years, entertainments, hounds and horses entirely devoured a little patrimony, which, had it been managed with economy, might have secured to him a state of independence for the rest of his life; and, with independence, a thing still more valuable, a character free from those interpretations, which the severity of mankind generally puts upon the actions of a man, whose imprudencies have led him into difficulties : for when once it is the fashion to condemn a character in the gross, few are willing to distinguish between the impulses of necesity, and the inclinations of the heart. Sensible of the disagreeable Situation he had now reduced himself to, our author immediately determined to exert his best endeavours to recover, what he had wantonly thrown away, a decent competence ; and being then about thirty years of age, he betook himself to the study of the law. The friendships he met with in the course of his studies, and indeed through the remainder of his Life, from the gentlemen of that profession in general, and

particularly

[ocr errors]
« ПредишнаНапред »