Графични страници
PDF файл

vestige or spark behind. It is as if there was in them a spirit volatile and escaping, which, animating the mass for awhile, at length vanishes like a mockery, and remains incommunicable and imperceptible to posterity. When time has effaced the light and evanescent strokes of genius, and brought with it other rules of taste and systems of opinion; when distance has cooled the fervor of admiration and the fondness of personal regard; when the loud and undistinguishing voice of applause has subsided to a scarcely perceptible murmur, and the favouring examination of friendship has given place to the sharp dissection of critical anatomy; how great is the variance we find between the judgments of contemporaneous and succeeding critics. The difference is hardly less than that perceived by him, who visits in winter the tree which in summer was his favourite retreat. He finds the same tree still remaining, under which he has so often reposed; but where is the verdure which apparelled and adorned it; where are the blossoms with which it was overspread; where are the sunbeams that played upon its branches; and where is the melody which enchanted him in its shade?

It would appear, from the fate which the Arcadia has experienced in the present age, that a similar disparity existed between its real intrinsic merit and the accredited character of its author; and that, so far from being capable of sustaining his reputation, its only claim to regard was derived from its bearing his name on its title-page. The present generation seem determined to disallow the lavish praises of their forefathers, and to equalize the balance by as lavish and heedless censures. It was enough that the work was written after a bad model ; that it was interspersed with uninteresting pastoral interludes; that the author had endeavoured to form the English versification after the Latin, and had not succeeded; that there was in it an occasional occurrence of quaintness and conceit; and that the story was in some degree complicated and interwoven ; to induce them to consign it to neglect, or to mention it with slighting and ungenerous criticism. The judgment of Horace Walpole is well known and remains on record, an indelible proof of the insensibility of his feelings and the depravity of his taste. His perception, indeed, limited to studious trifles and literary gewgaws, was ill qualified for discussing or appreciating the highest efforts of talent. What could Chatterton hope for from a man who had slighted Sir Philip Sidney? In the footsteps of Horace Walpole, follow Mr. Todd and Mr. Hazlitt. Mr. Campbell mentions the works of Sidney with much coldness; and the ingenious author of the History of Fiction, though upon the whole less unfavourable, yet ends by pronouncing the Arcüdia a very tedious story. .

Against these criticisms the best defence will be found in the work itself, to which we confidently refer our readers. That it has many faults, we do not deny; but they are faults to which all the writers of his time were subject, and generally in a greater degree. It has been said, that his language is very quaint; but we may safely ask, what author is there of his age in whose language there is in reality so little of quaintness? Let us remember a work, which the Arcadia contributed more than any thing else to consign to oblivion : a work, which for a long time was in high fashion and celebrity; and the style of which is, perhaps, more elaborately and systematically bad, than that of any work in the whole extent of literature. --We mean, Lilly's Euphues. With it, let us compare Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia--the style he introduced, with the style he contributed to banish; and we shall then regard him as the restorer of the purity of our language, and as meriting our eternal gratitude and respect. The language of the Arcadia is, indeed, as much superior to that of the Euphues, as is the varied melody of the nightingale to the monstrous harshness of the jay.

Another radical fault in the Arcadia, is the defect of the species of writing of which it is a part—the heroic and pastoral romance, either disjunctively or commixed. But so far from lowering, this primary disadvantage ought rather to increase our admiration of his genius, who has been able to give attraction to so preposterous a kind of composition. Who would not applaud the ingenuity of him, who could engraft with success the apricot on the sloe, or the nectarine on the crab ? When we see a structure irregular and clumsy, but built of massy gold; however we may censure its defective plan, yet surely we must admire the richness of its materials. We wish every one, who dislikes for this reason the Arcadia, were compelled, as a punishment, to wade through all the voluminous tomes of its models, the French romances; and we think they would perceive how different an edifice the powers of genius and dullness will erect on the same narrow foundation. After all, notwithstanding all its disadvantages, the flashes of the gifted mind will force their way; and he, who, like Sir Philip Sidney, writes from the heart and describes from the eye, will never want readers, or be destitute of admirers, as long as the common feelings in which all human kind participate shall endure, and as long as the common scenery of nature, and the unfading garniture of creation, shall live and flourish undestroyed.

In an examination of the Arcadia, we cannot but observe the power which its author possesses of laying hold of the feelings, and exciting the interest, of his readers ; an interest, which gradually augments and heightens to the end. If this be one, as assuredly it is, of the chief arts of imaginative composition,

[ocr errors]

it is certainly an art, of which Sir Philip Sidney was master in a very high degree. No writer surpasses him in exciting commiseration and pity, no one lords over the human heart with more powerful and resistless domination. So far, indeed, from being a tiresome story, it would be difficult, in the whole range of fiction, to mention one which more completely grapples with the feelings, and retains the attention of the reader. We do not say, that it is impossible for any one to desist in the perusal of the work till he has arrived at the conclusion; but we do say, that he, who in reading it can close its pages without a wish to open them again, has as little in him of laudable feeling as of genuine taste.

In the creations of intellectual beauty, no writer is more successful than Sir Philip Sidney. His heroes are all cast in the mould of perfection, the repositaries of “high-erected thoughts, seated in a heart of courtesie,” the souls of gallant constancy and spotless honour. Though different, they are but the different modifications of human excellence, of mental and incorporeal loftiness, breathing itself into, as it were, and giving a transfused beauty to the person. In his characters, the roughness of superiority is melted almost to feminine softness, yet without losing, as it acquires more of loveliness and attraction, any of its high and exalted appendages. There is a repose and relief about his personages, which, while it dims nothing of their brightness, makes them sweet resting places for the mind to fasten on. The character of a hero, Sir Philip Sidney always described con amore it was his own proper and natural character; and to delineate it, he had only to transcribe the workings of his own mind, and to give expression to its romantic emotions. His heroines are not less faultlessly designed ; they are, in truth, the beaming personifications of virtue, with all the chaste effulgence of heaven-derived and heaven-directed purity-such fair creations of loveliness as the minds of fancy's dreamers love to picture. They are, indeed,

“The darling daughters of the day,

And bodied in their native ray.” Romance, notwithstanding all its tissue of extravagancies, has much to gratify the human mind; and as the gratifications which it administers have a tendency to dignify and refine the grossness of worldly selfishness, they are not without their attendant benefit. There is a mixture of dauntless courage and submissive humility, of sternness to man and devotedness to woman, of fierceness in the fight and meekness in the wooing, about its doughty heroes, which interests us by its blended variety and the entireness of its united emotions. There are, also, the universal accompaniments of bodily might and intellectual

elevation, and these are no small attractions. The pride, the haughtiness of man, delights to see his species exalted. Like Prometheus, he would rob the heaven of its fire to illumine the habitations of the earth.-His fancy loves to pour itself forth in the formation of creatures of etherial and impassable brightness, and to ennoble himself, as it were, by his kindred to the beings of his own creation. Who can observe, without a secret complacency and satisfaction, the characters of the heroes and knights of romance, their resistless prowess, their patience, their constancy, their fidelity, and their love. We see them going forth with all that can excite or challenge admiration—beauty glowing in their form-strength residing in their right hand, and mightiness and magnanimity encircling them with an immortal radiance. We see them now wielding the sword, which never waves but to conquer, in the defence of the captive or oppressed; subduing armies and armaments by the force of their own arm, and casting from them, as with abhorrence, all weakness, pusillanimity, and fear; braving death with an obstinacy he seems to shrink from, and enduring more than earthly perils with more than earthly fortitude. We see them, now kneeling with submissive devotedness before their hard-hearted mistresses, treating them with an almost idolatrous humility of devotion, and trembling beneath their frowns, as if a glance of their eye could cause annihilation. We see them again, refreshing and recruiting themselves in the depth of some untrodden forest or shady grove, or reposing in security under the open canopy of heaven, again to rise to the performance of fresh exploits of valour and achievements of hardihood.

Equally successful is our author in picturing the soft and gentle emotions of love and friendship; in describing those scenes where the heart pours itself forth in the bosom of some sympathetic listener, or those quarrels and reconciliations which only for awhile stop the pulse of affection to make it return again more violently to its accustomed beating.' Of this, the dialogues between Pyrocles and Musidorus in the first book, and between Pyrocles and Philoclea in the fourth, are delightful examples. Sir Philip Sidney's fairy pencil was principally formed to delineate the pensive and milder workings of feeling. His transparent mirror reflected the emotions of the human mind; but it was not the mind awakened by crime and exasperated by scorn ; it was not the mind preyed upon by remorse or tormentors generated within itself. His province was not to pourtray the dark and horrible in nature, or the dark and hord rible in man. His was not the gloomy colouring of Dante or Salvator Rosa. His abode was not on the precipice or the mountain, on the eyrie of the eagle or the birth-place of the

storm, but in the bosoms of soft and etherial moulding, in hearts of loved and loving tenderness, in groves of silent and sacred quiet, and in plains illumined by perpetual spring.

His descriptions of nature and her scenery are universally delightful and sweet. There is an air of freshness and verdure about them, which we look for in vain in other writers. In reading them, it seems as if the breathing zephyr which hovers over scenes of such enchantment and beauty, had found a voice, and is painting to us the delights of its favourite and haunted groves. We feel them as the transfusion into language of nature's universal voice, as it issues forth in the warbling of the birds, the whispers of the forest, and the murmurs of the streams. They sooth us as the sound of a distant waterfall, or, as “ a gentle south-west wind, which comes creeping over flowery fields and shadowed waters.” Nature's enthusiastic follower, Sir Philip. Sidney worshipped with awe the print of her footsteps: his genius, camelion-like, received a fresh hue from every fresh variety with which she supplied him, and her beauties had always the power of producing from him strains not less sympathetic and delightful than the music elicited by the beams of the morning from the magic statue of Memnon.

The feeling which the perusal of the Arcadia excites, is a calm and pensive pleasure, at once full, tranquil, and exquisite. The satisfaction we experience is not unsimilar to that of meditation by moonlight, when the burning fervor of the day has subsided, and every thing which might confuse or disorder our contemplation is at rest. All is peaceful and quiet, and clear as a transparency. The silvery glittering of the language, the unearthly loftiness of its heroes, the etheriality of their aspirations, and the sweet tones of genuine and unstudied feeling which it sounds forth, all combine to embue our souls with a soft and pleasing melancholy. We feel ourselves under the spell of an enchanter, in the foils of a witchery, too gratifying to our senses to be willingly shaken off, and therefore resign ourselves without resistance to its influence. By it, we are removed to other and more delightful climes—by it, we are transported to the shady groves of Arcady and the bowery recesses of Tempe; to those heavenly retreats, where music and melody were wafted with every sighing of the breeze along their cool and translucid streams. We find ourselves in the midst of the golden age, with glimpses of the armed grandeur of the age of chivalry. We find ourselves in a period of conflicting sights and emotions, when all that was lovely in the primitive simplicity of the one, and all that was fascinating in the fantastic magnificence of the other, were united and mingled together; where the rustic festivity of the shepherd was succeeded by the imposing splendour

[merged small][ocr errors]
« ПредишнаНапред »