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Shakspeare was a sort of monster of poetical genius, and all his contemporaries of an order far below him.
"He, indeed, overlooks and commands the admiration of posterity; but he does it from the table land of the age in which he lived . He towered above his fellows 'in shade and gesture proudly eminent;' but he was but one of a race of giants,—the tallest, the strongest, the most graceful and beautiful of them;—but it was a common and noble brood. He was not something sacred and aloof from the vulgar herd of men, but shook hands with Nature and the circumstances of the time; and is distinguished from his immediate contemporaries, not in kind, but in degree, and greater variety of excellence. He did not form a class or species by himself, but belonged to a class or species. His age was necessary to him; nor could he have been wrenched from his place in the edifice, of which he was so conspicuous a part, without equal injury to himself and it. Mr. Wordsworth says of Milton, that'his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.' This cannot be said with any propriety of Shakspeare, who certainly moved in a constellation of bright luminaries, and ' drew after him the third part of the heavens.'" pp. 12, 13.
The author then proceeds to investigate the general causes of that sudden and rich development of poetical feeling which forms his theme. He attributes it chiefly to the mighty impulse given to thought by the Reformation—to the disclosure of all the marvellous stores of sacred antiquity, by the translation of the Scriptures—and to the infinite sweetness, breathing from the divine character of the Messiah, with which he seems to imagine that the people were not familiar in darker ages. We are far from insensible to the exquisite beauty with which this last subject is treated; and fully agree with our author, that "there is something in the character of Christ, of more sweetness and majesty, and more likely to work a change in the mind of man, than any to be found in history, whether actual or feigned." But we cannot think that the gentle influences which that character shed upon the general heart, were weak or partial «ven before the translation of the Scriptures. The young had received it,
not from books, but from the living voice of their parents, made softer in its tones by reverence and love. It had tempered early enthusiasm, and prompted visions of celestial beauty, in the souls even of the most low, before men had been taught to reason on their faith. The instances of the Saviour's compassion—his wondrous and beneficent miracles—his agonies and death, did not lie forgotten during centuries, because the people could not read of them. They were written "on the fleshy tables of the heart," and softened the tenour of humble existence, while superstition, ignorance and priestcraft held sway in high places.
These old feelings of love, however, tended greatly to sweeten and moderate the first excursions of the intellect, when released from its long thraldom. The new opening of the stores of Classic lore, of Ancient History, of Italian Poetry, and of Spanish Romance, contributed much, doubtless, to the incitement and the perfection of our national genius. The discovery of the New World, too, opened fresh fields for the imagination to revel in. "Green islands, and golden sands," says our author, " seemed to arise as by enchantment out of the bosom of the watery waste, and invite the cupidity, or wing the imagination of the dreaming speculator. Fairy land was realized in new and unknown worlds."— "Fortunate fields, and groves, and flowery vales—thrice happy isles," were found floating " like those Hesperian gardens famed of old,"—" beyond Atlantic seas, as dropped from the zenith." Ancient superstitions also still lingered among the people. The romance of human life had not then departed. It " was more full of traps and pitfalls; of moving accidents by flood and field:' more way-laid by sudden and startling evils, it stood on the brink of hope and fear, or stumbled upon fate unawares,—while imagination, close behind it, caught at and clung to the shape of danger, or snatched a wild and fearful joy from its escape." The martial and heroic spirit was not dead. It was comparatively an age of peace, " Like Strength reposing on his own right arm;" but the sound of civil combat might still be heard in the distance, —the spear glittered to the eye of memory, or the clashing of armour struck on the imagination of the ardent and the young. The people of that day were borderers on the savage state, on the times of war and bigotry,—though themselves in the lap of arts, of luxury, and knowledge. They stood on the shore, and saw the billows rolling after the storm. They heard the tumult, and were still. Another source of imaginative feelings, which Mr. Hazlitt quotes from Mr. Lamb, is found in the distinctions of dress, and all the external symbols of trade, profession, and degree, by which " the surface of society was embossed with hieroglyphics, and poetry existed in act and complement extern." Lastly, our author alludes to the first enjoyment and uncontrolled range of our old poets through Nature, whose fairest flowers were then uncropped,—and to the movements of the soul then laid open to their view, without disguise or control. All those causes Mr. Hazlitt regards as directed, and their immediate effects as united by the genius of our country, native, unaffected, sturdy, and unyielding. His lecture concludes with a character, equally beautiful and just, of the Genius of our Poetry, with reference to the classical models, as having more of Pan than of Apollo :—" but Pan is a God, Apollo is no more!"
The five succeeding Lectures contain the opinions of the author on most of the celebrated works produced from the time of the Reformation, until the death of Charles the First. The second comprises the characters of Lyly, Mariow, Heywood, Middleton, and Rowley. The account of Lyly's Endymion is worthy of that sweet but singular work. The address of Eumenides to Endymion, on his awaking from his long sleep, " Behold the twig to which thou laidest down thy head is become a tree," is indeed, as described by our author, "an exquisitely chosen image, and dumb proof of the manner in which he has passed his life from youth to old age,—in a dream, a dream of love!" His description of Marlow's qualities, when he says "there is a lust of power in his writings, a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination unhallowed by any thing but its own energies," is very striking. The characters of Middleton and Rowley in this Lecture, and those of Marston, Chapman, Deckar, and Webster in the third, are sketched with great spirit; and the peculiar beauties of each are dwelt on in a slvte and with a sentiment congenial with the predominant feeling of the poet. At the close of the Lecture, the observation, that the old Dramatic writers have nothing theatrical
about them, introduces the following eulogy on that fresh delight which books are ever ready to yield us.
"Here, on Salisbury Plain, where I write this, even here, with a few old authors, I can manage to get through the summer or the winter months, without ever knowing what it is to feel ennui. They sit with me at breakfast, they walk out with me before dinner. After a long walk through unfrequented tracts,—after starting the hare from the fern, or hearing the wing of the raven rustling above my head, or being greeted with the woodman's 'stern goodnight' as he strikes into his narrow homeward path,—I can take ' mine ease at mine inn' beside the blazing hearth, and shake hands with Signor Orlando Frescobaldo, as the oldest acquaintance I have. Ben Jonson, learned Chapman, Master Webster, and Master Hey wood are there; and, seated round, discourse the silent hours away. Shakspeare is there himself, rich in Cibber's Manager's coat. Spenser is hardly returned from a ramble through the woods, or is concealed behind a group of nymphs, fawns, and satyrs. Milton lies on the table as on an altar, never taken up or laid down without reverence. Lyly's Endymion sleeps with the moon that shines in at the window; and a breath 01 wind stirring at a distance, seems a sigh from the tree under which he grew old. Faustus disputes in one corner of the room with fiendish faces, and reasons of divine astrology. Bellafront soothes Mattheo, Vittoria triumphs over her Judges, and old Chapman repeats one of the hymns of Homer, in his own fine translation." pp. 136-7.
The spirit of this passage is very deep and cordial; and the expression, for the most part, exquisite. But we wonder that Mr. Hazlitt should commit so great an incongruity, as to represent the other poets around him in person, while Milton, introduced among the rest, is used only as the title of a book. Why are other authors to be "seated round," to cheer the critic's retirement as if living,—while Milton, like a petition in the House of Commons, is only ordered "to lie upon the table 1"
In the Fourth Lecture, ample justice is done to Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger and Ben Jonson; but we think the same measure is not meted to Ford. We cannot regard the author of "Tis Pity she's a Whore," and "the Broken Heart," as "finical and fastidious." We are directly at issue, indeed, with our author on his opinions respecting the catastrophe of the latter tragedy. Calantha, Princess of Sparta, is celebrating the nuptials of a noble pair, with solemn dancing, when a messenger enters, and informs her that the King, her father is dead:—she dances on. Another report is brought to her, that the sister of her betrothed husband is starved;—she calls for the other change. A third informs her that Ithocles, her lover, is cruelly murdered;—she complains that the music sounds dull, and orders sprightlier measures. The dance ended, she announces herself Queen, pronounces sentence on the murderer of Ithocles, and directs the ceremonials of her coronation to be immediately prepared. Her commands are obeyed. She enters the Temple in white, crowned, while the dead body of her husband is borne on a hearse, and placed beside the altar; at which she kneels in silent prayer. After her devotions, she addresses Nearchus, Prince of Argos, as though she would choose him for her husband, and lays down all orders for the regulation of her kingdom, under the guise of proposals of marriage. This done, she turns to the body of Ithocles, "the shadow of her contracted lord," puts her mother's wedding ring on his finger, " to new-many him whose wife she is," and from whom death shall not part her. She then kisses his cold lips, and dies smiling. This Mr. Hazlitt calls "tragedy in masquerade," "the true false gallop of sentiment;" and declares, that "any thing more artificial and mechanical he cannot conceive." He regards the whole scene as a forced transposition of one in Marston's Malcontent, where Aurelia dances on in defiance to the world, when she hears of the death of a detested husband. He observes, "that a woman should call for music, and dance on in spite of the death of a husband whom she hates, without regard to common decency, is but too possible: that she should dance on with the same heroic perseverance, in spite of the death of her father, and of every one else whom she loves, from regard to common courtesy or appearance, is not surely natural. The passions may silence the voice of humanity; but it is, I think, equally against probability and