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[New Monthly Magazine.]
The author of Montorio and of Bertram is unquestionably a person gifted with no ordinary powers. He has a quick sensibility—a penetrating and intuitive acuteness— and an unrivalled vigour and felicity of language, which enable him at one time to attain the happiest condensation of thought, and at others to pour forth a stream of eloquence rich, flowing, and deep, chequered with images of delicate loveliness, or darkened by broad shadows cast from objects of stern and adamantine majesty. Yet, in common with many other potent spirits of the present time, he fails to excite within us any pure and lasting sympathy. We do not, on reading his works, feel that we have entered on a precious and imperishable treasure. They dazzle, they delight, they surprise, and they weary us—we lay them down with a vague admiration for the author, and try to shake off their influence as we do the impressions of a feverish dream. It is not thus that we receive the productions of genuine and holy bards—of Shakspeare, of Milton, of Spencer, or of Wordsworth—whose far-reaching imaginations come home to our hearts, who become the companions of our sweetest moods, and with whom we long to "set up our everlasting rest." Their creations are often nearest to our hearts when they are farthest removed from the actual experience of our lives. We travel on the bright tracts which their genius reveals to us as safely and with as sure and fond a tread as along the broad highway of the world. When the regions which they set before us are the most distant from our ordinary perceptions, we yet seem at home in them, their wonders are strangely familiar to us, and the scene, overspread with a consecrating and lovely lustre, breaks on us, not as a wild fantastic novelty, but as a revived recollection of some holier life, which the soul rejoices thus delightfully to recognise.
Not thus do the works of Mr. Maturin—original and surprising as they often are—affect us. They have no fibres in them which entwine with the heartstrings, and which keep their hold until the golden chords of our sensibility and imagination themselves are broken. They pass by us sometimes like gorgeous phantoms, sometimes like "horrible shadows and unreal mockeries," which seem to elude us because they are not of us. When we follow him closest, he introduces us into a region where all is unsatisfactory and unreal—the chaos of principles, fancies, and passions— where mightiest elements are yet floating without order, where appearances between substance and shadow perpetually harass us, where visionary forms beckon us through painful avenues, and on approach sink into despicable realities, and pillars which looked ponderous and immoveable at a distance, melt at the touch into air, and are found to be only masses of vapour and of cloud. He neither raises us to the skies, nor "brings his angels down," but astonishes by a phantasmagoria of strange appearances, sometimes scarcely distinguishable in member, joint, or limb, but which when most clearly defined come not near us, nor claim kindred by a warm and living touch. This chill remoteness from humanity is attended by a general want of harmony and proportion in the whole—by a wild excursiveness of sensibility and thought—which add to its ungenial influence, and may be traced to the same causes.
If we were disposed to refer these defects to one general source, we should attribute them to the want of an imagination proportionate to sensibility and to mastery of language in the writer's mind, or to his comparative neglect of that most divine of human faculties. It is edifying to observe how completely the nature of this power is mistaken by many who profess to decide on matters of taste. They regard it as something wild and irregular, the reverse of truth, nature, and reason, which is divided from insanity only by "a thin partition," and which, uncontrolled by sterner powers, forms the essence of madness. They think it abounds in speeches crowded with tawdry and superfluous epithets—
in the discources of Dr. Chalmers, because they deal so largely in infinite obscurities that there is no room for a single image—and in the poems of Lord Byron, because his characters are so unlike all beings which have ever existed. Far otherwise thought Spencer when he represented the laurel as the meed—not of poets insane—but "of poets Sage." True imagination is, indeed, the deep eye of the profoundest wisdom. It is opposed to reason, not in its results, but in its process; it does not demonstrate truth only because it sees it. There are vast and eternal realities in our nature, which reason proves to exist—which sensibility "feels after and finds"—and which imagination beholds in clear and solemn vision, and pictures with a force and vividness which assures their existence even to ungifted mortals. Its subjects are the true, the universal, and the lasting. Its distinguishing property has no relation to dimness, or indistinctness, or dazzling radiance, or turbulent confusedness, but is the power of setting all things in the clearest light, and bringing them into perfect harmony. Like the telescope it does not only magnify celestial objects, but brings them nearer to us. Of all the faculties it is the severest and the most unerring. Reason may beguile with splendid sophistry; sensibility may fatally misguide; but if imagination exists at all, it must exhibit only the real. A mirror can no more reflect an object which is not before it, than the imagination can show the false and the baseless. By revealing to us its results in the language of imagery, it gives to them almost the evidence of the senses. If the analogy between an idea and its physical exponent is not complete, there is no effort of imagination—if it is, the truth is seen, and felt, and enjoyed, like the colours and forms of the material universe. And this effect is produced not only with the greatest possible certainty, but in the fewest possible words. Yet even when this is done—when the illustration is not only the most enchanting, but the most convincing, of proofs—the writer is too often contemptuously depreciated as flowery, by the advocates of mere reason. Strange chance! that he who has embodied truth in a living image, and thus rendered it visible to the intellectual perceptions, should be confounded with those who conceal all sense and meaning beneath mere verbiage and fragments of disjointed metaphor!
Thus the products of genuine imagination are " all compact." It is, indeed, only the compactness and harmony of its pictures which give to it its name or its value. To discover that there are mighty elements in humanity—to observe that there are bright hues and graceful forms in the external world—and to know the fitting names of these—is all which is required to furnish out a rich stock of spurious imagination to one who aspires to the claim of a wild and irregular genius. For him a dictionary is a sufficient guide to Parnassus. It is only by representing those intellectual elements in their finest harmony—by combining those hues and forms in the fairest pictures—or by making the glorious combinations of external things the symbols of truth and moral beauty—that imagination really puts forth its divirle energies. We do not charge on Mr. Maturin that he is destitute of power to do this, or that he does not sometimes direct it to its purest uses. But his sensibility is so much more quick and subtle, than his authority over his impressions is complete; the flow of his words so much more copious and facile than the throng of images on his mind; that he too often confounds us with unnumbered snatches and imperfect gleams of beauty, or astonishes us by an outpouring of eloquent bombast, instead of enriching our souls with distinct and vivid conceptions. Like many other writers of the present time—especially of his own country—he does not wait until the stream which young enthusiasm sets loose shall work itself clear, and calmly reflect the highest heavens. His creations bear any stamp but that of truth and soberness. He sees the glories of the external world, and the mightier wonders of man's moral and intellectual nature, with a quick sense, and feels them with an exquisite sympathy—but he gazes on them in " very drunkenness of heart," and becomes giddy with his own indistinct emotions, till all things seem confounded in a gay bacchanalian dance, and assume strange fantastic combinations; which, when transferred to his works, startle for a moment, but do not produce that "sober certainty of waking bliss" which real imagination assures. There are two qualities necessary to form a truly imaginative writer—a quicker and an intenser feeling than ordinary men possess for the beautiful and the sublime, and the calm
and meditative power of regulating, combining, and arranging its own impressions, and of distinctly bodying forth the final results of this harmonizing process. Where the first of these properties exists, the last is, perhaps, attainable by that deep and careful study which is more necessary to a poet than to any artist who works in mere earthly materials. But this study many of the most gifted of modern writers unhappily disdain; and if mere sale and popularity are their objects, they are right; for in the multitude the wild, the disjointed, the incoherent, and the paradoxical, which are but for a moment, necessarily awaken more immediate sensation than the pure and harmonious, which are destined to last while nature and the soul shall endure.
It is easy to perceive how it is that the imperfect creations of men of sensibility and of eloquence strike and dazzle more at the first, than the completest works of truly imaginative poets. A perfect statue—a temple fashioned with exactest art—appear less, at a mere glance, from the nicety of their proportions. The vast majority of readers, in an age like ours, have neither leisure nor taste to seek and ponder over the effusions of holiest genius. They must be awakened into admiration by something new, and strange, and surprising; and the more remote from their daily thoughts and habits—the more fantastical and daring—the effort, the more will it please, because the more it will rouse them. Thus a man who will exhibit some impossible combination of heroism and meanness—of virtue and of vice—of heavenly love and infernal malignity and baseness—will receive their wonder and their praise. They call this Power, which is in reality the most pitiable weakness. It is because a writer has not imagination enough to exhibit in new forms the universal qualities of nature and the soul, that he takes some strange and horrible anomaly as his theme. Incompetent to the divine task of rendering beauty " a simple product of the common day," he tries to excite emotion by disclosing the foulest recess of the foulest heart. As he strikes only one feeling, and that coarsely and ungently, he appears to wield a mightier weapon than he whose harmonious beauty sheds its influence equably over the whole of the sympathies. That which touches with strange commotion, and mere violence