« ПредишнаНапред »
sense he does more honour to the poet than any other writer, for he seems to regard him as an arbiter of life and death— responsible only to the critic for the administration of his powers.
Mr. Rymer has his own stately notions of what is proper for tragedy. He is zealous for poetical justice; and as he thinks that vice cannot be punished too severely, and yet that the poet ought to leave his victims objects of pity, he protests against the introduction of very wicked characters. "Therefore," says he, " among the ancients we find no malefactors of this kind; a wilful murderer is, with them, as strange and unknown as a parricide to the old Romans. Yet need we not fancy that they were squeamish, or unacquainted with many of those great lumping crimes in that age: when we remember their (Edipus, Orestes, or Medea. But they took care to wash the viper, to cleanse away the venom, and with such art to prepare the morsel: they made it all junket to the taste, and all physic in the operation."
Our author understands exactly the balance of power in the affections. He would dispose of all the poet's characters to a hair, according to his own rules of fitness. He would marshal them in array as in a procession, and mark out exactly what each ought to do or suffer. According to him, so much of presage and no more should be given—such a degree of sorrow, and no more ought a character endure; vengeance should rise precisely to a given height, and be executed by a certain appointed hand. He would regulate the conduct of fictitious heroes as accurately as of real beings, and often reasons well on his own poetic decalogue. "Amintor," says he, (speaking of a character in the Maid's Tragedy) " should have begged the king's pardon; should have suffered all the racks and tortures a tyrant could inflict; and from Perillus's bull should have still bellowed out that eternal truth, that his promise was to be kept—that he is true to Aspatia, that he dies for his mistress! Then would his memory have been precious and sweet to after ages; and the midsummer maidens would have offered their garlands all at his grave.
Mr. Rymer is an enthusiastic champion for the poetical prerogatives of kings. No courtier ever contended more strenuously for their divine right in real life, than he for their pre-eminence in tragedy. "We are to presume," observes he gravely, "the greatest virtues, where we find the highest rewards; and though it is not necessary that all heroes should be kings, yet undoubtedly all crowned heads, by poetical right, are heroes. This character is a flower, a prerogative, so certain, so indispensably annexed to the crown, as by no poet, or parliament of poets, ever to be invaded." Thus does he lay down the rules of life and death for his regal domain of tragedy: "If I mistake not, in poetry no woman is to loll a man, except her quality gives her the advantage above him; nor is a servant to kill the master, nor a private man, much less a subject to kill a king, nor, on the contrary. Poetical decency will not suffer death to be dealt to each other, by such persons whom the laws of duel allow not to enter the lists together." He admits, however, that, "there may be circumstances that alter the case: as where there is sufficient ground of partiality in an audience, either upon the account of religion (as Rinaldo or Riccardo in Tasso, might kill Soliman, or any other Turkish king or great Sultan) or else in favour of our country, for then a private English hero might overcome a king of some rival nation." How pleasant a master of the ceremonies is he in the regions of fiction—regulating the niceties of murder like the decorums of a dance—with an amiable preference for his own religion and country!
These notions, however absurd, result from an indistinct sense of a peculiar dignity and grandeur essential to tragedy —and surely this feeling was not altogether deceptive. Some there are, indeed, who trace the emotions of strange delight which tragedy awakens, entirely to the love of strong excitement, which is gratified by spectacles of anguish. According to their doctrine, the more nearly the representation of sorrow approaches reality, the more intense will be the gratification of the spectator. Thus Burke has gravely asserted, that if the audience at a tragedy were informed of an execution about to take place in the neighbourhood, they would leave the theatre to witness it. We believe that experiance does not warrant a speculation so dishonourable to our nature. How few, except those of the grossest minds, are ever attracted by the punishment of capital offenders! Even of those whom the dreadful infliction draws together, how many are excited merely by curiosity, and a desire to view the last mortal agony, which in a form more or less terrible all must endure! We think that if, during the representation of a tragedy, the audience were compelled to feel vividly that a fellow-creature was struggling in the agonies of a violent death, many of them would retire—but not to the scene of horror. The reality of human suffering would come too closely home to their hearts, to permit their enjoyment of the fiction. How often, during the scenic exhibition of intolerable agony—unconsecrated and unredeemed—have we been compelled to relieve our hearts from a weight too heavy for endurance, by calling to mind that the woes are fictitious! It cannot be the highest triumph of an author, whose aim is to heighten the enjoyments of life, that he forces us, in our own defence, to escape from his power. If the pleasure derived from tragedy were merely occasioned by the love of excitement, the pleasure would be in proportion to the depth and the reality of the sorrow. Then would The Gamester be more pathetic than Olhello, and Isabella call forth deeper admiration than Macbeth or Lear. Then would George Barnwell be the loftiest tragedy, and the Newgale Calendar the sweetest collection of pathetic tales. To name those instances, is sufficiently to refute the position on which they are founded.
Equally false is the opinion, that the pleasure derived from tragedy arises from a source of individual security, while others are suffering. There are no feelings more distantly removed from the selfish, than those which genuine tragedy awakens. We are carried at its representation out of ourselves, and "the ignorant present time,"—by earnest sympathy with the passions and the sorrows, not of ourselves, but of our nature. We feel our community with the general heart of man. The encrustments of selfishness and low passion are rent asunder, and the warm tide of human sympathies gushes triumphantly from its secret and divine sources.
It is not, then, in bringing sorrow home in its dreadful realities to our bosoms, nor in painting it so as to make us cling to our selfish gratifications with more earnest joy, that the tragic poet moves and enchants us. Grief is but the means—the necessary means indeed—by which he accomplishes his lofty purposes. The grander qualities of the soul cannot be developed—the deepest resources of comfort within it cannot be unveiled—the solemnities of its destiny cannot be shadowed forth—except in peril and in suffering. Hence peril and suffering become instruments of the Tragic Muse. But these are not, in themselves, those things which we delight to contemplate. Various, indeed, yet most distinct from these, are the sources of that deep joy that tragedy produces. Sometimes we are filled with a delight not dissimilar to that which the Laocoon excites—an admiration of the more than mortal beauty of the attitudes and of the finishing—and even of the terrific sublimity of the folds in which the links of fate involve the characters. When we look at that inimitable group, we do not merely rejoice in a sympathy with extreme suffering—but are enchanted with tender loveliness, and feel that the sense of distress is softened by the exquisite touches of genius. Often in tragedy, our hearts are elevated by thoughts "informed with nobleness" —by the view of heroic greatness of soul—by the contem-. plation of affections which death cannot conquer. It is not the depth of anguish which calls forth delicious tears—it is some sweet piece of self-denial—some touch of human gentleness, in the midst of sorrow—some "glorious triumph of exceeding love," which suffuses our "subdued eyes," and mellows our hearts. Death itself often becomes the source of sublime consolations: seen through the poetical medium, it often seems to fall on the wretched "softly and lightly, as a passing cloud." It is felt as the blessed means of re-uniting faithful and ill-fated lovers—it is the pillow on which the long struggling patriot rests. Often it exhibits the noblest triumph of the spiritual over the material part of man. The intense ardour of a spirit that " o'er-inform'd its tenement of clay"— yet more quenchless in the last conflict, is felt to survive the struggle, and to triumph even in the victory which power has achieved over its earthly frame. In short, it is the high duty of the tragic poet to exhibit humanity sublimest in its distresses—to dignify or to sweeten sorrow—to exhibit eternal energies wrestling with each other, or with the accidents of the world—and to disclose the depth and the immortality of the affections. He must represent humanity as a rock, beaten, and sometimes overspread, with the mighty waters
of anguish, but still unshaken. We look to him for hopes, principles, resting places of the soul—for emotions which dignify our passions, and consecrate our sorrows. A brief retrospect of tragedy will show, that in every age when it has triumphed, it has appealed not to the mere love of excitement, but to the perceptions of beauty in the soul—to the yearnings of the deepest affections—to the aspirations after grandeur and permanence, which never leave man even in his errors and afflictions.
Nothing could be more dignified than the old tragedy of the Greeks. Its characters were demi-gods, or heroes; its subjects were often the destinies of those lines of the mighty, which had their beginning among the eldest deities. So far, in the development of their plots, were the poets from appealing to mere sensibility, that they scarcely deigned to awaken an anxious throb, or draw forth a human tear. In their works, we see the catastrophe from the beginning, and feel its influence at every step, as we advance majestically along the solemn avenue which it closes. There is little struggle; the doom of the heroes is fixed on high, and they pass, in sublime composure, to fulfill their destiny. Their sorrows are awful,—their deaths religious sacrifices to the power of Heaven. The glory that plays about their heads, is the prognostic of their fate. A consecration is shed over their brief and sad career, which takes away all the ordinary feelings of suffering. Their afflictions are sacred, their passions inspired by the gods, their fates prophesied in elder time, their deaths almost festal. All things are tinged with sanctity or with beauty in the Greek tragedies. Bodily pain is made sublime; destitution and wretchedness are rendered sacred; and the very grove of the Furies is represented as ever fresh and green. How grand is the suffering of Prometheus,—how sweet the resolution of Antigone,—now appalling, yet how magnificent, the last vision of Cassandra,— how reconciling and tender, yet how awful, the circumstances attendant on the death of CEdipus! And how rich a poetic atmosphere do the Athenian poets breathe over all the creations of their genius! Their exquisite groups appear, in all the venerableness of hoar antiquity; yet in the distinctness and in the bloom of unfading youth. All the human figures are seen, sublime in attitude, and exquisite in finish