Page images
PDF
EPUB

goddess did the same favour for Francus when he was to go to King Diceus, though he tells us not what necessity there was that that hero should be so hidden. This Francus had suffered shipwreck at sea as well as Æneas, and his good hostesses must needs fall in love with him: he slights them both, though they were very favourable to him, because he still reflects on the destinies who assure him he shall be the founder of a new Troy. All this Æneas does, and what is yet far more ridiculous, for a more punctual imitation of Homer, Ronsard cannot make his heroes go three steps without the command of some god. Sometimes Mercury must disguise himself, sometimes Venus; one while he sees them in his sleep, another when he is waking, and a third time he meets with some auguries and predictions, wherein is contained all should happen to him; so that when it comes to pass, it must be repeated once again, nay a third time, if there be any body to relate it to, which is so tedious, that it is no small trouble to read him. Is it not still the same invention for want of other? But, besides, would it not have been a rude impertinence among the very pagans, to believe that the gods should shift from one place to another so suddenly to the relief of a mortal ? These poets never suppose any addresses by prayer to those whom they have undertaken to honour, but they say there was presently thunder heard on the left hand, to assure them that Jupiter heard them. Thunder was very common in that time, in any season of the year. Ronsard must also make his comparisons and descriptions like those he made his patrons; but though that be a thing hath gotten much esteem with others, for my part it loses with me.”

.. This long speech is answered by another of the same description in defence, and, as last words are ever strongest, the ladies and Lysis agree with the defendant; but, at length, Clarimond succeeds in inducing Lysis to perceive, that as he had succeeded in imposing, by a feigned death, on his uncle, so had he been himself the willing dupe of the various impostures practised upon him-a deep sense of shame now succeeds, accompanied by melancholy, from which he is aroused, by learning that Charité, to whom he was sincerely, as well as fantastically attached, would listen to his passion, if he would forsake his habit, his crook, and his uncommon mode of address. He takes heart, listens to the suggestion of his real friends, marries, and becomes rational.

In the language of this romance there is a considerable share of wit, and an extensive acquaintance with the mythology of the ancients, and the use made of their imagery, by the then modern French romance writers; but that day is so completely gone by with us, that it is difficult to believe that the clumsy expedients resorted to could deceive the most ignorant, or entrap the most unwary; yet it is certainly a clever, wellwritten book, and in referring to its great prototype we must remember, that a shepherd is a much less interesting personage than a knight errant. Few ladies will esteem the lover who sits

in the shade to string verses, or weave chaplets, equal to him who breaks a lance, or encounters a squadron, in honour of his mistress; and by the same rule, his insanity is less sublime in its imaginations, and his absurdity less ludicrous in its effects. The author's intention is most pointed against the romance writers of his own country; and it is remarkable, that he never alludes but once to the work of the gentle and brave Sir Philip Sidney,—and then it is touched without dispraise, as though the virtues and talents of that gallant spirit held a spell, that could control the carpings of criticism.

Art. VI.-- The Shepherd's Hunting ; being certain Eclogues,

written during the time of the Author's imprisonment in the Marshalsea. By George Wither, Gentleman. London: printed by Richard Badger, for Robert Allot. 1633.

Wither is an author now little read, and, for the most part, unreadable. Yet he has passages, here and there, which redeem all his dryness, his quaintness, and prolixity ; that it does the heart good to think of; and that make us equally love the man, and regret the misapplied powers of the author. His good parts are like the little green isolated spots in some wide and sterile waste. It is, indeed, (at first sight,) a most surprising thing, how any one could write so ill and so well at the same time,-more especially, as his best lines are not the result of care and industry, but seem genuine breakings out of his true character. It is not easy to conceive how any man should write that exquisitely simple and affecting passage in the Shepherd's Hunting, in praise of “ Poesy,” and yet be the author of that immensely long, dull, fanatical poem, the Britain's Remembrancer. The only way to reconcile the apparent contradiction, is to suppose, that he wrote with an exaggerated idea of the importance of certain pragmatical doctrines and rules of conduct, the inculcating of which he had much more at heart than real poetry,—which he probably might not even know to be poetry. Perhaps, the little occasional bits of feeling and the natural touches of pathos, which we admire in Wither, were not unlike the ploughman's song, by which he sings himself into inattention to his furrows for a few moments, and then stops suddenly, on finding himself deviating from the right line. We should not be at all surprised, if Wither checked himself at the end of the passage above alluded to; and, with some feeling of self reproach, looked back upon his paper, to see how far this trifting and personal digression had extended. 'Taste in poetry is not, in fact, so simple or self-evident a thing as we are apt, sometimes, to imagine it We of this age may, indeed, have made up our minds to one certain style and mode of composition, as the best, or the only endurable one; but we should recollect, that we have been a long time in arriving at this absolute standard of perfection, and that it was necessary to try every mode and variety of style, before we could determine which to reject, or which to establish. The ore cannot be separated from the dross, till after repeated processes and experiments. A modern writer (of course) follows the existing standard, -any deviation from which seems to him absurd. But this was not a rule to a former age, when that which is now thought preposterous and obsolete, was admired as the top of the fashion. In truth, that only is the true and perfect standard of taste, which is approved in all ages, and it must evidently be the work of time to subside into this ultimate conclusion. In accounting for the inequalities or barbarisms of an author's style, at any former. period, we are to consider that the fault may be in others, or in himself; for he has to please others as well as himself.

Wither, for example, did not write only for himself-still less did he write for us : he wrote necessarily for his own age. Let his own genius or feelings, then, be what they would, he would naturally surrender them, in a great measure, to prevailing opinion. He would think little of what he knew others would misprize : he would be tempted to affect what they affected. Hence, he would become the favourite and idol of his own age, for those very peculiarities and solecisms, which now make us abhor and discard him from our libraries, A polemical disquisition, an intricate allegory, was then the rage with all those who pretended to wit or wisdom: our author might very easily be blinded by the general taste, or be ashamed to own a preference for a description of mere natural feelings and objects, though the latter might have given him much the greatest pleasure in writing it; or with all the delicacy of feeling, and love of nature in the world, and perception of its beauties, he might be carried away with the stream of fanaticism and bigotry, as well as others. He might have the same delight in the briars and thorns of controversy, as in the shepherd's crook, or the thymy greensward. Give him all the taste for nature possible, all the genius for describing it, this is no reason why he should not like other things, though less pure or generally pleasing in themselves. A moot-point, a quibble, might charm the simple, unsophisticated mind of an author like Wither, as much as the daisy under his feet or the rainbow over his head; and, from having less turn for the forced and artificial, than for the natural style, he might set more value upon

eat meds he knew they are not

lighof naturen, it; om vi givenhil feel

it, in proportion to the difficulty it cost him. Man is a compound, and not a simple animal. His tastes are various, gross and refined, good, bad, and indifferent; and whatever he has a fancy for, he will put into his writings, unless the taste of others or the laws of criticism forbid it. Shakespeare was fond of puns, and indulged in them; and so would many of those who condemn them most severely in his writings, if they could hazard them with impunity. The fastidiousness of writers is the effect of the fastidiousness of readers. There is very little resemblance between the controversial writings of Milton, and Paradise Lost : yet he was sufficiently in earnest in both, and if he had had to strike out any passages from the last, he would probably have been most loth to part with those which bear some affinity to his theological pursuits, and which are certainly the least attractive to a modern reader. Perhaps the advantage of modern taste consists in its purity in this respect, or in its selection of those topics and sentiments which are the more peculiar province of poetry. A future race of critics will, in all likelihood, condemn the mixture of poetry and scientific disquisitions, in such writers as Darwin, quite as much, and with the same reason, that we object to the allegories and emblems of Quarles and Wither.

The remarks here made would apply, not only to the metaphysical poets of the age of Charles the First, but to the prose-writers as well. It was not the fashion of the day to sacrifice to the Graces, but to sacrifice the Graces to a dark and mystical spirit of controversy. All were borne away with the mania, more or less; and, however their genial spirits might shine through them at intervals, seemed by custom to prefer the abstruse, the difficult, and far-fetched, to the natural and pleasing. It is nearly the same with Jeremy Taylor. The Edinburgh Review was never more wrong than in asserting, that “ there is in 'uny one of the prose folios of Jeremy Taylor, more fine fancy and original imagery,-more brilliant conceptions and flowing expressions,--more new figures and new applications of old figures,-more, in short, of the body and soul of poetry, than in all the odes and the epics, that have ever been produced in Europe.” The honest fact is, a heavier author, for general reading, is not to be found than Bishop. Taylor; and that he who looks for beautiful imagery, must confine his search to only one or two of his volumes, viz. his Sermons and the Holy Living and Dying. All the rest, when compared with the beauty and pathos of parts of these works, is the sheerest splitting of straws, a casuist and a divine ever amused himself with.

We cannot be so much surprised, that there should be writers who were addicted to this Gothic style, while it was one elses of metaphysicuso, is Donnerth an eminenther is, we

oked bye uning it the

the fashion; since we find readers who are still fond of it, perhaps, because it is no longer the fashion. Wither is, we understand, an especial favourite with an eminent critic of the present day So, also, is Donne. This writer belongs to the class of metaphysical critics, who find beauties where no one else can, and this may be said to be characteristic of his mind. He does not like to see the game lie panting at his feet, but to hunt it down for himself through tangled bushes and crooked bye-paths. Precisely in proportion as a thing is unintelligible or uninteresting to common apprehensions, it seems to please him. It thus becomes a discovery of his own,-a singular acquisition in point of taste, which nobody can or will dispute with him,--an enclosure on the waste of learning, from which he derives little profit, but the credit of defending it against all impugners. His select and favourite passages are so many dulcineas, of which, in the first place, he need not be jealous; and which, besides, afford him an endless opportunity of breaking a lance with almost every one he meets, and of signalizing his perverse ingenuity, by maintaining them to be the fairest offspring of the Muses. A.contemporary writer. has designated this race of critics, as “ the Occult School,"—the Veré Adepti. “ They discern,” he adds,“ no beauties but what are concealed from superficial eyes,-overlook all those that are obvious to the vulgar part of mankind. They see farther into a millstone than most others. If an author is utterly unreadable, they can read him for ever: his intricacies are their delight, his mysteries are their study. They judge of works of genius, as misers do of hidden treasure-it is of no' value unless they have it all themselves. They will no more share a book than a mistress with a friend. If they suspected their favourite volumes of delighting any eyes but their own, they would immediately discard them from their list. Theirs are superannuated beauties, that every one else has left off intriguing with. This is not envy or affectation, but a natural proneness to singularity, a love of what is odd and out of the way. They must come at their pleasures with difficulty, and support admiration by an uneasy sense of ridicule and opposition. They despise those qualities in a work which are cheap and obvious. They like a monopoly of taste, and are shocked at the prostitution of intellect, implied in popular productions. Pure pleasures are in their judgement cloying and insipid. Nothing goes down with them but what is caviare to the multitude. They are eaters of olives, and readers of black-letter. Yet they sometimes smack of genius, and would be worth any money, were it only for the variety of the thing." .... It is curious enough (and a confirmation of the tenour of

« PreviousContinue »