Page images
[blocks in formation]


S the genius of Shakespear, through

the whole extent of the poet's province, is the object of our enquiry, we should do him great injustice, if we did not attend to his peculiar felicity, in those fictions and inventions, from which poetry derives its highest distinction, and from whence it first assumed its pretensions to divine inspiration, and appeared the associate of religion.

The ancient poet was admitted into the fynod of the Gods : he discoursed of their natures, he repeated their counsels, and, without the charge of impiety or presumption, disclosed their diffenfions, and published their vices. He peopled the woods with


I 3

ymphs, the rivers with deities; and, that he might still have some being within call to his assistance, he placed responsive echo in the vacant regions of air.

In the infant ages of the world, the credulity of ignorance greedily received every marvellous tale : but, as mankind increased in knowledge, and a long series of traditions had established a certain mythology and history, the poet was no longer permitted to range, uncontrolled, through the boundless dominions of fancy, but became restrained, įn some measure, to things believed or known. Though the duty of poetry to please and to surprife still fubfisted, the means varied with the state of the world, and it soon grew necessary to make the new inventions lean on the old traditions. The human mind delights in novelty, and is captivated by the marvellous, but even in fable itself requires the credible.The poet, who can give to splendid inventions, and to fictions new and bold, the air and authority of reality and truth, is master of the genuine


sources of the Castalian fpring, and may justly be said to draw his inspiration from the wellhead of puré poefy.

Shakespear saw how useful the popular fuperstitions had been to the ancient poets : he felt that they were necessary to poetry itself. One needs only to read some modern French heroic poems to be convinced how poorlyi epic poetry subsists on the pure ele: ments of history and philosophy : Taffo, though he had a fubject fo popular, at the time he wrote, as the deliverance of Jerufalem, was obliged to employ the operations of magic, and the interposition of angels and dæmons; to give the marvellous, the sublimé, ànd, I may add, that religious air to his work, which ennobles the enthusiasm, and fanctifies the fiction of the poet. Ariosto’s excursive muse wanders through the regions of romance, attended by all the superb train of chivalry, giants, dwarfs, and enchanters ; and however these poets, by the severe and frigid critics may have been condemned for giving ornaments not purely


[ocr errors]

claffical, to their works ; I believe every reader of taste admires, not only the fertility of their imagination, but the judgment with which they availed themselves of the superftition of the times, and of the cuftoms and modes of the country, in which they laid their scenes of action.

To recur, as the learned sometimes do, to the mythology and fables of other ages, and other countries, has ever a poor effect ; Jupiter, Minerva, and Apollo, only em, bellish a modern story, as a print from their ftatues adorns the frontispiece. We admirę indeed the art of the sculptors who give their images with grace and majesty ; but no devotion is excited, no enthusiasm kindled, by the representations of characters whose divinity we do not acknowledge.

When the Pagan temples ceased to be reyered, and the Parnaffian mount existed no longer, it would have been difficult for the poet of later times to have preserved the divinity of his muse inviolate, if the western


« PreviousContinue »