« PreviousContinue »
No. 139. TUESDAY, JULY 16, 1751.
-Sit quod vis simplex duntaxat et unum.
Ir is required by Aristotle to the perfection of a tragedy, and is equally necessary to every other species of regular composition, that it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. "The beginning," says he," is that which has nothing necessarily previous, but to which that which follows is naturally consequent; the end, on the contrary, is that which, by necessity, or at least according to the common course of things, succeeds something else, but which implies nothing consequent to itself; the middle is connected on one side to something that naturally goes before, and on the other to something that naturally follows it."
Such is the rule laid down by this great critic, for the disposition of the different parts of a well constituted fable. It must begin where it may be made intelligible without introduction; and end where the mind is left in repose, without expectation of any farther event. The intermediate passages must join the last effect to the first cause by a regular unbroken concatenation; nothing must be therefore inserted which does not apparently arise from some
thing foregoing, and properly make way for something that succeeds it.
This precept is to be understood in its rigour only with respect to great and essential events, and cannot be extended in the same force to minuter circumstances and arbitrary decorations, which yet are more happy as they contribute more to the main design; for it is always a proof of extensive thought and accurate cireumspection, to promote various purposes by the same act; and the idea of an ornament admits use, though it seems to exclude necessity.
Whoever purposes, as it is expressed by Milton, to build the lofty rhyme, must acquaint himself with the law of poetical architecture, and take care that his edifice be solid as well as beautiful; that nothing stand single or independent, so as that it may be taken away without injuring the rest; but that from the foundation to the pinnacles one part rest firm upon another.
This regular and consequential distribution is among common authors frequently neglected; but the failures of those whose example can have no influence may be safely overlooked, nor is it of much use to recall obscure and unregarded names to memory for the sake of sporting with their infamy. But if there is any writer whose genius can embellish impropriety, and whose authority can make error venerable, his works are the proper objects of critical inquisition. To expunge faults where there are no excellences is a task equally useless with that of the chemist, who employs the arts of separation and refinement upon ore in which no precious metal is contained to reward his operations.
The tragedy of Samson Agonistes has been celebrated as the second work of the great author of Paradise Lost, and opposed with all the confidence