Page images

1822.] Critical Essays on the Genius of the English Poets. No. I.



No. I.


He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

WHETHER the English reader can apply these lines to Shakspeare himself, is a question which a prophetic spirit only can resolve, as no man can tell what future ages may produce; though it requires no spirit of prophecy to assert, that England must become once more what it was inhis time,before any dramatic writer can appear whose writings will bear the same stamp of original genius, or whose originality will be marked with the same individual character. I am aware there are at the present moment, and if the revolutions of empire extinguish not the expanding flame of science England may long continue to produce kindred spirits, writers whose minds are as little fettered by the trammels of authority, or at least who are as repulsive of the restrictions which it imposes, as Shakspeare himself; but this confidence in their own powers cannot shake off the influence which the literature and manners of their own country, and the revolutions of opinion, eternally, though unconsciously, exercise over their minds. We may, indeed, conceive a poet, such as Dr. Johnson has described in his " Rasselas," divesting himself of the prejudices of his age and country, and considering right and wrong in their invariable state; but such a poet can fix his habitation only in the unrealized creations of the mind; for even when we seem to write the language of inspiration itself, and to breathe the spontaneous effusions of Nature alone, the manners, habits, and prejudices of our country, and the genius of it's literature, still cling fast to us, and supply us, even when we are not aware of it, with sentiments, opinions, images, associations, modes of expression, and peculiarities of feeling, which would never have entered into our productions, had we written in another age, or in another clime. It is therefore impossible for any writer, however he may affect to spurn authority and precedent, an affectation which is not, perhaps, always characteristic of true genius,


to divest himself of the spirit of the
times in which he writes, and to be
perfectly original. There are two
kinds of original writers;-those who
precede the literature of their coun-
try, and who, from having no models
to copy after, are original in the strict-
est sense of the expression; and those
who, in subsequent periods, make
themselves acquainted with all the
learning of their own times, but who
studiously avoid imitation, and seek
to be perfectly original in their own
productions. To such originality,
however, they cannot possibly attain;
for even when they imagine they are
expressing their own sentiments, they
take them, for the greater part, from
that acquired stock of ideas, images,
and associations, which has been long
treasured up in their own minds, and
which they originally collected from
the productions of other writers. In
many cases, indeed, a writer of genius
will discover relations and differences,
and create images and associations,
which can be traced to none of the
works which he has ever read; but, in
general, an original idea will be found
to be merely an idea which had been
first suggested to us by some former
writer, which lay dormant in the mind
till occasion called it forth, which the
occasion, however, would not have
called forth, if it had not been at one
time or other familiar to the mind,
though it now appears to be original
only because it has been so long for-
gotten, and cannot be traced to it's
original author. Until England and
her literature sinks into her primi-
tive barbarism, it is therefore impos-
sible for any writer to be as original as
Shakspeare, should be even possess a
double portion of his genius.

To form a just estimate of the genius
of Shakspeare, and of every writer who
precedes the literature of his country,
and who has no models to copy after,
we must judge of it by his beautics
alone. It is only in a cultivated
age that we should take both faults
and beauties into consideration; be-
cause it is only in such an age, that a

[ocr errors]



writer can be guided by those canons of criticism, and precepts of art, which lead genius to perfection. If the critics had been invariably guided by this rule, we should not have so many different opinions among the learned on the genius of Shakspeare. The bulk of mankind, indeed, have but one opinion of him; but those who claimed the privilege of judging more correctly, and of penetrating deeper into the character of true excellence, have ran into opposite systems, and represented him as the most sublime or the most barbarous of poets. The French critics, with very few exceptions, represent his plays as monstrous productions, the offspring of an unsettled mind, and fit only for the reception of a barbarous age. Hamlet, his master-piece, is designated by Voltaire, as the "work of a drunken savage." Even among his own countrymen, there have been, and there are to this day, those who take pride in derogating from his fame. Hume says, he cannot uphold reasonable propriety of thought for any time." This false appreciation of the genius of Shakspeare has originated from judging of him by his faults and not by his beauties, whereas the genius of all writers who have no models to copy after, should be determined by their beauties alone. His admirers have ran into the opposite extreme, and, in order to maintain his poctical pre-eminence, have laboured to prove, that his faults and blemishes are real beauties, many of which they think too refined for the discrimination of grosser intellects. Hence it is, that almost all the critiques on this immortal poet, as well those of his admirers as their opponents, are false and erroneous, as they both agree in resting his fame on the uniform merit of his works, and think he must be brought to account for his faults as well as his beauties. If his fame, however, cannot be defended against the French critics without defending his faults, his case is desperate indeed; for all the subtlety of commentators and critical learning will never succeed in justifying his perpetual deviations from those principles of dramatic excellence, which are universally acknowledged by the best critics to have their foundation in nature. If it had been once agreed upon by both parties that his merits

should be estimated by his beauties alone, this idle controversy would not have so long existed, nor would his character as a poet be as undecided now as it was a century ago. The following reflections, however, will convince us, that this point should be first conceded by all parties.

Shakspeare wrote in an age when be had no models to copy after. His beauties were, therefore, his own: while his faults belonged to the times in which he wrote. When he attained to excellence, he was indebted only to the strength of his own genius: when he failed, his failure must be attributed to one or other of three sources; namely, his want of genius, his rapidity of execution, and the consequent negligences that follow in it's train, or the imperfection of the language in which he wrote, and it's unfitness to clothe sublime conceptions in the luxuriant colourings of style and expression. These are the only sources to which we can trace the absence of excellence in any writer. That Shakspeare's faults could not arise from the first of these sources, is clearly demonstrated from those inimitable beauties which could only emanate from a bold and sublime genius, and devoid of which he could never have produced them. No writer can attain to sublimity of conception, or discrimination of character, whose genius does not enable him to rise to the height of that conception which he expresses in his writings, unless he borrow his images and descriptions from other writers. An English writer, therefore, who had no models of excellence in his own country, and who was imperfectly, or not at all, acquainted with the Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian languages, in which alone can be found all that is worthy of imitation, or at least all that was worthy of imitation in the time of Shakspeare, for Germany had then no literature of her own, could attain to excellence only by the native strength and uncommunicated vigour of his own genius. It is not in the power of the human mind to express any thing great or sublime, profound or abstruse, deep or impressive, till it has first conceived the idea which it conveys: the conception of an idea must

* Vide a critique on Shakspeare in a recent number of the "Examiner."

always precede it's expression, and it is in the conception alone that gemius must consist. We can conceive many things which the most copious and refined language will not permit us to express, much less a language emerging from barbarism, but we can express nothing till we first form the idea of it in our own mind; and it seldom happens that the expression is as correct as the mental conception. The moment, therefore, that we express a sublime idea without borrowing it, it is as evident as demonstration itself, that we had previously conceived it, and it is equally evident that the man of genius differs from the dunce only in the conception and combination of his ideas. The moment, therefore, that we prove sublimity, pathos, or refinement of conception, in any writer, we establish his genius, because we have no idea of genins but what is made up of these united qualities; for language or expression is not genius, but the mechanism by which it is made known. Whoever, therefore, could write one page enriched with all the characters of undoubted excellence, and teeming with the most sublime and refined sentiments, without any model to copy after, would demonstrate that he possessed that enviable quality of mind which constitutes genius, had he never written more, because all the contrivance of man, had he applied himself to the composition of this page during the whole period of his life, could not enable him to write it, unless he possessed that genius by which alone the sentiments that it contained could be dictated. To say that a man after repeated trials might happen at last to produce these lines, would be to argue that a man might make a watch by chance, without that intellect which was necessary to discover the combination of principles by which it was effected. Many important discoveries, indeed, have been found out by chance, but they were discoveries that involved no combination of principles. They were simple properties in nature, which always existed in nature, and which would have continued to exist, had they never been discovered. If Shakspeare, therefore, never wrote more than the following passage, it would demonstrate the pre-eminence of his genius.

"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, Are of imagination all compact: One sees more devils than vast hell can That is the madman. The lover sees hold, The face of Helen on a brow of Egypt. The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth The form of things unknown, the poet's


Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name." For it is obvious, that no man could conceive such sentiments, but he who possessed that penetrating acumen, and those intellectual energies, in which genius consists. Lord Byron justly observes, that if Gray had never written more than his celebrated "Elegy," it would have rendered him immortal. The genius of a poet must be estimated by quality, and not by quantity; for it requires no argument to convince us, that the same mind which produced the elegy could, if it thought proper, produce many other pieces on which the same character of genius would be impressed. With regard to the faults of genius, they arise from want of taste, and taste can exist only in cultivated society. They prove, therefore, neither genius nor it's absence, in writers who precede the literature of their country, because that taste which could alone secure them from blemishes and imperfections has then no existence. Possessed of genius, therefore, we may still commit faults; but devoid of genius, we can never impress on any part of our productions, the genuine signatures of sublimity and beauty. Shakspeare, then, could never have produced those passages which are universally acknowledged to be beautiful, whatever faults he might have occasionally committed, unless he possessed that pre-eminence of genius for which we contend; for it is one thing to pronounce judgment on the genius of a poet, and another to determine the merit of his works. A work may be very defective, and still prove it's author a writer of infinitely more genius than a work of very considerable merit. The proofs of a writer's genius are not collected from his expressions, but from the powers of mind which they indicate; for the

most refined and eloquent language that ever emanated from the pen of man would be a mere skeleton, unless grafted on sentiments worthy of such language. If the question then agitated among the critics related only to the uniform merit of Shakspeare's works, judging of them by the letter and not by the original powers and energies of mind which could alone have produced them, notwithstanding all the rubbish by which they are obscured, the matter could be easily decided; for the most wretched dramatic work that has been attempted on the stage, at least since the days of Pope, does not contain, perhaps, so many violations of critical rules and principles of correct writing, as the most finished of Shakspeare's plays. All the writers since the period I mention have studied to express their thoughts exactly as they conceived them, because correctness became then more studied, and the want of it was deemed barbarous; but Shakspeare's expression is often a mere index to his thoughts: it does not convey the idea exactly as it existed in his own mind, but it says at least what will enable us to guess at it, and lets us into the secret by indirect means. If it be asked, why Shakspeare could not express himself as correctly as other writers, or at least as his cotemporaries, for even Ben Jonson accused him of incorrectness, I reply, because his views of human nature were too profound, and his thoughts too comprehensive and unwieldy, to be clearly expressed in the language in which he wrote. Even now, when our language has been brought to such perfection, many ideas and distinct shades of thought will suggest themselves to a writer of genius which he can find no words to express; but this inconveniency, though infinitely greater in the days of Shakspeare than at present, is nothing in comparison to the imperfect structure of the language in his time, it's barbarous phraseology, and the absence of all rules and precepts of critical correctness. These were defects so deeply rooted in the nature of the materials which served to communicate to the world the sentiments and conceptions of Shakspeare, that no genius could redeem them.

But let the faults of Shakspeare originate from what source they may, it is clear, from what I have already observed, that they cannot be attributed to the poverty of his intellect, or his incapacity for writing better; and if not, they cannot be brought forward as arguments against the pre-eminence of his genius, which is all that any of his admirers should contend for. By defending his faults, they give their adversaries an easy triumph over them, because they are utterly indefensible. It is sufficient to shew, that these faults did not result from the native inertness or incapacity of his mind; for no advantage can be gained by proving they arose from his rapidity of execution, and the consequent inattention and negligence which it creates; for this would be only to argue, that he could have written better if he chose, and consequently, if not to acknowledge, at least not to deny, the pre-eminence of his genius. If his faults arose from the defects of the language in which he wrote, this was a circumstance which he could not controul, and over which he could exercise no redeeming power.

If, then, we cannot attribute the faults of Shakspeare to his want of genius, it is obvious that no argument can be drawn from them in discussing the subject, and that he who would form a just estimate of his merits, must, as I have already observed, judge of him by his beauties alone, because they were all the genuine offspring of his own mind, whereas his faults can be traced to no source whatever that argues impotency of genius. To compare Shakspeare, therefore, with his successors, we must compare only their beauties ; and from this comparison draw our conclusions. If they be more uniformly correct, they derive this advantage from the progress of science in the age in which they lived, and there is little merit in that kind of correctness which is purely mechanical, and within the reach of every one who has industry to acquire it. The writer of genius is not he who possesses all the acquirements of his own age, but he who rises above them to heights which no acquirements can reach but what are derived from nature. Industry will

impart correctness; but nature alone can confer genius.

The genius of Shakspeare seems to have principally consisted in the strength and energy of his feelings. It is generally asserted, that no man was better acquainted with the human heart; but it is certain, that his acquaintance with it must be understood in a very qualified sense; and when properly understood, we can more easily determine the character of the spirit which he has communicated to his writings. Shakspeare knew the human heart not as it exists in a state of polished society, but as it exists in a state placed midway between the confines of barbarism and civilization, where there is sufficient wealth and power to rouse ambition to unholy deeds, and to awaken all the fears and hopes which variously agitate and disturb the current of human life;-where knowledge is sufficiently extended to instruct it's possessors in all the means by which the images of hope and the anticipated gratifications of unsatisfied desire may be realized and secured; but where it's informing rays have not as yet disclosed the sweeter charms of milder passions and more tempered energies; nor moulded into existence the gentler affections of the soul, nor the refined feelings and sympathies of a cultivated mind. There is nothing in Shakspeare to win the soul to tender delight. The softer images and association of refined hope, that Hope which Collins paints "with eyes so fair," sparkle not in the creations of his muse. Every thing in him is ardent and impetuous; and all his principal characters are more or less under the dominion of strong and turbulent feelings, while his low characters are often affectedly witty and grossly vulgar. All this, however, is natural, and as it ought to be; for there is nothing unnatural in vulgar wit, gross manners, or turbulent and headstrong passion. All feelings, passions, and propensities, are natural, however unnatural and disgusting they may appear to refined and delicate minds, provided they agree with the character to which they are ascribed. When we talk of unnatural feelings, we either mean feelings that are not suitable to the character in which they appear, or we mean something which we do not understand. The human mind can Eur. Mag. Vol. 81. Feb. 1822.

form no idea of a feeling unnatural in itself, because a feeling that never existed in the human mind cannot be conceived, even in imagination; and as all the feelings of which we can form any conception may exist in the mind, they must be all natural; for if they were not, they could not be felt. The feelings of the philosopher, as well as those of a savage, are all produced by certain causes, such as external or moral influences; nor can any feeling, sensation, emotion, or passion, ever find admittance into the human breast without a cause sufficient to produce it. If, then, every feeling proceeds from a certain cause, and cannot exist without it, all feelings are not only natural, but it is impossible for one feeling to be more natural than another; as they all proceed from causes which are adequate to their production. To suppose them unnatural, is to suppose that causes should not produce their effects, and that such effects taking place is contrary to nature. The turbulent, boisterous, and impetuous passions of one man are, therefore, as natural as the mild and moral feelings of another, though they are not so reasonable. The latter renders all his feelings subservient to the controul of reason, and the precepts which she inculcates; while the former yields to the impulses of his own nature, and spurns the dictates of reason and morality. It is therefore natural, that the passions of him who refuses to be guided by reason should be contrary to reason, and extremely different from the passions of him who conforms entirely to the restrictions which she imposes. The feelings of both are natural, though the reverse of each other; and we could only pronounce them unnatural if they happened to be the same. We can, therefore, call a feeling unnatural only when it is repugnant to the nature of the character to whom it is attributed; but while it is such, as a sufficient cause can produce in such a nature, it is as natural as the most refined feeling that ever thrilled in the breast of sensibility. It is natural for a man of stubborn and inflexible honesty to have a rooted dislike to fraud and deception, and therefore no cause would be powerful enough to wind him round in a moment, and make him enamoured of them:

Nemo repente fuit turpissimus.


« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »