Page images

speare. With a warm admiration for Zaire, Villemain candidly admits, that in all which evinces deep and profound insight into the heart, or the power of artfully indicating and preparing remote future effects, in which perhaps, more than any thing else, dramatic skill is evinced, Shakspeare in his Othello has infinitely the ad. vantage over Voltaire. Nay, even in regard to mere art of narration or exposition, the very point on which Voltaire and the French dramatists have piqued themselves most, he seems inclined to give the preference to Othello's speech to the Venetian Senate over the corresponding explanation of Orosmane, in which he communicates his position and designs to Zaire. He concludes, however, by observing, with a natural wish to do justice to a very talented imitation, which in some respects almost borders on genius, "If in the subject itself, which is borrowed from Shakspeare, that of jealousy and murder, Voltaire is inferior in pathos and even in art-if he is less energetic, less natural, less probable he has, notwithstanding, infused into Zaire an unequalled (?) charm and interest. What he has created makes amends for what he has feebly imitated; and although Voltaire was probably in jest when he compared this piece to Polyeucte, it is the Christian episode-it is Lusignan and the Crusade-which constitute the immortal beauty of Zaire.".

In Zaire, Voltaire had conformed to his original, and, on the French stage, prescriptive plan of making love the moving power of the piece. In his Death of Caesar, all the best points of which plainly were suggested by the Julius Cæsar of Shakspeare, he reverted to an idea he had long entertained of a tragedy constructed on a more austere and patriotic principle. He determined to compose a tragedy, as he says, in the English taste, banishing not merely love intrigues, but almost all interference on the part of women; though, where he found the authority for this novel kind of unity the unity of sex-we are at a loss to imagine. Not in Shakspeare certainly; for in Julius Cæsar, Portia, slightly as she is brought into view, is felt to be, and not undeservedly, a personage of strong interest and influence. Still less in the Cato of his friend Addison, where, if we remember rightly, "the noble Martia towers above her sex,"

and no less than three separate love stories are interwoven with the "fate of Cato and of Rome." If the remarks of Villemain contain little that is absolutely new so far as regards the peculiar excellencies of Shake speare's play, they have at least a species of novelty in the mouth of a French critic, from their candour and impartiality, unmixed with extravagance; for, to confess the truth, we would in most cases rather put up with the sneers of Voltaire, or the cold and niggard approbation of La Harpe, than the rhapsodical and indiscriminating admiration of many modern French critics, bestowed as it is without reason or intelligible principle, and prac tically exemplified and illustrated by extravagant and revolting caricatures of the peculiarities of Shakspeare's age, without the least approach to the redeeming qualities of his genius.

Shakspeare has taken the Roman history as he found it; he has invented nothing he has retrenched little. In the costume and the language he may have erred occasionally, from ignorance of classical minutiæ; but in the numerous and contrasted characters of the piece, particularly in that of the philosophical Brutus uniting the firmness and unshaken dignity of the Stoic with the gentlest affections, Shakspeare shows his usual mastery. When the spirit of human nature is to be divined, such as it exists in all ages and countries among ambitious nobles, interested demagogues, and an idle, heartless, and vacillating populace, Shakspeare is never mistaken.

Voltaire, on the contrary, has chosen to step beyond history, and his invention marks the real want of dramatic refinement which is observable in his

plays, disguised as they are in a drapery of pompous morality. The vague suspicion founded on some tale of scandal, that Brutus was the son of Cæsar, becomes with him the nodus, and constitutes the main interest of the piece. Patriotism, it would seem, according to French ideas, is presented in its most imposing form when accompanied by parricide. The conjugal scenes between Brutus and Portia, which, by their homefelt beauty, so finely relieve the republican hardness of the political interest, Voltaire has entirely banished; and we are left without a glimpse into domestic life, or one tranquil conversation in which the Stoic and the politician relaxes into the man.

The famous scene, in which the rival leaders pronounce their orations over the dead body of Cæsar, has been in many passages translated by Voltaire. In others he has attempted to improve upon it, with what success a few specimens will enable the reader to judge. The speech of Brutus, written with laconic brevity, and in prose, probably in order to raise it out of the ordinary level of the verse, and thus to give it more the appearance of a formal oration, Voltaire has placed less appropriately in the mouth of Cassius, and his version, we admit, is fairly executed. But how absurd the unanimous

reply which he puts into the mouth of

the multitude:

[blocks in formation]

1st Plebeian. Bring him with triumph home unto his house.

2d Pleb. Give him a statue with his ancestors.

3d Pleb. Let him be Cæsar." "Let him be Cæsar!" Such is the notion of a republic entertained by the mob of Rome. Their gratitude has no other form of homage but servitude.

Antony mounts the chair-at first stormfully received--bespeaking indulgence for Brutus' sake; then opening in a subdued and humbled tone, feeling his way, as if deprecating the idea that he came to praise Cæsar or to complain of his fate. Compare the respective commencements of Shakspeare and Voltaire :

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,

I come to bury Cæsar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them-
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar! The noble Brutus
Has told you Cæsar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Cæsar answer'd it."

[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

El lorsque de son front otant le diadème, Ce heros à vos lois s'immolait aujourd'hui, Qui de vous, en effet, n'eut expiré pour lui ?"

This is much too rapid, too unprepa red an apostrophe. The prejudices of the people had not been soothed, by reminding them, not only how deeply Cæsar had suffered for his fault, if he were ambitious, but also how much certain parts of his conduct contradicted introducing the declinature of the crown the supposition of his ambition. Before his audience how often the ransom of upon the Lupercal, Antony reminds Cæsar's captives had gone into the general coffers, and how," when the poor had cried, Cæsar had wept." “ Ambition should be made of sterner stuff!" Only when the way is thus prepared, he reminds them of the refusal of the crown, and asks, was this ambitious? Then first he recalls to their recollection their own love for Cæsar, which Voltaire so inartificially thrusts almost into the opening lines of his oration : "You all did love him once, not without

[blocks in formation]

tion, there is no strong epithet of invective used; a more poignant and effective reproach is contained in the word, the "well-beloved Brutus," than in all the "monsters" and " assassins" with which the attack of Antony in Voltaire's play is eked out.

The superiority of Shakspeare is just as obvious in the artful delay of Antony to read the will, which he reserves to the last as the fit climax to be addressed to such an audience, as compared with the French version, where he hastens at once to proclaim its contents; and in the pretended moderation with which, after stirring up to an ecstacy of indignation the passions of the people, he affects to control the tempest he had raised, and which he knew to be ungovernable-precipita ting the people into the career of vengeance, while affecting to restrain them; while in Voltaire's play, it is Antony himself who is the first to call for vengeance on Cæsar's murderers, and to urge on the crowd to rise and mutiny.

If the claims of Voltaire as a dramatist cannot be considered as standing very high, it is still less possible to consider him as entitled even to the name of an epic poet. Villemain has a long parallel between the Pharsalia and the Henriade: in which he gives the preference, on the whole, to the latter poem. We grant to Voltaire the merit of better taste, for he has no thing of the tumid and somewhat bombastic diction of Lucan: but, on the other hand, where in the Henriade shall we find passages like the contrasted characters of Cæsar and Pompey? or the pregnant beauty and truth of such brief traits as those by which the rival leaders are discriminated, and in which the secret of their fortunes may be said to be embodied? "Solusque pudor non vincere bello," the marking trait in the character of the first: the other," Magni nominis umbra,” a man who had over-lived his greatness, which had always been exaggerated. "Voltaire in the Henriade," says Villemain, "is Lucan abridged, tempered, calmed downLucan without exaggerated figures, without declamation, but also less energetic, and less dazzling." "The French poet, like the Roman, has his

passion for controversy: Catholicism is for him what the empire was for the other. Both occasionally flatter their enemy; but they take pleasure in allusions which tend to discredit and degrade it. Thus the canto descriptive of the St Bartholomew is the finest in the Henriade. But the pas sion of the poet is little in harmony with the constrained denouement of his piece the abjuration of Protestantism by Henry. And there is a similar contradiction between the sceptical maxims with which he has interspersed his poem, and the Christian marvels which he employs."

That the political and philosophical speculations of Voltaire exercised a strong influence over his own age, and tended greatly to accelerate those attacks upon all authority which heralded the Revolution, no calm observer can reasonably doubt. It may be very true that he himself had no very clear perception of their tendency. It may even be the case that the subversion of an established government was the last thing in his thoughts. But the aristocratic insult to which he had been subjected, and which had driven him to England,* probably left on his mind no very pleasing impression in regard to hereditary rank; and the maxims of popular liberty, and the limitation of the monarchical power, which he was accustomed to hear from his Whig acquaintances in England, probably gave him as strong a leaning as he was capable of towards a popular form of government, or rather towards a government which was to be in the hands of an aristocracy of letters, over which he himself was to reign as the despotic sovereign.

The sincerity of his anti-religious views, and the zeal with which he discharged the apostolate of infidelity, are matters which admit of less question. He did not merely doubt or deny, but he detested, Christianity. He never speaks of it but with a feeling of personal hatred. "Je finis toutes mes lettres par dire écrasons l'enflame !" He writes to D'Alembert (25th Feb. 1768), "Comme Caton dit, delenda est Carthago." To the Count D'Argental he writes (3d Oct. 1761), “ Ah! chiens de Chrêtiens, que je vous deteste! que mon mépris et ma haine

In revenge for an expression which Voltaire had launched against a man of rank, he received a sound drubbing, a few days after, at the gate of the Hotel Sully.


pour vous augmentent continuelle ment!" In his aversion to Christianity, therefore, he was admitted to come up to the true Holbachean and Helvetian standard; but as he wavered in regard to Atheism, and had not quite adopted the creed of the Système de la Nature, he was considered a weak and timorous reformer, whose ideas were still clouded by childish fears or narrow views, and consequently very scurvily treated by his brother apostles of what was called the Holy Philosophical Church. "The patriarch, poor man," says Baron de Grimm, who went all lengths, "still sticks to his Remunerateur-Vengeur, without whom he fancies the world would go on very ill. He is resolute enough for putting down the God of knaves and bigots, but is not for parting with that of the virtuous and rational. He reasons upon all this, too, like a baby; a very smart baby it must be owned, but a baby notwithstanding!"

But enough of Voltaire, whether as a poet or a philosopher. To us he appears to far more advantage in his Contés his graceful Vers de Société, and in his Romans, than in any of his more elaborate compositions. What


ever may be thought of the tendency of his romances, the ingenuity with which they are framed so as to bring out in comic relief the idea which he wishes to ridicule, is admirable. Epitre à Horace, and his Stances à Madame du Deffunt, are more perfect in their way than the well-rounded declamation of his tragedy, or the laboured episodes of the Henriade.

While Voltaire was thus carrying the spirit of mockery, of universal disbelief, and contempt for established opinion, into every department of literature, for he essayed them all in turn, a remnant of the spirit of the 17th century was kept alive by the Chancellor D'Aguesseau, in the magistracy; by Rollin, in the literary and religious education of youth; and by the Duke de St Simon, at Court. Villemain's estimate of D'Aguesseau is somewhat lower than that to which we have been accustomed; even as a magistrate, a lawyer, and a man of business, he seems to think him somewhat timorous and time-serving, notwithstanding the excellence of his ordonnances or the irreproachable character of his life. To Rollin, on the other hand, we think the esprit de corps in favour of a brother

professor has led him to do rather more than justice; for, granting the high tone of morality and religion which it was the object of Rollin to infuse into his educational system, the cold correctness, the dryness, and, after all, the defect of real learning or com prehensive view which his Ancient History exhibits, are surely sufficient to exclude him from the list of great historians. To St Simon, the last of the Jansenist colony surviving amidst the eighteenth century, Villemain is pecus liarly favourable. He seems almost disposed to concede to him the praise of genius. And there is no doubt that, as compared with Dangeau and the other annalists or keepers of Court diaries, the graphic spirit and caustic sketches of St Simon-a close observer, feeling strongly, writing from a full mind, tainted with strong preju dices, particularly in favour of aristocracy, and tinging every thing he wrote with the peculiarities of his own character-are most amusing. "The dead figures of the day," says Villemain, "are resuscitated in the pages of St Simon; his electrical expression gives motion to all this ossuary of a Court."

To the same school, in point of taste, belong the great novelists of the commencement of the eighteenth century-Le Sage, Prevôt, and Marevaux. The popularity of the two latter has, in all probability, for ever passed away; for the merits of Prevôt's Manon L'Escaut have been exaggerated, and, were they greater than they are, they would hardly make amends for the tediousness of Cleveland and the Dean of Coleraine; and, with all deference to French criticism, we cannot help regarding the Marianne and the Paysan parvenu as in the highest degree wearisome. On the other hand, the popularity of the first of these novelists, at the distance of two centuries remains undiminished, and without experiencing even a momentary fluctua tion. In truth, the whole character of Gil Blas is so essentially popular-its beauties lie so much on the surface, and are so independent of all peculiarities of opinion, or deep and subtle enquiry

that we could almost as easily conceive a man tiring of the common air, or the cheerful sunlight, as of its lively, natural, and good-humoured pictures. Voltaire, however, and it is a great proof of his want of simple and

It is

natural tastes, seems to have formed a most inadequate notion of the merits, and we may indeed say the genius, of Le Sage. Speaking of his works in his Age of Louis XIV., he says, with a brief and disdainful air of condescen.. sion, "His romance of Gil Blas has survived, because it is natural." curious now to reflect, that for one foreigner who is even tolerably acquainted with the works of him who thus took it upon himself arbitrarily to dispense ex cathedra the meed of literary fame, there are at least a hundred to whom every scene in Gil Blas, from the adventure with the parasite at Corcuelo down to the double marriage celebrated at Lirias, is as familiar as most passages in the life of an actual acquaintance.

It so happened, too, that the best comic poets of the day took part rather with the spiritof the seventeenth century than the eighteenth. Gresset, Destouches, and even Piron, were all hostile to the philosophers. At the present day, we should be disposed to repeat "non tali auxilio," and to think that religion and morality were in nearly as great danger from their friends as from their foes. Piron preaching morality, is certainly as near an approach to the devil citing Scripture for his purpose, as can well be imagined.

Destouches, like Voltaire, had made a residence of some length in England; but it may be doubted whether his study of the English theatre of the time was calculated to improve his taste. Moliere would have been a far safer guide than either Vanburgh or Congreve, with which he was probably most familiar. Their licentiousness he no doubt avoided, but their exaggeration of comic character he retained. All his plays, even the Glorieux, are full of this tendency. In the Glorieux, Destouches certainly made what is technically called "a hit." The rage for financial speculation and adventure of all kinds, which distinguished the time of Louis XV.-the sudden rise of the vulgar to opulence and distinction

Seigneur Suzerain de deux mille d'

and the fall of the noble and the opulent into poverty, with the consequent approximation of wealth and insolence to pride and poverty,-these are the sources from which the contrasted characters of the Glorieux were drawn.

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

The solitary comedy of Destouches which rises above mediocrity, owed its success in a great degree to the fortunate choice of a subject, to which the existing state of society gave point and interest. The same cause in a great measure determined the superiority of Piron's clever Metromanie over the other now forgotten productions of his pen. Having known by experience the miseries to which the dramatist is heir -familiar with the mysteries nnd intrigues of stage management

"The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes;" he was struck with the notion of turning his experience to account, and of making the life of a poet the subject of a drama, composed half in the spirit of comedy, half in earnestness. Reynolds, in treating the same subject, has made it merely farcical. Piron's dramatist actually carries our sympathies with him, and we are smitten with the infection of his enthusiasm.

[ocr errors]

The merits of Gresset's Méchant we are less able to perceive. As a picture of the hollowness, the slanderous spirit, the ridicule of self, in order to be allowed the freer scope for the ridicule of others as a portrait, in short, of the combined wit and utter heartlessness of the eighteenth century, the play has the merit which belongs to a faithful portrait of an unattractive subject; but it has little of the originality of the Metromanie. We confess we are of the number of those who prefer the Ver-vert, or the Chartreuse, to the Méchant.

[ocr errors]

At this period is observable the rise of that Comedie Larmoyante, which subsequently became so popular in the rough, vigorous, and coarse prose dramas of Diderot. The tendency is perceptible even in the Glorieux of Destouches, as well as in several of his other works. But the system first appears reduced into form in those Tragédies Bourgeoises, to which La Chaussée chose most inappropriately

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »