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and uniting, if not harmonizing them all, by a force of
colouring, and a rapidity of succession, which is not to

10 be met with in any of his many models. The latter, we
think, can scarcely be said to have copied his pathos, or
his energy, from any models whatever, either recent or
early. The exquisite harmony of his versification is
elaborated, perhaps, from the Castle of Indolence of

15 Thomson, and the serious pieces of Goldsmith ; — and it
seems to be his misfortune, not to be able to reconcile
himself to any thing which he cannot reduce within the
limits of this elaborate harmony. This extreme fastid-
iousness, and the limitation of his efforts to themes of

20 unbroken tenderness or sublimity, distinguish him from
the careless, prolific, and miscellaneous authors of our
primitive poetry ; — while the enchanting softness of his
pathetic passages, and the power and originality of his
more sublime conceptions, place him at a still greater

25 distance from the wits, as they truly called themselves,
of Charles II. and Queen Anne.

We do not know what other apology to offer for this
hasty, and, we fear, tedious sketch of the history of our
poetry, but that it appeared to us to be necessary, in

30 order to explain the peculiar merit of that class of writers
to which the author before us belongs ; and that it will
very greatly shorten what we have still to say on the
characteristics of our older dramatists. An opinion
prevails very generally on the Continent, and with


foreign-bred scholars among ourselves, that our national
taste has been corrupted chiefly by our idolatry of Shake-
speare ; — and that it is our patriotic and traditional
admiration of that singular writer, that reconciles us to
the monstrous compound of faults and beauties that 5
occur in his performances, and must to all impartial
judges appear quite absurd and unnatural. Before enter-
ing upon the character of a contemporary dramatist, it
was of some importance, therefore, to show that there
was a distinct, original, and independent school of liter- 10
ature in England in the time of Shakespeare ; to the
general tone of whose productions his works were suffi-
ciently conformable ; and that it was owing to circum-
stances in a great measure accidental, that this native
school was superseded about the time of the Restoration, 15
and a foreign standard of excellence intruded on us, not
in the drama only, but in every other department of
poetry. This new style of composition, however, though
adorned and recommended by the splendid talents of
many of its followers, was never perfectly naturalised, 20
we think, in this country ; and has ceased, in a great
measure, to be cultivated by those w^ho have lately aimed
with the greatest success at the higher honours of poetry.
Our love of Shakespeare, therefore, is not a vionomaiiia
or solitary and unaccountable infatuation ; but is merely 25
the natural love which all men bear to those forms of
excellence that are accommodated to their peculiar
character, temperament, and situation ; and which will
always return, and assert its power over their affections,
long after authority has lost its reverence, fashions been 30
antiquated, and artificial tastes passed away. In endeav-
ouring, therefore, to bespeak some share of favour for
such of his contemporaries as had fallen out of notice,
during the prevalence of an imported literature, we con-


ceive that we are only enlarging that foundation of native
genius on which alone any lasting superstructure can be
raised, and invigorating that deep-rooted stock upon
which all the perennial blossoms of our literature must
5 still be engrafted.

The notoriety of Shakespeare may seem to make it
superfluous to speak of the peculiarities of those old
dramatists, of whom he will be admitted to be so worthy
a representative. Nor shall we venture to say anything

10 of the confusion of their plots, the disorders of their
chronology, their contempt of the unities, or their imper-
fect discrimination between the provinces of Tragedy
and Comedy. Yet there are characteristics which the
lovers of literature may not be displeased to find enu-

15 merated, and which may constitute no dishonourable
distinction for the whole fraternity, independent of the
splendid talents and incommunicable graces of their
great chieftain.

Of the old English dramatists, then, including under

20 this name (besides Shakespeare), Beaumont and Fletcher,
Massinger, Jonson, Ford, Shirley, Webster, Dekkar,
Field, and Rowley, it may be said, in general, that they
are more poetical, and more original in their diction, than
the dramatists of any other age or country. Their scenes

25 abound more in varied images, and gratuitous excursions
of fancy. Their illustrations, and figures of speech, are
more borrowed from rural life, and from the simple occu-
pations or universal feelings of mankind. They are not
confined to a certain range of dignified expressions, nor

30 restricted to a particular assortment of imagery, beyond
which it is not lawful to look for embellishments. Let
any one compare the prodigious variety, and wide-ranging
freedom of Shakespeare, with the narrow round of flames,
tempests, treasons, victims, and tyrants, that scantily


adorn the sententious pomp of the French drama, and
he will not fail to recognise the vast superiority of the
former, in the excitement of the imagination, and all the
diversities of poetical delight. That very mixture of
styles, of which the French critics have so fastidiously 5
complained, forms, when not carried to any height of
extravagance, one of the greatest charms of our ancient
dramatists. It is equally sweet and natural for person-
ages toiling on the barren heights of life, to be occasion-
ally recalled to some vision of pastoral innocence and 10
tranquillity, as for the victims or votaries of ambition to
cast a glance of envy and agony on the joys of humble

Those charming old writers, however, have a still more
striking peculiarity in their conduct of the dialogue. On 15
the modern stage, every scene is visibly studied and
digested beforehand, — and every thing from beginning
to end, whether it be description, or argument, or vitu-
peration, is very obviously and ostentatiously set forth in
the most advantageous light, and with all the decorations 20
of the most elaborate rhetoric. Now, for mere rhetoric,
and fine composition, this is very right ; — but, for an
imitation of nature, it is not quite so well : And however
we may admire the skill of the artist, we are not very
likely to be moved with any very lively sympathy in the 25
emotions of those very rhetorical interlocutors. When we
come to any important part of the play, on the Con-
tinental or modern stage, we are sure to have a most
complete, formal, and exhausting discussion of it, in long
flourishing orations , — argument after argument pro- 30
pounded and answered with infinite ingenuity, and topic
after topic brought forward in well-digested mettiod,
without any deviation that the most industrious and
practised pleader would not approve of, — till nothing


more remains to be said, and a new scene introduces
us to a new set of gladiators, as expert and persevering
as the former. It is exactly the same when a story is to
be told, — a tyrant to be bullied, — or a princess to be

5 wooed. On the old English stage, however, the proceed-
ings were by no means so regular. There the discussions
always appear to be casual, and the argument quite
artless and disorderly. The persons of the drama, in
short, are made to speak like men and women who meet

10 without preparation, in real life. Their reasonings are
perpetually broken by passion, or left imperfect for want
of skill. They constantly wander from the point in hand,
in the most unbusinesslike manner in the world ; — and
after hitting upon a topic that would afford a judicious

15 playwright room for a magnificent seesaw of pompous
declamation, they have generally the awkwardness to let
it slip, as if perfectly unconscious of its value ; and uni-
formly leave the scene without exhausting the contro-
versy, or stating half the plausible things for themselves

20 that any ordinary advisers might have suggested — after
a few weeks' reflection. As specimens of eloquent argu-
mentation, we must admit the signal inferiority of our
native favourites; but as true copies of nature, — as
vehicles of passion, and representations of character, we

25 confess we are tempted to give them the preference.
When a dramatist brings his chief characters on the
stage, we readily admit that he must give them something
to say, — and that this something must be interesting
and characteristic ; — but he should recollect also, that

30 they are supposed to come there without having antici-
pated all they were to hear, or meditated on all they were
to deliver ; and that it cannot be characteristic, therefore,
because it must be glaringly unnatural, that they should
proceed regularly through every possible view of the


subject, and exhaust, in set order, the whole magazine
of reflections that can be brought to bear upon their

It would not be fair, however, to leave this view of the
matter, without observing, that this unsteadiness and 5
irregularity of dialogue, which gives such an air of nature
to our older plays, and keeps the curiosity and attention
so perpetually awake, is frequently carried to a most
blamable excess ; and that, independent of their passion
for verbal quibbles, there is an inequality and a capri- 10
cious uncertainty in the taste and judgment of these
good old writers, which excites at once our amazement
and our compassion. If it be true, that no other man
has ever written so finely as Shakespeare has done in
his happier passages, it is no less true that there is not a 15
scribbler now alive who could possibly write worse than
he has sometimes written, — who could, on occasion,
devise more contemptible ideas, or misplace them so
abominably, by the side of such incomparable excellence.
That there were no critics, and no critical readers in 20
those days, appears to us but an imperfect solution of
the difficulty. He who could write so admirably, must
have been a critic to himself. Childre?i^ indeed, may
play with the most precious gems, and the most worth-
less pebbles, without being aware of any difference in 25
their value ; but the fiery powers which are necessary to
the production of intellectual excellence, must enable the
possessor to recognise it as excellence ; and he who
knows when he succeeds, can scarcely be unconscious of
his failures. Unaccountable, however, as it is, the fact 3°
is certain, that almost all the dramatic writers of this
age appear to be alternately inspired, and bereft of
understanding ; and pass, apparently without being
conscious of the change, from the most beautiful displays


of genius to the most melancholy exemplifications of

There is only one other peculiarity which we shall
notice in those ancient dramas ; and that is,~the singular,
5 though very beautiful style, in which the greater part of
them are composed, — a style which we think must be
felt as peculiar by all who peruse them, though it is by
no means easy to describe in what its peculiarity consists.
It is not, for the most part, a lofty or sonorous style, —

10 nor can it be said generally to be finical or affected,- — or
strained, quaint, or pedantic : — But it is, at the same
time, a style full of turn and contrivance, — with some
little degree of constraint and involution, — very often
characterised by a studied briefness and simplicity of

15 diction, yet relieved by a certain indirect and figurative
cast of expression, — and almost always coloured with a
modest tinge of ingenuity, and fashioned, rather too
visibly, upon a particular model of elegance and purity.
In scenes of powerful passion, this sort of artificial pret-

20 tiness is commonly shaken off ; and, in Shakespeare, it
disappears under all his forms of animation : But it sticks
closer to most of his contemporaries. In Massinger (who
has no passion), it is almost always discernible ; and, in
the author before us, it gives a peculiar tone to almost

25 all the estimable parts of his productions.


By William Hazlitt. 8vo, pp. j^2. Ltmdojt, iSij)-

This is not a book of black-letter learning, or historical
elucidation; — neither is it a metaphysical dissertation,
full of wise perplexities and elaborate reconcilements. It
is, in truth, rather an encomium on Shakespeare, than a
commentary or critique on him — and is written, more to 5
show extraordinary love, than extraordinary knowledge of
his productions. Nevertheless, it is a very pleasing book
— and, we do not hesitate to say, a book of very con-
siderable originality and genius. The author is not merely
an admirer of our gr^t dramatist, but an Idolator of him; 10
and openly professes his idolatry. We have ourselves
too great a leaning to the same superstition, to blame him
very much for his error, and though we think, of course,
that our own admiration is, on the whole, more discrimi-
nating and judicious, there are not many points on which, 15
especially after reading his eloquent exposition of them,
we should be much inclined to disagree with him.

1 It may be thought that enough had been said of our early
dramatists, in the immediately preceding article ; and it probably is
so. But I could not resist the temptation of thus renewing, in my
own name, that vow of allegiance, which I had so often taken
anonymously to the only true and la\A^ul King of our English Poetry!
and now venture, therefore, fondly to replace this slight and perish-
able WTeath on his august and undecaying shrine : with no farther
apology than that it presumes to direct attention but to one, and
that, as I think, a comparatively neglected aspect of his universal


The book, as we have already intimated, is written less
to tell the reader what Mr. H. knoivs about Shakespeare
or his writings, than to explain to them what Yvq feels about
them — and 7£'/rF he feels so — and thinks that all who
5 profess to love poetry should feel so likewise. What we
chiefly look for in such a work, accordingly, is a fine sense
of the beauties of the author, and an eloquent exposition
of them ; and all this, and more, we think, may be found
in the volume before us. There is nothing niggardly in

lo Mr. H.'s praises, and nothing affected in his raptures.
He seems animated throughout with a full and hearty
sympathy with the delight which his author should inspire,
and pours himself gladly out in explanation of it, with a
fluency and ardour, obviously much more akin to enthu-

15 siasm than affectation. He seems pretty generally, in-
deed, in a state of happy intoxication — and has borrowed
from his great original, not indeed the force or brilliancy
of his fancy, but something of its playfulness, and a large
share of his apparent joyousness a^d self-indulgence in

20 its exercise. It is evidently a great pleasure to him to be
fully possessed with the beauties of his author, and to
follow the impulse of his unrestrained eagerness to im-
press them upon his readers.

When we have said that his observations are generally

25 right, we have said, in substance, that they are not
generally original ; for the beauties of Shakespeare are
not of so dim or equivocal a nature as to be visible only
to learned eyes — and undoubtedly his finest passages
are those which please all classes of readers, and are ad-

30 mired for the same qualities by judges from every school
of criticism. Even with regard to those passages, how-
ever, a skilful commentator will find something worth
hearing to tell. Many persons are very sensible of the
effect of fine poetry on their feelings, who do not well


know how to refer these feehngs to their causes ; and it
is always a delightful thing to be made to see clearly the
sources from which our delight has proceeded — and to
trace back the mingled stream that has flowed upon our
hearts, to the remoter fountains from which it has been 5
gathered. And when this is done with warmth as well
as precision, and embodied in an eloquent description of
the beauty which is explained, it forms one of the most
attractive, and not the least instructive, of literary exer-
cises. In all works of merit, however, and especially in 10
all works of original genius, there are a thousand retiring
and less obtrusive graces, which escape hasty and super-
ficial observers, and only give out their beauties to fond
and patient contemplation ; a thousand slight and har-
monising touches, the merit and the effect of which are 15
equally imperceptible to vulgar eyes ; and a thousand
indications of the continual presence of that poeticaj
spirit, which can only be recognised by those who are in
some measure under its influence, or have prepared them-
selves to receive it, by worshipping meekly at the shrines 20
which it inhabits.

In the exposition of these, there is room enough for
originality, — and more room than Mr. H. has yet filled.
In many points, however, he has acquitted himself excel-
lently ; — partly in the development of the principal 25
characters with which Shakespeare has peopled the fancies
of all English readers — but principally, we think, in the
delicate sensibility with which he has traced, and the
natural eloquence with which he has pointed out that
fond familiarity with beautiful forms and images — that 30
eternal recurrence to what is sweet or majestic in the
simple aspects of nature — that indestructible love of
flowers and odours, and dews and clear waters, and soft
airs and sounds, and bright skies, and woodland solitudes,


and moonlight bowers, which are the Material elements
of Poetry — and that fine sense of their undefinable
relation to mental emotion, which is its essence and
vivifying Soul — and which, in the midst of Shakespeare's
5 most busy and atrocious scenes, falls like gleams of sun-
shine on rocks and ruins — contrasting with all that is
rugged and repulsive, and reminding us of the existence
of purer and brighter elements! — which he alone has
poured out from the richness of his own mind, without

lo effort or restraint ; and contrived to intermingle with the
play of all the passions, and the vulgar course of this
world's affairs, without deserting for an instant the proper
business of the scene, or appearing to pause or digress,
from the love of ornament or need of repose! • — He alone,

15 who, when the object requires it, is always keen and
worldly and practical — and who yet, without changing
his hand, or stopping his course, scatters around him, as
he goes, all sounds and shapes of sweetness — and con-
jures up landscapes of immortal fragrance and freshness,

20 and peoples them with Spirits of glorious aspect and
attractive grace — and is a thousand times more full of
fancy and imagery, and splendour, than those who, in
pursuit of such enchantments, have shrunk back from the
delineation of character or passion, and declined the dis-

25 cussion of human duties and cares. More full of wisdom
and ridicule and sagacity, than all the moralists and
satirists that ever existed — he is more wild, airy, and in-
ventive, and more pathetic and fantastic, than all the
poets of all regions and ages of the world : — and has all

30 those elements so happily mixed up in him, and bears his
high faculties so temperately, that the most severe reader
cannot complain of him for want of strength or of reason
— nor the most sensitive for defect of ornament or
ingenuity. Every thing in him is in unmeasured abund-


ance, and unequalled perfection — but every thing so
balanced and kept in subordination, as not to jostle or
disturb or take the place of another. The most exquisite
poetical conceptions, images, and descriptions, are given
with such brevity, and introduced with such skill, as 5
merely to adorn, without loading the sense they accom-
pany. Although his sails are purple and perfumed, and
his prow of beaten gold, they waft him on his voyage, not
less, but more rapidly and directly than if they had been
composed of baser materials. All his excellences, like 10
those of Nature herself, are thrown out together ; and,
instead of interfering with, support and recommend each
other. His flowers are not tied up in garlands, nor his
fruits crushed into baskets — but spring living from the
soil, in all the dew and freshness of youth ; while the 15
graceful foliage in which they lurk, and the ample
branches, the rough and vigorous stem, and the wide-
spreading roots on which they depend, are present along
with them, and share, in their places, the equal care of
their Creator. 20


Consisting chiefly of Original Letters^ Poems, aftd Critical Observa'
tions on Scottish Songs. Collected and published by R. H. Cromek.
8vo, pp. 4JO. London, 1808.

Burns is certainly by far the greatest of our poetical
prodigies — from Stephen Duck down to Thomas Der-
mody. They are forgotten already ; or only remembered
for derision. But the name of Burns, if we are not
5 mistaken, has not yet "gathered all its fame"; and will
endure long after those circumstances are forgotten
which contributed to its first notoriety. So much indeed
are we impressed with a sense of his merits, that we
cannot help thinking it a derogation from them to

10 consider him as a prodigy at all ; and are convinced that
he will never be rightly estimated as a poet, till that
vulgar wonder be entirely repressed which was raised on
his having been a ploughman. It is true, no doubt, that
he was born in an humble station ; and that much of his

15 early life was devoted to severe labour, and to the
society of his fellow-labourers. But he was not himself
either uneducated or illiterate ; and was placed in a
situation more favourable, perhaps, to the development
of great poetical talents, than any other which could

20 have been assigned him. He was taught, at a very early
age, to read and write ; and soon after acquired a
competent knowledge of French, together with the
elements of Latin and Geometry. His taste for reading


was encouraged by his parents and many of his asso-
ciates ; and, before he had ever composed a single
stanza, he was not only familiar with many prose writers,
but far more intimately acquainted with Pope, Shake-
speare, and Thomson, than nine tenths of the youth that 5
now leave our schools for the university. Those authors,
indeed, with some old collections of songs, and the lives
of Hannibal and of Sir William Wallace, were his
habitual study from the first days of his childhood ; and
co-operating with the solitude of his rural occupations, 10
were sufficient to rouse his ardent and ambitious mind to
the love and the practice of poetry. He had about as
much scholarship, in short, we imagine, as Shakespeare ;
and far better models to form his ear to harmony, and
train his fancy to graceful invention. 15

We ventured, on a former occasion, to say something
of the effects of regular education, and of the general
diffusion of literature, in repressing the vigour and
originality of all kinds of mental exertion. That specu-
lation was perhaps carried somewhat too far ; but if the 20
paradox have proof any where, it is in its application to
poetry. Among well educated people, the standard
writers of this description are at once so venerated and
so familiar, that it is thought equally impossible to rival
them, as to write verses without attempting it. If there 25
be one degree of fame which excites emulation, there is
another which leads to despair : Nor can we conceive
any one less likely to be added to the short list of original
poets, than a young man of fine fancy and delicate taste,
who has acquired a high relish for poetry, by perusing 30
the most celebrated writers, and conversing with the
most intelligent judges. The head of such a person is
filled, of course, with all the splendid passages of ancient

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 5 of 21)