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in their authors have been converted into figures of rhetorick, by those men, who represent nature herself as irregular and feeble, and a minute attention to rules as essential to the perfection of genius.
As criticism had no share in producing the Homeric poems, so also did it contribute nothing to the perfection of the Greek tragedies. For those works—the most complete and highly finished, if not the most profound, of all human creations—there was no more previous warrant, than for the wildest dream of fantasy. No critic fashioned the moulds in which those exquisite groups were cast, or inspired them with Promethean life. They were struck off in the heat of inspiration—the offspring of moments teeming for immortality-though the slightest limb of each of the figures is finished as though it had been the labour of a life. These eternal works were erected—the spirit which inspired their authors was extinct—when Aristotle began to criticise. The developement of the art of poetry, by that great philosopher, wholly failed to inspire any bard, whose productions might break the descent from the mighty relics of the preceding years. After him, his disciples amused themselves in refining on his laws-in cold disputations and profitless scrutinies. The soil, late so fertile with the stateliest productions of nature, was over-grown with a low and creeping underwood, which, if any delicate flower struggled into day, oppressed and concealed it from view beneath its briary and tangled thickets.
2. The instances already given refute not only the notion, that criticism is requisite to prepare the way for genius, but also the opinion that it is necessary to give it a right direction and a perfect form. True imagination is in itself “ all compact.” The term irregular, as absolutely applied to genius, is absurd, and applied relatively, it means nothing but that it is original in its career. There is properly no such thing as irregular genius. A man endowed with “ the vision and the faculty divine,” may chuse modes of composition unsuited to the most appropriate display of his powers ;-his imaginations may not be disposed in the happiest arrangement, or may be clustered around subjects, in themselves, dreary, or mean, but these fantasies must be in themselves harmonious, or they would not be beauteous, would not be imaginations. Genius is a law unto itself. Its germs have, within them, not only the principles of beauty, but the
very form into which the flower in its maturity must expand. As a wavy gleam of fire rises from the spark, in its own exquisite shape, so does imagination send forth its glories, perfect by the felicitous necessity of their nature, exquisite in form by the same impulse, which gives them brightness and fervor. But how can the critic, in reality, acquire any jurisdiction over the genuine poet? Where are the lines by which he can fathom the depths of the soul; where the instrument by which he can take the altitude of “ the highest heaven of invention ?" How can be judge of thoughts which penetrate the mysteries of humanity, of fancies which " in the colours of the rainbow live, and play in plighted clouds,” of anticipations and foretastes by which the bard already " breathes in worlds, to which the heaven of heavens is but a veil ?” Can he measure a sun-beam, or constrain a cloud, or count the steps of the bounding stag of the forest, to judge whether they are graceful? Has he power even to define those gigantic shadows reflected on the pure mirror of the poet's imagination, from the eternal vastnesses which mortal eyes cannot discern? At best, he can but reason from what has been to what should be; and what can be more absurd than this course in reference to poetic invention? A critic can understand no rules of criticism except what existing poetry has taught him. There was no more reason, after the production of the Iliad, to contend that future poems should in certain points resemble it, than there was before the existence of that poem to lay down rules which would prevent its being. There was antecedently no more probability that the powers of man, harmoniously exerted, could produce the tale of Troy divine, than that, after it, the same powers would not produce other works equally marvellous and equally perfect, yet wholly different in their coloring and form. The reasons which would prevent men from doing any thing unlike it, would also have prevented its creation, for it was doubtless unlike all previous inventions. Criticism can never be prospective, until the resources of man and nature are exhausted. Each new world of imagination revolves on itself, in an orbit of its own. Its beauties create the 'taste which shall relish them, and the very critics which shall extol their proportions. The first admirers of Homer had no conception that the Greek tragedies would start into life and become lasting as their idol. Those who lived after the times when these were perfected, asserted that no dramas could be worthy of praise, which were not fashioned according to their models and composed of similar materials. But, after a long interval, came Shakespear-at first, indeed, considered by many as barbarous and strange-who, when his real merits are perceived, is felt to be, at the least, equal to his Greek 'predecessors, though violating every rule drawn from their works. Even in our short remembrance, we can trace the complete abolition of popular rules of criticism, by the 'new and unexpected combinations of genius. A few years ago, it was a maxim gravely asserted by Reviews, Treatises, and Magazines, that no interesting fiction could effectively be grafted on history. But “ mark how a plain tale” by the aut hor of Waverley " puts down” the canon for ever ! In fact, unless with more than
angel's ken a critic could gaze on all the yet unpossessed regions of imagination, it is impossible that he should limit the discoveries which yet await the bard. He may perceive, indeed, how poets of old have by their celestial magic divided the thick clouds which bound man's ordinary vision, and may scan the wondrous regions which they have thus opened to our gaze. But how can he thus anticipate what future bards may reveal direct the proportions, the colours, and the forms, of the grand realities which they shall unveil--fix boundaries to regions of beauty yet unknown, determine the height of their glorystricken hills, settle the course of their mighty waters, or regulate the visionary shapes of super-human grace, which shall gleam in the utmost distance of their far perspectives?
3. But it may be urged, that criticism is useful in putting down the pretensions of those who aspire, without just claim, to the honours of genius. This, indeed, in so far as it is unfavourable, is its chief object in modern times. The most celebrated of literary tribunals takes as the motto of its decrees," Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur;" assuming that to publish a dull book is a crime, which the public good requires should be exposed, whatever laceration of the inmost soul may be inflicted on the offender in the process. This damnatory principle is still farther avowed in the following dogma of this august body, which deserves to be particularly quoted as an explicit declaration of the spirit of modern criticism :
“There is nothing of which nature has been more bountiful than poets. They swarm like the spawn of the cod-fish, with a vicious fecundity that invites and requires destruction. To publish verses is become a sort of evidence that a man wants sense ; which is repelled, not by writing good verses, but by writing excellent verses ;-by doing what Lord Byron has done ;-by displaying talents great enough to overcome the disgust which proceeds from satiety, and shewing that all things may become new under the reviving touch of genius.” Ed. Rev. No. 43, p. 68.
It appears to us, that the crime and the evil denounced in this pregnant sentence are entirely visionary and fantastic. There is no great danger, that works without talent should usurp the admiration of the world. Splendid error may mislead; vice linked to a radiant angel, by perverted genius, may seduce; and the union of high energy with depravity of soul may teach us to respect where we ought to shudder. But men will not easily be dazzled by insipidity, soothed by discord, or awed by weakness. The mean and base, even if left to themselves unmolested, will scarcely grow immortal by the neglect of the magnanimous and the wise. He who cautions the public against the admiration of feeble productions, almost equals the wisdom of a sage, who should passionately implore a youth not imprudently to set his heart on ugliness and age. And surely our nerves are not grown so finely tremulous, that we require guardians who may providently shield us from glancing on a work which may prove unworthy of perusal. It is one high privilege of our earthly lot, that the sweetest pleasures of humanity are not balanced by any painful sensations arising from their contraries. We drink in joy too deep for expression, when we penetrate the vast solitudes of nature, and gaze on her rocky fortresses, her eternal hills, her regions “ consecrate to eldest time.” But we feel no answering agony while we traverse level and barren plains, especially if we can leave them at pleasure. Thus, while we experience a thrilling delight, or a gushing-forth of long suppressed sympathy, in thinking on the divinest imaginations of the poet, we are not plunged by the dullest author into the depths of sorrow. At all events, we can throw down the book at once; and we must surely be very fastidious if we do not regard the benefit conferred on printers and publishers, and the gratification of the author's innocent and genial vanity, as amply compensating the slight labour which we have taken without personal reward.
But, perhaps, it is the good of the aspirants themselves rather than of their readers which the critic professes to design. Here, also, we think he is mistaken. The men of our generation are not too prone to leave their quest after the substantial blessings of the world, in order to pursue those which are aërial and shadowy. The very error of the mind which takes the love for the power of poetry, is more goodly than common wisdom. But there are certain seasons, we believe, in the lives of all some few golden moments at least in which they have really perceived, and felt, and enjoyed, as poets. Who remembers not an hour of serious ecstasy, when, perhaps, as he lay beneath some old tree and gazed on the setting sun, earth seemed a visionary thing, the glories of immortality were half revealed, and the first notes of an universal harmony whispered to his soul?some moment, when he seemed almost to realize the eternal, and could have been well contented to yield up his mortal being? --some little space, populous of high thoughts and dişinterested resolves—some touch upon that “line of limitless desires," along which he shall live in a purer sphere ?-And if that taste of joy is not to be renewed on earth, the soul will not suffer by an attempt to prolong its memory. It is a mistake, to suppose that young beginners in poetry are always prompted by a mere love of worldly fame. Their efforts are not rarely struggles to express their mantling joys—ineffectual often as to the readers-but most beneficial to the despised bard. The sense of beauty and the love of the ideal, if they do not draw all the faculties into their likeness, still impart to the whole soul something of their
rich and unearthly colouring. Young fantasy spreads itsgolden films, slender though they be, through the varied tenor of existence. Imagination, nurtured in the opening of life, though it be not developed in poetic excellence, will strengthen the manly virtue, give a noble cast to the thoughts, and a generous course to the sympathies. It will assist to crush self-love in its first risings, to mellow and soften the heart, and prepare it for its glorious destiny. Even if these consequences did not follow, surely the most exquisite feelings of young hope are not worthy of scorn. They may truely be worth years of toil, of riches, and of honour. Who would crush them at a venture-short and uncertain as life is—and cold and dreary as are often its most brilliant successes? What, indeed, can this world offer to compare with the earliest poetic dreams, which critics would think it sport or virtue to destroy?
“Such views the youthful bard allure
But, supposing for a moment that it were really desirable to put down all authors who do not rise into excellence, at any expense of personal feeling, we must not forget the risk which such a process involves of crushing undeveloped genius. There are many causes which may prevent minds, gifted with the richest faculties, from exerting them at the first with success. The very number of images crowding on the mirror of the soul may for awhile darken its surface, and give the idea of inextricable confusion. The young poet's holiest thoughts must often appear to him too sacred to be fully developed to the world. His soul will half shrink at first from the disclosure of its solemn immunities and strange joys. He will thus become timid and irresolute-tell but a slight part of that which he feels and this broken and disjointed communication will appear senseless or feeble. The more deep and original his thoughts are, the more glorious his visions, and the more beatific his glimpses into the inmost sanctuaries of nature,—the more difficult will be the task of embodying these in words, so as to make them palpable to ordinary conceptions. He will be constantly in danger, too, in the fervor of his own spirit, of mistaking things which in his mind are connected with strains of delicious musing, for objects, in themselves, stately or sacred. The