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The walls' inexorable steel, no hand
On the whole, this poem, though Milton has undoubtedly availed himself of many ideas and passages in it, raises instead of lowering our conception of him, by showing how much more he added to it than he has taken from it.
Crashaw's translation of Strada's description of the contention between a nightingale and a musician, is elaborate and spirited, but not equal to Ford's version of the same story in his · Lover's Melancholy.' One line may serve as a specimen of delicate quaintness, and of Crashaw's style in general :
“And with a quavering coyness tastes the strings."
Sir Philip Sidney is a writer for whom I cannot acquire a taste. As Mr. Burke said, “he could not love the French Re. public”—so I may say, that I cannot love - The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia,' with all my good-will to it. It will not do for me, however, to imitate the summary petulance of the epi. grammatist :
“The reason why I cannot tell,
I must give my reasons," on compulsion,” for not speaking well of a person like Sir Philip Sidney–
"The soldier's, scholar's, courtier's eye, tongue, sword,
the splendour of whose personal accomplishments, and of whose wide-spread fame, was, in his life-time,
" Like a gate of steel, Fronting the sun, that renders back
His figure and his heat”— a writer, too, who was universally read and enthusiastically ad. mired for a century after his death, and who has been admired with scarce less enthusiastic, but with a more distant homage, for another century, after ceasing to be read.
We have lost the art of reading, or the privilege of writing, voluminously, since the days of Addison. Learning no longer weaves the interminable page with patient drudgery, nor ignorance pores over it with implicit faith. As authors multiply in number, books diminish in size; we cannot now, as formerly, swallow libraries whole in a single folio: solid quarto has given place to slender duodecimo, and the dingy letter-press contracts its dimensions, and retreats before the white, unsullied, faultless margin. Modern authorship is become a species of stenography: we contrive even to read by proxy. We skim the cream of prose without any trouble; we get at the quintessence of poetry without loss of time. The staple commodity, the coarse, heavy, dirty, unwieldy bullion of books, is driven out of the market of learning, and the intercourse of the literary world is carried on, and the credit of the great capitalists sustained by the flimsy circulating medium of magazines and reviews. Those who are chiefly concerned in catering for the taste of others, and serving up critical opinions in a compendious, elegant, and portable form, are not forgetful of themselves : they are not scrupulously solicitous, idly inquisitive, about the real merits, the bona fide contents of the works they are deputed to appraise and value, any more than the reading public who employ them. They look no farther for the contents of the work than the title-page, and pronounce a peremptory decision on its merits or defects by a glance at the name and party of the writer. This state of polite letters seems to admit of improvement in only one respect, which is to go a step farther, and write for the amusement and edification of the world, accounts of works that were never either written or read at all, and to cry up or abuse the authors by name, though they have no existence but in the critic's invention. This would save a great deal of labour in vain ; anonymous critics might pounce upon the defenceless heads of fictitious candidates for fame and bread; reviews, from being novels founded upon facts, would aspire to be pure romances; and we should arrive at the beau ideal of a commonwealth of letters, at the euthanasia of thought, and millennium of criticism!
At the time that Sir Philip Sidney's · Arcadia’ was written, those middle-men, the critics, were not known. The author and
reader came into immediate contact, and seemed never tired of each other's company.
We are more fastidious and dissipated: the effeminacy of modern taste would, I am afraid, shrink back affrighted at the formidable sight of this once popular work, which is about as long (horresco referens !) as all Walter Scott's novels put together; but besides its size and appearance, it has, I think, other defects of a more intrinsic and insuperable nature. It is to me one of the greatest monuments of the abuse of intellectual power upon record. It puts one in mind of the court dresses and preposterous fashions of the time, which are grown obsolete and disgusting. It is not romantic, but scholastic; not poetry, but casuistry; not nature, but art, and the worst sort of art, which thinks it can do better than nature. Of the number of fine things that are constantly passing through the author's mind, there is hardly one that he has not contrived to spoil, and to spoil purposely and maliciously, in order to aggrandize our idea of himself. Out of five hundred folio pages, there are hardly, I conceive, half a dozen sentences expressed simply and directly, with the sincere desire to convey the image implied, and without a systematic interpolation of the wit, learning, ingenuity, wisdom, and everlasting impertinence of the writer, so as to disguise the object, instead of displaying it in its true colours and real proportions. Every page is with “centric and eccentric scribbled o’er;" his muse is tattooed and tricked out like an Indian goddess. He writes a court-hand, with flourishes like a schoolmaster; his figures are wrought in chain-stitch. All his thoughts are forced and painful births, and may be said to be delivered by the Cæsarean operation. At last, they become dis. torted and rickety in themselves; and before they have been cramped and twisted and swaddled into lifelessness and deformity. Imagine a writer to have great natural talents, great powers of memory and invention, an eye for nature, a knowledge of the passions, much learning, and equal industry: but that he is so full of a consciousness of all this, and so determined to make the reader conscious of it at every step, that he becomes a complete intellectual coxcomb, or nearly so ;—that he never lets a casual observation pass without perplexing it with an endless, running commentary, that he never states a feeling without so many
circumambages, without so many interlineations and parenthetical remarks on all that can be said for it, and anticipations of all that can be said against it, and that he never mentions a fact without giving so many circumstances, and conjuring up so many things that it is like or not like, that you lose the main clue of the story in its infinite ramifications and intersections; and we may form some faint idea of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia,' which is
spun with great labour out of the author's brains, and hangs like a huge cobweb over the face of nature! This is not, as far as I can judge, an exaggerated description; but as near the truth as I can make it. The proofs are not far to seek. Take the first sentence, or open the volume anywhere and read. I will, however, take one of the most beautiful passages, near the be. ginning, to show how the subject matter, of which the noblest use might have been made, is disfigured by the affectation of the style, and the importunate and vain activity of the writer's mind. The
passage I allude to is the celebrated description of Arcadia.
“So that the third day after, in the time that the morning did strew roses and violets in the heavenly floor against the coming of the sun, the nightingales (striving one with the other which could in most dainty variety recount their wrong-caused sorrow) made them put off their sleep, and rising from under a tree (which that night had been their pavilion) they went on their journey, which by-and-by welcomed Musidorus' eyes (wearied with the wasted soil of Laconia) with welcome prospects. There were hills which garnished their proud heights with stately trees : humble valleys whose base estate seemed comforted with the refreshing of silver rivers; meadows enamelled with all sorts of eye-pleasing flowers; thickets, which being lined with most pleasant shade were witnessed so to, by the cheerful disposition of many well-tuned birds; each pasture stored with sheep feeding with sober security, while the pretty lambs, with bleating oratory craved the dam's comfort; here a shepherd's boy piping, as though he should never be old : there a young shepherdess knitting, and withal singing, and it seemed that her voice comforted her hands to work, and her hands kept time to her voice-music. As for the houses of the country (for many houses came under their eye) they were scattered, no two being one by the other, and yet not so far off, as that it barred mutual succour; a show, as it were, of an accompaniable solitariness, and of a civil wildness. I pray you, said Musidorus (then first unsealing his long-silent lips), what countries be these we pass through, which are so divers in show, the one wanting no store, the other having no store but of want? The country, answered Claius, where you were cast ashore, and now are passed through, is Laconia; but this country (where you now set your foot) is Arcadia."
One would think the very name might have lulled his senses to delightful repose in some still, lonely valley, and have laid the restless spirit of Gothic quaintness, witticism, and conceit in the lap of classic elegance and pastoral simplicity. Here are images, too, of touching beauty and everlasting truth that needed nothing but to be simply and nakedly expressed to have made a picture equal (nay superior) to the allegorical representation of • The Four Seasons of Life,' by Giorgione. But no! He can. not let his imagination, or that of the reader, dwell for a moment on the beauty or power of the real object. He thinks nothing is done, unless it is his doing. He must officiously and gratui. tously interpose between you and the subject, as the Cicerone of Nature, distracting the eye and the mind by continual uncalled-for interruptions, analyzing, dissecting, disjointing, murder. ing everything, and reading a pragmatical, self-sufficient lecture over the dead body of nature. The moving-spring of his mind is not sensibility or imagination, but dry, literal, unceasing craving after intellectual excitement, which is indifferent to pleasure or pain, to beauty or deformity, and likes to owe everything to its own perverse efforts, rather than the sense of power in other things. It constantly interferes to perplex and neutralize. It never leaves the mind in a wise passiveness. In the infancy of taste, the froward pupils of art took nature to pieces, as spoiled children do a watch, to see what was in it. After taking it to pieces they could not, with all their cunning, put it together again, so as to restore circulation to the heart, or its living hue to the face! The quaint and pedantic style here objected to was not, however, the natural growth of untutored fancy, but an artificial excrescence transferred from logic and rhetoric to poetry. It was not owing to the excess of imagination, but of the want of it, that is, to the predominance of the mere understanding or dialectic faculty over the imaginative and the sensitive. It is, in fact, poetry degenerating at every step into prose, sentiment entangling itself into a controversy, from the habitual leaven of polemics and casuistry in the writer's mind. The poet insists upon matters of fact from the beauty or grandeur that accompanies them; our prose-poet insists upon them because they are matters of fact, and buries the beauty and grandeur in a heap