網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

Immortality furnish few such instances; and all we know of the works that she has hitherto marked with her seal, sufficiently authorize the position,--that nothing great and durable has ever been produced with ease, and that labour is the parent of all the lasting wonders of this world, whether in verse or stone, whether poetry or pyramids.” Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, tells us that even the fluent Scott used often to correct very carefully. The Shepherd had seen several of the poet's manuscripts that had numerous corrections and additions on the alternate white page.

When a man feels that he is writing for posterity, and that the propriety of almost every separate thought and expression will be canvassed and criticised throughout succeeding ages, it is no wonder that he should be scrupulous and careful. Those who merely write on some subject of the day, or for newspapers and other ephemeral publications, have neither time nor occasion for such severity of toil; their articles are usually read as hurriedly and as carelessly as they are written.

This is the golden age of periodicals, and though I should be the last to dispute the numerous and great advantages of this species of publication, I confess that I think it has an injurious effect on some of the higher branches of our literature. The genius that should be devoted to works of permanent importance is now often frittered away in divided and hasty contributions to miscellanies of temporary interest. As rapidity and punctuality are great recommendations in a contributor,-as the scale of remuneration is regulated more by the quantity than the quality of their articles,—and as they are generally published without a genuine signature, and therefore do not involve the repu. tation of the writer, it is not surprising that terseness, or polish, or condensation of style is never looked for, and rarely met with, in the pages of even the most respectable of our literary periodicals. They exhibit, on the contrary, a vicious redundance of phraseology, and a reckless disdain of all those gentler or severer charms which have cast such an air of immortality about our best English Classics.

The great majority of our prose fictions are so melodramatic and over-wrought, that they have few attractions for a reader of true taste. They indicate, however, the lethargic and unhealthy condition of the public mind, which requires such coarse and strong excitement that the productions which enchanted it half a century ago are now regarded as tame and spiritless. If such a sweet little cabinet picture as the Vicar of Wakefield (so exqui. sitely finished—so full of character-so thoroughly English) were now published, for the first time, it would probably meet with the most contemptuous neglect. Its size alone would be a bar to its popularity. Literature has become a matter of measurement. Every prose fiction is expected to be a work in three volumes, post octavo. The publisher gives an order to one of his literary tradesmen to send him by a given time a novel of the fashionable size. He knows that if it exceeded or fell short of the prescribed dimensions, the effect would be quite as fatal to its success as any failure connected with its claims as a literary composition. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, in the first place, that the externals or corporeal part of a novel should be of a particular size and character, and in the next, that its spirit and diction should be wild, startling, and inflated. The public have now so accustomed themselves to a kind of morbid excitement in literature, that they have lost all relish for the quiet simplicity of truth and nature. However, it is quite impossible that this should last

All artificial stimulants are succeeded by a strong re-action, and an indulgence in a taste for the intoxicating ingredients of our present literature, is as bad as a habit of opium-eating. The public will soon become sick of fierce and gloomy Byronisms, and discover that they are but ill adapted to improve the taste and judgment. They must ultimately return to simpler and nobler models. It will then be acknowledg

much longer.

ed as an undeniable truth, that contortions and convulsions are not always indications of spirit and power, and that force and profundity of mind are quite consistent with a chaste propriety of style.

When we revert to the dignity of Milton, and the grace and amenity of Goldsmith, the manly vigour of Dryden, and the point and elegance of Pope, the weighty sententiousness of Johnson, and the purity, the refinement and the quiet humour of Addison, we feel how much English literature has suffered by the present popular demand for a species of poetry at once metaphysical and melodramatic, and for crude, flippant and shallow criticisms, and flashy and turgid essays. I do not entirely coincide with Lord Byron in his estimate of the poetical character of Pope. When he places him by implication above Shakspeare and Milton, he is guilty of an extravagance that makes us question his sincerity. But the “ little Nightingale” of Twickenham has certainly been as much underrated by others as he has been overrated by Lord Byron. Pope is not in the first rank of English poets, which includes the four great names of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare and Milton; but he and Dryden (for it is difficult to settle their rival claims) are indisputably at the head of the second.

The peculiarities of one class of literature have almost always a direct or indirect effect upon all others of the same period. The rapid, inflated and redundant prose of the present age, corresponds with the similar characteristics of its poetry. It is true that Wordsworth and Coleridge may seem in some respects exceptions, and they have been censured for very opposite faults. But extremes meet. The style of both of these poets is occasionally as diffuse, tumid and gorgeous, as at other times it is simple and bare. No one can be insensible to the real greatness of these writers, (the former unquestionably the first poet of his time,) but they do not so dazzle us with excess of light as to blind us to their defects. They have neglected to concentrate their powers, and have scorned to subject themselves to that severe

self-discipline which is so necessary to success in the noble struggle for immortality. Even Campbell and Rogers, though in their earlier works they showed a due respect to the public, and an anxious and judicious regard to their own fame, have lately deserted their classical models, and have fallen into the vices of the new school. The Theodricof the one, and theItalyof the other, are equally unworthy of the authors, and are so different from the style of their better days, that had these works been published anonymously, Campbell and Rogers are the two last names with which the public would have connected them. They are verbose and feeble.

Mere rapidity and voluminousness are now commonly mistaken for proofs of the power and fruitfulness of genius. The Dutchman, who considered his brother a great poet because he had written a book as big as a cheese, was not more ludicrously opposed to the true principles of criticism, than are many of our periodical reviewers*. They pronounce him only a great poet who has produced a bulky volume, and reverse the old saying that a great book is a great evil. It is the small volume of modest and unpresuming appearance that is most offensive. When Gray first published his poems, they were so brief, and so few in number, that to give his work the appearance of a volume he was obliged to swell it out by printing on one side only of the pages. If it had been brought into juxta-position with the gigantic and bloated quartos of these times, it would have looked more like the ghost of a book than a genuine volume. Were a work of such Lilliputian exterior now published, the author would be laughed at for supposing that it could attract the slightest attention.

* This Dutchman, then, a man of taste,

Holding a cheese that weighed a hundred pound,
Thus like a burgomaster, spoke with judgment vast-
No poet like my broder step de ground:

He be de bestest poet, look!
Dat all de world must please;
For he heb vrite von book,
So big as all dis cheese!'

Peter Pindar.

As 'tis a greater mystery in the art
Of painting to foreshorten any part
Than draw it out, so 'tis in books the chief
Of all perfections to be plain and brief.

Butler.

In literature, as in every thing else, quality and not quantity is the true test of excellence; and though the remark is a mere truism, it is not the less called for. There may be more wealth in a lady's jewel-box than in a merchant's ware-house, and there is more poetry and thought in five couplets of Pope than in ten cantos of Sir Richard Blackmore. Voluminous and diffuse writers are rarely the favorites of fame. The greater number of those who flourished in former times are now utterly forgotten. Posterity examines unwieldy luggage with a severe and jealous eye, and seems glad of an excuse to toss it into the waves of Lethe. The few voluminous writers whose works still exist, would have been forgotten also, had they not been as careful as they were copious. What a vast crowd of prolific scribblers have these great and happy men survived ! How many thousands have been buried under the weight of their own lumber!

So far from mere voluminousness being the effect of superior power, it is an undoubted truth that every writer of a condensed style could be as diffuse as he pleases, if he were not anxious about the quality of his materials. The converse of this will not hold. Blackmore could not have compressed his thoughts like Pope, but Pope, had he been willing to degrade and sacrifice his genius, might have been quite as diffuse as Blackmore.

Against much that has been already said, it may perhaps be urged that a rich soil is characterized by a speedy and abundant vegetation. I admit it ; but this soil must be cultivated with incessant care, or it will soon be covered with a rank luxuriance

« 上一頁繼續 »