« 上一頁繼續 »
He pronounced the versification of Spenser inferior to that of Waller. He had a profound respect for Rymer, whom he calls
a great critic.” This great critic is now only known to a few readers of literary history by his audacious and absurd attack upon Shakespeare's plays, especially of Othello, which he elegantly styles
a bloody farce without salt or savour,” and which can only fill the head with “vanity, confusion, tintamarre, and jinglejangle.” There is nothing,” he says, “ in the noble Desdemona, that is not below any kitchen maid-no woman bred out of a pigstye could talk so meanly.” “In the neighing of a horse,” says this “great critic," " or in the growling of a mastiff, there is as much meaning, there is as lively expression, and may I say more humanity, than many times in the tragical flights of Shakespeare." That Dryden should have respected the judgment of such a critic as this is strange indeed. I think Rymer even exceeds Voltaire in abusive hostility to our Prince of Dramatists. The French poetcritic, as every Englishman remembers, has spoken of Shakespeare's “monstrous farces called tragedies,” and wondered that a nation which had produced Cato (Addison's collection of cold and stilted dialogues in the dramatic form), should tolerate such plays as Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello! But if Voltaire has done British genius a gross injustice, he has suffered something in return. Gray declared that Voltaire (except as a writer of plays) was entirely without genius. Neither could he perceive any talent whatever in Rousseau's Nouvelle Heloise. He spoke in a similar strain of several British authors. He said that David Hume had continued all his days an infant, but had, unhappily, been taught to read and write. He saw no merit in Thompson's exquisite Castle of Indolence; and he thought Collins deficient in imagery! “ He (Collins) deserves,” said he,“ to live some years, but will not.” It would seem that the time has long gone by, when
“ The sacred name Of poet and of prophet was the same."
Gray, in his verses to the artist who embellished an edition of his poems, very oddly inverts the merits of Pope and Dryden ; by speaking of the energy of the first and the melody of the second.
To the list of bad critics I am compelled to add the name of Collins, for he has ventured to assert in his Epistle to Sir Thomas Hanmer, that Fletcher excelled Shakespeare in the illustration of female tenderness.
strain the smiles and graces own, But stronger Shakespeare felt for man alone. It would be a waste of words to expose this egregious error, though I believe Collins only echoes Dryden. Gifford in his edition of Massinger almost repeats them both. He contends that Fletcher is at least as pathetic as Shakespeare. The pathos of Lear does not seem to have touched the author of the “ Baviad and Mæviad,” a coarse and savage satire in which helpless women are insulted, and " butterflies are broken on a wheel.” But in Gifford's estimation, not only is Fletcher at least Shakespeare's equal in pathos, but Beaumont is as sublime, Ben Jonson as nervous, and Massinger superior in rhythmical modulation. The sole point of unrivalled excellence that he leaves to Shakespeare is his wit! and yet Gifford was for many years one of our leading critics! We ought not to be surprised that he pronounced Hazlitt a dull-headed blockhead, and that he could discover neither genius nor common sense in Keats and Shelley. According to Gifford, "the predominating character of Mr. Shelley's poetry is its frequent and total want of meaning." “ It is not too much to affirm,” he says, (in speaking of the Prometheus, &c.) “ that in the whole volume there is not one original image of nature, one simple expression of human feeling, or one new association of the appearances of the moral with those of the material world.”
There is a strange coincidence of opinion between those two great critics, Rymer and Gifford. “ Shakespeare's genius,” says the former, “ lay for comedy and humour. In tragedy he appears “ Hayley
quite out of his element; his brains are turned—he raves and rambles about without any coherence, any spark of reason, or any rule to control him, to set bounds to his phrensy."
Anna Seward, a poetess of some note in her time, and still spoken of with respect by Southey, ranked Darwin and Hayley amongst the greatest of our bards. Of the former she thus writes : “ He knew that his verse would live to distant ages ; but he also knew that it would survive by the slowly accumulating suffrages of kindred genius when contemporary jealousy had ceased to operate.” How vainly did the poet lay this flattering unction to his soul, and how completely was Anna Seward mistaken in all her sympathetic anticipations of her friend's future fame! Of the feeble and half forgotten Hayley, she speaks with even greater warmth, and in a style of prophecy which the lapse of a very few years has rendered absolutely ludicrous. is indeed a true poet. He has the fire and energy of Dryden with out his absurdity, (!!) and he has the wit and ease of Prior.(!) His beautiful Epistles on Painting-far even above these, his Essay on Epic Poetry, together with the fine Ode to Howard, will be considered as amongst the first Delphic ornaments of the 18th century.” But even Cowper thought highly of Hayley and Darwin ;-and Miss Seward was not a worse critic than the
true poet,” whose productions are amongst the first Delphic ornaments of the eighteenth century." In one of Hayley's letters to her, in alluding to Burns, he compares him to some obscure and humble versifier who had gained her patronage. “ I admire the Scottish Peasant,” says he, but I do not think him superior to your poetical carpenter” !!
Burns himself had a most extravagant opinion of Fergusson as a poet, whom he preferred to Allan Ramsay. Thomas Warton, though a great admirer of Milton's genius, thought nature had not blessed the divine old bard with an ear for verse. Akenside, who, observes Johnson, upon a poetical question, has a right to
be heard, said that “ he would regulate his opinion of the reigning taste by the fate of Dyer's Fleece ; for if that were ill received, he should not think it any longer reasonable to expect fame from excellence.” The prophecy of some wit in allusion to this poem that Dyer would be buried in his own wool, would have been fulfilled almost to the letter, if it were not for his Grongar Hill,” on which he still breathes the vital air. Scott of Amwell, the Quaker poet, made a desperate attempt to rescue the " Fleece" from oblivion, and vainly endeavoured to persuade the public that it is much superior to the Grongar Hill.
Addison, who has been so much praised for his critique on Milton, was after all but another example of the fallibility of poetical critics. In his versified Account of the greatest English Poets,” he omits all allusion to Shakespeare, but praises Roscommon as the best of critics and of Poets too !” After having taken due notice of numerous “great” poets, he recollects that “ justice demands one labour more.”
“ The noble Montague remains unnamed."
That Shakespeare was unnamed was of little consequence! But though the critic and poet was, as he elegantly expresses himself,
“ Tired with rhyming, and would fain give o'er," he would have deemed himself highly blame-worthy had he omitted Montague! His list of great poets would have been deplorably incomplete ! Though he is so enraptured with Montague, he says little in favor of Chaucer or Spenser. Of the former he observes,
“ In vain he jests in his unpolished strain;"
and of the latter he tells us, that though his tales ainused a barbarous age,” (the age of Shakespeare, Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, Beaumont, and Fletcher, &c. &c. !)
“ An age as yet uncultivate and rude,"
That he is no longer to be tolerated ;
But now the mystic tale that charmed of yore
Can charm an understanding age no more. It is difficult to say whether the poetry or the criticism of this account be the most contemptible, and some readers may be disposed to exclude Addison altogether from the list of poet-critics; but whatever was the character of his verse, it is certain that there was a truly poetical spirit in some of his Virgilian prose. His Vision of Mirza is conceived with the fancy of a poet, and conducted with consummate taste and judgment. How exquisitely fresh and oriental is the opening scene on the high hill of Bagdat, where we are introduced to the celestial visitant who plays on a musical instrument the sound of which was “exceeding sweet, and wrought into a variety of tunes that were inexpressibly melodious." And how truly poetical is the unexpected close, in which the dream of Mirza is suddenly yet softly broken, and he awakes to a beautiful reality :
“At length, said I, shew me now, I beseech thee, the secrets that lie hid under those dark clouds which cover the ocean on either side of the rock of adamant. The Genius making me no answer, I turned again to the vision which I had been so long contemplating: but instead of the rolling tide, the arched bridge, and the happy islands, I saw nothing but the long hollow valley of Bagdat, with axen, sheep and camels, grazing upon the sides of it.”
Here is the imagery and the music of a true poet. It is a pity that Addison ever wrote in verse.
I begin to grow weary of my somewhat ungrateful task, but I must hurry on with a few further illustrations, entirely the fruits of casual reading. Many who peruse this essay may have met with examples still more striking than those which my own imperfect memory can supply; but I feel bound to support my views with all the facts that are immediately within my reach. I remember meeting (some sixteen or twenty years ago), with a brief letter on a similar subject in one of our home-periodicals, I