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light of less gifted spirits. It will now scarcely admit of dispute that Kean, whatever might have been his personal failings, was the prince of modern tragedians. He had no rival near his throne. The John Kemble school is no longer the standard of Dramatic excellence. The school of Kean is the school of Shakespeare, or of nature, for these are almost convertible terms. The spirit of our great Bard in his moods of impetuous passion or profound tenderness was but ill represented by the deliberate and studied precision of John Kemble. The praise of fine taste and scholarship cannot be denied him, but he was rather a great rhetorician than a great actor. He consulted his head, when he should have trusted to his heart*.
The Dramatic revolution, of which Kean was the originator and the guide, is correspondent with that vast change in the state and tone of our literature, which has thrown many writers, once the idols of the public, into comparative obscurity or disrepute. The cautious elegance, the scholastic accuracy, the smart antithesis, the wit and terseness of the poets of the eighteenth century, are qualities of an inferior order in the estimation of the poets and critics of these times. There is a disposition to recur to the unaffected diction and the free and forcible nature of the Dramatic writers in the reign of Elizabeth, the true Augustan era of British literature. The poets of that period, if less correct than their successors, in certain points of style, were more correct in spirit. The bards of the present age, like the kings of our elder drama, are ambitious to cultivate in themselves a noble consciousness of their own powers, and a generous confidence in nature.
* Mrs. Siddons was a person of a different stamp, and was certainly superior to the rest of her family, eminent and accomplished as they were.
“ Her soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.” Perhaps she may be thought by some to have belonged to the same school ; but if she did, she was so indisputably at the head of it, that she was not fettered by its rules. She was indeed a Tragic Queen, and could dare in her own person to make such glorious excursions into the realms of nature, as often startled the less adventurous spirits by whom she was surrounded.
Such an actor as Kean, a genius so untrammelled by ordinary rules, so ready to snatch a grace beyond the reach of art, and to follow his author into the profoundest depths of human passion, would have gratified even Shakespeare himself. The mighty magician of the Drama would have been proud of a representative at once so daring and so faithful.
This great tragedian's last performance was in the part of Othello. His first appearance on the London stage was in that of Shylock. He performed it on the first night in an almost empty theatre. The town was for a considerable time much divided upon his merit. His style was too great a change from what the public had been accustomed to regard as a model in the person of John Kemble, to suffer them to appreciate it entirely and at once.
The friends of the old school were naturally alarmed at so bold an innovator, and there was a fierce conflict amongst the critics as to the relative merits of the old favorite and the new one.
I will not attempt a minute critical analysis of the peculiar qualities of Kean's splendid genius as an actor, because it would be utterly beyond my power to do it justice; for those who have witnessed the performances of that powerful tragedian, would find even the ablest description of him vague, faint, and unsatisfactory, when compared with their own vivid recollections; and to attempt to represent him to others, would be almost as idle as to describe visible objects to the blind.
NO. XIV.-WORDSWORTH. This writer, it must be confessed, is a little too exclusive in his taste, and occasionally carries an excellent principle to an extreme almost as pernicious as the error to which it is opposed. He is so thoroughly disgusted with the vapid common-places of the
imitators of the French School, that he thinks he cannot get too far from their models. He would rather speak like a clown than a Rosa Matilda. Of two evils he would choose what he thinks the least. But though there is a medium between the diction of the barn and the boudoir which he has sometimes missed, and in his eagerness to avoid an old and popular error has fallen into a new and a repulsive one, he is not to be characterized by his few failures, but by his general success. His expressions are plain, but not coarse.
He maintains, and with abundant reason, that lan. guage need not be vulgar, because it is simple and unpretending. He has chosen humble subjects, and endeavoured to assimilate his language to the real language of men in ordinary life. He feels that nothing human can be too lowly for the purposes of poetry, and that natural thoughts are best expressed in natural language. His thoughts, though clear, are profound, and often most philosophical and original when they appear most trite and obvious to vulgar apprehension. It has been justly observed that there is often an internal power, with an absence of external ornament and pretension, in his poetry, which is not to be found in that of any other living writer ; and this accounts for the indifference of the superficial reader, and the enthusiasm approaching almost to adoration, with which he is regarded by the careful and ingenuous student of the “ art divine.” Wordsworth is not likely to become a very popular poet, though portions of his writings will probably hereafter be more extensively known and be better appreciated by ordinary readers than they are at present. Many of his fine aphorisms, and some of his more obvious beauties of thought and style, will in time be familiarized to the public mind by repeated quotations. The great popularity of Scott as a poet, on his first appearance, was chiefly owing to the interest of his narratives. When the incidents became familiar, the verse in which they were embodied lost half its charm. He was not, like Wordsworth, the poet's poet. His metrical tales were never highly esteemed by those who love poetry for its own sake. He was conscious of this, and spoke humbly of his own genius as a poet, but with a proud and just consciousness of his wondrous and unrivalled power as a novelist. Genuine poetry is never stale ; every new perusal is accompanied with a fresh delight and an additional store of pleasant associations. Those, however, who can really enjoy the pure spirit of poetry, wholly unmixed with baser matter, form a very small class indeed. To make it popular without the aid of narrative, it is necessary to season it highly with glittering conceits, turgid truisms, and strong excitements.
The majority of critics estimate more highly the value of contemporary applause as an indication of future fame than general experience warrants. If sale alone were a criterion of the value of a work, Harriette Wilson's detestable Memoirs and many similar productions, would rank quite as high as any thing that has yet proceeded from the noblest pens. Before we look upon immediate applause as the slightest argument in favor of a writer's performances, there are many other circumstances that should be taken into consideration,—the subject—the author's style—and the character of the age. There are some subjects that in their own nature are so attractive to large classes of readers, that the feeblest handling cannot well abate their influence, particularly if they are brought forward at the proper
There are other topics, on the contrary, that cannot be rendered widely popular by the greatest genius. Sometimes mere novelty of subject will do more for an author's temporary success than the greatest merit of style or thought. They who maintain that popularity is the test of merit should reconcile the vast success of Scott's poetry on its first publication, when he was looked upon as the English Homer, with the comparative neglect with which his metrical tales are now treated. If they were great poems on their first publication, they must be equally
meritorious now, though their popularity has wholly passed away. If any man were to publish at this day poems of similar character and equal merit, they would hardly run through a single edition. All the world at one time esteemed Scott a greater poet than Wordsworth, but who thinks so now? Opinions have changed, but the things remain the same.
There is a class of works for which an immediate but not permanent popularity is naturally expected, while there are others for which no popularity, but a slowly-coming though lasting fame, is all that is ever looked for or desired. If we glance over the records of literature, we shall meet with the titles of innumer. able books that, in their brief day, were eagerly devoured by the whole reading world, but which are now utterly forgotten; or if occasionally met with and perused, are thrown away again with a deep feeling of disgust, and an expression of astonishment that they should ever have given satisfaction to a single human being. Great authors have rarely been popular, because they have gone beyond the age or beyond the general intellect. Bacon and Milton were never popular, and never will be. They are truly interesting only to thinkers and men of imagination, and these form the fit audience though few. On the authority of the critics the multitude have faith in these gods of intellect. They blindly worship them from a sense of duty, and not from any impulse of affection. The history of literature furnishes us with comparatively so few instances of contemporary popularity being succeeded by a permanent fame, and so many striking cases of a sudden blaze of success being as suddenly extinguished, and of neglected merit forcing its way slowly into lasting distinction, that we have always thought it highly unphilosophical to draw any positive conclusions from the public reception of new works.
Wordsworth is not an Epic poet, nor has he the Dramatic faculty. This is the reason why he has in some respects failed in his “ Excursion,” which is neither an Epic nor a Dramatic