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theregions of fiction—regulating the niceties of murder like the decorums of a dance—with an amiable preference for his own religion and country!
These notions, however absurd, result from an indistinct sense, of a peculiar dignity and grandeur essential to tragedy—and surely this feeling was not altogether deceptive. Some there are, indeed, who trace the emotions of strange delight which tragedy awakens entirely to the love of strong excitement, which is gratified by spectacles of anguish. According to their doctrine, the more nearly the representation of sorrow approaches reality, the more intense will be the gratification of the spectator. Thus Burke has gravely asserted, that if the audience at a tragedy were informed of an execution about to take place in the neighbourhood, they would leave the theatre to witness it. We believe that experience does not warrant a speculation so dishonourable to our nature. How few, except those of the grossest minds, are ever attracted by the punishment of capital offenders! Even of those whom the dreadful infliction draws together, how many are excited merely by curiosity, and a desire to view that last mortal agony, which in a form more or less terrible all must endure! We think that if, during the representation of a tragedy, the audience were compelled to feel vividly that a fellow-creature was struggling in the agonies of a violent death, many of them would retire—but not to the scene of horror. The reality of human suffering would come too closely home to their hearts, to permit their enjoyment of the fiction. How often, during the scenic exhibition of intolerable agony—unconsecrated and unredeemed—have we been compelled to relieve our hearts from a weight too heavy for endurance, by calling to mind that the woes are fictitious! It cannot be the highest triumph of an author, whose aim is to heighten the enjoyments of life, that he forces us, in our own defence, to escape from his power. If the pleasure derived from tragedy were merely occasioned by the love of excitement, the pleasure would be in proportion to the depth and the reality of the sorrow. Then would The Gamester be more pathetic than Othello, and Isabella call forth deeper admiration than Macbeth or Lear. Then would George Barnwell be the loftiest tragedy, and the Newgate Calendar the sweetest collection of pathetic tales. To name those instances, is sufficiently to refute the position on which they are founded.
Equally false is the opinion, that the pleasure derived from tragedy arises from a source of individual security, while others are suffering. There are no feelings more distantly removed from the selfish, than those which genuine tragedy awakens. We are carried at its representation out of ourselves, and " the ignorant present time," by earnest sympathy with the passions and the sorrows, not of ourselves, but of our nature. We feel our community with the general heart of man. The encrustments of selfishness and low passion are rent asunder, and the warm tide of human sympathies gushes triumphantly from its secret and divine sources.
It is not, then, in bringing sorrow home in its dreadful realities to our bosoms, nor in painting it so as to make us cling to our selfish gratifications with more earnest joy, that the tragic poet moves and enchants us. Grief is but the means—the necessary means indeed—by which he accomplishes his lofty purposes. The grander qualities of the soul cannot be developed—the deepest resources of comfort within it cannot be unveiled—the solemnities of its destiny cannot be shadowed forth—except in peril and in suffering. Hence peril and suffering become instruments of the Tragic Muse. But these are not, in themselves, those things which we delight to contemplate. Various, iudeed, yet most distinct from these, are the sources of that deep joy that tragedy produces. Sometimes we are filled with a delight not dissimilar to that which theLaocoon excites—an admiration of the more than mortal beauty of the attitudes and of the finishing—and even of the terrific sublimity of the folds in which the links of fate involve the characters. When we look at that inimitable group, we do not merely rejoice in a sympathy with extreme suffering—but are enchanted with tender loveliness, and feel that the sense of distress is softened by the exquisite touches of genius. Often in tragedy, our hearts are elevated by thoughts " informed with nobleness" —by the view of heroic greatness of soul—by the contemplation of affections which death cannot conquer. It is not the depth of anguish which calls forth delicious tears—it is some sweet piece of self-denial—some touch of human gentleness, in the midst of sorrow—some " glorious triumph of exceeding love," which suffuses our " subdued eyes," and mellows and softens our hearts. Death itself often becomes the source of sublime consolations: seen through the poetical medium, it often seems to fall on the wretched " softly and lightly, as a passing cloud." It is felt as the blessed means of re-uniting faithful and ill-fated lovers—it is the pillow on which the long struggling patriot rests in undying glory. Often it exhibits the noblest triumph of the spiritual over the material part of man. The intense ardour of a spirit that " o'er-inform'd its tenement of clay," yet more quenchless in the last conflict, is felt to survive the struggle, and to triumph even in the victory which power has atchieved over its earthly frame. In short, it is the high duty of the tragic poet to exhibit humanity sublimest in its distresses—to dignify or to sweeten sorrow—to exhibit eternal energies wrestling with each other, or with the accidents of the world—and to disclose the depth and the immortality of the affections. He must represent humanity as a rock, beaten, and sometimes overspread, with the mighty waters of anguish, but still unshaken. We look to him for hopes, principles, resting places of the soul—for emotions which dignify our passions, and consecrate our woes. A brief retrospect of tragedy will shew, that in every age when it has triumphed, it has appealed not to the mere love of excitement, but to the perceptions of beauty in the soul—to the yearnings of the deepest affections—to the aspirations after grandeur and permanence, which never leave man even in his errors and afflictions.
Nothing could be more dignified or stately than the old tragedy of the Greeks. Its characters were demi-gods, or heroes; its subjects were often the destinies of those lines of the mighty, which had their beginning among the eldest deities. So far, in the developement of their plots, were the poets from appealing to mere sensibility, that they scarcely deigned to awaken an anxious throb, or draw forth a human tear. In their works, we see the catastrophe from the beginning, and feel its influence at every step, as we advance majestically along the solemn avenue which it closes. There is little struggle; the doom of the heroes is fixed on high, and they pass, in sublime composure, to fulfil their destiny. Their sorrows are awful,—their deaths religious sacrifices to the power of heaven. The glory that plays about their heads, is the prognostic of their fate. A consecration is shed over their brief and sad career, which takes away all the ordinary feelings of suffering. Their afflictions are sacred, their passions inspired by the gods, their fates prophesied in elder time, their deaths almost festal. All things are tinged with sanctity or with beauty in the Greek tragedies. Bodily pain is made sublime; destitution and wretchedness are rendered sacred; and the very grove of the Furies is represented as ever fresh and green. How grand is the suffering of Prometheus,—how sweet the resolution of Antigone,—how appalling, yet how magnificent, the last vision of Cassandra,—how reconciling and tender, yet how mysteriously awful, the death of CEdipus! And how rich a poetic atmosphere do the Athenian poets breathe over all the creations of their genius! Their exquisite groups appear, in all the venerableness of hoar antiquity; yet in the distinctness and in the bloom of unfading youth. All the human figures are seen, sublime in attitude, and exquisite in finishing; while, in the dim back ground, appear the shapes of eldest gods, and the solemn abstractions of life, fearfully embodied—" Death the skeleton, and time the shadow!" Surely there is something more in all this, than a vivid picture of the sad realities of our human existence.
The Romans excelled not in tragedy, because their love of mere excitement was too keen to permit them to enjoy it. They had "supped full of horrors." Familiar with the thoughts of real slaughter, they could not endure the philosophic and poetic view of distress in which it is softened and made sacred. Their imaginations were too practical for a genuine poet to affect. Hence, in the plays which bear the name of Seneca, horrors are heaped on horrors— the most unpleasing of the Greek fictions (as that of Medea) are re-written and made ghastly—and every touch that might redeem and soften is carefully effaced by the poet. Still the grandeur of old tragedy is there—still " the gorgeous pall comes sweeping by"—still the dignity survives, though the beauty has faded.
In the productions of Shakespear, doubtless tragedy was devested of something of its external grandeur. The mythology of the ancient world had lost its living charm. Its heroic forms remained, indeed, unimpaired in beauty or grace, in the distant regions of the imagination; but they could no longer occupy the foreground of poetry. Men required forms of flesh and blood, animated by human passion, and awakening human sympathy. Shakespear, therefore, sought for his materials nearer to common humanity than the elder bards. He took also, in each play, a far wider range than they had dared to occupy. He does not, therefore, convey so completely as they did one grand harmonious feeling, by each of his works. But who shall affirm, that the tragedy of Shakespear has not an elevation of its own, or that it produces pleasure only by exhibiting spectacles of varied anguish? The reconciling power of his imagination, and the genial influences of his philosophy, are ever softening and consecrating sorrow. He scatters the rainbow hues of fancy over objects in themselves repulsive. He nicely developes the "soul of goodness in things evil" to console and to delight us. He blends all the most glorious imagery of nature with the passionate expressions of affliction. He sometimes in a single image expresses an intense sentiment in all its depth, yet identifies it with the widest and the grandest objects of creation. Thus he makes Timon, in the bitterness of his soul, set up his tomb on the beached shore, that the wave of the ocean may once a day cover him with its embossed foam—expanding an individual feeling into the extent of the vast and eternal sea; yet making us feel it as more intense, from the very sublimity of the image. The mind can always rest without anguish on his catastrophes, however mournful. Sad as the story of Romeo and Juliet is, it does not lacerate or tear the heart, but relieves it of its weight by awakening sweet tears. Their joys, indeed, are nipped in early blossom; but the flower that is softly shed on the earth, yet puts forth undying odours. We shriek not at their tomb, which we feel has set a seal on their loves and virtues, but almost long with them there "to set up our everlasting rest." We do not feel unmingled agony at the death of Lear;—when his aged heart, which has beaten so fearfully, is at rest—and his withered frame, late o'er-infornied with terrific energy, reposes with his pious child. We are not shocked and harrowed even when Hamlet falls ; for we feel that he is unfit for the bustle of this world, and his own gentle contemplations on death have deprived it of its terrors. In Shakespear, the passionate is always steeped in the beautiful. Sometimes he diverts sorrow with tender conceits, which, like little fantastic rocks, break its streams into sparkling cascades and circling eddies. And when it must flow on deep and still, he bends over it branching foliage and graceful flowers—whose leaves are seen in its dark bosom, all of one sober and harmonious hue—but in their clearest form and most delicate proportions.
The other dramatists of Shakespear's age, deprived like him of classical resources, and far inferior to him in imagination and wisdom, strove to excite a deep interest by the wildness of their plots, and the strangeness of the incidents with which their scenes were crowded. Their bloody tragedies are, however, often relieved by passages of exquisite sweetness. Their terrors, not humanized like those of Shakespear, are yet far removed from the vulgar or disgusting. Sometimes, amidst the gloom of continued crimes, which often follow each other in stern and awful succession, are fair pictures of more than earthly virtue, tinted with the dews of heaven, and encircled with celestial glories. The scene in The Broken Heart, where Calantha amidst the festal crowd, receives the news of the successive deaths of those dearest to her in the world, yet dances on—and that in which she composedly settles all the affairs of her empire, and then dies smiling by the body of her contracted lord—are in the loftiest spirit of tragedy. They combine the dignity and majestic suffering of the ancient drama, with the intenseness of the modern.