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It is but fair to presume from the following compliment, (a very awkward one if not well founded,) that Massinger did not himself pretend to an equality with the greatest of his contemporaries.
“ You are not, I assure
With too much weight, ruin what it would raise.” In fact, Massinger's modesty is placed beyond a doubt by the fact, that the same poetical friend subsequently wrote a similar address to him, in which he says, somewhat inconsistently with his first epistle : “ You remember how you
I did but justice when I placed you so.” Perhaps after all, Mr. Gifford's fault was not so much an undue partiality as defective judgment. For though an acute and clever critic within a certain limit, and endowed with a quick sense of the lesser proprieties, the minor morals of literature, he had not a true relish of poetical excellence of the highest order. He would have written a better essay on Pope than on Shakespeare. As a critic he was of the school of Johnson, who wrote so much more ably on Dryden than on Milton. He was readier at the
discovery of slight errors than of great beauties. He was a kind of legal critic, who deemed it more his business and found it a more congenial task to discover a flaw or condemn an infraction of certain arbitrary laws, than to recognize and applaud those noble but irregular virtues that rise above them. He had evidently no sympathy for those poets
“ Who snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.”
When he criticised the poetry of Shelley, he could discover not a single indication of sense or genius in the rich and wild imaginings of that daring genius. · To him it was a midnight chaos, fitfully illumined by unwholesome meteors-a darkness visible, that served only to discover dismal vapours and demoniac phantoms. A critic of this sort is precisely the kind of person to prefer Massinger to Shakespeare. Mr. Monk Mason had remarked the general harmony of the former's versification, which he pronounced superior to that of any other writer with the exception of the generally acknowledged monarch of the English Drama. Mr. Gifford most unreasonably objects to this exception and asserts that rhythmical modulation is not in the list of Shakespeare's merits! He thinks that Shakespeare has been overrated; that Beaumont is as sublime, Fletcher as pathetic, and Jonson as nervous ; and that wit is the only quality by which he is raised above all competitors ! Here is a critic that would hare pleased Voltaire. It would have been amusing enough if Mr. Gifford had been compelled to give a reason for the faith that was in him. He would have afforded a strong illustration of the absurdity and presumption of a mere satirist-an acute faultfinder
“ A word-catcher that lives on syllables,"
attempting to take the measure of such a gigantic mind as that of Shakespeare. It is not difficult to understand why a critic who counts syllables upon his fingers should prefer the verse of
Massinger to that of Shakespeare. It is more uniformly smooth, correct, and regular. But it has nothing of the freedom, the variety and expression that characterize the voice of
“ Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warbling his native wood-notes wild.” I wish not to underrate the real merit of Massinger's versification. The march of his verse is noble and majestic, and his diction is singularly pure and perspicuous. The latter has quite a modern air, though written two hundred years ago. Perhaps both his nietre and his diction are preferable to those of Jonson; but in neither respect does he equal Shakespeare. For though Massinger's language and metre have fewer faults, they have also incomparably fewer beauties, and the beauties very rarely indeed compete with those of the Prince of Dramatic Poets. They have not the same irresistible enchantment. The anticipated tones of Massinger always satisfy, but never surprize or ravish us. But the wild music of Shakespeare is like that of the Æolian harp touched by the wandering breeze. It reminds us of the music of the genius, who, in the habit of a shepherd, appeared before Mirza on the hills of Bagdad. He had a little musical instrument in his hand. As Mirza looked towards him, the genius applied it to his lips, and began to play upon it.
“ The sound of it," says Mirza, was exceeding sweet, and wrought into a variety of tunès that were inexpressibly melodious, and altogether different from any thing I had ever heard." We may describe the enchanting melody of Shakespeare's softer passages in his own delightful words
“O it comes o'er the ear, like the sweet South
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour." Coleridge once remarked, that he thought he might possibly catch the tone and diction of Milton, but that Shakespeare was absolutely inimitable. This was a very just and discriminating observation. We need be under no apprehension that the music
of Shakespeare will ever pall upon the ear in consequence of its frequent repetition by a servile flock of mocking birds. . It will never be said of him, as it was said of Pope, that he
“ Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
And every warbler had his tune by heart." The only superiority to Shakespeare that can be discovered in Massinger, is in the greater general clearness and more sustained dignity of his language, and in the judicious abstinence from those puns and quibbles which so unhappily deform the pages of a writer who would otherwise be almost too perfect for humanity.
“ Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.”
The texture of Shakespeare's composition is often most vexatiously involved, and many of his passages are riddles still unsolved by the most patient and clear-headed of his commentators. These are his weightiest sins, and every school-boy can point them out for reprobation ; but, as it is hardly necessary to observe, they are redeemed by a galaxy of beauties that may be sought in vain in any other region of the world of literature.
Massinger has comparatively few of those fine and unaffected strokes of nature, for which Shakespeare is so remarkable. The “What man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows,” addressed to Macduff when he receives the afflicting intelligence of the destruction of his family, and endeavours to suppress and conceal his agony ;-the single exclamation, " Ah !" in Othello, when a lightning-flash of jealousy first breaks upon the Moor's tempestuous soul ;-his “Not a jot, not a jot,” when Iago observes that he is moved ;-the “ Pray you undo this button," of Lear when his heart swells almost to bursting ;-and a thousand other simple but most expressive touches of a similar kind, are amongst the truly characteristic excellencies of Shakespeare and are never to be found in the stately lines of Massinger. But yet, if we
compare Massinger with the Dramatic writers of the present day, in whom shall we find his equal ? The golden age of the Drama has passed away. Our present poets can paint the moods of their own minds and can write dramatic poems, but not plays. Their mirrors reflect themselves alone. They do not hold them up to nature and give the very age and body of the time, its form and pressure.
In reviewing the characters in this play, one cannot help won. dering that Gifford, notwithstanding his narrow views in cri. ticism, should not have seen the immeasurable inferiority of Mas. singer to Shakespeare in all the higher attributes of genius. But the critic appears to have been so taken up with the regularity of Massinger's plots, the accuracy of his metre and the purity of his diction, that he overlooked every consideration of a weightier and nobler nature, If in Shakespeare there are greater faults of style, there are far fewer errors of delineation, and in the highest sense of the word, he was a more correct writer than either Mas. singer himself, or the learned and laborious Jonson. The faults of Shakespeare are errors of taste, and not defects of genius. Where the heart is to be touched or the imagination kindled, he rarely fails. Massinger had an intellect of great force; but, like Dryden, he had no power over the pathetic.
Even his great eloquence, his most characteristic merit, is the eloquence of the mind, and not the heart.
It was more than once urged against Shakespeare by his competitors as a weighty objection, that "nature was all his art." It would have served these writers justly if he had retorted that art was all their nature. And, if rightly qualified, there would have been considerable truth in the criticism on both sides.