Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

voice or language-to distinguish between the false glare and meteor flash elicited from strained conceits and the play of words, from the lambent flame of true wit, lighting up with new beauty, and irradiating every object on which it glances, to preserve the senses from being lulled to fatal repose, by the syren song of well-turned periods, and finely modulated verseto strip nature of the cumbrous and ungraceful ornaments with which art had disguised her form, and to show her unadorned by aught but the charms of purity, simplicity, and truth—this is what has been given to the writers of the present age, to compensate for feebler powers, and less sublime conceptions ; and this is what must render it an æra to all succeeding times, from which to date the revival of ancient genius without its errors, and the birth of genuine criticism, and of the true principles of taste.

The renovation of our literature leads us to anticipate for it a career as bright and illustrious as any that has preceded. In the literary history of Greece or Rome, we can mark out the exact period when genius and taste may be said to have reached their acme; and, thence, downward trace their gradual declension, from the age when gold was the coin that circulated among their writers, to that in which they paid in silver and worthless brass. But at each bright period in our own annals, when English literature seemed to have reached that limit, from which it must necessarily begin to decline, it has renewed its youth, assumed fresh and brighter colours, and starting forth with renovated strength, left hope and expectation far behind. The Elizabthan age, the æra of the Revolution, the latter part of the eighteenth century, have each been advocated, as the Augustan age of letters; but if any hope is to be grounded on the complete emancipation that has latterly been effected from the fetters of a corrupt and vitiated taste, we have a period to look forward to, which shall transcend all the glories of the past.

In some departments of literature, this renovation has been gradual and imperceptible, and still continues to work its silent

way; but in one it was visible, both in its commencement and its progress; and we can trace the revival of poetry, from the faintest glimmering in the horizon, to the broad and full light of day. The first to shake off the trammels of custom and precedent, and to hang his lamp in the firmament, was the divine Cowper; but this might have proved a transitory gleam, and been swallowed up again in darkness, but that its light was caught and propagated by a set of men, who, disgusted at the view of art usurping nature's place, withdrew to seek and converse with her, in the solitudes of her birth-place. There, by the rushing of the torrent, or the lone margin of the

lake, imbowered in lofty mountains, they learnt true wisdom, and drank deep of nature's inspiration. In their verse, you seem to hear the rustling of the leaves, as they are gently stirred by the wind;—the distant sound of falling waters, and the faintest murmurs of the stream ;-you feel the fresliness of the evening air, and the coolness of the falling dew;-you catch the last smiles of the sun, as he sets below the hill; and every charm of that still and sacred hour sinks deep into the heart, and every string in the bosom is shook mysteriously. The melody of the Æolian harp, which rises, swells, and dies away with the breeze that agitates its chords, and causes the heart of man to dilate and swell, as though it should burst its tenement, makes not sweeter music, nor leaves the listener in more wrapt attention. What a relief was this from the monotonous chime of that which our fathers held to be poetry; where, if you caught a glimpse of nature, she was so cut and trimmed by the hands of art, that you hardly knew her face again ;—where nought was to be seen or imagined, but slumbrous groves and formal alleys,-smooth shaven lawns and trim parterres,—dull cascades and leaden gods. True it is, that the great restorers of the art worshipped at nature's shrine, till their devotion became mystical, and their enthusiasm bordered on phrenzy ;-bewildered in the pursuit of wild theories and fanciful speculations, they lost sight both of their judgement and discretion; and, viewed through the delusive medium of a heated fancy, the meanest objects became a fit theme for the Muse to handle. Then was she, who till then had kept none but the best company, been never otherwise than dressed out for a gala, and had dwelt in decencies for ever, bid, without ceremony,“ to go spin," and put to servile tasks and household drudgery. But what then?

they were not eagles, nourish'd with the day : What marvel then, at times, if they mistook their way?”

They were the emancipators of poetry from the chains of a mere rhyming age, and sacred be even their

very

To them we owe that the tide of song, instead of mantling in pools, or creeping lazily on through artificial channels, now pours its glad waters sparkling in the sun-beam, through green banks and natural groves; whilst many a wild flower, that the busy pruning hand of elder art would have cast as a weed away, now floats on its stream, or is reflected on the polished mirror of its waves. The muse is free! and shall she not pardon the author of her freedom, his “duffel cloaks,” and “boats,” and "waggons," &c. or whatever other vile implement it has been his pleasure to put into her hands? The poet, who dates or did date from the Brenta, should reflect, that if he has soared

VOL. VII. PART I.

errors.

K

higher, or, by the aid of a stronger vision, kept clear of the errors into which they have fallen, that he was nursed in the light of their genius; and that if Wordsworth had not shown him how to worship her, Byron might not have looked on nature with the eye of a poet. If he do really believe in the poetical canons of the last age, it must be as the devils do, who believe and tremble; for there is not a line in Pope which does not speak as much condemnation to his own strong, careless, and free-born muse, as to that of him, whose delinquency he has invoked the departed shade to witness. Whatever may have been the errors which marked the progress of the reformers of our poetical creed, great and redeeming have been the benefits which have resulted from their speculations ; the genius of the land is unfettered, and as the first fruits of this free condition, we have the works of the noble author himself.

This revolution in poetry has been accompanied by a corresponding change, less marked indeed, but not less complete, in every department of literature, subject to the influence of taste, and connected with the feelings of men. In that, in particular, which we set out with considering, it is no longer necessary now to weave a tissue of strange and romantic incidents, and to cull from every scene of life the whimsical peculiarities of mankind. We turn away with loathing from the representation of character and passion, unnatural and exaggerated; and the expression of sentiment, false or artificial. We can no longer be affected by distress, that springs from no sufficient cause, or interested in critical situations, obtained by the sacrifice of truth and probability. We require nothing but good sense and good morals, exhibited in a succession of events, flowing from natural causes, and arriving at a probable issue. We ask not an elaborate display of wit, and eloquence, and repartee; but the conversation of men and women; and according as the persons of the story feel, think, and act, like reasonable and human beings, so do we sympathise with them in the various chances of their life, and mix ourselves up with their history. The more spirit infused into this the better, no doubt; but these are the channels in which it must flow :-genius must discover itself in the nice discrimination of character, and the expression of natural feeling, and not in attempting to embellish the one, or exaggerate the other.

But an example or two, selected out of multitudes, will prove the fact, and mark the degree of our improvement, more clearly than pages of gratuitous assertion. Thus a single artless expression of natural feeling, in an old Scotch blue-gown, is worth a whole chapter of sentiment, spun from the brain,

instead of flowing from the heart. It is better worth our while to stand for three

minutes, with Waverley, on the field of Clifton, by the setting gleam of a cold December's sun; or to hear a caustic old antiquary, like Oldbuck, in one deeply affecting sentence, moralize the disunion of once firmly attached friends; than to follow the sentimental tourist on his travels, or sigh, “ Alas, poor Yorick !" over his grave. A" simple tale” of the present day, as written by one whom we could name, in reading which a man may chance, on looking up, to find his sight grown dim on the sudden, is worth all the cold and artificial elegance of Mackenzie's volume; who never yet, we will be bold enough to say—beautifully as he writes-wrung one fair and genuine tear from a manly heart.

But two female writers there are, each the favourite of her generation, whom we would particularly specify, as illustrating in their works the opposite tastes of two successive ages; one still, we believe, in existence, but belonging, as a writer, to the last century; and the other, though coeval with ourselves, now no more, cut short by that early doom, which Heaven has ordained for all of the porcelain clay of human kind. In the lively and spirited caricatures of the author of Evelina and Cecilia, we may see the style of portrait-painting relished by onr fathers. Turning from them to the soberly coloured and faithful likenesses of Jane Austen, we may behold that approved by ourselves.

Over the works of the first, we laugh abundantly; but this is an expression which an author should be least anxious to extort. Do we ever experience that agreeable serenity and complacency, which is diffused over the mind by the sensible and pleasant conversation of persons with whose feelings we sympathise? There are a great many turns and changes in the eventful course of the narrative; but do we see, are we at the trouble to see, what produced them ? and if we are so happy as to discern the cause, does it always appear a probable or a sufficiently important one? The hero and the heroine—the lover and the beloved-fall out and in, and out again, through the whole five volumes—do they always know, or even care to understand why? The heroine is constantly in distress-poor lady! does the hard-hearted reader ever take his share of the burden? The hero is always a very respectable young manwe have no fault to find with his moral qualities—but do we ever take a jot more interest in him,

well-behaved, insipid young gentleman, with whom it may be our hard lot to ride fifty miles or so on a rainy day? Then there are your villains -marvellous, shrewd, calculating

villains—but do they ever plot with the least probability of success? And gay

deceivers, too, there are, with whom no woman can be safe in heart or repu

than in any

[ocr errors]

tation. But are they your men, “to love, fight, banter, in a breath,” and stay by a torrent of wit the angry speech just kindling in the blushing cheek, and glancing eye, and halfopened lip? O no!-mere conquerors they of hearts that beat against the shop-board. Whatever a man's cue is, that he never forgets for an instant. The miser is always most miserly, and always showing it. The proud man has the pride of Lucifer, and that in perpetuity. The bookworm, again, bas a trick of absence of mind, and he forgets his dinner till it is clear he ought to die of starvation. The vulgar man is broad, irredeemably, intensely vulgar. The gay, dissipated man rides down hill to the devil, with unlocked wheels, and never spend a thought as to whither he is speeding. But is there not, in this medley of all the vices, follies, and absurdities personified, some intermixture of tenderness and sentiment?' Yes; two persons are set apart to talk it-two soft-sighing sentimental souls, who whine and cry through the drama, and then, heartbroken for the loss of the objects of their separate affection, at the end of the play, club together each other's fragments, and become heart-whole again.

We ask the reader's pardon for speaking with so much levity of works, which, after all that can be said in detraction, are monuments of genius. The exaggeration of nature the everlasting sameness of character—the perpetual acting the want of truth in the incidents—of simplicity in the structure, and above all, of moral beauty in the tone and sentiments of the story, are the faults of that bad taste which she derived from her contemporaries. Great talents seldom or never err, but in compliance with the fashion or feeling of the age; and what a mist these can spread before the eagle vision of high-soaring genius, may be abundantly seen in the memorable example of Dryden. But the cleverness and spirit, the humour and acuteness, the observation, at once discriminating and deep, which had given its admirable possessor more experience of the world and knowledge of man at nineteen, than most have at ninety, belong solely to their author; and, in an age of female excellence, justly entitled her to the friendship of Johnson, and the gallant admiration of Burke—“Miss Burney die to-night!” She has, doubtless, in the course of a long life, heard and read her praises, till she can repeat them by rote; but this deep and emphatic expression of admiration will be found written in legible characters on her heart. She has, however, lived to see herself superseded in the public favour by writers, perhaps, then unborn; and the absolute failure of her latest production, must have brought home the sorrowful conviction of having outlived the admiration of her countrymen.

Born in the same rank of life, familiar with the same de

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinuar »