Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books
Charles W. Eliot

Part 7 out of 9

be so easily and so far imposed upon when they happen to take up a
new work in verse, this appears to be the cause;--that, having
discontinued their attention to poetry, whatever progress may have
been made in other departments of knowledge, they have not, as to this
art, advanced in true discernment beyond the age of youth. If, then,
a new poem fall in their way, whose attractions are of that kind which
would have enraptured them during the heat of youth, the judgement
not being improved to a degree that they shall be disgusted, they are
dazzled, and prize and cherish the faults for having had power to make
the present time vanish before them, and to throw the mind back, as
by enchantment, into the happiest season of life. As they read, powers
seem to be revived, passions are regenerated, and pleasures restored.
The Book was probably taken up after an escape from the burden of
business, and with a wish to forget the world, and all its vexations
and anxieties. Having obtained this wish, and so much more, it is
natural that they should make report as they have felt.

If Men of mature age, through want of practice, be thus easily
beguiled into admiration of absurdities, extravagances, and misplaced
ornaments, thinking it proper that their understandings should enjoy
a holiday, while they are unbending their minds with verse, it may be
expected that such Readers will resemble their former selves also
in strength of prejudice, and an inaptitude to be moved by the
unostentatious beauties of a pure style. In the higher poetry, an
enlightened Critic chiefly looks for a reflection of the wisdom of
the heart and the grandeur of the imagination. Wherever these appear,
simplicity accompanies them, Magnificence herself, when legitimate,
depending upon a simplicity of her own, to regulate her ornaments. But
it is a well-known property of human nature, that our estimates are
ever governed by comparisons, of which we are conscious with various
degrees of distinctness. Is it not, then, inevitable (confining these
observations to the effects of style merely) that an eye, accustomed
to the glaring hues of diction by which such Readers are caught and
excited, will for the most part be rather repelled than attracted by
an original Work, the colouring of which is disposed according to a
pure and refined scheme of harmony? It is in the fine arts as in the
affairs of life, no man can _serve_ (i.e. obey with zeal and fidelity)
two Masters.

As Poetry is most just to its own divine origin when it administers
the comforts and breathes the spirit of religion, they who have
learned to perceive this truth, and who betake themselves to reading
verse for sacred purposes, must be preserved from numerous illusions
to which the two Classes of Readers, whom we have been considering,
are liable. But, as the mind grows serious from the weight of
life, the range of its passions is contracted accordingly; and its
sympathies become so exclusive, that many species of high excellence
wholly escape, or but languidly excite, its notice. Besides, men who
read from religious or moral inclinations, even when the subject is
of that kind which they approve, are beset with misconceptions and
mistakes peculiar to themselves. Attaching so much importance to the
truths which interest them, they are prone to overrate the Authors by
whom those truths are expressed and enforced. They come prepared
to impart so much passion to the Poet's language, that they remain
unconscious how little, in fact, they receive from it. And, on the
other hand, religious faith is to him who holds it so momentous
a thing, and error appears to be attended with such tremendous
consequences, that, if opinions touching upon religion occur which
the Reader condemns, he not only cannot sympathize with them, however
animated the expression, but there is, for the most part, an end put
to all satisfaction and enjoyment. Love, if it before existed, is
converted into dislike; and the heart of the Reader is set against
the Author and his book.--To these excesses, they, who from their
professions ought to be the most guarded against them, are perhaps
the most liable; I mean those sects whose religion, being from the
calculating understanding, is cold and formal. For when Christianity,
the religion of humility, is founded upon the proudest faculty of
our nature, what can be expected but contradictions? Accordingly,
believers of this cast are at one time contemptuous; at another, being
troubled, as they are and must he, with inward misgivings, they are
jealous and suspicious;--and at all seasons, they are under temptation
to supply by the heat with which they defend their tenets, the
animation which is wanting to the constitution of the religion itself.

Faith was given to man that his affections, detached from the
treasures of time, might be inclined to settle upon those of
eternity;--the elevation of his nature, which this habit produces
on earth, being to him a presumptive evidence of a future state of
existence; and giving him a title to partake of its holiness. The
religious man values what he sees chiefly as an 'imperfect shadowing
forth' of what he is incapable of seeing. The concerns of religion
refer to indefinite objects, and are too weighty for the mind to
support them without relieving itself by resting a great part of the
burthen upon words and symbols. The commerce between Man and his Maker
cannot be carried on but by a process where much is represented
in little, and the Infinite Being accommodates himself to a finite
capacity. In all this may be perceived the affinity between religion
and poetry; between religion--making up the deficiencies of reason by
faith; and poetry--passionate for the instruction of reason; between
religion--whose element is infinitude, and whose ultimate trust is
the supreme of things, submitting herself to circumscription, and
reconciled to substitutions; and poetry--ethereal and transcendent,
yet incapable to sustain her existence without sensuous incarnation.
In this community of nature may be perceived also the lurking
incitements of kindred error;--so that we shall find that no poetry
has been more subject to distortion, than that species, the argument
and scope of which is religious; and no lovers of the art have gone
farther astray than the pious and the devout.

Whither then shall we turn for that union of qualifications which must
necessarily exist before the decisions of a critic can be of absolute
value? For a mind at once poetical and philosophical; for a critic
whose affections are as free and kindly as the spirit of society, and
whose understanding is severe as that of dispassionate government?
Where are we to look for that initiatory composure of mind which
no selfishness can disturb? For a natural sensibility that has been
tutored into correctness without losing anything of its quickness; and
for active faculties, capable of answering the demands which an
Author of original imagination shall make upon them, associated with
a judgement that cannot he duped into admiration by aught that
is unworthy of it?--among those and those only, who, never having
suffered their youthful love of poetry to remit much of its force,
have applied to the consideration of the laws of this art the
best power of their understandings. At the same time it must be
observed--that, as this Class comprehends the only judgements which
are trustworthy, so does it include the most erroneous and perverse.
For to be mistaught is worse than to be untaught; and no perverseness
equals that which is supported by system, no errors are so difficult
to root out as those which the understanding has pledged its credit to
uphold. In this Class are contained censors, who, if they be pleased
with what is good, are pleased with it only by imperfect glimpses,
and upon false principles; who, should they generalize rightly, to
a certain point, are sure to suffer for it in the end; who, if they
stumble upon a sound rule, are fettered by misapplying it, or by
straining it too far; being incapable of perceiving when it ought to
yield to one of higher order. In it are found critics too petulant to
be passive to a genuine poet, and too feeble to grapple with him; men,
who take upon them to report of the course which _he_ holds whom they
are utterly unable to accompany,--confounded if he turn quick upon the
wing, dismayed if he soar steadily 'into the region';--men of palsied
imaginations and indurated hearts; in whose minds all healthy action
is languid, who therefore feed as the many direct them, or, with the
many, are greedy after vicious provocatives;--judges, whose censure is
auspicious, and whose praise ominous! In this class meet together the
two extremes of best and worst.

The observations presented in the foregoing series are of too
ungracious a nature to have been made without reluctance; and, were
it only on this account, I would invite the reader to try them by the
test of comprehensive experience. If the number of judges who can be
confidently relied upon be in reality so small, it ought to follow
that partial notice only, or neglect, perhaps long continued, or
attention wholly inadequate to their merits--must have been the fate
of most works in the higher departments of poetry; and that, on the
other hand, numerous productions have blazed into popularity, and have
passed away, leaving scarcely a trace behind them: it will be further
found, that when Authors shall have at length raised themselves into
general admiration and maintained their ground, errors and prejudices
have prevailed concerning their genius and their works, which the few
who are conscious of those errors and prejudices would deplore; if
they were not recompensed by perceiving that there are select Spirits
for whom it is ordained that their fame shall be in the world an
existence like that of Virtue, which owes its being to the struggles
it makes, and its vigour to the enemies whom it provokes;--a vivacious
quality, ever doomed to meet with opposition, and still triumphing
over it; and, from the nature of its dominion, incapable of being
brought to the sad conclusion of Alexander, when he wept that there
were no more worlds for him to conquer.

Let us take a hasty retrospect of the poetical literature of this
Country for the greater part of the last two centuries, and see if the
facts support these inferences.

Who is there that now reads the _Creation_ of Dubartas? Yet all Europe
once resounded with his praise; he was caressed by kings; and, when
his Poem was translated into our language, the _Faery Queen_ faded
before it. The name of Spenser, whose genius is of a higher order than
even that of Ariosto, is at this day scarcely known beyond the limits
of the British Isles. And if the value of his works is to be estimated
from the attention now paid to them by his countrymen, compared with
that which they bestow on those of some other writers, it must be
pronounced small indeed.

The laurel, meed of mighty conquerors
And poets _sage_--

are his own words; but his wisdom has, in this particular, been his
worst enemy: while its opposite, whether in the shape of folly or
madness, has been _their_ best friend. But he was a great power, and
bears a high name: the laurel has been awarded to him.

A dramatic Author, if he write for the stage, must adapt himself to
the taste of the audience, or they will not endure him; accordingly
the mighty genius of Shakespeare was listened to. The people were
delighted: but I am not sufficiently versed in stage antiquities to
determine whether they did not flock as eagerly to the representation
of many pieces of contemporary Authors, wholly undeserving to appear
upon the same boards. Had there been a formal contest for superiority
among dramatic writers, that Shakespeare, like his predecessors
Sophocles and Euripides, would have often been subject to the
mortification of seeing the prize adjudged to sorry competitors,
becomes too probable, when we reflect that the admirers of Settle
and Shadwell were, in a later age, as numerous, and reckoned as
respectable, in point of talent, as those of Dryden. At all events,
that Shakespeare stooped to accommodate himself to the People, is
sufficiently apparent; and one of the most striking proofs of his
almost omnipotent genius is, that he could turn to such glorious
purpose those materials which the prepossessions of the age compelled
him to make use of. Yet even this marvellous skill appears not to have
been enough to prevent his rivals from having some advantage over him
in public estimation; else how can we account for passages and scenes
that exist in his works, unless upon a supposition that some of the
grossest of them, a fact which in my own mind I have no doubt of, were
foisted in by the Players, for the gratification of the many?

But that his Works, whatever might be their reception upon the stage,
made but little impression upon the ruling Intellects of the time,
may be inferred from the fact that Lord Bacon, in his multifarious
writings, nowhere either quotes or alludes to him.[5] His dramatic
excellence enabled him to resume possession of the stage after the
Restoration; but Dryden tells us that in his time two of the plays
of Beaumont and Fletcher were acted for one of Shakespeare's. And so
faint and limited was the perception of the poetic beauties of his
dramas in the time of Pope, that, in his Edition of the Plays, with
a view of rendering to the general reader a necessary service, he
printed between inverted commas those passages which he thought most
worthy of notice.

At this day, the French Critics have abated nothing of their aversion
to this darling of our Nation: 'the English, with their bouffon de
Shakespeare,' is as familiar an expression among them as in the time
of Voltaire. Baron Grimm is the only French writer who seems to have
perceived his infinite superiority to the first names of the French
Theatre; an advantage which the Parisian Critic owed to his German
blood and German education. The most enlightened Italians, though well
acquainted with our language, are wholly incompetent to measure the
proportions of Shakespeare. The Germans only, of foreign nations, are
approaching towards a knowledge and feeling of what he is. In some
respects they have acquired a superiority over the fellow countrymen
of the Poet: for among us it is a current, I might say, an established
opinion, that Shakespeare is justly praised when he is pronounced to
be 'a wild irregular genius, in whom great faults are compensated by
great beauties.' How long may it he before this misconception passes
away, and it becomes universally acknowledged that the judgement of
Shakespeare in the selection of his materials, and in the manner in
which he has made them, heterogeneous as they often are, constitute a
unity of their own, and contribute all to one great end, is not less
admirable than his imagination, his invention, and his intuitive
knowledge of human Nature?

There is extant a small Volume of miscellaneous poems, in which
Shakespeare expresses his own feelings in his own person. It is not
difficult to conceive that the Editor, George Steevens, should have
been insensible to the beauties of one portion of that Volume, the
Sonnets; though in no part of the writings of this Poet is found, in
an equal compass, a greater number of exquisite feelings felicitously
expressed. But, from regard to the Critic's own credit, he would not
have ventured to talk of an[6] act of parliament not being strong
enough to compel the perusal of those little pieces, if he had not
known that the people of England were ignorant of the treasures
contained in them: and if he had not, moreover, shared the too common
propensity of human nature to exult over a supposed fall into the mire
of a genius whom he had been compelled to regard with admiration, as
an inmate of the celestial regions--'there sitting where he durst not

Nine years before the death of Shakespeare, Milton was born, and early
in life he published several small poems, which, though on their
first appearance they were praised by a few of the judicious, were
afterwards neglected to that degree, that Pope in his youth could
borrow from them without risk of its being known. Whether these poems
are at this day justly appreciated, I will not undertake to decide nor
would it imply a severe reflection upon the mass of readers to suppose
the contrary, seeing that a man of the acknowledged genius of Voss,
the German poet, could suffer their spirit to evaporate, and could
change their character, as is done in the translation made by him of
the most popular of these pieces. At all events, it is certain that
these Poems of Milton are now much read, and loudly praised, yet were
they little heard of till more than 150 years after their publication,
and of the Sonnets, Dr. Johnson, as appears from Boswell's _Life_ of
him, was in the habit of thinking and speaking as contemptuously as
Steevens wrote upon those of Shakespeare.

About the time when the Pindaric odes of Cowley and his imitators, and
the productions of that class of curious thinkers whom Dr. Johnson has
strangely styled metaphysical Poets, were beginning to lose something
of that extravagant admiration which they had excited, the _Paradise
Lost_ made its appearance. 'Fit audience find though few,' was the
petition addressed by the Poet to his inspiring Muse. I have said
elsewhere that he gained more than he asked, this I believe to be
true, but Dr. Johnson has fallen into a gross mistake when he attempts
to prove, by the sale of the work, that Milton's Countrymen were
'_just_ to it' upon its first appearance. Thirteen hundred Copies were
sold in two years, an uncommon example, he asserts, of the prevalence
of genius in opposition to so much recent enmity as Milton's public
conduct had excited. But be it remembered that, if Milton's political
and religious opinions, and the manner in which he announced them, had
raised him many enemies, they had procured him numerous friends, who,
as all personal danger was passed away at the time of publication,
would be eager to procure the master-work of a man whom they revered,
and whom they would be proud of praising. Take, from the number
of purchasers, persons of this class, and also those who wished to
possess the Poem as a religious work, and but few I fear would be left
who sought for it on account of its poetical merits. The demand did
not immediately increase; 'for,' says Dr. Johnson, 'many more readers'
(he means persons in the habit of reading poetry) 'than were supplied
at first the Nation did not afford.' How careless must a writer be who
can make this assertion in the face of so many existing title-pages
to belie it! Turning to my own shelves, I find the folio of Cowley,
seventh edition, 1681. A book near it is Flatman's Poems, fourth
edition, 1686, Waller, fifth edition, same date. The Poems of Norris
of Bemerton not long after went, I believe, through nine editions.
What further demand there might be for these works I do not know; but
I well remember that, twenty-five years ago, the booksellers' stalls
in London swarmed with the folios of Cowley. This is not mentioned in
disparagement of that able writer and amiable man; but merely to show
that, if Milton's Works were not more read, it was not because readers
did not exist at the time. The early editions of the _Paradise Lost_
were printed in a shape which allowed them to be sold at a low price,
yet only three thousand copies of the Work were sold in eleven years;
and the Nation, says Dr. Johnson, had been satisfied from 1623 to
1664, that is, forty-one years, with only two editions of the Works of
Shakespeare; which probably did not together make one thousand Copies;
facts adduced by the critic to prove the 'paucity of Readers,'--There
were readers in multitudes; but their money went for other purposes,
as their admiration was fixed elsewhere. We are authorized, then,
to affirm that the reception of the _Paradise Lost_, and the slow
progress of its fame, are proofs as striking as can be desired
that the positions which I am attempting to establish are not
erroneous.[7]--How amusing to shape to one's self such a critique as
a Wit of Charles's days, or a Lord of the Miscellanies or trading
Journalist of King William's time, would have brought forth, if he
had set his faculties industriously to work upon this Poem, everywhere
impregnated with _original_ excellence.

So strange indeed are the obliquities of admiration, that they whose
opinions are much influenced by authority will often be tempted to
think that there are no fixed principles[8] in human nature for this
art to rest upon. I have been honoured by being permitted to peruse
in MS. a tract composed between the period of the Revolution and
the close of that century. It is the Work of an English Peer of high
accomplishments, its object to form the character and direct the
studies of his son. Perhaps nowhere does a more beautiful treatise
of the kind exist. The good sense and wisdom of the thoughts, the
delicacy of the feelings, and the charm of the style, are, throughout,
equally conspicuous. Yet the Author, selecting among the Poets of
his own country those whom he deems most worthy of his son's perusal,
particularizes only Lord Rochester, Sir John Denham, and Cowley.
Writing about the same time, Shaftesbury, an author at present
unjustly depreciated, describes the English Muses as only yet lisping
in their cradles.

The arts by which Pope, soon afterwards, contrived to procure to
himself a more general and a higher reputation than perhaps any
English Poet ever attained during his lifetime, are known to the
judicious. And as well known is it to them, that the undue exertion
of those arts is the cause why Pope has for some time held a rank in
literature, to which, if he had not been seduced by an over-love of
immediate popularity, and had confided more in his native genius, he
never could have descended. He bewitched the nation by his melody, and
dazzled it by his polished style and was himself blinded by his own
success. Having wandered from humanity in his Eclogues with boyish
inexperience, the praise, which these compositions obtained, tempted
him into a belief that Nature was not to be trusted, at least in
pastoral Poetry. To prove this by example, he put his friend Gay upon
writing those Eclogues which their author intended to be burlesque.
The instigator of the work, and his admirers, could perceive in them
nothing but what was ridiculous. Nevertheless, though these Poems
contain some detestable passages, the effect, as Dr Johnson well
observes, 'of reality and truth became conspicuous even when the
intention was to show them grovelling and degraded.' The Pastorals,
ludicrous to such as prided themselves upon their refinement, in spite
of those disgusting passages, 'became popular, and were read with
delight, as just representations of rural manners and occupations.'

Something less than sixty years after the publication of the _Paradise
Lost_ appeared Thomson's _Winter_, which was speedily followed by his
other Seasons. It is a work of inspiration, much of it is written
from himself, and nobly from himself. How was it received? 'It was
no sooner read,' says one of his contemporary biographers, 'than
universally admired those only excepted who had not been used to feel,
or to look for anything in poetry, beyond a _point_ of satirical or
epigrammatic wit, a smart _antithesis_ richly trimmed with rime, or
the softness of an _elegiac_ complaint. To such his manly classical
spirit could not readily commend itself, till, after a more attentive
perusal, they had got the better of their prejudices, and either
acquired or affected a truer taste. A few others stood aloof, merely
because they had long before fixed the articles of their poetical
creed, and resigned themselves to an absolute despair of ever seeing
anything new and original. These were somewhat mortified to find
their notions disturbed by the appearance of a poet, who seemed to owe
nothing but to nature and his own genius. But, in a short time, the
applause became unanimous, every one wondering how so many pictures,
and pictures so familiar, should have moved them but faintly to what
they felt in his descriptions. His digressions too, the overflowings
of a tender benevolent heart, charmed the reader no less, leaving him
in doubt, whether he should more admire the Poet or love the Man.'

This case appears to bear strongly against us--but we must distinguish
between wonder and legitimate admiration. The subject of the work is
the changes produced in the appearances of nature by the revolution
of the year: and, by undertaking to write in verse, Thomson pledged
himself to treat his subject as became a Poet. Now, it is remarkable
that, excepting the nocturnal _Reverie of Lady Winchelsea_, and a
passage or two in the _Windsor Forest_ of Pope, the poetry of the
period intervening between the publication of the _Paradise Lost_ and
the _Seasons_ does not contain a single new image of external nature;
and scarcely presents a familiar one from which it can be inferred
that the eye of the Poet has been steadily fixed upon his object, much
less that his feelings had urged him to work upon it in the spirit of
genuine imagination. To what a low state knowledge of the most obvious
and important phenomena had sunk, is evident from the style in which
Dryden has executed a description of Night in one of his Tragedies,
and Pope his translation of the celebrated moonlight scene in
the _Iliad_. A blind man, in the habit of attending accurately to
descriptions casually dropped from the lips of those around him, might
easily depict these appearances with more truth. Dryden's lines are
vague, bombastic, and senseless;[9] those of Pope, though he had Homer
to guide him, are throughout false and contradictory. The verses of
Dryden, once highly celebrated, are forgotten; those of Pope still
retain their hold upon public estimation,--nay, there is not a passage
of descriptive poetry, which at this day finds so many and such ardent
admirers. Strange to think of an enthusiast, as may have been the case
with thousands, reciting those verses under the cope of a moonlight
sky, without having his raptures in the least disturbed by a suspicion
of their absurdity!--If these two distinguished writers could
habitually think that the visible universe was of so little
consequence to a poet, that it was scarcely necessary for him to cast
his eyes upon it, we may be assured that those passages of the elder
poets which faithfully and poetically describe the phenomena of
nature, were not at that time holden in much estimation, and that
there was little accurate attention paid to those appearances.

Wonder is the natural product of Ignorance; and as the soil was _in
such good condition_ at the time of the publication of the _Seasons_
the crop was doubtless abundant. Neither individuals nor nations
become corrupt all at once, nor are they enlightened in a moment.
Thomson was an inspired poet, but he could not work miracles; in cases
where the art of seeing had in some degree been learned, the teacher
would further the proficiency of his pupils, but he could do
little _more_; though so far does vanity assist men in acts of
self-deception, that many would often fancy they recognized a likeness
when they knew nothing of the original. Having shown that much of what
his biographer deemed genuine admiration must in fact have been
blind wonderment--how is the rest to be accounted for?--Thomson was
fortunate in the very title of his poem, which seemed to bring it
home to the prepared sympathies of every one: in the next place,
notwithstanding his high powers, he writes a vicious style; and his
false ornaments are exactly of that kind which would be most likely
to strike the undiscerning. He likewise abounds with sentimental
commonplaces, that, from the manner in which they were brought
forward, bore an imposing air of novelty. In any well-used copy of
the _Seasons_ the book generally opens of itself with the rhapsody on
love, or with one of the stories (perhaps 'Damon and Musidora'); these
also are prominent in our collections of Extracts, and are the parts
of his Work which, after all, were probably most efficient in first
recommending the author to general notice. Pope, repaying praises
which he had received, and wishing to extol him to the highest, only
styles him 'an elegant and philosophical Poet'; nor are we able to
collect any unquestionable proofs that the true characteristics of
Thomson's genius as an imaginative poet[10] were perceived, till
the elder Warton, almost forty years after the publication of the
_Seasons_, pointed them out by a note in his Essay on the _Life and
Writings of Pope_. In the _Castle of Indolence_ (of which Gray
speaks so coldly) these characteristics were almost as conspicuously
displayed, and in verse more harmonious and diction more pure. Yet
that fine poem was neglected on its appearance, and is at this day the
delight only of a few!

When Thomson died, Collins breathed forth his regrets in an Elegiac
Poem, in which he pronounces a poetical curse upon _him_ who should
regard with insensibility the place where the Poet's remains were
deposited. The Poems of the mourner himself have now passed through
innumerable editions, and are universally known, but if, when Collins
died, the same kind of imprecation had been pronounced by a surviving
admirer, small is the number whom it would not have comprehended. The
notice which his poems attained during his lifetime was so small, and
of course the sale so insignificant, that not long before his death
he deemed it right to repay to the bookseller the sum which he had
advanced for them and threw the edition into the fire.

Next in importance to the _Seasons_ of Thomson, though a considerable
distance from that work in order of time, come the _Reliques of
Ancient English Poetry_, collected, new-modelled, and in many
instances (if such a contradiction in terms may be used) composed by
the Editor, Dr Percy. This work did not steal silently into the world,
as is evident from the number of legendary tales, that appeared not
long after its publication, and had been modelled, as the authors
persuaded themselves, after the old Ballad. The Compilation was,
however ill suited to the then existing taste of city society, and Dr
Johnson, 'mid the little senate to which he gave laws, was not
sparing in his exertions to make it an object of contempt. The critic
triumphed, the legendary imitators were deservedly disregarded, and
as undeservedly, their ill imitated models sank in this country into
temporary neglect, while Burger and other able writers of Germany,
were translating or imitating these Reliques, and composing, with the
aid of inspiration thence derived, poems which are the delight of the
German nation. Dr Percy was so abashed by the ridicule flung upon his
labours from the ignorance and insensibility of the persons with whom
he lived, that, though while he was writing under a mask he had
not wanted resolution to follow his genius into the regions of true
simplicity and genuine pathos (as is evinced by the exquisite ballad
of _Sir Cauline_ and by many other pieces), yet when he appeared in
his own person and character as a poetical writer, he adopted, as in
the tale of the _Hermit of Warkworth_, a diction scarcely in any
one of its features distinguishable from the vague, the glossy, and
unfeeling language of his day. I mention this remarkable fact[11]
with regret, esteeming the genius of Dr. Percy in this kind of writing
superior to that of any other man by whom in modern times it has been
cultivated. That even Burger (to whom Klopstock gave, in my hearing,
a commendation which he denied to Goethe and Schiller, pronouncing him
to be a genuine poet, and one of the few among the Germans whose works
would last) had not the fine sensibility of Percy, might be shown
from many passages, in which he has deserted his original only to go
astray. For example,

Now daye was gone, and night was come,
And all were fast asleepe,
All save the Lady Emeline,
Who sate in her bowre to weepe:

And soone she heard her true Love's voice
Low whispering at the walle,
Awake, awake, my dear Ladye,
'Tis I thy true love call

Which is thus tricked out and dilated;

Als nun die Nacht Gebirg' und Thal
Vermummt in Rabenschatten,
Und Hochburgs Lampen uberall
Schon ausgeflimmert hatten,
Und alles tief entschlafen war;
Doch nur das Fraulein immerdar,
Voll Fieberangst, noch wachte,
Und seinen Ritter dachte:
Da horch! Ein susser Liebeston
Kam leis, empor geflogen.
'Ho, Trudchen, ho! Da bin ich schon!
Frisch auf! Dich angezogen!'

But from humble ballads we must ascend to heroics.

All hail, Macpherson! hail to thee, Sire of Ossian! The Phantom was
begotten by the snug embrace of an impudent Highlander upon a cloud
of tradition--it travelled southward, where it was greeted with
acclamation, and the thin Consistence took its course through Europe,
upon the breath of popular applause. The Editor of the _Reliques_
had indirectly preferred a claim to the praise of invention, by not
concealing that his supplementary labours were considerable! how
selfish his conduct, contrasted with that of the disinterested Gael,
who, like Lear, gives his kingdom away, and is content to become
a pensioner upon his own issue for a beggarly pittance!--Open this
far-famed Book!--I have done so at random, and the beginning of the
_Epic Poem Temora_, in eight Books, presents itself. 'The blue waves
of Ullin roll in light. The green hills are covered with day. Trees
shake their dusky heads in the breeze. Grey torrents pour their noisy
streams. Two green hills with aged oaks surround a narrow plain. The
blue course of a stream is there. On its banks stood Cairbar of Atha.
His spear supports the king; the red eyes of his fear are sad. Cormac
rises on his soul with all his ghastly wounds.' Precious memorandums
from the pocket-book of the blind Ossian!

If it be unbecoming, as I acknowledge that for the most part it is, to
speak disrespectfully of Works that have enjoyed for a length of
time a widely-spread reputation, without at the same time producing
irrefragable proofs of their unworthiness, let me be forgiven upon
this occasion.--Having had the good fortune to be born and reared in a
mountainous country, from my very childhood I have felt the falsehood
that pervades the volumes imposed upon the world under the name of
Ossian. From what I saw with my own eyes, I knew that the imagery was
spurious. In nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into
absolute independent singleness. In Macpherson's work it is exactly
the reverse; everything (that is not stolen) is in this manner
defined, insulated, dislocated, deadened,--yet nothing distinct. It
will always be so when words are substituted for things. To say that
the characters never could exist, that the manners are impossible, and
that a dream has more substance than the whole state of society, as
there depicted, is doing nothing more than pronouncing a censure which
Macpherson defied; when, with the steeps of Morven before his eyes, he
could talk so familiarly of his Car-borne heroes;--of Morven, which,
if one may judge from its appearance at the distance of a few miles,
contains scarcely an acre of ground sufficiently accommodating for a
sledge to be trailed along its surface.--Mr. Malcolm Laing has ably
shown that the diction of this pretended translation is a motley
assemblage from all quarters; but he is so fond of making out parallel
passages as to call poor Macpherson to account for his '_ands_' and
his '_buts_!' and he has weakened his argument by conducting it as
if he thought that every striking resemblance was a _conscious_
plagiarism. It is enough that the coincidences are too remarkable
for its being probable or possible that they could arise in different
minds without communication between them. Now as the Translators of
the Bible, and Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, could not be indebted
to Macpherson, it follows that he must have owed his fine feathers to
them; unless we are prepared gravely to assert, with Madame de Stael,
that many of the characteristic beauties of our most celebrated
English Poets are derived from the ancient Fingallian; in which case
the modern translator would have been but giving back to Ossian his
own.--It is consistent that Lucien Buonaparte, who could censure
Milton for having surrounded Satan in the infernal regions with
courtly and regal splendour, should pronounce the modern Ossian to
be the glory of Scotland;--a country that has produced a Dunbar, a
Buchanan, a Thomson, and a Burns! These opinions are of ill omen for
the Epic ambition of him who has given them to the world.

Yet, much as those pretended treasures of antiquity have been admired,
they have been wholly uninfluential upon the literature of the
Country. No succeeding writer appears to have caught from them a ray
of inspiration; no author, in the least distinguished, has ventured
formally to imitate them--except the boy, Chatterton, on their first
appearance. He had perceived, from the successful trials which he
himself had made in literary forgery, how few critics were able to
distinguish between a real ancient medal and a counterfeit of modern
manufacture; and he set himself to the work of filling a magazine with
_Saxon Poems_,--counterparts of those of Ossian, as like his as one
of his misty stars is to another. This incapability to amalgamate with
the literature of the Island is, in my estimation, a decisive proof
that the book is essentially unnatural; nor should I require any other
to demonstrate it to be a forgery, audacious as worthless.--Contrast,
in this respect, the effect of Macpherson's publication with the
_Reliques_ of Percy, so unassuming, so modest in their pretensions!--I
have already stated how much Germany is indebted to this latter work;
and for our own country, its poetry has been absolutely redeemed
by it. I do not think that there is an able writer in verse of the
present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligations to
the _Reliques_; I know that it is so with my friends; and, for myself,
I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowal of my own.

Dr. Johnson, more fortunate in his contempt of the labours of
Macpherson than those of his modest friend, was solicited not long
after to furnish Prefaces biographical and critical for the works
of some of the most eminent English Poets. The booksellers took upon
themselves to make the collection; they referred probably to the most
popular miscellanies, and, unquestionably, to their books of accounts;
and decided upon the claim of authors to be admitted into a body of
the most eminent, from the familiarity of their names with the readers
of that day, and by the profits, which, from the sale of his works,
each had brought and was bringing to the Trade. The Editor was allowed
a limited exercise of discretion, and the Authors whom he recommended
are scarcely to be mentioned without a smile. We open the volume of
Prefatory Lives, and to our astonishment the _first_ name we find is
that of Cowley!--What Is become of the morning-star of English Poetry?
Where is the bright Elizabethan constellation? Or, if names be more
acceptable than images, where is the ever to-be-honoured Chaucer?
where is Spenser? where Sidney? and, lastly, where he, whose rights
as a poet, contra-distinguished from those which he is universally
allowed to possess as a dramatist, we have vindicated,--where
Shakespeare?--These, and a multitude of others not unworthy to be
placed near them, their contemporaries and successors, we have _not_.
But in their stead, we have (could better be expected when precedence
was to be settled by an abstract of reputation at any given period
made, as in this case before us?) Roscommon, and Stepney,
and Phillips, and Walsh, and Smith, and Duke, and King, and
Spratt--Halifax, Granville, Sheffield, Congreve, Broome, and other
reputed Magnates--metrical writers utterly worthless and useless,
except for occasions like the present, when their productions are
referred to as evidence what a small quantity of brain is necessary to
procure a considerable stock of admiration, provided the aspirant will
accommodate himself to the likings and fashions of his day.

As I do not mean to bring down this retrospect to our own times, it
may with propriety be closed at the era of this distinguished event.
From the literature of other ages and countries, proofs equally cogent
might have been adduced, that the opinions announced in the former
part of this Essay are founded upon truth. It was not an agreeable
office, nor a prudent undertaking, to declare them; but their
importance seemed to render it a duty. It may still be asked,
where lies the particular relation of what has been said to these
Volumes?--The question will be easily answered by the discerning
Reader who is old enough to remember the taste that prevailed when
some of these poems were first published, seventeen years ago; who has
also observed to what degree the poetry of this Island has since
that period been coloured by them; and who is further aware of the
unremitting hostility with which, upon some principle or other, they
have each and all been opposed. A sketch of my own notion of the
constitution of Fame has been given; and, as far as concerns myself,
I have cause to be satisfied. The love, the admiration, the
indifference, the slight, the aversion, and even the contempt, with
which these Poems have been received, knowing, as I do, the source
within my own mind, from which they have proceeded, and the labour
and pains, which, when labour and pains appeared needful, have been
bestowed upon them, must all, if I think consistently, be received as
pledges and tokens, bearing the same general impression, though widely
different in value;--they are all proofs that for the present time
I have not laboured in vain; and afford assurances, more or less
authentic, that the products of my industry will endure.

If there be one conclusion more forcibly pressed upon us than another
by the review which has been given of the fortunes and fate of
poetical Works, it is this--that every author, as far as he is great
and at the same time _original_, has had the task of _creating_
the taste by which he is to be enjoyed: so has it been, so will
it continue to be. This remark was long since made to me by the
philosophical Friend for the separation of whose poems from my own I
have previously expressed my regret. The predecessors of an original
Genius of a high order will have smoothed the way for all that he has
in common with them;--and much he will have in common; but, for what
is peculiarly his own, he will be called upon to clear and often to
shape his own road:--he will be in the condition of Hannibal among the

And where lies the real difficulty of creating that taste by which a
truly original poet is to be relished? Is it in breaking the bonds
of custom, in overcoming the prejudices of false refinement, and
displacing the aversions of inexperience? Or, if he labour for an
object which here and elsewhere I have proposed to myself, does it
consist in divesting the reader of the pride that induces him to dwell
upon those points wherein men differ from each other, to the exclusion
of those in which all men are alike, or the same; and in making him
ashamed of the vanity that renders him insensible of the appropriate
excellence which civil arrangements, less unjust than might appear,
and Nature illimitable in her bounty, had conferred on men who may
stand below him in the scale of society? Finally, does it lie in
establishing that dominion over the spirits of readers by which they
are to be humbled and humanized, in order that they may be purified
and exalted?

If these ends are to be attained by the mere communication of
_knowledge_, it does _not_ lie here.--TASTE, I would remind the
reader, like IMAGINATION, is a word which has been forced to extend
its services far beyond the point to which philosophy would have
confined them. It is a metaphor, taken from a _passive_ sense of the
human body, and transferred to things which are in their essence
_not_ passive,--to intellectual _acts_ and _operations_. The word,
Imagination, has been overstrained, from impulses honourable to
mankind, to meet the demands of the faculty which is perhaps the
noblest of our nature. In the instance of Taste, the process has been
reversed; and from the prevalence of dispositions at once injurious
and discreditable, being no other than that selfishness which is the
child of apathy,--which, as Nations decline in productive and creative
power, makes them value themselves upon a presumed refinement of
judging. Poverty of language is the primary cause of the use which we
make of the word, Imagination; but the word, Taste, has been
stretched to the sense which it bears in modern Europe by habits of
self-conceit, inducing that inversion in the order of things whereby a
passive faculty is made paramount among the faculties conversant with
the fine arts. Proportion and congruity, the requisite knowledge
being supposed, are subjects upon which taste may be trusted; it is
competent to this office--for in its intercourse with these the
mind is _passive_, and is affected painfully or pleasurably as by an
instinct. But the profound and the exquisite in feeling, the lofty and
universal in thought and imagination; or, in ordinary language, the
pathetic and the sublime;--are neither of them, accurately speaking,
objects of a faculty which could ever without a sinking in the spirit
of Nations have been designated by the metaphor _Taste_. And why?
Because without the exertion of a co-operating _power_ in the mind
of the reader, there can be no adequate sympathy with either of these
emotions: without this auxiliary impulse, elevated or profound passion
cannot exist.

Passion, it must be observed, is derived from a word which signifies
_suffering_; but the connexion which suffering has with effort, with
exertion, and _action_, is immediate and inseparable. How strikingly
is this property of human nature exhibited by the fact that, in
popular language, to be in a passion is to be angry! But,

Anger in hasty _words_ or _blows_
Itself discharges on its foes.

To be moved, then, by a passion is to be excited, often to external,
and always to internal, effort; whether for the continuance and
strengthening of the passion, or for its suppression, accordingly
as the course which it takes may be painful or pleasurable. If the
latter, the soul must contribute to its support, or it never becomes
vivid,--and soon languishes and dies. And this brings us to the point.
If every great poet with whose writings men are familiar, in the
highest exercise of his genius, before he can be thoroughly enjoyed,
has to call forth and to communicate _power_, this service, in a still
greater degree, falls upon an original writer, at his first appearance
in the world.--Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what
is worthy to be done, and what was never done before: Of genius, in
the fine arts, the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere
of human sensibility, for the delight, honour, and benefit of
human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into
the intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the
application of powers to objects on which they had not before been
exercised, or the employment of them in such a manner as to produce
effects hitherto unknown. What is all this but an advance, or a
conquest, made by the soul of the poet? Is it to be supposed that
the reader can make progress of this kind, like an Indian prince or
general--stretched on his palanquin, and borne by his slaves? No;
he is invigorated and inspirited by his leader, in order that he
may exert himself; for he cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be
carried like a dead weight. Therefore to create taste is to call forth
and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and _there_ lies
the true difficulty.

As the pathetic participates of an _animal_ sensation, it might
seem--that, if the springs of this emotion were genuine, all men,
possessed of competent knowledge of the facts and circumstances, would
be instantaneously affected. And, doubtless, in the works of every
true poet will be found passages of that species of excellence which
is proved by effects immediate and universal. But there are emotions
of the pathetic that are simple and direct, and others--that are
complex and revolutionary; some--to which the heart yields with
gentleness; others--against which it struggles with pride; these
varieties are infinite as the combinations of circumstance and the
constitutions of character. Remember, also, that the medium through
which, in poetry, the heart is to be affected, is language; a thing
subject to endless fluctuations and arbitrary associations. The genius
of the poet melts these down for his purpose; but they retain their
shape and quality to him who is not capable of exerting, within his
own mind, a corresponding energy. There is also a meditative, as well
as a human, pathos; an enthusiastic, as well as an ordinary, sorrow;
a sadness that has its seat in the depths of reason, to which the mind
cannot sink gently of itself--but to which it must descend by treading
the steps of thought. And for the sublime,--if we consider what are
the cares that occupy the passing day, and how remote is the practice
and the course of life from the sources of sublimity, in the soul of
Man, can it be wondered that there is little existing preparation
for a poet charged with a new mission to extend its kingdom, and to
augment and spread its enjoyments?

Away, then, with the senseless iteration of the word _popular_,
applied to new works in poetry, as if there were no test of excellence
in this first of the fine arts but that all men should run after
its productions, as if urged by an appetite, or constrained by a
spell!--The qualities of writing best fitted for eager reception are
either such as startle the world into attention by their audacity and
extravagance; or they are chiefly of a superficial kind, lying upon
the surfaces of manners; or arising out of a selection and arrangement
of incidents, by which the mind is kept upon the stretch of curiosity,
and the fancy amused without the trouble of thought. But In everything
which is to send the soul into herself, to be admonished of her
weakness, or to be made conscious of her power;--wherever life and
nature are described as operated upon by the creative or abstracting
virtue of the imagination; wherever the instinctive wisdom of
antiquity and her heroic passions uniting, in the heart of the poet,
with the meditative wisdom of later ages, have produced that accord of
sublimated humanity which is at once a history of the remote past and
a prophetic enunciation of the remotest future, _there_, the poet must
reconcile himself for a season to few and scattered hearers.--Grand
thoughts (and Shakespeare must often have sighed over this truth), as
they are most naturally and most fitly conceived in solitude, so
can they not be brought forth in the midst of plaudits without
some violation of their sanctity. Go to a silent exhibition of the
productions of the sister Art, and be convinced that the qualities
which dazzle at first sight, and kindle the admiration of the
multitude, are essentially different from those by which permanent
influence is secured. Let us not shrink from following up these
principles as far as they will carry us, and conclude with
observing--that there never has been a period, and perhaps never will
be, in which vicious poetry, of some kind or other, has not excited
more zealous admiration, and been far more generally read, than good;
but this advantage attends the good, that the _individual_, as well
as the species, survives from age to age; whereas, of the depraved,
though the species be immortal, the individual quickly _perishes_; the
object of present admiration vanishes, being supplanted by some other
as easily produced; which, though no better, brings with it at least
the irritation of novelty,--with adaptation, more or less skilful, to
the changing humours of the majority of those who are most at leisure
to regard poetical works when they first solicit their attention.

Is it the result of the whole, that, in the opinion of the Writer, the
judgement of the People is not to be respected? The thought is most
injurious; and, could the charge be brought against him, he would
repel it with indignation. The People have already been justified,
and their eulogium pronounced by implication, when it was said,
above--that, of _good_ poetry, the _individual_, as well as the
species, _survives_. And how does it survive but through the People?
What preserves it but their intellect and their wisdom?

--Past and future, are the wings
On whose support, harmoniously conjoined,
Moves the great Spirit of human knowledge--

The voice that issues from this Spirit is that Vox Populi which the
Deity inspires. Foolish must he be who can mistake for this a local
acclamation, or a transitory out-cry--transitory though it be for
years, local though from a Nation. Still more lamentable is his error
who can believe that there is anything of divine infallibility in
the clamour of that small though loud portion of the community, ever
governed by factitious influence, which, under the name of the PUBLIC,
passes itself, upon the unthinking, for the PEOPLE. Towards the
Public, the Writer hopes that he feels as much deference as it is
entitled to: but to the People, philosophically characterized, and to
the embodied spirit of their knowledge, so far as it exists and moves,
at the present, faithfully supported by its two wings, the past and
the future, his devout respect, his reverence, is due. He offers it
willingly and readily; and, this done, takes leave of his Readers,
by assuring them--that, if he were not persuaded that the contents
of these Volumes, and the Work to which they are subsidiary, evince
something of the 'Vision and the Faculty divine'; and that, both in
words and things, they will operate in their degree, to extend the
domain of sensibility for the delight, the honour, and the benefit
of human nature, nothwithstanding the many happy hours which he
has employed in their composition, and the manifold comforts and
enjoyments they have procured to him, he would not, if a wish could
do it, save them from immediate destruction;--from becoming at this
moment, to the world, as a thing that had never been.

[Footnote 5: The learned Hakewill (a third edition of whose book bears
date 1635), writing to refute the error 'touching Nature's perpetual
and universal decay,' cites triumphantly the names of Ariosto,
Tasso, Bartas, and Spenser, as instances that poetic genius had not
degenerated; but be makes no mention of Shakespeare.]

[Footnote 6: This flippant insensibility was publicly reprehended by
Mr. Coleridge in a course of Lectures upon Poetry given by him at the
Royal Institution. For the various merits of thought and language in
Shakespeare's _Sonnets_, see Nos. 27, 29, 30, 32, 33, 54, 64, 66, 68,
73, 76, 86, 91, 92, 93, 97, 98, 105, 107, 108, 109, 111, 113, 114,
116, 117, 129, and many others.]

[Footnote 7: Hughes is express upon this subject in his dedication of
Spenser's Works to Lord Somers, he writes thus 'It was your Lordship's
encouraging a beautiful edition of _Paradise Lost_ that first brought
that incomparable Poem to be generally known and esteemed.']

[Footnote 8: This opinion seems actually to have been entertained by
Adam Smith, the worst critic, David Hume not excepted, that Scotland,
a soil to which this sort of weed seems natural, has produced.]

[Footnote 9: CORTES, _alone in a night-gown_.

All things are hush'd as Nature's self lay dead;
The mountains seem to nod their drowsy head.
The little Birds in dreams their songs repeat,
And sleeping Flowers beneath the Night-dew sweat:
Even Lust and Envy sleep; yet Love denies
Rest to my soul, and slumber to my eyes.

DRYDEN'S _Indian Emperor_.]

[Footnote 10: Since these observations upon Thomson were written, I
have perused the second edition of his _Seasons_, and find that even
_that_ does not contain the most striking passages which Warton points
out for admiration, these, with other improvements, throughout the
whole work, must have been added at a later period.]

[Footnote 11: Shenstone, in his _Schoolmistress_, gives a still more
remarkable instance of this timidity On its first appearance (see
D'Israeli's 2d Series of the _Curiosities of Literature_) the Poem was
accompanied with an absurd prose commentary, showing, as indeed some
incongruous expressions in the text imply, that the whole was intended
for burlesque. In subsequent editions, the commentary was dropped, and
the People have since continued to read in seriousness, doing for the
Author what he had not courage openly to venture upon for himself.]



The drama contained in the following pages has nothing to commend
it to the attention or the good will of the public. It has not, to
attract the interest of political disputants, the advantage of the
veto of the official censorship, nor even, to win for it at the outset
the literary sympathy of men of taste, the honour of having been
formally rejected by an infallible reading committee.

It presents itself, therefore, to the public gaze, naked and
friendless, like the infirm man of the Gospel--_solus, pauper, nudus_.

Not without some hesitation, moreover, did the author determine to
burden his drama with a preface. Such things are usually of very
little interest to the reader. He inquires concerning the talent of
a writer rather than concerning his point of view; and in determining
whether a work is good or bad, it matters little to him upon what
ideas it is based, or in what sort of mind it germinated. One seldom
inspects the cellars of a house after visiting its salons, and when
one eats the fruit of a tree, one cares but little about its root.

On the other hand, notes and prefaces are sometimes a convenient
method of adding to the weight of a book, and of magnifying, in
appearance at least, the importance of a work; as a matter of tactics
this is not dissimilar to that of the general who, to make his
battle-front more imposing, puts everything, even his baggage-trains,
in the line. And then, while critics fall foul of the preface and
scholars of the notes, it may happen that the work itself will
escape them, passing uninjured between their cross-fires, as an army
extricates itself from a dangerous position between two skirmishes of
outposts and rear-guards.

These reasons, weighty as they may seem, are not those which
influenced the author. This volume did not need to be _inflated_, it
was already too stout by far. Furthermore, and the author does not
know why it is so, his prefaces, frank and ingenuous as they are, have
always served rather to compromise him with the critics than to shield
him. Far from being staunch and trusty bucklers, they have played him
a trick like that played in a battle by an unusual and conspicuous
uniform, which, calling attention to the soldier who wears it,
attracts all the blows and is proof against none.

Considerations of an altogether different sort acted upon the author.
It seemed to him that, although in fact, one seldom inspects the
cellars of a building for pleasure, one is not sorry sometimes to
examine its foundations. He will, therefore, give himself over once
more, with a preface, to the wrath of the _feuilletonists. Che sara,
sara_. He has never given much thought to the fortune of his works,
and he is but little appalled by dread of the literary _what will
people say_. In the discussion now raging, in which the theatre and
the schools, the public and the academies, are at daggers drawn, one
will hear, perhaps, not without some interest, the voice of a solitary
_apprentice_ of nature and truth, who has withdrawn betimes from the
literary world, for pure love of letters, and who offers good faith in
default of good taste, sincere conviction in default of talent, study
in default of learning.

He will confine himself, however, to general considerations concerning
the art, without the slightest attempt to smooth the path of his own
work, without pretending to write an indictment or a plea, against or
for any person whomsoever. An attack upon or defence of his book is
of less importance to him than to anybody else. Nor is personal
controversy agreeable to him. It is always a pitiful spectacle to
see two hostile self-esteems crossing swords. He protests, therefore,
beforehand against every interpretation of his ideas, every personal
application of his words, saying with the Spanish fablist:--

Quien haga aplicaciones
Con su pan se lo coma.

In truth, several of the leading champions of "sound literary
doctrines" have done him the honour to throw the gauntlet to him, even
in his profound obscurity--to him, a simple, imperceptible spectator
of this curious contest He will not have the presumption to pick it
up. In the following pages will be found the observations with which
he might oppose them--there will be found his sling and his stone;
but others, if they choose, may hurl them at the head of the classical

This said, let us pass on.

Let us set out from a fact. The same type of civilization, or to use
a more exact, although more extended expression, the same society, has
not always inhabited the earth. The human race as a whole has grown,
has developed, has matured, like one of ourselves. It was once a
child, it was once a man; we are now looking on at its impressive old
age. Before the epoch which modern society has dubbed "ancient," there
was another epoch which the ancients called "fabulous," but which it
would be more accurate to call "primitive." Behold then three great
successive orders of things in civilization, from its origin down to
our days. Now, as poetry is always superposed upon society, we
propose to try to demonstrate, from the form of its society, what the
character of the poetry must have been in those three great ages of
the world--primitive times, ancient times, modern times.

In primitive times, when man awakes in a world that is newly created,
poetry awakes with him. In the face of the marvellous things that
dazzle and intoxicate him, his first speech is a hymn simply. He is
still so close to God that all his meditations are ecstatic, all his
dreams are visions. His bosom swells, he sings as he breathes.
His lyre has but three strings--God, the soul, creation; but this
threefold mystery envelopes everything, this threefold idea embraces
everything. The earth is still almost deserted. There are families,
but no nations; patriarchs, but no kings. Each race exists at its own
pleasure; no property, no laws, no contentions, no wars. Everything
belongs to each and to all. Society is a community. Man is restrained
in nought. He leads that nomadic pastoral life with which all
civilizations begin, and which is so well adapted to solitary
contemplation, to fanciful reverie. He follows every suggestion,
he goes hither and thither, at random. His thought, like his life,
resembles a cloud that changes its shape and its direction according
to the wind that drives it. Such is the first man, such is the first
poet. He is young, he is cynical. Prayer is his sole religion, the ode
is his only form of poetry.

This ode, this poem of primitive times, is Genesis.

By slow degrees, however, this youth of the world passes away. All
the spheres progress; the family becomes a tribe, the tribe becomes a
nation. Each of these groups of men camps about a common centre, and
kingdoms appear. The social instinct succeeds the nomadic instinct.
The camp gives place to the city, the tent to the palace, the ark to
the temple. The chiefs of these nascent states are still shepherds,
it is true, but shepherds of nations; the pastoral staff has already
assumed the shape of a sceptre. Everything tends to become stationary
and fixed. Religion takes on a definite shape; prayer is governed by
rites; dogma sets bounds to worship. Thus the priest and king share
the paternity of the people; thus theocratic society succeeds the
patriarchal community.

Meanwhile the nations are beginning to be packed too closely on the
earth's surface. They annoy and jostle one another; hence the clash
of empires--war. They overflow upon another; hence, the migrations of
nations--voyages. Poetry reflects these momentous events; from ideas
it proceeds to things. It sings of ages, of nations, of empires. It
becomes epic, it gives birth to Homer.

Homer, in truth, dominates the society of ancient times. In that
society, all is simple, all is epic. Poetry is religion, religion is
law. The virginity of the earlier age is succeeded by the chastity
of the later. A sort of solemn gravity is everywhere noticeable, in
private manners no less than in public. The nations have retained
nothing of the wandering life of the earlier time, save respect
for the stranger and the traveller. The family has a fatherland;
everything is connected therewith; it has the cult of the house and
the cult of the tomb.

We say again, such a civilization can find its one expression only in
the epic. The epic will assume diverse forms, but will never lose its
specific character. Pindar is more priestlike than patriarchal, more
epic than lyrical. If the chroniclers, the necessary accompaniments
of this second age of the world, set about collecting traditions and
begin to reckon by centuries, they labour to no purpose--chronology
cannot expel poesy; history remains an epic. Herodotus is a Homer.

But it is in the ancient tragedy, above all, that the epic breaks out
at every turn. It mounts the Greek stage without losing aught, so to
speak, of its immeasurable, gigantic proportions. Its characters
are still heroes, demigods, gods; its themes are visions, oracles,
fatality; its scenes are battles, funeral rites, catalogues. That
which the rhapsodists formerly sang, the actors declaim--that is the
whole difference.

There is something more. When the whole plot, the whole spectacle
of the epic poem have passed to the stage, the Chorus takes all that
remains. The Chorus annotates the tragedy, encourages the heroes,
gives descriptions, summons and expels the daylight, rejoices,
laments, sometimes furnishes the scenery, explains the moral bearing
of the subject, flatters the listening assemblage. Now, what is the
Chorus, this anomalous character standing between the spectacle and
the spectator, if it be not the poet completing his epic?

The theatre of the ancients is, like their dramas, huge, pontifical,
epic. It is capable of holding thirty thousand spectators; the plays
are given in the open air, in bright sunlight; the performances last
all day. The actors disguise their voices, wear masks, increase their
stature; they make themselves gigantic, like their roles. The stage is
immense. It may represent at the same moment both the interior and
the exterior of a temple, a palace, a camp, a city. Upon it,
vast spectacles are displayed. There is--we cite only from
memory--Prometheus on his mountain; there is Antigone, at the top of
a tower, seeking her brother Polynices in the hostile army (_The
Phoenicians_); there is Evadne hurling herself from a cliff into the
flames where the body of Capaneus is burning (_The Suppliants_ of
Euripides); there is a ship sailing into port and landing fifty
princesses with their retinues (_The Suppliants_ of AEschylus).
Architecture, poetry, everything assumes a monumental character. In
all antiquity there is nothing more solemn, more majestic. Its history
and its religion are mingled on its stage. Its first actors are
priests; its scenic performances are religious ceremonies, national

One last observation, which completes our demonstration of the epic
character of this epoch: in the subjects which it treats, no less than
in the forms it adopts, tragedy simply re-echoes the epic. All
the ancient tragic authors derive their plots from Homer. The same
fabulous exploits, the same catastrophes, the same heroes. One and
all drink from the Homeric stream. The Iliad and Odyssey are always
in evidence. Like Achilles dragging Hector at his chariot-wheel, the
Greek tragedy circles about Troy.

But the age of the epic draws near its end. Like the society that
it represents, this form of poetry wears itself out revolving upon
itself. Rome reproduces Greece, Virgil copies Homer, and, as if to
make a becoming end, epic poetry expires in the last parturition.

It was time. Another era is about to begin, for the world and for

A spiritual religion, supplanting the material and external paganism,
makes its way to the heart of the ancient society, kills it, and
deposits, in that corpse of a decrepit civilization, the germ of
modern civilization. This religion as complete, because it is true;
between its dogma and its cult, it embraces a deep-rooted moral. Arid
first of all, as a fundamental truth, it teaches man that he has two
lives to live, one ephemeral, the other immortal; one on earth, the
other in heaven. It shows him that he, like his destiny, is twofold:
that there is in him an animal and an intellect, a body and a soul; in
a word, that he is the point of intersection, the common link of
the two chains of beings which embrace all creation--of the chain
of material beings and the chain of incorporeal beings; the first
starting from the rock to arrive at man, the second starting from man
to end at God.

A portion of these truths had perhaps been suspected by certain wise
men of ancient times, but their full, broad, luminous revelation dates
from the Gospels. The pagan schools walked in darkness, feeling their
way, clinging to falsehoods as well as to truths in their haphazard
journeying. Some of their philosophers occasionally cast upon certain
subjects feeble gleams which illuminated but one side and made the
darkness of the other side more profound. Hence all the phantoms
created by ancient philosophy. None but divine wisdom was capable of
substituting an even and all-embracing light for all those flickering
rays of human wisdom. Pythagoras, Epicurus, Socrates, Plato, are
torches: Christ is the glorious light of day.

Nothing could be more material, indeed, than the ancient theogony. Far
from proposing, as Christianity does, to separate the spirit from the
body, it ascribes form and features to everything, even to impalpable
essences, even to the intelligence. In it everything is visible,
tangible, fleshly. Its gods need a cloud to conceal themselves from
men's eyes. They eat, drink, and sleep. They are wounded and their
blood flows; they are maimed, and lo! they limp forever after. That
religion has gods and halves of gods. Its thunderbolts are forged on
an anvil, and among other things three rays of twisted rain (_tres
imbris torti radios_) enter into their composition. Its Jupiter
suspends the world by a golden chain; its sun rides in a four-horse
chariot; its hell is a precipice the brink of which is marked on the
globe; its heaven is a mountain.

Thus paganism, which moulded all creations from the same clay,
minimizes divinity and magnifies man. Homer's heroes are of almost the
same stature as his gods. Ajax defies Jupiter, Achilles is the peer
of Mars. Christianity on the contrary, as we have seen, draws a broad
line of division between spirit and matter. It places an abyss between
the soul and the body, an abyss between man and God.

At this point--to omit nothing from the sketch upon which we have
ventured--we will call attention to the fact that, with Christianity,
and by its means, there entered into the mind of the nations a new
sentiment, unknown to the ancients and marvellously developed
among moderns, a sentiment which is more than gravity and less than
sadness--melancholy. In truth, might not the heart of man, hitherto
deadened by religions purely hierarchical and sacerdotal, awake and
feel springing to life within it some unexpected faculty, under the
breath of a religion that is human because it is divine, a religion
which makes of the poor man's prayer, the rich man's wealth, a
religion of equality, liberty and charity? Might it not see all things
in a new light, since the Gospel had shown it the soul through the
senses, eternity behind life?

Moreover, at that very moment the world was undergoing so complete
a revolution that it was impossible that there should not be a
revolution in men's minds. Hitherto the catastrophes of empires
had rarely reached the hearts of the people; it was kings who fell,
majesties that vanished, nothing more. The lightning struck only in
the upper regions, and, as we have already pointed out, events seemed
to succeed one another with all the solemnity of the epic. In the
ancient society, the individual occupied so lowly a place that, to
strike him, adversity must needs descend to his family. So that he
knew little of misfortune outside of domestic sorrows. It was an
almost unheard of thing that the general disasters of the state should
disarrange his life. But the instant that Christian society became
firmly established, the ancient continent was thrown into confusion.
Everything was pulled up by the roots. Events, destined to destroy
ancient Europe and to construct a new Europe, trod upon one another's
heels in their ceaseless rush, and drove the nations pell-mell, some
into the light, others into darkness. So much uproar ensued that it
was impossible that some echoes of it should not reach the hearts
of the people. It was more than an echo, it was a reflex blow. Man,
withdrawing within himself in presence of these imposing vicissitudes,
began to take pity upon mankind, to reflect upon the bitter
disillusionments of life. Of this sentiment, which to Cato the heathen
was despair, Christianity fashioned melancholy.

At the same time was born the spirit of scrutiny and curiosity. These
great catastrophes were also great spectacles, impressive cataclysms.
It was the North hurling itself upon the South; the Roman world
changing shape; the last convulsive throes of a whole universe in
the death agony. As soon as that world was dead, lo! clouds of
rhetoricians, grammarians, sophists, swooped down like insects on its
immense body. People saw them swarming and heard them buzzing in that
seat of putrefaction. They vied with one another in scrutinizing,
commenting, disputing. Each limb, each muscle, each fibre of the huge
prostrate body was twisted and turned in every direction. Surely it
must have been a keen satisfaction to those anatomists of the mind, to
be able, at their debut, to make experiments on a large scale; to have
a dead society to dissect, for their first "subject."

Thus we see melancholy and meditation, the demons of analysis and
controversy, appear at the same moment, and, as it were, hand-in-hand.
At one extremity of this era of transition is Longinus, at the other
St. Augustine. We must beware of casting a disdainful eye upon that
epoch wherein all that has since borne fruit was contained in germs;
upon that epoch whose least eminent writers, if we may be pardoned a
vulgar but expressive phrase, made fertilizer for the harvest that was
to follow. The Middle Ages were grafted on the Lower Empire.

Behold, then, a new religion, a new society; upon this twofold
foundation there must inevitably spring up a new poetry. Previously---
we beg pardon for setting forth a result which the reader has probably
already foreseen from what has been said above--previously, following
therein the course pursued by the ancient polytheism and philosophy,
the purely epic muse of the ancients had studied nature in only a
single aspect, casting aside without pity almost everything in art
which, in the world subjected to its imitation, had not relation to a
certain, type of beauty. A type which was magnificent at first, but,
as always happens with everything systematic, became in later times
false, trivial and conventional. Christianity leads poetry to the
truth. Like it, the modern muse will see things in a higher and
broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not
humanly _beautiful_, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the
unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the
sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. It will ask itself if
the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the
infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct
God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the
mutilation; if art has the right to duplicate, so to speak, man, life,
creation; if things will progress better when their muscles and their
vigour have been taken from them; if, in short, to be incomplete is
the best way to be harmonious. Then it is that, with its eyes fixed
upon events that are both laughable and redoubtable, and under the
influence of that spirit of Christian melancholy and philosophical
criticism which we described a moment ago, poetry will take a
great step, a decisive step, a step which, like the upheaval of an
earthquake, will change the whole face of the intellectual world. It
will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations--but
without confounding them--darkness and light, the grotesque and the
sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and
the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the
starting-point of poetry. All things are connected.

Thus, then, we see a principle unknown to the ancients, a new type,
introduced in poetry; and as an additional element in anything
modifies the whole of the thing, a new form of the art is developed.
This type is the grotesque; its new form is comedy.

And we beg leave to dwell upon this point; for we have now indicated
the significant feature, the fundamental difference which, in our
opinion, separates modern from ancient art, the present form from
the defunct form; or, to use less definite but more popular terms,
_romantic_ literature from _classical_ literature.

"At last!" exclaim the people who for some time past _have seen what
we were coming at_, "at last we have you--you are caught in the act.
So then you put forward the ugly as a type for imitation, you make the
_grotesque_ an element of art. But the graces; but good taste! Don't
you know that art should correct nature? that we must _ennoble_ art?
that we must _select_? Did the ancients ever exhibit the ugly or the
grotesque? Did they ever mingle comedy and tragedy? The example of
the ancients, gentlemen! And Aristotle, too, and Boileau, and La Haipe
Upon my word!"

These arguments are sound, doubtless, and, above all, of extraordinary
novelty. But it is not our place to reply to them. We are constructing
no system here--God protect us from systems! We are stating a fact. We
are a his torian, not a critic. Whether the fact is agreeable or not
matters little, it is a fact. Let us resume, therefore, and try
to prove that it is of the fruitful union of the grotesque and the
sublime types that modern genius is born--so complex, so diverse in
its forms, so inexhaustible in its creations, and therein directly
opposed to the uniform simplicity of the genius of the ancients, let
us show that that is the point from which we must set out to establish
the real and radical difference between the two forms of literature.

Not that it is strictly true that comedy and the grotesque were
entirely unknown to the ancients. In fact, such a thing would be
impossible. Nothing grows without a root, the germ of the second epoch
always exists in the first. In the Iliad Thersites and Vulcan furnish
comedy, one to the mortals, the other to the gods. There is too much
nature and originality in the Greek tragedy for there not to be an
occasional touch of comedy in it. For example, to cite only what we
happen to recall, the scene between Menelaus and the portress of the
palace. _(Helen_, Act I), and the scene of the Phrygian _(Orestes,_
Act IV) The Tritons, the Satyrs, the Cyclops are grotesque, Polyphemus
is a terrifying, Silenus a farcical grotesque.

But one feels that this part of the art is still in its infancy. The
epic, which at this period imposes its form on everything, the epic
weighs heavily upon it and stifles it. The ancient grotesque is timid
and forever trying to keep out of sight. It is plain that it is not
on familiar ground, because it is not in its natural surroundings. It
conceals itself as much as it can. The Satyrs, the Tritons, and the
Sirens are hardly abnormal in form. The Fates and the Harpies are
hideous in their attributes rather than in feature; the Furies are
beautiful, and are called _Eumenides_, that is to say, _gentle,
beneficent_. There is a veil of grandeur or of divinity over other
grotesques. Polyphemus is a giant, Midas a king, Silenus a god.

Thus comedy is almost imperceptible in the great epic _ensemble_
of ancient times. What is the barrow of Thespis beside the Olympian
chariots? What are Aristophanes and Plautus, beside the Homeric
colossi, AEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides? Homer bears them along with
him, as Hercules bore the pygmies, hidden in his lion's skin!

In the idea of men of modern times, however, the grotesque plays an
enormous part. It is found everywhere; on the one hand it creates the
abnormal and the horrible, on the other the comic and the burlesque.
It fastens upon religion a thousand original superstitions, upon
poetry a thousand picturesque fancies. It is the grotesque which
scatters lavishly, in air, water, earth, fire, those myriads of
intermediary creatures which we find all alive in the popular
traditions of the Middle Ages; it is the grotesque which impels the
ghastly antics of the witches' revels, which gives Satan his horns,
his cloven foot and his bat's wings. It is the grotesque, still the
grotesque, which now casts into the Christian hell the frightful faces
which the severe genius of Dante and Milton will evoke, and again
peoples it with those laughter-moving figures amid which Callot, the
burlesque Michelangelo, will disport himself. If it passes from the
world of imagination to the real world, it unfolds an inexhaustible
supply of parodies of mankind. Creations of its fantasy are the
Scaramouches, Crispins and Harlequins, grinning silhouettes of man,
types altogether unknown to serious-minded antiquity, although they
originated in classic Italy. It is the grotesque, lastly, which,
colouring the same drama with the fancies of the North and of the
South in turn, exhibits Sganarelle capering about Don Juan and
Mephistopheles crawling about Faust.

And how free and open it is in its bearing! how boldly it brings
into relief all the strange forms which the preceding age had timidly
wrapped in swaddling-clothes! Ancient poetry, compelled to provide
the lame Vulcan with companions, tried to disguise their deformity by
distributing it, so to speak, upon gigantic proportions. Modern genius
retains this myth of the supernatural smiths, but gives it an entirely
different character and one which makes it even more striking; it
changes the giants to dwarfs and makes gnomes of the Cyclops. With
like originality, it substitutes for the somewhat commonplace Lernaean
hydra all the local dragons of our national legends--the gargoyle of
Rouen, the _gra-ouilli_ of Metz, the _chair sallee_ of Troyes, the
_dree_ of Montlhery, the _tarasque_ of Tarascon--monsters of forms so
diverse, whose outlandish names are an additional attribute. All these
creations draw from their own nature that energetic and significant
expression before which antiquity seems sometimes to have recoiled.
Certain it is that the Greek Eumenides are much less horrible, and
consequently less _true_, than the witches in _Macbeth_. Pluto is not
the devil.

In our opinion a most novel book might be written upon the employment
of the grotesque in the arts. One might point out the powerful
effects the moderns have obtained from that fruitful type, upon which
narrow-minded criticism continues to wage war even in our own day.
It may be that we shall be led by our subject to call attention in
passing to some features of this vast picture. We will simply say here
that, as a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is, in
our view, the richest source that nature can offer art. Rubens so
understood it, doubtless, when it pleased him to introduce the hideous
features of a court dwarf amid his exhibitions of royal magnificence,
coronations and splendid ceremonial. The universal beauty which the
ancients solemnly laid upon everything, is not without monotony; the
same impression repeated again and again may prove fatiguing at last.
Sublime upon sublime scarcely presents a contrast, and we need a
little rest from everything, even the beautiful. On the other
hand, the grotesque seems to be a halting-place, a mean term, a
starting-point whence one rises toward the beautiful with a
fresher and keener perception. The salamander gives relief to the
water-sprite; the gnome heightens the charm of the sylph.

And it would be true also to say that contact with the abnormal
has imparted to the modern sublime a something purer, grander, more
sublime, in short, than the beautiful of the ancients; and that is as
it should be. When art is consistent with itself, it guides everything
more surely to its goal. If the Homeric Elysium is a long, long way
from the ethereal charm, the angelic pleasureableness of Milton's
Paradise, it is because under Eden there is a hell far more terrible
than the heathen Tartarus. Do you think that Francesca da Rimini and
Beatrice would be so enchanting in a poet who should not confine us in
the Tower of Hunger and compel us to share Ugolino's revolting repast?
Dante would have less charm, if he had less power. Have the fleshly
naiads, the muscular Tritons, the wanton Zephyrs, the diaphanous
transparency of our water-sprites and sylphs? Is it not because the
modern imagination does not fear to picture the ghastly forms of
vampires, ogres, ghouls, snake-charmers and jinns prowling about
graveyards, that it can give to its fairies that incorporeal shape,
that purity of essence, of which the heathen nymphs fall so far short?
The antique Venus is beautiful, admirable, no doubt; but what has
imparted to Jean Goujon's faces that weird, tender, ethereal delicacy?
What has given them that unfamiliar suggestion of life and grandeur,
if not the proximity of the rough and powerful sculptures of the
Middle Ages?

If the thread of our argument has not been broken in the reader's mind
by these necessary digressions--- which in truth, might be developed
much further--he has realized, doubtless, how powerfully the
grotesque--that germ of comedy, fostered by the modern muse--grew in
extent and importance as soon as it was transplanted to a soil more
propitious than paganism and the Epic. In truth, in the new poetry,
while the sublime represents the soul as it is, purified by Christian
morality, the grotesque plays the part of the human beast. The former
type, delivered of all impure alloy, has as its attributes all the
charms, all the graces, all the beauties; it must be able some day
to create Juliet, Desdemona, Ophelia. The latter assumes all the
absurdities, all the infirmities, all the blemishes. In this partition
of mankind and of creation, to it fall the passions, vices, crimes;
it is sensuous, fawning, greedy, miserly, false, incoherent,
hypocritical; it is, in turn, Iago, Tartuffe, Basile, Polonius,
Harpagon, Bartholo, Falstaff, Scapin, Figaro. The beautiful has but
one type, the ugly has a thousand. The fact is that the beautiful,
humanly speaking, is merely form considered in its simplest aspect
in its most perfect symmetry, in its most entire harmony with our
make-up. Thus the _ensemble_ that it offers us is always complete, but
restricted like ourselves. What we call the ugly, on the contrary, is
a detail of a great whole which eludes us, and which is in harmony,
not with man but with all creation. That is why it constantly presents
itself to us in new but incomplete aspects.

It is interesting to study the first appearance and the progress
of the grotesque in modern times. At first, it is an invasion, an
irruption, an overflow, as of a torrent that has burst its banks. It
rushes through the expiring Latin literature, imparts some coloring to
Persius, Petronius and Juvenal, and leaves behind it the _Golden Ass_
of Apuleius. Thence it diffuses itself through the imaginations of the
new nations that are remodelling Europe. It abounds in the work of
the fabulists, the chroniclers, the romancists. We see it make its way
from the South to the North. It disports itself in the dreams of the
Teutonic nations, and at the same time vivifies with its breath
the admirable Spanish _romanceros_, a veritable Iliad of the age of
chivalry. For example, it is the grotesque which describes thus,
in the _Roman de la Rose_, an august ceremonial, the election of a

"A long-shanked knave they chose, I wis,
Of all their men the boniest."

More especially it imposes its characteristic qualities upon that
wonderful architecture which, in the Middle Ages, takes the place of
all the arts. It affixes its mark on the facades of cathedrals, frames
its hells and purgatories in the ogive arches of great doorways,
portrays them in brilliant hues on window-glass, exhibits its
monsters, its bull-dogs, its imps about capitals, along friezes, on
the edges of roofs. It flaunts itself in numberless shapes on the
wooden facades of houses, on the stone facades of chateaux, on the
marble facades of palaces. From the arts it makes its way into the
national manners, and while it stirs applause from the people for the
_graciosos_ of comedy, it gives to the kings court-jesters. Later,
in the age of etiquette, it will show us Scarron on the very edge of
Louis the Fourteenth's bed. Meanwhile it decorates coats of-arms, and
draws upon knight, shields the symbolic hieroglyphs of feudalism.
From the manners, it makes its way into the laws, numberless strange
customs at test its passage through the institutions of the Middle
Ages. Just as it represented Thespis, smeared with wine-lees, leaping
in her tomb it dances with the _Basoche_ on the famous marble table
which served at the same time as a stage for the popular farces and
for the royal banquets. Finally, having made its way into the arts,
the manners, and the laws, it enters even the Church. In every
Catholic city we see it organizing some one of those curious
ceremonies, those strange processions, wherein religion is attended by
all varieties of superstition--the sublime attended by all the forms
of the grotesque. To paint it in one stroke, so great is its vigour,
its energy, its creative sap, at the dawn of letters, that it casts,
at the outset, upon the threshold of modern poetry, three burlesque
Homers: Ariosto in Italy, Cervantes in Spain, Rabelais in France.

It would be mere surplusage to dwell further upon the influence of
the grotesque in the third civilization. Every thing tends to show its
close creative alliance with the beautiful in the so called "romantic"
period. Even among the simplest popular legends there are none which
do not somewhere, with an admirable instinct, solve this mystery of
modern art. Antiquity could not have produced _Beauty and the Beast_.

It is true that at the period at which we have arrived the
predominance of the grotesque over the sublime in literature is
clearly indicated. But it is a spasm of reaction, an eager thirst for
novelty, which is but temporary, it is an initial wave which gradually
recedes. The type of the beautiful will soon resume its rights and its
role, which is not to exclude the other principle, but to prevail over
it. It is time that the grotesque should be content with a corner
of the picture in Murillo's loyal frescoes, in the sacred pages of
Veronese, content to be introduced in two marvellous _Last Judgments_,
in which art will take a just pride, in the scene of fascination and
horror with which Michelangelo will embellish the Vatican, in those
awe-inspiring represervations of the fall of man which Rubens will
throw upon the arches of the Cathedral of Antwerp. The time has come
when the balance between the two principles is to be established. A
man, a poet-king, _poeta soverano_, as Dante calls Homer, is about
to adjust everything. The two rival genii combine their flames, and
thence issues Shakespeare.

We have now reached the poetic culmination of modern times.
Shakespeare is the drama; and the drama, which with the same breath
moulds the grotesque and the sublime, the terrible and the absurd,
tragedy and comedy--the drama is the distinguishing characteristic of
the third epoch of poetry, of the literature of the present day.

Thus, to sum up hurriedly the facts that we have noted thus far,
poetry has three periods, each of which corresponds to an epoch of
civilization: the ode, the epic, and the drama. Primitive times are
lyrical, ancient times epical, modern times dramatic. The ode sings
of eternity, the epic imparts solemnity to history, the drama depicts
life. The characteristic of the first poetry is ingenuousness, of
the second, simplicity, of the third, truth. The rhapsodists mark the
transition from the lyric to the epic poets, as do the romancists that
from the lyric to the dramatic poets. Historians appear in the second
period, chroniclers and critics in the third. The characters of
the ode are colossi--Adam, Cain, Noah; those of the epic are
giants--Achilles, Atreus, Orestes; those of the drama are men--Hamlet,
Macbeth, Othello. The ode lives upon the ideal, the epic upon the
grandiose, the drama upon the real. Lastly, this threefold poetry
flows from three great sources--The Bible, Homer, Shakespeare.

Such then--and we confine ourselves herein to noting a single
result--such are the diverse aspects of thought in the different
epochs of mankind and of civilization. Such are its three faces, in
youth, in manhood, in old age. Whether one examines one literature by
itself or all literatures _en masse,_ one will always reach the same
result: the lyric poets before the epic poets, the epic poets before
the dramatic poets. In France, Malherbe before Chapelain, Chapelain
before Corneille; in ancient Greece, Orpheus before Homer, Homer
before AEschylus; in the first of all books, _Genesis_ before _Kings,
Kings_ before _Job_; or to come back to that monumental scale of all
ages of poetry, which we ran over a moment since, The Bible before the
_Iliad_, the _Iliad_ before Shakespeare.

In a word, civilization begins by singing of its dreams, then narrates
its doings, and, lastly, sets about describing what it thinks. It is,
let us say in passing, because of this last, that the drama, combining
the most opposed qualities, may be at the same time full of profundity
and full of relief, philosophical and picturesque.

It would be logical to add here that everything in nature and in
life passes through these three phases, the lyric, the epic, and the
dramatic, because everything is born, acts, and dies. If it were not
absurd to confound the fantastic conceits of the imagination with the
stern deductions of the reasoning faculty, a poet might say that the
rising of the sun, for example, is a hymn, noon-day a brilliant epic,
and sunset a gloomy drama wherein day and night, life and death,
contend for mastery. But that would be poetry--folly, perhaps--- and
_what does it prove_?

Let us hold to the facts marshalled above; let us supplement them,
too, by an important observation, namely that we have in no wise
pretended to assign exclusive limits to the three epochs of poetry,
but simply to set forth their predominant characteristics. The Bible,
that divine lyric monument, contains in germ, as we suggested a moment
ago, an epic and a drama--_-Kings_ and _Job_. In the Homeric poems
one is conscious of a clinging reminiscence of lyric poetry and of a
beginning of dramatic poetry. Ode and drama meet in the epic. There is
a touch of all in each; but in each there exists a generative element
to which all the other elements give place, and which imposes its own
character upon the whole.

The drama is complete poetry. The ode and the epic contain it only
in germ; it contains both of them in a state of high development, and
epitomizes both. Surely, he who said: "The French have not the epic
brain," said a true and clever thing; if he had said, "The moderns,"
the clever remark would have been profound. It is beyond question,
however, that there is epic genius in that marvellous _Athalie,_ so
exalted and so simple in its sublimity that the royal century was
unable to comprehend it. It is certain, too, that the series of
Shakespeare's chronicle dramas presents a grand epic aspect. But it is
lyric poetry above all that befits the drama; it never embarrasses
it, adapts itself to all its caprices, disports itself in all forms,
sometimes sublime as in Ariel, sometimes grotesque as in Caliban. Our
era being above all else dramatic, is for that very reason eminently
lyric. There is more than one connection between the beginning and the
end; the sunset has some features of the sunrise; the old man becomes
a child once more. But this second childhood is not like the first;
it is as melancholy as the other is joyous. It is the same with lyric
poetry. Dazzling, dreamy, at the dawn of civilization it reappears,
solemn and pensive, at its decline. The Bible opens joyously with
_Genesis_ and comes to a close with the threatening _Apocalypse_. The
modern ode is still inspired, but is no longer ignorant. It meditates
more than it scrutinizes; its musing is melancholy. We see, by its
painful labour, that the muse has taken the drama for her mate.

To make clear by a metaphor the ideas that we have ventured to put
forth, we will compare early lyric poetry to a placid lake which
reflects the clouds and stars; the epic is the stream which flows from
the lake, and rushes on, reflecting its banks, forests, fields and
cities, until it throws itself into the ocean of the drama. Like the
lake, the drama reflects the sky; like the stream, it reflects its
banks; but it alone has tempests and measureless depths.

The drama, then, is the goal to which everything in modern poetry
leads. _Paradise Lost_ is a drama before it is an epic. As we know, it
first presented itself to the poet's imagination in the first of these
forms, and as a drama it always remains in the reader's memory, so
prominent is the old dramatic framework still beneath Milton's epic
structure! When Dante had finished his terrible _Inferno_, when he had
closed its doors and nought remained save to give his work a name, the
unerring instinct of his genius showed him that that multiform poem
was an emanation of the drama, not of the epic; and on the front
of that gigantic monument, he wrote with his pen of bronze: _Divina

Thus we see that the only two poets of modern times who are of
Shakespeare's stature follow him in unity of design They coincide with
him in imparting a dramatic tinge to all our poetry, like him, they
blend the grotesque with the sublime, and, far from standing
by themselves in the great literary _ensemble_ that rests upon
Shakespeare, Dante and Milton are, in some sort, the two supporting
abutments of the edifice of which he is the central pillar, the
buttresses of the arch of which he is the keystone.

Permit us, at this point, to recur to certain ideas already suggested,
which, however, it is necessary to emphasize. We have arrived, and now
we must set out again.

On the day when Christianity said to man "Thou art twofold, thou art
made up of two beings, one perishable, the other immortal, one carnal,
the other ethereal, one enslaved by appetites, cravings and passions,
the other borne aloft on the wings of enthusiasm and reverie--in a
word, the one always stooping toward the earth, its mother, the other
always darting up toward heaven, its fatherland"--on that day the
drama was created. Is it in truth, anything other than that contrast
of every day, that struggle of every moment, between two opposing
principles which are ever face to face in life, and which dispute
possession of man from the cradle to the tomb?

The poetry born of Christianity, the poetry of our time, is,
therefore, the drama, the real results from the wholly natural
combination of two types, the sublime and the grotesque, which meet
in the drama, as they meet in life and in creation. For true poetry,
complete poetry, consists in the harmony of contraries. Hence, it is
time to say aloud--and it is here above all that exceptions prove the
rule--that everything that exists in nature exists in art.

On taking one's stand at this point of view, to pass judgment on
our petty conventional rules, to disentangle all those scholastic
labyrinths, to solve all those trivial problems which the critics of
the last two centuries have laboriously built up about the art, one is
struck by the promptitude with which the question of the modern stage
is made clear and distinct. The drama has but to take a step to
break all the spider's webs with which the militia of Lilliput have
attempted to fetter its sleep.

And so, let addle-pated pedants (one does not exclude the other) claim
that the deformed, the ugly, the grotesque should never be imitated
in art; one replies that the grotesque is comedy, and that comedy
apparently makes a part of art. Tartuffe is not handsome, Pourceaugnac
is not noble, but Pourceaugnac and Tartuffe are admirable flashes of

If, driven back from this entrenchment to their second line of
custom-houses, they renew their prohibition of the grotesque coupled
with the sublime, of comedy melted into tragedy, we prove to them
that, in the poetry of Christian nations, the first of these two types
represents the human beast, the second the soul. These two stalks of
art, if we prevent their branches from mingling, if we persistently
separate them, will produce by way of fruit, on the one hand abstract
vices and absurdities, on the other, abstract crime, heroism and
virtue. The two types, thus isolated and left to themselves, will go
each its own way, leaving the real between them, at the left hand of
one, at the right hand of the other. Whence it follows that after
all these abstractions there will remain something to represent--man;
after these tragedies and comedies, something to create--the drama.

In the drama, as it may be conceived at least, if not executed, all
things are connected and follow one another as in real life. The
body plays its part no less than the mind; and men and events, set
in motion by this twofold agent, pass across the stage, burlesque and
terrible in turn, and sometimes both at once. Thus the judge will say:
"Off with his head and let us go to dinner!" Thus the Roman Senate
will deliberate over Domitian's turbot. Thus Socrates, drinking the
hemlock and discoursing on the immortal soul and the only God,
will interrupt himself to suggest that a cook be sacrificed to
_AEsculapius_. Thus Elizabeth will swear and talk Latin. Thus Richelieu
will submit to Joseph the Capuchin, and Louis XI to his barber, Maitre
Olivier le Diable. Thus Cromwell will say: "I have Parliament in my
bag and the King in my pocket"; or, with the hand that signed the
death sentence of Charles the First, smear with ink the face of a
regicide who smilingly returns the compliment. Thus Caesar, in his
triumphal car, will be afraid of overturning. For men of genius,
however great they be, have always within them a touch of the beast
which mocks at their intelligence. Therein they are akin to mankind
in general, for therein they are dramatic. "It is but a step from the
sublime to the ridiculous," said Napoleon, when he was convinced that
he was mere man; and that outburst of a soul on fire illumines art and
history at once; that cry of anguish is the resume of the drama and of

It is a striking fact that all these contrasts are met with in the
poets themselves, taken as men. By dint of meditating upon existence,
of laying stress upon its bitter irony, of pouring floods of sarcasm
and raillery upon our infirmities, the very men who make us laugh so
heartily become profoundly sad. These Democrituses are Heraclituses as
well. Beaumarchais was surly, Moliere gloomy, Shakespeare melancholy.

The fact is, then, that the grotesque is one of the supreme beauties
of the drama. It is not simply an appropriate element of it, but is
oftentimes a necessity. Sometimes it appears in homogeneous masses, in
entire characters, as Daudin, Prusias, Trissotin, Brid'oison, Juliet's
nurse; sometimes impregnated with terror, as Richard III, Begears,
Tartuffe, Mephistopheles; sometimes, too, with a veil of grace and
refinement, as Figaro, Osric, Mercutio, Don Juan. It finds its way
in everywhere; for just as the most commonplace have their occasional
moments of sublimity, so the most exalted frequently pay tribute
to the trivial and ridiculous. Thus, often impalpable, often
imperceptible, it is always present on the stage, even when it says
nothing, even when it keeps out of sight. Thanks to it, there is no
thought of monotony. Sometimes it injects laughter, sometimes horror,
into tragedy. It will bring Romeo face to face with the apothecary,
Macbeth with the witches, Hamlet with the grave-diggers. Sometimes
it may, without discord, as in the scene between King Lear and his
jester, mingle its shrill voice with the most sublime, the most
dismal, the dreamiest music of the soul.

That is what Shakespeare alone among all has succeeded in doing, in
a fashion of his own, which it would be no less fruitless than
impossible to imitate--Shakespeare, the god of the stage, in whom,
as in a trinity, the three characteristic geniuses of our stage,
Corneille, Moliere, Beaumarchais, seem united.

We see how quickly the arbitrary distinction between the species of
poetry vanishes before common sense and taste. No less easily one
might demolish the alleged rule of the two unities. We say _two_ and
not _three_ unities, because unity of plot or of _ensemble_, the only
true and well founded one, was long ago removed from the sphere of

Distinguished contemporaries, foreigners and Frenchmen, have already
attacked, both in theory and in practice that fundamental law of the
pseudo-Aristotelian code. Indeed, the combat was not likely to be a
long one. At the first blow it cracked, so worm eaten was that timber
of the old scholastic hovel!

The strange thing is that the slaves of routine pretend to rest their
rule of the two unities on probability, whereas reality is the very
thing that destroys it. Indeed, what could be more improbable and
absurd than this porch or peristyle or ante-chamber--vulgar places
where our tragedies are obliging enough to develop themselves; whither
conspirators come, no one knows whence, to declaim against the tyrant,
and the tyrant to declaim against the conspirators, each in turn, as
if they had said to one another in bucolic phrase--

Alternis cantemus, amant alterna Camenae.

Where did anyone ever see a porch or peristyle of that sort?
What could be more opposed--we will not say to the truth, for the
scholastics hold it very cheap, but to probability? The result is that
everything that is too characteristic, too intimate, too local, to
happen in the ante chamber or on the street-corner--that is to say,
the whole drama--takes place in the wings. We see on the stage only
the elbows of the plot, so to speak; its hands are somewhere
else. Instead of scenes we have narrative, instead of tableaux,
descriptions. Solemn-faced characters, placed, as in the old chorus,
between the drama and ourselves, tell us what is going on in the
temple, in the palace, on the public square, until we are tempted many
a time to call out to them: "Indeed! then take us there! It must be
very entertaining--a fine sight!" To which they would reply no doubt:
"It is quite possible that it might entertain or interest you, but
that isn't the question; we are the guardians of the dignity of the
French Melpomene." And there you are!

"But," someone will say, "this rule that you discard is borrowed from
the Greek drama." Wherein, pray, do the Greek stage and drama resemble
our stage and drama? Moreover, we have already shown that the vast
extent of the ancient stage enabled it to include a whole locality,
so that the poet could, according to the exigencies of the plot,
transport it at his pleasure from one part of the stage to another,
which is practically equivalent to a change of stage-setting. Curious
contradiction! the Greek theatre, restricted as it was to a national
and religious object, was much more free than ours, whose only
object is the enjoyment, and, if you please, the instruction, of the
spectator. The reason is that the one obeys only the laws that
are suited to it, while the other takes upon itself conditions
of existence which are absolutely foreign to its essence. One is
artistic, the other artificial.

People are beginning to understand in our day that exact localization
is one of the first elements of reality. The speaking or acting
characters are not the only ones who engrave on the minds of the
spectators a faithful representation of the facts. The place where
this or that catastrophe took place becomes a terrible and inseparable
witness thereof; and the absence of silent characters of this sort
would make the greatest scenes of history incomplete in the drama.
Would the poet dare to murder Rizzio elsewhere than in Mary Stuart's
chamber? to stab Henri IV elsewhere than in Rue de la Ferronerie, all
blocked with drays and carriages? to burn Jeanne d'Arc elsewhere than
in the Vieux-Marche? to despatch the Duc de Guise elsewhere than in
that chateau of Blois where his ambition roused a popular assemblage
to frenzy? to behead Charles I and Louis XVI elsewhere than in those
ill-omened localities whence Whitehall or the Tuileries may be seen,
as if their scaffolds were appurtenances of their palaces?

Unity of time rests on no firmer foundation than unity of place. A
plot forcibly confined within twenty-four hours is as absurd as one
confined within a peristyle. Every plot has its proper duration as
well as its appropriate place. Think of administering the same dose
of time to all events! of applying the same measure to everything! You
would laugh at a cobbler who should attempt to put the same shoe on
every foot. To cross unity of time and unity of place like the bars
of a cage, and pedantically to introduce therein, in the name of
Aristotle, all the deeds, all the nations, all the figures which
Providence sets before us in such vast numbers in real life,--to
proceed thus is to mutilate men and things, to cause history to
make wry faces. Let us say, rather, that everything will die in the
operation, and so the dogmatic mutilators reach their ordinary result:
what was alive in the chronicles is dead in tragedy. That is why the
cage of the unities often contains only a skeleton.

And then, if twenty-four hours can be comprised in two, it is a
logical consequence that four hours may contain forty-eight. Thus
Shakespeare's unity must be different from Corneille's. 'Tis pity!

But these are the wretched quibbles with which mediocrity, envy and
routine has pestered genius for two centuries past! By such means the
flight of our greatest poets has been cut short. Their wings have been
clipped with the scissors of the unities. And what has been given us
in exchange for the eagle feathers stolen from Corneille and Racine?

We imagine that someone may say: "There is something in too frequent
changes of scene which confuses and fatigues the spectator, and which
produces a bewildering effect on his attention; it may be, too, that
manifold transitions from place to place, from one time to another
time, demand explanations which repel the attention; one should
also avoid leaving, in the midst of a plot, gaps which prevent the
different parts of the drama from adhering closely to one another, and
which, moreover, puzzle the spectator because he does not know what
there may be in those gaps." But these are precisely the difficulties
which art has to meet. These are some of the obstacles peculiar to
one subject or another, as to which it would be impossible to pass
judgment once for all. It is for genius to overcome, not for treatises
or poetry to evade them.

A final argument, taken from the very bowels of the art, would of
itself suffice to show the absurdity of the rule of the two unities.
It is the existence of the third unity, unity of plot--the only one
that is universally admitted, because it results from a fact: neither
the human eye nor the human mind can grasp more than one _ensemble_ at
one time. This one is as essential as the other two are useless. It
is the one which fixes the view-point of the drama; now, by that very
fact, it excludes the other two. There can no more be three unities in
the drama than three horizons in a picture. But let us be careful not
to confound unity with simplicity of plot. The former does not in
any way exclude the secondary plots on which the principal plot
may depend. It is necessary only that these parts, being skilfully
subordinated to the general plan, shall tend constantly toward the
central plot and group themselves about it at the various stages, or
rather on the various levels of the drama. Unity of plot is the stage
law of perspective.

"But," the customs-officers of thought will cry, "great geniuses have
submitted to these rules which you spurn!" Unfortunately, yes. But
what would those admirable men have done if they had been left to
themselves? At all events they did not accept your chains without
a struggle. You should have seen how Pierre Corneille, worried and
harassed at his first step in the art on account of his marvellous
work, _Le Cid_, struggled under Mairet, Claveret, d'Aubignac and
Scuderi! How he denounced to posterity the violent attacks of those
men, who, he says, made themselves "all white with Aristotle!" You
should read how they said to him--and we quote from books of the
time: "Young man, you must learn before you teach; and unless one is
a Scaliger or a Heinsius that is intolerable!" Thereupon Corneille
rebels and asks if their purpose is to force him "much below
Claveret." Here Scuderi waxes indignant at such a display of pride,
and reminds the "thrice great author of _Le Cid_ of the modest words
in which Tasso, the greatest man of his age, began his apology for
the finest of his works against the bitterest and most unjust censure
perhaps that will ever be pronounced. M. Corneille," he adds, "shows
in his replies that he is as far removed from that author's moderation
as from his merit." The young man _so justly and gently reproved_
dares to protest; thereupon Scuderi returns to the charge; he calls
to his assistance the _Eminent Academy;_ "Pronounce, O my Judges, a
decree worthy of your eminence, which will give all Europe to know
that _Le Cid_ is not the chef-d'oeuvre of the greatest man in France,
but the least judicious performance of M. Corneille himself. You are
bound to do it, both for your own private renown; and for that of
our people in general, who are concerned in this matter; inasmuch
as foreigners who may see this precious masterpiece--they who have
possessed a Tasso or a Guarini--might think that our greatest masters
were no more than apprentices."

These few instructive lines contain the everlasting tactics of envious
routine against growing talent--tactics which are still followed in
our own day, and which, for example, added such a curious page to the
youthful essays of Lord Byron. Scuderi gives us its quintessence. In
like manner the earlier works of a man of genius are always preferred
to the newer ones, in order to prove that he is going down instead of
up--_Melite and La Galerie du Palais_ placed above _Le Cid_. And
the names of the dead are always thrown at the heads of the
living--Corneille stoned with Tasso and Guarini (Guarini!), as, later,
Racine will be stoned with Corneille, Voltaire with Racine, and as
to-day, everyone who shows signs of rising is stoned with Corneille,
Racine and Voltaire. These tactics, as will be seen, are well-worn;
but they must be effective as they are still in use. However, the poor
devil of a great man still breathed. Here we cannot help but admire
the way in which Scuderi, the bully of this tragic-comedy, forced to
the wall, blackguards and maltreats him, how pitilessly he unmasks
his classical artillery, how he shows the author of _Le Cid_ "what the
episodes should be, according to Aristotle, who tells us in the tenth
and sixteenth chapters of his _Poetics";_ how he crushes Corneille, in
the name of the same Aristotle "in the eleventh chapter of his _Art of
Poetry_, wherein we find the condemnation of _Le Cid_"; in the name
of Plato, "in the tenth book of his _Republic_"; in the name of
Marcellinus, "as may be seen in the twenty-seventh book"; in the name
of "the tragedies of Niobe and Jephthah"; in the name of the "_Ajax_
of Sophocles"; in the name of "the example of Euripides"; in the name
of "Heinsius, chapter six of the _Constitution_ of _Tragedy_; and
the younger Scaliger in his poems"; and finally, in the name of the
Canonists and Jurisconsults, under the title "Nuptials." The first
arguments were addressed to the Academy, the last one was aimed at
the Cardinal. After the pin-pricks the blow with a club. A judge was
needed to decide the question. Chapelain gave judgment. Corneille saw
that he was doomed; the lion was muzzled, or, as was said at the time,
the crow (_Corneille_) was plucked. Now comes the painful side of this
grotesque performance: after he had been thus quenched at his first
flash, this genius, thoroughly modern, fed upon the Middle Ages and
Spain, being compelled to lie to himself and to hark back to ancient
times, drew for us that Castilian Rome, which is sublime beyond
question, but in which, except perhaps in _Nicomede_, which was so
ridiculed by the eighteenth century for its dignified and simple
colouring, we find neither the real Rome nor the true Corneille.

Racine was treated to the same persecution, but did not make the same
resistance. Neither in his genius nor in his character was there any
of Corneille's lofty asperity. He submitted in silence and sacrificed
to the scorn of his time his enchanting elegy of _Esther_, his
magnificent epic, _Athalie_. So that we can but believe that, if he
had not been paralyzed as he was by the prejudices of his epoch, if
he had come in contact less frequently with the classic cramp-fish,
he would not have failed to introduce Locuste in his drama between
Narcisse and Neron, and above all things would not have relegated to
the wings the admirable scene of the banquet at which Seneca's pupil
poisons Britannicus in the cup of reconciliation. But can we demand
of the bird that he fly under the receiver of an air-pump? What a
multitude of beautiful scenes the _people of taste_ have cost us, from
Scuderi to La Harpe! A noble work might be composed of all that their
scorching breath has withered in its germ. However, our great poets
have found a way none the less to cause their genius to blaze forth
through all these obstacles. Often the attempt to confine them behind
walls of dogmas and rules is vain. Like the Hebrew giant they carry
their prison doors with them to the mountains.

But still the same refrain is repeated, and will be, no doubt, for
a long while to come: "Follow the rules! Copy the models! It was the
rules that shaped the models." One moment! In that case there are two
sorts of models, those which are made according to the rules, and,
prior to them, those according to which the rules were made. Now, in
which of these two categories should genius seek a place for itself?
Although it is always disagreeable to come in contact with pedants,
is it not a thousand times better to give them lessons than to receive
lessons from them? And then--copy! Is the reflection equal to the
light? Is the satellite which travels unceasingly in the same circle
equal to the central creative planet? With all his poetry Virgil is no
more than the moon of Homer.

And whom are we to copy, I pray to know? The ancients? We have just
shown that their stage has nothing in common with ours. Moreover,
Voltaire, who will have none of Shakespeare, will have none of the
Greeks, either. Let him tell us why: "The Greeks ventured to produce
scenes no less revolting to us. Hippolyte, crushed by his fall,
counts his wounds and utters doleful cries. Philoctetes falls in his


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