« AnteriorContinuar »
stance of chance in opposition to design. But every reader feels the illustration to be imperfect because the antithesis is a false one. The stone is not a counterpart to a watch; it is only itself one wheel in a still greater watch, that is, the universe. The imperfect sample is felt in the subsequent reasoning. There was no place to be found, no object in creation that could supply an adequate illustration. The author would have had to go back to the original chaos, about which we know so little, to find the shadow of a comparison ; and even there another power first permits and then interposes
Hanc Deus, et nielior litem Nature diremit
The Anarch in Milton, the king of chaos and "the nethermost abyss, complains that the creations of God had invaded the confusion of his realms:
I upon my frontiers here
Paradise Lost, B. ii. lines 997-1005.
This is a striking illustration of the results of all our examinations into the laws of nature. The old Anarch is seen to retire and complain, until at last he vanishes into a shadow. "The laws," says bishop Butler, "by which persons, born into the world at such a time and place, are of such capacities, geniuses, tempers; the laws by which thoughts come into our mind, in a multitude of cases; and by which innumerable things happen, of the greatest influence on the affairs and state of the world; these laws are so wholly unknown to us, that we call the events which come to pass by them, accidental; though all men know certainly that there cannot, in reality, be any such thing as chance; and conelude that the things which have this appearance, are the result of general laws, and may be reduced into them." •
The same principle extends to mind. The will, however free and apparently capricious in its decisions, is still governed by laws, which are laws because their influence is universal. It is very true that the coercions of material nature extend not to mind; a ship is turned by a power which the mind of its master never feels. A motive and a natural power are not the same. Yet the mind submits to its own laws, and no man for a moment jumps out of his character.
In the collected world, the same stern uniformity prevails. Nations rise and fall, battles are won and lost; political organizations are made and dissolved by uniform causes which few can foresee and all are compelled to acknowledge when their latency is developed in the effect.
Literature is no doubt eminently a mental development, and therefore exists under two essential conditions: first, apparent caprice; and secondly, behind that caprice, an eternal law. Let us consider, then, the caprices and laws of literature, or rather the invariable laws which latently govern the caprices of literature. A clock sometimes has a dancing figure which comes out at a peculiar hour and seems to be a spontaneous performer; but no one doubts, on the least reflection, that the fantastic figure is guided by the same weights and wheels which move the more regulated hands, and point out the minute and the hour.
In stating the following instances of caprice over law, and law under caprice, we are far from pretending that our register is complete. It is a specimen, which demonstrates the track in which observation must walk, in order to verify, or confute.
First, then, in the infancy of literature originality is a cause and a help to universal acceptance; in the second stages of progression, it is an impediment, at least for a season. Homer and Shakspeare were at once acknowledged.
1 Analogy, Part II. c. 4.
The thrill of their genius was immediate; but afterwards peculiarities are found to be disagreeable and are pronounced wrong. The more original the writer, the glower his acceptance. The reason is obvious; the world has accommodated itself to its favorite models, and every deviation seems to indicate a bad taste, and of course perverse power.
Secondly, mannerism is at first an impediment and then a help, whenever it is united with strong power. We have by us now an old periodical, the Monthly Mirror, in which is a criticism on Cooke, the famous tragedian's first appearance in Covent Garden theatre. The writer says: " Admiration supersedes objection, and such are the insinuating effects of his acting, that the peculiarities which rather offend at first, grow more pleasing by degrees, and before the close of his performance, have lost nearly all their weight in the scale of criticism."1 It is so with poems, histories, fictions, and sermons; every reader and hearer has felt it. Not one of the passages in Milton, which Bentley has exscinded with his " desperate hook," could now be spared. They are generally admired.
Thirdly, sometimes one great work of an author obscures and sinks the other works, and sometimes buoys up and preserves its weaker brethren. Milton's versification of the Psalms is always preserved, in the volumes of his poetry, though worse than mediocrity; while Thomson's Liberty is seldom published with his Seasons. Now we venture to say that Thomson has shown greater poetic art and conquered greater difficulties, in the fine parts of his poem on liberty, than he has in his Seasons, though he has not produced so attractive a composition. Yet Liberty always sinks, and Milton's Psalms always swam.2 De Foe's great
'Monthly Mirror, Nov. 1800.
2 It is astonishing, however, what stuff some of the good poets wrote. A« eagle seldom perches hut on a lofty cliff. But genius — how high it soars I how low it sinks! Ot^ny and Lee were geniuses, but who can read — who would not glndly burn their worst works? Dryden himself—how low he can gol How wretched beyond conception! We tried to read his Wilt> Gai.laxt, his first comedy, sixty times at least, and succeeded at last only by the curiosity to know work is universally read; his other performances, though bearing all the marks of his very peculiar genius, are universally neglected. The law that governs this result, we shall not venture to state.
Fourthly, it has often been remarked that the best works are produced when criticism is least known. One reason is, fear destroys spontaneity.
Fifthly, our estimate of a writer's originality is often a deception. Virgil set down with a desperate resolution to imitate Homer; and he is no more like him than the Venus de Medici is like the old man of the mountains among the White Hills of New Hampshire. Thomson never tried to imitate Virgil, and yet one could almost conclude that the soul of the one had transmigrated into the other.1 The forte of both is beautiful description. We call Homer original; and Dr. Anthon, in his late edition of Horace, declares that few authors have less claims to originality than the Roman lyrist. It would not be wonderful, however, if Horace had added more to the field of invention than was ever added by Homer. For first, Homer is a shadow, and there is some danger that even his personality will vanish; secondly, who knows what help he had in the previous elements which time has confirmed and the laws of thought have allowed to perish? and lastly, the later author has, in some respects, the harder task, as Horace himself complains:
Rectius Hiacum carmen deducis in actus
Ars Poetica, 128—130.
It should be remembered that, in certain stages of civilization, certain poets stand in a peculiar position with respect to their predecessors: they are like the last leaf on a limb in
how dull a man of real genius could be. It was too dull for the theatre in Charles ll.'s day; and yet it is wicked enough to be the work of genius — perhaps we ought to add, of his genius.
1 That is, in the relish for the beautiful. They differ in that Virgil is concise, and Thomson tends to the verbose.
autumn; time has swept away the books they read; the helps they enjoyed and all the scaffolding by which they were assisted to erect the fabric of their exclusive reputation. Such was Homer (if he was a personal being), such was Shakspeare; such are all the monarch* in literature who occupy the throne in the early ages. We call them original because all their early helps are forgotten.
Sixthly, a remarkable phenomenon in literature is the temporary popularity of some writers; they go up like meteors, and expire almost as soon, while others of a permanent reputation are of a very slow acceptance.1 In our own memory, Hervey's Meditations were universally read; they called the attention of thousands of sentimentalists to re* ligion, who had never read a page of religious reading before. Hervey in the closet was like Whitefield in the desk, an object of popular attention. Ossian was regarded as a sublime poet by some of the most reputable critics. — Blair, Gray, Hume; and the poetry of the Delia Crascan school was read with rapture in London and imitated in America by Robert Treat Paine and Mrs. Morton, and a host of others. Cowper's reputation was of slow growth; but what a difference now! All this we attribute to caprice. But there is a law. The reading public had been satiated with the imitations of Pope; and in such a state, even the mawkish Delia Cruscan folly seemed at first to be original. It was certainly an innovation.
Seventhly, with this is connected another fact: some authors are killed by the first blow of criticism, like a snake under a switch; and from others the critic's censures rebound like a rifle-ball from the hide of a rhinoceros. Thus
1 Whoever has read Don Quixote, must have noticed how attractive, how fatally sweet, was the rending of hooks of chivalry in that age, and how Amadis de Gaul, in its four folio volumes, is the most tedious detail of iucredihle nonsense that was ever put into the hands of a lover of fiction. How is it that what was once so sweet has now become so wearisome; and how different its attraction* from Homer, or even the Arabian Nights. The strong temporary attraction of eHch of tlicm. and the permanency of the two latter, are remarkable examples of the different gradations of genius, and their different effects on mankind.