Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

a

[ocr errors]

could not read at all,” that the dramatic poet writes, not for the members of learned academies.

.

As Hegel says in his lectures on Æsthetics :

“ Works of art should not be composed so as to be objects of study and a matter of learning. They ought to make themselves immediately understood and appreciated without all the paraphernalia of knowledge, for art is not destined for a small privileged class composed of scholars aud erudite persons, but for the whole nation. ... A work of art should be clear, easily apprehended by all of us, men of our own time and nation, without demanding any great learning. In a word, it should make us feel at home, and not bring us face to face with a foreign and unintelligible world.” It is from having failed to recognize this great principle, that the author of “ Sejanus” and of “ Catalina” has laid himself open to the judgment pronounced upon him by M. Mézières—a judgment admitting of no appeal, because, while criticising the faults that strike him, he assigns a due place to praise

“In his two tragedies, Ben Jonson remains what he was in his comedies—a learned man and a vigorous writer, rather than a dramatic poet. . . . He treats certain parts with singular force, but his great erudition lies upon him like a burden. . . . He fancied that by an abundance of exact details, he could reproduce the physiognomy of a past epoch, and never perceived that the life and action of the drama lay crushed beneath their weight. The same error prevented him, when composing his tragedies, from placing himself sufficiently on a modern standpoint, and he never properly took into account the public he was about to address, but wrote as if his audience were composed of Romans of the first or second century, A.D. . . . He concerned himself about questions which may have been interesting to the con. temporaries of Catalina and of Sejanus, but which failed to excite the faintest interest in Englishmen of the seventeenth century.”

A short digression on the present state of literature in France, or rather on one of its aspects, may here be allowed, for it would seem that archæological versifiers after the manner of Ben Jonson have risen up, and have attempted an enterprise not unlike his, although made in another sphere of art than that of the drama.

A taste for exotic curiosities brought to light by learned research, the natural exhaustion of the great lyrical vein, after the outburst of masterpieces by the great French poets of this century, and a mistaken application of the formula of art for art's sake, have given birth to a school of versifiers called Parnassians, on account of their having withdrawn from the world to the summits of Mount Parnassus. There, raised above all local and temporary influences, they compose admirable verses, written under no condition of time or place, and dated from eternity. But their poetry labours under one little drawback—that of making the reader yawn, and of being wearisome beyond all expression. The cardinal doctrine of their creed makes it a duty to flee from giving expression to anything so common as the immediate interests of the day, the general feelings and spirit of the hour, lest art should be vulgarized by contact with the present; but this failure, on their part, to recognize that Art has no exclusive affinity with the past, and that all ages are equal in her sight, inevitably suggests a doubt with regard to their possession of adequate poetic power to mould even their favourite subjects, chosen from the earliest traditions or remotest lands, into true works of art. The Parnassians ransack Turkey, China, Norway, Morocco, or Japan, in search of fit subjects for their pictures, and when they have displayed an undoubted talent for the picturesque, an undeniable attention to local colour, and a great facility of versification, they believe themselves to have produced a work of poetry. But this is a mistake, for the Turkey of the Turks, the China of the Chinese, belong to the regions of knowledge, and not to those of poetry. The sentiments expressed by the Turks, in common with the Greeks and Romans that Racine placed upon the stage, were French and modern sentiments, and this very thing that to superficial criticism appears a ridiculous error, is in fact an essential law of art. Whether a poet sing of past or of present, one thing is certain, that it is his clear duty to interest his readers, and if he cannot or will not do this, the just and logical consequence is that he will not be read. A great poet not only reveals beauties

. hitherto invisible, but is also the spokesman of humanity, gathering up and condensing the vague murmurs he hears around him, and giving high and clear expression to the inarticulate instincts of the people.

In the eighteenth century, through ignorance of history and excessive national vanity, French poetry and criticism fell into the opposite error to that committed by Ben Jonson and all archæological versifiers. Voltaire, whose name sums up all the art and philosophy of his times, was led by his blind admiration for the age of Louis XIV. to represent what was only a passing phase of thought, of feeling, and of writing, as an absolute and universal type of beauty. The great poets of Louis XIV.'s time had, in obedience to the canons of art, committed their own particular anachronism, and had brought upon the stage Greeks and Romans penetrated with the spirit of the seventeenth century: and this, indeed, was well; but it was likewise natural and right that a fresh anachronism should take the place of the former one, and finally, in its own turn, be superseded by another; for although poets borrow their subjects from the great treasures open to them all, poetry is the flexible expression of a changing and fleeting society. But this was not understood by Voltaire, whose admiration for the age of Louis XIV. was so excessive, that he considered its style a model for all times and for all places, and by a strange aberration of the poetic and historical sense, he found fault with the heroes of Æschylus, of Sophocles, and of Euripides, with the supernatural personages of Milton, and with the men and women of Shakespeare, for not speaking like Racine's lords and ladies; that is, like the court of Louis XIV. All that departed from this model was regarded as barbarous and in bad taste; and to give a French colouring to ancient and foreign authors was considered an indispensable improvement,—such was the blindness of an infatuated nation on the morrow of its greatest literary epoch.

This lasted until the awakening of historical criticism, and the spread of foreign literature culminated in the great poetical revolution of 1830, when ridicule was let loose upon the Frenchified Greeks of Racine, and much noise was made about local colour, and men boasted of committing no more anachronisms. But here they strangely deceived themselves; for in reasserting the right of dramatic art to be the expression of an existing society, instead of being that of one that had long ceased to exist, they simply inaugurated a new anachronism. They shook off, and with good reason, the yoke of an artificial and obsolete type, but they did no more than this, and the Romantic revolution may be defined, with a certain amount of truth, as the “ emancipation of the natural anachronisms of art." Under the dazzling variety of their scrupulously historical costumes, the personages of the new drama once more became and remained Frenchmen of the day. Hernani and Ruy Blas are not Spaniards, but the young men of 1830, with their imaginations heated by Byron and Châteaubriand. But far from this being a blemish, the admission of such anachronisms is in fact the only condition upon which true poetry can thrive at all. The vital principle of the drama is the soul and spirit of the age, history being but the framework and outward form ; local and temporary characteristics are therefore only of secondary importance, and are not so much the business of the poet as of some archeological friend and of the stagemanager, But then, in all fairness, these gentlemen of the Romantic School must give over laughing at the anachronisms of Racine; and the ineptitude of Douce's remarks, when he banters Shakespeare for having turned his Greek and Romans into Englishmen of the sixteenth century, must be fully recognized. As M. Taine forcibly says :

“Racine has been blamed for having given portraits of Louis XIV.'s courtiers under ancient names, but this is precisely wherein his real merit lies. The stage always represents contemporary manners; the mythological heroes of Euripides are orators and philosophers like the young Athenians of his day; when Shakespeare wished to paint Cæsar, Brutus, Ajax, and Thersites, he depicted men of the sixteenth century, and all the young men in Victor Hugo's plays are sons of the people, brooding and ripe for revolt, descendants of Réné and Childe Harold. An artist copies but what he sees, and can copy nothing else; distance and historical perspective only help him to endow the facts with poetry.”

This natural and essential anachronism in art, consisting in the necessity under which a poet lies of taking his subject from distant countries or from past times, and in the obligation, on the other hand, of representing the spirit of contemporaneous and national life, it would be folly to attempt to destroy ; but there are two methods of lessening its effect and of preventing it from offering too rude a shock. One of them is open to all men of talent, but the other is the secret of genius alone.

The first method consists in the writer choosing his subject from the early history of his own country, by which means the unavoidable anachronism in time is not further complicated by that of place, and even the incongruity of time is softened and mitigated in those countries where the traditional national character has been preserved. This was the case with the tragedies of Æschylus, of Sophocles, and of Euripides in Greece, with the romances of the Cid in Spain, and with the historical plays of Shakespeare in England. No such instance, or none at least of equal importance, can be produced in France, but this perhaps is not much to be regretted. In

« AnteriorContinuar »