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earliest period, in the thirteenth, twelfth, and eleventh centuries, anachronisms are incessantly to be met with, poetry no longer offering even a shadow of historical truth. An illuminated manuscript of Heinrich von Weldecke, a German epic poet, at the end of the twelfth century, sets forth the heroes of the poem as dressed in the prevailing fashion of the author's day, and gives a picture of Æneas playing at chess.
In the “ Æneas” of Benoit de Sainte-More, the Latin Prince Turnus is made a marquis, and the banner of Æneas floats on the castle of Montauban which is attacked by the High Constable. Our ancestors had, in the words of Schlegel,“ a powerful consciousness of the universal validity and the solid permanency of their own manner of being, an undoubting conviction that it has always so been, and will ever continue so to be in the world.” * M. Joly, author of a work on “The Metamorphoses
a undergone by Homer and the Greco-Latin epic in the Middle Ages,” remarks with much acuteness that the classical subjects chosen by Benoit de Sainte-More, the “Romance of Æneas” and the “Romance of Troy,” were easily relished by the people whose very ignorance here stood them in good stead.
“The Middle Ages have no idea of chronology," he writes, “ is characteristic of a people in its infancy; all they can do is to distinguish between yesterday and days of old. The Arab not only cares little for historical dates, but even lets the days go by uncounted, time is nothing to him. Even the peasant has no notion of different degrees of antiquity, and only knows that a thing is ' very old.' In fact, in his mind there are no dates but two, the present and the past, and all past ages are to him equally remote and mingle in the same nebulous distance. For this reason the Middle Ages never trouble themselves to distinguish between pagan antiquity and Jewish or Christian antiquity; they mix up altogether the Bible and Paganism, the East, Rome, and Greece; and only know the ancients. Turn over
* Translation by John Black of Schlegel's “ Dramatic Art and Literature," Lecture XXI.
the leaves of the most learned man of his day, John of Salisbury; his works are a vast encyclopædia, a whole library of historical details borrowed indifferently from all times and all nations; but for him it is simply the history the ancients—and not of the ancients only, but also of ancestors, 'majores nostri’ as a Roman senator would have said. John of Salisbury appropriates the Latin authors and speaks of ‘noster Terentius.' This explains at once why the heroes of Greek and Roman history became as popular as those of the Chansons de Geste. They were all ancestors, only some had lived a little longer ago than others. The difference of time was vaguely felt, but without having any importance attached to it.” * Only one example need be given of this naïveté (as ignorance is poetically termed), which led the Middle Ages to confound sacred antiquity with profane, Homer with Scripture, and Greece and Rome with the East. In the · Roman de Troie,” when Diomedes conducts Cressida to her tent, the poet thinks it right to inform us that this tent had belonged to Pharaoh who was drowned in the Red Sea.
“ Diomedes tant la conduit
Qu'il descendi al paveillon,
Cil qui noia en la mer Roge.” Anachronisms in the drama, in poetry, and in art generally, are therefore, apparently, in an inverse ratio to the progress of learning; innumerable in times of ignorance, but becoming rarer in proportion to the spread of historical knowledge. Such at least is the conclusion to which we are led by the first superficial glance thrown over the history of literature. For my part, I freely and willingly admit that there are anachronisms due to pure ignorance or carelessness, positive though slight and venial mistakes that might easily have been avoided by a little more knowledge or attention. It is evident, for instance, that Shakespeare would have done better in not
“Benoit de Sainte-More et le Roman de Troie, ou les Metamorphoses d'Homère et de l'Épopée Greco-Latine au moyen âge,” by A. Joly, Vol. II.
giving clocks to the Romans and rapiers to the Greeks, and in not putting the name of Aristotle into Hector's mouth, or that of Milo of Crotona into a speech of Ulysses. But there are anachronisms in Shakespeare that go deeper than these, anachronisms in manners, such as transforming Romans into Englishmen, if Goethe's remark is true, and Trojan heroes into mediæval knights; and that such as these are to be looked upon as wrong and as inevitably to be swept away by the onward march of learning may be very greatly questioned.
The difficulty by which the artist (speaking chiefly though not exclusively of the dramatic poet) finds himself confronted, is that he is compelled, for the sake of poetry, to seek his subject in a world far removed either by time or space from his own, while at the same time, if he wishes to interest his audience, he must necessarily paint a picture in which his countrymen and contemporaries can recognize a likeness to themselves. He is forced to go far afield for his subject, because the spectacle offered by the ordinary world around him is devoid of poetry; comedy alone being capable of dealing with the prosaic realities of every-day life. It was during that
most prosaic period of the literary history of France, the eighteenth century, that the drama of domestic middleclass life began to flourish. To eloquence, to pathos, to moral truth it may justly lay claim, but by its very definition it negatives all thought of poetry. It proceeds upon the ridiculous assumption that only the real and the actual, or in other words the prosaic, should be admitted on the stage, as if the theatre was not a necessarily and essentially conventional place, and as if it would be worth while to pay the price of a box or of a stall, and appear in evening attire, in a brilliantly lighted scene, amongst beautiful and gaily dressed women, merely to see and hear the sights and sounds of everyday life!
If we look at the two great periods of dramatic poetry in France, the seventeenth century and the year 1830, and also examine the times in Germany and England when it reached its highest point of excellence, it will be seen that romantic and classical tragedy, Victor Hugo and Racine, German tragedy and English, Schiller, Goethe and Shakespeare, all alike borrow the subjects of their masterpieces from past ages or far-off countries. The reason is very simple. Liberty is an imperative necessity for the poet's imagination which is miserably cramped and straightened by the vulgarities of the present, and by its paltry and circumstantial details; and so, travelling forth in search of the Ideal, it plunges into the boundless and vague regions of centuries more or less forgotten, or of countries that are little known, and there at last it meets with the untrammelled generalities suited to poetical representations.
But on the other hand, the poet is the true child of his age. Every great work of art bears so clearly and deeply the impress of the time when it was created, that the products of literary and artistic genius may be ranked among the most valuable and authentic historical documents. The contradiction inherent to the very nature of the poetic drama, the anachronism that lies at its very
* Racine, in his preface to “Bajazet,” has some excellent remarks on this matter : “In truth, I would never advise an author to choose so modern a plot as this for the subject of a tragedy, had it happened in the country in which his tragedy was to be acted, nor to place upon the stage heroes whom the greater part of the audience had known. Tragic personages require to be looked at in a different light from that in which we generally regard those whom we have seen near. It may be said that heroes receive respect in proportion to their distance from us : major e longinquo reverentia. Remoteness of country may in some sort make up for too close proximity in time; for people make little difference between what, if I may so say, is a thousand years or a thousand miles off. And it is for this reason that Turks, for instance, however modern they may be, yet always have a certain dignity on the stage.”
root, is that while its subject is necessarily ancient or foreign, its spirit must be modern and national.
This contradiction must beyond all question be fully accepted and allowed in art, and the wish to suppress it should never for an instant be entertained; all such inconsistencies, for there are many others, far from being injurious, are the very secret of life and of beauty, and all that happens when an artist or a critic of sound judgment, but more matter-of-fact than subtle or acute, condemns or suppresses them, is that the delicate plant of art perishes for the sake of logic under his well-meaning but clumsy hands.
Ben Jonson is an example of the error into which a dramatic poet falls, when, in order to avoid this fundamental anachronism, he abstracts himself from all surrounding realities, and shuts himself up with jealous knowledge in the period and place whence he has taken his subject. The tragedies of “Sejanus” and of “Catalina”are prodigies of accurate and patient learning. Ben Jonson applied himself with minute care to the task of not introducing a single speech of which the text or model could not be found in some classical author; continual footnotes send the reader to corresponding passages in Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and Pliny, etc., to assure him that the poet has written nothing by inspiration, and has indulged in no random flights of imagination, nor allowed himself a single word or gesture unauthorized by antiquity. But the result of this painful and conscientious learning is two remarkable, but perfectly cold works, which are extremely entertaining to antiquarians but without the slightest interest for the people. Yet it is for the people, for the hard-working clerk, who only reads his newspaper, and for “poor Laforest,* who
* The name of Molière's servant, to whom it is said he read his plays. (See Alfred de Musset's “ Namouna.")