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(AUGUST, 1817.); ? haracters" or Shakespeare's Plays. By WILLIAM Hazlitt.
of 294,9 11:11h di Bvo. pp. 352. London: 1817.*
pilitiniu led ; This is not a book of black-letter learning, or historical elucidation; neither is it a metaphysical dissertation, full of wise perplexities and elaborate reconcilements. It is, in truth, rather an encomium on Shakespeare, than a commentary or critique on him ---and is written, more to show extraordinary love, than extraordinary knowledge, of his productions. - Nevertheless, it is a very pleasing book —and, we do not hesitate to say, a book of very considerable originality and genius. The author is not merely an admirer of our great dramatist, but an Idolater of him; and openly professes his idolatry. We have ourselves too great a leaning to the same superstition, to blame him very much for his error: and though we think, of course, that our own admiration is, on the whole, more discriminating and judicious, there are not many points on which, especially after reading his eloquent exposition of them, we should be much inclined to disagree with him.
The book, as we have already intimated, is written less to tell the reader what Mr. H. knows about Shakespeare or his writings, than to explain to them what he feels about them—and why he feels so—and thinks that all who profess to love poetry should feel so likewise.
* It may be thought that enough had been said of our early dramatists, in the immediately preceding article ; and it probably is 50. But I could not resist the temptation of thus renewing, in my own name, that vow of allegiance, which I had so often taken anonymously, to the only true and lawful King of our English Poetry! and now venture, therefore, fondly to replace this slight and perishable wreath on his august and undecaying shrine: with no farther apology than that it presumes to direct attention but to one, and that, as I think, a comparatively neglected, aspect of his universal genius.
HAZLITT-HIS ENTHUSIASM FOR SHAKESPEARE.
What we chiefly look for in such a work, accordingly, is a fine sense of the beauties of the author, and an eloquent exposition of them; and all this, and more, we think, may be found in the volume before us. There is nothing niggardly in Mr. H.'s praises, and nothing affected in his raptures. He seems animated throughout with a full and hearty sympathy with the delight which his author should inspire, and pours himself gladly out in explanation of it, with a fluency and ardour, obviously much more akin to enthusiasm than affectation. He seems pretty generally, indeed, in a state of happy intoxication -- and has borrowed from his great original, not indeed the force or brilliancy of his fancy, but something of its playfulness, and a large share of his apparent joyousness and self-indulgence in its exercise. It is evi. dently a great pleasure to him to be fully possessed with the beauties of his author, and to follow the impulse of his unrestrained eagerness to impress them upon his readers.
When we have said that his observations are generally right, we have said, in substance, that they are not generally original; for the beauties of Shakespeare are not of so dim or equivocal a nature as to be visible only to learned eyes — and undoubtedly his finest passages are those which please all classes of readers, and are admired for the same qualities by judges from every school of criticism. Even with regard to those passages, however, a skilful commentator will find something worth hearing to tell. Many persons are very sensible of the effect of fine poetry on their feelings, who do not well know how to refer these feelings to their causes ; and it is always a delightful thing to be made to see clearly the sources from which our delight has proceeded - and to trace back the mingled stream that has flowed upon our hearts, to the remoter fountains from which it has been gathered. And when this is done with warmth as well as precision, and embodied in an eloquent description of the beauty which is explained, it forms one of the most attractive, and not the least instructive, of literary exercises. In all works of merit, however, and
especially in all works of original genius, there are a thousand retiring and less obtrusive graces, which escape hasty and superficial observers, and only give out their beauties to fond and patient contemplation;- a thousand slight and harmonising touches, the merit and the effect of which are equally imperceptible to vulgar eyes; and a thousand indications of the continual presence of that poetical spirit, which can only be recognised by those who are in some measure under its influence, or have prepared themselves to receive it, by worshipping meekly at the shrines which it inhabits.
In the exposition of these, there is room enough for originality,—and more room than Mr. H. has yet filled.
In many points, however, he has acquitted himself excellently ;- partly in the development of the principal characters with which Shakespeare has peopled the fancies of all English readers — but principally, we think, in the delicate sensibility with which he has traced, and the natural eloquence with which he has pointed out that fond familiarity with beautiful forms and images -- that eternal recurrence to what is sweet or majestic in the simple aspects of nature — that indestructible love of flowers and odours, and dews and clear waters, and soft airs and sounds, and bright skies, and woodland solitudes, and moonlight bowers, which are the Material elements of Poetry — and that fine sense of their undefinable relation to mental emotion, which is its essence and vivifying Soul -- and which, in the midst of Shakespeare's most busy and atrocious scenes, falls like gleams of sunshine on rocks and ruins — contrasting with all that is rugged and repulsive, and reminding us of the existence of purer and brighter elements ! — which he ALONE has poured out from the richness of his own mind, without effort or restraint; and contrived to intermingle with the play of all the passions, and the vulgar course of this world's affairs, without deserting for an instant the proper business of the scene, or appearing to pause or digress, from love of ornament or need of repose! HE ALONE, who, when the object requires it, is always keen and worldly and practical -- and who yet, without
changing his hand, or stopping his course, scatters around him, as he goes, all sounds and-shapes of sweetness—and conjures up landscapes of immortal fragrance and freshness, and peoples them with Spirits of glorious aspect and attractive grace and is a thousand times more full of fancy and imagery, and splendour, than those who, in pursuit of such enchantments, have shrunk back from the delineation of character or passion, and declined the discussion of human duties and cares. More full of wisdom and ridicule and sagacity, than all the moralists and satirists that ever existedhe is more wild, airy, and inventive, and more pathetic and fantastic, than all the poets of all regions and ages of the world: - and has all those elements so happily mixed up in him, and bears his high faculties so temperately, that the most severe reader cannot complain of him for want of strength or of reason - nor the most sensitive for de
'11 fect of ornament or ingenuity. Every thing in him is in unmeasured abundance, and unequalled perfection — but every thing so balanced and kept in subordination, as not to jostle or disturb or take the place of another. The most exquisite poetical conceptions, images, and descriptions, are given with such brevity, and introduced with such skill, as merely to adorn, without loading the sense they accompany.": Although his sails are purple and per fumed, and his prow of beaten gold, they waft him on his voyage, not less, but more rapidly and directly, than if they had been composed of baser materials. All his excellences, like those of Nature herself, are thrown out together; and instead of interfering with, support and recommend each other. His flowers are not tied up in garlands, nor his fruits crushed into baskets----but spring living from the soil, in all the dew and freshness of youth; while the graceful foliage in which they lurk, and the ample branches, the rough and vigorous stem, and the wide-spreading roots on which they depend, are present along with them, and share, in their places, the equal care of their Creator.
What other poet has put all the charm of a Moonlight landscape into a single line! — and that by an image so
true to nature, and so simple, as to seem obvious to the most common observation?
i See how the Moonlight SLEEPs on yonder bank ! Who else has expressed, in three lines, all that is picturesque and lovely in a Summer's Dawn !- first setting before our eyes, with magical precision, the visible appearances of the infant light, and then, by one 'graceful and glorious image, pouring on our souls all the freshness, cheerfulness, and sublimity of returning morn
-- it is imel, --|| Teni * See, love ! what envious streaks'i KIR, Do lace the severing clouds in yonder East! Il
hardt Hiili Night's candles * are burnt out, -- and jocund Day! Le
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops!" Where shall we find sweet sounds and odours so luxuriously blended and illustrated, as in these few words of sweetness and melody, where the author says of soft music
11 ) ; ilO it came o'er my rear like the sweet South-15 List 1979 That breathes upon a bank of violets, ", 01-19 Stealing and giving odour ! 11,91 19.
ond 913 toode This is still finer, we think, than the noble speech on Music in the Merchant of Venice, and only to be compared with the enchantments of Prospero's island ; where all the effects of sweet sounds are expressed in miraculous numbers, and traced in their operation on all the gradations of being, from the delicate Ariel to the brutish 1
to-Mony * If the advocates for the grand style object to this expression, we shall not stop to defend it: But, to uş,
seems equally beautiful, as it is obvious and natural, to a person coming out of a lighted chamber into the pale dawnt“: _The word candle, we admit, is rather homely in modern language, while lanıp is sufficiently diguified for poetry. The moon hangs, her silver lamp on high, in every schoolboy's copy of verses; and she could not be called the candle of heaven without mani
Team fest absurdity.' - Such are the caprices of usage! Yet we 'like passage before us much better as it is, than if the candles were changed into lamps., If we should read." The lamps of heaven are quenched," or “ wax dim,” it appears to us that the whole charm of the expression would be lost: as our fancies would no longer be recalled to the privacy of that dimi-lighted chamber which the lovers were so reluctantly leaving