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THE SPIRIT OF ANCIENT AND MODERN LITERA
TURE-ON THE GERMAN DRAMA, CONTRASTED . . WITH THAT OF THE AGE OF ELIZABETH.
Before I proceed to the more immediate subject of the present Lecture, I wish to say a few words of one or two writers in our own time, who have imbibed the spirit and imitated the language of our elder dramatists. Among these I may reckon the ingenious author of the Apostate and Evadne, who in the last-mentioned play, in particular, has availed himself with much judgment and spirit of the tragedy of the Traitor by old Shirley. It would be curious to hear the opinion of a professed admirer of the Ancients, and captious despiser of the Moderns, with respect to this production, before he knew it was a copy of an old play. Shirley himself lived in the time of Charles I. and died in the beginning of Charles II.*; but he had formed his style on
* He and his wife both died from fright, occasioned by the great fire of London in 1665, and lie buried in St. Giles's church-yard.
that of the preceding age, and had written the greatest number of his plays in conjunction with Jonson, Deckar, and Massinger. He was “ the last of those fair clouds that on the bosom of bright honour sailed in long procession, calm and beautiful.” The name of Mr. Tobin is familiar to every lover of the drama. His Honey-Moon is evidently founded on The Taming of a Shrew, and Duke Aranza has been pronounced by a polite critic to be “ an elegant Petruchio.” The plot is taken from Shakespear; but the language and sentiments, both of this play and of the Curfew, bear a more direct resemblance to the flowery tenderness of Beaumont and Fletcher, who were, I believe, the favourite study of our author. Mr. Lamb's John Woodvil may be considered as a dramatic fragment, intended for the closet rather than the stage. It would sound oddly in the lobbies of either theatre, amidst the noise and glare and bustle of resort; but “there where we have treasured up our hearts,” in silence and in solitude, it may claim and find a * place for itself. It might be read with advantage
in the still retreats of Sherwood Forest, where it would throw a new-born light on the green, sunny glades; the tenderest flower might seem to drink of the poet's spirit, and “ the tall deer that paints a dancing shadow of his horns in the swift brook,” might seem to do so in mockery of the poet's thought. Mr. Lamb, with a modesty often attendant on fine feeling, has loitered too long in the humbler avenues leading to the temple of ancient genius, instead of marching boldly up to the sanctuary, as many with half his pretensions would have done: “ but fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.” The defective or objectionable parts of this production are imitations of the defects of the old writers : its beauties are his own, though in their manner. The touches of thought and passion are often as pure and delicate as they are profound; and the character of his heroine Margaret is perhaps the finest and most genuine female character out of Shakespear. This tragedy was not critic-proof : it had its cracks and flaws and breaches, through which the enemy marched in triumphant. The station which he had chosen was not indeed a walled town, but a straggling village, which the experienced engineers proceeded to lay waste; and he is pinned down in more than one Review of the day, as an exemplary warning to indiscreet writers, who venture beyond the pale of periodical taste and conventional criticism. Mr. Lamb was thus hindered by the taste of the polite vulgar from writing as he wished; his own taste would not allow him to write like them: and he (perhaps wisely) turned critic and prose-writer in his own defence. To say that he has written better about Shakespear, and about Hogarth, than any body else, is saying little in his praise. ---A gentleman of the name of Cornwall, who has lately published a volume of Dramatic Scenes, has met with a very different reception, but I cannot say that he has deserved it. He has made no sacrifice at the shrine of fashionable affectation or false glitter. There is nothing common-place in his style to soothe the complacency of dulness, nothing extravagant to startle the grossness of ignorance. He writes with simplicity, delicacy, and fervour; continues a scene from Shakespear, or works out a hint from Boccacio in the spirit of his originals, and though he bows with reverence at the altar of those great masters, he keeps an eye curiously intent on nature, and a mind awake to the admonitions of his own heart. As he has begun, so let him proceed. Any one who will turn to the glowing and richly-coloured conclusion of the Falcon, will, I think, agree with me in this wish!
; There are four sorts or schools of tragedy with which I am acquainted. The first is the antique or classical. This consisted, I apprehend, in the introduction of persons on the stage, speaking, feeling, and acting according to nature, that is, according to the impression of given circumstances on the passions and mind of man in those circumstances, but limited by the physical conditions of time and place, as to its external form, and to a certain dignity of attitude and expression, selection in the figures, and unity in their grouping, as in a statue or bas-relief. The second is the Gothic or romantic, or as it might be called, the historical or poetical tragedy, and differs from the former, only in having a larger scope in the design and boldness in the execution ; that is, it is the dramatic representation of nature and passion emancipated from the precise imitation of an actual event in place and time, from the same fastidiousness in the choice of the materials, and with the license of the epic and fanciful form added to it in the range of the subject and the decorations of language. This is particularly the style or school of Shakespear and of the best writers of the age of Elizabeth, and the one immediately following. . Of this class, or genus, the tragedie bourgeoise is a variety, and the antithesis of the classical form. The third sort is the French or common-place rhetorical style, which is founded on the antique as to its form and subject-matter; but instead of individual nature, real passion, or imagination growing out of real passion and the circumstances of the speaker, it deals only in vague, imposing, and laboured declamations, or descriptions of nature, dissertations on the pas