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every subject fit for heroic verse may be considered in a moral, a political, or a religious point of view! If the three epics here named have indeed the three characteristics attributed to them,—which may be doubted,—these are mere contingencies, or accidents of the stories respectively, and were very subordinate considerations with the poets themselves. Practical inferences might indeed be deduced from the most extravagant of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, but it was for the sake of the marvellous fable, not for the meager moral, that one or another subject was chosen, and for the adorning of which that poet wearied, yet neyer exhausted, the resources of a fancy fertile beyond comparison in certain mechanical combinations of ideal imagery, as diverse and grotesque as the transmutations of bodies which they shadow forth.
Allegorical Poetry. Yet, sometimes interwoven with the epic narrative, and sometimes employed alone in the parabolic form, there has ever been a favourite species of poetry, in which the moral was avowedly the foundation, and the fable the superstructure. Most of the mythological traditions of Greece and Rome were, in their origin, of this kind; but such is the caprice of public taste, or perhaps the perversity of human nature, that the further these compositions departed from their original character, the more pleasing and popular they became. At length the poetical features alone were regarded, and the lessons inculcated were wilfully made as undecipherable as those which are at once preserved and hidden under the hieroglyphics of Egypt. The tales of chivalry and romance of the Italian poets were professedly of the same cast; but, in spite of the false pretences of the writers themselves (having the fear of the Inquisition before their eyes), the grave
labours of their commentators to spiritualize the profligate pages of Ariosto, and wring out orthodox divinity from the purer fictions of Tasso, have succeeded no better than the ingenious experiments of the philosopher who attempted to draw sunbeams from cucumbers.
The noblest allegorical poem in our own language, -indeed, the noblest allegorical poem in the world, -is Spenser's “Faerie Queene;" at the same.time, it is probable, that if it had not been allegorical at all, it would have been a far more felicitous and attractive work of imagination. In all allegories of length we grow dull as the story advances, and feel very little anxiety about the conclusion, except for its own sake, as the conclusion. Beautiful and diversified as the most perfect of these “unsubstantial pageants” may be, few readers, when they lay one down, are sorry that it is finished; and most minds, in recalling the pleasure of its perusal, dwell upon those scenes that nearest resemble reality, and ruminate on the rest as half-recollected images of a wild and exhausting dream, from which they are not sorry at being awakened to ordinary sights and sounds, however entranced they may have been while the illusion lasted. This is the inevitable effect of allegories,-they never leave the impression of truth behind. In noble fictions, where truth, though not told in the letter, is maintained in the spirit, it is far otherwise. We rise from the narrative of the death of Hector, and the visit of Priam by night to the tent of Achilles, as from reading historical facts; our feelings are precisely the same as they would have been were those circumstances authentic. In Milton's wonderful poem, though our judgment is never deceived into a belief of their having actually taken place, the conversations between Adam and Eve, and their interview with Raphael, the affable archangel, have all the warmth
of life within, and all the daylight of reality about them.
In avowed allegory we can rarely forget that the personages never did, and never could, exist; nor that both personages and scenes represent something else, and not themselves. When we give over reading, all curiosity and interest cease; we can have no personal interest in such phantoms, and we suffer no regret when they are vanished; they came like shadows, and so they departed. If ever allegorical characters excite either sympathy or affection, it is when we lose the idea that they are such; consequently, when the allegory itself is suspended with regard to them.
Again, in allegory, the mind naturally expects wonders in continual succession, and is greatly disappointed if they do not occur so frequently as to destroy their own effect,-defeat the very purpose for which wonders are wrought. Where all is marvellous, nothing is so. Besides, with unbounded license to do any thing or every thing, there is no sphere of invention so limited as this, to the most creative genius; the sources of mere fiction are soon exhausted, those of fact never. Hence there is a wearisome sameness and repulsive formality (like court etiquette) in most productions of this class. Who is not sick of queens and goddesses, in their palaces and temples, with their trains of attendants, their nymphs, and their worshippers, in almost every dream of the Spectator and Tattler, and the endless imitations of them since? Who does not turn with absolute contempt from the rings, and gems, and filters, and caves, and genii of Eastern Tales (falsely so called), as from the trinkets of a toyshop, and the trumpery of a rareeshow?
There is no long allegory in our literature at all comparable to Bunyan's " Pilgrim's Progress;" and one principal reason why this is the most delightful thing of the kind in the world is, that, though - written under the similitude of a dream,” there is very little of pure allegory in it, and few abstract qualities or passions are personified. From the very constitution of the latter, the reader almost certainly foresees what such typical beings will say, suffer, or do, according to the circumstances in which they are placed. The issue of every trial, of every contest, is known as soon as the action is commenced. The characters themselves are all necessarily imperfect, and, according to the law of their nature, must be in everlasting motion, or everlastingly at rest; always rejoicing, or always weeping; infallibly good, or incorrigibly bad. In short, the arms and legs of men, the wings and tails of animals -nay, the five senses themselves (as indeed they have been)-might as well be clothed with flesh and blood, and brought into dramatic action, as most of the creatures of imagination that figure away in allegory.
The dramatic form of poetry is so near an approach to the language and intercourse of real life, as, when skilfully constructed, to imply all the actions exhibited on the stage to the eye, through the words addressed to the ear, by the conversation of the persons, in the course of the scene. The opening of the first act of Hamlet will most admirably illustrate this. Horatio and Marcellus join the sentinels Francisco and Bernardo, at night, on the platform before the castle of Elsinore. There is bodily motion expressed or indicated in every one of the brief challenges and responses between the parties, which being closed, Horatio inquires,
“What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
I have seen nothing.
Horatio says, 'tis but our phantasy,
HORATIO. Tush! tush! 'twill not appear.
Sit down awhile;
Well, sit we down, And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
Last night of all,
Most like :-it harrows me with fear and wonder.
It would be spoke to.