« ZurückWeiter »
verse, notwithstanding the person who speaks after it begins a new verse, without filling up the preceding one; nor with abrupt pauses and breakings-off in the middle of a verse, when they humour any Passion that is expressed by it.
Since I am upon this subject, I must observe that our 5 English Poets have succeeded much better in the Stile, than in the Sentiments of their Tragedies. Their language is very often noble and sonorous, but the sense either very trifling or very common. On the contrary, in the ancient Tragedies, and indeed in those of Corneille and Racine, though the expressions are very great, it is the thought that bears them up and swells them. For my own part, I prefer a noble sentiment that is depressed with homely language, infinitely before a vulgar one that is blown up with all the sound and energy of expression. Whether this defect in our Tragedies 15 may rise from want of genius, knowledge, or experience in the writers, or from their compliance with the vicious taste of their readers, who are better judges of the language than of the sentiments, and consequently relish the one more than the other, I cannot determine. But I believe it might rectifie the conduct both of the one and of the other, if the writer laid down the whole contexture of his dialogue in plain English, before he turned it into blank verse ; and if the reader, after the perusal of a scene, would consider the naked thought of every speech in it, when divested of all its Tragick 25 ornaments; by this means, without being imposed upon by words, we may judge impartially of the thought, and consider whether it be natural or great enough for the person that utters it, whether it deserves to shine in such a blaze of eloquence, or shew it self in such a variety of lights as are gen 30 erally made use of by the writers of our English Tragedy.
I must in the next place observe, that when our thoughts are great and just, they are often obscured by the sounding phrases, hard metaphors, and forced expressions in which
they are cloathed. Shakespear is often very faulty in this particular. There is a fine observation in Aristotle to this purpose, which I have never seen quoted. The expression,
says he, ought to be very much laboured in the unactive 5 parts of the fable, as in descriptions, similitudes, narrations,
and the like; in which the opinions, manners, and passions
Et tragicus plerumque dolet sermone pedestri.
Projicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba, 15
Si curat cor spectantis tetigisse quereld.
Ld. ROSCOMMON. Among our modern English Poets, there is none who was better turned for Tragedy than Lee; if instead of favouring the impetuosity of his genius, he had restrained it, and kept it within its proper bounds. His thoughts are wonderfully suited to Tragedy, but frequently lost in such a cloud of words, that it
is hard to see the beauty of them: There is an infinite fire in 25 his works, but so involved in smoak, that it does not appear in
half its lustre. He frequently succeeds in the passionate parts of the Tragedy, but more particularly where he slackens his efforts, and eases the stile of those Epithets and Metaphors, in
which he so much abounds. What can be more natural, more 30 soft, or more passionate, than that line in Statira's speech,
where she describes the charms of Alexander's conversation ?
Then he would talk: Good Gods ! how he would talk !
That unexpected break in the line, and turning the description of his manner of talking into an admiration of it, is inexpressibly beautiful, and wonderfully suited to the fond character of the person that speaks it. There is a simplicity in the words, that outshines the utmost pride of expression.
Otway has followed Nature in the language of his Tragedy, and therefore shines in the passionate parts, more than any
of our English Poets. As there is something familiar and domestick in the fable of his Tragedy, more than in those of any other Poet, he has little pomp, but great force in his expressions. For which reason, though he has admirably succeeded in the tender and melting part of his Tragedies, he sometimes falls into too great a familiarity of phrase in those parts, which, by Aristotle's rule, ought to have been raised and supported by the dignity of expression.
It has been observed by others, that this Poet has founded his Tragedy of Venice Preserved on so wrong a Plot, that the greatest characters in it are those of rebels and traitors. Had the Heroe of his Play discovered the same good qualities in the defence of his country, that he shewed for its ruine and subversion, the audience could not enough pity and admire him : But as he is now represented, we can only say of him what the Roman Historian says of Catiline, that his fall would have been glorious (si pro patriâ sic concidisset) had he so fallen in the service of his country.
N° 40. Monday, April 16. [1711.]
Ac ne forte putes me, quæ facere ipse recusem,
The English writers of Tragedy are possessed with a notion, that when they represent a virtuous or innocent person in distress, they ought not to leave him till they have delivered him
out of his troubles, or made him triumph over his enemies. 5 This error they have been led into by a ridiculous doctrine in
modern criticism, that they are obliged to an equal distribution of rewards and punishments, and an impartial execution of poetical justice. Who were the first that established this rule I know not; but I am sure it has no foundation in nature, in reason, or in the practice of the Ancients. We find that good and evil happen alike to all men on this side the grave; and as the principal design of Tragedy is to raise commiseration and terror in the minds of the audience, we shall defeat this
great end, if we always make virtue and innocence happy and 15 successful. Whatever crosses and disappointments a good man
suffers in the body of the Tragedy, they will make but small impression on our minds, when we know that in the last act he is to arrive at the end of his wishes and desires. When we see him engaged in the depth of his afflictions, we are apt to comfort our selves, because we are sure he will find his way out of them; and that his grief, how great soever it may be at present, will soon terminate in gladness. For this reason the ancient writers of Tragedy treated men in their Plays, as they
are dealt with in the world, by making virtue sometimes happy, 25 and sometimes miserable, as they found it in the fable which
they made choice of, or as it might affect their audience in the most agreeable manner. Aristotle considers the Tragedies that were written in either of these kinds, and observes, that those which ended unhappily, had always pleased the people, and carried away the prize in the publick disputes of the stage, 5 from those that ended happily. Terror and commiseration leave a pleasing anguish in the mind; and fix the audience in such a serious composure of thought, as is much more lasting and delightful than any little transient starts of joy and satisfaction. Accordingly, we find, that more of our English Tragedies have succeeded, in which the favourites of the audience sink under their calamities, than those in which they recover themselves out of them. The best Plays of this kind are the Orphan, Venice preserved, Alexander the Great, Theodosius, All for Love, Oedipus, Oroonoko, Othello, &c. King Lear is an admirable 15 Tragedy of the same kind, as Shakespear wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of poetical justice, in my humble opinion it has lost half its beauty. At the same time I must allow, that there are very noble Tragedies, which have been framed upon the other plan, and have ended happily; as indeed most of the good Tragedies, which have been written since the starting of the above-mentioned criticism, have taken this turn : as the Mourning Bride, Tamerlane, Ulysses, Phædra and Hippolytus, with most of Mr. Dryden's. I must also allow, that many of Shakespear's, and several of 25 the celebrated Tragedies of antiquity, are cast in the same form. I do not therefore dispute against this way of writing Tragedies, but against the criticism that would establish this as the only method; and by that means would much
cramp the English Tragedy, and perhaps give a wrong bent to the 30 genius of our writers.
The Tragi-comedy, which is the product of the English Theatre, is one of the most monstrous inventions that ever entered into a Poet's thoughts. An Author might as well