« iepriekšējāTurpināt »
tion, the argument against them has the advantage of confining itself to pointing out the objections to this study. We have not perceived any attempt to name any other study or system of studies, which, generally introduced into our schools and colleges as the occupation of that part of the time spent on the languages, would serve a better purpose. One thing we will say, from some experience and some observation, that the chemistry, the mineralogy, the geology, the geography, the history, the ethics of children eight years old are not worth a groat; and that the study of the languages, on judicious principles, is well calculated to exercise and train every power of their minds.
But it is time to make more particular allusion to the other performance, which is named at the head of this article, the Oration of Mr Hillhouse, at New Haven. Its subject is stated to be some of the considerations, which should influence an epic or tragic writer, in the choice of an era.' The high reputation of Mr Hillhouse as a poet, naturally awakens a curiosity to hear him discourse of the secrets of the art. We would learn, if possible, the process by which a gifted genius is conscious of aiming to exercise its peculiar mastery over the minds and hearts of men. The present performance consists of a description and comparison of what are styled the Classic, Romantic, and Scripture eras, in reference to their adaptation for the purposes of poetry; and especially of epic and dramatic poetry. The plan accordingly affords scope for a number of fine observations on the influence of society and manners on the efforts of genius. Mr Hillhouse has entered, to a considerable extent, into the comparison of the Classic and Romantic schools, a distinction first raised into celebrity, if not suggested, by the Schlegels and Madame de Staël. In separating the Scripture era from the Romantic, and making a third school out of the materials which it presents, Mr Hillhouse has proposed a new distinction, which it may not be easy to bring into systematic connexion with the other two. We understand the genius of the Romantic poetry to be the peculiar character of the North, united with the spirituality of revealed religion; and in his delineation of the second school, or that of Romantic poetry, Mr Hillhouse resorts to the influence of the true religion as the source of some of the best of its qualities. Whether there is, in fact, any such thing as the distinction set up by the continental critics, and not yet well rooted in England and America, of a Classic and Romantic school, is with us a matter of doubt. But VOL. XXIV. Np. 54.
whether the existing phenomena of the poetical world afford materials for still a third distinction; whether there is, or can be, in the nations of European race, a school of poetry, which is neither Classic nor Romantic, may much more strongly admit of question. To deal fairly, however, by Mr Hillhouse, we will quote the passage, in which he makes this distinction.
'The source last alluded to, is separate and distinct,—of loftier character and more sublime associations. It is the blended history and poetry of a peculiar people. It celebrates, not the actions of fabulous heroes, not the extermination of imaginary monsters, not the exploits of the barbarous nobility of a bloody age; it treasures not the responses of lying oracles, nor the predictions of Flamens and Augurs; it is the sacred and eternal witness of the faith of patriarchs, of the truth of prophets, of the valor of godlike kings; of the existence, agency, and purposes of invisible spirits; of the power, providence, and immutable character of God; it is strewed with flowers of paradise, it wafts to our souls the breath of Heaven, its inspiration is the efflux of the Holy One. Its mighty influence on the character of man, and on the spirit of poetry, has been alluded to. At the unconsuming fire of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is acknowledged that the greatest masters have kindled their sublimity, and from the tender legacy of our Savior, snatched their finest traits of disinterestedness and love.' pp. 19, 20.
If it be meant merely here to speak, as a matter of fact, of the sacred history as a separate field, in which to fix the action of an epical or a dramatic composition, the question is indeed narrowed; and it is then obvious to remark, that a poem or a sacred subject may be, accordingly as it is treated, a Classic or a Romantic poem. Thus we suppose, for we profess not to be very deep in this chapter, that the Athalie of Racine is a Classic, and the Messiah of Klopstock a Romantic poem. The Bruto Secondo of Alfieri must certainly be Classic, although it is one of those tragedies, in which its author deprecatingly remarks, in vece di donne, interlocutore e attore, fra molti altissimi personaggi, era il popolo. Shakspeare's Julius Cæsar presents us the same subject on the same scene, the same high personages, and if not the same people, unquestionably a set of worthy citizens, possessing a much nearer resemblance, than the popolo of Alfieri, to the Roman plebs. But, nevertheless, we take Shakspeare's Julius Cæsar to be a Romantic tragedy; for if this be also Classic, then indeed that term is one of most ample comprehension.
Not, however, to enlarge on this, the question, whether the Scriptures and Scripture history afford favorable materials for poetry, is a very fair question; and is treated by Mr Hillhouse with spirit and taste, and in a highly glowing manner. Mr Hill
house evidently feels, as he expresses, a strong prepossession in favor of this source of poetical associations; and the success of his own efforts on Scripture subjects accounts for and justifies the preference.
He discusses with much ingenuity and fervor, and describes in the affirmative the question, which was so positively decided in the negative by Dr Johnson, regarding the aptness of sacred themes for the purposes of poetry. In the following judicious reflection, however, he has suggested to us a principle, in which is probably contained the whole practical philosophy of the subject.
'But whatever be the intrinsic merits of any era, there is a consideration, which may be paramount to them all. Subject to fortunate or sinister impressions, long before we can estimate their power, the mind sometimes receives early an unalterable bias. The strength of a second nature thus incorporated with our moral faculties, their successful exertion can only be in concert with it. Let no friendly adviser, no presuming critic, no external influence overrule an emphatic whisper from within. That inward monitor only knows the harp, which will respond to the poet's touch. Wherever it directs him-whether to the classic lyre, or the shell of heroes, or the wizard harp of fairyland, or the blood stirring string of the feudal minstrel, or the viol of a prophet or an angel, let him snatch that-from that or none, will he draw sounds of power.' p. 27.
There have been four epic poets in the world, generally considered as standing alone in a circle, to which no other has a full right to be introduced. We doubt if any inference can be drawn from the consideration of the subjects of their various poems, which authorizes the preference of any one era or region over others, as adapted to poetry. The materials of the Iliad are drawn from the heroic age of Greece, and, according to the general opinion, from that age, as contemplated by one, who lived not long after its close. The action of the Æneid is placed in a period somewhat similar, or rather in one which the poet has chosen to assimilate to the heroic age of Grecce; for, in reality, Italy, at the time when the action of the Æneid is supposed to have taken place, no more resembled Greece in
the time of the Trojan war, than the Aztecs resembled the Vandals. In either case, a state of partial civilization is the only point of resemblance. Virgil, however, by a simple flourish of the wand, set down all Greece, men and gods, the manners of Troy and Olympus, among the Rutulians and the Etruscans. It would be hard to tell, what period furnished Dante with his materials. If any period or any region, it must be considered as Italy in the middle ages; for it is into the characters of his contemporaries, that most of the soul of his poetry is breathed. The Paradise Lost is built on materials, which purport to be drawn from Scripture history; but how little in it of what is most astonishing, beautiful, or pathetic, is to be traced to any other source than the poet's own invention! It is where he wanders widest from his directory, that his flight is most admired; and there is at least one eminent passage, the account of the Creation, in which the struggle between the record and invention manifestly embarrasses, and had well nigh proved too much for the poet. We feel almost inclined to say, that the choice of the subject and the theatre of the action, are of no consequence to the epic or the dramatic poet; that is, of the first rate excellence. It may be worth while, if a man thinks seriously of writing such a poem (to name one to which Mr Hillhouse alludes) as Samor, or Leonidas, or Madoc, or the Araucana, or the Henriade, to cast about him for a subject; to choose the right school, and obey all its laws. But the poet of epic genius is a school to himself, and critical disquisition on eras and countries, as far as such poets are concerned, is rather a subsequent description of the facts relative to their productions, than a direction, which a subsequent kindred genius can need, or will follow. There is one school, however, to which even genius may be exhorted to adhere; to which when it has adhered, it has wrought its greatest wonders. It is that school, in which Classic, and Romantic, and Hebrew are alike unknown; where ancient and modern cease to stand in contrast; the school of Nature. To the conceptions of this school belong the child of Hector, terrified at his father's plume; and the father setting his helmet to the ground, not so much that he may pray to the Divinity with his head uncovered, as to relieve his infant's terrors. In the fourth book of the Eneid, Virgil bursts away from the shackles of a cold imitation, is natural, and is beautiful. And what is it but nature, the human passions and affections, which, infused by Dante and by Milton into the breasts of
angels and demons, enable us to sympathize with beings in themselves too far above us or beneath us, for the uses of poetry. In this school, Shakspeare is most uniformly the master. He paints men; historically they are often most remote from their supposed originals. The Britons in Lear, are about as much like the inhabitants of England before the Romans, as they are like the Greeks or the Trojans. But it is no matter what he calls them. The historic names of Kent and Gloster may be grouped with Gonerils and Regans; the dynasty of Bruto with those of York and Lancaster. So too with his dramas in the region of ancient history. He sets before us men, and calls them Romans. In manners and tone, they are not Romans; but they are something better, they are men. Alfieri, on the other hand, introduces us to a circle of exceedingly senatorial and stately characters, who are dressed in a toga, swear by the immortal gods, and are Romans every inch of them, but are not men. It is acting, stage effect; not life and reality. And yet we hold of Alfieri, that he is the most gifted of those, to whom the true poetical inspiration has not been given. He added to talent, ambition, generosity, and courage, an ardent love of liberty; and it ought to be some title to consideration with an American critic, that he dedicated a tragedy to Washington.
But we have wandered farther than we designed from the immediate business before us. We owe to Mr Hillhouse acknowledgments like those, which we have already rendered to Mr Justice Story. He deserves the thanks of the community for a performance of great beauty, spirit, and taste; and for having done so much to add celebrity to the literary anniversary on which it was delivered. Besides a great deal of good sense, ingenious remark, and elegant learning in this discourse, there is, as might have been expected from Mr Hillhouse, not a little genuine poetry.