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position, that may delight in the closet, however the taste of play-goers may have degenerated so as to disrelish any thing either highly intellectual or highly poetic on the stage.
It is vain to say that many pieces bearing the name of tragedies have been brought out which deserved a better fate than they experienced; for whatever may have been the cause of their miscarriage, the fact, the fatal fact remains, that this age has scarcely produced a tragedy which can keep its hold as a tragedy in representation; and short of this, whatever be the merits of some of the prematurely slain, they were only dialogues in blank verse. Desert is nothing in such a case, except it can enforce its claim; unless an audience cannot help being pleased, it is idle to argue upon the duty of their being so. The homage exacted by genius is that which cannot be withheld, although it is voluntarily paid. It would seem as if the age of tragedy, as well as that of epic poetry, were gone for ever; both belong to a period of less refinement in the progress of modern society than the present. This is not the place to attempt a solution of the paradox.
But comedy,-gay, polite, high-spirited comedy, might have been expected to be carried to perfection amid the vicissitudes of the last thirty years, when the energies of men in every rank of life being stimulated beyond example by the great events continually occurring at home and abroad, boundless diversity of character and pursuits must have been ever at hand to furnish materials for scenic exposure ; while the popular mind, incessantly craving for keener excitement, would eagerly have seized upon any novelty in the form of dramaticentertainment. Every novelty, except such as genius alone could bring forth, has been presented on the stage, and accepted with avidity by the frequenters of the theatre ; but no offspring of intellect and taste, at all comparable to the numberless progeny of the same in every other depart
ment of literature, has appeared to redeem the credit of the drama from the disrepute into which it has fallen, since Sheridan gave to the world his few but inimitable comedies. These, after surpassing all that went before, seem to have left no hope for any that might follow them. This critique on the present state of the drama in England, refers to it solely as one class of literature, and bears no reference to the questionable morality of theatrical performances
Novels and Romances.
In what are properly called novels, fictitious narratives of common life, the period between Pope and Cowper was more prolific than any preceding one. Indeed, the genuine novel was yet a novelty, which originated, or rather was introduced, in the merry reign of Charles II., but never had been carried to its height of humour and reality till Fielding, Smollett, and Richardson, each in his peculiar and unrivalled way, displayed its utmost capabilities of painting men and manners as they are.
These were followed by numbers without number,” and without name, that peopled the shelves of the circulating libraries with the motley progeny of their brain. But from the time of the irruption of Southey and his irregulars into the region of Parnassus, where all had been torpor and formality before, with the exception of the little domain of Cowper, poetry rose so rapidly into fashion as to share the patronage of sentimentalists and other idle readers, till the Lady of the Lake and Childe Harold bore away the palm of popularity from the most renowned of their contemporaries—the ladies and gentlemen that live in novels, and nowhere else. There was indeed a long and desperate resistance made on the part of the novelists against the poets, and their indigenous resources failing, they called in to their aid, not German tales only, but—to confound
the enemy with their own weapons-German tragedies and German epics, of such portentous size and character as to excite astonishment, which many of those who felt it mistook for admiration, but which ceased even to be astonishment with the most stupid, when the inebriating effects of the first draught of the Teutonic Helicon had gone off, and left the reader in his right mind. Few of these exotics have been naturalized among us, except the Oberon of Mr. Sotheby, which leaves no room for regret to those who cannot read the exquisitely fine and fanciful original; and some of the best dramatic works of Schiller and Goëthe.
It has been already intimated, that one of the greatest of living poets had embarked his wealthy capital of thought, and inexhaustible stores of memory, into a more profitable channel of literary com
I alluded to Sir Walter Scott, as the author of "the Waverley Novels,” as they are now significantly called,—“the Great Unknown" having disappeared in the person of “the Mighty Minstrel of the North,” as the worthy baronet had been previously called in his character of poet. These, as the productions of one mind, exuberant beyond example in this cold climate, are undoubtedly the most extraordinary works of the age; and it might perhaps be added, the most faulty that in any age have exercised despotic dominion over readers of every kind, in such various ways, and for so long a time. A higher tribute cannot be paid to the sovereignty of genius than is implied in this censure; for what must that excellence be which can afford such a foil, or endure such a drawback! It is no small merit in these to have so quickened the cloyed appetites of circulating-library readers for purer entertainment, that the dulness, froth, and sentimentality which were previously the staple-ware of Leadenhall-street, and other wholesale mannfactories of novels for the spring and fall fashions, are no longer tolerable, and fictions of far nobler and more intellectual character are substituted, though, of course, the mass is not wholly purified, and the million are the vulgar still.
The principal literary objections to these inimitable tales (for I meddle not with their morality) in v after-times will be, that the author, in his best performances, has blended fact and fiction both in incidents and characters so frequently, and made his pictures at once so natural to the life, yet often so contrary to historical verity, that henceforward it will be difficult to distinguish the imaginary from the real with regard to one or the other; thus the credulity of ages to come will be abused in the estimate of men, and the identity of events by the glowing illusion of his pages, in which the details are so minute and exquisite, that the truth of painting will win the author credit for truth of every other kind, and most, it may be, where he least deserves it.
The Periodical Press. But it is in the issues from the periodical press that the chief influence of literature in the present day consists. Newspapers alone, if no other evidence were to be adduced, would prove incontrovertibly the immense and hitherto unappreciated superiority, in point of mental culture, of the existing generation over all their forefathers, since Britain was invaded by Julius Cæsar. The talents, learning, ingenuity, and eloquence employed in the conduct of many of these; the variety of information conveyed through their columns from every quarter of the globe to the obscurest cottage, and into the humblest mind in the realm, render newspapers, not luxuries, which they might be expected to be among an idolent and voluptuous people, but absolute ne
1 cessaries of life,—the daily food of millions of the most active, intelligent labourers, the most shrewd, indefatigable, and enterprising tribes on the face of the earth. Compare an ordinary provincial journal of last week, with the best that was published in the metropolis fifty years ago, and the step which refinement has made in the interval will at once appear. The periodical publications of the first half of the last century,--the Tatler, Spectator, Guardian, and their successors, did much towards increasing an eager relish for elegant literature, as well as rendering the more useful and popular kinds of knowledge accessible to everybody. But, except in their masterpieces, which may be equalled, though never excelled, there are hundreds of articles in every week's newspapers, which may at least rival the common run of essays in some of the most celebrated works above alluded to. The Literary Gazette, the Spectator, and several other weekly journals, are decidedly literary, and exercise no slight jurisdiction in affairs of criticism and taste.
Of higher rank, though far inferior potency, are magazines. A few of these, indeed, have considerable sale; but they rather reflect the image of the public mind, than contribute towards forming its features or giving it expression. As amusing miscellanies, they are in general far superior to their predecessors, before the establishment of that which bears the title of Monthly,--and which, whatever may have been its merits or delinquencies in past times, had the honour of effecting as glorious a revolution among the compilers of these, as Southey and Wordsworth effected among the rhymers of 1796. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, at this time, probably takes the lead among the fraternity, and by the boldness, hilarity, and address with which it is managed, it has become equally formidable in politics and predominant in literature. In both these