« VorigeDoorgaan »
“ To the Dorian mood Of flutes and soft recorder."
The sustained sweetness of the versification is never cloying; and yet there are no violent contrasts, no sudden elevations: all is equable in its infinite variety. The early comedies are full of the same rare beauty. In Love's Labour's Lost'—' The Comedy of Errors'—- A Midsummer Night's Dream'-we have verses of alternate rhymes formed upon the same model as those of the · Venus and Adonis,' and producing the same feeling of placid delight by their exquisite harmony. The same principles on which he built the versification of the " Venus and Adonis' exhibited to him the grace which these elegiac harmonies would impart to the scenes of
progress of a dramatic action.
repose in the
We proceed to the · Lucrece. Of that poem the date of the composition is fixed as accurately as we can desire. In the dedication to the • Venus and Adonis' the poet says—“ If your honour seem but pleased I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours till I have honoured you with some graver labour.” In 1594, a year after the • Venus and Adonis,' • Lucrece' was published, and was dedicated to Lord Southampton. This, then, was undoubtedly the “graver labour;" this was the produce of the “ idle hours” of 1593. Shakspere was then nearly thirty years of age—the period at which it is held by some he first began to produce anything original for the stage. The poet unquestionably intended the “graver labour” for a higher effort than had produced the “first heir” of his invention. He describes the · Venus and Adonis' as unpolished lines”—lines thrown off with youthful luxuriousness and rapidity. The verses of the · Lucrece'
“untutored lines”—lines formed upon no established model. There is to our mind the difference of eight or even ten years in the aspect of these poems—a difference as manifest as that which exists between • Love's Labour's Lost' and “Romeo and Juliet.' Coleridge has marked the great distinction between the one poem and the other :
“ The • Venus and Adonis' did not perhaps allow the display of the deeper passions. But the story of Lucretia seems to favour, and even demand, their intensest workings. And yet we find in Shakespeare's management of the tale neither pathos nor any other dramatic quality. There is the same minute and faithful imagery as in the former poem, in the same vivid colours, inspirited by the
same impetuous vigour of thought, and diverging and contracting with the same activity of the assimilative and of the modifying faculties; and with a yet larger display, a yet wider range of knowledge and reflection : and, lastly, with the same perfect dominion, often domination, over the whole world of language.” *
It is in this paragraph that Coleridge has marked the differencewhich a critic of the very highest order could alone have pointed out-between the power which Shakspere's mind possessed of going out of itself in a narrative poem, and the dramatic power. The same mighty, and to most unattainable, power, of utterly subduing the self-conscious to the universal, was essential to the highest excellence of both species of composition, the poem and the drama. But the exercise of that power was essentially different in each. Coleridge in another place says, “ In his very first production he projected his mind out of his own particular being, and felt, and made others feel, on subjects no way connected with himself except by force of contemplation, and that sublime faculty by which a great mind becomes that on which it meditates.”+ But this “ sublime faculty” went greatly farther when it became dramatic. In the narrative poems of an ordinary man we perpetually see the narrator. Coleridge, in a passage previously quoted, has shown the essential superiority of Shakspere's narrative poems, where the whole is placed before our view, the poet unparticipating in the passions. There is a remarkable example of how strictly Shakspere adhered to this principle in his beautiful poem of ' A Lover's Complaint.' There the poet is actually present to the
« From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story from a sistering vale,
But not one word of comment does he offer upon the revelations of the “ fickle maid full pale.” The dramatic power, however, as we have said, is many steps beyond this. It dispenses with narrative altogether. It renders a complicated story, or stories, one in the action. It makes the characters reveal themselves, sometimes by a word. It trusts for everything to the capacity of an audience to appreciate the greatest subtilties, and the nicest shades of passion, through the action. It is the very reverse of the oratorical power,
which repeats and explains. And how is it able to effect this prodigious mastery over the senses and the understanding? By raising the mind of the spectator, or reader, into such a state of poetical excitement as corresponds in some degree to the excitement of the poet, and thus clears away the mists of our ordinary vision, and irradiates the whole complex moral world in which we for a time live, and move, and have our being, with the brightness of his own intellectual sunlight. Now, it appears to us that, although the • Venus and Adonis,' and the Lucrece,' do not pretend to be the creations of this wonderful power-their forms did not demand its complete exercise—they could not have been produced by a man who did not possess the power, and had assiduously cultivated it in its own proper field. In the second poem, more especially, do we think the power has reached a higher development, indicating itself
a yet wider range of knowledge and reflection.” Malone says, “I have observed that Painter has inserted the story of · Lucrece' in the first volume of his · Palace of Pleasure,' 1567, on which I make no doubt our author formed his poem.” Be it so. The story of · Lucrece' in Painter's novel occupies four pages. The first page describes the circumstances that preceded the unholy visit of Tarquin to Lucrece; nearly the whole of the last two pages detail the events that followed the death of Lucrece. A page and a half at most is given to the tragedy. This is proper enough in a narrative, whose business it is to make all the circumstances intelligible. But the narrative poet, who was also thoroughly master of the dramatic power, concentrates all the interest upon the main circumstances of the story. He places the scene of those circumstances before our eyes at the very opening :
“ From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
And to Collatium bears," &c. The preceding circumstances which impel this journey are then rapidly told. Again, after the crowning action of the tragedy, the poet has done. He tells the consequences of it with a brevity and simplicity indicating the most consummate art :
" When they had sworn to this advised doom,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
He has thus cleared away all the encumbrances to the progress of the main action. He would have done the same had he made Lucrece the subject of a drama. But he has to tell his painful story and to tell it all: not to exhibit a portion of it, as he would have done had he chosen the subject for a tragedy. The consummate delicacy with which he has accomplished this is beyond all praise, perhaps above all imitation. He puts forth his strength on the accessaries of the main incident. He delights to make the chief actors analyse their own thoughts,-reflect, explain, expostulate. All this is essentially undramatic, and he meant it to be so.
But then, what pictures does he paint of the progress of the action, which none but a great dramatic poet, who had visions of future Macbeths and Othellos before him, could have painted! Look, for example, at that magnificent scene, when
“ No comfortable star did lend his light,"
of Tarquin leaping from his bed, and, softly smiting his falchion on a flint, lighting a torch
“ Which must be lode-star to his lustful eye."
Look, again, at the exquisite domestic incident which tells of the quiet and gentle occupation of his devoted victim :
The hand to which that glove belongs is described in the very perfection of poetry
“ Without the bed her other fair hand was,
On the green coverlet; whose perfect white
In the chamber of innocence Tarquin is painted with terrific grandeur, which is overpowering by the force of contrast :
“ This said he shakes aloft his Roman blade,
Which, like a falcon towering in the skies,
The complaint of Lucrece after Tarquin has departed was meant to be undramatic. The action advances not. The character develops not itself in the action. But the poet makes his heroine bewail her fate in every variety of lament that his boundless comVol. XII.
mand of imagery could furnish. The letter to Collatine is written; -a letter of the most touching simplicity
“ Thou worthy lord
So I commend me from our house in grief;
My woes are tedious, though my words are brief." Again the action languishes, and again Lucrece surrenders herself to her grief. The
“ Skilful painting, made for Priam's Troy,"
is one of the most elaborate passages of the poem, essentially cast in an undramatic mould. But this is but a prelude to the catastrophe, where, if we mistake not, a strength of passion is put forth which is worthy him who drew the terrible agonies of Lear:
“ Here with a sigh, as if her heart would break,
She throws forth Tarquin's name: *He, he,' she says,
She utters this: "He, he, fair lords, 't is he,
Malone, in his concluding remarks upon the “Venus and Adonis,' and Lucrece,' says, “ We should do Shakspeare injustice were we to try them by a comparison with more modern and polished productions, or with our present idea of poetical excellence." This was written in the year 1780—the period which rejoiced in the
polished productions” of Hayley and Miss Seward, and founded its “idea of poetical excellence” on some standard which, secure in its conventional forms, might depart as far as possible from simplicity and nature, to give us words without thought, arranged in verses without music. It would be injustice indeed to Shakspere to try the Venus and Adonis,' and 'Lucrece,' by such a standard of " poetical excellence." But we have outlived that period. By way of apology for Shakspere, Malone adds, " that few authors rise much above the age in which they live.” He further says, “the poems of Venus and Adonis,' and 'The Rape of Lucrece,' whatever opinion may be now entertained of them, were certainly much admired in Shakspeare's lifetime." This is consolatory. In Shakspere's lifetime there were a few men that the world has since