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The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay.

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This etext was prepared by Dr Mike Alder and Sue Asscher
from the book made available by Dr Mike Alder.







John Dryden. (January 1828.)

History. (May 1828.)

Mill on Government. (March 1829.)

Westminster Reviewer's Defence of Mill. (June 1829.)

Utilitarian Theory of Government. (October 1829.)

Sadler's Law of Population. (July 1830.)

Sadler's Refutation Refuted. (January 1831.)

Mirabeau. (July 1832.)

Barere. (April 1844.)




(January 1828.)

"The Poetical Works of John Dryden". In 2 volumes. University
Edition. London, 1826.

The public voice has assigned to Dryden the first place in the
second rank of our poets,--no mean station in a table of
intellectual precedency so rich in illustrious names. It is
allowed that, even of the few who were his superiors in genius,
none has exercised a more extensive or permanent influence on the
national habits of thought and expression. His life was
commensurate with the period during which a great revolution in
the public taste was effected; and in that revolution he played
the part of Cromwell. By unscrupulously taking the lead in its
wildest excesses, he obtained the absolute guidance of it. By
trampling on laws, he acquired the authority of a legislator. By
signalising himself as the most daring and irreverent of rebels,
he raised himself to the dignity of a recognised prince. He
commenced his career by the most frantic outrages. He terminated
it in the repose of established sovereignty,--the author of a new
code, the root of a new dynasty.

Of Dryden, however, as of almost every man who has been
distinguished either in the literary or in the political world,
it may be said that the course which he pursued, and the effect
which he produced, depended less on his personal qualities than
on the circumstances in which he was placed. Those who have read
history with discrimination know the fallacy of those panegyrics
and invectives which represent individuals as effecting great
moral and intellectual revolutions, subverting established
systems, and imprinting a new character on their age. The
difference between one man and another is by no means so great as
the superstitious crowd supposes. But the same feelings which in
ancient Rome produced the apotheosis of a popular emperor, and in
modern Rome the canonisation of a devout prelate, lead men to
cherish an illusion which furnishes them with something to adore.
By a law of association, from the operation of which even minds
the most strictly regulated by reason are not wholly exempt,
misery disposes us to hatred, and happiness to love, although
there may be no person to whom our misery or our happiness can be
ascribed. The peevishness of an invalid vents itself even on
those who alleviate his pain. The good humour of a man elated by
success often displays itself towards enemies. In the same
manner, the feelings of pleasure and admiration, to which the
contemplation of great events gives birth, make an object where
they do not find it. Thus, nations descend to the absurdities of
Egyptian idolatry, and worship stocks and reptiles--Sacheverells
and Wilkeses. They even fall prostrate before a deity to which
they have themselves given the form which commands their
veneration, and which, unless fashioned by them, would have
remained a shapeless block. They persuade themselves that they
are the creatures of what they have themselves created. For, in
fact, it is the age that forms the man, not the man that forms
the age. Great minds do indeed re-act on the society which has
made them what they are; but they only pay with interest what
they have received. We extol Bacon, and sneer at Aquinas. But,
if their situations had been changed, Bacon might have been the
Angelical Doctor, the most subtle Aristotelian of the schools;
the Dominican might have led forth the sciences from their house
of bondage. If Luther had been born in the tenth century, he
would have effected no reformation. If he had never been born at
all, it is evident that the sixteenth century could not have
elapsed without a great schism in the church. Voltaire, in the
days of Louis the Fourteenth, would probably have been, like most
of the literary men of that time, a zealous Jansenist, eminent
among the defenders of efficacious grace, a bitter assailant of
the lax morality of the Jesuits and the unreasonable decisions of
the Sorbonne. If Pascal had entered on his literary career when
intelligence was more general, and abuses at the same time more
flagrant, when the church was polluted by the Iscariot Dubois,
the court disgraced by the orgies of Canillac, and the nation
sacrificed to the juggles of Law, if he had lived to see a
dynasty of harlots, an empty treasury and a crowded harem, an
army formidable only to those whom it should have protected, a
priesthood just religious enough to be intolerant, he might
possibly, like every man of genius in France, have imbibed
extravagant prejudices against monarchy and Christianity. The
wit which blasted the sophisms of Escobar--the impassioned
eloquence which defended the sisters of Port Royal--the
intellectual hardihood which was not beaten down even by Papal
authority--might have raised him to the Patriarchate of the
Philosophical Church. It was long disputed whether the honour of
inventing the method of Fluxions belonged to Newton or to
Leibnitz. It is now generally allowed that these great men made
the same discovery at the same time. Mathematical science,
indeed, had then reached such a point that, if neither of them
had ever existed, the principle must inevitably have occurred to
some person within a few years. So in our own time the doctrine
of rent, now universally received by political economists, was
propounded, almost at the same moment, by two writers unconnected
with each other. Preceding speculators had long been blundering
round about it; and it could not possibly have been missed much
longer by the most heedless inquirer. We are inclined to think
that, with respect to every great addition which has been made to
the stock of human knowledge, the case has been similar; that
without Copernicus we should have been Copernicans,--that without
Columbus America would have been discovered,--that without Locke
we should have possessed a just theory of the origin of human
ideas. Society indeed has its great men and its little men, as
the earth has its mountains and its valleys. But the
inequalities of intellect, like the inequalities of the surface
of our globe, bear so small a proportion to the mass, that, in
calculating its great revolutions, they may safely be neglected.
The sun illuminates the hills, while it is still below the
horizon, and truth is discovered by the highest minds a little
before it becomes manifest to the multitude. This is the extent
of their superiority. They are the first to catch and reflect a
light, which, without their assistance, must, in a short time, be
visible to those who lie far beneath them.

The same remark will apply equally to the fine arts. The laws on
which depend the progress and decline of poetry, painting, and
sculpture, operate with little less certainty than those which
regulate the periodical returns of heat and cold, of fertility
and barrenness. Those who seem to lead the public taste are, in
general, merely outrunning it in the direction which it is
spontaneously pursuing. Without a just apprehension of the laws
to which we have alluded the merits and defects of Dryden can be
but imperfectly understood. We will, therefore, state what we
conceive them to be.

The ages in which the master-pieces of imagination have been
produced have by no means been those in which taste has been most
correct. It seems that the creative faculty, and the critical
faculty, cannot exist together in their highest perfection. The
causes of this phenomenon it is not difficult to assign.

It is true that the man who is best able to take a machine to
pieces, and who most clearly comprehends the manner in which all
its wheels and springs conduce to its general effect, will be the
man most competent to form another machine of similar power. In
all the branches of physical and moral science which admit of
perfect analysis, he who can resolve will be able to combine.
But the analysis which criticism can effect of poetry is
necessarily imperfect. One element must for ever elude its
researches; and that is the very element by which poetry is
poetry. In the description of nature, for example, a judicious
reader will easily detect an incongruous image. But he will find
it impossible to explain in what consists the art of a writer
who, in a few words, brings some spot before him so vividly that
he shall know it as if he had lived there from childhood; while
another, employing the same materials, the same verdure, the same
water, and the same flowers, committing no inaccuracy,
introducing nothing which can be positively pronounced
superfluous, omitting nothing which can be positively pronounced
necessary, shall produce no more effect than an advertisement of
a capital residence and a desirable pleasure-ground. To take
another example: the great features of the character of Hotspur
are obvious to the most superficial reader. We at once perceive
that his courage is splendid, his thirst of glory intense, his
animal spirits high, his temper careless, arbitrary, and
petulant; that he indulges his own humour without caring whose
feelings he may wound, or whose enmity he may provoke, by his
levity. Thus far criticism will go. But something is still
wanting. A man might have all those qualities, and every other
quality which the most minute examiner can introduce into his
catalogue of the virtues and faults of Hotspur, and yet he would
not be Hotspur. Almost everything that we have said of him
applies equally to Falconbridge. Yet in the mouth of
Falconbridge most of his speeches would seem out of place. In
real life this perpetually occurs. We are sensible of wide
differences between men whom, if we were required to describe
them, we should describe in almost the same terms. If we were
attempting to draw elaborate characters of them, we should
scarcely be able to point out any strong distinction; yet we
approach them with feelings altogether dissimilar. We cannot
conceive of them as using the expressions or the gestures of each
other. Let us suppose that a zoologist should attempt to give an
account of some animal, a porcupine for instance, to people who
had never seen it. The porcupine, he might say, is of the class
mammalia, and the order glires. There are whiskers on its face;
it is two feet long; it has four toes before, five behind, two
fore teeth, and eight grinders. Its body is covered with hair
and quills. And, when all this has been said, would any one of
the auditors have formed a just idea of a porcupine? Would any
two of them have formed the same idea? There might exist
innumerable races of animals, possessing all the characteristics
which have been mentioned yet altogether unlike to each other.
What the description of our naturalist is to a real porcupine,
the remarks of criticism are to the images of poetry. What it so
imperfectly decomposes it cannot perfectly reconstruct. It is
evidently as impossible to produce an Othello or a Macbeth by
reversing an analytical process so defective, as it would be for
an anatomist to form a living man out of the fragments of his
dissecting-room. In both cases the vital principle eludes the
finest instruments, and vanishes in the very instant in which its
seat is touched. Hence those who, trusting to their critical
skill, attempt to write poems give us, not images of things, but
catalogues of qualities. Their characters are allegories--not
good men and bad men, but cardinal virtues and deadly sins. We
seem to have fallen among the acquaintances of our old friend
Christian: sometimes we meet Mistrust and Timorous; sometimes Mr
Hate-good and Mr Love-lust; and then again Prudence, Piety and

That critical discernment is not sufficient to make men poets, is
generally allowed. Why it should keep them from becoming poets,
is not perhaps equally evident; but the fact is, that poetry
requires not an examining but a believing frame of mind. Those
feel it most, and write it best, who forget that it is a work of
art; to whom its imitations, like the realities from which they
are taken, are subjects, not for connoisseurship, but for tears
and laughter, resentment and affection; who are too much under
the influence of the illusion to admire the genius which has
produced it; who are too much frightened for Ulysses in the cave
of Polyphemus to care whether the pun about Outis be good or bad;
who forget that such a person as Shakspeare ever existed, while
they weep and curse with Lear. It is by giving faith to the
creations of the imagination that a man becomes a poet. It is by
treating those creations as deceptions, and by resolving them, as
nearly as possible, into their elements, that he becomes a
critic. In the moment in which the skill of the artist is
perceived, the spell of the art is broken.

These considerations account for the absurdities into which the
greatest writers have fallen, when they have attempted to give
general rules for composition, or to pronounce judgment on the
works of others. They are unaccustomed to analyse what they
feel; they, therefore, perpetually refer their emotions to causes
which have not in the slightest degree tended to produce them.
They feel pleasure in reading a book. They never consider that
this pleasure may be the effect of ideas which some unmeaning
expression, striking on the first link of a chain of
associations, may have called up in their own minds--that they
have themselves furnished to the author the beauties which they

Cervantes is the delight of all classes of readers. Every
school-boy thumbs to pieces the most wretched translations of his
romance, and knows the lantern jaws of the Knight Errant, and the
broad cheeks of the Squire, as well as the faces of his own
playfellows. The most experienced and fastidious judges are
amazed at the perfection of that art which extracts
inextinguishable laughter from the greatest of human calamities
without once violating the reverence due to it; at that
discriminating delicacy of touch which makes a character
exquisitely ridiculous, without impairing its worth, its grace,
or its dignity. In Don Quixote are several dissertations on the
principles of poetic and dramatic writing. No passages in the
whole work exhibit stronger marks of labour and attention; and no
passages in any work with which we are acquainted are more
worthless and puerile. In our time they would scarcely obtain
admittance into the literary department of the Morning Post.
Every reader of the Divine Comedy must be struck by the
veneration which Dante expresses for writers far inferior to
himself. He will not lift up his eyes from the ground in the
presence of Brunetto, all whose works are not worth the worst of
his own hundred cantos. He does not venture to walk in the same
line with the bombastic Statius. His admiration of Virgil is
absolute idolatry. If, indeed, it had been excited by the
elegant, splendid, and harmonious diction of the Roman poet, it
would not have been altogether unreasonable; but it is rather as
an authority on all points of philosophy, than as a work of
imagination, that he values the Aeneid. The most trivial
passages he regards as oracles of the highest authority, and of
the most recondite meaning. He describes his conductor as the
sea of all wisdom--the sun which heals every disordered sight.
As he judged of Virgil, the Italians of the fourteenth century
judged of him; they were proud of him; they praised him; they
struck medals bearing his head; they quarrelled for the honour of
possessing his remains; they maintained professors to expound his
writings. But what they admired was not that mighty imagination
which called a new world into existence, and made all its sights
and sounds familiar to the eye and ear of the mind. They said
little of those awful and lovely creations on which later critics
delight to dwell--Farinata lifting his haughty and tranquil brow
from his couch of everlasting fire--the lion-like repose of
Sordello--or the light which shone from the celestial smile of
Beatrice. They extolled their great poet for his smattering of
ancient literature and history; for his logic and his divinity;
for his absurd physics, and his most absurd metaphysics; for
everything but that in which he pre-eminently excelled. Like the
fool in the story, who ruined his dwelling by digging for gold,
which, as he had dreamed, was concealed under its foundations,
they laid waste one of the noblest works of human genius, by
seeking in it for buried treasures of wisdom which existed only
in their own wild reveries. The finest passages were little
valued till they had been debased into some monstrous allegory.
Louder applause was given to the lecture on fate and free-will,
or to the ridiculous astronomical theories, than to those
tremendous lines which disclose the secrets of the tower of
hunger, or to that half-told tale of guilty love, so passionate
and so full of tears.

We do not mean to say that the contemporaries of Dante read with
less emotion than their descendants of Ugolino groping among the
wasted corpses of his children, or of Francesca starting at the
tremulous kiss and dropping the fatal volume. Far from it. We
believe that they admired these things less than ourselves, but
that they felt them more. We should perhaps say that they felt
them too much to admire them. The progress of a nation from
barbarism to civilisation produces a change similar to that which
takes place during the progress of an individual from infancy to
mature age. What man does not remember with regret the first
time that he read Robinson Crusoe? Then, indeed, he was unable
to appreciate the powers of the writer; or, rather, he neither
knew nor cared whether the book had a writer at all. He probably
thought it not half so fine as some rant of Macpherson about
dark-browed Foldath, and white-bosomed Strinadona. He now values
Fingal and Temora only as showing with how little evidence a
story may be believed, and with how little merit a book may be
popular. Of the romance of Defoe he entertains the highest
opinion. He perceives the hand of a master in ten thousand
touches which formerly he passed by without notice. But, though
he understands the merits of the narrative better than formerly,
he is far less interested by it. Xury, and Friday, and pretty
Poll, the boat with the shoulder-of-mutton sail, and the canoe
which could not be brought down to the water edge, the tent with
its hedge and ladders, the preserve of kids, and the den where
the old goat died, can never again be to him the realities which
they were. The days when his favourite volume set him upon
making wheel-barrows and chairs, upon digging caves and fencing
huts in the garden, can never return. Such is the law of our
nature. Our judgment ripens; our imagination decays. We cannot
at once enjoy the flowers of the spring of life and the fruits of
its autumn, the pleasures of close investigation and those of
agreeable error. We cannot sit at once in the front of the stage
and behind the scenes. We cannot be under the illusion of the
spectacle, while we are watching the movements of the ropes and
pulleys which dispose it.

The chapter in which Fielding describes the behaviour of
Partridge at the theatre affords so complete an illustration of
our proposition, that we cannot refrain from quoting some parts
of it.

"Partridge gave that credit to Mr Garrick which he had denied to
Jones, and fell into so violent a trembling that his knees
knocked against each other. Jones asked him what was the matter,
and whether he was afraid of the warrior upon the stage?--'O, la,
sir,' said he, 'I perceive now it is what you told me. I am not
afraid of anything, for I know it is but a play; and if it was
really a ghost, it could do one no harm at such a distance and in
so much company; and yet, if I was frightened, I am not the only
person.'--'Why, who,' cries Jones, 'dost thou take to be such a
coward here besides thyself?'--'Nay, you may call me a coward if
you will; but if that little man there upon the stage is not
frightened, I never saw any man frightened in my life'...He sat
with his eyes fixed partly on the ghost and partly on Hamlet, and
with his mouth open; the same passions which succeeded each other
in Hamlet, succeeding likewise in him...

"Little more worth remembering occurred during the play, at the
end of which Jones asked him which of the players he liked best?
To this he answered, with some appearance of indignation at the
question, 'The King, without doubt.'--'Indeed, Mr Partridge,'
says Mrs Miller, 'you are not of the same opinion with the town;
for they are all agreed that Hamlet is acted by the best player
who was ever on the stage.'--'He the best player!' cries
Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer; 'why I could act as well as
he myself. I am sure if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked
in the very same manner, and done just as he did. And then to be
sure, in that scene, as you called it, between him and his
mother, where you told me he acted so fine, why any man, that is,
any good man, that had such a mother, would have done exactly the
same. I know you are only joking with me; but indeed, madam,
though I never was at a play in London, yet I have seen acting
before in the country, and the King for my money; he speaks all
his words distinctly, and half as loud again as the other.
Anybody may see he is an actor.'"

In this excellent passage Partridge is represented as a very bad
theatrical critic. But none of those who laugh at him possess
the tithe of his sensibility to theatrical excellence. He
admires in the wrong place; but he trembles in the right place.
It is indeed because he is so much excited by the acting of
Garrick, that he ranks him below the strutting, mouthing
performer, who personates the King. So, we have heard it said
that, in some parts of Spain and Portugal, an actor who should
represent a depraved character finely, instead of calling down
the applauses of the audience, is hissed and pelted without
mercy. It would be the same in England, if we, for one moment,
thought that Shylock or Iago was standing before us. While the
dramatic art was in its infancy at Athens, it produced similar
effects on the ardent and imaginative spectators. It is said
that they blamed Aeschylus for frightening them into fits with
his Furies. Herodotus tells us that, when Phyrnichus produced
his tragedy on the fall of Miletus, they fined him in a penalty
of a thousand drachmas for torturing their feelings by so
pathetic an exhibition. They did not regard him as a great
artist, but merely as a man who had given them pain. When they
woke from the distressing illusion, they treated the author of it
as they would have treated a messenger who should have brought
them fatal and alarming tidings which turned out to be false. In
the same manner, a child screams with terror at the sight of a
person in an ugly mask. He has perhaps seen the mask put on.
But his imagination is too strong for his reason; and he entreats
that it may be taken off.

We should act in the same manner if the grief and horror produced
in us by works of the imagination amounted to real torture. But
in us these emotions are comparatively languid. They rarely
affect our appetite or our sleep. They leave us sufficiently at
ease to trace them to their causes, and to estimate the powers
which produce them. Our attention is speedily diverted from the
images which call forth our tears to the art by which those
images have been selected and combined. We applaud the genius of
the writer. We applaud our own sagacity and sensibility; and we
are comforted.

Yet, though we think that in the progress of nations towards
refinement the reasoning powers are improved at the expense of
the imagination, we acknowledge that to this rule there are many
apparent exceptions. We are not, however, quite satisfied that
they are more than apparent. Men reasoned better, for example,
in the time of Elizabeth than in the time of Egbert; and they
also wrote better poetry. But we must distinguish between poetry
as a mental act, and poetry as a species of composition. If we
take it in the latter sense, its excellence depends not solely on
the vigour of the imagination, but partly also on the instruments
which the imagination employs. Within certain limits, therefore,
poetry may be improving while the poetical faculty is decaying.
The vividness of the picture presented to the reader is not
necessarily proportioned to the vividness of the prototype which
exists in the mind of the writer. In the other arts we see this
clearly. Should a man, gifted by nature with all the genius of
Canova, attempt to carve a statue without instruction as to the
management of his chisel, or attention to the anatomy of the
human body, he would produce something compared with which the
Highlander at the door of a snuff shop would deserve admiration.
If an uninitiated Raphael were to attempt a painting, it would be
a mere daub; indeed, the connoisseurs say that the early works of
Raphael are little better. Yet, who can attribute this to want
of imagination? Who can doubt that the youth of that great
artist was passed amidst an ideal world of beautiful and majestic
forms? Or, who will attribute the difference which appears
between his first rude essays and his magnificent Transfiguration
to a change in the constitution of his mind? In poetry, as in
painting and sculpture, it is necessary that the imitator should
be well acquainted with that which he undertakes to imitate, and
expert in the mechanical part of his art. Genius will not
furnish him with a vocabulary: it will not teach him what word
most exactly corresponds to his idea, and will most fully convey
it to others: it will not make him a great descriptive poet,
till he has looked with attention on the face of nature; or a
great dramatist, till he has felt and witnessed much of the
influence of the passions. Information and experience are,
therefore, necessary; not for the purpose of strengthening the
imagination, which is never so strong as in people incapable of
reasoning--savages, children, madmen, and dreamers; but for the
purpose of enabling the artist to communicate his conceptions to

In a barbarous age the imagination exercises a despotic power.
So strong is the perception of what is unreal that it often
overpowers all the passions of the mind and all the sensations of
the body. At first, indeed, the phantasm remains undivulged, a
hidden treasure, a wordless poetry, an invisible painting, a
silent music, a dream of which the pains and pleasures exist to
the dreamer alone, a bitterness which the heart only knoweth, a
joy with which a stranger intermeddleth not. The machinery, by
which ideas are to be conveyed from one person to another, is as
yet rude and defective. Between mind and mind there is a great
gulf. The imitative arts do not exist, or are in their lowest
state. But the actions of men amply prove that the faculty which
gives birth to those arts is morbidly active. It is not yet the
inspiration of poets and sculptors; but it is the amusement of
the day, the terror of the night, the fertile source of wild
superstitions. It turns the clouds into gigantic shapes, and the
winds into doleful voices. The belief which springs from it is
more absolute and undoubting than any which can be derived from
evidence. It resembles the faith which we repose in our own
sensations. Thus, the Arab, when covered with wounds, saw
nothing but the dark eyes and the green kerchief of a beckoning
Houri. The Northern warrior laughed in the pangs of death when
he thought of the mead of Valhalla.

The first works of the imagination are, as we have said, poor and
rude, not from the want of genius, but from the want of
materials. Phidias could have done nothing with an old tree and
a fish-bone, or Homer with the language of New Holland.

Yet the effect of these early performances, imperfect as they
must necessarily be, is immense. All deficiencies are supplied
by the susceptibility of those to whom they are addressed. We
all know what pleasure a wooden doll, which may be bought for
sixpence, will afford to a little girl. She will require no
other company. She will nurse it, dress it, and talk to it all
day. No grown-up man takes half so much delight in one of the
incomparable babies of Chantrey. In the same manner, savages are
more affected by the rude compositions of their bards than
nations more advanced in civilisation by the greatest master-
pieces of poetry.

In process of time, the instruments by which the imagination
works are brought to perfection. Men have not more imagination
than their rude ancestors. We strongly suspect that they have
much less. But they produce better works of imagination. Thus,
up to a certain period, the diminution of the poetical powers is
far more than compensated by the improvement of all the
appliances and means of which those powers stand in need. Then
comes the short period of splendid and consummate excellence.
And then, from causes against which it is vain to struggle,
poetry begins to decline. The progress of language, which was at
first favourable, becomes fatal to it, and, instead of
compensating for the decay of the imagination, accelerates that
decay, and renders it more obvious. When the adventurer in the
Arabian tale anointed one of his eyes with the contents of the
magical box, all the riches of the earth, however widely
dispersed, however sacredly concealed, became visible to him.
But, when he tried the experiment on both eyes, he was struck
with blindness. What the enchanted elixir was to the sight of
the body, language is to the sight of the imagination. At first
it calls up a world of glorious allusions; but, when it becomes
too copious, it altogether destroys the visual power.

As the development of the mind proceeds, symbols, instead of
being employed to convey images, are substituted for them.
Civilised men think as they trade, not in kind, but by means of a
circulating medium. In these circumstances, the sciences improve
rapidly, and criticism among the rest; but poetry, in the highest
sense of the word, disappears. Then comes the dotage of the fine
arts, a second childhood, as feeble as the former, and far more
hopeless. This is the age of critical poetry, of poetry by
courtesy, of poetry to which the memory, the judgment, and the
wit contribute far more than the imagination. We readily allow
that many works of this description are excellent: we will not
contend with those who think them more valuable than the great
poems of an earlier period. We only maintain that they belong to
a different species of composition, and are produced by a
different faculty.

It is some consolation to reflect that this critical school of
poetry improves as the science of criticism improves; and that
the science of criticism, like every other science, is constantly
tending towards perfection. As experiments are multiplied,
principles are better understood.

In some countries, in our own for example, there has been an
interval between the downfall of the creative school and the rise
of the critical, a period during which imagination has been in
its decrepitude, and taste in its infancy. Such a revolutionary
interregnum as this will be deformed by every species of

The first victory of good taste is over the bombast and conceits
which deform such times as these. But criticism is still in a
very imperfect state. What is accidental is for a long time
confounded with what is essential. General theories are drawn
from detached facts. How many hours the action of a play may be
allowed to occupy,--how many similes an Epic Poet may introduce
into his first book,--whether a piece, which is acknowledged to
have a beginning and an end, may not be without a middle, and
other questions as puerile as these, formerly occupied the
attention of men of letters in France, and even in this country.
Poets, in such circumstances as these, exhibit all the narrowness
and feebleness of the criticism by which their manner has been
fashioned. From outrageous absurdity they are preserved indeed
by their timidity. But they perpetually sacrifice nature and
reason to arbitrary canons of taste. In their eagerness to avoid
the mala prohibita of a foolish code, they are perpetually
rushing on the mala in se. Their great predecessors, it is true,
were as bad critics as themselves, or perhaps worse, but those
predecessors, as we have attempted to show, were inspired by a
faculty independent of criticism, and, therefore, wrote well
while they judged ill.

In time men begin to take more rational and comprehensive views
of literature. The analysis of poetry, which, as we have
remarked, must at best be imperfect, approaches nearer and nearer
to exactness. The merits of the wonderful models of former times
are justly appreciated. The frigid productions of a later age
are rated at no more than their proper value. Pleasing and
ingenious imitations of the manner of the great masters appear.
Poetry has a partial revival, a Saint Martin's Summer, which,
after a period of dreariness and decay, agreeably reminds us of
the splendour of its June. A second harvest is gathered in;
though, growing on a spent soil, it has not the heart of the
former. Thus, in the present age, Monti has successfully
imitated the style of Dante; and something of the Elizabethan
inspiration has been caught by several eminent countrymen of our
own. But never will Italy produce another Inferno, or England
another Hamlet. We look on the beauties of the modern
imaginations with feelings similar to those with which we see
flowers disposed in vases, to ornament the drawing-rooms of a
capital. We doubtless regard them with pleasure, with greater
pleasure, perhaps, because, in the midst of a place ungenial to
them, they remind us of the distant spots on which they flourish
in spontaneous exuberance. But we miss the sap, the freshness,
and the bloom. Or, if we may borrow another illustration from
Queen Scheherezade, we would compare the writers of this school
to the jewellers who were employed to complete the unfinished
window of the palace of Aladdin. Whatever skill or cost could do
was done. Palace and bazaar were ransacked for precious stones.
Yet the artists, with all their dexterity, with all their
assiduity, and with all their vast means, were unable to produce
anything comparable to the wonders which a spirit of a higher
order had wrought in a single night.

The history of every literature with which we are acquainted
confirms, we think, the principles which we have laid down. In
Greece we see the imaginative school of poetry gradually fading
into the critical. Aeschylus and Pindar were succeeded by
Sophocles, Sophocles by Euripides, Euripides by the Alexandrian
versifiers. Of these last, Theocritus alone has left
compositions which deserve to be read. The splendour and
grotesque fairyland of the Old Comedy, rich with such gorgeous
hues, peopled with such fantastic shapes, and vocal alternately
with the sweetest peals of music and the loudest bursts of elvish
laughter, disappeared forever. The master-pieces of the New
Comedy are known to us by Latin translations of extraordinary
merit. From these translations, and from the expressions of the
ancient critics, it is clear that the original compositions were
distinguished by grace and sweetness, that they sparkled with
wit, and abounded with pleasing sentiment; but that the creative
power was gone. Julius Caesar called Terence a half Menander,--a
sure proof that Menander was not a quarter Aristophanes.

The literature of the Romans was merely a continuation of the
literature of the Greeks. The pupils started from the point at
which their masters had, in the course of many generations
arrived. They thus almost wholly missed the period of original
invention. The only Latin poets whose writings exhibit much
vigour of imagination are Lucretius and Catullus. The Augustan
age produced nothing equal to their finer passages.

In France that licensed jester, whose jingling cap and motley
coat concealed more genius than ever mustered in the saloon of
Ninon or of Madame Geoffrin, was succeeded by writers as decorous
and as tiresome as gentlemen ushers.

The poetry of Italy and of Spain has undergone the same change.
But nowhere has the revolution been more complete and violent
than in England. The same person who, when a boy, had clapped
his thrilling hands at the first representation of the Tempest
might, without attaining to a marvellous longevity, have lived to
read the earlier works of Prior and Addison. The change, we
believe, must, sooner or later, have taken place. But its
progress was accelerated, and its character modified, by the
political occurrences of the times, and particularly by two
events, the closing of the theatres under the Commonwealth, and
the restoration of the House of Stuart.

We have said that the critical and poetical faculties are not
only distinct, but almost incompatible. The state of our
literature during the reigns of Elizabeth and James the First is
a strong confirmation of this remark. The greatest works of
imagination that the world has ever seen were produced at that
period. The national taste, in the meantime, was to the last
degree detestable. Alliterations, puns, antithetical forms of
expression lavishly employed where no corresponding opposition
existed between the thoughts expressed, strained allegories,
pedantic allusions, everything, in short, quaint and affected, in
matter and manner, made up what was then considered as fine
writing. The eloquence of the bar, the pulpit, and the council-
board, was deformed by conceits which would have disgraced the
rhyming shepherds of an Italian academy. The king quibbled on
the throne. We might, indeed, console ourselves by reflecting
that his majesty was a fool. But the chancellor quibbled in
concert from the wool-sack: and the chancellor was Francis
Bacon. It is needless to mention Sidney and the whole tribe of
Euphuists; for Shakspeare himself, the greatest poet that ever
lived, falls into the same fault whenever he means to be
particularly fine. While he abandons himself to the impulse of
his imagination, his compositions are not only the sweetest and
the most sublime, but also the most faultless, that the world has
ever seen. But, as soon as his critical powers come into play,
he sinks to the level of Cowley; or rather he does ill what
Cowley did well. All that is bad in his works is bad
elaborately, and of malice aforethought. The only thing wanting
to make them perfect was, that he should never have troubled
himself with thinking whether they were good or not. Like the
angels in Milton, he sinks "with compulsion and laborious
flight." His natural tendency is upwards. That he may soar, it
is only necessary that he should not struggle to fall. He
resembles an American Cacique, who, possessing in unmeasured
abundance the metals which in polished societies are esteemed the
most precious, was utterly unconscious of their value, and gave
up treasures more valuable than the imperial crowns of other
countries, to secure some gaudy and far-fetched but worthless
bauble, a plated button, or a necklace of coloured glass.

We have attempted to show that, as knowledge is extended and as
the reason develops itself, the imitative arts decay. We should,
therefore, expect that the corruption of poetry would commence in
the educated classes of society. And this, in fact, is almost
constantly the case. The few great works of imagination which
appear in a critical age are, almost without exception, the works
of uneducated men. Thus, at a time when persons of quality
translated French romances, and when the universities celebrated
royal deaths in verses about tritons and fauns, a preaching
tinker produced the Pilgrim's Progress. And thus a ploughman
startled a generation which had thought Hayley and Beattie great
poets, with the adventures of Tam O'Shanter. Even in the latter
part of the reign of Elizabeth the fashionable poetry had
degenerated. It retained few vestiges of the imagination of
earlier times. It had not yet been subjected to the rules of
good taste. Affectation had completely tainted madrigals and
sonnets. The grotesque conceits and the tuneless numbers of
Donne were, in the time of James, the favourite models of
composition at Whitehall and at the Temple. But, though the
literature of the Court was in its decay, the literature of the
people was in its perfection. The Muses had taken sanctuary in
the theatres, the haunts of a class whose taste was not better
than that of the Right Honourables and singular good Lords who
admired metaphysical love-verses, but whose imagination retained
all its freshness and vigour; whose censure and approbation might
be erroneously bestowed, but whose tears and laughter was never
in the wrong. The infection which had tainted lyric and didactic
poetry had but slightly and partially touched the drama. While
the noble and the learned were comparing eyes to burning-glasses,
and tears to terrestrial globes, coyness to an enthymeme, absence
to a pair of compasses, and an unrequited passion to the fortieth
remainder-man in an entail, Juliet leaning from the balcony, and
Miranda smiling over the chess-board, sent home many spectators,
as kind and simple-hearted as the master and mistress of
Fletcher's Ralpho, to cry themselves to sleep.

No species of fiction is so delightful to us as the old English
drama. Even its inferior productions possess a charm not to be
found in any other kind of poetry. It is the most lucid mirror
that ever was held up to nature. The creations of the great
dramatists of Athens produce the effect of magnificent
sculptures, conceived by a mighty imagination, polished with the
utmost delicacy, embodying ideas of ineffable majesty and beauty,
but cold, pale, and rigid, with no bloom on the cheek, and no
speculation in the eye. In all the draperies, the figures, and
the faces, in the lovers and the tyrants, the Bacchanals and the
Furies, there is the same marble chillness and deadness. Most of
the characters of the French stage resemble the waxen gentlemen
and ladies in the window of a perfumer, rouged, curled, and
bedizened, but fixed in such stiff attitudes, and staring with
eyes expressive of such utter unmeaningness, that they cannot
produce an illusion for a single moment. In the English plays
alone is to be found the warmth, the mellowness, and the reality
of painting. We know the minds of men and women, as we know the
faces of the men and women of Vandyke.

The excellence of these works is in a great measure the result of
two peculiarities, which the critics of the French school
consider as defects,--from the mixture of tragedy and comedy, and
from the length and extent of the action. The former is
necessary to render the drama a just representation of a world in
which the laughers and weepers are perpetually jostling each
other,--in which every event has its serious and ludicrous side.
The latter enables us to form an intimate acquaintance with
characters with which we could not possibly become familiar
during the few hours to which the unities restrict the poet. In
this respect, the works of Shakspeare, in particular, are
miracles of art. In a piece, which may be read aloud in three
hours, we see a character gradually unfold all its recesses to
us. We see it change with the change of circumstances. The
petulant youth rises into the politic and warlike sovereign. The
profuse and courteous philanthropist sours into a hater and
scorner of his kind. The tyrant is altered, by the chastening of
affliction, into a pensive moralist. The veteran general,
distinguished by coolness, sagacity, and self-command, sinks
under a conflict between love strong as death, and jealousy cruel
as the grave. The brave and loyal subject passes, step by step,
to the extremities of human depravity. We trace his progress,
from the first dawnings of unlawful ambition to the cynical
melancholy of his impenitent remorse. Yet, in these pieces,
there are no unnatural transitions. Nothing is omitted: nothing
is crowded. Great as are the changes, narrow as is the compass
within which they are exhibited, they shock us as little as the
gradual alterations of those familiar faces which we see every
evening and every morning. The magical skill of the poet
resembles that of the Dervise in the Spectator, who condensed all
the events of seven years into the single moment during which the
king held his head under the water.

It is deserving of remark, that, at the time of which we speak,
the plays even of men not eminently distinguished by genius,--
such, for example, as Jonson,--were far superior to the best
works of imagination in other departments. Therefore, though we
conceive that, from causes which we have already investigated,
our poetry must necessarily have declined, we think that, unless
its fate had been accelerated by external attacks, it might have
enjoyed an euthanasia, that genius might have been kept alive by
the drama till its place could, in some degree, be supplied by
taste,--that there would have been scarcely any interval between
the age of sublime invention and that of agreeable imitation.
The works of Shakspeare, which were not appreciated with any
degree of justice before the middle of the eighteenth century,
might then have been the recognised standards of excellence
during the latter part of the seventeenth; and he and the great
Elizabethan writers might have been almost immediately succeeded
by a generation of poets similar to those who adorn our own

But the Puritans drove imagination from its last asylum. They
prohibited theatrical representations, and stigmatised the whole
race of dramatists as enemies of morality and religion. Much
that is objectionable may be found in the writers whom they
reprobated; but whether they took the best measures for stopping
the evil appears to us very doubtful, and must, we think, have
appeared doubtful to themselves, when, after the lapse of a few
years, they saw the unclean spirit whom they had cast out return
to his old haunts, with seven others fouler than himself.

By the extinction of the drama, the fashionable school of
poetry,--a school without truth of sentiment or harmony of
versification,--without the powers of an earlier, or the
correctness of a later age,--was left to enjoy undisputed
ascendency. A vicious ingenuity, a morbid quickness to perceive
resemblances and analogies between things apparently
heterogeneous, constituted almost its only claim to admiration.
Suckling was dead. Milton was absorbed in political and
theological controversy. If Waller differed from the Cowleian
sect of writers, he differed for the worse. He had as little
poetry as they, and much less wit; nor is the languor of his
verses less offensive than the ruggedness of theirs. In Denham
alone the faint dawn of a better manner was discernible.

But, low as was the state of our poetry during the civil war and
the Protectorate, a still deeper fall was at hand. Hitherto our
literature had been idiomatic. In mind as in situation we had
been islanders. The revolutions in our taste, like the
revolutions in our government, had been settled without the
interference of strangers. Had this state of things continued,
the same just principles of reasoning which, about this time,
were applied with unprecedented success to every part of
philosophy would soon have conducted our ancestors to a sounder
code of criticism. There were already strong signs of
improvement. Our prose had at length worked itself clear from
those quaint conceits which still deformed almost every metrical
composition. The parliamentary debates, and the diplomatic
correspondence of that eventful period, had contributed much to
this reform. In such bustling times, it was absolutely necessary
to speak and write to the purpose. The absurdities of Puritanism
had, perhaps, done more. At the time when that odious style,
which deforms the writings of Hall and of Lord Bacon, was almost
universal, had appeared that stupendous work, the English Bible,-
-a book which, if everything else in our language should perish,
would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and
power. The respect which the translators felt for the original
prevented them from adding any of the hideous decorations then in
fashion. The groundwork of the version, indeed, was of an
earlier age. The familiarity with which the Puritans, on almost
every occasion, used the Scriptural phrases was no doubt very
ridiculous; but it produced good effects. It was a cant; but it
drove out a cant far more offensive.

The highest kind of poetry is, in a great measure, independent of
those circumstances which regulate the style of composition in
prose. But with that inferior species of poetry which succeeds
to it the case is widely different. In a few years, the good
sense and good taste which had weeded out affectation from moral
and political treatises would, in the natural course of things,
have effected a similar reform in the sonnet and the ode. The
rigour of the victorious sectaries had relaxed. A dominant
religion is never ascetic. The Government connived at theatrical
representations. The influence of Shakspeare was once more felt.
But darker days were approaching. A foreign yoke was to be
imposed on our literature. Charles, surrounded by the companions
of his long exile, returned to govern a nation which ought never
to have cast him out or never to have received him back. Every
year which he had passed among strangers had rendered him more
unfit to rule his countrymen. In France he had seen the
refractory magistracy humbled, and royal prerogative, though
exercised by a foreign priest in the name of a child, victorious
over all opposition. This spectacle naturally gratified a prince
to whose family the opposition of Parliaments had been so fatal.
Politeness was his solitary good quality. The insults which he
had suffered in Scotland had taught him to prize it. The
effeminacy and apathy of his disposition fitted him to excel in
it. The elegance and vivacity of the French manners fascinated
him. With the political maxims and the social habits of his
favourite people, he adopted their taste in composition, and,
when seated on the throne, soon rendered it fashionable, partly
by direct patronage, but still more by that contemptible policy,
which, for a time, made England the last of the nations, and
raised Louis the Fourteenth to a height of power and fame, such
as no French sovereign had ever before attained.

It was to please Charles that rhyme was first introduced into our
plays. Thus, a rising blow, which would at any time have been
mortal, was dealt to the English Drama, then just recovering from
its languishing condition. Two detestable manners, the
indigenous and the imported, were now in a state of alternate
conflict and amalgamation. The bombastic meanness of the new
style was blended with the ingenious absurdity of the old; and
the mixture produced something which the world had never before
seen, and which, we hope, it will never see again,--something, by
the side of which the worst nonsense of all other ages appears to
advantage--something, which those who have attempted to
caricature it have, against their will, been forced to flatter--
of which the tragedy of Bayes is a very favourable specimen.
What Lord Dorset observed to Edward Howard might have been
addressed to almost all his contemporaries--

"As skilful divers to the bottom fall
Swifter than those who cannot swim at all;
So, in this way of writing without thinking,
Thou hast a strange alacrity in sinking."

From this reproach some clever men of the world must be excepted,
and among them Dorset himself. Though by no means great poets,
or even good versifiers, they always wrote with meaning, and
sometimes with wit. Nothing indeed more strongly shows to what a
miserable state literature had fallen, than the immense
superiority which the occasional rhymes, carelessly thrown on
paper by men of this class, possess over the elaborate
productions of almost all the professed authors. The reigning
taste was so bad, that the success of a writer was in inverse
proportion to his labour, and to his desire of excellence. An
exception must be made for Butler, who had as much wit and
learning as Cowley, and who knew, what Cowley never knew, how to
use them. A great command of good homely English distinguishes
him still more from the other writers of the time. As for
Gondibert, those may criticise it who can read it. Imagination
was extinct. Taste was depraved. Poetry, driven from palaces,
colleges, and theatres, had found an asylum in the obscure
dwelling where a Great Man, born out of due season, in disgrace,
penury, pain and blindness, still kept uncontaminated a character
and a genius worthy of a better age.

Everything about Milton is wonderful; but nothing is so wonderful
as that, in an age so unfavourable to poetry, he should have
produced the greatest of modern epic poems. We are not sure that
this is not in some degree to be attributed to his want of sight.
The imagination is notoriously most active when the external
world is shut out. In sleep its illusions are perfect. They
produce all the effect of realities. In darkness its visions are
always more distinct than in the light. Every person who amuses
himself with what is called building castles in the air must have
experienced this. We know artists who, before they attempt to
draw a face from memory, close their eyes, that they may recall a
more perfect image of the features and the expression. We are
therefore inclined to believe that the genius of Milton may have
been preserved from the influence of times so unfavourable to it
by his infirmity. Be this as it may, his works at first enjoyed
a very small share of popularity. To be neglected by his
contemporaries was the penalty which he paid for surpassing them.
His great poem was not generally studied or admired till writers
far inferior to him had, by obsequiously cringing to the public
taste, acquired sufficient favour to reform it.

Of these, Dryden was the most eminent. Amidst the crowd of
authors who, during the earlier years of Charles the Second,
courted notoriety by every species of absurdity and affectation,
he speedily became conspicuous. No man exercised so much
influence on the age. The reason is obvious. On no man did the
age exercise so much influence. He was perhaps the greatest of
those whom we have designated as the critical poets; and his
literary career exhibited, on a reduced scale, the whole history
of the school to which he belonged,--the rudeness and
extravagance of its infancy,--the propriety, the grace, the
dignified good sense, the temperate splendour of its maturity.
His imagination was torpid, till it was awakened by his judgment.
He began with quaint parallels and empty mouthing. He gradually
acquired the energy of the satirist, the gravity of the moralist,
the rapture of the lyric poet. The revolution through which
English literature has been passing, from the time of Cowley to
that of Scott, may be seen in miniature within the compass of his

His life divides itself into two parts. There is some debatable
ground on the common frontier; but the line may be drawn with
tolerable accuracy. The year 1678 is that on which we should be
inclined to fix as the date of a great change in his manner.
During the preceding period appeared some of his courtly
panegyrics--his Annus Mirabilis, and most of his plays; indeed,
all his rhyming tragedies. To the subsequent period belong his
best dramas,--All for Love, the Spanish Friar, and Sebastian,--
his satires, his translations, his didactic poems, his fables,
and his odes.

Of the small pieces which were presented to chancellors and
princes it would scarcely be fair to speak. The greatest
advantage which the Fine Arts derive from the extension of
knowledge is, that the patronage of individuals becomes
unnecessary. Some writers still affect to regret the age of
patronage. None but bad writers have reason to regret it. It is
always an age of general ignorance. Where ten thousand readers
are eager for the appearance of a book, a small contribution from
each makes up a splendid remuneration for the author. Where
literature is a luxury, confined to few, each of them must pay
high. If the Empress Catherine, for example, wanted an epic
poem, she must have wholly supported the poet;--just as, in a
remote country village, a man who wants a muttonchop is sometimes
forced to take the whole sheep;--a thing which never happens
where the demand is large. But men who pay largely for the
gratification of their taste, will expect to have it united with
some gratification to their vanity. Flattery is carried to a
shameless extent; and the habit of flattery almost inevitably
introduces a false taste into composition. Its language is made
up of hyperbolical commonplaces,--offensive from their
triteness,--still more offensive from their extravagance. In no
school is the trick of overstepping the modesty of nature so
speedily acquired. The writer, accustomed to find exaggeration
acceptable and necessary on one subject, uses it on all. It is
not strange, therefore, that the early panegyrical verses of
Dryden should be made up of meanness and bombast. They abound
with the conceits which his immediate predecessors had brought
into fashion. But his language and his versification were
already far superior to theirs.

The Annus Mirabilis shows great command of expression, and a fine
ear for heroic rhyme. Here its merits end. Not only has it no
claim to be called poetry, but it seems to be the work of a man
who could never, by any possibility, write poetry. Its affected
similes are the best part of it. Gaudy weeds present a more
encouraging spectacle than utter barrenness. There is scarcely a
single stanza in this long work to which the imagination seems to
have contributed anything. It is produced, not by creation, but
by construction. It is made up, not of pictures, but of
inferences. We will give a single instance, and certainly a
favourable instance,--a quatrain which Johnson has praised.
Dryden is describing the sea-fight with the Dutch--

"Amidst whole heaps of spices lights a ball;
And now their odours armed against them fly.
Some preciously by shattered porcelain fall,
And some by aromatic splinters die."

The poet should place his readers, as nearly as possible, in the
situation of the sufferers or the spectators. His narration
ought to produce feelings similar to those which would be excited
by the event itself. Is this the case here? Who, in a sea-
fight, ever thought of the price of the china which beats out the
brains of a sailor; or of the odour of the splinter which
shatters his leg? It is not by an act of the imagination, at
once calling up the scene before the interior eye, but by painful
meditation,--by turning the subject round and round,--by tracing
out facts into remote consequences,--that these incongruous
topics are introduced into the description. Homer, it is true,
perpetually uses epithets which are not peculiarly appropriate.
Achilles is the swift-footed, when he is sitting still. Ulysses
is the much-enduring, when he has nothing to endure. Every spear
casts a long shadow, every ox has crooked horns, and every woman
a high bosom, though these particulars may be quite beside the
purpose. In our old ballads a similar practice prevails. The
gold is always red, and the ladies always gay, though nothing
whatever may depend on the hue of the gold, or the temper of the
ladies. But these adjectives are mere customary additions. They
merge in the substantives to which they are attached. If they at
all colour the idea, it is with a tinge so slight as in no
respect to alter the general effect. In the passage which we
have quoted from Dryden the case is very different. "Preciously"
and "aromatic" divert our whole attention to themselves, and
dissolve the image of the battle in a moment. The whole poem
reminds us of Lucan, and of the worst parts of Lucan,--the sea-
fight in the Bay of Marseilles, for example. The description of
the two fleets during the night is perhaps the only passage which
ought to be exempted from this censure. If it was from the Annus
Mirabilis that Milton formed his opinion, when he pronounced
Dryden a good rhymer but no poet, he certainly judged correctly.
But Dryden was, as we have said, one of those writers in whom the
period of imagination does not precede, but follow, the period of
observation and reflection.

His plays, his rhyming plays in particular, are admirable
subjects for those who wish to study the morbid anatomy of the
drama. He was utterly destitute of the power of exhibiting real
human beings. Even in the far inferior talent of composing
characters out of those elements into which the imperfect process
of our reason can resolve them, he was very deficient. His men
are not even good personifications; they are not well-assorted
assemblages of qualities. Now and then, indeed, he seizes a very
coarse and marked distinction, and gives us, not a likeness, but
a strong caricature, in which a single peculiarity is protruded,
and everything else neglected; like the Marquis of Granby at an
inn-door, whom we know by nothing but his baldness; or Wilkes,
who is Wilkes only in his squint. These are the best specimens
of his skill. For most of his pictures seem, like Turkey
carpets, to have been expressly designed not to resemble anything
in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, or in the waters
under the earth.

The latter manner he practises most frequently in his tragedies,
the former in his comedies. The comic characters are, without
mixture, loathsome and despicable. The men of Etherege and
Vanbrugh are bad enough. Those of Smollett are perhaps worse.
But they do not approach to the Celadons, the Wildbloods, the
Woodalls, and the Rhodophils of Dryden. The vices of these last
are set off by a certain fierce hard impudence, to which we know
nothing comparable. Their love is the appetite of beasts; their
friendship the confederacy of knaves. The ladies seem to have
been expressly created to form helps meet for such gentlemen. In
deceiving and insulting their old fathers they do not perhaps
exceed the license which, by immemorial prescription, has been
allowed to heroines. But they also cheat at cards, rob strong
boxes, put up their favours to auction, betray their friends,
abuse their rivals in the style of Billingsgate, and invite their
lovers in the language of the Piazza. These, it must be
remembered, are not the valets and waiting-women, the Mascarilles
and Nerines, but the recognised heroes and heroines who appear as
the representatives of good society, and who, at the end of the
fifth act, marry and live very happily ever after. The
sensuality, baseness, and malice of their natures is unredeemed
by any quality of a different description,--by any touch of
kindness,--or even by any honest burst of hearty hatred and
revenge. We are in a world where there is no humanity, no
veracity, no sense of shame,--a world for which any good-natured
man would gladly take in exchange the society of Milton's devils.
But as soon as we enter the regions of Tragedy, we find a great
change. There is no lack of fine sentiment there. Metastasio is
surpassed in his own department. Scuderi is out-scuderied. We
are introduced to people whose proceedings we can trace to no
motive,--of whose feelings we can form no more idea than of a
sixth sense. We have left a race of creatures, whose love is as
delicate and affectionate as the passion which an alderman feels
for a turtle. We find ourselves among beings, whose love is a
purely disinterested emotion,--a loyalty extending to passive
obedience,--a religion, like that of the Quietists, unsupported
by any sanction of hope or fear. We see nothing but despotism
without power, and sacrifices without compensation.

We will give a few instances. In Aurengzebe, Arimant, governor
of Agra, falls in love with his prisoner Indamora. She rejects
his suit with scorn; but assures him that she shall make great
use of her power over him. He threatens to be angry. She
answers, very coolly:

"Do not: your anger, like your love, is vain:
Whene'er I please, you must be pleased again.
Knowing what power I have your will to bend,
I'll use it; for I need just such a friend."

This is no idle menace. She soon brings a letter addressed to
his rival,--orders him to read it,--asks him whether he thinks it
sufficiently tender,--and finally commands him to carry it
himself. Such tyranny as this, it may be thought, would justify
resistance. Arimant does indeed venture to remonstrate:--

"This fatal paper rather let me tear,
Than, like Bellerophon, my sentence bear."

The answer of the lady is incomparable:--

"You may; but 'twill not be your best advice;
'Twill only give me pains of writing twice.
You know you must obey me, soon or late.
Why should you vainly struggle with your fate?"

Poor Arimant seems to be of the same opinion. He mutters
something about fate and free-will, and walks off with the

In the Indian Emperor, Montezuma presents Almeria with a garland
as a token of his love, and offers to make her his queen. She

"I take this garland, not as given by you;
But as my merit's and my beauty's due;
As for the crown which you, my slave, possess,
To share it with you would but make me less."

In return for such proofs of tenderness as these, her admirer
consents to murder his two sons and a benefactor to whom he feels
the warmest gratitude. Lyndaraxa, in the Conquest of Granada,
assumes the same lofty tone with Abdelmelech. He complains that
she smiles upon his rival.

"Lynd. And when did I my power so far resign,
That you should regulate each look of mine?

Abdel. Then, when you gave your love, you gave that power.

Lynd. 'Twas during pleasure--'tis revoked this hour.

Abdel. I'll hate you, and this visit is my last.

Lynd. Do, if you can: you know I hold you fast."

That these passages violate all historical propriety, that
sentiments to which nothing similar was ever even affected except
by the cavaliers of Europe, are transferred to Mexico and Agra,
is a light accusation. We have no objection to a conventional
world, an Illyrian puritan, or a Bohemian seaport. While the
faces are good, we care little about the back-ground. Sir Joshua
Reynolds says that the curtains and hangings in an historical
painting ought to be, not velvet or cotton, but merely drapery.
The same principle should be applied to poetry and romance. The
truth of character is the first object; the truth of place and
time is to be considered only in the second place. Puff himself
could tell the actor to turn out his toes, and remind him that
Keeper Hatton was a great dancer. We wish that, in our own time,
a writer of a very different order from Puff had not too often
forgotten human nature in the niceties of upholstery, millinery,
and cookery.

We blame Dryden, not because the persons of his dramas are not
Moors or Americans, but because they are not men and women;--not
because love, such as he represents it, could not exist in a
harem or in a wigwam, but because it could not exist anywhere.
As is the love of his heroes, such are all their other emotions.
All their qualities, their courage, their generosity, their
pride, are on the same colossal scale. Justice and prudence are
virtues which can exist only in a moderate degree, and which
change their nature and their name if pushed to excess. Of
justice and prudence, therefore, Dryden leaves his favourites
destitute. He did not care to give them what he could not give
without measure. The tyrants and ruffians are merely the heroes
altered by a few touches, similar to those which transformed the
honest face of Sir Roger de Coverley into the Saracen's head.
Through the grin and frown the original features are still

It is in the tragi-comedies that these absurdities strike us
most. The two races of men, or rather the angels and the
baboons, are there presented to us together. We meet in one
scene with nothing but gross, selfish, unblushing, lying
libertines of both sexes, who, as a punishment, we suppose, for
their depravity, are condemned to talk nothing but prose. But,
as soon as we meet with people who speak in verse, we know that
we are in society which would have enraptured the Cathos and
Madelon of Moliere, in society for which Oroondates would have
too little of the lover, and Clelia too much of the coquette.

As Dryden was unable to render his plays interesting by means of
that which is the peculiar and appropriate excellence of the
drama, it was necessary that he should find some substitute for
it. In his comedies he supplied its place, sometimes by wit, but
more frequently by intrigue, by disguises, mistakes of persons,
dialogues at cross purposes, hair-breadth escapes, perplexing
concealments, and surprising disclosures. He thus succeeded at
least in making these pieces very amusing.

In his tragedies he trusted, and not altogether without reason,
to his diction and his versification. It was on this account, in
all probability, that he so eagerly adopted, and so reluctantly
abandoned, the practice of rhyming in his plays. What is
unnatural appears less unnatural in that species of verse than in
lines which approach more nearly to common conversation; and in
the management of the heroic couplet Dryden has never been
equalled. It is unnecessary to urge any arguments against a
fashion now universally condemned. But it is worthy of
observation, that, though Dryden was deficient in that talent
which blank verse exhibits to the greatest advantage, and was
certainly the best writer of heroic rhyme in our language, yet
the plays which have, from the time of their first appearance,
been considered as his best, are in blank verse. No experiment
can be more decisive.

It must be allowed that the worst even of the rhyming tragedies
contains good description and magnificent rhetoric. But, even
when we forget that they are plays, and, passing by their
dramatic improprieties, consider them with reference to the
language, we are perpetually disgusted by passages which it is
difficult to conceive how any author could have written, or any
audience have tolerated, rants in which the raving violence of
the manner forms a strange contrast with the abject tameness of
the thought. The author laid the whole fault on the audience,
and declared that, when he wrote them, he considered them bad
enough to please. This defence is unworthy of a man of genius,
and after all, is no defence. Otway pleased without rant; and so
might Dryden have done, if he had possessed the powers of Otway.
The fact is, that he had a tendency to bombast, which, though
subsequently corrected by time and thought, was never wholly
removed, and which showed itself in performances not designed to
please the rude mob of the theatre.

Some indulgent critics have represented this failing as an
indication of genius, as the profusion of unlimited wealth, the
wantonness of exuberant vigour. To us it seems to bear a nearer
affinity to the tawdriness of poverty, or the spasms and
convulsions of weakness. Dryden surely had not more imagination
than Homer, Dante, or Milton, who never fall into this vice. The
swelling diction of Aeschylus and Isaiah resembles that of
Almanzor and Maximin no more than the tumidity of a muscle
resembles the tumidity of a boil. The former is symptomatic of
health and strength, the latter of debility and disease. If ever
Shakspeare rants, it is not when his imagination is hurrying him
along, but when he is hurrying his imagination along,--when his
mind is for a moment jaded,--when, as was said of Euripides, he
resembles a lion, who excites his own fury by lashing himself
with his tail. What happened to Shakspeare from the occasional
suspension of his powers happened to Dryden from constant
impotence. He, like his confederate Lee, had judgment enough to
appreciate the great poets of the preceding age, but not judgment
enough to shun competition with them. He felt and admired their
wild and daring sublimity. That it belonged to another age than
that in which he lived and required other talents than those
which he possessed, that, in aspiring to emulate it, he was
wasting, in a hopeless attempt, powers which might render him
pre-eminent in a different career, was a lesson which he did not
learn till late. As those knavish enthusiasts, the French
prophets, courted inspiration by mimicking the writhings,
swoonings, and gaspings which they considered as its symptoms, he
attempted, by affected fits of poetical fury, to bring on a real
paroxysm; and, like them, he got nothing but his distortions for
his pains.

Horace very happily compares those who, in his time, imitated
Pindar to the youth who attempted to fly to heaven on waxen
wings, and who experienced so fatal and ignominious a fall. His
own admirable good sense preserved him from this error, and
taught him to cultivate a style in which excellence was within
his reach. Dryden had not the same self-knowledge. He saw that
the greatest poets were never so successful as when they rushed
beyond the ordinary bounds, and that some inexplicable good
fortune preserved them from tripping even when they staggered on
the brink of nonsense. He did not perceive that they were guided
and sustained by a power denied to himself. They wrote from the
dictation of the imagination; and they found a response in the
imaginations of others. He, on the contrary, sat down to work
himself, by reflection and argument, into a deliberate wildness,
a rational frenzy.

In looking over the admirable designs which accompany the Faust,
we have always been much struck by one which represents the
wizard and the tempter riding at full speed. The demon sits on
his furious horse as heedlessly as if he were reposing on a
chair. That he should keep his saddle in such a posture, would
seem impossible to any who did not know that he was secure in the
privileges of a superhuman nature. The attitude of Faust, on the
contrary, is the perfection of horsemanship. Poets of the first
order might safely write as desperately as Mephistopheles rode.
But Dryden, though admitted to communion with higher spirits,
though armed with a portion of their power, and intrusted with
some of their secrets, was of another race. What they might
securely venture to do, it was madness in him to attempt. It was
necessary that taste and critical science should supply his

We will give a few examples. Nothing can be finer than the
description of Hector at the Grecian wall:--

o d ar esthore phaidimos Ektor,
Nukti thoe atalantos upopia lampe de chalko
Smerdaleo, ton eesto peri chroi doia de chersi
Dour echen ouk an tis min erukakoi antibolesas,
Nosphi theun, ot esalto pulas puri d osse dedeei.--
Autika d oi men teichos uperbasan, oi de kat autas
Poietas esechunto pulas Danaioi d ephobethen
Neas ana glaphuras omados d aliastos etuchthe.

What daring expressions! Yet how significant! How picturesque!
Hector seems to rise up in his strength and fury. The gloom of
night in his frown,--the fire burning in his eyes,--the javelins
and the blazing armour,--the mighty rush through the gates and
down the battlements,--the trampling and the infinite roar of the
multitude,--everything is with us; everything is real.

Dryden has described a very similar event in Maximin, and has
done his best to be sublime, as follows:--

"There with a forest of their darts he strove,
And stood like Capaneus defying Jove;
With his broad sword the boldest beating down,
Till Fate grew pale, lest he should win the town,
And turn'd the iron leaves of its dark book
To make new dooms, or mend what it mistook."

How exquisite is the imagery of the fairy-songs in the Tempest
and the Midsummer Night's Dream; Ariel riding through the
twilight on the bat, or sucking in the bells of flowers with the
bee; or the little bower-women of Titania, driving the spiders
from the couch of the Queen! Dryden truly said, that

"Shakspeare's magic could not copied be;
Within that circle none durst walk but he."

It would have been well if he had not himself dared to step
within the enchanted line, and drawn on himself a fate similar to
that which, according to the old superstition, punished such
presumptuous interference. The following lines are parts of the
song of his fairies:--

"Merry, merry, merry, we sail from the East,
Half-tippled at a rainbow feast.
In the bright moonshine, while winds whistle loud,
Tivy, tivy, tivy, we mount and we fly,
All racking along in a downy white cloud;
And lest our leap from the sky prove too far,
We slide on the back of a new falling star,
And drop from above
In a jelly of love."

These are very favourable instances. Those who wish for a bad
one may read the dying speeches of Maximin, and may compare them
with the last scenes of Othello and Lear.

If Dryden had died before the expiration of the first of the
periods into which we have divided his literary life, he would
have left a reputation, at best, little higher than that of Lee
or Davenant. He would have been known only to men of letters;
and by them he would have been mentioned as a writer who threw
away, on subjects which he was incompetent to treat, powers
which, judiciously employed, might have raised him to eminence;
whose diction and whose numbers had sometimes very high merit,
but all whose works were blemished by a false taste, and by
errors of gross negligence. A few of his prologues and epilogues
might perhaps still have been remembered and quoted. In these
little pieces he early showed all the powers which afterwards
rendered him the greatest of modern satirists. But, during the
latter part of his life, he gradually abandoned the drama. His
plays appeared at longer intervals. He renounced rhyme in
tragedy. His language became less turgid--his characters less
exaggerated. He did not indeed produce correct representations
of human nature; but he ceased to daub such monstrous chimeras as
those which abound in his earlier pieces. Here and there
passages occur worthy of the best ages of the British stage. The
style which the drama requires changes with every change of
character and situation. He who can vary his manner to suit the
variation is the great dramatist; but he who excels in one manner
only will, when that manner happens to be appropriate, appear to
be a great dramatist; as the hands of a watch which does not go
point right once in the twelve hours. Sometimes there is a scene
of solemn debate. This a mere rhetorician may write as well as
the greatest tragedian that ever lived. We confess that to us
the speech of Sempronius in Cato seems very nearly as good as
Shakspeare could have made it. But when the senate breaks up,
and we find that the lovers and their mistresses, the hero, the
villain, and the deputy-villain, all continue to harangue in the
same style, we perceive the difference between a man who can
write a play and a man who can write a speech. In the same
manner, wit, a talent for description, or a talent for narration,
may, for a time, pass for dramatic genius. Dryden was an
incomparable reasoner in verse. He was conscious of his power;
he was proud of it; and the authors of the Rehearsal justly
charged him with abusing it. His warriors and princesses are
fond of discussing points of amorous casuistry, such as would
have delighted a Parliament of Love. They frequently go still
deeper, and speculate on philosophical necessity and the origin
of evil.

There were, however, some occasions which absolutely required
this peculiar talent. Then Dryden was indeed at home. All his
best scenes are of this description. They are all between men;
for the heroes of Dryden, like many other gentlemen, can never
talk sense when ladies are in company. They are all intended to
exhibit the empire of reason over violent passion. We have two
interlocutors, the one eager and impassioned, the other high,
cool, and judicious. The composed and rational character
gradually acquires the ascendency. His fierce companion is first
inflamed to rage by his reproaches, then overawed by his
equanimity, convinced by his arguments, and soothed by his
persuasions. This is the case in the scene between Hector and
Troilus, in that between Antony and Ventidius, and in that
between Sebastian and Dorax. Nothing of the same kind in
Shakspeare is equal to them, except the quarrel between Brutus
and Cassius, which is worth them all three.

Some years before his death, Dryden altogether ceased to write
for the stage. He had turned his powers in a new direction, with
success the most splendid and decisive. His taste had gradually
awakened his creative faculties. The first rank in poetry was
beyond his reach; but he challenged and secured the most
honourable place in the second. His imagination resembled the
wings of an ostrich; it enabled him to run, though not to soar.
When he attempted the highest flights, he became ridiculous; but,
while he remained in a lower region, he out-stripped all

All his natural and all his acquired powers fitted him to found a
good critical school of poetry. Indeed he carried his reforms
too far for his age. After his death our literature retrograded;
and a century was necessary to bring it back to the point at
which he left it. The general soundness and healthfulness of his
mental constitution, his information, of vast superficies, though
of small volume, his wit scarcely inferior to that of the most
distinguished followers of Donne, his eloquence, grave,
deliberate, and commanding, could not save him from disgraceful
failure as a rival of Shakspeare, but raised him far above the
level of Boileau. His command of language was immense. With him
died the secret of the old poetical diction of England,--the art
of producing rich effects by familiar words. In the following
century it was as completely lost as the Gothic method of
painting glass, and was but poorly supplied by the laborious and
tesselated imitations of Mason and Gray. On the other hand, he
was the first writer under whose skilful management the
scientific vocabulary fell into natural and pleasing verse. In
this department, he succeeded as completely as his contemporary
Gibbons succeeded in the similar enterprise of carving the most
delicate flowers from heart of oak. The toughest and most knotty
parts of language became ductile at his touch. His
versification, in the same manner, while it gave the first model
of that neatness and precision which the following generation
esteemed so highly, exhibited at the same time, the last examples
of nobleness, freedom, variety of pause, and cadence. His
tragedies in rhyme, however worthless in themselves, had at least
served the purpose of nonsense-verses; they had taught him all
the arts of melody which the heroic couplet admits. For bombast,
his prevailing vice, his new subjects gave little opportunity;
his better taste gradually discarded it.

He possessed, as we have said, in a pre-eminent degree the power
of reasoning in verse; and this power was now peculiarly useful
to him. His logic is by no means uniformly sound. On points of
criticism, he always reasons ingeniously; and when he is disposed
to be honest, correctly. But the theological and political
questions which he undertook to treat in verse were precisely
those which he understood least. His arguments, therefore, are
often worthless. But the manner in which they are stated is
beyond all praise. The style is transparent. The topics follow
each other in the happiest order. The objections are drawn up in
such a manner that the whole fire of the reply may be brought to
bear on them. The circumlocutions which are substituted for
technical phrases are clear, neat, and exact. The illustrations
at once adorn and elucidate the reasoning. The sparkling
epigrams of Cowley, and the simple garrulity of the burlesque
poets of Italy, are alternately employed, in the happiest manner,
to give effect to what is obvious or clearness to what is

His literary creed was catholic, even to latitudinarianism; not
from any want of acuteness, but from a disposition to be easily
satisfied. He was quick to discern the smallest glimpse of
merit; he was indulgent even to gross improprieties, when
accompanied by any redeeming talent. When he said a severe
thing, it was to serve a temporary purpose,--to support an
argument, or to tease a rival. Never was so able a critic so
free from fastidiousness. He loved the old poets, especially
Shakspeare. He admired the ingenuity which Donne and Cowley had
so wildly abused. He did justice, amidst the general silence, to
the memory of Milton. He praised to the skies the school-boy
lines of Addison. Always looking on the fair side of every
object, he admired extravagance on account of the invention which
he supposed it to indicate; he excused affectation in favour of
wit; he tolerated even tameness for the sake of the correctness
which was its concomitant.

It was probably to this turn of mind, rather than to the more
disgraceful causes which Johnson has assigned, that we are to
attribute the exaggeration which disfigures the panegyrics of
Dryden. No writer, it must be owned, has carried the flattery of
dedication to a greater length. But this was not, we suspect,
merely interested servility: it was the overflowing of a mind
singularly disposed to admiration,--of a mind which diminished
vices, and magnified virtues and obligations. The most adulatory
of his addresses is that in which he dedicates the State of
Innocence to Mary of Modena. Johnson thinks it strange that any
man should use such language without self-detestation. But he
has not remarked that to the very same work is prefixed an
eulogium on Milton, which certainly could not have been
acceptable at the Court of Charles the Second. Many years later,
when Whig principles were in a great measure triumphant, Sprat
refused to admit a monument of John Phillips into Westminster
Abbey--because, in the epitaph, the name of Milton incidentally
occurred. The walls of his church, he declared, should not be
polluted by the name of a republican! Dryden was attached, both
by principle and interest, to the Court. But nothing could
deaden his sensibility to excellence. We are unwilling to accuse
him severely, because the same disposition, which prompted him to
pay so generous a tribute to the memory of a poet whom his
patrons detested, hurried him into extravagance when he described
a princess distinguished by the splendour of her beauty and the
graciousness of her manners.

This is an amiable temper; but it is not the temper of great men.
Where there is elevation of character, there will be
fastidiousness. It is only in novels and on tombstones that we
meet with people who are indulgent to the faults of others, and
unmerciful to their own; and Dryden, at all events, was not one
of these paragons. His charity was extended most liberally to
others; but it certainly began at home. In taste he was by no
means deficient. His critical works are, beyond all comparison,
superior to any which had, till then, appeared in England. They
were generally intended as apologies for his own poems, rather
than as expositions of general principles; he, therefore, often
attempts to deceive the reader by sophistry which could scarcely
have deceived himself. His dicta are the dicta, not of a judge,
but of an advocate:--often of an advocate in an unsound cause.
Yet, in the very act of misrepresenting the laws of composition,
he shows how well he understands them. But he was perpetually
acting against his better knowledge. His sins were sins against
light. He trusted that what was bad would be pardoned for the
sake of what was good. What was good, he took no pains to make
better. He was not, like most persons who rise to eminence,
dissatisfied even with his best productions. He had set up no
unattainable standard of perfection, the contemplation of which
might at once improve and mortify him. His path was not attended
by an unapproachable mirage of excellence, for ever receding, and
for ever pursued. He was not disgusted by the negligence of
others; and he extended the same toleration to himself. His mind
was of a slovenly character,--fond of splendour, but indifferent
to neatness. Hence most of his writings exhibit the sluttish
magnificence of a Russian noble, all vermin and diamonds, dirty
linen and inestimable sables. Those faults which spring from
affectation, time and thought in a great measure removed from his
poems. But his carelessness he retained to the last. If towards
the close of his life he less frequently went wrong from
negligence, it was only because long habits of composition
rendered it more easy to go right. In his best pieces we find
false rhymes,--triplets, in which the third line appears to be a
mere intruder, and, while it breaks the music, adds nothing to
the meaning,--gigantic Alexandrines of fourteen and sixteen
syllables, and truncated verses for which he never troubled
himself to find a termination or a partner.

Such are the beauties and the faults which may be found in
profusion throughout the later works of Dryden. A more just and
complete estimate of his natural and acquired powers,--of the
merits of his style and of its blemishes,--may be formed from the
Hind and Panther, than from any of his other writings. As a
didactic poem, it is far superior to the Religio Laici. The
satirical parts, particularly the character of Burnet, are
scarcely inferior to the best passages in Absalom and Achitophel.
There are, moreover, occasional touches of a tenderness which
affects us more, because it is decent, rational, and manly, and
reminds us of the best scenes in his tragedies. His
versification sinks and swells in happy unison with the subject;
and his wealth of language seems to be unlimited. Yet, the
carelessness with which he has constructed his plot, and the
innumerable inconsistencies into which he is every moment
falling, detract much from the pleasure which such various
excellence affords.

In Absalom and Achitophel he hit upon a new and rich vein, which
he worked with signal success. They ancient satirists were the
subjects of a despotic government. They were compelled to
abstain from political topics, and to confine their attention to
the frailties of private life. They might, indeed, sometimes
venture to take liberties with public men,

"Quorum Flaminia tegitur cinis atque Latina."

Thus Juvenal immortalised the obsequious senators who met to
decide the fate of the memorable turbot. His fourth satire
frequently reminds us of the great political poem of Dryden; but
it was not written till Domitian had fallen: and it wants
something of the peculiar flavour which belongs to contemporary
invective alone. His anger has stood so long that, though the
body is not impaired, the effervescence, the first cream, is
gone. Boileau lay under similar restraints; and, if he had been
free from all restraints, would have been no match for our

The advantages which Dryden derived from the nature of his
subject he improved to the very utmost. His manner is almost
perfect. The style of Horace and Boileau is fit only for light
subjects. The Frenchman did indeed attempt to turn the
theological reasonings of the Provincial Letters into verse, but
with very indifferent success. The glitter of Pope is gold. The
ardour of Persius is without brilliancy. Magnificent
versification and ingenious combinations rarely harmonise with
the expression of deep feeling. In Juvenal and Dryden alone we
have the sparkle and the heat together. Those great satirists
succeeded in communicating the fervour of their feelings to
materials the most incombustible, and kindled the whole mass into
a blaze, at once dazzling and destructive. We cannot, indeed,
think, without regret, of the part which so eminent a writer as
Dryden took in the disputes of that period. There was, no doubt,
madness and wickedness on both sides. But there was liberty on
the one, and despotism on the other. On this point, however, we
will not dwell. At Talavera the English and French troops for a
moment suspended their conflict, to drink of a stream which
flowed between them. The shells were passed across from enemy to
enemy without apprehension or molestation. We, in the same
manner, would rather assist our political adversaries to drink
with us of that fountain of intellectual pleasure, which should
be the common refreshment of both parties, than disturb and
pollute it with the havoc of unseasonable hostilities.

Macflecnoe is inferior to Absalom and Achitophel only in the
subject. In the execution it is even superior. But the greatest
work of Dryden was the last, the Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day. It
is the masterpiece of the second class of poetry, and ranks but
just below the great models of the first. It reminds us of the
Pedasus of Achilles--

os, kai thnetos eon, epeth ippois athanatoisi.

By comparing it with the impotent ravings of the heroic tragedies
we may measure the progress which the mind of Dryden had made.
He had learned to avoid a too audacious competition with higher
natures, to keep at a distance from the verge of bombast or
nonsense, to venture on no expression which did not convey a
distinct idea to his own mind. There is none of that "darkness
visible" of style which he had formerly affected, and in which
the greatest poets only can succeed. Everything is definite,
significant, and picturesque. His early writings resembled the
gigantic works of those Chinese gardeners who attempt to rival
nature herself, to form cataracts of terrific height and sound,
to raise precipitous ridges of mountains, and to imitate in
artificial plantations the vastness and the gloom of some
primeval forest. This manner he abandoned; nor did he ever adopt
the Dutch taste which Pope affected, the trim parterres, and the
rectangular walks. He rather resembled our Kents and Browns, who
imitating the great features of landscape without emulating them,
consulting the genius of the place, assisting nature and
carefully disguising their art, produced, not a Chamouni or a
Niagara, but a Stowe or a Hagley.

We are, on the whole, inclined to regret that Dryden did not
accomplish his purpose of writing an epic poem. It certainly
would not have been a work of the highest rank. It would not
have rivalled the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Paradise Lost; but
it would have been superior to the productions of Apollonius,
Lucan, or Statius, and not inferior to the Jerusalem Delivered.
It would probably have been a vigorous narrative, animated with
something of the spirit of the old romances, enriched with much
splendid description, and interspersed with fine declamations and
disquisitions. The danger of Dryden would have been from aiming
too high; from dwelling too much, for example, on his angels of
kingdoms, and attempting a competition with that great writer who
in his own time had so incomparably succeeded in representing to
us the sights and sounds of another world. To Milton, and to
Milton alone, belonged the secrets of the great deep, the beach
of sulphur, the ocean of fire, the palaces of the fallen
dominations, glimmering through the everlasting shade, the silent
wilderness of verdure and fragrance where armed angels kept watch
over the sleep of the first lovers, the portico of diamond, the
sea of jasper, the sapphire pavement empurpled with celestial
roses, and the infinite ranks of the Cherubim, blazing with
adamant and gold. The council, the tournament, the procession,
the crowded cathedral, the camp, the guard-room, the chase, were
the proper scenes for Dryden.

But we have not space to pass in review all the works which
Dryden wrote. We, therefore, will not speculate longer on those
which he might possibly have written. He may, on the whole, be
pronounced to have been a man possessed of splendid talents,
which he often abused, and of a sound judgment, the admonitions
of which he often neglected; a man who succeeded only in an
inferior department of his art, but who, in that department,
succeeded pre-eminently; and who with a more independent spirit,
a more anxious desire of excellence, and more respect for
himself, would, in his own walk, have attained to absolute


(May 1828.)

"The Romance of History. England." By Henry Neele. London,

To write history respectably--that is, to abbreviate despatches,
and make extracts from speeches, to intersperse in due proportion
epithets of praise and abhorrence, to draw up antithetical
characters of great men, setting forth how many contradictory
virtues and vices they united, and abounding in "withs" and
"withouts"--all this is very easy. But to be a really great
historian is perhaps the rarest of intellectual distinctions.
Many scientific works are, in their kind, absolutely perfect.
There are poems which we should be inclined to designate as
faultless, or as disfigured only by blemishes which pass
unnoticed in the general blaze of excellence. There are
speeches, some speeches of Demosthenes particularly, in which it
would be impossible to alter a word without altering it for the
worse. But we are acquainted with no history which approaches to
our notion of what a history ought to be--with no history which
does not widely depart, either on the right hand or on the left,
from the exact line.

The cause may easily be assigned. This province of literature is
a debatable land. It lies on the confines of two distinct
territories. It is under the jurisdiction of two hostile powers;
and, like other districts similarly situated, it is ill defined,
ill cultivated, and ill regulated. Instead of being equally
shared between its two rulers, the Reason and the Imagination, it
falls alternately under the sole and absolute dominion of each.
It is sometimes fiction. It is sometimes theory.

History, it has been said, is philosophy teaching by examples.
Unhappily, what the philosophy gains in soundness and depth the
examples generally lose in vividness. A perfect historian must
possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his
narrative affecting and picturesque. Yet he must control it so
absolutely as to content himself with the materials which he
finds, and to refrain from supplying deficiencies by additions of
his own. He must be a profound and ingenious reasoner. Yet he
must possess sufficient self-command to abstain from casting his
facts in the mould of his hypothesis. Those who can justly
estimate these almost insuperable difficulties will not think it
strange that every writer should have failed, either in the
narrative or in the speculative department of history.

It may be laid down as a general rule, though subject to
considerable qualifications and exceptions, that history begins
in novel and ends in essay. Of the romantic historians Herodotus
is the earliest and the best. His animation, his simple-hearted
tenderness, his wonderful talent for description and dialogue,
and the pure sweet flow of his language, place him at the head of
narrators. He reminds us of a delightful child. There is a
grace beyond the reach of affectation in his awkwardness, a
malice in his innocence, an intelligence in his nonsense, an
insinuating eloquence in his lisp. We know of no writer who
makes such interest for himself and his book in the heart of the
reader. At the distance of three-and-twenty centuries, we feel
for him the same sort of pitying fondness which Fontaine and Gay
are said to have inspired in society. He has written an
incomparable book. He has written something better perhaps than
the best history; but he has not written a good history; he is,
from the first to the last chapter, an inventor. We do not here
refer merely to those gross fictions with which he has been
reproached by the critics of later times. We speak of that
colouring which is equally diffused over his whole narrative, and
which perpetually leaves the most sagacious reader in doubt what
to reject and what to receive. The most authentic parts of his
work bear the same relation to his wildest legends which Henry
the Fifth bears to the Tempest. There was an expedition
undertaken by Xerxes against Greece; and there was an invasion of
France. There was a battle at Plataea; and there was a battle at
Agincourt. Cambridge and Exeter, the Constable and the Dauphin,
were persons as real as Demaratus and Pausanias. The harangue of
the Archbishop on the Salic Law and the Book of Numbers differs
much less from the orations which have in all ages proceeded from
the right reverend bench than the speeches of Mardonius and
Artabanus from those which were delivered at the council-board of
Susa. Shakspeare gives us enumerations of armies, and returns of
killed and wounded, which are not, we suspect, much less accurate
than those of Herodotus. There are passages in Herodotus nearly
as long as acts of Shakspeare, in which everything is told
dramatically, and in which the narrative serves only the purpose
of stage-directions. It is possible, no doubt, that the
substance of some real conversations may have been reported to
the historian. But events which, if they ever happened, happened
in ages and nations so remote that the particulars could never
have been known to him, are related with the greatest minuteness
of detail. We have all that Candaules said to Gyges, and all
that passed between Astyages and Harpagus. We are, therefore,
unable to judge whether, in the account which he gives of
transactions respecting which he might possibly have been well
informed, we can trust to anything beyond the naked outline;
whether, for example, the answer of Gelon to the ambassadors of
the Grecian confederacy, or the expressions which passed between
Aristides and Themistocles at their famous interview, have been
correctly transmitted to us. The great events are, no doubt,
faithfully related. So, probably, are many of the slighter
circumstances; but which of them it is impossible to ascertain.
The fictions are so much like the facts, and the facts so much
like the fictions, that, with respect to many most interesting
particulars, our belief is neither given nor withheld, but
remains in an uneasy and interminable state of abeyance. We know
that there is truth; but we cannot exactly decide where it lies.

The faults of Herodotus are the faults of a simple and
imaginative mind. Children and servants are remarkably
Herodotean in their style of narration. They tell everything
dramatically. Their "says hes" and "says shes" are proverbial.
Every person who has had to settle their disputes knows that,
even when they have no intention to deceive, their reports of
conversation always require to be carefully sifted. If an
educated man were giving an account of the late change of
administration, he would say--"Lord Goderich resigned; and the
King, in consequence, sent for the Duke of Wellington." A porter
tells the story as if he had been hid behind the curtains of the
royal bed at Windsor: "So Lord Goderich says, 'I cannot manage
this business; I must go out.' So the King says,--says he,
'Well, then, I must send for the Duke of Wellington--that's
all.'" This is in the very manner of the father of history.

Herodotus wrote as it was natural that he should write. He wrote
for a nation susceptible, curious, lively, insatiably desirous of
novelty and excitement; for a nation in which the fine arts had
attained their highest excellence, but in which philosophy was
still in its infancy. His countrymen had but recently begun to
cultivate prose composition. Public transactions had generally
been recorded in verse. The first historians might, therefore,
indulge without fear of censure in the license allowed to their
predecessors the bards. Books were few. The events of former
times were learned from tradition and from popular ballads; the
manners of foreign countries from the reports of travellers. It
is well known that the mystery which overhangs what is distant,
either in space or time, frequently prevents us from censuring as
unnatural what we perceive to be impossible. We stare at a
dragoon who has killed three French cuirassiers, as a prodigy;
yet we read, without the least disgust, how Godfrey slew his
thousands, and Rinaldo his ten thousands. Within the last
hundred years, stories about China and Bantam, which ought not to
have imposed on an old nurse, were gravely laid down as
foundations of political theories by eminent philosophers. What
the time of the Crusades is to us, the generation of Croesus and
Solon was to the Greeks of the time of Herodotus. Babylon was to
them what Pekin was to the French academicians of the last

For such a people was the book of Herodotus composed; and, if we
may trust to a report, not sanctioned indeed by writers of high
authority, but in itself not improbable, it was composed, not to
be read, but to be heard. It was not to the slow circulation of
a few copies, which the rich only could possess, that the
aspiring author looked for his reward. The great Olympian
festival,--the solemnity which collected multitudes, proud of the
Grecian name, from the wildest mountains of Doris, and the
remotest colonies of Italy and Libya,--was to witness his
triumph. The interest of the narrative, and the beauty of the
style, were aided by the imposing effect of recitation,--by the
splendour of the spectacle,--by the powerful influence of
sympathy. A critic who could have asked for authorities in the
midst of such a scene must have been of a cold and sceptical
nature; and few such critics were there. As was the historian,
such were the auditors,--inquisitive, credulous, easily moved by
religious awe or patriotic enthusiasm. They were the very men to
hear with delight of strange beasts, and birds, and trees,--of
dwarfs, and giants, and cannibals--of gods, whose very names it
was impiety to utter,--of ancient dynasties, which had left
behind them monuments surpassing all the works of later times,--
of towns like provinces,--of rivers like seas,--of stupendous
walls, and temples, and pyramids,--of the rites which the Magi
performed at daybreak on the tops of the mountains,--of the
secrets inscribed on the eternal obelisks of Memphis. With equal
delight they would have listened to the graceful romances of
their own country. They now heard of the exact accomplishment of
obscure predictions, of the punishment of crimes over which the
justice of heaven had seemed to slumber,--of dreams, omens,
warnings from the dead,--of princesses, for whom noble suitors
contended in every generous exercise of strength and skill,--of
infants, strangely preserved from the dagger of the assassin, to
fulfil high destinies.

As the narrative approached their own times, the interest became
still more absorbing. The chronicler had now to tell the story
of that great conflict from which Europe dates its intellectual
and political supremacy,--a story which, even at this distance of
time, is the most marvellous and the most touching in the annals
of the human race,--a story abounding with all that is wild and
wonderful, with all that is pathetic and animating; with the
gigantic caprices of infinite wealth and despotic power--with the
mightier miracles of wisdom, of virtue, and of courage. He told
them of rivers dried up in a day,--of provinces famished for a
meal,--of a passage for ships hewn through the mountains,--of a
road for armies spread upon the waves,--of monarchies and
commonwealths swept away,--of anxiety, of terror, of confusion,
of despair!--and then of proud and stubborn hearts tried in that
extremity of evil, and not found wanting,--of resistance long
maintained against desperate odds,--of lives dearly sold, when
resistance could be maintained no more,--of signal deliverance,
and of unsparing revenge. Whatever gave a stronger air of
reality to a narrative so well calculated to inflame the
passions, and to flatter national pride, was certain to be
favourably received.

Between the time at which Herodotus is said to have composed his
history, and the close of the Peloponnesian war, about forty
years elapsed,--forty years, crowded with great military and
political events. The circumstances of that period produced a
great effect on the Grecian character; and nowhere was this
effect so remarkable as in the illustrious democracy of Athens.
An Athenian, indeed, even in the time of Herodotus, would
scarcely have written a book so romantic and garrulous as that of
Herodotus. As civilisation advanced, the citizens of that famous
republic became still less visionary, and still less simple-
hearted. They aspired to know where their ancestors had been
content to doubt; they began to doubt where their ancestors had
thought it their duty to believe. Aristophanes is fond of
alluding to this change in the temper of his countrymen. The
father and son, in the Clouds, are evidently representatives of
the generations to which they respectively belonged. Nothing
more clearly illustrates the nature of this moral revolution than
the change which passed upon tragedy. The wild sublimity of
Aeschylus became the scoff of every young Phidippides. Lectures
on abstruse points of philosophy, the fine distinctions of
casuistry, and the dazzling fence of rhetoric, were substituted
for poetry. The language lost something of that infantine
sweetness which had characterised it. It became less like the
ancient Tuscan, and more like the modern French.

The fashionable logic of the Greeks was, indeed, far from strict.
Logic never can be strict where books are scarce, and where
information is conveyed orally. We are all aware how frequently
fallacies, which, when set down on paper, are at once detected,
pass for unanswerable arguments when dexterously and volubly

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