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less than fourscore lines from the opening of this play, there is no necessity for a single stage direction :- every look, attitude, and movement of the six characters (including the Ghost) being so infallibly indicated, that not the minutest particle which can give poetic or picturesque effect to the reality of the spectacle is omitted. This is the consummation of dramatic art, hiding itself behind the unveiled form of nature.
The foregoing illustration is all that the limits of these Essays will allow on the subject of theatrical entertainments. Of the morality of the stage I have nothing to say, except that, in proportion as the style of dramatic composition has been purified, the talent displayed by writers, in what ought to be at once the most directly moral and constitutionally sublime species of verse, has become less and less conspicuous.. Without disparagement either to virtue or genius, sufficient reasons might be assigned for such an anomaly,-- but this is not the fit occasion for explaining them. With a few honourable exceptions, among which may be named the tragedies of Miss Mitford and Mr. Sheridan Kuowles,- the efforts of our contemporaries in this field have been less successful in deserving success, than in any other walk of polite literature. I refer solely to acting plays. Mrs. Joanna Baillie, the Rev. H. Millman, the Rev. G. Croly, Messrs. Coleridge, Sotheby, and some others, have written Tragedies for the mind and the heart, which rank among the noblest productions of the age.
A very different judgment must be passed on the dramas of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Most of these, notwithstanding the treasures of poetry buried in them, have been abandoned to an obscurity as ignominious as oblivion, on account of their atrocious profligacy;-like forsaken mines, no longer worked, though their veins are rich with ore, because of the mephitic air that fouls their passages, and which no safety-lamp yet invented can render innoxious to the most intrepid virtue. It is grievous to think, that so many of the most powerful minds that ever were sent into this world to beautify and bless mankind, like morning stars with loveliest light, or vernal rains with healing influence, should have been perverted from their course into malignant luminaries, or from their purpose into sour, cold mildews, blighting and blasting the earth and its inhabitants, so far as their evil beams could strike, or their deadly drops could fall. It is true, that they represented man as he was, — not as he ought to have been ;—not as he might have been — had poets always done their duty, and exhibited vice as vice, and virtue as virtue, instead of making each wear the disguise of the other ; associating valour, wit, generosity, and other splendid qualities, with earthly, sensual, devilish appetites and passions: whereby the multitude, who possessed none of these brilliant endowments, were confirmed in their beloved vices; while those who were constitutionally or affectedly gallant, facetious, and affable, were induced to imagine, that, with these holiday virtues, they might indulge in the grossest propensities, and hold in contempt -as allied to meanness, pusillanimity, and hypocrisy whatever is pure, lovely, and of good report in woman, or meek, self-denying, self-sacrificing in man.
Dr. Johnson, in his Life of Waller, says:- “It has been the frequent lamentation of good men, that verse has been too little applied to the purposes of worship; and many attempts have been made to animate devotion by pious poetry: that they have seldom obtained their end is sufficiently known, and it may not be improper to enquire why they have miscarried. Let no pious ear be offended, if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topics of devotion are few; and being few, are universally known: but, few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression. Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the mind than the things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts in nature which attract, and the concealment of those that repel the imagination: but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and such as it is, it is known already. From poetry the reader justly expects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension, and the elevation of his fancy; but this is rarely to be hoped by Christians from metrical devotion. Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted ; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be improved. ***** Of sentiments purely religious, it will be found that the most simple expression is the most sublime. Poetry loses its lustre and its power, because it is applied to the decoration of something more excellent than itself. All that pious verse can do, is to help the memory, and delight the ear; and for these purposes it may be very useful; but it supplies nothing to the mind. The ideas of Christian theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures, is to magnify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere.”
Having, in the Introductory Essay to a volume of Sacred Poetry *, minutely examined the long and, I may say, the celebrated argument, of which the foregoing is but an abstract, I shall not go into particulars here to prove the mistake under which the great critic labours; but I may briefly remark, that the more this dazzling passage is examined, the more
* “ The Christian Poet, or Selections in Verse on Sacred Subjects,” by James Montgomery: published by W. Collins, Glasgow; and Whittaker, London.
indistinct and obscure it becomes (according to the true test of truth itself, as laid down in a former paper *); and in the end it will be found to throw light upon a single point only of the question, point on which there was no darkness before, namely, that the style of devotional poetry must be suited to the theme, whether that be a subject of piety, or a motive to piety.
Those who will take the trouble to examine the passage at length, will find that all the eloquent dictation contained in it affects neither argumentative, descriptive, nor narrative poetry on sacred themes, as exemplified in the great works of Milton, Young, and Cowper. That man has neither ear, nor heart, nor imagination to know genuine poesy, and to enjoy its sweetest or its sublimest influences, who can doubt the supremacy of such passages as the Song of the Angels in the third, and the Morning Hymn of Adam and Eve in the fifth book of “Paradise Lost;" the first part of the ninth book of the “ Night Thoughts ;” and the anticipation of millennial blessedness in the sixth book of “The Task;" yet these are on sacred subjects, and these are religious poetry. There are but four universally and permanently popular long poems in the English language,—“Paradise Lost,” « The Night Thoughts," - The Task,” and “ The Seasons.” Of these, the three former are decidedly religious in their character;
See Lecture II.