« AnteriorContinuar »
When the Pagan temples ceafed to be revered, and the Parnaffian mount exifted no longer, it would have been difficult for the poet of later times to have preferved the divinity of his mufe inviolate, if the western world too had not had its facred fables. While there is any national fuperftition which credulity has confecrated, any hallowed tradition long revered by vulgar faith; to that fanctuary, that afylum, may the poet refort. Let him tread the holy ground with reverence; refpect the established doctrine; exactly obferve the accustomed rites, and the attributes of the object of veneration; then fhall he not vainly invoke an inexorable or abfent deity. Ghofts, fairies, goblins, elves, were as propitious, were as affiftant to S. and gave as much of the sublime, and of the marvellous, to his fictions, as nymphs, fatyrs, fawns, and even the triple Geryon, to the works of ancient bards. Our poet never carries his præternatural beings beyond the limits of the popular tradition. It is true, that he boldly exerts his poetic genius and fafcinating powers in that magic circle, in which none e'er durft walk but he but, as judicious as bold, he contains himself within it. He calls up all the ftately phantoms in the regions of fuperftition, which our faith will receive with reverence. He throws into their manners and language a myfterious folemnity, favorable to fuperftition in general, with fomething highly characteristic of each particular being which he exhibits. His witches, his ghofts, and his fairies, feem Spirits of health or goblins damn'd; bring with them airs from heaven, or blafts from hell. His ghofts are fullen, melancholy, and terrible. Every fentence, uttered by the witches, is a prophecy, or a charm ; their manners are malignant, their phrafes ambiguous, their promises delufive. The witches' cauldron is a horrid collection of what is most horrid in their fuppofed incantations. Ariel is a fpirit, mild, gentle, and fweet, poffeffed of fupernatural powers, but fubject to the command of a great magician.
The fairies are fportive and gay; the innocent artificers of harmless frauds, and mirthful delufions. Puck's enumeration of the feats of a fairy is the most agreeable recital of their fuppofed gambols.
To all thefe beings our poet has affigned tasks, and appropriated manners adapted to their imputed difpofitions and characters; which are continually developing through the whole piece, in a series of operations conducive to the catastrophe. They are not brought in as fubordinate or cafual agents, but lead the action, and govern the fable; in which respect our countryman has entered more into theatrical propriety than the Greek tragedians.
Every fpecies of poetry has its diftinct duties and obligations. The drama does not, like the epic, admit of episode, fuperfluous perfons, or things incredible ; for, as it is obferved by a critic of great ingenuity and tafte, *" that which paffes in reprefentation, and challenges, as it were, the fcrutiny of the eye, must be truth itself, or fomething very nearly approaching to it." It fhould indeed be what our imagination will adopt, though our reafon would reject it. Great caution and dexterity are required in the dramatic poet to give an air of reality to fictitious existence.
In the bold attempt to give to airy nothing a local habitation and a perfon, regard must be paid to fix it in fuch scenes, and to difplay it in fuch actions, as are agreeable to the popular opinion.-Witches holding their fabbath, and faluting paffengers on the blasted heath! ghofts, at the midnight hour, vifiting the glimpses of the moon, and whispering a bloody fecret, from propriety of place and action, derive a credibility very propitious to the fcheme of the poet. Reddere perfonæ convenientia cuique, cannot be lefs his duty in regard to these fuperior and divine, than to human
* Hurd, on Dramatic Imitation,
characters. Indeed, from the invariableness of their natures, a greater confiftency and uniformity is neceflary; but most of all, as the belief of their intervention depends entirely on their manners and fentiments fuiting with the preconceived opinion of them.
The magician Profpero raising a storm: witches performing infernal rites; or any other exertion of the fuppofed powers and qualities of the agent, were eafily credited by the vulgar.
The genius of S. informed him that poetic fable muft rife above the fimple tale of the nurfe; therefore he adorns the beldame tradition with flowers gathered on claffic ground, but ftill wifely fuffering thofe fimples of her native foil, to which the established fuperftition of her country has attributed a magic fpell, to to be predominant. Can any thing be more poetical than Profpero's address to his attendant fpirits before he difmiffes them?
Prof. Ye elves of hills, &c.
Here are agreeably fummed up the popular ftories concerning the power of magicians. The incantations of the witches in Macbeth are more folemn and terrible than thofe of the Erichtho of Lucan, or of the Canidia of Horace. It may be faid, indeed, that S. had an advantage derived from the more direful character of his national fuperftitions.
A celebrated writer in his ingenious letters on chivalry, has obferved that the Gothic manners, and Gothic fuperftitions, are more adapted to the ufes of poetry, than the Grecian. The devotion of those times was gloomy and fearful, not being purged of the terrors of the Celtic fables. The priest often availed himself of the dire inventions of his predeceffor the druid. The church of Rome adopted many of the Celtic fuperftitions; others, which were not eftablifhed by it as points of faith, ftill maintained a traditional authority among the vulgar. Climate, tem
per, modes of life, and inftitutions cf government, feem all to have confpired to make the fuperftitions of the Celtic nations melancholy and terrible. Philofophy had not mitigated the aufterity of ignorant devotion, or tamed the fierce fpirit of enthusiasm. As the bards, who were our philofophers and poets, pretended to be poffeffed of the dark fecrets of magic and divination, they certainly encouraged the ignorant credulity, and anxious fears, to which fuch im poftures owe their fuccess and credit. The retired and gloomy fcenes appointed for the most folemn rites of devotion; the aufterity and rigour of druidical d'fcipline and jurifdic→ tion; the fafts, the penances, the fad excommunications from the comforts and privileges of civil life; the dreadful anathema, whofe vengeance purfued the wretched beyond the grave-which bounds all human power and mortal jurifdiction-muft deeply imprint on the mind all thofe forms of fuperftition fuch an hierarchy prefented. The bard, who was fubfervient to the druid, had mixed them in his heroic fong; in his hiftorical annals; in his medical practice: genii aflifted his heroes; dæmons decided the fate of the battle; and charms cured the fick, or the wounded. After the confecrated groves were cut down, and the temples démolished, the tales that fprung from thence were ftill preferved with religious reverence in the minds of the people.
The poet found himfelf happily fituated amidst enchantments, ghofts, goblins; every element fuppofed the refidence of a kind of deity; the genius of the mountain, the fpirit of the floods, the oak endued with facred prophecy, made men walk abroad with a fearful apprehenfion
Of powers unfeen, and mightier far than they.
On the mountains, and in the woods, ftalked the angry spectre; and in the gayeft and most pleafing fcenes, even within the cheerful haunts of men amongst villages and farms,
Tripp'd the light fairies, and the dapper elves.
The reader will eafily perceive what resources remained for the poet in this vifionary land of ideal forms. The general scenery of nature, confidered as inanimate, only adorns the defcriptive part of poetry; but being, according to the Celtic traditions, animated by a kind of intelligences, the bard could better make ufe of them for his moral purposes. That awe of the immediate presence of the deity, which, among the reft of the vulgar, is confined to temples and altars, was here diffufed over every object. They paffed trembling through the woods, and over the mountain, and by the lakes, inhabited by these invisible powers; fuch apprehenfions must indeed.
Deepen the murmur of the falling floods,
Give fearful accents to every whisper of the animate or inanimate creation, and arm every shadow with ter
With great reason, therefore, it was afferted, that the western bards had advantage over Homer in the fuperftitions of their country. The religious ceremonies of Greece were more pompous than folemn; and feemed as much a part of their civil inftitutions, as belonging to fpiritual matters: nor did they imprefs fo deep a fenfe of invifible beings, and prepare the mind to catch the enthusiasm of the poet, and to receive with veneration the phantoms he prefented.
Our countryman has another fuperiority over the Greek poets, even the earliest of them, who, having imbibed the learning of myfterious Egypt, addicted themselves to allegory; but our Gothic bard employs the potent agency of facred fable, instead of mere amufive allegory. When the world becomes learned and philofophical, fable refines into allegory. But the age of fable is the golden age of poetry; when the beams of unclouded reason, and the fteady lamp of inquifitive philofophy, throw their penetrating rays