Imágenes de páginas

receiving : our prepossession is strengthened by such respectable testimony, our judgment is flattered by such concurrence, and a very questionable prejudice takes possession of our understanding. Allowing to the Iliad and Odyssey all that a pure taste and judgment can relish and can approve, there are innumerable passages, which the same taste and judgment cannot enter into, which it may candidly pardon and excuse, but cannot sanction as absolutely proper, beautiful, and sublime. But this would be of little moment, if it acted not 'with a malignant influence on future genius. That gift, which nature, not art or rule, confers, is not permitted freely to exert itself; fancy is controlled in the free and vigorous exertion of its powers. Melmoth has justly. observed, that this fondness for the ancients has probably occasioned to us the loss of many excellent originals. For though, continues he, they may be proper and safe guides to those, who have not the greatness of mind to strike out new paths; yet, while

it is thought a sufficient praise to be their followers, genius is checked in her flights, and many a fair tract lies undiscovered in the boundless regions of imagination. Thus, had Virgil trusted more to his native strength, Rome might perhaps have seen an original epic poem in her own language. But Homer was considered even by this admirable poet as the sacred object of the first veneration; and he seemed to think it the noblest triumph of genius, to be' adorned with the spoils of this illustrious Grecian.

It is not, however, my intention, to discuss the general question of the superiority of the ancient poetry above that of the modern ; but only, as the genus comprehends the species, to introduce the particular qiscussion, which is the professed subject of this essay, by some mention of, and some opinion on, the general question. The mythology of the ancients, which was the

popular belief of their day, and on which the machinery of their epic poem is founded, is supposed to derive to it its special advan




tage; as this advantage is not allowed to the modern, because with a change of the popular creed no sympathy can be extended to him in the use of such fabulous machinery. I mean therefore to show, that in its own nature, and with every allowance of belief, it is a miserable machinery; puerile; with no consistency and unity of character ; beneath human nature; and, having ng dignity in itself, incapable of conferring a dignity on the poem, which uses it, and uses it as a principal substratum of the


I might, without any circumlocution, appeal immediately to the sense of every one present, and expect a general verdict in


favour. But, since the time of the ancients the question has assumed a new form from the ingenuity of some of the modern de

votees to the ancient poetry; and in the ce· lestial actors, of whom the epopeia and the

drama of the ancients make such important use, we are not to contemplate real personages, but allegorical representations, in which allegorical interpretation every thing debased


and low is excluded; and, adopting this idea, we are directed to contemplate a dignity in those actors, which as persons they are totally destitute of.

This allegorizing of the heathen pantheon owed its origin to the impotent attempt of some pagan philosophers of the later Platonic school, with a view to rescue paganism from the reproach of its rude and gross theology, which in its popular acceptation could not look christianity in the face. Christian philosophers have taken the lesson from them, and the fine-spun theory, which the former invented from a zeal for the sinking cause of the heathen religion, the latter adopted from an equal zeal for the honour of heathen poetry. What in the name of religion the better sense of mankind turned from with disgust, it was feared that their better taste would be equally disgusted with in the representations of the poets of Greece and Rome. The gods, as gods of antiquity, might fall into contempt and oblivion, but the celestial machinery of the ancients must

be preserved at any rate ; and, as no solid base of support could be found, an airy and visionary base must suffice, and poetical taste must be taught to worship what moral taste loathed.

It will be proper therefore, first, to examine on what foundations this allegorical interpretation of the pagan deities rests; whether it can be maintained ; whether the allegory be supported with any thing of that consistency and unity, which the supposition of it requires; whether it be credible, that the poets of Greece and Rome, by the exhibition of their celestial machinery, designed real personages such as the popular faith received them, or merely an allegorical representation of certain dignified virtues. If, under this examination, the supposed allegory be found to be an unsubstantial fabric, the whole building, that is raised upon it, falls, to the ground, and the machinery in its plain and literal acceptation must answer for itself, and must be tried by the rules of universal good sense and taste;


« AnteriorContinuar »