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Spenser, in simplicity and pathos, than any of the works of contemporary writers, bearing analogy to the ancient ballad, described by himself in his comedy of Twelfth Night:
"It is silly sooth,
"Sad dallies with the -.mocence of youth,
As the style and manner of writing has been progressively improving during the long series of time which has elapsed from the days of Shakespeare to the present period, it would be highly illiberal and disingenuous to place his poems in a comparative view with the polished and refined productions of more modern bards.
The merit of his writings can only be estimated by their conformity to those rules which were prescribed* as the poet's guide, in his own age; and if his poetical works are brought to this standard, and in that view opposed to those either of preceding or contemporary writers, we hesitate not, in concurrence with the opinion of the most impartial and competent judges, to confirm his title to a decided superiority, both with respect to comprehension of mind, and force of expression.
If we bring our author's narrative poetry into comparison with his dramatic, the transcendent excellence of the latter will be more conspicuous, and it will evidently appear, that though his abilities for the one may not have been of the most splendid kind, his genius for the other has far surpassed that with which any other mortal has been endowed; and we may venture to pronounce, that in the delineation of men and manners* the grand design of the drama, he stands unrivalled and alone.
The several editors of the works of our immortal bard, have descanted on his genius and writings, considered as a dramatic poet; but Pope and Dr. Johnson have chiefly distinguished themselves in that arduous, though pleasing task ; we shall therefore present our readers with such extracts from their admirable compositions, as we presume will best conduce to the explanation and illustration of productions which in their line surpass all other efforts of human genius, displayed in this or any other country throughout the universe.
"If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakespeare. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through Egyptian streams and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The poetry of Shakespeare was inspiration indeed: he is not so much an imitator, as an instrument of nature; and it is not so just to say, that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him. His characters are so much nature herself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies from her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which shews that they received them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image: each picture, like a mock rainbow, is but the reflection of a reflection. But every single character in Shakespeare, is as much an individual as those in life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of characters we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays; that had all the speeches been printed without the very name of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.
"The power of an author over our passions was never possessed in a more eminent degree, or displayed in such different instances; yet all along there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them, no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceived to lead towards it; but the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places; we are surprised the moment we weep; and yet, upon reflection, find the passion so just, that we should be surprised if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment. How astonishing is it again, that the passions directly opposite to those of laughter and spleen, are no less at his command; that he is not more a master of the grea t than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our noblest tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles; of our strongest emotions, than of our idlest sensations.
"Nor does he only excel in the passions; in the coolness of reflection and reasoning he is full as admirable. His sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but, by a talent very peculiar, something between penetration and felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing from a man of no education or experience in those great and public scenes of life, which are usually the subjects of his thoughts; so that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have looked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the philosopher, and even the man of the world, may be bom as well as the poet.
"It must be owned, that with all these great excellencies, he had some defects: it must be allowed that stage poetry, of all other, is more particularly levelled to please the populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the common suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespeare, having at first no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people, and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from those of their own rank: accordingly we find that not only our author's, but all the old comedies, have their scenes amongst tradesmen and mechanics; and even their historical plays strictly follow the common old stories or vulgar traditions of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was so sure to surprise and cause admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the most verbose and bombast expression ; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering versification. In comedy, nothing was so sure to please as mean buffoonery, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests
of fools and clowns. Yet, even in these, our author's wit buoys up, and is borne above his subjects: his genius in those low parts is like some prince of a romance in the disguise of a shepherd or peasant; a certain greatness and spirit new and then break out, which manifest his higher extraction and qualities. It may be added, that not only the common audience had not any notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better sort piqued themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way, till Ben Jonson, getting possession of the stage, brought critical learning into vogue; and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent lessons, (and indeed almost all declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouths of his actors, the grt% chants, Sec. and to remove the prejudices and inform the judgment of his hearers. Till then our authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the ancients: their tragedies were only histories in dialogue; and their comedies fol)pwed the thread of any novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true history.
"To judge, therefore, of Shakespeare by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one country, who acted under those of another. He wrote to the people, and wrote at first without patronage from the better sort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them; without assistance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them; without that knowledge of the best models, the ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of c