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Card. I know time spent in goodness, is too tedious:
should endure to hear that talk'd of Which you so strive to suffer. Oh, my brother, What were
you were taken now!
ART. VIII. - Orlando Furioso di Messer Lodovico Ariosto.
Venetia, Fr. de Franceschi. 4to. 1584.
Critics have long since divided poetry into different kinds or species, to one or other of which they have referred every production of the muse. In making this division, however, they have not been guided by principles deduced from the nature of poetry, abstractedly considered, a circumstance which has frequently led them into erroneous estimates of poetic merit; for having arbitrarily fixed the number of
species, and assigned to each particular laws of its own, to which they obliged the poet to conform, they praised or dispraised every production, according to its conformity or non-conformity to the laws of the species to which they referred it. Hence it happened, that when succeeding critics found any poem differing from all the acknowledged species in its general features or conduct, instead of considering it a distinct species in itself, they referred it to one or other of the acknowledged species, and then condemned it for deviating
from the laws by which this species was governed. Aristotle led the way for this classification of poetry. It is generally supposed, however, that we have only a fragment of his poetics, as he only treats of poetry in general, of tragedy, and of the epic poem.
His view of the latter is confined to the heroic epic ; but no argument can be deduced from it to prove, that he considered the epic poem necessarily heroic. From its Greek origin, it obviously applies to narrative poetry in general ; but modern critics have limited its acceptation to the recital of heroic achievements, though it is certain, that common actions, and common manners are as capable of being narrated as the exploits of heroes. Should it be even granted, that the epic poem requires, not only a chief hero, but that all the episodic or incidental narratives should arise naturally from the main action, there is still no necessity of selecting this chief hero from kings or princes, unless such a selection arise from the nature of the poem, and the completion of the object which the poet has in view. Admitting, however, this necessity, it cannot apply to Ariosto, as his chief personages and characters are of royal or noble descent.
That the heroic epic requires, not only a chief hero, but a coincidence of all the episodic narratives with the main action of the poem, so long as the poem conforms to the practice of Homer and his successors, cannot be denied ; but why the nature of epic poetry should oblige him to conform to these models, why it should debar him from sketching an original design of his own, differing from that species of epic which we denominate heroic, but agreeing with the genus of which the heroic is only a species, we must confess ourselves at a loss to perceive. Homer and Virgil are authorities only to those who tread in their footsteps, but that an epic poet should be obliged to tread in their steps, is a theory founded either on erroneous principles, or at least on principles which we cannot reconcile with our ideas of narrative poetry, which is only another name for epic poetry. The poem, for instance, which has suggested these reflections, is almost entirely narrative, but whoever thinks he can trace in it either unity of action, or discover a chief hero, or at least a hero so chief as to render this unity necessary, will certainly find himself disappointed. Succeeding critics have discovered many species of poetry, with which we should suppose Aristotle unacquainted, if he exhausted what he knew of the subject in his poeties; but it is more reasonable to suppose, that he left the subject unfinished, or that the greater portion of his poetics has been lost to posterity. Be this as it may, neither the authority of Aristotle, nor of any other critic, however highly gifted with the sublimer endowments of mind, can have any weight in subjects which are placed within the range of human intellection, if his authority stand opposed to the clear deductions of reason.
Wherever we can consult reason or the light of nature, we are ourselves as well qualified to decide as Aristotle ; and to submit implicitly to his authority in such cases, is only to acknowledge, that though reason may enable us to arrive at the truth of which we are in pursuit, the web is still too complicated for us to unravel. This, in other words, is only acknowledging our own ignorance, or our despair of discovering what is capable of being discovered ; and arguing from this ignorance and despair the necessity of being guided by an intellect more unclouded and luminous than our own.
If this acknowledgment, and the argument deduced from it, be true, what becomes of our boasted superiority over the ancients ? What becomes even of that emulation which should prompt us to rival them? On the other hand, if the subject be equally concealed from the exploring acumen of reason, and the intuitive light of nature, a light which frequently unveils objects, which would have ever remained concealed from the slow progress and tardy deductions of the comparing and analyzing faculty, Aristotle could have as little pretensions to unravel the inexplicable maze, as the less metaphysical critics of the nineteenth century. In either case, therefore, if we cannot venture to judge for ourselves, neither can we trust to the judgement or authority of Aristotle. It is so with regard to all the species or classes into which poetry has been divided and subdivided by his followers. Before we
can admit their authority in determining the exact and fixed number of species into which poetry naturally resolves itself, we must first ascertain what poetry is in itself, what distinguishes it from every other species of composition, what common quality unites all the different species, and proves them to belong to the original stock, and in the absence of which no composition can be poetical : in a word, we must ascertain the quality or qualities that constitute its essence, that make it what it is and nothing else, and that equally belongs to all the different species of poetic composition. This the critics have not done, and no doubt some of them imagined that such metaphysical precision belongs not to the nature of poetry. From a poetic mind, we readily admit that nothing can be more abhorrent : reason and metaphysics are the very bane of that enthusiasm, that vivida vis animi, which, if not poetry, is at least its most prominent and distinguishing characteristic.
But the critic, whose business it is, not to clothe his thoughts in the lighter graces of poetic diction, but to describe in the most precise and definite manner the nature of poetry,
and the specific qualities that distinguish it from prose, cannot avail" himself of the privileges which the consent of ages has granted to the poet. The poet is altogether governed by bis feelings : the criticis confined to the humbler situation of watching the modes in which these feelings operate, while they accord with the original impulses and propensities of nature. In fact, it is his business to see whether the feelings, associations, and sentiments of the poet arise from those influences to which the heart is subject, while it yields to no impulse but the impulse of nature, or whether they be feelings arising from false impressions and unnatural associations, or, in a word, feelings that claim no kindred with the original propensities, sympathies, and affections of the heart. The critic and the poet are therefore governed by very different laws: the latter is an actor, the former a mere spectator, and consequently if he has not reason on his side, he cannot impute its absence to the impetuosity of that fire and tumultuous feeling which hurries the poet into the midst of scenes which the slow and cautious deliberations of reason could have never imagined.
That the critics have not succeeded in distinguishing poetry from prose will be easily granted, when it is known, that no definition has ever been given of it, that will not equally apply to some species or other of prose.
From a conviction of this truth, and from the difficulty of making the distinction, it is now become popular to think, that no such distinction exists in nature, and that poetry and prose
run into each other like light and shade.” This is the opinion of Dr. Blair, who adds, that “it is hardly possible to determine the exact limit where eloquence ends and poetry begins.” In making this assertion, he does not seem to have analyzed the idea which he wishes to convey with that critical and minute accuracy which he has evinced in his examination of the style of Addison and Swift; for, if there be an “exact limit where eloquence ends and poetry begins,” there can be no reason why this limit should not be discovered. To say, however, that it is hardly possible to discover it, is, evidently, to admit its existence; for if it do not exist, instead of its discovery being “hardly possible,” nothing can be more evident, than that it is perfectly impossible. His language is still more vague when he adds, “ nor is there any occasion for being very precise about the boundaries as long as the nature of each is understood ;” for who can understand the nature of a thing while he is ignorant of its boundaries? The most he can know is a part of its nature, and what is still worse, 'he cannot tell what proportion this
part bears to the whole, because he knows not how far the boundaries extend. It may happen, that the circle which he has traced, so far from approaching the boundaries, may not encircle one-third of the object, in which case, the nature of the other two-thirds lies totally concealed from him. The boundaries, therefore, which separate poetry from prose can be indifferent only to those who seek not to be acquainted with the nature of poetry, for with this nature they can never be fully acquainted while its boundaries are unknown, and, consequently, they can neither define it, nor tell the precise assemblage of qualities that distinguish it from prose. Indeed, the impossibility of discovering them, as we have already observed, seems now to be universally admitted. A popular periodical work* has lately offered a prize of one hundred pounds to any writer, who would define poetry so accurately as to distinguish it, in all
prose, an offer which was tainly made under an impression that such a definition could never be given. If, then, the true nature of poetry be unknown, how absurdly have the critics undertaken to fix the number of species or classes to which it is reducible. These species, according to Dr. Blair, are the pastoral, the lyric, tħe didactic, the descriptive, the epic, the dramatic, and the comic. If there be only these seven, and if each has laws peculiar to itself, it is obvious that he who enters into what he considers a region of the poetical world different from either, and who observes none of those laws, except so far as they coincide with the nature of his subject, can be no poet; for to admit him one, we must class his productions with one or other of the acknowledged species of poetry. To do so, however, is evidently to take an erroneous view of his poetical merits, because wherever he falls off from the laws which govern that species of poetry to which we have referred his works, we necessarily condemn him, as we can admit no composition to be poetic which does not observe the laws of its own species.
These observations particularly apply to the Orlando Furioso. It evidently belongs to none of the acknowledged species of poetry; but the critics, finding it approached nearer to the heroic epic than to any other, have called it a heroic poem, not knowing what else to call it, as it evidently belongs to no other acknowledged species of poetry. Hence they have condemned it almost from beginning to end, because, from beginning to end, it transgresses every law of heroic poetry. This is as it ought to be : having admitted no spe
* Blackwood's Magazine.