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LORD BYRON'S TRAGEDIES.
Sardanapalus, a Tragedy. The Two Foscari, a Tragedy. Cain,
a Mystery. By LORD BYRON. 8vo. pp. 440. Murray. London : 1822.*
It must be a more difficult thing to write a good playor even a good dramatic poem — than we had imagined. Not that we should, a priori, have imagined it to be very easy: But it is impossible not to be struck with the fact, that, in comparatively rude times, when the resources of the art had been less carefully considered, and Poetry certainly had not collected all her materials, success seems to have been more frequently, and far more easily obtained. From the middle of Elizabeth's reign till the end of James's, the drama formed by far the most brilliant and beautiful part of our poetry, and indeed of our literature in general. From that period to the Revolution, it lost a part of its splendour and originality; but still continued to occupy the most conspicuous and considerable place in our literary annals. For the last century, it has been quite otherwise. Our poetry has ceased almost entirely to be dramatic; and, though men of great name and great talent have occasionally adventured into this once fertile field, they have reaped no laurels, and left no trophies behind them. The genius of Dryden appears nowhere to so little advantage as in his tragedies; and the contrast is truly humiliating when, in a presumptuous attempt to heighten the colouring, or enrich the simplicity of Shakespeare, he bedaubs with obscenity, or deforms with rant, the genuine passion and profligacy of Antony and Cleopatra
or intrudes on the enchanted solitude of Prospero
* I have thought it best to put all my Dramatical criticisms in one series: and, therefore, I take the tragedies of Lord Byron in this place - and apart from his other poetry.
SINGULAR DECAY OF OUR TRAGIC GENIUS,
and his daughter, with the tones of worldly gallantry, or the caricatures of affected simplicity. Otway, with the sweet and mellow diction of the former age, had none of its force, variety, or invention. Its decaying fires burst forth in some strong and irregular flashes, in the disorderly scenes of Lee; and sunk at last in the ashes, and scarcely glowing embers, of Rowe.
Since his time —till very lately — the school of our ancient dramatists has been deserted: and we can scarcely say that any new one has been established. Instead of the irregular and comprehensive plot — the rich discursive dialogue — the ramblings of fancy — the magic creations of poetry — the rapid succession of incidents and characters — the soft, flexible, and evervarying diction — and the flowing, continuous, and easy versification, which characterised those masters of the golden time, we have had tame, formal, elaborate, and stately compositions — meagre stories — few personages – characters decorous and consistent, but without nature or spirit — a guarded, timid, classical dictioningenious and methodical disquisitions — turgid or sententious declamations - and a solemn and monotonous strain of versification. Nor can this be ascribed, even plausibly, to any decay of genius among us; for the most remarkable failures have fallen on the highest talents. We have already hinted at the miscarriages of Dryden. The exquisite taste and fine observation of Addison, produced only the solemn mawkishness of Cato. The beautiful fancy, the gorgeous diction, and generous affections of Thomson, were chilled and withered as soon as he touched the verge of the Drama; where his name is associated with a mass of verbose puerility, which it is difficult to conceive could ever have proceeded from the author of the Seasons and the Castle of Indolence. Even the mighty intellect, the eloquent morality, and lofty style of Johnson, which gave too tragic and magnificent a tone to his ordinary writing, failed altogether to support him in his attempt to write actual tragedy ; and Irene is not only unworthy of the imitator of Juvenal and the author of Rasselas and the Lives of the Poets, but is
EVEN AFTER OUR RETURN TO ITS TRUE STANDARDS. 335
absolutely, and in itself, nothing better than a tissue of wearisome and unimpassioned declamations. We have named the most celebrated names in our literature, since the decline of the drama, almost to our own days; and if they have neither lent any new honours to the stage, nor borrowed any from it, it is needless to say,
that those who adventured with weaker powers had no better fortune. The Mourning Bride of Congreve, the Revenge of Young, and the Douglas of Home (we cannot add the Mysterious Mother of Walpole - even to please Lord Byron), are almost the only tragedies of the last age that are familiar to the present; and they are evidently the works of a feebler and more effeminate generation indicating, as much by their exaggerations as by their timidity, their own consciousness of inferiority to their great predecessors — whom they affected, however, not to imitate, but to supplant.
But the native taste of our people was not thus to be seduced and perverted; and when the wits of Queen Anne's time had lost the authority of living authors, it asserted itself by a fond recurrence to its original standards, and a resolute neglect of the more regular and elaborate dramas by which they had been succeeded. Shakespeare, whom it had long been the fashion to decry and even ridicule, as the poet of a rude and barbarous age
was reinstated in his old supremacy: and when his legitimate progeny could no longer be found at home, his spurious issue were hailed with rapture from foreign
* It is not a little remarkable to find such a man as Goldsmith joining in this pitiful sneer. In his Vicar of Wakefield, he constantly represents his famous town ladies, Miss Carolina Amelia Wilelmina Skeggs, and the other, as discoursing about “high life, Shakespeare, and the musical glasses !” — And, in a more serious passage, he introduces a player as astonishing the Vicar, by informing him that “ Dryden and Rowe's manner were quite out of fashion - our taste has gone back a whole century; Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and, above all, the plays of Shakespeare, are the only things that go down.” “How!" says the Vicar, “is it possible that the present age can be pleased with that antiquated dialect, that ob humour, and th orercharged characters which abound in the works you mention ?” No writer of name, who was not aiming at a paradox, would venture to say this now.
MAY THERE BE ILLUSION OR IDOLATRY
countries, and invited and welcomed with the most eager enthusiasm on their arrival. The German imitations, of Schiller and Kotzebue, caricatured and distorted as they were by the aberrations of a vulgar and vitiated taste, had still so much of the raciness and vigour of the old English drama, from which they were avowedly derived, that they instantly became more popular in England than any thing that her own artists had recently produced; and served still more effectually to recal our affections to their native and legitimate rulers. Then followed republications of Massinger, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ford, and their contemporaries - and a host of new tragedies, all written in avowed and elaborate imitation of the ancient models. Miss Baillie, we rather think, had the merit of leading the way in this return to our old allegiance—and then came a volume of plays by Mr. Chenevix, and a succession of single plays, all of considerable merit, from Mr. Coleridge, Mr. Maturin, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Barry Cornwall, and Mr. Milman. The first and the last of these names are the most likely to be remembered; but none of them, we fear, will ever be ranked with the older worthies; nor is it conceivable that any age should ever class them together.
We do not mean, however, altogether to deny, that there may be some illusion, in our habitual feelings, as to the merits of the great originals — consecrated as they are, in our imaginations, by early admiration, and associated, as all their peculiarities, and the mere accidents and oddities of their diction now are, with the recollection of their intrinsic excellences. It is owing to this, we suppose, that we can scarcely venture to ask ourselves, steadily, and without an inward startling and feeling of alarm, what reception one of Shakespeare's irregular plays—the Tempest for example, or the Midsummer Night's Dream-would be likely to meet with, if it were now to appear for the first time, without name, notice, or preparation ? Nor can we pursue the hazardous supposition through all the possibilities to which it invites us, without something like a sense of impiety and
IN OUR WORSHIP OF THE OLD MODELS ?
profanation. Yet, though some little superstition may mingle with our faith, we must still believe it to be the true one. Though time may have hallowed many things that were at first but common, and accidental associations imparted a charm to much that was in itself indifferent, we cannot but believe that there was an original sanctity, which time only matured and extended—and an inherent charm from which the association derived all its power. And when we look candidly and calmly to the works of our early dramatists, it is impossible, we think, to dispute, that after criticism has done its worst on them - after all deductions for impossible. plots and fantastical characters, unaccountable forms of speech, and occasional extravagance, indelicacy, and horrors — there is a facility and richness about them, both of thought and of diction—a force of invention, and a depth of sagacity-an originality of conception, and a play of fancy – a nakedness and energy of passion, and, above all, a copiousness of imagery, and a sweetness and flexibility of verse, which is altogether unrivalled, in earlier or in later times;—and places them, in our estimation, in the very highest and foremost place among ancient or modern poets.
It is in these particulars that the inferiority of their recent imitators is most apparent — in the want of ease and variety - originality and grace. There is, in all their attempts, whatever may be their other merits or defects, an air of anxiety and labour — and indications, by far too visible, at once of timidity and ambition. This may arise, in part, from the fact of their being, too obviously and consciously, imitators. They do not aspire so much to rival the genius of their originals, as to copy their manner. They do not write as they would have written in the present day, but as they imagine they themselves would have written two hundred years ago. They revive the antique phraseology, repeat the venerable oaths, and emulate the quaint familiarities of that classical period—and wonder that they are not mistaken for new incarnations of its departed poets! One great cause why they are not, is, that they speak an unnatural