« PreviousContinue »
Lo! in this hollow cradle take thy rest, -
There shall not be one minute in an hour,
Thus weary of the world, away she hies,
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
“ but know it is as good
“ To wither in my breast, as in his blood;”. as the succeeding lines in this stanza likewise do :
“Lo! in this hollow cradle take thy rest." Theobald. Since my former edition was published, I have procured the original and very valuable copy of 1593, which confirms Theobald's ingenious conjecture, for it reads, as he supposes :
“ here in my breast." MALONE. • This poem is received as one of Shakspeare's undisputed performances,-a circumstance which recommends it to the notice it might otherwise have escaped.
There are some excellencies which are less graceful than even their opposite defects ; there are some virtues, which being merely constitutional, are entitled to very small degrees of praise. Our poet might design his Adonis to engage our esteem, and yet the sluggish coldness of his disposition is as offensive as the impetuous forwardness of his wanton mistress. To exhibit a young man insensible to the caresses of transcendent beauty, is to describe a being too rarely seen to be acknowledged as a natural character, and when seen, of too little value to deserve such toil of representation. No eulogiums are due to Shakspeare's hero on the score of mental chastity, for he does not pretend to have subdued his desires to his moral obligations. He strives, indeed, with Platonick absurdity, to draw that line which was never drawn, to make that distinction which never can be made, to separate the purer from the grosser part of love, assigning limits, and ascribing bounds to each, and calling them by different names; but if we take his own word, he will be found at last only to prefer one gratification to another, the sports of the field to the enjoyment of immortal charms. The reader will easily confess that no great respect is due to the judgment of such a would-be Hercules, with such a choice before him. In short, the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar is the more interesting of the two; for the passions of the former are repressed by conscious rectitude of mind, and obedience to the highest law. The present narrative only includes the disappointment of an eager female, and the death of an unsusceptible boy. The deity, from her language, should seem to have been educated in the school of Messalina; the youth, from his backwardness, might be suspected of having felt the discipline of a Turkish seraglio.
It is not indeed very clear whether Shakspeare meant on this occasion, with Le Brun, 10 recommend continence as a virtue, or to try his hand with Aretine on a licentious canvas. If our poet had any moral design in view, he has been unfortunate in his conduct of it. The shield which he lifts in defence of chastity, is wrought with such meretricious imagery, as cannot fail to counterpoise a moral purpose.-Shakspeare, however, was no unskilful mythologist, and must have known that Adonis was the offspring of Cynaras and Myrrha. His judgment therefore would have prevented him from raising an example of continence out of the produce of an incestuous bed.—Considering this piece only in the light of a jeu d'esprit, written without peculiar tendency, we shall even then be sorry that our author was unwilling to leave the character of his hero as he found it; for the common and more pleasing fable assures us, that
“ when bright Venus yielded up her charms,
“The blest Adonis languish'd in her arms. We should therefore have been better pleased to have seen him in the situation of Ascanius:
cum gremio fotum dea tollit in altos Idaliæ lucos, ubi mollis amaracus illum
Floribus et multa aspirans complectitur umbra; than in the very act of repugnance to female temptation, selfdenial being rarely found in the catalogue of Pagan virtues.
If we enquire into the poetical merit of this performance, it will do no honour to the reputation of its author. The great excellence of Shakspeare is to be sought in dramatick dialogue, expressing his intimate acquaintance with every passion that soothes or ravages, exalts or debases the human mind. Dialogue is a form of composition which has been known to quicken even the genius of those who in mere uninterrupted narrative have sunk to a level with the multitude of common writers. The smaller pieces of Otway and Rowe have added nothing to their fame.
Let it be remembered too, that a contemporary author, Dr. Gabriel Harvey, points out the Venus and Adonis as a favourite only with the young, while graver readers bestowed their attention on the Rape of Lucrece. Here I cannot help observing that the poetry of the Roman legend is no jot superior to that of the mythological story. A tale which Ovid has completely and affectingly told in about one hundred and forty verses, our author has coldly and imperfectly spun out into near two thousand. The attention therefore of these graver personages must have been engaged by the moral tendency of the piece, rather than by the force of style in which it is related. Steevens.
This first essay of Shakspeare's Muse does not appear to me by any means so void of poetical merit as it has been represented ; and I may, in support of my opinion, quote the words of that elegant poet Mr. Fenton, who in his notes on Waller, after quoting some lines from Ovid on this subject, observes that “ the passion of Venus for Adonis, is likewise described with great delicacy by Bion, and our admirable Shakspeare, in language only inferior to the finest writers of antiquity." In what high estimation it was held in our author's life-time, may be collected from what has been already observed in the preliminary remark, and from the circumstances mentioned in a note which the reader will find at the end of The Rape of Lucrece.
Gabriel Harvey's words, as quoted by Mr. Steevens in a note on Hamlet, (not that the judgment of one who thought that English verses ought to be constructed according to the rules of Latin prosody, is of much value,) are these. “The younger sort take much delight in Shakspeare's Venus and Adonis : but his Lucrece, and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them to please the wiser sort."
To the other eulogiums on this piece may be added the concluding lines of a poem entitled Mirrha the Mother of Adonis; or Lustes Prodegies, by William Barksted, 1607:
“ But stay, my Muse, in thine own confines keep,
“ Hath purchas'd it; cyprus thy brows will fit." “ Will you read Virgil ? ” says Carew in his Dissertation on The excellencie of the English tongue, (published by Camden in his Remaines, 1614,) “ take the earl of Surrey” she means Surrey's translation of the second and fourth Æneid.] « Catullus? Shakespeare, and Marlowe's fragment."
lo A Remembrance of some English poets, at the end of The Complaints of Poetry, by Richard Barnefield, 1598, the authour, after praising some other writers, thus speaks of our poet:
“ And Shakespeare, thou, whose honey-flowing vaine
To these testimonies I may add that of Edward Phillips, and perhaps that of Milton, his uncle ; for it is highly probable that the eulogium on Shakspeare, given in the Theatrum Poetarum, 1674, was either written or revised by our great epick poet. In Phillips's account of the modern poets our author is thus described :
“ William Shakspeare, the glory of the English stage, whose nativity at Stratford upon Avon in the highest honour that town can boast of. From an actor of tragedies and comedies, he became a maker ; and such a maker, that though some others may perhaps preserve a more exact decorum and economie, especially in tragedy, never any express'd a more lofty and tragick height, never any represented nature more purely to the life ; and where the polishments of art are most wanting, (as perhaps his learning was not extraordinary,) he pleaseth with a certain wild and native elegance; and in all his writings hath an unvulgar style, as well as in his Venus and Adonis, his Rape of Lucrece, and other various poems, as in his dramaticks."
Let us, however, view these poems, uninfluenced by any authority.-To form a right judgment of any work, we should take into our consideration the means by which it was executed, and the contemporary performances of others. The smaller pieces of Otway and Rowe add nothing to the reputation which they have acquired by their dramatick works, because preceding writers had already produced happier compositions; and because there were many poets, during the period in which Rowe and Otway exhibited their plays, who produced better poetry, not of the dramatick kind, than theirs ; but, if we except Spenser, what poet of Shakspeare's age produced poems of equal, or nearly equal, excellence to those before us? Did Turberville ? Did Golding? Did Phaer? Did Grant? Did Googe? Did Churchyard ? Did Fleming? Did Fraunce? Did Whetstone? Did Gascoigne ? Did Sidney? Did Marlowe, Nashe, Kyd, Harrington, Lilly, Peele, Greene, Watson, Breton, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Middleton or Jonson? Sackville's Induction is the only small piece of that age, that I recollect, which can stand in competition with them. If Marlowe had lived to finish his Hero and Leander, of which he wrote only the first two Sestiads, he too perhaps might have contested the palm with Shakspeare.
Concerning the length of these pieces, which is, I think, justly objected to, I shall at present only observe, that it was the fashion of the day to write a great number of verses on a very slight subject, and our poet in this as in many other instances adapted himself to the taste of his own age.
It appears to me in the highest degree improbable that Shakspeare had any moral view in writing this poem ; Shakspeare, who, (as Dr. Johnson has justly observed,) generally “sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful io please than
to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose;" -who “ carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance." As little probable is it, in my apprehension, that he departed on any settled principles from the mythological story of Venus and Adonis. As well might we suppose, that in the construction of his plays he deliberately deviated from the rules of Aristotle, (of which after the publicacation of Sir Philip Sidney's Treatise he could not be ignorant,) with a view to produce a more animated and noble exhibition than Aristotle or his followers ever knew. His method of proceeding was, I apprehend, exactly similar in both cases; and he no more deviated from the classical representation on any formed and digested plan, in the one case, than he neglected the unities in the other. He merely (as I conceive,) in the present instance, as in many others, followed the story as he found it already treated by preceding English writers; for I am persuaded that the Sheepheard's Song of Venus and Adonis, by Henry Constable, preceded the poem before us. Of this, it may be said, no proof has been produced ; and certainly I am at present unfurnished with the means of establishing this fact, though I have myself no doubts upon the subject. But Marlowe, who indisputably wrote before Shakspeare, had in like manner represented Adonis as “insensible to the caresses of transcendent beauty." In his Hero and Leander he thus describes the lady's dress :
“ The outside of her garments were of lawne;
“ Of proud Adonis, that before her lies.” See also a pamphlet entitled Never too Late, by Robert Green, A. M. 1590, in which the following madrigal is introduced :
“Sweet Adon, dar'st not glance thine eye
“ See, how sad thy Venus lies,
* — with guilt stars DRAWNE:] By drawne I suppose the poet means, that stars were here and there interspersed. So, in -Kind-Hartes Dreame, a pamphlet written in 1592 : “ – his hose pain'd with yellow, drawn out with blew.” MALONE.