« PreviousContinue »
come, which constitutes the chief and Troy. Not that he has produced permanent attraction of these wonder- any poem which will for a moment ful masters of the human heart. Cer- bear a comparison with the Iliadvantes had it in an equal degree; and fine as the Lady of the Lake and Marthence it is that Homer, Shakspeare, mion are, it would be the height of Cervantes, and Scott, have made so national partiality to make any such great, and, to all appearance, durable comparison. But, nevertheless, Sir impression on mankind. The human Walter's mind is of the same dimenheart is, at bottom, every where the sions as that of Homer.
We see in same. There is infinite diversity in him the same combination of natural the dress he wears, but the naked sagacity with acquired information; human figure of one country scarcely of pictorial eye with dramatic effect; differs from another. The writers who of observation of character with rehave succeeded in reaching this deep flection and feeling; of graphic power substratum, this far-hidden but com- with poetic fervour ; of ardour of imamon source of human action, are un- gination with rectitude of principle ; derstood and admired over all the of warlike enthusiasm with pacific world. It is the same on the banks tenderness, which have rendered the of the Simoïs as on those of the Avon Grecian bard immortal. It is in his -on the Sierra Morena as the Scot- novels, however, more than his poetry, tish hills. They are understood alike that this resemblance appears ; the in Europe as Asia—in antiquity as author of Waverley more nearly apmodern times; one unanimous burst proaches the blind bard than the of admiration salutes them from the author of the Lay.. His romances North Cape to Cape Horn-from the in
verse contain some passages age of Pisistratus to that of Napoleon. which are sublime, many which
Strange as it may appear to super- are beautiful, some pathetic. They ficial observers, Cervantes bears a are all interesting, and written in the close analogy, in many particulars, to same easy, careless style, interspersed Homer. Circumstances, and an in- with the most homely and grotesque herent turn for humour, made him expressions, which is so well known throw his genius into an exquisite to all the readers of the Iliad. The ridicule of the manners of chivalry ; battle in Marmion is beyond all quesbut the author of Don Quixote tion, as Jeffrey long ago remarked, had in him the spirit of a great epic
the most Homeric strife which has poet.
His lesser pieces prove it ; been sung since the days of Homer. unequivocal traces of it are to be But these passages are few and far found in the adventures of the Knight between ; his poems are filled with of La Mancha himself. The elevation numerous and long interludes, writof mind which, amidst all his aberra- ten with little art, and apparently tions, appears in that erratic charac- no other object but to fill up the ter; the incomparable traits of nature pages or eke out the story. It is in with which the work abounds; the prose that the robust strength, the faculty of describing events in the powerful arm, the profound knowledge most striking way; of painting scenes of the heart, appear; and it is there, in a few words; of delineating char- accordingly, that he approaches at acters with graphic fidelity, and keep- times so closely to Homer. If we ing them up with perfect consistency, could conceive a poem, in which the which are so conspicuous in Don Quix- storming of Front-de-Bouf's castle in ote, are so many of the most essen- Ivanhoe—the death of Fergus in Wavertial qualities of an epic poet. Nor ley—the storm on the coast, and death was the ardour of imagination, the scene in the fisher's hut, in the Antiromantic disposition, the brilliancy quary—the devoted
love in the of fancy, the lofty aspirations, the Bride of Lammermoor — the fertender heart, which form the more vour of the Covenanters in Old Morelevated and not less essential part of tality, and the combats of Richard and such a character, wanting in the Saladin in the Talisman, were united Spanish novelist.
together, and interiningled with the Sir Walter Scott more nearly incomparable characters, descriptions, resembles Homer than any poet and incidents with which these novels who has sung since the sicge of abound, they would form an epic poem.
Doubts have sometimes been ex- Iliad, There are
no councils of pressed, as to whether the Iliad and the gods; no messengers wingOdyssey are all the production of one ing their way through the clouds ; no
Never, perhaps, was doubt combats of chiefs ; no cities to storm; not merely so ill founded, but so de- no fields to win. It is the infernal cisively disproved by internal evi- regions which the poet, under the dence. If ever in human composition guidance of his great leader, Virgil, the traces of one mind are conspicuous, visits; it is the scene of righteous rethey are in Homer. His beauties tribution through which he is led; it equally with his defects, his variety is the apportionment of punishment and uniformity, attest this. Never and reward to crime or virtue, in was an author who had so fertile an this upper world, that he is doomed imagination for varying of incidents; to witness. We enter the city of never was one who expressed them in lamentation—we look down the depths language in which the same words so of the bottomless pit—we stand at the constantly recur. This is the invariable edge of the burning lake. His surcharacteristic of a great and powerful, vey is not a mere transient visit like but at the same time self-confident that of Ulysses in Homer, or of Æneas and careless mind. It is to be seen in Virgil. He is taken slowly and in the most remarkable manner in deliberately through every successive Bacon and Machiavel, and not a little circle of Malebolge; descending down of it may be traced both in the prose which, like the visitor of the tiers of and poetical works of Scott. The vaults, one beneath another, in a feureason is, that the strength of the dal castle, he finds every species of mind is thrown into the thought as
malefactors, from the chiefs and kings the main object; the language, as a whose heroic lives were stained only subordinate matter, is little consider- by a few deeds of cruelty, to the deed. Expressions capable of energeti- praved malefactors whose base course caly expressing the prevailing ideas was unrelieved by one ray of virtue. of the imagination are early formed ; In the very conception of such a poem, but, when this is done, the powerful, is to be found decisive evidence of the careless mind, readily adopts them on mighty change which the human mind all future occasions where they are at had undergone since the expiring lays all applicable. There is scarcely a great of poetry were last heard in the ancient and original thinker in whose writ- world ; of the vast revolution of ings the same expressions do not very thought and inward conviction which, frequently recur, often in exactly the during a thousand years, in the solisame words. How much this is the tude of the monastery, and under the case with Homer—with how much sway of a spiritual faith, had taken discrimination and genius his epithets place in the human heart. A gay and expressions were first chosen, and and poetic mythology no longer how frequently he repeats them, al- amazed the world by its fictions, or most in every page, need be told to charmed it by its imagery. Relinone who are acquainted with his gion no longer basked in the sunwritings. That is the most decisive shine of imagination. The awful mark at once of genius and identity. words of judgment to come had been Original thinkers fall into repetition spoken ; and, like Felix, mankind had of expression, because they are always trembled. Ridiculous legends had speaking from one model—their own ceased to be associated with the shades thoughts. Subordinate writers avoid below—their place had been taken by this fault, because they are speaking images of horror. Conscience had refrom the thoughts of others, and share sumed its place in the direction of their variety. It requires as great an thought. Superstition had lent its effort for the first to introduce differ- awful power to the sanctions of relience of expression, as for the last to gion. Terror of future punishment reach diversity of thought.
had subdued the fiercest passionsThe reader of Dante must not look internal agony tamed the proudest for the heart-stirring and animated spirits. It was the picture of a future narrative—the constant interest—the world of a world of retributionbreathless suspense, which burries conceived under such impressions, that us along the rapid current of the Dante proposed to give; it is that which he has given with such terrible from that inexhaustible source ; but fidelity.
he drew them forth so clear and lucid, Melancholy was the prevailing cha- that they emerged, embodied as it racteristic of the great Italian's mind. were, in living images. His characIt was so profound that it penetrated ters are emblematic of the various all his thoughts; so intense that it passions and views for which different pervaded all his conceptions. Occa- degrees of punishment were reserved sionally bright and beautiful ideas flit- in the world to come ; but his concepted across his imagination ; visions of tion of them was so distinct, his debliss, experienced for a moment, and scription so vivid, that they stand then lost for ever, as if to render forth to our gaze in all the agony of more profound the darkness by which their sufferings, like real flesh and they are surrounded. They are given blood. We see them—we feel themwith exquisite beauty; but they shine we hear their cries-our very flesh amidst the gloom like sunbeams strug- creeps at the perception of their suffergling through the clouds. He inherited ings. We stand on the edge of the from the dark ages the austerity of lake of boiling pitch-we feel the the cloister ; but he inherited with weight of the leaden mantles-we it the deep feelings and sublime con- see the snow-like flakes of burning ceptions which its seclusion had gene- sand—we hear the cries of those who rated. His mind was a world within had lost the last earthly consolations, itself. He drew all his conceptions the hope of death :-
Quivi sospiri, pianti ed alti guai
Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
Facevano un tumulto, il qual s' aggira
Ed io : maestro, che è tanto greve
Inferno, c. iii.
I then : Master! What doth aggrieve them thus,
Cary's Dante, Inferno, c. iii. Here is Dante portrayed to the life The very first lines of the Inferno, in the very outset. What a collection when the gates of Hell were apof awful images in a few lines! Loud proached, and the inscription over lamentations, hideous cries, mingled them appeared, paints the dismal with the sound of clasped hands, be- character of the poem, and yet minneath a starless sky; and the terrible gled with the sense of divine love and answer, as the cause of this suffering, justice with which the author was “ These have not the hope of death." penetrated.
« Per me si va nella città dolente;
Giustizia mosse 'l mio alto Fattore;
Dinanzi a me non fur cose create,
Inferno, c. iii.
Cary's Dante, Inferno, c. iii. Dante had much more profound feel- racters by their speeches, their gesings than Homer, and therefore he has tures, their actions, and keeps up their painted deep mysteries of the human consistency with admirable fidelity; heart with greater force and fidelity. but he does not, by a word, an exThe more advanced age of the world, pression, or an epithet, admit us into the influence of a spiritual faith, the the inmost folds of the heart. None awful anticipation of judgment to come, can do so but such as themselves feel the inmost feelings which, during long warmly and profoundly, and paint centuries of seclusion, had been drawn passion, emotion, or suffering from forth in the cloister, the protracted their own experience, not the obsersufferings of the dark ages, had laid vation of others. Dante has acquired bare the human heart. Its sufferings, his colossal fame from the matchless its terrors, its hopes, its joys, had be- force with which he has portrayed the come as household words. The Ita. wildest passions, the deepest feelings, lian poet shared, as all do, in the the most intense sufferings of the ideas and images of his age, and to heart. He is the refuge of all those these he added many which were who labour and are heavy laden entirely his own. He painted the -of all who feel profoundly or have inward man, and painted him from suffered deeply. His verses his own feelings, not the observa- in the mouth of all who are torn tion of others. That is the grand by passion, gnawed by remorse, or distinction between him and Homer; tormented by apprehension ; and and that it is which has given him, in how many are they in this scene of the delineation of mind, his great woe! superiority. The Grecian bard was A distinguished modern critic* has an incomparable observer; he had an said, that he who would now become inexhaustible imagination for fiction, a great poet must first become a little as well as a graphic eye for the deli- child. There is no doubt he is right. neation of real life; but he had not a The seen and unseen fetters of civilideep or feeling heart. He did not
the multitude of old ideas know it, like Dante and Shakspeare, afloat in the world ; the innumerable from his own suffering. He painted worn-out channels into which new the external symptoms of passion and ones are ever apt to flow; the general emotion with the hand of a master; clamour with which critics, nursed but he did not reach the inward spring amidst such fetters, receive any atof feeling. He lets us into his cha- tempts at breaking them ; the preva
lence, in a wealthy and highly civilized ideas till he had read. He was right; age, of worldly or selfish ideas; the though it is not one in a thousand common approximation of characters who strikes out original thoughts from by perpetual intercourse, as of coins, studying the works of others. The by continual rubbing in passing from great sage did not read to imbibe man to man, have taken away all the opinions of others, but to enfreshness and originality from ideas. gender new ones for himself; he The learned, the polished, the highly did not study to imitate, but to educated, can hardly escape the fet- create. It was the same with Dante; ters which former greatness throws it is the same with every really over the soul. Milton could not avoid great man. His was the first powerthem : half the images in his poems ful and original mind which, fraught are taken from Homer, Virgil
, and with the profound and gloomy ideas Dante; and who dare hope for eman- nourished in seclusion during the midcipation when Milton was enthralled? dle ages, came into contact with the The mechanical arts increase in per- brilliant imagery, touching pathos, fection as society advances. Science and harmonious language of the anever takes its renewed flights from cients. Hence his astonishing greatthe platform which former efforts have He almost worshipped Virgil, erected. Industry, guided by expe- he speaks of him as a species of god ; rience, in successive ages, brings to he mentions Homer as the first of the highest point all the contrivances poets. But he did not copy either and inventions which minister to the the one or the other; he scarcely comfort or elegances of life. But it imitated them. He strove to rival is otherwise with genius. It sinks in their brevity and beauty of expresthe progress of society, as much as sion ; but he did so in giving vent to science and the arts rise. The coun- new ideas, in painting new images, try of Homer and Æschylus sank for in awakening new emotions. The a thousand years into the torpor of Inferno is as original as the lliad; the Byzantine empire. Originality incomparably more than the perishes amidst acquisition. Fresh- Æneid. The offspring of originality ness of conception is its life : like the with originality is a new and noble flame, it burns fierce and clear in the creation ; of originality with mediofirst gales of a pure atmosphere; but crity, a spurious and degraded imitalanguishes and dies in that polluted tion. by many breaths.
Dante paints the spirits of all It was the resurrection of the hu- the generations of men, cach in man mind, after the seclusion and their circle undergoing their allotted solitary reflection of the middle ages, punishment; expiating by suffering which gave this vein of original the sins of an upper world. Virgil ideas to Dante, as their first waken- gave a glimpse, as it were, into that ing had given to Homer. Thought scene of retribution ; Minos and was not extinct; the human mind Rhadamanthus passing judgment on was not mant during the dark ages;
sive spirits brought before far from it-it never, in some re- them; the flames of Tartarus, the spects, was more active. It was the rock of Sisyphus, the wheel of Ixion, first collision of their deep and lonely the vulture gnawing Prometheus. meditations with the works of the But with Homer and Virgil, the great ancient poets, which occasioned descent into the infernal regions the prodigy. Universally it will be brief episode ; with Dante it found to be the same. After the first was the whole poem. Immense was flights of genius have been taken, it is the effort of imagination requisite to by the collision of subsequent thought give variety to such a subject, to prewith it that the divine spark is again vent the mind from experiencing elicited. The meeting of two great weariness amidst the eternal recur minds is necessary to beget fresh rence of crime and punishment. But ideas, as that of two clouds is to the genius of Dante was equal to the bring forth lightning, or the collision task. His fancy was prodigious ; his of fint and steel to produce fire. invention boundless ; his imagination Johnson said he could not get new inexhaustible. Fenced in, as he was,