« PreviousContinue »
fources of the Castalian spring, and may justly be faid to draw his inspiration from the well-bead of pure poefy.
Shakespear saw how useful the popular Superstitions had been to the ancient Poets : he felt that they were necessary to Poetry . itself. We need only read some modern French heroic poems, to be convinced how poorly Epic Poetry subsists on the pure elements of History and Philosophy: Tasso, though he had a subject so popular, at the time he wrote, as the deliverance of Jerufalem, was obliged to employ the operations of magic, and the interposition of angels and dæmons, to give the marvellous, the sublime, and, I may add, that religious air to his work, which ennobles the enthusiasm, and fanctifies the fiction of the poet. Ariosto’s excursive muse wanders through the regions of Romance, attended by all the superb train of chivalry, giants, dwarfs, and enchanters; and however these Poets, by severe and frigid critics, may have been condemned for giving ornaments not purely
classical, world receive
classical, to their works; I believe every reader of taste admires, not only the fertility of their imagination, but the judgment with which they availed themselves of the superstition of the times, and of the customs and modes of the country, in which they laid the scenes of action.
To recur, as the Learned sometimes do, to the Theology and Fables of other ages, and other countries, has ever a poor effect : Jupiter, Minerva, and Apollo, only embellish a modern story, as a print from their statues adorns the frontispiece. We admire indeed the art of the sculptors who give their images with grace and majesty ; but no devotion is excited, no enthusiasm kindled, by the representations of characters whose divinity we do not acknowledge.
When the Pagan temples ceased to be revered, and the Parnassian mount existed no longer, it would have been difficult for the Poet of later times to have preserved the divinity of his muse inviolate, if the western world too had not had its sacred fables. While there is any national superstition which credulity has confecrated, any hallowed tradition long revered by vulgar faith; to that sanctuary, that asylum, may the Poet resort.-Let him tread the holy ground with reverence ; respect the established doctrine ; exactly observe the accustomed rites, and the attributes of the object of veneration; then shall he not vainly invoke an inexorable or absent deity. Ghosts, Fairies, Goblins, Elves, were as propitious, were as assistant to Shakespear, and gave as much of the Sublime, and of the Marvellous, to his fictions, as Nymphs, Satyrs, Fawns, and even the triple Geryon, to the works of ancient Bards. Our Poet never carries his præternatural Beings beyond the limits of the popular tradition. It is true, that he boldly exerts his poetic genius, and fascinating powers in that magic circle, in which none e'er durst walk but he: but as judicious as bold, he contains himself within it. He calls up all the stately phantoms in the regions of superstition, which our faith will
receive with reverence. He throws into their manners and language a mysterious solemnity, favorable to Superstition in general, with something highly characteristic of each particular Being which he exhibits. His witches, his ghosts, and his fairies, seem Spirits of health or goblins damn'd; bring with them airs from heaven, or blasts from kell. His ghosts are sullen, melancholy, and terrible. Every sentence, utter'd by the Witches, is a prophecy or a charm ; their manners are malignant, their phrases ambiguous, their promises delufive. The witches cauldron is a collection of all that is most horrid, in their supposed incantations. Ariel is a spirit, mild, gentle, and sweet, possess’d of fupernatural powers, but subject to the command of a great magician.
The Fairies are sportive and gaý; the innocent artificers of harmless frauds, and mirthful delusions. Puck's enumeration of the feats of a fairy is the most agreeable recital of their supposed gambols.
To all these Beings our Poet has assigned tasks, and appropriated manners adapted to their imputed dispositions and characters; which are continually developing through the whole piece, in a series of operations conducive to the catastrophe. They are not brought in as subordinate or casual agents, but lead the action, and govern the fable; in which respect our countryman has entered more into theatrical proprietythan the Greek tragedians. i
Every species of poetry has its distinct duties and obligations. The drama does not, like the epic, admit of episode, unnecessary persons, or things incredible; for, as it is observed by a critic of great ingenuity and taste, *«that which passes in Represen“ tation, and challenges, as it were, the “ scrutiny of the eye, must be truth itself, or “ something very nearly approaching to it.” It should indeed be what our Imagination will adopt, though our Reason would reject * Hurd, on Dramatic Imitation.