Of all Jonson's pieces there is hardly one which, as it stands, would please on the stage in the present day, even as most of them failed to please in his own time; extracts from them, however, could hardly fail to be successful. In general, much might be borrowed from him, and much might be learned both from his merits and defects. His characters are, for the most part, solidly and judiciously drawn; what he most fails in, is the art of setting them off by the contrast of situations. He has seldom planned his scenes so successfully in this respect as in Every Man in his Humour, where the jealous merchant is called off to an important business, when his wife is in expectation of a visit of which he is suspicious, and when he is anxious to station his servant as a sentinel, without however confiding his secret to him, because, above all things he dreads the discovery of his own jealousy. This scene is a master-piece, and if Jonson had always so composed, we must have been obliged to rank him among the first of comic writers.
Merely lest we should be charged with an omission do we mention The Masques: allegorical, occasional pieces, chiefly designed for court festivals, and decorated with machinery, masked dresses, dancing, and singing. This secondary species died again nearly with Jonson himself; the only subsequent production in this way of any fame is the Comus of Milton. When allegory is confined to mere personification, it must infallibly turn out very frigid in a play; the action itself must be allegorical, and in this respect there are many ingenious inventions, but the Spanish poets have almost alone furnished us with successful examples of it. The peculiarity of Jonson's Masques most deserving of remark seems to me to be the anti-masque, as they are called, which the poet himself sometimes attaches to his own invention, and generally allows to precede the serious act. As the ideal flatteries, for whose sake the gods have been brought down from Olympus, are but too apt to fall into mawkishness, this antidote on such occasions is certainly deserving of commendation.
Ben Jonson, who in all his pieces took a mechanical view of art, bore a farther resemblance to the master of a handicraft in taking an apprentice. He had a servant of the name of Broome, who formed himself as a theatrical writer from the conversation and instructions of his master, and brought comedies on the stage with applause.
Beaumont and Fletcher are always named together, as if they had been two inseparable poets, whose works were all planned and executed in common. This idea, however, is not altogether correct. We know, indeed, but little of the circumstances of their lives: this much however is known, that Beaumont died very young; and that Fletcher survived his younger friend ten years, and was so unremittingly active in his career as a dramatic poet, that several of his plays were first brought on the stage after his death, and some which he left unfinished were completed by another hand. The pieces collected under both names amount to upwards of fifty; and of this number it is probable that the half must be considered as the work of Fletcher alone. Beaumont and Fletcher's works did not make their appearance until a short time after the death of the latter; the publishers have not given themselves the trouble to distinguish critically the share which belonged to each, and still less to afford us any information respecting the diversity of their talents. Some of their contemporaries have attributed boldness of imagination to Fletcher, and a mature judgment to his friend: the former, according to their opinion, was the inventive genius; the latter, the directing and moderating critic. But this account rests on no foundation. It is now impossible to distinguish with certainty the hand of each; nor would the knowledge repay the labour. All the pieces ascribed to them, whether they proceed from one alone or from both, are composed in the same spirit and in the same manner. Hence it is probable that it was not so much the need of supplying the deficiencies of each other, as the great resemblance of their way of thinking, which induced them to continue so long and so inseparably united.
Beaumont and Fletcher began their career in the lifetime of Shakspeare: Beaumont even died before him, and Fletcher only survived him nine years. From some allusions in the way of parody, we may conclude that they entertained no very extravagant admiration of their great predecessor; from whom, nevertheless, they both learned much, and unquestionably borrowed many of their thoughts. In the whole form of their plays they followed his example, regardless of the different principles of Ben Jonson and of the imitation of the ancients. Like him they drew from novels and romances; they combined pathetic and burlesque scenes in the same play, and, by the concatenation of the incidents, endeavoured to excite the impression of the extraordinary and the wonderful. A wish to surpass Shakspeare in this species is often evident enough; contemporary eulogists, indeed, have no hesitation in ranking Shakspeare far below them, and assert that the English stage was first brought to perfection by Beaumont and Fletcher. And, in reality, Shakspeare's fame was in some degree eclipsed by them in the generation which immediately succeeded, and in the time of Charles II. they still enjoyed greater popularity: the progress of time, however, has restored all three to their due places. As on the stage the highest excellence will wear out by frequent repetition, and novelty always possesses a great charm, the dramatic art is, consequently, much influenced by fashion; it is more than other branches of literature and the fine arts exposed to the danger of passing rapidly from a grand and simple style to dazzling and superficial mannerism.
Beaumont and Fletcher were in fact men of the most distinguished talents; they scarcely wanted anything more than a profounder seriousness of mind, and that artistic sagacity which everywhere observes a due measure, to rank beside the greatest dramatic poets of all nations. They possessed extraordinary fecundity and flexibility of mind, and a facility which however too often degenerated into carelessness. The highest perfection they have hardly ever attained; and I should have little hesitation in affirming that they had not even an idea of it: however, on several occasions they have approached quite close to it. And why was it denied them to take this last step? Because with them poetry was not an inward devotion of the feeling and imagination, but a means to obtain brilliant results. Their first object was effect, which the great artist can hardly fail of attaining if he is determined above all things to satisfy himself. They were not like the most of their predecessors, players, [Footnote: In the privilege granted by James I. to the royal players, a Laurence Fletcher is named along with Shakspeare as manager of the company. The poet's name was John Fletcher. Perhaps the former might be his brother or near relation.] but they lived in the neighbourhood of the theatre, were in constant intercourse with it, and possessed a perfect understanding of theatrical matters. They were also thoroughly acquainted with their contemporaries; but they found it more convenient to lower themselves to the taste of the public than to follow the example of Shakspeare, who elevated the public to himself. They lived in a vigorous age, which more willingly pardoned extravagancies of every description than feeblenesss and frigidity. They therefore never allowed themselves to be restrained by poetical or moral considerations; and in this confidence they found their account: they resemble in some measure somnambulists, who with closed eyes pass safely through the greatest dangers. Even when they undertake what is most depraved they handle it with a certain felicity. In the commencement of a degeneracy in the dramatic art, the spectators first lose the capability of judging of a play as a whole; hence Beaumont and Fletcher bestow very little attention on harmony of composition and the observance of due proportion between all the different parts. They not unfrequently lose sight of a happily framed plot, and appear almost to forget it; they bring something else forward equally capable of affording pleasure and entertainment, but without preparation, and in the particular place where it occurs without propriety. They always excite curiosity, frequently compassion—they hurry us along with them; they succeed better, however, in exciting than in gratifying our expectation. So long as we are reading them we feel ourselves keenly interested; but they leave very few imperishable impressions behind. They are least successful in their tragic attempts, because their feeling is not sufficiently drawn from the depths of human nature, and because they bestowed too little attention on the general consideration of human destinies: they succeed much better in Comedy, and in those serious and pathetic pictures which occupy a middle place betwixt Comedy and Tragedy. Their characters are often arbitrarily drawn, and, when it suits the momentary wants of the poet, become even untrue to themselves; in external matters they are tolerably in keeping. Beaumont and Fletcher employ the whole strength of their talents in pictures of passion; but they enter little into the secret history of the heart; they pass over the first emotions and the gradual heightening of a feeling; they seize it, as it were, in its highest maturity, and then develope its symptoms with the most overpowering illusion, though with an exaggerated strength and fulness. But though its expression does not always possess the strictest truth, nevertheless it still appears natural, every thing has free motion; nothing is laboriously constrained or far- fetched, however striking it may sometimes appear. In their dialogue they have completely succeeded in uniting the familiar tone of real conversation and the appearance of momentary suggestion with poetical elevation. They even run into that popular affectation of the natural which has ensured such great success to some dramatic poets of our own time; but as the latter sought it in the absence of all elevation of fancy, they could not help falling into insipidity. Beaumont and Fletcher generally couple nature with fancy; they succeed in giving an extraordinary appearance to what is common, and thus preserve a certain fallacious image of the ideal. The morality of these writers is ambiguous. Not that they failed in strong colours to contrast greatness of soul and goodness with baseness and wickedness, or did not usually conclude with the disgrace and punishment of the latter, but an ostentatious generosity is often favourably exhibited in lieu of duty and justice. Every thing good and excellent in their pictures arises more from transient ebullition than fixed principle; they seem to place the virtues in the blood; and close beside them impulses of merely a selfish and instinctive nature hold up their heads, as if they were of nobler origin. There is an incurable vulgar side of human nature which, when he cannot help but show it, the poet should never handle without a certain bashfulness; but instead of this Beaumont and Fletcher throw no veil whatever over nature. They express every thing bluntly in words; they make the spectator the unwilling confidant of all that more noble minds endeavour even to hide from themselves. The indecencies in which these poets indulged themselves go beyond conception. Licentiousness of language is the least evil; many scenes, nay, even whole plots, are so contrived that the very idea, not to mention the beholding of them, is a gross insult to modesty. Aristophanes is a bold mouth-piece of sensuality; but like the Grecian statuaries in the figures of satyrs, &c., he banishes them into the animal kingdom to which they wholly belong; and judging him by the morality of his times, he is much less offensive. But Beaumont and Fletcher hold up to view the impure and nauseous colours of vice in quite a different sphere; their compositions resemble the sheet, in the vision of the Apostle, full of pure and impure animals. This was the universal tendency of the dramatic poets under James and Charles I. They seem as if they purposely wished to justify the assertion of the Puritans, that theatres were so many schools of seduction and chapels of the Devil.
To those who merely read for amusement and general cultivation, we can only recommend the works of Beaumont and Fletcher with some limitation [Footnote: Hence I cannot approve of the undertaking, which has been recently commenced, of translating them into German. They are not at all adapted for our great public, and whoever makes a particular study of dramatic poetry will have little difficulty in finding his way to the originals.]. For the practical artist, however, and the critical judge of dramatic poetry, an infinite deal may be learned from them; as well from their merits as their extravagancies. A minute dissection of one of their works, for which we have not here the necessary space, would serve to place this in the clearest light. With regard to representation, these pieces had, in their day, this advantage, that they did not require such great actors to fill the principal characters as Shakspeare's plays did. In order to bring them on the stage in our days, it would be necessary to re-cast most of them; which might be done with some of them by omitting, moderating, and purging various passages [Footnote: So far as I know only one play has yet been brought on the German theatre, namely, Rule a Wife and have a Wife, re-written by Schroder under the title of Stille Wasser sind tief (Still Waters run deep) which, when well acted, has always been uncommonly well received.].
The Two Noble Kinsmen is deserving of more particular mention, as it is the joint production of Shakspeare and Fletcher. I see no ground for calling this in question; the piece, it is true, did not make its appearance till after the death of both; but what could be the motive with the editor or printer for any deception, as Fletcher's name was at the time in as great, at least, if not greater celebrity than Shakspeare's? Were it the sole production of Fletcher, it would, undoubtedly, have to be ranked as the best of his serious and heroic pieces. However, it would be unfair to a writer of talent to take from him a work simply because it seems too good for him. Might not Fletcher, who in his thoughts and images not unfrequently shows an affinity to Shakspeare, have for once had the good fortune to approach closer to him than usual? It would still be more dangerous to rest on the similarity of separate passages to others in Shakspeare. This might rather arise from imitation. I rely therefore entirely on the historical statement, which, probably, originated in a tradition of the players. There are connoisseurs, who, in the pictures of Raphael, (which, as is well know, were not always wholly executed by himself,) take upon them to determine what parts were painted by Francesco Penni, or Giulio Romano, or some other scholar. I wish them success with the nicety of their discrimination; they are at least secure from contradiction, as we have no certain information on the subject. I would only remind these connoisseurs, that Giulio Romano was himself deceived by a copy from Raphael of Andrea del Sarto's, and that, too, with regard to a figure which he had himself assisted in painting. The case in point is, however, a much more complicated problem in criticism. The design of Raphael's figures was at least his own, and the execution only was distributed in part among his scholars. But to find out how much of The Two Noble Kinsmen may belong to Shakspeare, we must not only be able to tell the difference of hands in the execution, but also to determine the influence of Shakspeare on the plan of the whole. When, however, he once joined another poet in the production of a work, he must also have accommodated himself, in a certain degree, to his views, and renounced the prerogative of unfolding his inmost peculiarity. Amidst so many grounds for doubting, if I might be allowed to hazard an opinion, I should say, that I think I can perceive the mind of Shakspeare in a certain ideal purity, which distinguishes this piece from all others of Fletcher's, and in the conscientious fidelity with which the story adheres to that of Chaucer's Palamon and Arcite. In the style Shakspeare's hand is at first discoverable in a brevity and fulness of thought bordering on obscurity; in the colour of the expression, almost all the poets of that time bear a strong resemblance to each other. The first acts are most carefully laboured; afterwards the piece is drawn out to too great a length and in an epic manner; the dramatic law of quickening the action towards the conclusion, is not sufficiently observed. The part of the jailor's daughter, whose insanity is artlessly conducted in pure monologues, is certainly not Shakspeare's; for, in that case, we must suppose him to have had an intention of arrogantly imitating his own Ophelia.
Moreover, it was then a very general custom for two or even three poets to join together in the production of one play. Besides the constant example of Beaumont and Fletcher, we have many others. The consultations, respecting the plan, were generally held at merry meetings in taverns. Upon one of these occasions it happened that one in a poetical intoxication calling out, "I will undertake to kill the king!" was immediately taken into custody as a traitor, till the misunderstanding was cleared up. This mode of composing may answer very well in the lighter species of the drama, which require to be animated by social wit. With regard to theatrical effect, four eyes may, in general, see better than two, and mutual objections may be of use in finding out the most suitable means. But the highest poetical inspiration is much more eremitical than communicative; for it always seeks to express something which sets language at defiance, which, therefore, can only be weakened and dissipated by detached words, and can only be attained by the common impression of the complete work, whose idea is hovering before it.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle, of Beaumont and Fletcher, is an incomparable work and singular in its kind. It is a parody of the chivalry romances; the thought is borrowed from Don Quixote, but the imitation is handled with freedom, and so particularly applied to Spenser's Fairy Queen, that it may pass for a second invention. But the peculiarly ingenious novelty of the piece consists in the combination of the irony of a chimerical abuse of poetry with another irony exactly the contrary, of the incapacity to comprehend any fable, and the dramatic form more particularly. A grocer and his wife come as spectators to the theatre: they are discontented with the piece which has just been announced; they demand a play in honour of the corporation, and Ralph, their apprentice, is to act a principal part in it. Their humour is complied with; but still they are not satisfied, make their remarks on every thing, and incessantly address themselves to the players. Ben Jonson had already exhibited imaginary spectators, but they were either benevolent expounders or awkward censurers of the poet's views: consequently, they always conducted his, the poet's, own cause. But the grocer and his wife represent a whole genus, namely, those unpoetical spectators, who are destitute of a feeling for art. The illusion with them becomes a passive error; the subject represented has on them all the effect of reality, they accordingly resign themselves to the impression of each moment, and take part for or against the persons of the drama. On the other hand, they show themselves insensible to all genuine illusion, that is, of entering vividly into the spirit of the fable: for them Ralph, however heroically and chivalrously he may conduct himself, is always Ralph their apprentice; and in the whim of the moment they take upon them to demand scenes which are quite inconsistent with the plan of the piece that has been commenced. In short, the views and demands with which poets are often oppressed by a prosaical public are very cleverly and amusingly personified in these caricatures of spectators.
The Faithful Shepherdess, a pastoral, is highly extolled by some English critics, as it is without doubt finished with great care, in rhymed, and partly, in lyrical verses. Fletcher wished also to be classical for once, and did violence to his natural talent. Perhaps he had the intention of surpassing Shakspeare's Midsummer Night's Dream; but the composition which he has ushered into the world is as heavy as that of the other was easy and aerial. The piece is overcharged with mythology and rural painting, is untheatrical, and so far from pourtraying the genuine ideality of a pastoral world, it even contains the greatest vulgarities. We might rather call it an immodest eulogy of chastity. I am willing to hope that Fletcher was unacquainted with the Pastor Fido of Guarini, for otherwise his failure would admit of less justification.
We are in want of space to speak in detail of the remaining works of Beaumont and Fletcher, although they might be made the subject of many instructive observations. On the whole, we may say of these writers that they have built a splendid palace, but merely in the suburbs of poetry, while Shakspeare has his royal residence in the very centre point of the capital.
The fame of Massinger has been lately revived by an edition of his works. Some literary men wish to rank him above Beaumont and Fletcher, as if he had approached more closely to the excellence of Shakspeare. I cannot see it. He appears to me to bear the greatest resemblance to Beaumont and Fletcher in the plan of the pieces, in the tone of manners, and even in the language and negligences of versification. I would not undertake to decide, from internal symptoms, whether a play belonged to Massinger, or Beaumont and Fletcher. This applies also to the other contemporaries; for instance, to Shirley, of whose pieces two are stated to have crept into the works ascribed to the two last-named poets. There was (as already said) at this time in England a school of dramatic art, a school of which Shakspeare was the invisible and too often unacknowledged head; for Ben Jonson remained almost without successors. It is a characteristic of what is called manner in art to efface the features of personal originality, and to make the productions of various artists bear a resemblance to each other; and from manner no dramatic poet of this age, who succeeded Shakspeare, can be pronounced altogether free. When, however, we compare their works with those of the succeeding age, we perceive between them something about the same relation as between the paintings of the school of Michel Angelo and those of the last half of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century. Both are tainted with manner; but the manner of the former bears the trace of a sublime origin in the first ages; in the latter, all is little, affected, empty, and superficial. I repeat it: in a general history of the dramatic art, the first period of the English theatre is the only one of importance. The plays of the least known writers of that time, (I venture to affirm this, though I am far from being acquainted with all of them) are more instructive for theory, and more remarkable, than the most celebrated of all the succeeding times.
Closing of the Stage by the Puritans—Revival of the Stage under Charles the Second—Depravity of Taste and Morals—Dryden, Otway, and others— Characterization of the Comic Poets from Wycherley and Congreve to the middle of the eighteenth century—Tragedies of the same Period—Rowe— Addison's Cato—Later Pieces—Familiar Tragedy: Lillo—Garrick— Latest state.
In this condition nearly the theatre remained under the reign of Charles I. down to the year 1647, when the invectives of the Puritans (who had long murmured at the theatre, and at last thundered loudly against it,) were changed into laws. To act, or even to be a spectator of plays was prohibited under a severe penalty. A civil war followed, and the extraordinary circumstance here happened, that the players, (who, in general, do not concern themselves much about forms of government, and whose whole care is usually devoted to the peaceable entertainment of their follow-citizens,) compelled by want, joined that political party the interests of which were intimately connected with their own existence. Almost all of them entered the army of the King, many perished for the good cause, the survivors returned to London and continued to exercise their art in secret. Out of the ruins of all the former companies of actors, one alone was formed, which occasionally, though with very great caution, gave representations at the country seats of the great, in the vicinity of London. For among the other singularities to which the violence of those times gave rise, it was considered a proof of attachment to the old constitution to be fond of plays, and to reward and harbour those who acted them in private houses.
Fortunately the Puritans did not so well understand the importance of a censorship as the Governments of our day, or the yet unprinted dramatic productions of the preceding age could not have issued from the press, by which means many of them would have been irrecoverably lost. These gloomy fanatics were such enemies of all that was beautiful, that they not only persecuted every liberal mental entertainment, calculated in any manner to adorn life, and more especially the drama, as being a public worship of Baal, but they even shut their ears to church music, as a demoniacal howling. If their ascendency had been maintained much longer, England must infallibly have been plunged in an irremediable barbarity. The oppression of the drama continued down to the year 1660, when the free exercise of all arts returned with Charles II.
The influence which the government of this monarch had on the manners and spirit of the time, and the natural reaction against the principles previously dominant, are sufficiently well known. As the Puritans had brought republican principles and religious zeal into universal odium, so this light-minded monarch seemed expressly born to sport away all respect for the kingly dignity. England was inundated with foreign follies and vices in his train. The court set the fashion of the most undisguised immorality, and its example was the more contagious, the more people imagined that they could only show their zeal for the new order of things by an extravagant way of thinking and living. The fanaticism of the republicans had been associated with strictness of manners, nothing therefore could be more easy and agreeable than to obtain the character of royalists, by the extravagant indulgence of all lawful and unlawful pleasures. Nowhere was the age of Louis XIV. imitated with greater depravity. But the prevailing gallantry of the court of France had its reserve and a certain delicacy of feeling; they sinned (if I may so speak) with some degree of dignity, and no man ventured to attack what was honourable, however at variance with it his own actions might be. The English played a part which was altogether unnatural to them: they gave themselves up heavily to levity; they everywhere confounded the coarsest licentiousness with free mental vivacity, and did not perceive that the kind of grace which is still compatible with depravity, disappears with the last veil which it throws off.
We can easily conceive the turn which, under such auspices, the new formation of taste must have taken. There existed no real knowledge of the fine arts, which were favoured merely like other foreign fashions and inventions of luxury. The age neither felt a true want of poetry, nor had any relish for it: in it they merely wished for a light and brilliant entertainment. The theatre, which in its former simplicity had attracted the spectators solely by the excellence of the dramatic works and the skill of the actors, was now furnished out with all the appliances with which we are at this day familiar; but what it gained in external decoration, it lost in internal worth.
To Sir William Davenant, the English theatre, on its revival after the interruption which we have so often mentioned, owes its new institution, if this term may be here used. He introduced the Italian system of decoration, the costume, as it was then well or ill understood, the opera music, and in general the use of the orchestra. For this undertaking Charles II. had furnished him with extensive privileges. Davenant was a sort of adventurer and wit; in every way worthy of the royal favour; to enjoy which, dignity of character was never a necessary requisite. He set himself to work in every way that a rich theatrical repertory may render necessary; he made alterations of old pieces, and also wrote himself plays, operas, prologues, &c. But of all his writings nothing has escaped a merited oblivion.
Dryden soon became and long remained the hero of the stage. This man, from his influence in fixing the laws of versification and poetical language, especially in rhyme, has acquired a reputation altogether disproportionate to his true merit. We shall not here inquire whether his translations of the Latin poets are not manneristical paraphrases, whether his political allegories (now that party interest is dead) can be read without the greatest weariness; but confine ourselves to his plays, which considered relatively to his great reputation, are incredibly bad. Dryden had a gift of flowing and easy versification; the knowledge which he possessed was considerable, but undigested; and all this was coupled with the talent of giving a certain appearance of novelty to what however was borrowed from all quarters; his serviceable muse was the resource of an irregular life. He had besides an immeasurable vanity; he frequently disguises it under humble prologues; on other occasions he speaks out boldly and confidently, avowing his opinion that he has done better than Shakspeare, Fletcher, and Jonson (whom he places nearly on the same level); all the merit of this he is, however, willing to ascribe to the refinement and advances of the age. The age indeed! as if that of Elizabeth compared with the one in which Dryden lived, were not in every respect "Hyperion to a Satyr!" Dryden played also the part of the critic: he furnished his pieces richly with prefaces and treatises on dramatic poetry, in which he chatters most confusedly about the genius of Shakspeare and Fletcher, and about the entirely opposite example of Corneille; of the original boldness of the British stage, and of the rules of Aristotle and Horace.—He imagined that he had invented a new species, namely the Heroic Drama; as if Tragedy had not from its very nature been always heroical! If we are, however, to seek for a heroic drama which is not peculiarly tragic, we shall find it among the Spaniards, who had long possessed it in the greatest perfection. From the uncommon facility of rhyming which Dryden possessed, it cost him little labour to compose the most of his serious pieces entirely in rhyme. With the English, the rhymed verse of ten syllables supplies the place of the Alexandrine; it has more freedom in its pauses, but on the other hand it wants the alternation of male and female rhymes; it proceeds in pairs exactly like the French Alexandrine, and in point of syllabic measure it is still more uniformly symmetrical. It therefore unavoidably communicates a great stiffness to the dialogue. The manner of the older English poets before them, who generally used blank verse, and only occasionally introduced rhymes, was infinitely preferable. But, since then, on the other hand, rhyme has come to be too exclusively rejected.
Dryden's plans are improbable, even to silliness; the incidents are all thrown out without forethought; the most wonderful theatrical strokes fall incessantly from the clouds. He cannot be said to have drawn a single character; for there is not a spark of nature in his dramatic personages. Passions, criminal and magnanimous sentiments, flow with indifferent levity from their lips, without ever having dwelt in the heart: their chief delight is in heroical boasting. The tone of expression is by turns flat or madly bombastical; not unfrequently both at the same time: in short, this poet resembles a man who walks upon stilts in a morass. His wit is displayed in far-fetched sophistries; his imagination in long-spun similies, awkwardly introduced. All these faults have been ridiculed by the Duke of Buckingham in his comedy of The Rehearsal. Dryden was meant under the name of Bayes, though some features are taken from Davenant and other contemporary writers. The vehicle of this critical satire might have been more artificial and diversified; the matter, however is admirable, and the separate parodies are very amusing and ingenious. The taste for this depraved manner was, however, too prevalent to be restrained by the efforts of so witty a critic, who was at the same time a grandee of the kingdom.
Otway and Lee were younger competitors of Dryden in tragedy. Otway lived in poverty, and died young; under more favourable circumstances greater things perhaps would have been done by him. His first pieces in rhyme are imitations of Dryden's manner; he also imitated the Berenice of Racine. Two of his pieces in blank verse have kept possession of the stage—The Orphan and Venice Preserved. These tragedies are far from being good; but there is matter in them, especially in the last; and amidst much empty declamation there are some truly pathetic passages. How little Otway understood the true rules of composition may be inferred from this, that he has taken the half of the scenes of his Caius Marius verbally, or with disfiguring changes, from the Romeo and Juliet of Shakspeare. Nothing more incongruous can well he conceived, than such an episode in Roman manners, and in a historical drama. This impudent plagiarism is in no manner justified by his confessing it.
Dryden altered pieces of Shakspeare; for then, and even long afterwards, every person thought himself qualified for this task. He also wrote comedies; but Wycherley and Congreve were the first to acquire a name in this species of composition. The mixed romantic drama was now laid entirely aside; all was either tragedy or comedy. The history of each of these species will therefore admit of being separately handled—if, indeed, that can be correctly said to have a history where we can perceive no progressive development, but mere standing still, or even retrograding, and an inconstant fluctuation in all directions. However, the English, under Charles II. and Queen Anne, and down to the middle of the eighteenth century, had a series of comic writers, who may be all considered as belonging to one common class; for the only considerable diversity among them arises merely from an external circumstance, the varying tone of manners.
I have elsewhere in these Lectures shown that elegance of form is of the greatest importance in Comedy, as from the want of care in this respect it is apt to degenerate into a mere prosaical imitation of reality, and thereby to forfeit its pretensions to rank as either poetry or art. It is exactly, however, in the form, that the English comedies are most negligent. In the first place, they are written entirely in prose. It has been well remarked by an English critic, that the banishment of verse from Comedy had even a prejudicial influence on versification in Tragedy. The older dramatists could elevate or lower the tone of their Iambics at pleasure; from the exclusion of this verse from familiar dialogue, it has become more pompous and inflexible. Shakspeare's comic scenes, it is true, are also written, for the most part, in prose; but in the Mixed Comedy, which has a serious, wonderful, or pathetic side, the prose, mixed with the elevated language of verse, serves to mark the contrast between vulgar and ideal sentiments; it is a positive means of exhibition. Continued prose in Comedy is nothing but the natural language, on which the poet has failed to employ his skill to refine and smoothe it down, while apparently he seems the more careful to give an accurate imitation of it: it is that prose which Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme has been speaking his whole lifetime without suspecting it.
Moreover, the English comic poets tie themselves down too little to the unity of place. I have on various occasions declared that I consider change of scene even a requisite, whenever a drama is to possess historical extent or the magic of romance. But in the comedy of common life the case is somewhat altogether different. I am convinced that it would almost always have had a beneficial influence on the conduct of the action in the English plays, if their authors had, in this respect, subjected themselves to stricter laws.
The lively trickery of the Italian masks has always found a more unfavourable reception in England than in France. The fool or clown in Shakspeare's comedies is far more of an ironical humorist than a mimical buffoon. Intrigue in real life is foreign to the Northern nations, both from the virtues and the defects of their character; they have too much openness of disposition, and too little acuteness and nicety of understanding. It is remarkable that, with greater violence of passion, the Southern nations possess, nevertheless, in a much higher degree the talent of dissembling. In the North, life is wholly founded on mutual confidence. Hence, in the drama, the spectators, from being less practised in intrigue, are less inclined to be delighted with concealment of views and their success by bold artifice, and with the presence of mind which, in unexpected events of an untoward nature, readily extricates its possessor from embarrassment. However, there may be an intrigue in Comedy, in the dramatic sense, though none of the persons carry on what is properly called intrigue. Still it is in the entangling and disentangling their plots that the English comic writers are least deserving of praise. Their plans are defective in unity. From this reproach I have, I conceive, sufficiently exculpated Shakspeare; it is rather merited by many of Fletcher's pieces. When, indeed, the imagination has a share in the composition, then it is far from being as necessary that all should be accurately connected together by cause and effect, as when the whole is framed and held together exclusively by the understanding. The existence of a double or even triple intrigue in many modern English comedies has been acknowledged even by English critics themselves. [Footnote: Among others, by the anonymous author of a clever letter to Garrick, prefixed to Coxeter's edition of Massinger's Works, who says—"What with their plots, and double plots, and counter-plots, and under-plots, the mind is as much perplexed to piece out the story as to put together the disjointed parts of an ancient drama."] The inventions to which they have recourse are often everything but probable, without charming us by their happy novelty; they are chiefly deficient, however, in perspicuity and easy development. Most English comedies are much too long. The authors overload their composition with characters: and we can see no reason why they should not have divided them into several pieces. It is as if we were to compel to travel in the same stage-coach a greater number of persons, all strangers to each other, than there is properly room for; the journey becomes more inconvenient, and the entertainment not a whit more lively.
The great merit of the English comic poets of this period consists in the delineation of character; yet though many have certainly shown much talent, I cannot ascribe to any a peculiar genius for characterization. Even in this department the older poets (not only Shakspeare, for that may easily be supposed, but even Fletcher and Jonson) are superior to them. The moderns seldom possess the faculty of seizing the most hidden and involuntary emotions, and giving a comic expression to them; they generally draw merely the natural or assumed surface of men. Moreover, the same circumstance which in France, after Moliere's time, was attended with such prejudicial effects, came here also into play. The comic muse, instead of becoming familiar with life in the middle and lower ranks (her proper sphere), assumed an air of distinction: she squeezed herself into courts, and endeavoured to snatch a resemblance of the beau monde. It was now no longer an English national, but a London comedy. The whole turns almost exclusively on fashionable love-suits and fashionable raillery; the love-affairs are either disgusting or insipid, and the raillery is always puerile and destitute of wit. These comic writers may have accurately hit the tone of their time; in this they did their duty; but they have reared a lamentable memorial of their age. In few periods has taste in the fine arts been at such a low ebb as about the close of the seventeenth and during the first half of the eighteenth century. The political machine kept its course; wars, negotiations, and changes of states, give to this age a certain historical splendour; but the comic poets and portrait-painters have revealed to us the secret of its pitifulness—the former in their copies of the dresses, and the latter in the imitation of the social tone. I am convinced that if we could now listen to the conversation of the beau monde of that day, it would appear to us as pettily affected and full of tasteless pretension, as the hoops, the towering head-dresses and high-heeled shoes of the women, and the huge perukes, cravats, wide sleeves, and ribbon-knots of the men. [Footnote: When I make good or bad taste in dress an infallible criterion of social elegance or deformity, this must be limited to the age in which the fashion came up; for it may sometimes be very difficult to overturn a wretched fashion even when, in other things, a better taste has long prevailed. The dresses of the ancients were more simple, and consequently less subject to change of fashion; and the male dress, in particular, was almost unchangeable. However, even from the dresses alone, as we see them in the remains of antiquity, we may form a pretty accurate judgment of the character of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. In the female portrait-busts of the time of the later Roman emperors, we often find the head-dresses extremely tasteless; nay, even busts with peruques which may be taken off, probably for the purpose of changing them, as the originals themselves did.]
The last, and not the least defect of the English comedies is their offensiveness. I may sum up the whole in one word by saying, that after all we know of the licentiousness of manners under Charles II., we are still lost in astonishment at the audacious ribaldry of Wycherley and Congreve. Decency is not merely violated in the grossest manner in single speeches, and frequently in the whole plot; but in the character of the rake, the fashionable debauchee, a moral scepticism is directly preached up, and marriage is the constant subject of their ridicule. Beaumont and Fletcher portrayed an irregular but vigorous nature: nothing, however, can be more repulsive than rude depravity coupled with claims to higher refinement. Under Queen Anne manners became again more decorous; and this may easily be traced in the comedies: in the series of English comic poets, Wycherley, Congreve, Farquhar, Vanbrugh, Steele, Cibber, &c., we may perceive something like a gradation from the most unblushing indecency to a tolerable degree of modesty. However, the example of the predecessors has had more than a due influence on the successors. From prescriptive fame pieces keep possession of the stage such as no man in the present day durst venture to bring out. It is a remarkable phenomenon, the causes of which are deserving of inquiry, that the English nation, in the last half of the eighteenth century, passed all at once from the most opposite way of thinking, to an almost over-scrupulous strictness of manners in social conversation, in romances and plays, and in the plastic arts.
Some writers have said of Congreve that he had too much wit for a comic poet. These people must have rather a strange notion of wit. The truth is, that Congreve and the other writers above mentioned possess in general much less comic than epigrammatic wit. The latter often degenerates into a laborious straining for wit. Steele's dialogue, for example, puts us too much in mind of the letters in the Spectator. Farquhar's plots seem to me to be the most ingenious of all.
The latest period of English Comedy begins nearly with Colman. Since that time the morals have been irreproachable, and much has been done in the way of refined and original characterization; the form, however, has on the whole remained the same, and in that respect I do not think the English comedies at all models.
Tragedy has been often attempted in England in the eighteenth century, but a genius of the first rank has never made his appearance. They laid aside the manner of Dryden, however, and that at least was an improvement. Rowe was an honest admirer of Shakspeare, and his modest reverence for this superior genius was rewarded by a return to nature and truth. The traces of imitation are not to be mistaken: the part of Gloster in Jane Shore is even directly borrowed from Richard the Third. Rowe did not possess boldness and vigour, but was not without sweetness and feeling; he could excite the softer emotions, and hence in his Fair Penitent, Jane Shore, and Lady Jane Gray, he has successfully chosen female heroines and their weaknesses for his subjects.
Addison possessed an elegant mind, but he was by no means a poet. He undertook to purify the English Tragedy, by bringing it into a compliance with the supposed rules of good taste. We might have expected from a judge of the ancients, that he would have endeavoured to approach the Greek models. Whether he had any such intention I know not, but certain it is that he has produced nothing but a tragedy after the French model. Cato is a feeble and frigid piece, almost destitute of action, without one truly overpowering moment. Addison has so narrowed a great and heroic picture by his timid manner of treating it, that he could not, without foreign intermixture, even fill up the frame. Hence, he had recourse to the traditional love intrigues; if we count well, we shall find in this piece no fewer than six persons in love: Cato's two sons, Marcia and Lucia, Juba and Sempronius. The good Cato cannot, therefore, as a provident father of a family, avoid arranging two marriages at the close. With the exception of Sempronius, the villain of the piece, the lovers are one and all somewhat silly. Cato, who ought to be the soul of the whole, is hardly ever shown to us in action; nothing remains for him but to admire himself and to die. It might be thought that the stoical determination of suicide, without struggle and without passion, is not a fortunate subject; but correctly speaking, no subjects are unfortunate, every thing depends on correctly apprehending them. Addison has been induced, by a wretched regard to Unity of Place, to leave out Caesar, the only worthy contrast to Cato; and, in this respect even Metastasio has managed matters better. The language is pure and simple, but without vigour; the rhymeless Iambic gives more freedom to the dialogue, and an air somewhat less conventional than it has in the French tragedies; but in vigorous eloquence, Cato remains far behind them.
Addison took his measures well; he placed all the great and small critics, with Pope at their head, the whole militia of good taste under arms, that he might excite a high expectation of the piece which he had produced with so much labour. Cato was universally praised, as a work without an equal. And on what foundation do these boundless praises rest? On regularity of form? This had been already observed by the French poets for nearly a century, and notwithstanding its constraints they had often attained a much stronger pathetic effect. Or on the political sentiments? But in a single dialogue between Brutus and Cassius in Shakspeare there is more of a Roman way of thinking and republican energy than in all Cato.
I doubt whether this piece could ever have produced a powerful impression, but its reputation has certainly had a prejudicial influence on Tragedy in England. The example of Cato, and the translation of French tragedies, which became every day more frequent, could not, it is true, render universal the belief in the infallibility of the rules; but they were held in sufficient consideration to disturb the conscience of the dramatic poets, who consequently were extremely timid in availing themselves of the prerogatives they inherited from Shakspeare. On the other hand, these prerogatives were at the same time problems; it requires no ordinary degree of skill to arrange, with simplicity and perspicuity, such great masses as Shakspeare uses to bring together: more of drawing and perspective are required for an extensive fresco painting, than for a small oil picture. In renouncing the intermixture of comic scenes when they no longer understood their ironical aim, they did perfectly right: Southern still attempted them in his Oroonoko, but in his hands they exhibit a wretched appearance. With the general knowledge and admiration of the ancients which existed in England, we might have looked for some attempt at a true imitation of the Greek Tragedy; no such imitation has, however, made its appearance; in the choice and handling of their materials they show an undoubted affinity to the French. Some poets of celebrity in other departments of poetry, Young, Thomson, Glover, have written tragedies, but no one of them has displayed any true tragical talent.
They have now and then had recourse to familiar tragedy to assist the barrenness of imagination; but the moral aim, which must exclusively prevail in this species, is a true extinguisher of genuine poetical inspiration. They have, therefore, been satisfied with a few attempts. The Merchant of London, and The Gamester, are the only plays in this way which have attained any great reputation. George Barnwell is remarkable from having been praised by Diderot and Lessing, as a model for imitation. This error could only have escaped from Lessing in the keenness of his hostility to the French conventional tone. For in truth it is necessary to keep Lillo's honest views constantly in mind, to prevent us from finding George Barnwell as laughable as it is certainly trivial. Whoever possesses so little, or rather, no knowledge of men and of the world, ought not to set up for a public lecturer on morals. We might draw a very different conclusion from this piece, from that which the author had in view, namely, that to prevent young people from entertaining a violent passion, and being led at last to steal and murder, for the first wretch who spreads her snares for them, (which they of course cannot possibly avoid,) we ought, at an early period, to make them acquainted with the true character of courtezans. Besides, I cannot approve of not making the gallows visible before the last scene; such a piece ought always to be acted with a place of execution in the background. With respect to the edification to be drawn from a drama of this kind, I should prefer the histories of malefactors, which in England are usually printed at executions; they contain, at least, real facts, instead of awkward fictions.
Garrick's appearance forms an epoch in the history of the English theatre, as he chiefly dedicated his talents to the great characters of Shakspeare, and built his own fame on the growing admiration for this poet. Before his time, Shakspeare had only been brought on the stage in mutilated and disfigured alterations. Garrick returned on the whole to the true originals, though he still allowed himself to make some very unfortunate changes. It appears to me that the only excusable alteration of Shakspeare is, to leave out a few things not in conformity to the taste of the time. Garrick was undoubtedly a great actor. Whether he always conceived the parts of Shakspeare in the sense of the poet, I, from the very circumstances stated in the eulogies on his acting, should be inclined to doubt. He excited, however, a noble emulation to represent worthily the great national poet; this has ever since been the highest aim of actors, and even at present the stage can boast of men whose histrionic talents are deservedly famous.
But why has this revival of the admiration of Shakspeare remained unproductive for dramatic poetry? Because he has been too much the subject of astonishment, as an unapproachable genius who owed everything to nature and nothing to art. His success, it is thought, is without example, and can never be repeated; nay, it is even forbidden to venture into the same region. Had he been considered more from an artistic point of view, it would have led to an endeavour to understand the principles which he followed in his practice, and an attempt to master them. A meteor appears, disappears, and leaves no trace behind; the course of a heavenly body, however, ought to be delineated by the astronomer, for the sake of investigating more accurately the laws of general mechanics.
I am not sufficiently acquainted with the latest dramatic productions of the English, to enter into a minute account of them. That the dramatic art and the public taste are, however, in a wretched state of decline, may, I think, be safely inferred from the following circumstance. Some years ago, several German plays found their way to the English stage; plays, which, it is true, are with us the favourites of the multitude, but which are not considered by the intelligent as forming a part of our literature, and in which distinguished actors are almost ashamed of earning applause. These pieces have met with extraordinary favour in England; they have, properly speaking, as the Italians say, fatto furore, though indeed the critics did not fail to declaim against their immorality, veiled over by sentimental hypocrisy. From the poverty of our dramatic literature, the admission of such abominations into Germany may be easily comprehended; but what can be alleged in favour of this depravity of taste in a nation like the English, which possesses such treasures, and which must therefore descend from such an elevation? Certain writers are nothing in themselves; they are merely symptoms of the disease of their age; and were we to judge from them, there is but too much reason to fear that, in England, an effeminate sentimentality in private life is more frequent, than from the astonishing political greatness and energy of the nation we should be led to suppose.
May the romantic drama and the grand historical drama, those truly native species, be again speedily revived, and may Shakspeare find such worthy imitators as some of those whom Germany has to produce!
Spanish Theatre—Its three Periods: Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon— Spirit of the Spanish Poetry in general—Influence of the National History on it—Form, and various species of the Spanish Drama—Decline since the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The riches of the Spanish stage have become proverbial, and it has been more or less the custom of the Italian, French, and English dramatists, to draw from this source, and generally without acknowledgment. I have often, in the preceding Lectures, had occasion to notice this fact; it was incompatible, however, with my purpose, to give an enumeration of all that has been so borrowed, for it would have assumed rather a bulky appearance, and without great labour it could not have been rendered complete. What has been taken from the most celebrated Spanish poets might be easily pointed out; but the writers of the second and third rank have been equally laid under contribution, and their works are not easily met with out of Spain. Ingenious boldness, joined to easy clearness of intrigue, is so exclusively peculiar to the Spanish dramatists, that whenever I find these in a work, I consider myself justified in suspecting a Spanish origin, even though the circumstance may have been unknown to the author himself, who drew his plagiarism from a nearer source. [Footnote: Thus for example, The Servant of two Masters, of Goldoni, a piece highly distinguished above his others for the most amusing intrigue, passes for an original. A learned Spaniard has assured me, that he knows it to be a Spanish invention. Perhaps Goldoni had here merely an older Italian imitation before him.]
From the political preponderance of Spain in the sixteenth century, a knowledge of its language became widely diffused throughout Europe. Even in the first half of the seventeenth century, many traces are to be found of an acquaintance with Spanish literature in France, Italy, England, and Germany; since that time, however, the study of it had every where fallen into neglect, till of late some zeal for it has been again excited in Germany. In France they have no other idea of the Spanish theatre, than what can be formed from the translations of Linguet. These again have been rendered into German, and their number has been increased by others, in no respect better, derived immediately from the originals. The translators have, however, confined themselves almost exclusively to the department of comedies of intrigue, and though all the Spanish plays with the exception of a few Entremeses, Saynetes, and those of a very late period, are versified, they have turned the whole into prose, and even considered themselves entitled to praise for having carefully removed every thing like poetical ornament. After such a mode of proceeding nothing but the material scaffolding of the original could remain; the beautiful colouring must have disappeared together with the form of execution. That translators who could show such a total want of judgment as to poetical excellences would not choose the best pieces of the store, may be easily supposed. The species in question, though in the invention of innumerable intrigues, of such a kind as the theatrical literature of all other countries can produce but few examples of it, it certainly shows astonishing acuteness, is, nevertheless, by no means the most valuable part of the Spanish theatre, which displays a much greater brilliancy in the handling of wonderful, mythological, or historical subjects.
The selection published by De la Huerta in sixteen small volumes, under the title of Teatro Hespanol, with introductions giving an account of the authors of the pieces and the different species, will not afford, even to one conversant with the language, a very extensive acquaintance with the Spanish theatre. His collection is limited almost exclusively to the department of comedies in modern manners, and he has not admitted into it any of the pieces of an earlier period, composed by Lope de Vega, or his predecessors. Blankenburg and Bouterwek [Footnote: The former, in his annotations on Sulzers Theorie der schonen Kunste, the latter in his Geschichte der Spanischen Poesie.] among ourselves have laboured to throw light on the earlier history of the Spanish theatre, before it acquired its proper shape and attained literary dignity,—a subject involved in much obscurity. But even at an after period, an immense number of works were written for the stage which never appeared in print, and which are either now lost or only exist in manuscript; while, on the other hand, there is hardly an instance of a piece being printed without having first been brought on the stage. A correct and complete history of the Spanish theatre, therefore, can only be executed in Spain. The notices of the German writers above-mentioned, are however of use, though not free from errors; their opinions of the poetical merit of the several pieces, and the general view which they have taken, appear to me exceedingly objectionable.
The first advances of Dramatic Art in Spain were made in the last half of the sixteenth century; and with the end of the seventeenth it ceased to flourish. In the eighteenth, after the War of the Succession, (which seems to have had a very prejudicial influence on the Spanish literature in general,) very little can be mentioned which does not display extravagance, decay, the retention of old observances without meaning, or a tame imitation of foreign productions. The Spanish literari of the last generation frequently boast of their old national poets, the people entertain a strong attachment to them, and in Mexico, as well as Madrid, their pieces are always represented with impassioned applause.
The various epochs in the formation of the Spanish theatre may be designated by the names of three of its most famous authors, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Calderon.
The earliest and most valuable information and opinions on this subject are to be found in the writings of Cervantes; chiefly in Don Quixote (in the dialogue with the Canon), in the Preface to his later plays, and in the Journey to Parnassus. He has also in various other places thrown out occasional remarks on the subject. He had witnessed in his youth the commencement of the dramatic art in Spain; the poetical poverty of which, as well as the meagreness of the theatrical decorations, are very humorously described by him. He was justified in looking upon himself as one of the founders of this art; for before he gained immortal fame by his Don Quixote he had diligently laboured for the stage, and from twenty to thirty pieces (so negligently does he speak of them) from his pen had been acted with applause. On this account, however, he made no very high claims, nor after they had fulfilled their momentary destination did he allow any of them to be printed; and it was only lately that two of these earlier labours were for the first time published. One of these plays, probably Cervantes' first, The Way of Living in Algiers (El Trato de Argel), still bears traces of the infancy of the art in the preponderance of narrative, in the general meagreness, and in the want of prominency in the figures and situations. The other, however, The Destruction of Numantia, has altogether the elevation of the tragical cothurnus; and, from its unconscious and unlaboured approximation to antique grandeur and purity, forms a remarkable phenomenon in the history of modern poetry. The idea of destiny prevails in it throughout; the allegorical figures which enter between the acts supply nearly, though in a different way, the place of the chorus in the Greek tragedies; they guide the reflection and propitiate the feeling. A great deed of heroism is accomplished; the extremity of suffering is endured with constancy; but it is the deed and the suffering of a whole nation whose individual members, it may almost be said, appear but as examples of the general fortitude and magnanimity, while the Roman heroes seem merely the instruments of fate. There is, if I may so speak, a sort of Spartan pathos in this piece: every single and personal consideration is swallowed up in the feeling of patriotism; and by allusions to the warlike fame of his nation in modern times, the poet has contrived to connect the ancient history with the interests of his own day.
Lope de Vega appeared, and soon became the sole monarch of the stage; Cervantes was unable to compete with him; yet he was unwilling altogether to abandon a claim founded on earlier success; and shortly before his death, in the year 1615, he printed eight plays and an equal number of smaller interludes, as he had failed in his attempts to get them brought on the stage. They have generally been considered greatly inferior to his other prose and poetical works; their modern editor is even of opinion that they were meant as parodies and satires on the vitiated taste of the time: but to find this hypothesis ridiculous, we have only to read them without any such prepossession. Had Cervantes entertained such a design, he would certainly have accomplished it in a very different way in one piece, and also in a manner both highly amusing and not liable to misconception. No, they were intended as pieces in the manner of Lope: contrary to his own convictions, Cervantes has here endeavoured, by a display of greater variety, of wonderful plots, and theatrical effect to comply with the taste of his contemporaries. It would appear from them that he considered a superficial composition as the main requisite for applause; his own, at least, is for the most part, extremely loose and ill-connected, and we have no examples in his prose works of a similar degree of negligence. Hence, as he partly renounced his peculiar excellences, we need not be astonished that he did not succeed in surpassing Lope in his own walk. Two, however, of these pieces, The Christian Slaves in Algiers (Los Banos de Argel), an alteration of the piece before-mentioned, and The Labyrinth of Love, are, in their whole plot, deserving of great praise, while all of them contain so many beautiful and ingenious traits, that when we consider them by themselves, and without comparing them with the Destruction of Numantia, we feel disposed to look on the opinion entertained pretty generally by the Spanish critics as a mere prejudice. But on the other hand, when we compare them with Lope's pieces, or bear in mind the higher excellences to which Calderon had accustomed the public, this opinion will appear to admit of conditional justification. We may, on the whole, allow that the mind of this poet was most inclined to the epic, (taking the word in its more extensive signification, for the narrative form of composition); and that the light and gentle manner in which he delights to move the mind is not well suited to the making the most of every moment, and to the rapid compression which are required on the theatre. But when we, on the other hand, view the energetical pathos in The Destruction of Numantia, we are constrained almost to consider it as merely accidental that Cervantes did not devote himself wholly to this species of writing, and find room in it for the complete development of his inventive mind.
The sentence pronounced by Cervantes on the dramas of his later contemporaries is one of the neglected voices which, from time to time, in Spain have been raised, insisting on the imitation of the ancient classics, while the national taste had decidedly declared in favour of the romantic drama in its boldest form. On this subject Cervantes, from causes which we may easily comprehend, was not altogether impartial. Lope de Vega had followed him as a dramatic writer, and by his greater fertility and the effective brilliancy of his pieces, had driven him from the stage; a circumstance which ought certainly to be taken into account in explaining the discontent of Cervantes in his advanced age with the direction of the public taste and the constitution of the theatre. It would appear, too, that in his poetical mind there was a certain prosaical corner in which there still lurked a disposition to reject the wonderful, and the bold play of fancy, as contrary to probability and nature. On the authority of the ancients he recommended a stricter separation of the several kinds of the drama; whereas the romantic art endeavours, in its productions, as he himself had done in his romances and novels, to blend all the elements of poetry; and he censured with great severity, as real offences against propriety, the rapid changes of time and place. It is remarkable that Lope himself was unacquainted with his own rights, and confessed that he wrote his pieces, contrary to the rules with which he was well acquainted, merely for the sake of pleasing the multitude. That this object entered prominently into his consideration is certainly true; still he remains one of the most extraordinary of all the popular and favourite theatrical writers that ever lived, and well deserves to be called in all seriousness by his rival and adversary, Cervantes, a wonder of nature.
The pieces of Lope de Vega, numerous beyond all belief, have partly never been printed; while of those that have, a complete collection is seldom to be found, except in Spain. Many pieces are probably falsely ascribed to him; an abuse of which Calderon also complains. I know not whether Lope himself ever gave a list of the pieces actually composed by him; indeed he could hardly at last have remembered the whole of them. However, by reading a few, we shall advance pretty far towards an acquaintance with this poet; nor need we be much afraid lest we should have failed to peruse the most excellent, as in his separate productions he does not surprise us by any elevated flight nor by laying open the whole unfathomable depths of his mind. This prolific writer, at one time too much idolized, at another too much depreciated, appears here undoubtedly in the most advantageous light, as the theatre was the best school for the correction of his three great errors, want of connexion, diffuseness, and an unnecessary parade of learning. In some of his pieces, especially the historical ones, founded on old romances or traditional tales, for instance, King Wamba, The Youthful Tricks of Bernardo del Carpio, The Battlements of Toro, &c., there prevails a certain rudeness of painting, which, however, is not altogether without character, and seems to have been purposely chosen to suit the subjects: in others, which portray the manners of his own time, as for instance, The Lively Fair One of Toledo, The Fair deformed, we may observe a highly cultivated social tone. All of them contain, besides truly interesting situations, a number of inimitable jokes; and there are, perhaps, very few of them which would not, if skilfully treated and adapted to our stages, produce a great effect in the present day. Their chief defects are, a profusion of injudicious invention, and negligence in the execution. They resemble the groups which an ingenious sketcher scrawls on paper without any preparation, and without even taking the necessary time; in which, notwithstanding this hasty negligence every line is full of life and significance. Besides the want of careful finish, the works of Lope are deficient in depth, and also in those more delicate allusions which constitute the peculiar mysteries of the art.
If the Spanish theatre had not advanced farther, if it had possessed only the works of Lope and the more eminent of his contemporaries, as Guillen de Castro, Montalban, Molina, Matos-Fragoso, &c., we should have to praise it, rather for grandeur of design and for promising subjects than for matured perfection. But Don Pedro Calderon de la Barca now made his appearance, a writer as prolific and diligent as Lope, and a poet of a very different kind,—a poet if ever any man deserved that name. The "wonder of nature," the enthusiastic popularity, and the sovereignty of the stage were renewed in a much higher degree. The years of Calderon [Footnote: Born in 1601.] keep nearly equal pace with those of the seventeeth century; he was consequently sixteen when Cervantes, and thirty-five when Lope died, whom he survived nearly half a century. According to his biographer's account, Calderon wrote more than a hundred and twenty plays, more than a hundred spiritual allegorical acts (Autos), a hundred merry interludes or Saynetes [Footnote: This account is perhaps somewhat rhetorical. The most complete, and in every respect the best edition of the plays, that of Apontes, contains only a hundred and eight pieces. At the request of a great Lord, Calderon, shortly before his death, gave a list of his genuine works. He names a hundred and eleven plays; but among them there are considerably more than three which are not to be found in the collection of Apontes. Some of them may, indeed, be concealed under other titles, as, for instance, the piece, which Calderon himself calls, El Tuzani de la Alpujarra, is named in the collection, Amar despues de la Muerte. Others are unquestionably omitted, for instance, a Don Quixote, which I should be particularly desirous of seeing. We may infer from many circumstances that Calderon had a great respect for Cervantes. The collection of the Autos sacramentales contains only seventy-two, and of these several are not mentioned by Calderon. And yet he lays the greatest stress on these; wholly devoted to religion, he had become in his age more indifferent towards the temporal plays of his muse, although he did not reject them, and still continued to add to the number. It might well be with him as with an excessively wealthy man, who, in a general computation, is apt to forget many of the items of his capital. I have never yet been able to see any of the Saynetes of Calderon; I cannot even find an account whether or not they have been ever collected and printed.] besides a number of poems which were not dramatical. As from his fourteenth to his eighty-first year, that in which he died, he continued to produce dramatic works, they spread over a great space, and we may therefore suppose that he did not write with the same haste as Lope; he had sufficient leisure to consider his plans maturely, which, without doubt, he has done. In the execution, he could not fail from his extensive practice to acquire great readiness.
In this almost incalculable exuberance of production, we find nothing thrown out at random; all is finished in masterly perfection, agreeably to established and consistent principles, and with the most profound artistic views. This cannot be denied even by those who would confound the pure and high style of the romantic drama with mannerism, and consider these bold flights of poetry, on the extreme boundaries of the conceivable, as aberrations in art. For Calderon has every where converted that into matter what passed with his predecessors for form;—nothing less than the noblest and most exquisite excellence could satisfy him. And this is why he repeats himself in many expressions, images, comparisons, nay, even in many plays of situation; for he was too rich to be under the necessity of borrowing from himself, much less from others. The effect on the stage is with Calderon the first and last thing; but this consideration, which is generally felt by others as a restraint, is with him a positive end. I know of no dramatist equally skilled in converting effect into poetry, who is at once so sensibly vigorous and so ethereal.
His dramas divide themselves into four principal classes: compositions on sacred subjects taken from scripture and legends; historical; mythological, or founded upon other fictitious materials; and finally, pictures of social life in modern manners.
The pieces founded on the history of his own country are historical only in the more limited acceptation. The earlier periods of Spanish history have often been felt and portrayed by Calderon with the greatest truth; but, in general, he had too decided, I might almost say, too burning a predilection for his own nation, to enter into the peculiarities of another; at best he could have portrayed what verges towards the sun, the South and the East; but classical antiquity, as well as the North of Europe, were altogether foreign to his conception. Materials of this description he has therefore taken in a perfectly fanciful sense: generally the Greek mythology became in his hands a delightful tale, and the Roman history a majestic hyperbole.
His sacred compositions must, however, in some degree, be ranked as historical; for although surrounded with rich fiction, as is always the case in Calderon, they nevertheless in general express the character of Biblical or legendary story with great fidelity. They are distinguished, however, from the other historical pieces by the frequent prominency of a significant allegory, and by the religious enthusiasm with which the poet, in the spiritual acts designed for the celebration of the festival of Corpus Christi, the Autos exhibits the universe as it were, under an allegorical representation in the purple flames of love. In this last class he was most admired by his contemporaries, and here also he himself set the highest value on his labours. But without having read, at least, one of them in a truly poetical translation, my auditors could not form the slightest idea of them; while the due consideration of these Autos would demand a difficult investigation into the admissibility of allegory into dramatical composition. I shall therefore confine myself to those of his dramas which are no allegorical. The characterization of these I shall be very far from exhausting; I can merely exhibit a few of their more general features.
Of the great multitude of ingenious and acute writers, who were then tempted by the dazzling splendour of the theatrical career to write for the stage, the greater part were mere imitators of Calderon; a few only deserve to be named along with him, as Don Agustin Moreto, Don Franzisco de Roxas, Don Antonio de Solis, the acute and eloquent historian of the conquest of Mexico, &c. The dramatic literature of the Spaniards can even boast of a royal poet, Philip IV., the great patron and admirer [Footnote: This monarch seems, in reality, to have had a relish for the peculiar excellence of his favourite poet, whom he considered as the brightest ornament of his court. He was so prepossessed in favour of the national drama, that he forbade the introduction into Spain of the Italian opera, which was then in general favour at the different European courts: an example which deserves to be held up to the German Princes, who have hitherto, from indifference towards every thing national, and partiality for every thing foreign, done all in their power to discourage the German poets.] of Calderon, to whom several anonymous pieces, with the epigraph de un ingenio de esta corte, are ascribed. All the writers of that day wrote in a kindred spirit; they formed a true school of art. Many of them have peculiar excellences, but Calderon in boldness, fulness, and profundity, soars beyond them all; in him the romantic drama of the Spaniards attained the summit of perfection.
We shall endeavour to give a feeble idea of the spirit and form of these compositions, which differ so widely from every other European production. For this purpose, however, we must enter in some measure into the character of the Spanish poetry in general, and those historical circumstances by which it has been determined.
The beginnings of the Spanish poetry are extremely simple: its two fundamental forms were the romaunt and the song, and in these original national melodies we everywhere fancy we hear the accompaniment of the guitar. The romaunt, which is half Arabian in its origin, was at first a simple heroic tale; afterwards it became a very artificial species, adapted to various uses, but in which the picturesque ingredient always predominated even to the most brilliant luxuriance of colouring. The song again, almost destitute of imagery, expressed tender feelings in ingenious turns; it extends its sportiveness to the very limits where the self- meditation, which endeavours to transfuse an inexpressible disposition of mind into thought, wings again the thought to dreamlike intimations. The forms of the song were diversified by the introduction into poetry of what in music is effected by variation. The rich properties of the Spanish language however could not fully develop themselves in these species of poetry, which were rather tender and infantine than elevated. Hence towards the beginning of the sixteenth century they adapted the more comprehensive forms of Italian poetry, Ottave Terzine, Canzoni, Sonetti; and the Castilian language, the proudest daughter of the Latin, was then first enabled to display her whole power in dignity, beautiful boldness, and splendour of imagery. The Spanish with its guttural sounds, and frequent termination with consonants, is less soft than the Italian; but its tones are, if possible, more fuller and deeper, and fill the ear with a pure metallic resonance. It had not altogether lost the rough strength and heartiness of the Gothic, when Oriental intermixtures gave it a wonderful degree of sublimity, and elevated its poetry, intoxicated as it were with aromatic fragrances, far above all the scrupulous moderation of the sober West.
The stream of poetical inspiration, swelled by every proud consciousness, increased with the growing fame in arms of this once so free and heroic nation. The Spaniards played a glorious part in the events of the middle ages, a part but too much forgotten by the envious ingratitude of modern times. They were then the forlorn out-posts of Europe; they lay on their Pyrenean peninsula as in a camp, exposed without foreign assistance to the incessant eruptions of the Arabians, but always ready for renewed conflicts. The founding of their Christian kingdom, through centuries of conflicts, from the time when the descendants of the Goths driven before the Moors into the mountains of the North first left their protecting shelter for the war of freedom and independence, down to the complete expulsion of the Arabian invaders, was one long adventure of chivalry; nay, the preservation of Christianity itself in the face of so powerful a foe seems the wondrous work of more than mortal guidance. Accustomed to fight at the same time for liberty and religion, the Spaniard clung to his faith with a fiery zeal, as an acquisition purchased by the costly expenditure of noble blood. These consolations of a holy worship were to him the rewards of heroic exertion; in every church he saw as it were a trophy of his forefathers' bravery. Ready to shed the last drop of his blood in the cause of his God and his King; tenderly sensitive of his honour; proud, yet humble in the presence of all that is sacred and holy; serious, temperate, and modest was the old Castilian: and yet forsooth some are found to scoff at a noble and a loyal race because even at the plough they were lothe to lay aside the beloved sword, the instrument of their high vocation of patriotism and liberty.
This love of war, and spirit of enterprise, which so many circumstances had thus served to keep alive among their subjects, the monarchs of Spain made use of, at the close of the fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century, in an attempt to obtain universal monarchy; and while the arms of the Spaniard were thus employed to effect the subjugation of other nations, he was himself deprived of his own political freedom. The faithless and tyrannical policy of Philip II. has unmeritedly drawn down on the whole nation the hatred of foreigners. In Italy, Macchiavelism was not confined to the Princes and Republican leaders; it was the universal character; all ranks were infected with the same love of artifice and fraud. But in Spain it must be laid to the charge of the Government alone, and even the religious persecutions in that country seldom or never proceeded from the outbreakings of a universal popular fury. The Spaniard never presumed to question the conduct of his spiritual and worldly superiors, and carried on their wars of aggression and ambition with the same fidelity and bravery which he had formerly displayed in his own wars of self-defence and patriotism. Personal glory, and a mistaken religious zeal, blinded him with respect to the justice of his cause. Enterprises before unexampled, were eagerly undertaken, and successfully achieved; a newly discovered world beyond the ocean was conquered by a handful of bold adventurers; individual instances of cruelty and avarice may have stained the splendour of resolute heroism, but the mass of the nation was uninfected by its contagion. Nowhere did the spirit of chivalry so long outlive its political existence as in Spain. Long after the internal prosperity, as well as the foreign influence of the nation, had fatally declined under the ruinous errors of the Second Philip, this spirit propagated itself even to the most flourishing period of their literature, and plainly imprinted upon it an indelible stamp. Here, in all their dazzling features, but associated with far higher mental culture, the middle ages were, as it were, renewed—those times when princes and nobles loved to indite the lays of love and bravery, and when, with hearts devoted equally to their lady-love and the Holy Sepulchre, knights joyfully exposed themselves to the dangers and hardships of pilgrimage to the Land of Promise, and when even a lion-hearted king touched the lute to tender sounds of amorous lamentation. The poets of Spain were not, as in most other countries of Europe, courtiers or scholars, or engaged in some peaceful art or other; of noble birth for the most part, they also led a warlike life. The union of the sword and the pen, and the exercise of arms and the nobler mental arts, was their watch-word. Garcilaso, one of the founders of Spanish poetry under Charles V., was a descendant of the Yncas of Peru, and in Africa, still accompanied by his agreeable muse, fell before the walls of Tunis: Camoens, the Portuguese, sailed as a soldier to the remotest Indies, in the track of the glorious Adventurer whose discoveries he celebrated: Don Alonso de Ercilla composed his Araucana in the midst of warfare with revolted savages, in a tent at the foot of the Cordilleras, or in wildernesses yet untrodden by men, or in a storm-tossed vessel on the restless ocean; Cervantes purchased, with the loss of an arm, and a long slavery in Algiers, the honour of having fought, as a common soldier, in the battle of Lepanto, under the illustrious John of Austria; Lope de Vega, among other adventures, survived the misfortunes of the Invincible Armada; Calderon served several campaigns in Flanders and in Italy, and discharged the warlike duties of a knight of Santiago until he entered holy orders, and thus gave external evidence that religion was the ruling motive of his life.
If a feeling of religion, a loyal heroism, honour, and love, be the foundation of romantic poetry, it could not fail to attain to its highest development in Spain, where its birth and growth were cherished by the most friendly auspices. The fancy of the Spaniards, like their active powers, was bold and venturesome; no mental adventure seemed too hazardous for it to essay. The popular predilection for surpassing marvels had already shown itself in its chivalrous romaunts. And so they wished also to see the wonderful on the stage; when, therefore, their poets, standing on the lofty eminence of a highly polished state of art and society, gave it the requisite form, breathed into it a musical soul, and refined its beautiful hues and fragrance from all corporeal grossness, there arose, from the very contrast of the matter and the form, an irresistible fascination. Amid the harmony of the most varied metre, the elegance of fanciful allusions, and that splendour of imagery and simile which no other language than their own could hope to furnish, combined with inventions ever new, and almost always pre-eminently ingenious, the spectators perceived in imagination a faint refulgence of the former greatness of their nation which had measured the whole world with its victories. The most distant zones were called upon to contribute, for the gratification of the mother country, the treasures of fancy as well as of nature, and on the dominions of this poetry, as on that of Charles V., the sun may truly be said never to set.
Even those plays of Calderon which, cast in modern manners, descend the most to the tone of common life, still fascinate us by a sort of fanciful magic, and cannot be considered in the same light with the ordinary run of comedies. Of those of Shakspeare, we have seen that they are always composed of two dissimilar elements: the comic, which, in so far as comic imitation requires the observance of local conditions, is true to English manners; and the romantic, which, as the native soil was not sufficiently poetical for it, is invariably transplanted to a foreign scene. In Spain, on the other hand, the national costume of that day still admitted of an ideal exhibition. This would not indeed have been possible, had Calderon introduced us into the interior of domestic life, where want and habit generally reduce all things to every-day narrowness. His comedies, like those of the ancients, end with marriages; but how different is all that precedes! With them the most immoral means are set in motion for the gratification of sensual passions and selfish views, human beings with their mental powers stand opposed to each other as mere physical beings, endeavouring to spy out and to expose their mutual weaknesses. Calderon, it is true, also represents to us his principal characters of both sexes carried away by the first ebullitions of youth, and in its unwavering pursuit of the honours and pleasures of life; but the aim after which they strive, and in the prosecution of which every thing else kicks the beam, is never in their minds confounded with any other good. Honour, love, and jealousy, are uniformly the motives out of which, by their dangerous but noble conflict, the plot arises, and is not purposely complicated by knavish trickery and deception. Honour is always an ideal principle; for it rests, as I have elsewhere shown, on that higher morality which consecrates principles without regard to consequences. It may sink down to a mere conventional observance of social opinions or prejudices, to a mere instrument of vanity, but even when so disfigured we may still recognize in it some faint feature of a sublime idea. I know no apter symbol of tender sensibility of honour as portrayed by Calderon, than the fable of the ermine, which is said to prize so highly the whiteness of its fur, that rather than stain it in flight, it at once yields itself up to the hunters and death. This sense of honour is equally powerful in the female characters; it rules over love, which is only allowed a place beside it, but not above it. According to the sentiments of Calderon's dramas, the honour of woman consists in loving only one man of pure and spotless honour, and loving him with perfect purity, free from all ambiguous homage which encroaches too closely on the severe dignity of woman. Love requires inviolable secrecy till a lawful union permits it to be publicly declared. This secrecy secures it from the poisonous intermixture of vanity, which might plume itself with pretensions or boasts of a confessed preference; it gives it the appearance of a vow, which from its mystery is the more sacredly observed. This morality does not, it is true, condemn cunning and dissimulation if employed in the cause of love, and in so far as the rights of honour may be said to be infringed; but nevertheless the most delicate consideration is observed in the conflict with other duties,— with the obligations, for instance, of friendship. Moreover, a power of jealousy, always alive and often breaking out into fearful violence,—not, like that of the East, a jealousy of possession,—but one watchful of the slightest emotions of the heart and its most imperceptible demonstrations serves to ennoble love, as this feeling, whenever it is not absolutely exclusive, ceases to be itself. The perplexity to which the mental conflict of all these motives gives rise, frequently ends in nothing, and in such cases the catastrophe is truly comic; sometimes, however, it takes a tragic turn, and then honour becomes a hostile destiny for all who cannot satisfy its requisitions without sacrificing either their happiness or their innocence.
These are the dramas of a higher kind, which by foreigners are called Pieces of Intrigue, but by Spaniards, from the dress in which they are acted, Comedies of Cloak and Sword (Comedias de Capa y Espada). They have commonly no other burlesque part than that of the merry valet, known by the name of the Gracioso. This valet serves chiefly to parody the ideal motives from which his master acts, and this he frequently does with much wit and grace. Seldom is he with his artifices employed as an efficient lever in establishing the intrigue, in which we rather admire the wit of accident than of contrivance. Other pieces are called Comedias de figuron; all the figures, with one exception, are usually the same as those in the former class, and this one is always drawn in caricature, and occupies a prominent place in the composition. To many of Calderon's dramas we cannot refuse the name of pieces of character, although we cannot look for very delicate characterization from the poets of a nation in which vehemence of passion and exaltation of fancy neither leave sufficient leisure nor sufficient coolness for prying observation.
Another class of his pieces is called by Calderon himself festal dramas (fiestas). They were destined for representation at court on solemn occasions; and though they require the theatrical pomp of frequent change of decoration and visible wonders, and though music also is often introduced into them, still we may call them poetical operas, that is, dramas which, by the mere splendour of poetry, perform what in the opera can only be attained by the machinery, the music, and the dancing. Here the poet gives himself wholly up to the boldest flights of fancy, and his creations hardly seem to touch the earth.
The mind of Calderon, however, is most distinctly expressed in the pieces on religious subjects. Love he paints merely in its most general features; he but speaks her technical poetical language. Religion is his peculiar love, the heart of his heart. For religion alone he excites the most overpowering emotions, which penetrate into the inmost recesses of the soul. He did not wish, it would seem, to do the same for mere worldly events. However turbid they may be in themselves to him, such is the religious medium through which he views them, they are all cleared up and perfectly bright. Blessed man! he had escaped from the wild labyrinths of doubt into the stronghold of belief; from thence, with undisturbed tranquillity of soul, he beheld and portrayed the storms of the world; to him human life was no longer a dark riddle. Even his tears reflect the image of heaven, like dew-drops on a flower in the sun. His poetry, whatever its apparent object, is a never-ending hymn of joy on the majesty of the creation; he celebrates the productions of nature and human art with an astonishment always joyful and always new, as if he saw them for the first time in an unworn festal splendour. It is the first awaking of Adam, and an eloquence withal, a skill of expression, and a thorough insight into the most mysterious affinities of nature, such as high mental culture and mature contemplation can alone bestow. When he compares the most remote objects, the greatest and the smallest, stars and flowers, the sense of all his metaphors is the mutual attraction subsisting between created things by virtue of their common origin, and this delightful harmony and unity of the world again is merely a refulgence of the eternal all-embracing love.
Calderon was still flourishing at the time when other countries of Europe began to manifest a strong inclination for that mannerism of taste in the arts, and those prosaic views in literature, which in the eighteenth century obtained such universal dominion. He is consequently to be considered as the last summit of romantic poetry. All its magnificence is lavished in his writings, as in fireworks the most brilliant and rarest combinations of colours, the most dazzling of fiery showers and circles are usually reserved for the last explosion.
The Spanish theatre continued for nearly a century after Calderon to be cultivated in the same spirit. All, however, that was produced in that period is but an echo of previous productions, and nothing new and truly peculiar appeared such as deserves to be named after Calderon. After him a great barrenness is perceptible. Now and then attempts were made to produce regular tragedies, that is to say, after the French model. Even the declamatory drama of Diderot found imitators. I remember reading a Spanish play, which had for its object the abolition of the torture. The exhilaration to be expected from such a work may be easily conceived. A few Spaniards, apostates from the old national taste, extol highly the prosaical and moral dramas of Moratin; but we see no reason for seeking in Spain what we have as good, or, more correctly speaking, equally bad at home. The theatrical audience has for the most part preserved itself tolerably exempt from all such foreign influences; a few years ago when a bel esprit undertook to reduce a justly admired piece of Moreto (El Pareceido en la Corte,) to a conformity with the three unities, the pit at Madrid were thrown into such a commotion that the players could only appease them by announcing the piece for the next day in its genuine shape.
When in any country external circumstances, such, for instance, as the influence of the clergy, the oppression of the censorship, and even the jealous vigilance of the people in the maintenance of their old national customs, oppose the introduction of what in neighbouring states passes for a progress in mental culture, it frequently happens that clever description of heads will feel an undue longing for the forbidden fruit, and first begin to admire some artistic depravity, when it has elsewhere ceased to be fashionable. In particular ages certain mental maladies are so universally epidemic that a nation can never be secure from infection till it has been innoculated with it. With respect, however, to the fatal enlightenment of the last generation, the Spaniards it would appear have come off with the chicken-pox, while in the features of other nations the disfiguring variolous scars are but too visible. Living nearly in an insular situation, Spaniards have slept through the eighteenth century, and how in the main could they have applied their time better? Should the Spanish poetry ever again awake in old Europe, or in the New World, it would certainly have a step to make, from instinct to consciousness. What the Spaniards have hitherto loved from innate inclination, they must learn to reverence on clear principles, and, undismayed at the criticism to which it has in the mean time been exposed, proceed to fresh creations in the spirit of their greatest poets.