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Ac ne forte putes me que facere ipse recusen
As a perfect tragedy is the noblest production of
human nature, so it is capable of giving the mind one of the most delightful and most improving enter. tainments. A virtuous man (says Seneca) struggling with misfortunes, is such a spectacle as gods might look upon with pleasure; and such a pleasure it is which ove meets with in the representation of a wellwritten tragedy. Diversions of this kind wear out of our thoughts every thing that is mean and little. They cherish and cultivate that humanity which is the ornament of our nature. They soften insolence, sooth affliction, and subdue the mind to the dispensations of Providence.
It is no wonder therefore that in all the polite na. tious of the world, this part of the drama has met with public encouragernent.
The modern tragedy excels that of Greece and Rome, in the intricacy and disposition of the fable;
but, what a Christian writer would be ashamed to own, falls infinitely short of it in the moral part of the performance.
This I may show more at large hereafter; and in the mean time, that I may contribute something towards the improvement of the English tragedy, I shall take notice, in this and in other following papers, of some particular parts in it that seem liable to exception.
Aristotle observes, that the iambic verse in the Greek tongue was the most proper for tragedy: be. cause at the same time that it lifted up the discourse from prose, it was that which approached nearer to it than any other kind of verse. For, says he, we may observe that men, in ordinary discourse, very often speak iambics, without taking notice of it. We may make the same observation of our English blank verse, which often enters into our common discourse, though we do not attend to it, and is such a due medium between rhyme and prose, that it seems wonderfully adapted to tragedy. I am therefore very much offend. ed when I see a play in rhyme; which is as absurd in English, as a tragedy of hexameters would have been in Greek or Latin. The solecism is, I think, still greater in those plays that have some scenes in rhynie and some in blank verse, which are to be looked upon as two several languages; or where we see some particular similies dignified with rhyme, at the same time that every thing about them lies in blank verse. I would not bowever debar the poet from concluding his tragedy, or, if he pleases, every act of it, with two or three couplets, which may have the same effect as an air in the Italian opera after a long recitativo, and give the actor a graceful exit. Besides that we see a diversity of numbers in some parts of the old tragedy, in order to hinder the ear from heing tired with the same continued modulation of voice. For the same reason, I do not dislike the speeches in our English tragedy that close with an hemisticb, or half verse,
notwithstanding the persou who speaks after it begins a new verse, without filling up the preceding one: nor with abrapt pauses and breakings off in the middle of a verse, when they humour any passion that is ex. pressed by it.
Since I am upon this subject, I must observe that our English poets have sacceeded much better in the style, than in the sentiments of their tragedies. Their language is very often noble and sonorous, but the sense either very trifling, or very common. On the contrary, in the ancient tragedies, and indeed in those of Corneille and Racine, though the expressions are very great, it is the thought that bears them up, and swells them. For my own part, I prefer a noble sentiinent that is depressed with homely language, infinitely before a vulgar one that is blown up with all the sound and energy of expression. Whether this defect in our tragedies may arise from want of genius, knowledge, or experience in the writers, or from their compliance with the vicious taste of their readers, who are better judges of the language than of the senti. ments, and consequently relish the one more than the other, I cannot determine. But I believe it might rectify the conduct both of the one and of the other, if the writer laid down the whole contexture of his dialogue in plain English, before he turned it into blank verse; and if the reader, after the perusal of a scene, would consider the naked thought of every speech in it, when divested of all its tragic ornaments. By these means, without being imposed upon by words, we may judige impartially of the thought, and consider whether it be natural or great enough for the person that utters it, whether it deserves to shine in such a blaze of eloquence, or show itself in such a variety of lights as are generally made use of by the writers of our English tragedy.
I must in the next place observe, that when our thoughts are great and just, they are often obscured Həy the sounding phrases, hard metaphors, and forced expressions in which they are clothed. Shakspeare is often very faulty in this particular. There is a fine ob servation in Aristotle to this purpose, which I have never seen qnoted. “ The expression," says he, " ought to be very much laboured in the unactive parts of the fable, as in descriptions, similitudes, narrations, and the like; in which the opivions, manners, and passions of men are not represented; for these (namely, the opinions, manners, and passions,) are apt to be obscured by pompons phrases and elaborate expressions.” Horace, who copied most of his criticisms after Aristotle, seems to have had his eye on the fore. going rule, in the following verses :
Et tragicus plerumque dolet sermone pedestri :
Ars. Poet. ver. 95.
Among our modern English poets, there is none who was better turned for tragedy than Lee; if in. stead of favouring the impetuosity of his genius, he bad restrained it, and kept it within its proper bounds. His thoughts are wonderfully suited to tragedy, but frequently lost in such a cloud of words, that it is hard to see the beauty of them. There is an infinite fire in bis works, but so involved in smoke, tbat it does not appear in half its lustre. He frequently succeeds in the passionate parts of the tragedy, but more particalarly where he slackens his efforts, and eases the style of those epithers and metaphors, in which he so much
abounds. What can be more natural, more soft, or more passionate, than that line in Statira's speech, where she describes the charms of Alexander's conversation?
“ Then he would talk-Good gods! how he would
That unexpected break in the line, and turning the description of his manner of talking into an adıniration of it, is inexpressibly beautiful, and wonderfully suited to the fond character of the person that speaks it. There is a simplicity in the words, that outshines the utmost pride of expression.
Otway has followed nature in the langnage of his tragedy,
and therefore shines in the passionate parts, more than any of our English poets. As there is something familiar and domestic in the fable of his tragedy, more than in those of any other poet, he has little pomp, but great force in: his expressions. For which reason, though he has adınirably succeeded in the tender and melting part of his tragedies, he gometimes falls into too great a familiarity of phrase in those parts, which, by Aristotle's rule, ought to have been raised and supported by the dignity of expression.
It has been observed by others, that this poet has founded his tragedy of Venice Preserved on so wrong a plot, that the greatest characters in it are those of rebels and traitors. Had the hero of his play discovered the same good qualities in the defence of his country, that he showed for its rnin and subversion, the audience could not enough pity and armire bim : but as he is now represented, we can ovly say of him what the Roman historian says of Catiline, that his fall would have been glorious (si pro patria sic concidisset) had he 90 fallen in the service of his country. VOL. II.