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Certain Comparisons between celebrated Works. Both taste and reason seem to require that we should, in an ancient as well as in a modern, discriminate between the good and the bad, which are often to be found in contact with each other.
The warmest admiration must be excited by that line of Corneille's, unequalled by any in Homer, in Sophocles, or in Euripides:
Que vouliez-vous qu'il fit contre trois ?-Qu'il mourut, What could he do against three weapons ?-Die. And, with equal justice, the line which follows will be condemned.
The man of taste, while he admires the sublime picture, the striking contrasts of character, and strong colouring in the last scene of Rodogyne, will perceive how many faults, how many improbabilities have prepared the way for this terrible situation, how much Rodogyne has belied her character, and by what crooked ways it is necessary to pass to this great and tragical catastrophe.
The same equitable judge will not fail to do justice to the fine and artful contexture of Racine's tragedies, the only ones, perhaps, which have been well-wrought from the time of Æschylus down to the age of Louis XIV. He will be touched by that continued elegance, that purity of language, that truth of character, to be found in him alone,-by that grandeur without bombast, that fidelity to nature which never wanders in vain declamations, sophistical disputes, false and farfetched images often expressed in solecisms or rhetorical pleadings, fitter for provincial schools than for a tragedy. The same person will discover weakness and uniformity in some of Racine's characters; and in others, gallantry and sometimes even coquetry; he will find declarations of love breathing more of the idyl and the elegy, than of a great dramatic passion; and will complain that more than one well-written piece has elegance to please, but not eloquence to move him. Just so will he judge of the ancients ; not by their names -not by the age in which they lived, but by their works themselves.
Suppose Timanthes the painter were at this day to
come and present to us, by the side of the paintings in the Palais-Royal, his picture in four colours of the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, telling us that men of judgment in Greece had assured him that it was an admirable artifice to veil the face of Agamemnon, lest his grief should appear to equal that of Clytemnestra, and the tears of the father dishonour the majesty of the monarch. He would find connoisseurs who would reply,—it is a stroke of ingenuity, but not of painting; a veil on the head of your principal personage has a frightful effect; your art has failed you. Behold the master-piece of Rubens, who has succeeded in expressing, in the countenance of Mary of Medicis, the pain attendant on child-birth, the joy, the smile, the tenderness, not with four colours, but with every tint of nature. If you wished that Agamemnon should partly conceal his face, you should have made him hide a portion of it by placing his hands over his eyes and forehead; and not with a veil, which is as disagreeable to the eye, and as unpicturesque, as it is contrary to all costume. You should then have shown some falling tears which the hero would conceal, and have expressed in his muscles the convulsions of a grief which he struggles to suppress : you should have painted in this attitude majesty and despair. You are a Greek, and Rubens is a Belgian; but the Belgian bears away the palm.
On a Passage in Homer. A Florentine, a man of letters, of clear understanding and cultivated taste, was one day in Lord Chesterfield's library, together with an Oxford professor, and a Scotsman who was boasting of the poem of Fingal, composed, said he, in the Gaëlic tongue, which is still partly that of Lower Brittany. “Ah !” exclaimed he, & how fine is antiquity!" the poem of Fingal has passed from mouth to mouth for nearly two thousand
years, down to us, without any alteration. Such power has real beauty over the minds of men! He then read to the company the commencement of Fingal. “Cuthullin sat by Tara's wall: by the tree of the
rustling sound. His spear leaned against a rock. His shield lay on the grass, by his side. Amid his thoughts of mighty Carbar, a hero slain by the chief in war, the scout of ocean comes, Moran, the son of Fithil!
Arise,” says the youth,“ Cuthullin, arise; I see the ships of the north! Many, chief of men, are the foe. Many the heroes of the sea-born Swaran!"
Moran,” replied the blue-eyed chief, “ thou ever tremblest, son of Fithil! thy fears have increased the foe. It is Fingal, king of desarts, with aid to green Erin of streams." “I beheld their chief,” says Moran, “ tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the shore, like a cloud of mist on the silent hill!” &c.
“ That,” said the Oxford professor, “is the true style of Homer; but what pleases me still more is, that I find in it the sublime eloquence of the Hebrews. I could fancy myself to be reading passages such as these from those fine canticles
“ Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."*
“ Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.”+
“ Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth. The Lord also thundered in the heavens; and the Highest gave his voice, hailstones and coals of fire.”
“ In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun. Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber.”ll
“ Break their teeth in their mouth, O God; break the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord. Let them pass away, as waters that run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away; like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun. Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as in a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath."$
* Psalm ii. f Psalm iii. § Psalm lviii.
Il Psalm xix.
“They return at evening; they make a noise like a dog. But thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them; thou shalt have all the heathen in derision. Consume them in wrath; consume them that they may not be."*
“ The hill of God is as the hill of Bashan, a high hill as the hill of Bashan. Why leap ye, ye high hills? The Lord said, I will bring again from Bashan, I will bring up my people again from the depths of the sea : That thy feet may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of thy dogs in the same.”+
“ Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.”[
“O‘my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind. As the fire burneth the wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire; so persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm."
“ He shall judge among the heathen; he shall fill the places with dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries."'s
“ Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones,”? &c. &c. &c.
The Florentine, having listened with great attention to the verses of the canticles recited by the doctor, as well as to the first lines of Fingal bellowed forth by the Scotsman, confessed that he was not greatly moved by all these Eastern figures, and that he liked the noble simplicity of Virgil's style much better.
At these words the Scotsman turned pale with wrath, the Oxonian shrugged his shoulders with pity, but Lord Chesterfield encouraged the Florentine by a smile of approbation.
The Florentine, becoming warm, and finding himself supported, said to them, “ Gentlemen, nothing is more easy than to do violence to nature; nothing more difficult than to imitate her. I know something of those whom we in Italy call improvisatori; and I could speak in this Oriental style for eight hours together, without the least effort; for it requires none to be bom,
* Psalm lix.
+ Psalm lxviii.
bastic in negligent verse, overloaded with epithets almost continually repeated, to heap combat upon combat, and to describe chimeras." « What!" said the Professor,
you make an epic poem impromptu !" “ Not a rational epic poem in correct verse, like Virgil,” replied the Italian, “but a poem in which I would abandon myself to the current of my ideas, and not take the trouble to arrange them.”,
“ I defy you to do it,” said the Scotsman and the Oxford graduate at once. Well," returned the Florentine, "give me a subject." Lord Chesterfield gave him as a subject the Black Prince, the conqueror of Poictiers, granting peace after the victory.
The Italian collected himself, and thus began
“ Muse of Albion, Genius that presidest over heroes, come sing with me,
—not the idle rage of men implacable alike to friends and foes not the deeds of heroes whom the Gods have favoured in turn, without any reason for so favouring them—not the siege of a town which is not taken—not the extravagant exploits of the fabulous Fingal, but the real victories of a hero modest as brave, who led kings captive, and respected his vanquished enemies.
“George, the Mars of England, had descended from on high, on that immortal charger before which the proudest coursers of Limousin flee, as the bleating sheep and the tender lambs crowd into the fold at the sight of a terrible wolf issuing from the forest with fiery eyes, with hair erect, and foaming mouth, threatening the flock and the shepherd with the fury of his murderous jaws.
Martin, the famed protector of them who dwell in fruitful Touraine, Genevieve, the mild divinity of them who drink the waters of the Seine and the Marne, Denis, who bore his head under his arm in the sight of man and of immortals, trembled as they saw George proudly traversing the vast fields of air. On his head was a golden helmet, glittering with diamonds that once paved the squares of the heavenly Jerusalem, when it appeared to mortals during forty diurnal revolutions of the great Luminary and his inconstant sister, who with her mild radiance enlightens the darkness of night.
“ In his hand is the terrible and sacred lance with