Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

of sadness, and also a sanity of gladness. It is, too, a ministry of human sympathy; for as it explores the sources of genuine grief and joy, it not only helps us the better to know our own hearts, but to enter into the feelings that are in the hearts of our fellow-beings, and thus to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”

Tragic poetry has been well described as “poetry in its deepest earnest." The upper air of poetry is the atmosphere of sorrow. This is a truth attested by every department of art, the poetry of words, of music, of the canvas, and of marble. It is so, because poetry is a reflection of life; and when a man weeps, the passions that are stirring within him are mightier than the feelings which prompt to cheerfulness or merriment. The smile plays on the countenance : the laugh is a momentary and noisy impulse; but the tear rises slowly and silently from the deep places of the heart. It is at once the symbol and the relief of an o'ermastering grief, it is the language of emotions to which words cannot give utterance: passions, whose very might and depth give them a sanctity, we instinctively recognise by veiling them from the common gaze. In childhood, indeed, when its little griefs and joys are blended with that absence of self-anxiousness, which is both the bliss and the beauty of its innocence, tears are shed without restraint or disguise; but when the self-consciousness of manhood has taught us that tears are the expression of emotions too sacred for exposure, the heart will often break rather than violate this instinct of our nature. Tragic poetry, in dramatic or epic, or what form soever, has its original, its archetype in the sorrows, which float like clouds over the days of human existence. Afflictions travel across the earth on errands mysterious, but merciful, could we but understand them: and the poet, fashioning the likeness of them in some sad story, teaches the imaginative lesson of their influences upon the heart.

In history, what is there so impressive as when the historic muse speaking with the voice of the tragic muse, tells of terror and of woe? If science teach that this earth of ours is a shining planet, the records of history as surely teach that it rolls through the spaces of the firmament, stained with blood and tears. So has it ever been. In the annals of the ancient dynasty of Egypt, what is there like that tragic midnight, when the first-born of the land were smitten, “from the firstporn of Pharaoh that sat on the throne, unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon:" what in the chronicles of Babylon, like that tragic hour, when there came forth the fingers of a man, and wrote upon the palace wall an empire's doom? In classic story, what

[ocr errors]

rises up to the memory more readily than the heroic sacrifice in the tragic pass of Thermopylæ? What pages in the annals of our father

land have a deeper interest than when the career of King Charles turned I to tragedy, when glooic was gathering over his fortunes, from the day

when the royal standard was raised at Nottingham, and ominously cast down in a stormy and unruly night, onward to the bloody atonement on the scaffold. In the history of France, what passage is there so impressive-as gathering into one awful moment a consummation of a long antiquity, and casting a dark shadow over the future—as that which tells of the descendants of sixty kings, laid bound, hand and foot, beneath the glittering axe? And in our own history, what is there so sublime, as when the young nation was baptised in blood on its first battle-field?

What has been finely called “the power and divinity of suffering* is shown also in the moral interest which clings to spots sacred by the memory of affliction-an interest which prosperous grandeur cannot boast of. A thoughtful traveller has thus expressed the feeling on visiting the palace of the Doges at Venice: “It is a strange building, with its multitudinous little marble columns and grotesque windows, and the giant staircase all glorious of the purest Carrara marble, carved and chiselled into ornaments of the most beautiful minuteness. A splendid palace indeed it is: yet, while my eye wandered in a few minutes over the gorgeous part of the structure, it was long riveted with undiminished interest upon the little round holes close to the level of the sullen canal beneath the Bridge of Sighs_holes which marked the passages to the dungeons beneath the level of the canal, where, for years, the victims of that wicked merchant-republic were confined.

“And why is it that suffering should have a spell to fix the eye above the power of beauty or of greatness? Is it oecause the cross is a religion of suffering, a faith of suffering, a privilege of suffering, a perfection arrived at by and through suffering only? Half an hour was enough for the ducal palace. I could gaze for hours upon those dungeon-holes, gaze and read there, as in an exhaustless volume, histories of silent, weary suffering, as it filed the soft heart of man away, attenuated his reason into a dull instinct, or cracked the stout heart as you would shiver a flint.

“There is seldom a line of glory written upon the earth's face, but a line of suffering runs parallel with it; and they that read the lustrous syllables of the one, and stoop not to decypher the spotted and worn inscription of the ctber, get the least half of the lesson earth has to give."

a

a

a

M

Lord Bacon, in one of those essays in which he has so sententiously compacted his deep thoughts, said, "Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New, which carrieth the greater benediction and the clearer revelation of God's favour. Yet even in the Old Testament, if you listen to David's harp, you shall hear as many hearse-like airs as carols: and the pencils of the Holy Ghost have laboured more in describing the afflictions of Job than the felicities of Solomon.”

The moral use of tragic poetry consists then in such employment of poetic truth that the poet's sad imaginings shall serve to chasten, to elevate, and to strengthen the soul—a moral ministry which justified as sage and solenn a spirit as Milton's in speaking of “the lofty, grave tragedians," and styling them “teachers best of moral prudence.”

” High actions and high passions best describing.” And the great critic of antiquity, with all the sublime solemnities of his country's tragic drama in his thoughts, in the presence, as it were, of that spectral mystery of fate, which overshadowed the Athenian stage, has told us that “Tragic poetry is the imitation of serious action, employing pity and terror for the purpose of chastening the passions.”

This discipline, however, it must be borne in mind, can have no practical influence on character, if it accomplish nothing more than the production of emotions, instead of being carried on into action; for it is a great law of our moral being that feelings, no matter how amiable and virtuous, will surely perish, if they be not converted into active principles; nay, they may co-exist with conduct the most selfish and unfeeling; there may be a worthless sentimentalism utterly delusive and negative, and this, by due transition, may pass into odious selfindulgence, or still more odious inhumanity. In the worst days of the French Revolution, the very men who in the theatres applauded the heroic sentiment in the tragedies of Corneille, and were melted even to tears by the pathos of Racine, rose upon the morrow's morn to join in the ferocious cries for blood that echoed in the streets of Paris.

And further, if this example show how worthless and wicked mere sentimentalism may be, self-indulgent in the luxury of ideal woe, it also shows that the sight of actual suffering may obliterate all sympathy, and harden the heart by familiarity with human distress or agony looked on as a spectacle. Now it is the function of art, through whatever medium it addresses the heart, so to transfigure the tragic realities of life, as to make the contemplation of them endurable and salutary which otherwise would be appalling, repulsive, and, if repeated, de structive of true sensibility. That wise artist, the late Washington

or look

Allston, speaking with the truest philosophy of his art and of human nature, said it is “ through the transforming atmosphere of the imagination (that) alone the saddest notes of woe, even the appailing shriek of despair, are softened, as it were, by the tempering dews of this visionary region, ere they fall upon the heart. Else how could we stand the smothered moan of Desdemona, or the fiendish adjuration of Lady Macbeth, more frightful even than the after-deed of her husband, upon

the

agony of the wretched Judas, in the terrible picture of Rembrandt, when he returns the purchase of blood to the impenetrable Sanhedrim ? Ay, how could we ever stand these but for that ideal panoply through which we feel only their modified vibrations ? Let the imitation be so close as to trench on deception, the effect will be far different. I remember," adds Mr. Allston, “ a striking instance of this in a celebrated actress, whose copies of actual suffering were so painfully accurate, that I was forced to turn away from the scene, unable to endure it; her scream of agony in Belvidera seemed to ring in my ears for hours after. Not so was it with the great Mrs. Siddons, who moved not a step but in a poetic atmosphere, through which the fiercer passions seemed rather to loom like distant mountains when first descried at sea, massive and solid, yet resting on air.”

I pass from these brief hints, scarcely worthy of a place in a lecture on tragic poetry, to that kindred species which is found in the literatures of all nations, and which is entitled Elegiac Poetry. Serving, as all true poetry does, for a ministry and discipline of feeling, it could not neglect that one form of affliction which sooner or later comes to every human being-sorrow for the dead. The phases of this emotion are as various as the heart or the countenance. With some is impetuous and turbulent, stormy as a clov.d, but it pours down its shower, and then its form changes, and it melts away, no one can tell whither. The passion sometimes is proud and self-willed and rebellious; or it is moody and sinks into sullenness. Again, it is gentle and resigned, and easy to be entreated. Sometimes it is social, and delights in the relief of utterance and sympathy. With others it holds no communion with sprch or tears, but dwells in the depths of the silent heart. The poet, as an interpreter and guide of humanity, and especially as always raising the mind of man above the pressure of tangible and temporal things into the region of the spiritual and the immortal, finds one of his worthiest duties' in training this species of sorrow in the paths of wisdom. In the small space now at my command, I can attempt to notice only a few of the truths that the poets in their elegies have taught. Let me first say, that there is a sparious form of elegiae

a

a

a

a

poetry, which might be dismissed with a word of pity rather than of condemnation, was it not a counterfeit of that genuine grief which is wronged by the imitation. I refer to that form which is the expression of unreal and subtly selfish sentimentalism, which is not too strongly condemned when it is spoken of as “a base lust of the mind, which indulges in the excitement of contemplating its own emotion, or that of others, for the excitement's sake.” Such sentiment is often ostentatious, obtrusive, and factitious; and real grief recoils from ii intor deeper seclusion. But where the feelings are truthful, and po-try gives them worthy form, their truth is proved by the prompt and the universa, response. What else can explain the large acceptation which a poem like Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard found at once, and finds to this day, not only wherever English words are known, but by tran ation into more languages than any English poem has ever been turn d into. Indeed, throughout our thoughtful English poetry, the duty has ever been worthily recognised of upholding the communion betv'een the living and the dead, and of so disciplining sorrow that it sha! not be dreary, self-indulgent, self-consuming sentiment, but a mo al power, diffusing purity and wisdom, and dwelling in the high pl ces of humanity. English poetry often speaks in the spirit of the elegy, though it may not assume the form of it. In that grand histo

Philip Van Artevelde,when the hero, alluding to a stirring and disturbed condition of society, says,

"Lightly is life laid down amongst us now,
And lightly is death mourned-

We have not time to mourn;" his old preceptor, Friar John, makes answer in words that contain the whole philosophy of elegiac poetry:

“ The worse for us!
He that lacks a time to mourn, lacks time to mend.
Eternity mourns that. 'Tis an ill cure
For life's worst ills, to have no time to feel them.
Where sorrow's held intrusive and turned out,
There wisdom will not enter, nor true power,
Nor aught that dignifies humanity.

Yet such the barrenness of busy life!" It is the theme of the elegiac poet to show these virtues of sorrow, its power to strengthen, to purify, to elevate, and to give moral free dom-its strength to consume the small troubles which so often waste and weaken our best powers. For this the poet needs the genius to Jook into the deepest and most mysterious parts of the human soul, to

rical poem,

« ÎnapoiContinuați »