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“And why is it that suffering should have a spell to fix the eye above the power of beauty or of greatness ? Is it because 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
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 other, get the least half of the lesson earth has to
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.”ť
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 solemn 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."
* Sights and Thoughts in Foreign Churches and among Foreign Peoples; by Frederick William Faber, M. A. p. 285, 288.
7 Essay on Adversity.
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 coexist 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 self-indulgence, or still more odious inhumanity. In the worst days of the French Revolution, the very men who in the theatres applauded the heroic sentiments 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 fero. cious cries for blood that echoed in the streets of Paris.
And further, if this example shows 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, destructive of true sensibility. That wise artist, the late Washington 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 appalling 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, or look upon
* Paradise Regained, book iv. v. 261.
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 counte
With some it is impetuous and turbulent, stormy as a cloud, 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 speech 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 into 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 spurious form of elegiac 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 sentimentis often ostentatious, obtrusive, and factitious; and real grief recoils from it into a deeper seclusion. But where the feelings are truthful, and poetry gives them worthy form, their truth is proved by the prompt and the universal 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 translation into more languages than any English poem has ever been turned into. Indeed, throughout our thoughtful English poetry, the duty has ever been worthily recognised of upholding the communion between the living and the dead, and of so disciplining sorrow that it shall not be a dreary, self-indulgent, self-consuming sentiment, but a moral power, diffusing purity and wisdom, and dwelling in the high places of humanity. English poetry often speaks in the spirit of the elegy, though it may not assume the form of it. In that grand historical poem, "Philip Van Artavelde," when the hero, alluding to a stirring and disturbed condition of society, says,
* I am unable to verify this citation from Allston. W. B. R.