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Tragic and Elegiac Poetry.*
Contrast of subjects, serious and gay-Tragic poetry—Illustrated in his
tory-Death of the first-born-Clarendon's raising the standard at Nottingham-Moral use of tragic poetry—Allston's criticism-Elegiac poetry-Its power not mere sentimentalism-Gray's Elegy, an universal poem-Philip Van Artevelde-Caroline Bowles—"Pauper's Death Bed”-Wordsworth's Elegies—Milton's Lycidas-Adonais-In Memoriam-Shelley's Poem on Death of Keats—Tennyson -In Memoriam reviewed.
THE two lectures I am about to deliver relate to subjects aside from the continuous course just completed. They are, however, illustrative of it, though not part of it; and therefore, I hope, not inappropriate or unwelcome. The first lecture relates to the literature of tragedy and sorrow, the second to the literature of wit and humour; whether I shall add another to this brief supplementary course will depend on personal considerations which I need not now refer to. It is not necessary, I hope, for me to disclaim, in this arrangement of two of these lectures, all attempts at the mere effect of contrast, for it is no ambition of mine to catch the attention of my hearers by any such artifice, or to startle them with an antithesis of subjects. My purpose in placing, immediately after the serious subjects of the first lecture, the literature of Wit and Humour, was rather to show that the transition need not be a violent one; that there may be found in literature a response to the sad and solemn feelings of our nature, and also for its happy and joyous emotions; and that over both these departments of letters there may be seen shining the same moral light. I have set these subjects, apparently so different, in close continuity, in the hope of thus proving the completeness of such companionship as books can add to that between living human beings—a companionship for life, in shadow or in sunshine; in the hope of showing that there is a wisdom in books which holds genial and restorative communion with tears and a sorrowing spirit, and no less genial and salutary with that other attribute of humanity, smiles and a cheer. ful heart. Thus there may be a discipline for faculties and powers too often fitfully or unequally indulged or cultivated-a discipline of the thoughts and feelings which are associated with the sorrows of life, and no less of those which have fellowship with its joys and merriment: for those who are docile to receive, or sedulous to seek them, there are lessons which teach a sanity 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.'
* The course of lectures delivered in 1850 terminated with the Ninth, on Contemporary Literature. Those that follow, together with one on Wordsworth's Prelude, were prepared in March, 1851. I have thought it best to add them to this course, as, in a certain degree, illustrative of the general subject of English Literature. The one on the Prelude was rather the introduction of a new poem to those who had never read it, than a criticism on one that was familiar. It mainly consisted of extracts, with brief comment. On this account I do not think it worth while now to reproduce it. W. B. R.
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 re. flection 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 teaches 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 firstborn of the land were smitten, “from the first-born 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 rises up to the memory more readily than the heroic sacrifice in the tragic pass of Thermopylæ? What pages in the annals of our fatherland have a deeper interest than when the career of King Charles turned to tragedy, when gloom 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 baptized in blood on its first battle-field?
* Clarendon's celebrated description of the raising of the standard of Charles the First, at Nottingham, cannot be too often quoted. It is very grand and very sad.
“According to the proclamation,” says the historian, “upon the twenty-fifth day of August (1642) the standard was erected about six of the clock of the evening of a very stormy and tempestuous day. The king himself, with a small train, rode to the top of the castle-bill; Varney, the knight-marshal, who was standard-bearer, carrying the standard, which was then erected in that place, with little other ceremony than the sound of drums and trumpets : melancholy men discerned many ill presages about that time. There was not one regiment of foot yet levied and brought thither; so that the trained bands which the sheriff had drawn together was all the strength the king had for his person or the guard of the standard. There appeared no conflux of men in obedience to the proclamation : the arms and ammunition were not yet come from York, and a general sadness covered the whole town, and the king himself appeared more melancholic than he used to be. The standard itself was blown down the same night it had been set up, by a very strong and unruly wind, and could not be fixed again in a day or two, till the tempest was allayed. This was the melancholy state of the king's affairs when the standard was set up." History of the Rebellion, book v. p. 308. W. B. R.
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 merchantrepublic were confined.