Poems and plays: by William Hayley, Esq. In six volumes. ... [pt.4]
An alluſion to ridens moriar, the cloſe of the celebrated Northern Ode, by the Daniſh king Regner Lodbrog; a tranſlation of which is inſerted in the curious little volume of Runic poetry, printed for Dodſley, 1763.
Bartholin, in his admirable Eſſay on the Cauſes which inſpired the Danes with a Contempt of Death, affirms, that it was cuſtomary with the [Page 4] Northern warriors to ſing their own exploits in the cloſe of life. He mentions the example of a hero, named Hallmundus, who being mortally wounded, commanded his daughter to attend while he compoſed a poem, and to inſcribe it on a tablet of wood. BARTHOLIN. Lib. i. cap. 10.
The poetry of Provence contains many ſpirited ſatires againſt the enormities of the Clergy. The moſt remarkable, is the bold invective of the Troubadour Guillaume Figueira, in which he execrates the avarice and the cruelty of Rome. The Papal cauſe found a female Poet to defend it: Germonda of Montpellier compoſed a poetical reply to the ſatire of Figueira. See MILLOT's Hiſt. des Troubadours, vol. ii. p. 455.
There never was a century utterly deſtitute of ingenious and elegant Poets, ſays the learned Polycarp Leiſer, after having patiently traced the obſcure progreſs of Latin poetry through all the [Page 5] dark ages. Indeed the merit of ſome Latin Poets, in a period that we commonly ſuppoſe involved in the groſſeſt barbariſm, is ſingularly ſtriking; many of theſe are of the Epic kind, and, as they deſcribe the manners and cuſtoms of their reſpective times, a complete review of them might form a curious and entertaining work. I ſhall briefly mention ſuch as appear moſt worthy of notice.
Abbo, a Pariſian monk, of the Benedictine order, wrote a poem on the ſiege of Paris by the Normans and the Danes, at which he was preſent, in the year 886: it is printed in the ſecond volume of Ducheſne's Script. Francorum; and, though it has little or no poetical merit, may be regarded as an hiſtorical curioſity. The following lines, addreſſed to the city of Paris, in the beginning of the work, may ſerve as a ſpecimen of its language:
Dic igitur, praepulchra polis, quod Danea munusLibavit tibimet, ſoboles Plutonis amica,Tempore quo praeſul domini et dulciſſimus herosGozlinus temet paſtorque benignus alebat!Haec, inquit, miror, narrare poteſt aliquiſne?Nonne tuis idem vidiſti oculis? refer ergo:Vidi equidem, juſſiſque tuis parebo libenter.
Guido, Biſhop of Amiens from the year 1058 to 1076, wrote an Heroic poem on the exploits of William the Conqueror, in which, according to Ordericus Vitalis, he imitated both Virgil and Statius. William of Apulia compoſed, at the requeſt of Pope Urban the IId, a poem, in five books, on the actions of the Normans in Sicily, Apulia, and Calabria, to the death of Robert Guiſcard their prince; addreſſing his work to the ſon of that hero. It was written between the years 1080 and 1099; firſt printed in 1582, 4 to; and again in Muratori's Script. Ital.—Du Cange, in his Notes to the Alexiad of the Princeſs Anna Comnena, has illuſtrated that hiſtory by frequent and long quotations from William of Apulia; but though the learned Critic gives him the title of Scriptor Egregius, his poetry appears to me but a few degrees ſuperior to that of the Monk Abbo, whom I have juſt mentioned. The Reader may judge from the following paſſage, which I ſelect not only as a ſpecimen of the Author's ſtyle, but as it ſhews that the wives of theſe martial Princes ſhared with them in all the perils of war:
[Page 7]Uxor in hoc bello Roberti fortè ſagittâQuâdam laeſa fuit, quae vulnere territa, nullamDum ſperabat opem, ſe penè ſubegerat hoſti,Navigio cujus ſe commendare volebat,Inſtantis metuens vicina pericula lethi:Hanc deus eripuit, fieri ludibria nolensMatronae tantae tam nobilis et venerandae.
The Princeſs Comnena has alſo celebrated the fortitude which this Heroine, whoſe name was Gaita, diſplayed in the battle; and it is remarkable, that the royal female Hiſtorian deſcribes the noble Amazon more poetically than the Latin Poet.
Gualfredo, an Italian, who ſucceeded to the biſhoprick of Siena in the year 1080, and died in 1127, wrote an Heroic poem on the expedition of Godfrey of Boulogne, which is ſaid to be ſtill preſerved in MS. at Siena. I believe Gualfredo is the firſt Poet, in point of time, who treated of the happy ſubject of the Cruſades; which was afterwards embelliſhed by two very elegant writers of Latin verſe, Iſcanus and Gunther, of whom I ſhall preſently ſpeak, and at length received its higheſt honour from the genius of Taſſo. There is alſo an early Latin poem on this ſubject, the joint production of two writers, named Fulco and Aegidius, whom the accurate Fabricius places in the [Page 8] beginning of the 13th century: the title of the work is Hiſtoria Geſtorum Viae noſtri Temporis Hieroſolymitanae. It is printed in the fourth volume of Ducheſne's Script. Franc. and with conſiderable additions in the third volume of Anecdota Edmundi Martene. I tranſcribe part of the opening of this poem, as the curious reader may have a pleaſure in comparing it with that of Taſſo:
I will only add the portrait of Godfrey:Ardor ineſt, inquam, ſententia fixaque mentiVerſibus et numeris tranſmittere poſteritatiQualiter inſtinctu deitatis, et auſpice cultuEſt aggreſſa via memorando nobilis actu,Qua ſacroſancti violantes jura ſepulchriDigna receperunt meriti commercia pravi.Inque ſuis Francis antiqua reſurgere TrojaCoepit, et edomuit Chriſto contraria regna.
The poem cloſes with the capture of Jeruſalem.Inclytus ille ducum Godefridus culmen honoſque,Omnibus exemplum bonitatis militiaeque,Sive haſta jaculans aequaret Parthica tela,Cominus aut feriens terebraret ferrea ſcuta,Seu gladio pugnans carnes reſecaret et oſſa,Sive eques atque pedes propelleret agmina denſa,Cunctis poſſeſſis pro Chriſti pace relictisArripuit callem Chriſtum ſectando vocantem.
But, in merit and reputation, theſe early Latin Poets of modern time are very far inferior to Philip Gualtier de Chatillon, who ſeems to have been the firſt that caught any portion of true poetic ſpirit in Latin verſe. He was Provoſt of the Canons of Tournay* about the year 1200, according to Mr. Warton, who has given ſome ſpecimens of his ſtyle in the ſecond Diſſertation prefixed to his admirable Hiſtory of Engliſh Poetry. I ſhall therefore only add, that the beſt edition of his Alexandreid, an Heroic poem in ten books on Alexander the Great, was printed at Leyden, 4to, 1558.
The ſuperior merit of Joſephus Iſcanus, or [Page 10] Joſeph of Exeter, has been alſo diſplayed by the ſame judicious Encomiaſt, in the Diſſertation I have mentioned; nor has he failed to commemorate two Latin Epic Poets of the ſame period, and of conſiderable merit for the time in which they lived—Gunther, and William of Bretagny; the firſt was a German monk, who wrote after the year 1108, and has left various hiſtorical and poetical works; particularly two of the Epic kind—Solymarium, a poem on the taking of Jeruſalem by Godfrey of Bulloign; and another, intitled Ligurinus, on the exploits of the Emperor Frederick Barbaroſſa, which he completed during the life of that Prince. The firſt was never printed; of the latter there have been ſeveral editions, and one by the celebrated Melancthon, in 1569. That his poetical merit was conſiderable in many reſpects, will appear from the following verſes, in which he ſpeaks of himſelf:
Hoc quoque me famae, ſi deſint caetera, ſolumConciliare poteſt, quod jam per multa latentesSaecula, nec clauſis prodire penatibus auſasPierides vulgare paro, priſcumque nitoremReddere carminibus, tardoſque citare poetas.
[Page 11] William of Bretagny was preceptor to Pierre Charlot, natural ſon of Philip Auguſtus, King of France, and addreſſed a poem to his pupil, intitled Karlotis, which is yet unpubliſhed; but his greater work, called Philippis, an Heroic poem in twelve books, is printed in the collections of Ducheſne and Pithaeus; and in a ſeparate 4to volume, with a copious commentary by Barthius. Notwithſtanding the praiſes beſtowed on this Author by his learned Commentator, who prefers him to all his contemporaries, he appears to me inferior in poetic ſpirit to his three rivals, Gualtier de Chatillon, Iſcanus, and Gunther. Yet his work is by no means deſpicable in its ſtyle, and may be conſidered as a valuable picture of the times in which he lived; for he was himſelf engaged in many of the ſcenes which he deſcribes. His profeſt deſign is to celebrate the exploits of Philip Auguſtus; and he cloſes his poem with the death of that Monarch, which happened in 1223. He addreſſes his work, in two ſeparate poetical dedications, to Lewis, the ſucceſſor of Philip, and to Pierre Charlot his natural ſon, who was Biſhop of Noyon in 1240, and died 1249. He ſeems to have been excited to this compoſition by the reputation of Gualtier's Alexandreid; to which he thus alludes, in the verſes addreſſed to Lewis:
[Page 12]Geſta ducis Macedum celebri deſcribere verſuSi licuit, Gualtere, tibi, quae ſola relatuMultivago docuit te vociferatio famae—— — — — —Cur ego quae novi, proprio quae lumine vidi,Non auſim magni magnalia ſcribere regis,Qui nec Alexandro minor eſt virtute, nec illoUrbi Romuleae totum qui ſubdidit orbem?
He takes occaſion alſo, in two other parts of his poem, to pay a liberal compliment to Gualtier, to whom, in poetical ability, he confeſſes himſelf inferior; but this inferiority his admirer Barthius will not allow. Of their reſpective talents the reader may judge, who will compare the paſſage which Mr. Warton has cited from the Alexandreid, with the following lines, in which William of Bretagny uſes the very ſimile of his predeceſſor, comparing his hero Philip to a young lion:
Rex dolet ereptum comitem ſibi, frendit, et iraeOccultare nequit tectos ſub pectore motus,Nam rubor in vultu duplicatus prodit aperteQuam gravis illuſtrem trahit indignatio mentem.Qualiter in Lybicis ſpumante leunculo rictuSaltibus ungue ferox, et dentibus aſper aduncis,Cui venatoris venabula forte per armosDeſcendere levi ſtringentia vulnere corpus,Colla rigens hirſuta jubis deſaevit in hoſtemJam retrocedentem, nec eum tetigiſſe volentem,Cum nihil ex facto referat niſi dedecus illo.Nec mora nec requies, quin jam deglutiat ipſum,Ni prudens hoſtis praetenta cuſpide ſcutoUnguibus objecto, dum dat veſtigia retrò,In loca ſe retrahat non irrumpenda leoni.Sic puer in comitem rex debacchatur, et ipſumSubſequitur preſſo relegens veſtigia greſſu.
At laevo in cornu, qui nulli marte ſecundus,Bolonides pugnae inſiſtit, cui fraxinus ingensNunc implet dextram, vix ulli bajula, qualemIn Bacchi legimus portaſſe Capanea cunas,Quam vix fulmineo dejecit Jupiter ictu:Nunc culter vitae impatiens, nunc ſanguine pugniMucro rubens; gemina e ſublimi vertice fulgensCornua conus agit, ſuperaſque eduxit in aurasE coſtis aſſumpta nigris, quas faucis in antroBranchia balenae Britici colit incola ponti;Majorem faceret phantaſtica pompa videri.Ac velut in ſaltus ſcopuloſa Bieria ſaltuPraecipiti mittit ingenti corpore cervum,Cujus multifidos numerant a cornibus annos,Menſe ſub Octobri nondum Septembre peracto,Annua quandò novis Venus incitat ignibus illum,Curſitat in cervos ramoſa fronte minores,Omnibus ut pulſis victor ſub tegmine fagiConnubio cervam ſolus ſibi ſubdat amatam.Haud ſecus e peditum medio, quibus ipſe rotundoUt caſtro cauta ſe circumſepſerat arte,Proſiliens volat in Thomam, RobertigenaſqueDrocarum Comitem, Belvacenumque PhilippumBolonides.—
William of Bretagny had an immediate ſucceſſor in Latin poetry, who appears to have at leaſt an equal portion of poetical ſpirit; the name of this Author is Nicholas de Brai, who wrote an Heroic poem on the actions of Louis the VIIIth, after the death of that Monarch, and addreſſed it to William of Auvergne, who was Biſhop of Paris from the year 1228 to 1248. As a ſpecimen of his deſcriptive power, I ſelect the following lines, which form part of a long deſcription of a Goblet preſented to the King on his acceſſion:
[Page 15]—Parant intrare palatia regisMagnifici cives, gratiſſima dona ferentes,Tegmina quos ornant variis inſculpta figuris;Et patrem patriae jucunda voce ſalutant,Et genibus flexis praeſentant ditia dona.— — — — —Offertur crater, quem ſi ſit credere dignumPerditus ingenio fabricavit Mulciber auro;Margine crateris totus depingitur orbis,Et ſeries rerum brevibus diſtincta figuris:Illic pontus erat, tellus, et pendulus aer,Ignis ad alta volans coeli ſupereminet illis:Quatuor in partes orbis diſtinguitur, ingensCircuit oceanus immenſis fluctibus orbem.Ingenio natura ſuo duo lumina fecitFixa tenore poli, mundi famulantia rebus.
The Author proceeds to deſcribe Thebes and Troy, as they are figured on this ſuperb Goblet; and concludes his account of the workmanſhip with the four following lines, of peculiar beauty for the age in which they appeared:
Martis adulterium reſupino margine pinxitMulciber, et Venerem laqueis cum Marteligavit;Pluraque caelaſſet ſub margine, ſed pudor illiObſtat, et ingentis renovatur cauſa doloris.
[Page 16] This Poem, which the author ſeems to have left imperfect, is printed in the fifth volume of Ducheſne's Script. Francorum.—England is ſaid to have produced another Heroic Poet of confiderable merit, who celebrated in Latin verſe the exploits of Richard the Firſt, and who was called Gulielmus Peregrinus, from his having attended that Prince to the Holy Land. Leland mentions him by the name of Gulielmus de Canno, and Pits calls him Poetarum ſui temporis apud noſtrates facile Princeps; but I do not find that his Work was ever printed; nor do the ſeveral biographical writers who ſpeak of him, inform us where it exiſts in MS.
In Italy the Latin language is ſuppoſed to have been cultivated with ſtill greater ſucceſs, and the reſtoration of its purity is in great meaſure aſcribed to Albertino Muſſato, whoſe merits were firſt diſplayed to our country by the learned author of the Eſſay on Pope.—Muſſato was a Paduan, of high rank and great talents, but unfortunate. He died in exile, 1329, and left, beſides many ſmaller Latin pieces, an Heroic Poem, De Geſtis Italorum poſt Henricum VII. Caeſarem, ſeu de Obſidione Domini Canis Grandis de Verona circa Moenia Paduanae Civitatis et Conflictu ejus.—Quadrio, from whom I tranſcribe this title, ſays it is printed [Page 17] in the tenth volume of Muratori. Voſſius, who ſpeaks of him as an Hiſtorian, aſſerts that he commanded in the war which is the ſubject of his Poem.
In a few years after the death of Muſſato, Petrarch received the laurel at Rome, for his Latin Epic poem, intitled Africa; a performance which has ſunk ſo remarkably from the high reputation it once obtained, that the great admirer and encomiaſt of Petrarch, who has publiſhed three entertaining quarto volumes on his life, calls it ‘"Un ouvrage ſans chaleur, ſans invention, ſans interet, qui n'a pas meme le merite de la verſification & du ſtyle, & dont il eſt impoſſible de ſoutenir la lecture.’—I muſt obſerve, however, that Taſſo, in his Eſſay on Epic Poetry, beſtows a very high encomium on that part of Petrarch's Latin poem, in which he celebrates the loves of Sophoniſba and Maſiniſſa; and indeed the cenſure of this amiable French writer, who in other points has done ample juſtice to the merits of Petrarch, appears to me infinitely too ſevere. There are many paſſages in this neglected Poem conceived with great force and imagination, and expreſſed with equal elegance of language. I ſhall ſelect ſome verſes from that part of it which has been honoured by the applauſe of Taſſo. The [Page 18] following lines deſcribe the anguiſh of the young Numidian Prince, when he is conſtrained to abandon his lovely bride:
Volvitur inde thoro (quoniam ſub pectore pernoxSaevit amor, lacerantque truces praecordia curae),Uritur, invigilant moeror, metus, ira, furorque;Saepè & abſentem lacrymans dum ſtringit amicam,Saepè thoro dedit amplexus et dulcia verba.Poſtquam nulla valent violento fraena dolori,Incipit, et longis ſolatur damna querelis:Cura mihi nimium, vita mihi dulcior omni,Sophoniſba, vale! non te, mea cura, videboLeniter aethereos poſthac componere vultus,Effuſoſque auro religantem ex more capillos;Dulcia non coelum mulcentia verba DeoſqueOris odorati, ſecretaque murmura, carpam.Solus ero, gelidoque inſternam membra cubili;Atque utinam ſocio componat amica ſepulchro,Et ſimul hic vetitos, illic concorditer annos,Contingat duxiſſe mihi ſors optima buſti.Si cinis amborum commixtis morte medullisUnus erit, Scipio noſtros non ſcindet amores.O utinam infernis etiam nunc una latebrisUmbra ſimus, liceat pariter per clauſtra vagariMyrtea, nec noſtros Scipio disjungat amores.Ibimus una ambo flentes, et paſſibus iiſdemFerreus aut aequos Scipio interrumpet amores.
Illa manu pateramque tenens, & lumina coeloAttollens, Sol alme, inquit, Superique valete!Maſiniſſa, vale! noſtri memor; inde malignumCeu ſitiens haurit non mota fronte venenum,Tartareaſque petit violentus ſpiritus umbras.—Nulla magis Stygios mirantum obſeſſa coronaUmbra lacus ſubiit, poſtquam diviſa triformisPartibus hand aequis ſtetit ingens machina mundi.Obtutu attonito ſtabant horrentia circumAgmina Poenarum, ſparſoque rigentia villoEumenidum tacitis inhiabant rictibus ora.Regia vis oculis inerat, pallorque verendus,Et vetus egregia majeſtas fronte manebat.Indignata tamen ſuperis, irataque morti,Ibat et exiguo defigens lumina flexu.
With Petrarch I may cloſe this curſory review of the neglected authors who wrote Heroic poems [Page 20] in Latin, during the courſe of the dark ages.—A peculiar circumſtance induces me to add another name to the preceding liſt. John, Abbot of Peterborough, in the reign of Edward the Third, wrote an Heroic poem, intitled Bellum Navarrenſe, 1366, de Petro rege Aragoniae & Edwardo Principe. This performance, containing five hundred and ſixty verſes, is ſaid to be preſerved in MS. in the Bodleian Library; and I have thought it worthy of notice, becauſe it treats of the very ſubject on which Dryden informs us he had once projected an Epic poem.
Of the many Latin compoſitions of the Epic kind, which later times have produced, the Chriſtiad of Vida, the Sarcotis of Maſſenius, and the Conſtantine of Mambrun, appear to me the moſt worthy of regard; but even theſe are ſeldom peruſed: and indeed the Poet, who in a poliſhed age prefers the uſe of a dead language to that of a living one, can only expect, and perhaps only deſerves, the attention of a few curious ſequeſtered ſtudents.
Dante Allighieri was born at Florence, in May 1265, of [Page 21] an ancient and honourable family. Boccacio, who lived in the ſame period, has left a very curious and entertaining Treatiſe, on the Life, the Studies, and Manners of this extraordinary Poet; whom he regarded as his maſter, and for whoſe memory he profeſſed the higheſt veneration. This intereſting biographer relates, that Dante, before he was nine years old, conceived a paſſion for the lady whom he has immortalized in his ſingular Poem. Her age was near his own; and her name was Beatrice, the daughter of Folco Portinari, a noble citizen of Florence. Of this fair one the beſt accounts are obſcure. Some refining commentators have even denied her corporeal exiſtence; affirming her to be nothing more or leſs than Theology: but we may queſtion if Theology was ever the miſtreſs of ſo young a lover. The paſſion of Dante, however, like that of his ſucceſſor Petrach, ſeems to have been of the chaſte and Platonic kind, according to the account he has himſelf given of it, in one of his early productions, intitled Vita Nuova; a mixture of myſterious poetry and proſe, in which he mentions both the origin of his affection, and the death of his miſtreſs; who, according to Boccacio, died at the age of twenty-four. The ſame author aſſerts, that Dante fell into a deep melancholy in conſequence of this [Page 22] event, from which his friends endeavoured to raiſe him, by perſuading him to marriage. After ſome time he followed their advice, and repented it; for he unfortunately made choice of a lady who bore ſome reſemblance to the celebrated Xantippe. The Poet, not poſſeſſing the patience of Socrates, ſeparated himſelf from her with ſuch vehement expreſſions of diſlike, that he never afterwards admitted her to his preſence, though ſhe had borne him ſeveral children.—In the early part of his life he gained ſome credit in a military character; diſtinguiſhing himſelf by his bravery in an action where the Florentines obtained a ſignal victory over the citizens of Arezzo. He became ſtill more eminent by the acquiſition of civil honours; and at the age of thirty-five he roſe to be one of the chief magiſtrates of Florence, when that dignity was conferred by the ſuffrages of the people. From this exaltation the Poet himſelf dated his principal misfortunes, as appears from the fragment of a letter quoted by Lionardo Bruni, one of his early biographers, where Dante ſpeaks of his political failure with that liberal frankneſs which integrity inſpires.—Italy was at that time diſtracted by the contending factions of the Ghibellins and the Guelphs: the latter, among whom Dante took an active part, were again divided into the Blacks [Page 23] and the Whites. Dante, ſays Gravina, exerted all his influence to unite theſe inferior parties; but his efforts were ineffectual, and he had the misfortune to be unjuſtly perſecuted by thoſe of his own faction. A powerful citizen of Florence, named Corſo Donati, had taken meaſures to terminate theſe inteſtine broils, by introducing Charles of Valois, brother to Philip the Fair, King of France. Dante, with great vehemence, oppoſed this diſgraceful project, and obtained the baniſhment of Donati and his partizans. The exiles applied to the Pope (Boniface the VIIIth), and by his aſſiſtance ſucceeded in their deſign. Charles of Valois entered Florence in triumph, and thoſe who had oppoſed his admiſſion were baniſhed in their turn. Dante had been diſpatched to Rome as the ambaſſador of his party, and was returning, when he received intelligence of the revolution in his native city. His enemies, availing themſelves of his abſence, had procured an iniquitous ſentence againſt him, by which he was condemned to baniſhment, and his poſſeſſions were confiſcated. His two enthuſiaſtic biographers, Boccacio and Manetti, expreſs the warmeſt indignation againſt this injuſtice of his country.—Dante, on receiving the intelligence, took refuge in Siena, and afterwards in Arezzo, where many of his party were aſſembled. [Page 24] An attempt was made to ſurpriſe the city of Florence, by a ſmall army which Dante is ſuppoſed to have attended: the deſign miſcarried, and our Poet is conjectured to have wandered to various parts of Italy, till he found a patron in the great Can della Scala, Prince of Verona, whom he has celebrated in his Poem. The high ſpirit of Dante was ill ſuited to courtly dependence; and he is ſaid to have loſt the favour of his Veroneſe patron by the rough frankneſs of his behaviour. From Verona he retired to France, according to Manetti; and Boccacio affirms that he diſputed in the Theological Schools of Paris with great reputation. Bayle queſtions his viſiting Paris at this period of his life, and thinks it improbable that a man, who had been one of the chief magiſtrates of Florence, ſhould condeſcend to engage in the public ſquabbles of the Pariſian Theologiſts. But the ſpirit both of Dante, and the times in which he lived, ſufficiently account for this exerciſe of his talents; and his reſidence in France at this ſeaſon is confirmed by Boccacio, in his life of our Poet, which Bayle ſeems to have had no opportunity of conſulting.
The election of Henry Count of Luxemburgh to the empire, in November 1308, afforded Dante a proſpect of being reſtored to his native city, as he attached himſelf to the intereſt of the new Emperor, [Page 25] in whoſe ſervice he is ſuppoſed to have written his Latin treatiſe De Monarchia, in which he aſſerted the rights of the Empire againſt the encroachments of the Papacy. In the year 1311, he inſtigated Henry to lay ſiege to Florence; in which enterprize, ſays one of his Biographers, he did not appear in perſon, from motives of reſpect towards his native city. The Emperor was repulſed by the Florentines; and his death, which happened in the ſucceeding year, deprived Dante of all hopes concerning his re-eſtabliſhment in Florence.
After this diſappointment, he is ſuppoſed to have paſſed ſome years in roving about Italy in a ſtate of poverty and diſtreſs, till he found an honourable eſtabliſhment at Ravenna, under the protection of Guido Novello da Polenta, the lord of that city, who received this illuſtrious exile with the moſt endearing liberality, continued to protect him through the few remaining years of his life, and extended his munificence to the aſhes of the Poet.
Eloquence was one of the many talents which Dante poſſeſſed in an eminent degree. On this account he is ſaid to have been employed on fourteen different embaſſies in the courſe of his life, and to have ſucceeded in moſt of them. His patron Guido had occaſion to try his abilities in a ſervice of this [Page 26] nature, and diſpatched him as his ambaſſador to negociate a peace with the Venetians, who were preparing for hoſtilities againſt Ravenna. Manetti aſſerts that he was unable to procure a public audience at Venice, and returned to Ravenna by land, from his apprehenſions of the Venetian fleet; when the fatigue of his journey, and the mortification of failing in his attempt to preſerve his generous patron from the impending danger, threw him into a fever, which terminated in death on the 14th of September 1321. He died, however, in the palace of his friend, and the affectionate Guido paid the moſt tender regard to his memory. This magnificent patron, ſays Boccacio, commanded the body to be adorned with poetical ornaments, and, after being carried on a bier through the ſtreets of Ravenna by the moſt illuſtrious citizens, to be depoſited in a marble coffin. He pronounced himſelf the funeral oration, and expreſſed his deſign of erecting a ſplendid monument in honour of the deceaſed: a deſign which his ſubſequent misfortunes rendered him unable to accompliſh. At his requeſt, many epitaphs were written on the Poet: the beſt of them, ſays Boccacio, by Giovanni del Virgilio of Bologna, a famous author of that time, and the intimate friend of Dante. Boccacio then cites a few Latin verſes, not [Page 27] worth tranſcribing, ſix of which are quoted by Bayle as the compoſition of Dante himſelf, on the authority of Paul Jovius. In 1483, Bernardo Bembo, the father of the celebrated Cardinal, raiſed a handſome monument over the neglected aſhes of the Poet, with the following inſcription:
Exigua tumuli Danthes hic ſorte jacebasSquallenti nulli cognita paenè ſitu;At nunc marmoreo ſubnixus conderis arcu,Omnibus et cultu ſplendidiore nites:Nimirum Bembus, Muſis incenſus Etruſcis,Hoc tibi, quem in primis hae coluere, dedit.
Before this period the Florentines had vainly endeavoured to obtain the bones of their great Poet from the city of Ravenna. In the age of Leo the Xth they made a ſecond attempt, by a ſolemn application to the Pope for that purpoſe; and the great Michael Angelo, an enthuſiaſtic admirer of Dante, very liberally offered to execute a magnificent monument to the Poet. The hopes of the Florentines were again unſucceſsful. The particulars of their ſingular petition may be found in the notes to Condivi's Life of Michael Angelo.
The perſon and manners of Dante are thus repreſented by the deſcriptive pen of Boccacio:— [Page 28] ‘"Fu adunque queſto noſtro Poeta di Mezzana ſtatura; e poichè alla matura età fu pervenuto, andò alquanto gravetto, ed era il ſuo andar grave, e manſueto, di oneſtiſſimi panni ſempre veſtito, in quello abito, che era alla ſua matura età convenevole; il ſuo volto fu lungo, il naſo aquilino, gli occhi anzi groſſi, che piccioli, le maſcelle grandi, e dal labbro di ſotto, era quel di ſopra avanzato; il colore era bruno, i capelli, e la barba ſpeſſi neri e [Page 29] creſpi, e ſempre nella faccia malinconico e penſoſo—Ne coſtumi publici e domeſtici mirabilmente fu compoſto e ordinato; più che niuno altro corteſe e civile; nel cibo e nel poto fu modeſtiſſimo.’—Though Dante is deſcribed as much inclined to melancholy, and his genius particularly delighted in the gloomy and ſublime, yet in his early period of life he ſeems to have poſſeſſed all the lighter graces of ſprightly compoſition, as appears from the following airy and ſportive ſonnet:[Page 28]
[Page 30] Theſe lively verſes were evidently written before the Poet loſt the object of his earlieſt attachment, as ſhe is mentioned by the name of Bice. At what time, and in what place, he executed the great and ſingular work which has rendered him immortal, his numerous Commentators ſeem unable to determine. Boccacio aſſerts, that he began it in his thirty-fifth year, and had finiſhed ſeven Cantos of his Inferno before his exile; that in the plunder of his houſe, on that event, the beginning of his poem was fortunately preſerved, but remained for ſome time neglected; till its merit being accidently diſcovered by an intelligent Poet, named Dino, it was ſent to the Marquis Maroello Maleſpina, an Italian nobleman, by whom Dante was then protected. The Marquis reſtored theſe loſt papers to the Poet, and entreated him to proceed in a work which opened in ſo promiſing a manner. To this incident we are probably indebted for the poem of Dante, which he muſt have continued under all the diſadvantages of an unfortunate and agitated life. It does not appear at what time he completed it; perhaps before he quitted Verona, as he dedicated the Paradiſe to his Veroneſe patron.—The Critics have variouſly accounted for his having called his poem Comedia. He gave it that title, ſaid one of his ſons, becauſe it opens with diſtreſs, and cloſes with felicity. The very high [Page 31] eſtimation in which this production was held by his country, appears from a ſingular inſtitution. The republic of Florence, in the year 1373, aſſigned a public ſtipend to a perſon appointed to read lectures on the poem of Dante: Boccacio was the firſt perſon engaged in this office; but his death happening in two years after his appointment, his Comment extended only to the ſeventeen firſt Cantos of the Inferno. The critical diſſertations that have been written on Dante are almoſt as numerous as thoſe to which Homer has given birth: the Italian, like the Grecian Bard, has been the ſubject of the higheſt panegyric, and of the groſſeſt invective. Voltaire has ſpoken of him with that precipitate vivacity, which ſo frequently led that lively Frenchman to inſult the reputation of the nobleſt writers. In one of his entertaining letters, he ſays to an Italian Abbé, ‘"Je fais grand cas du courage, avec lequel vous avez oſé dire que Dante etoit un fou, et ſon ouvrage un monſtre—Le Dante pourra entrer dans les bibliotheques des curieux, mais il ne ſera jamais lu."’ But more temperate and candid Critics have not been wanting, to diſplay the merits of this original Poet. Mr. Warton has introduced into his laſt volume on Engliſh Poetry, a judicious and ſpirited ſummary of Dante's performance. We [Page 32] have ſeveral verſions of the celebrated ſtory of Ugolino; but I believe no entire Canto of Dante has hitherto appeared in our language, though his whole work has been tranſlated into French, Spaniſh, and Latin verſe. The three Cantos which follow were tranſlated a few years ago, to oblige a particular friend. The Author has ſince been ſolicited to execute an entire tranſlation of Dante: but the extreme inequality of this Poet would render ſuch a work a very laborious undertaking; and it appears very doubtful how far ſuch a verſion would intereſt our country. Perhaps the reception of theſe Cantos may diſcover to [Page 33] the Tranſlator the ſentiments of the public. At all events, he flatters himſelf that the enſuing portion of a celebrated poem may afford ſome pleaſure from its novelty, as he has endeavoured to give the Engliſh reader an idea of Dante's peculiar manner, by adopting his triple rhyme; and he does not recollect that this mode of verſification has ever appeared before in our language: it has obliged him, of courſe to make the number of tranſlated lines correſpond exactly with thoſe of the original. The difficulties attending this metre will ſufficiently ſhew themſelves, and obtain ſome degree of indulgence from the intelligent and candid reader.[Page 32]
Mr. Tyrwhitt, to whom Chaucer is as deeply indebted as a Poet can be to the judgment and erudition of his commentator, has given a ſketch of Boccacio's Theſeida, in his introductory diſcourſe to the Canterbury Tales; and Mr. Warton has enriched the firſt volume of his Hiſtory of Engliſh Poetry with a conſiderable ſpecimen of this very rare Italian Epic poem, of which our country is ſaid to poſſeſs but a ſingle copy.—The father of Boccacio was an Italian merchant, a native [Page 65] of Certaldo, near Florence, who in his travels attached himſelf to a young woman of Paris; and our Poet is ſuppoſed to have been the illegitimate offspring of that connection. He was born in 1313, and educated as a ſtudent of the canon law; but a ſight of Virgil's tomb, according to Filippo Villani, his moſt ancient Biographer, made him reſolve to relinquiſh his more irkſome purſuits, and devote himſelf entirely to the Muſes. His life ſeems to have been divided between literature and love, as he was equally remarkable for an amorous diſpoſition, and a paſſionate attachment to ſtudy. His moſt celebrated miſtreſs was Mary of Arragon, the natural daughter of Robert, King of Naples, the generous and enthuſiaſtic patron of Petrarch. To this lady, diſtinguiſhed by the name [Page 66] of The Fiammetta, Boccacio addreſſed his capital poem, the Theſeida; telling her, in an introductory letter, that it contained many alluſions to the particular circumſtances of their own ſecret attachment. In his latter days he retired to Certaldo, and died there in the year 1475, of a diſorder ſuppoſed to have ariſen from exceſſive application. Few authors have rendered more eſſential ſervice to the republic of letters than Boccacio, as he not only contributed very much to the improvement of his native language, but was particularly inſtrumental in promoting the revival of ancient learning: a merit which he ſhared with Petrarch. The tender and generous friendſhip which ſubſiſted between theſe two engaging authors, reflects the higheſt honour on both; and their letters to each other may be ranked among the moſt intereſting productions of that period. Boccacio compoſed, according to Quadrio, no leſs than thirty-four volumes. His Novels are univerſally known: his Poetical Works are as follow: 1. La Theſeida in Ottava Rima. 2. L'Amoroſa Viſione in Terza Rima. 3. Il Filoſtrato in Ottava Rima. 4. Il Ninfale Fieſolano in Ottava Rima.—He piqued himſelf on being the firſt Poet who ſung of martial ſubjects in Italian verſe; and he has been generally ſuppoſed the inventor of the Ottava Rima, the common Heroic meaſure [Page 67] of the Italian Muſe: but Quadrio has ſhewn that it was uſed by preceding writers; and Paſquier, in his Recherches, has quoted two ſtanzas of Thibaud King of Navarre, written in the ſame meaſure, on Blanch queen of France, who died in 1252. The neglect into which the Poems of Boccacio had fallen appears the more ſtriking, as he peculiarly prided himſelf on his poetical character; informing the world, by an inſcription on his tomb, that Poetry was his favourite purſuit—Studium fuit alma Poeſis, are the laſt words of the epitaph which he compoſed for himſelf.
Giovanni Giorgio Triſſino was born of a noble family in Vicenza, 1478: he was particularly diſtinguiſhed by a paſſion for Poetry and Architecture; and one of the very few Poets who have been rich enough to build a palace. This he is ſaid to have done from a deſign of his own, under the direction of the celebrated Palladio. He had the merit of writing the firſt regular tragedy in the Italian language, entitled Sophoniſba; but in his Epic poem he is generally allowed to have failed, though ſome learned Critics (and Gravina amongſt them) have [Page 68] endeavoured to ſupport the credit of that performance. His ſubject was the expulſion of the Goths from Italy by Beliſarius; and his poem conſiſts of twenty-ſeven books, in blank verſe. He addreſſed it to the Emperor Charles the Vth; and profeſſes in his Dedication to have taken Ariſtotle for his preceptor, and Homer for his guide.
The reader will excuſe a trifling anachroniſm, in my naming Triſſino before Arioſto, for poetical reaſons. The Italia Liberata of the former was firſt publiſhed in 1548; the Orlando Furioſo, in 1515. Triſſino died at Rome, 1550; Arioſto at Ferrara, 1533.
The reputation of Torquato Taſſo has almoſt eclipſed that of his father Bernardo, who was himſelf a conſiderable Poet, and left two productions of the Epic kind, L'Amadigi, and Il Floridante: the latter remained unfiniſhed at his death, but was afterwards publiſhed in its imperfect ſtate by his ſon; who has ſpoken of his father's poetry with filial regard, in his different critical works. The Amadigi was written at the requeſt of ſeveral Spaniſh [Page 69] Grandees, in the court of Charles the Vth, and firſt printed in Venice by Giolito, 1560. The curious reader may find an entertaining account of the Author's ideas in compoſing this work, among his Letters, volume the firſt, page 198. I cannot help remarking, that the letter referred to contains a ſimile which Torquato has introduced in the opening of his Jeruſalem Delivered.
The Italians have formed a very pleaſing and valuable work, by collecting the letters of their eminent Painters; which contain much information on points relating to their art. The letters of their Poets, if properly ſelected, might alſo form a few intereſting volumes: as a proof of this, I ſhall inſert a ſhort letter of the younger Taſſo, becauſe it ſeems to have eſcaped the notice of his Biographers, and relates the remarkable circumſtance of his having deliberated on five different ſubjects before he decided in favour of Goffredo;
Al M. Illuſtre Sig. Conte Ferrante Eſtenſe Taſſone.
Io ho ſcritto queſta mattina a V. S. che io deſidero di far due Poemi a mio guſto; e ſebben per elezione non cambierei il ſoggetto che una volta preſi; nondimeno per ſoddisfar il ſignor principe [Page 70] gli do l' elezione di tutti queſti ſoggetti, i quali mi paijono ſovra gli altri atti a ricever la forma eroica.
This letter is the more worthy of notice, as the ſubject on which Taſſo fixed has been called by Voltaire, and perhaps very juſtly, ‘Le plus grand qu'on ait jamais choiſi.’ ‘Le Taſſe l'a traité dignement,’ adds the lively Critic, with unuſual candour; [Page 71] yet in his ſubſequent remarks he is peculiarly ſevere on the magic of the Italian Poet. The merits of Taſſo are very ably defended againſt the injuſtice of French criticiſm, and particularly that of Boileau and Voltaire, in the well-known Letters on Chivalry and Romance. Indeed the genius of this injured Poet ſeems at length to triumph in the country where he was moſt inſulted, as the French have lately attempted a poetical verſion of his Jeruſalem.
I enter not into the hiſtory of Taſſo, or that of his rival Arioſto, becauſe the public has lately received from Mr. Hoole a judicious account of their lives, prefixed to his elegant verſions of their reſpective Poems.
Aleſſandro Taſſoni, the ſuppoſed inventor of the modern Heroi-comic Poetry, was born at Modena, 1565. His family was noble; but his parents dying during his infancy, left him expoſed to vexatious law-ſuits, which abſorbed a great part of his patrimony, and rendered him dependant. In 1599 he was engaged as Secretary to Cardinal Aſcanio [Page 72] Colonna, whom he attended on an embaſſy into Spain. He was occaſionally diſpatched into Italy on the ſervice of that Prelate, and in the courſe of one of theſe expeditions wrote his Obſervations on Petrarch. In 1605 he is ſuppoſed to have quitted the ſervice of the Cardinal, and to have lived in a ſtate of freedom at Rome, where, in 1607, he became the chief of a literary ſociety, intitled Academia degli Umoriſti. He was afterwards employed in the ſervice of Charles Emanuel, Duke of Savoy; which, after ſuffering many vexations in it, he quitted with a deſign of devoting himſelf to ſtudy and retirement. But this deſign he was induced to relinquiſh, and to ſerve the Cardinal Lodoviſio, nephew of Pope Gregory XV. from whom he received a conſiderable ſtipend. On the death of this patron, in 1632, he was recalled to his native city by Francis the Firſt, Duke of Modena, and obtained an honourable eſtabliſhment in the court of that Prince. Age had now rendered him unable to enjoy his good fortune: his health declined in the year of his return, and he expired in April 1635. His genius was particularly diſpoſed to lively ſatire; and the incidents of his life had a tendency to increaſe that diſpoſition. After having paſſed many vexatious and unprofitable years in [Page 73] the ſervice of the Great, he had his portrait painted, with a fig in his hand; and Muratori ſuppoſes him to have written theſe two lines on the occaſion:
Dextera cur ficum, quaeris, mea geſtet inanem:Longi operis merces haec fuit; aula dedit.
His celebrated Poem, La Secchia rapita, was written, as he has himſelf declared, in 1611; begun in April, and finiſhed in October. It was circulated in MS. received with the utmoſt avidity, and firſt printed at Paris 1622. In a catalogue of the numerous editions of the Secchia, which Muratori has prefixed to his Life of Taſſoni, he includes an Engliſh tranſlation of it, printed 1715.
The famous Lope de Vega, frequently called the Shakeſpear of Spain, is perhaps the moſt fertile Poet in the annals of Parnaſſus; and it would be difficult to name any author, ancient or modern, ſo univerſally idolized while living by all ranks of people, and ſo magnificently rewarded by the liberality of the Great. He was the ſon of Felix de Vega and Franciſca Fernandez, who were both deſcended from honourable [Page 74] families, and lived in the neighbourhood of Madrid. Our Poet was born in that city, on the 25th of November 1562. He was, according to his own expreſſion, a Poet from his cradle; and, beginning to make verſes before he had learned to write, he uſed to bribe his elder ſchool-fellows with a part of his breakfaſt, to commit to paper the lines he had compoſed. Having loſt his father while he was ſtill a child, he engaged in a frolic, very natural to a lively boy, and wandered with another lad to various parts of Spain, till, having ſpent their money, and being conducted before a magiſtrate at Segovia, for offering to ſell a few trinkets, they were ſent home again to Madrid. Soon after this adventure, our young Poet was taken under the protection of Geronimo Manrique, Biſhop of Avila, and began to diſtinguiſh himſelf by his dramatic compoſitions, which were received with great applauſe by the public, though their author had not yet completed his education; for, after this period, he became a member of the univerſity of Alcala, where he devoted himſelf for four years to the ſtudy of philoſophy. He was then engaged as Secretary to the Duke of Alva, and wrote his Arcadia in compliment to that patron; who is frequently mentioned in his Occaſional Poems. He quitted that employment on his marriage with Iſabel de [Page 75] Urbina, a lady (ſays his friend and biographer Perez de Montalvan) beautiful without artifice, and virtuous without affectation. His domeſtic happineſs was ſoon interrupted by a painful incident:—Having written ſome lively verſes in ridicule of a perſon who had taken ſome injurious freedom with his character, he received a challenge in conſequence of his wit; and happening, in the duel which enſued, to give his adverſary a dangerous wound, he was obliged to fly from his family, and ſhelter himſelf in Valencia. He reſided there a conſiderable time; but connubial affection recalled him to Madrid. His wife died in the year of his return. His affliction on this event led him to relinquiſh his favourite ſtudies, and embark on board the Armada which was then preparing for the invaſion of England. He had a brother who ſerved in that fleet as a lieutenant; and being ſhot in an engagement with ſome Dutch veſſels, his virtues were celebrated by our afflicted Poet, whoſe heart was peculiarly alive to every generous affection. After the ill ſucceſs of the Armada, the diſconſolate Lope de Vega returned to Madrid, and became Secretary to the Marquis of Malpica, to whom he has addreſſed a grateful Sonnet. From the ſervice of this Patron he paſſed into the houſehold of the Count of Lemos, whom he celebrates as an inimitable [Page 76] Poet. He was once more induced to quit his attendance on the Great, for the more inviting comforts of a married life. His ſecond choice was Juana de Guardio, of noble birth and ſingular beauty. By this lady he had two children; a ſon, who died in his infancy, and a daughter, named Feliciana, who ſurvived her father. The death of his little boy is ſaid to have haſtened that of his wife, whom he had the misfortune to loſe in about ſeven years after his marriage. Having now experienced the precariouſneſs of all human enjoyments, he devoted himſelf to a religious life, and fulfilled all the duties of it with the moſt exemplary piety; ſtill continuing to produce an aſtoniſhing variety of poetical compoſitions. His talents and his virtues procured him many unſolicited honours. Pope Urban the VIIIth ſent him the Croſs of Malta, with the title of Doctor in Divinity, and appointed him to a place of profit in the Apoſtolic Chamber; favours for which he expreſſed his gratitude by dedicating his Corona Tragica (a long poem on the fate of Mary Queen of Scots) to that liberal Pontiff. In his ſeventy-third year he felt the approaches of death, and prepared himſelf for it with the utmoſt compoſure and devotion. His laſt hours were attended by many of his intimate friends, and particularly his chief patron the Duke of Seſſa, whom [Page 77] he made his executor; leaving him the care of his daughter Feliciana, and of his various manuſcripts. The manner in which he took leave of thoſe he loved was moſt tender and affecting. He ſaid to his Diſciple and Biographer, Montalvan, That true fame conſiſted in being good; and that he would willingly exchange all the applauſes he had received, to add a ſingle deed of virtue to the actions of his life. Having given his dying benediction to his daughter, and performed the laſt ceremonies of his religion, he expired on the 25th of Auguſt 1635.
The ſplendor of his funeral was equal to the reſpect paid to him while living.—His magnificent patron, the Duke of Seſſa, invited the chief nobility of the kingdom to attend it. The ceremony was prolonged through the courſe of ſeveral days; and three ſermons in honour of the deceaſed were delivered by three of the moſt celebrated preachers. Theſe are printed with the works of the Poet, and may be conſidered as curious ſpecimens of the falſe eloquence which prevailed at that time. A volume of encomiaſtic verſes, chiefly Spaniſh, and written by more than a hundred and fifty of the moſt diſtinguiſhed characters in Spain, was publiſhed ſoon after the death of this lamented Bard. To this collection his friend and diſciple Perez de [Page 78] Montalvan prefixed a circumſtantial account of his life and death, which I have chiefly followed in the preceding narrative. An ingenious Traveller, who has lately publiſhed a pleaſing volume of Letters on the Poetry of Spain, has imputed the duel, in which Lope de Vega was engaged, to the gallantries of his firſt wife; but Montalvan's relation of that adventure clears the honor of the lady, whoſe innocence is ſtill farther ſupported by a poem written in her praiſe by Pedro de Medina Medinilla: it is printed in the works of our Poet, who is introduced in it, under the name of Belardo, celebrating the excellencies and lamenting the loſs of his departed Iſabel.
Of the perſon and manners of Lope de Vega, his friend Montalvan has only given this general account:—that his frame of body was particularly ſtrong, and preſerved by temperance in continued health;—that in converſation he was mild and unaſſuming; courteous to all, and to women peculiarly gallant;—very eager when engaged in the buſineſs of his friends, and ſomewhat careleſs in the management of his own. Of his wealth and charity I ſhall have occaſion to ſpeak in a ſubſequent note. The chief expences in which he indulged himſelf were books and pictures; of the latter, he diſtributed a few as legacies to his intimate friends: [Page 79] to the Duke of Seſſa, a fine portrait of himſelf; and to me, ſays Montalvan, another, painted when he was young, ſurrounded by dogs, monkies, and other monſters, and writing in the midſt of them, without attending to their noiſe.—Of the honours paid to this extraordinary Poet, his Biographer aſſerts that no perſon of eminence viſited Spain without ſeeking his perſonal acquaintance; that men yielded him precedence when they met him in the ſtreets, and women ſaluted him with benedictions when he paſſed under their windows. If ſuch homage can be deſerved by the moſt unwearied application to poetry, Lope de Vega was certainly entitled to it. He declared that he conſtantly wrote five ſheets a day; and his biographers, who have formed a calculation from this account, conclude the number of his verſes to be no leſs than 21,316,000. His country has very lately publiſhed an elegant edition of his poems in 19 quarto volumes; his dramatic works are to be added to this collection, and will probably be ſtill more voluminous. I ſhall ſpeak only of the former.—Among his poems there are ſeveral of the Epic kind; the three following appear to me the moſt remarkable. 1. La Dragontea. 2. La Hermoſura de Angelica. 3. La Jeruſalem Conquiſtada. The Dragontea conſiſts of ten cantos, on the laſt expedition [Page 80] and death of our great naval hero Sir Francis Drake, whom the Poet, from his exceſſive partiality to his country, conſiders as an avaricious pirate, or rather, as he chuſes to call him, a marine Dragon: and it may be ſufficient to obſerve that he has treated him accordingly. The poem on Angelica ſeems to have been written in emulation of Arioſto, and it is founded on a hint in that Poet: it was compoſed in the early part of our Author's life, and contains many compliments to his ſovereign Philip the IId: it conſiſts of 20 cantos, and cloſes with Angelica's being reſtored to her beloved Medoro. In his Jeruſalem Conquiſtada he enters the liſts with Taſſo, whom he mentions in his preface as having ſung the firſt part of the hiſtory which he had choſen for his ſubject. From the great name of Lope de Vega, I had ſome thoughts of preſenting to the reader a ſketch of this his moſt remarkable poem; but as an Epic Poet he appears to me ſo much inferior to Taſſo, and to his countryman and cotemporary Ercilla, that I am unwilling to ſwell theſe extenſive notes by an enlarged deſcription of ſo unſucceſsful a work: the Author has propheſied, in the cloſe of it, that, although neglected by his own age, it would be eſteemed by futurity:—a ſingular proof that even the moſt favoured writers are frequently diſpoſed to declaim againſt the period in which they [Page 81] live. If Lope de Vega could think himſelf neglected, what Poet may ever expect to be ſatisfied with popular applauſe?—But to return to his Jeruſalem Conquiſtada. Richard the Second of England, and Alphonſo the Eighth of Caſtile, are the chief heroes of the poem; which contains twenty cantos, and cloſes with the unfortunate return of theſe confederate Kings, and the death of Saladin. It was firſt printed 1609, more than twenty years after the firſt appearance of Taſſo's Jeruſalem.—One of the moſt amiable peculiarities in the character of Lope de Vega, is the extreme liberality with which he commends the merit of his rivals. In his Laurel de Apolo, he celebrates all the eminent Spaniſh and Portugueze Poets; he ſpeaks both of Camoens and Ercilla with the warmeſt applauſe. Among the moſt pleaſing paſſages in this poem, is a compliment which he pays to his father, who was, like the father of Taſſo, a Poet of conſiderable talents.
Among the ſmaller pieces of Lope de Vega, there are two particularly curious: a deſcriptive poem on the garden of his patron the Duke of Alva; and a ſonnet in honour of the Invincible Armada. The latter may be conſidered as a complete model of Spaniſh bombaſt: ‘"Go forth and burn the world,"’ ſays the Poet, addreſſing himſelf to that [Page 82] mighty fleet; ‘"my ſighs will furniſh your ſails with a never-failing wind; and my breaſt will ſupply your cannon with inexhauſtible fire."’—Perhaps this may be equalled by a Spaniſh character of our Poet, with which I ſhall cloſe my imperfect account of him. It is his friend and biographer Montalvan, who, in the opening of his life, beſtows on him the following titles: El Doctor Frey Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, Portento del Orbe, Gloria de la Nacion, Luſtre de la Patria, Oracula de la Lengua, Centro de la Fama, Aſſumpio de la Invidia, Cuydado de la Fortuna, Fenix de los Siglos, Principe de los Verſos, Orfeo de las Ciencias, Apolo de las Muſas, Horacio de los Poetas, Virgilio de los Epicos, Homero de los Heroycos, Pindaro de los Lyricos, Sofocles de los Tragicos, y Terencio de los Comicos, Unico entre los Mayores, Mayor entre los Grandes, y Grande a todas Luzes, y en todas Materias.
Don Alonzo de Ercilla y Zuniga was equally diſtinguiſhed as a Hero and a Poet; but this exalted character, notwithſtanding his double claim to our [Page 83] regard, is almoſt totally unknown in our country; and I ſhall therefore endeavour to give the Engliſh reader the beſt idea that I can, both of his gallant life, and of his ſingular poem.—He was born in Madrid, on the 7th of Auguſt 1533, the third ſon of Fortun Garcia de Ercilla, who, tho' deſcended from a noble family, purſued the profeſſion of the law, and was ſo remarkable for his talents, that he acquired the appellation of ‘"The ſubtle Spaniard."’ The mother of our Poet was alſo noble, and from her he inherited his ſecond title, Zuniga: Ercilla was the name of an ancient caſtle in Biſcay, which had been long in the poſſeſſion of his paternal anceſtors. He loſt his father while he was yet an infant; a circumſtance which had great influence on his future life: for his mother was received, after the deceaſe of her huſband, into the houſehold of the Empreſs Iſabella, the wife of Charles the Vth, and had thus an early opportunity of introducing our young Alonzo into the palace. He ſoon obtained an appointment there, in the character of page to the Infant Don Philip, to whoſe ſervice he devoted himſelf with the moſt heroic enthuſiaſm, though Philip was a maſter who little deſerved ſo generous an attachment. At the age of fourteen, he attended that Prince in the ſplendid progreſs which he made, at the deſire of his Imperial father, [Page 84] through the principal cities of the Netherlands, and through parts of Italy and Germany. This ſingular expedition is very circumſtantially recorded in a folio volume, by a Spaniſh hiſtorian named Juan Chriſtoval Calvete de Eſtrella, whoſe work affords a very curious and ſtriking picture of the manners and ceremonies of that martial and romantic age. All the cities which were viſited by the Prince contended with each other in magnificent feſtivity: the brilliant ſeries of literary and warlike pageants which they exhibited, though they anſwered not their deſign of conciliating the affection of the ſullen Philip, might probably awaken the genius of our youthful Poet, and excite his ambition to acquire both poetical and military fame. In 1551, he returned with the Prince into Spain, and continued there for three years; at the end of which he attended his royal maſter to England, on his marriage with Queen Mary, which was celebrated at Wincheſter in the ſummer of 1554. At this period Ercilla firſt aſſumed the military character; for his ſovereign received advice, during his reſidence at London, that the martial natives of Arauco, a diſtrict on the coaſt of Chile, had revolted from the Spaniſh government; and diſpatched an experienced officer, named Alderete, who attended him in England, to ſubdue [Page 85] the inſurrection, inveſting him with the command of the rebellious province. Ercilla embarked with Alderete; but that officer dying in his paſſage, our Poet proceeded to Lima. Don Hurtado de Mendoza, who commanded there as Viceroy of Peru, appointed his ſon Don Garcia to ſupply the place of Alderete, and ſent him with a conſiderable force to oppoſe the Araucanians. Ercilla was engaged in this enterprize, and greatly diſtinguiſhed himſelf in the obſtinate conteſt which enſued. The noble character of the Barbarians who maintained this unequal ſtruggle, and the many ſplendid feats of valour which this ſcene afforded, led our author to the ſingular deſign of making the war, in which he was himſelf engaged, the ſubject of an Heroic poem; which he intitled "La Araucana," from the name of the country. As many of his own particular adventures may be found in the following ſummary of his work, I ſhall not here enlarge on his military exploits; but proceed to one of the moſt mortifying events of his life, which he briefly mentions in the concluſion of his poem. After paſſing with great honour through many and various perils, he was on the point of ſuffering a diſgraceful death, from the raſh orders of his young and inconſiderate Commander. On his return, from an expedition of adventure and diſcovery, to [Page 86] the Spaniſh city of Imperial, he was preſent at a ſcene of public feſtivity diſplayed there, to celebrate the acceſſion of Philip the IId to the crown of Spain. At a kind of tournament, there aroſe an idle diſpute between Ercilla and Don Juan de Pineda, in the heat of which the two diſputants drew their ſwords; many of the ſpectators joined in the broil; and a report ariſing that the quarrel was a mere pretence, to conceal ſome mutinous deſign, the haſty Don Garcia, their General, committed the two antagoniſts to priſon, and ſentenced them both to be publicly beheaded. Ercilla himſelf declares, he was conducted to the ſcaffold before his precipitate judge diſcovered the iniquity of the ſentence; but his innocence appeared juſt time enough to ſave him; and he ſeems to have been fully reinſtated in the good opinion of Don Garcia, as, among the complimentary ſonnets addreſſed to Ercilla, there is one which bears the name of his General, in which he ſtyles him the Divine Alonzo, and celebrates both his military and poetical genius. But Ercilla ſeems to have been deeply wounded by this affront; for, quitting Chile, he went to Callao, the port of Lima, and there embarked on an expedition againſt a Spaniſh rebel, named Lope de Aguirre, who, having murdered his captain, and uſurped the chief power, was perpetrating the moſt [Page 87] cruel enormities in the ſettlement of Venezuela. But Ercilla learned, on his arrival at Panama, that this barbarous uſurper was deſtroyed; he therefore reſolved, as his health was much impaired by the hardſhips he had paſſed, to return to Spain. He arrived there in the twenty-ninth year of his age; but ſoon left it, and travelled, as he himſelf informs us, through France, Italy, Germany, Sileſia, Moravia, and Pannonia; but the particulars of this expedition are unknown. In the year 1570 he appeared again at Madrid, and was married to Maria Bazan, a lady whom he contrives to celebrate in the courſe of his military poem. He is ſaid to have been afterwards gentleman of the bed-chamber to the Emperor Rodolph the IId, a prince who had been educated at Madrid: but the connection of our Poet with this Monarch is very indiſtinctly recorded; and indeed all the latter part of his life is little known. In the year 1580 he reſided at Madrid, in a ſtate of retirement and poverty. The time and circumſtances of his death are uncertain: it is proved that he was living in the year 1596, by the evidence of a Spaniſh writer named Moſquera, who, in a treatiſe of military diſcipline, ſpeaks of Ercilla as engaged at that time in celebrating the victories of Don Alvaro Bazan, Marques de Santa Cruz, in a poem which has never appeared, and is [Page 88] ſuppoſed to have been left imperfect at his death. Some anecdotes related of our Poet afford us ground to hope that his various merits were not entirely unrewarded. It is ſaid, that in ſpeaking to his ſovereign Philip, he was ſo overwhelmed by diffidence that language failed him: ‘"Don Alonzo!"’ replied the King, ‘"ſpeak to me in writing."’ He did ſo, and obtained his requeſt.—The Spaniſh Hiſtorian Ovalle, who has written an account of Chile, in which he frequently ſupports his narration by the authority of Ercilla, affirms that our Poet preſented his work to Philip with his own hand, and received a recompence from the King. But in this circumſtance I fear the Hiſtorian was miſtaken, as he ſuppoſes it to have happened on the return of Ercilla from Chile; and our Poet, in a diſtinct portion of his work, which was not publiſhed till many years after that period, expreſsly declares, in addreſſing himſelf to Philip, that all his attempts to ſerve him had been utterly unrequited. Ercilla left no legitimate family; but had ſome natural children, the moſt eminent of which was a daughter, who was advantageouſly married to a nobleman of Portugal.
In that elegant collection of Spaniſh Poets, "Parnaſo Eſpanol," there is a pleaſing little amorous poem, written by Ercilla in his youth, [Page 89] which is peculiarly commended by Lope de Vega; who has beſtowed a very generous encomium on our Poet, in his "Laurel de Apolo." But the great and ſingular work which has juſtly rendered Ercilla immortal, is his Poem intitled Araucana, which was publiſhed in three ſeparate parts: the firſt appeared in 1577; he added the ſecond in the ſucceeding year; and in 1590 he printed a complete edition of the whole. It was applauded by the moſt eminent writers of Spain; and Cervantes, in ſpeaking of Don Quixote's Library, has ranked it among the choiceſt treaſures of the Caſtilian Muſe. Voltaire, who ſpeaks of Ercilla with his uſual ſpirit and inaccuracy, has the merit of having made our Poet more generally known, though his own acquaintance with him appears to have been extremely ſlight; for he affirms that Ercilla was in the battle of Saint Quintin: a miſtake into which he never could have fallen, had he read the Araucana. Indeed the undiſtinguiſhing cenſure which he paſſes on the poem in general, after commending one particular paſſage, ſufficiently proves him a perfect ſtranger to many ſubſequent parts of the work; yet his remark on the inequality of the Poet is juſt. Ercilla is certainly unequal; but, with all his defects, he appears to me one of the moſt extraordinary [Page 90] and engaging characters in the poetical world. Perhaps I am a little partial to him, from the accidental circumſtance of having firſt read his poem with a departed friend, whoſe opinions are very dear to me, and who was particularly fond of this military Bard. However this may be, my idea of Ercilla's merit has led me to hazard the following extenſive ſketch of his work:—it has ſwelled to a much larger ſize than I at firſt intended; for I was continually tempted to extend it, by the deſire of not injuring the peculiar excellencies of this wonderful Poet. If I have not utterly failed in that deſire, the Engliſh reader will be enabled to judge and to enjoy an author, who, conſidering his ſubject and its execution, may be ſaid to ſtand ſingle and unparalleled in the hoſt of Poets. His beauties and his defects are of ſo obvious a nature, that I ſhall not enlarge upon them; but let it be remembered, that his poem was compoſed amidſt the toils and perils of the moſt fatiguing and hazardous ſervice, and that his verſes were ſometimes written on ſcraps of leather, from the want of better materials. His ſtyle is remarkably pure and perſpicuous; and, notwithſtanding the reſtraint of rhyme, it has frequently all the eaſe, the ſpirit, and the volubility of Homer. I wiſh not, however, [Page 91] to conceal his defects; and I have therefore given a very fair account of the ſtrange epiſode he introduces concerning the hiſtory of Dido, which has juſtly fallen under the ridicule of Voltaire. I muſt however obſerve, as an apology for Ercilla, that many Bards of his country have conſidered it as a point of honour to defend the reputation of this injured lady, and to attack Virgil with a kind of poetical Quixotiſm for having ſlandered the chaſtity of ſo ſpotleſs a heroine. If my memory does not deceive me, both Lope de Vega and Quevedo have employed their pens as the champions of Dido. We may indeed very readily join the laugh of the lively Frenchman againſt our Poet on this occaſion; but let us recollect that Ercilla has infinitely more Homeric ſpirit, and that his poem contains more genuine Epic beauties, than can be found in Voltaire.
Ercilla has been honoured with many poetical encomiums by the writers of his own country; and, as I believe the moſt elegant compliment which has been paid to his genius is the production of a Spaniſh lady, I ſhall cloſe this account of him with a tranſlation of the Sonnet, in which ſhe celebrates both the Hero and the Poet.[Page 92]
The Epic powers of Camoens have received their due honour in our language, by the elegant and ſpirited [Page 185] tranſlation of Mr. Mickle; but our country is ſtill a ſtranger to the lighter graces and pathetic ſweetneſs of his ſhorter compoſitions. Theſe, as they are illuſtrated by the Spaniſh notes of his indefatigable Commentator, Manuel de Faria, amount to two volumes in folio. I ſhall preſent the reader with a ſpecimen of his Sonnets, for which he is celebrated as the rival of Petrarch. Of the three tranſlations which follow, I am indebted for the two firſt to an ingenious friend, from whom the public may wiſh me to have received more extenſive obligations of a ſimilar nature. It may be proper to add, that the firſt Sonnet of Camoens, like that of Petrarch, is a kind of preface to the amorous poetry of its author.[Page 184]
[Page 188] The Spaniſh Commentator of Camoens conſiders this viſion as the moſt exquiſite Sonnet of his author, and affirms that it is ſuperior to the much longer poem of Petrarch's, on a ſimilar idea. It may amuſe a curious reader to compare both Camoens and Petrarch, on this occaſion, with Milton, who has alſo written a Sonnet on the ſame ſubject. The Commentator Faria has a very [Page 189] pleaſant remark on this ſpecies of compoſition. He vindicates the dignity of the amorous Sonnet, by producing an alphabetical liſt of two hundred great Poets, who have thus complimented the object of their affection; and he very gravely introduces Achilles as the leader of this choir, for having celebrated Briſeis. If the Sonnets of the Portugueſe' Poet are worthy of attention, [Page 190] his Elegies are perhaps ſtill more ſo, as they illuſtrate many particulars of his intereſting life, which ended in 1579, under the moſt cruel circumſtances of neglect and poverty.
Portugal has produced no leſs than fourteen Epic poems; twelve in her own language, and two in that of Spain. At the head of theſe ſtands the Luſiad of Camoens. The Malaca Conquiſtada of Franciſco de Sa' de Meneſis—and the Ulyſſea, or Liſboa Edificada, of Gabriel Pereira de Caſtro, are two of the moſt eminent among its ſucceſſors.—For a liſt of the Portugueſe Epic Poets, and for an elegant copy of the Malaca Conquiſtada, I am indebted to the very liberal politeneſs of the Chevalier de Pinto, the Ambaſſador of Portugal.
Though a vain inſipidity may be conſidered as the general characteriſtic of the French Eloges, it is but juſt to remark, that ſeveral of theſe performances are an honour to the country which produced them; and particularly the little volume of Eloges lately publiſhed by Mr. D'Alembert. This agreeable Encomiaſt has varied and enlivened the tone [Page 191] of panegyric by the moſt happy mixture of amuſing anecdote, judicious criticiſm, and philoſophical precept: we may juſtly ſay of him, what he himſelf has ſaid of his predeceſſor Fontenelle: ‘Il a ſolidement aſſuré ſa gloire . . . . par ces Eloges ſi intereſſans, pleins d'une raifon ſi fine et ſi profonde, qui font aimer et reſpecter les lettres, qui inſpirent aux génies naiſſans la plus noble emulation, et qui feront paſſer le nom de l'auteur à la poſterité, avec celui de la compagnie célebre dont il a été le digne organe, et des grands hommes dont il s'eſt rendu l'egal en devenant leur panégyriſte.’ D'Alembert, Eloge de la Motte, p. 279.
Before the appearance of Boſſu's celebrated treatiſe on Epic poetry, the French had a ſimilar work written in Latin. The learned Jeſuit Mambrun publiſhed, in 1652, a quarto volume, entitled, Diſſertatic Peripatetica de Epico Carmine. His Diſſertation is founded on the principles of Ariſtotle, whom he conſiders as infallible authority; and he introduces the Greek Philoſopher to decide the following very curious queſtion, which he argues with becoming gravity, Whether [Page 192] the action of a woman can be ſufficiently ſplendid to prove a proper ſubject for an Epic poem.—Having reaſoned on this delicate point, with more learning than gallantry, he thus concludes the debate! ‘Congruenter magis finem huic quaeſtioni ponere non licet, quam verbis Ariſtotelis capite 15 Poeticae, ubi de moribus diſputat, [...]—id eſt, ſecunda proprietas morum eſt, ut ſint congruentes, ut eſſe fortem mos eſt aliquis; at non congruit mulieri fortem eſſe aut terribilem ut vertit Riccobonus, vel prudentem ut Pacius.’ The latter interpretation of the word [...] would render the deciſion of theſe Philoſophers very ſevere indeed on the Female character, by ſuppoſing it incapable of diſplaying both fortitude and prudence.—The Fair Sex have found an advocate, on this occaſion, in a French Epic Poet. The famous Chapelain, in the preface to his unfortunate Pucelle, has very warmly attacked theſe ungallant maxims of Mambrun and Ariſtotle. In ſpeaking of certain critics, who had cenſured the choice of his ſubject, before the publication of his poem, he ſays, ‘Ceux-cy, jurant ſur le texte d'Ariſtote, maintiennent que la femme eſt une erreur de la nature, qui ayant toujours intention de [Page 193] faire un homme, s'arreſte ſouvent en chemin, et ſe voit contrainte, par la reſiſtance de la matiere, de laiſſer ſon deſſein imparfait. Ils tiennent la force corporelle tellement neceſſaire, dans la compoſition d'un heros, que quand il n'y auroit autre defaut à reprocher à la femme, ils luy en refuſeroient le nom, pour cela ſeulement, qu'elle n'a pas la vigueur d'un Athlete, et que la molleſſe de ſa complexion l'empeſche de pouvoir durer au travail. Ils n'eſtiment ce Sexe capable d'aucune penſée heroique, dans la creance que l'eſprit ſuit le temperament du corps, et que, dans le corps de la femme, l'eſprit ne peut rien concevoir, qui ne ſe ſente de ſa foibleſſe.—Ces Meſſieurs me pardonneront, touteſois, ſi je leur dis qu'ils ne conſiderent pas trop bien quelle eſt la nature de la vertu heroique, qu'ils en definiſſent l'eſſence, par un de ſes moindres accidens, et qu'ils en font plutoſt une vertu brutale, qu'une vertu divine.—Ils ſe devroient ſouvenir que cette vertu n'a preſque rien à faire avec le corps, et qu'elle conſiſte, non dans les efforts d'un Milon de Crotone, où l'eſprit n'a aucune part, mais en ceux des ames nées pour les grandes choſes; quand par une ardeur pluſqu' humaine, elles s'elevent audeſſus d'elles-meſmes; qu'elles forment quelque deſſein, dont l'utilité eſt auſſi grande que la difficulté, et qu'elles choiſiſſent les moyens de l'executer avec [Page 194] conſtance et hauteur de courage. Pour prevenus qu'ils ſoient en faveurs des hommes, je ne penſe pas qu'ils vouluſſent attribuer à leur ame un ſeul avantage, auquel l'ame de la femme ne puſt aſpirer, ni faire deux eſpeces des deux ſexes, deſquels la raiſon de tous les ſages n'a fait qu'une juſqu'icy—je ne croy pas non plus qu'ils imaginent que les vertus morales ayent leur ſiege ailleurs, que dans la volonté, ou dans l'entendement. Mais ſi elles y ont leur ſiege, et ſi l'on ne peut dire que ces deux facultés ſoient autres, dans l'ame de la femme que dans l'ame de l'homme, ils ne peuvent, ſans abſurdité, accorder une de ces vertus à l'homme, et ne l'accorder pas à la femme. En effet, cette belle penſée d'Ariſtote qui a donné occaſion à leur erreur, eſt ſi peu phyſique, qu'elle fait plus de tort à la philoſophie du Lycée, qu'elle n'appuye l'opinion de ceux que nous combattons."’ Chapelain then enters into an hiſtorical defence of Female dignity, and oppoſes the authority of Plato to that of Ariſtotle, concerning the propriety of women's ever appearing on the great theatre of active life. Happy had he ſupported the Female cauſe as forcibly, in the execution of his poem, as in the arguments of his preface: but Chapelain was unfortunately one of the many examples, which every country affords, that the moſt perfect union of virtue and erudition is utterly inſufficient to [Page 195] form a Poet; and, as he had the ill fate to be perſecuted by the pitileſs rigour of Boileau, his inharmonious poem can never ſink into a deſirable oblivion. The treatiſe of Mambrun ſeems to have excited, among the French, an eagerneſs to diſtinguiſh themſelves in the field of Epic poetry; for ſeveral Epic poems were publiſhed in France in a few years after that work appeared; but moſt of them, and particularly thoſe on ſcriptural ſubjects, were hardly ever known to exiſt.
Le Jonas inconnu ſeche dans la pouſſiere,Le David imprimé n'a point vu la lumiere,Le Moïſe commence à moiſir par les bords.BOILEAU, Sat. ix.
The Alaric of Scudery, and the Clovis of Deſmareſts, can ſcarce be reckoned more fortunate; but in this band of unſucceſsful Epic writers, there was one Poet, of whom even the ſevere Boileau could not allow himſelf to ſpeak ill; this was Le Moine, the author of St. Louis. The Satiriſt being aſked, why he had never mentioned the poetry of Le Moine? replied with the two following verſes, parodied from Corneille,
[Page 196] The judicious and candid Heyne has beſtowed conſiderable applauſe on Le Moine, in one of his notes to the 6th book of Virgil, where he examines the different methods by which the Epic Poets have introduced their various pictures of futurity. From his account, Le Moine excels in this article. I can ſpeak only from the opinion of this learned Critic, for the neglected French Poet is become ſo rare, that I have ſought in vain for a copy of his work.—The number of obſcure Epic writers in France is very trifling, compared to thoſe which Italy has produced; the Italians have been indefatigable in this ſpecies of compoſition, and, as if they had reſolved to leave no Hero unſung, their celebrated Noveliſt, Giraldi Cinthio, has written an Epic poem, in twenty-ſix cantos, on the exploits of Hercules.Il s'eſt trop élevé pour en dire du mal,Il s'eſt trop égaré pour en dire du bien.
Nicolas Boileau Deſpreaux was born in or near Paris, for it is a conteſted point, on the firſt of November 1636, and died in March 1711 of a dropſy, the very diſeaſe which terminated the life of his Engliſh rival. The Lutrin of Boileau, ſtill conſidered by ſome French Critics of the preſent time as the beſt poem to which France has [Page 197] given birth, was firſt publiſhed in 1674. It is with great reaſon and juſtice that Voltaire confeſſes the Lutrin inferior to the Rape of the Lock. Few Poets can be ſo properly compared as Pope and Boileau; and, wherever their writings will admit of compariſon, we may, without any national partiality, adjudge the ſuperiority to the Engliſh Bard. Theſe two great authors reſembled each other as much in the integrity of their lives, as in the ſubjects and execution of their ſeveral compoſitions. There are two actions recorded of Boileau, which ſufficiently prove that the inexorable Satiriſt had a moſt generous and friendly heart; when Patru, the celebrated Advocate, who was ruined by his paſſion for literature, found himſelf under the painful neceſſity of ſelling his expenſive library, and had almoſt agreed to part with it for a moderate ſum, Boileau gave him a much ſuperior price; and, after paying the money, added this condition to the purchaſe, that Patru ſhould retain, during his life, the poſſeſſion of the books. The ſucceeding inſtance of the Poet's generoſity is yet nobler.—when it was rumoured at court that the King intended to retrench the penſion of Corneille, Boileau haſtened to Madame de Monteſpan, and ſaid, that his Sovereign, equitable as he was, could not, without injuſtice, grant a penſion to an author like himſelf, juſt aſcending Parnaſſus, [Page 198] and take it from Corneille, who had ſo long been ſeated on the ſummit; that he entreated her, for the honour of the King, to prevail on his Majeſty rather to ſtrike off his penſion, than to withdraw that reward from a man whoſe title to it was incomparably greater; and that he ſhould more eaſily conſole himſelf under the loſs of that diſtinction, than under the affliction of ſeeing it taken away from ſuch a Poet as Corneille. This magnanimous application had the ſucceſs which it deſerved, and it appears the more noble, when we recollect that the rival of Corneille was the intimate friend of Boileau.
The long and unreſerved intercourſe which ſubſiſted between our Poet and Racine was highly beneficial and honourable to both. The dying farewell of the latter is the moſt expreſſive eulogy on the private character of Boileau: Je regarde comme un bonheur pour moi de mourir avant vous, ſaid the tender Racine, in taking a final leave of his faithful and generous friend.
This elegant and amiable writer was born at Amiens, and educated in the ſociety of the Jeſuits, to whom he has paid a grateful compliment in bidding [Page 199] them adieu. At the age of twenty-ſix he publiſhed his Ver-vert, a poem in four cantos, which commemorates
La cauſe infortunéeD'un Perroquet non moins brillant qu' Enée:Non moins dévot, plus malheureux que lui.
Voltaire has ſpoken invidiouſly of this delightful performance; but a ſpirited French Critic has very juſtly vindicated the merits of Greſſet in the following remark:—‘Le Ver-vert ſera toujours un poeme charmant et inimitable, ſans ſouiller ſa plume par l'impiété et la licence qui deſhonorent celle de l'auteur de La Pucelle, le Poete a ſu y répandre un agrément, une fraîcheur et une vivacité de coloris, qui le rendent auſſi piquant dans les détails, qu'il eſt riche et ingénieux dans la fiction. On placera toujours cet agreable badinage parmi les productions originales, propres à faire aimer des etrangers la gaieté Françoiſe en écartant toute mauvaiſe idée de nos moeurs.’
Madame du Boccage is known to the Engliſh reader as the correſpondent of Lord Cheſterfield. This ingenious and ſpirited Lady has written three poems of [Page 200] the Epic kind—Le Paradis Terreſtre, in ſix cantos, from Milton; La Mort d'Abel, in five cantos, from Geſner; and a more original compoſition, in ten cantos, on the exploits of Columbus. I have alluded to a paſſage in the laſt poem, where Zama, the daughter of an Indian Chief, is thus deſcribed:
Comme Eve, elle etoit nue; une egale innocenceL'offre aux regards ſans honte, et voile ſes appas;Les Graces qu'elle ignore accompagnent ſes pas,Et pour tout vêtement, en formant ſa parure,D'un plumage azuré couvrirent ſa ceinture.
The works of this elegant female Poet contain an animated verſion of Pope's Temple of Fame. And ſhe has added to her poetry an account of her travels through England, Holland, and Italy, in a ſeries of entertaining letters, addreſſed to Madame du Perron, her ſiſter.
Though the Henriade has been frequently reprinted, and the partizans of Voltaire have endeavoured to make it a national point of honour to ſupport its reputation, it ſeems at length to be ſinking under that neglect and oblivion, which never fail to overtake every feeble offspring of the Epic Muſe. [Page 201] Several of our moſt eminent Critics have attacked this performance with peculiar ſeverity, and ſome have condemned it on the moſt oppoſite principles, merely becauſe it does not coincide with their reſpective ſyſtems. Their ſentence has been paſſed only in ſhort and incidental remarks; but a French writer, inflamed by perſonal animoſity againſt Voltaire, has raiſed three octavo volumes on the defects of this ſingle poem. Mr. Clement, in his "Entretiens ſur le Poeme Epique relativement à la Henriade," has endeavoured to prove it utterly deficient in all the eſſential points of Epic poetry;—in the ſtructure of its general plan, in the conduct of its various parts, in ſentiment, in character, in ſtyle. His work indeed diſplays an acrimonious deteſtation of the Poet whom he examines; and perhaps there is hardly any human compoſition which could ſupport the ſcrutiny of ſo rigid an inquiſitor: the Henriade is utterly unequal to it; for in many articles we are obliged to confeſs, that the juſtice of the Critic is not inferior to his ſeverity. He diſcovers, in his diſſection of the Poem, the ſkill of an anatomiſt, with the malignity of an aſſaſſin. If any thing can deſerve ſuch rigorous treatment, it is certainly the artifice of Voltaire, who, in his Eſſay on Epic Poetry, has attempted, with much ingenuity, to ſink the reputation of all the great Epic Writers, that he might raiſe himſelf [Page 202] to their level; an attempt in which no author can ultimately ſucceed; for, as D'Alembert has admirabiy remarked on a different occaſion, ‘Le public laiſſera l'amour propre de chaque ecrivain faire ſon plaidoyer, rira de leurs efforts, non de genie, mais de raiſonnement, pour hauſſer leur place, et finira par mettre chacun à la ſienne.’
It ſeems to be the peculiar infelicity of Pope, that his moral virtues have had a tendency to diminiſh his poetical reputation. Poſſeſſing a benevolent ſpirit, and wiſhing to make the art to which he devoted his life, as ſerviceable as he could to the great intereſts of mankind, he ſoon quitted the higher regions of poetry, for the more level, and more frequented field of Ethics and of Satire. He declares, with a noble pride ariſing from the probity of his intention,
The ſeverity of Criticiſm has from hence inferred, that his imagination was inferior to the other faculties of his mind, and that he poſſeſſed not that vigour of genius which might enable him to rank with our more ſublime and pathetic Bards. This [Page 203] inference appears to me extremely defective both in candour and in reaſon; it would ſurely be more generous, and I will venture to add, more juſt, to aſſign very different cauſes for his having latterly applied himſelf to moral and ſatyric compoſition. If his preceding poems diſplayed only a moderate portion of fancy and of tenderneſs, we might indeed very fairly conjecture, that he quitted the kind of poetry, where theſe qualities are particularly required, becauſe Nature directed him to ſhine only as the Poet of reaſon.—But his earlier productions will authorize an oppoſite concluſion. At an age when few authors have produced any capital work, Pope gave the world two poems, one the offspring of imagination, and the other of ſenſibility, which will ever ſtand at the head of the two poetical claſſes to which they belong: his Rape of the Lock, and his Eloiſe, have nothing to fear from any rivals, either of paſt or of future time. When a writer has diſplayed ſuch early proofs of exquiſite fancy, and of tender enthuſiaſm, thoſe great conſtituents of the real Poet, ought we not to regret that he did not give a greater ſcope and freer exerciſe to theſe qualities, rather than to aſſert that he did not poſſeſs them in a ſuperlative degree? Why then, it may be aſked, did he confine himſelf to compoſitions in which theſe have little ſhare? The life and character of Pope will perfectly explain [Page 204] the reaſons, why he did not always follow the higher ſuggeſtions of his own natural genius. He had entertained an opinion, that by ſtooping to truth, and employing his talents on the vices and follies of the paſſing time, he ſhould be moſt able to benefit mankind. The idea was perhaps ill-founded, but his conduct in conſequence of-it was certainly noble. Its effects however were moſt unhappy; for it took from him all his enjoyment of life, and may injure, in ſome degree, his immortal reputation: by ſuffering his thoughts to dwell too much on knaves and fools, he fell into the ſplenetic deluſion, that the world is nothing but a compound of vice and folly; and from hence he has been reproached for ſuppoſing that all human merit was confined to himſelf, and to a few of his moſt intimate correſpondents.That not in Fancy's maze he wander'd long,But ſtoop'd to truth, and moraliz'd his ſong.
There was an amiable peculiarity in the character of Pope, which had great influence both on his conduct and compoſition—he embraced the ſentiments of thoſe he loved with a kind of ſuperſtitious regard; his imagination and his judgment were perpetually the dupes of an affectionate heart: it was this which led him, at the requeſt of his idol Bolingbroke, to write a ſublime poem on metaphyſical ideas which he did not perfectly comprehend; it was this which urged him almoſt to quarrel with Mr. Allen, in compliance with the caprices of a [Page 205] female friend; it was this which induced him, in the warmth of gratitude, to follow the abſurd hints of Warburton with all the blindneſs of infatuated affection. Whoever examines the life and writings of Pope with a minute and unprejudiced attention, will find that his excellencies, both as a Poet and a Man, were peculiarly his own; and that his failings were chiefly owing to the ill judgment, or the artifice, of his real and pretended friends. The laviſh applauſe and the advice of his favourite Atterbury, were perhaps the cauſe of his preſerving the famous character of Addiſon, which, finely written as it is, all the lovers of Pope muſt wiſh him to have ſuppreſſed. Few of his friends had integrity or frankneſs ſufficient to perſuade him, that his ſatires would deſtroy the tranquillity of his life, and cloud the luſtre of his fame: yet, to the honour of Lyttelton, be it remembered, that he ſuggeſted ſuch ideas to the Poet, in the verſes which he wrote to him from Rome, with all the becoming zeal of enlightened friendſhip:
No more let meaner Satire dim the raysThat flow majeſtic from thy nobler bays!In all the flowery paths of Pindus ſtray,But ſhun that thorny, that unpleaſing way!Nor, when each ſoft, engaging Muſe is thine,Addreſs the leaſt attractive of the Nine!
[Page 206] This generous admonition did not indeed produce its intended effect, for other counſellors had given a different bias to the mind of the Poet, and the malignity of his enemies had exaſperated his temper; yet he afterwards turned his thoughts towards the compoſition of a national Epic poem, and poſſibly in conſequence of the hint which this Epiſtle of Lyttelton contains. The intention was formed too late, for it aroſe in his decline of life. Had he poſſeſſed health and leiſure to execute ſuch a work, I am perſuaded it would have proved a glorious acquiſition to the literature of our country: the ſubject indeed which he had choſen muſt be allowed to have an unpromiſing appearance; but the opinion of Addiſon concerning his Sylphs, which was ſurely honeſt, and not invidious, may teach us hardly ever to decide againſt the intended works of a ſuperior genius. Yet in all the Arts, we are perpetually tempted to pronounce ſuch deciſions. I have frequently condemned ſubjects which my friend Romney had ſelected for the pencil; but in the ſequel, my opinion only proved that I was near-ſighted in thoſe regions of imagination, where his keener eyes commanded all the proſpect.
For the advice which I have thus ventured to give ſuch of my fair readers as have a talent for poetry, I ſhall produce them a much higher poetical authority. In the age of Petrarch, an Italian Lady, named Giuſtina Perrot, was deſirous of diſtinguiſhing herſelf by this pleaſing accompliſhment; but the remarks of the world, which repreſented it [Page 208] as improper for her ſex, diſcouraged her ſo far, that ſhe was almoſt tempted to relinquiſh her favourite purſuit. In her doubts on this point, ſhe conſulted the celebrated Poet of her country in an [Page 209] elegant Sonnet; and received his anſwer on the intereſting ſubject in the ſame poetical form. I ſhall add the two Sonnets, with an imitation of each:[Page 208]
Milton ſold the copy of Paradiſe Loſt for the ſum of five pounds, on the condition of receiving fifteen [Page 211] pounds more at three ſubſequent periods, to be regulated by the ſale of the Poem.—For the ceiling at Whitehall, Rubens received three thouſand pounds.
Arioſto is ſaid to have been publicly crowned with laurel at Mantua, by the Emperor Charles the Vth, towards the end of the year 1532. This fact has been diſputed by various writers, but it ſeems to be ſufficiently eſtabliſhed by the reſearches of Mazzuchelli.
The cuſtom of crowning Poets with laurel is almoſt as ancient as poetry itſelf, ſays the Abbé du Reſnel, in his Recherches ſur les Poetes couronnez, a work which contains but ſcanty information on this curious topic. Petrarch is generally ſuppoſed to have revived this ancient ſolemnity, which had been aboliſhed as a pagan inſtitution in the reign of the Emperor Theodoſius. It appears however, from two paſſages in the writings of Boccacio, that Dante had entertained ſerious thoughts of this honourable diſtinction, which his exile precluded him from receiving, as he choſe, ſays his Biographer, to be crown'd only in his native city.
An amuſing volume might be written on the honours which have been paid to Poets in different ages, and in various parts of the world. It is remarkable, that the moſt unpoliſhed nations have been the moſt laviſh in rewarding their Bards. [Page 213] There are two inſtances on record, in which poetical talents have raiſed their poſſeſſors even to ſovereign dominion. The Scythians choſe the Poet Thamyris for their king, though he was not a native of their country, ‘ [...].’ Hiſt. Poet. Script. Edit. Gale, p. 250. Saxo Grammaticus begins the ſixth book of his Hiſtory by relating, that the Danes beſtowed their vacant diadem on the Poet Hiarnus, as a reward for his having compoſed the beſt epitaph on their deceaſed ſovereign Frotho. From the four Latin verſes which the Hiſtorian has given us, as a tranſlation of this extraordinary epitaph, we may venture to affirm, that the poetical monarch obtained his crown on very eaſy conditions.
Of the great wealth which flowed into the hands of this extraordinary Poet, his friend and biographer Montalvan has given a particular account. This author concludes that Lope de Vega gained by his dramatic works alone a ſum nearly equal to 20,000 pounds ſterling; the revenue ariſing from [Page 214] the poſts he held, and from his penſion, was very conſiderable. His opulence was much encreaſed by the moſt ſplendid inſtances of private liberality. He received many coſtly preſents from various characters to whom he was perſonally unknown; and he was himſelf heard to ſay, in ſpeaking of his generous patron, that the Duke of Seſſa alone had given him, at different periods of his life, ſums almoſt amounting to ſix thouſand pounds.
It muſt be confeſſed, that the noble patrons of Engliſh poetry have not equalled this example of Spaniſh munificence, even if we admit the truth of our traditionary anecdotes concerning the generoſity of Lord Southampton to Shakeſpeare, and of Sir Philip Sidney to Spenſer. Conſidering the liberality for which our nation is ſo juſtly celebrated, it is remarkable, that not a ſingle Engliſh Poet appears to have been enriched by our monarchs: yet Spenſer had every claim to the bounty of Elizabeth; he ſung her praiſes in a ſtrain which might gratify her pride; and of all who have flattered the great, he may juſtly be conſidered as the moſt worthy of reward. His ſong was the tribute of his heart as well as of his fancy, and the ſex of his idol may be ſaid to purify his incenſe from all the offenſive particles of ſervile adulation. The neglect which he experienced from the vain, imperious, [Page 215] and ungrateful Elizabeth, appears the more ſtriking, when we recollect, that her lovely rival, the beautiful and unfortunate Queen of Scots, ſignalized her ſuperior generoſity by a magnificent preſent of plate to the French Poet Ronſard. This neglected Bard was once the darling of France, and perhaps equalled Lope de Vega in the honours which he received: his ſovereign, Charles the Ninth, compoſed ſome elegant verſes in his praiſe, and the city of Toulouſe preſented him with a Minerva of maſſive ſilver.
If our princes and nobles have not equalled thoſe of other kingdoms in liberality to the great Poets of their country, England may yet boaſt the name of a private gentleman, who diſcovered in this reſpect a moſt princely ſpirit; no nation, either ancient or modern, can produce an example of munificence more truly noble then the annual gratuity which Akenſide received from Mr. Dyſon; a tribute of generous and affectionate admiration, endeared to its worthy poſſeſſor by every conſideration which could make it honourable both to himſelf and to his patron!
It has been lately lamented by an elegant and accompliſhed writer, who had too much reaſon for the complaint, that ‘"the profeſſion of Literature, by far the moſt laborious of any, leads to no [Page 216] real benefit."’ Experience undoubtedly proves that it has a general tendency to impoveriſh its votaries; and the legiſlators of every country would act perhaps a wiſe, at all events an honourable part, if they corrected this tendency, by eſtabliſhing public emoluments for ſuch as eminently diſtinguiſh themſelves in the various branches of ſcience. It is ſurely poſſible to form ſuch an eſtabliſhment, which, without proving a national burthen, might aggrandize the literary glory of the nation, by preſerving her men of letters from the evils ſo frequently connected with their purſuits, by ſecuring, to thoſe who deſerve it, the poſſeſſion of eaſe and honour, without damping their emulation, or deſtroying their independence.
Ariſtotle has ſaid but little, in his Poetics, concerning that weighty point, which has ſo much employed and embarraſſed the modern Critics—the machinery of the Epic poem; and the little which he has ſaid might rather furniſh an argument for its excluſion, than juſtify its uſe. But Rome, in her moſt degenerate days, produced a writer, to whoſe authority, contemptible as it is, moſt frequent appeals have been made in this curious literary [Page 218] queſtion. In almoſt every modern author who has touched, however ſlightly, on Epic poetry, we may find at leaſt ſome part of the following ſentence from Petronius Arbiter:—‘Ecce, belli civilis ingens opus quiſquis attigerit, niſi plenus litteris, ſub onere labetur. Non enim res geſtae verſibus comprehendendae ſunt, quod longe melius hiſtorici faciunt; ſed per ambages, deorumque miniſteria, & fabuloſum ſententiarum tormentum praecipitandus eſt liber ſpiritus; ut potius furentis animi vaticinatio appareat, quam religioſae orationis ſub teſtibus fides.’
Theſe remarks on the neceſſity of celeſtial agents, were evidently made to depreciate the Pharſalia of Lucan; and Petronius may be called a fair Critic, as Pope ſaid of Milbourne, on his oppoſition to Dryden, becauſe he produces his own poetry in contraſt to that which he condemns. His ſpecimen of the manner in which he thought an Epic poem ſhould be conducted, ſufficiently proves the abſurdity of his criticiſm; for how inſipid is the fable in thoſe verſes which he has oppoſed to the Pharſalia, when compared to the firſt book of Lucan! Yet the Epic compoſition of Petronius has not wanted admirers: a Dutch Commentator is bold enough to ſay, that he prefers this ſingle rhapſody to three hundred volumes of ſuch poetry as [Page 219] Lucan's: an opinion which can only lead us to exclaim with Boileau,‘Un ſot trouve toujours un plus ſot qui l'admire.’
If men of letters, in the age of Lucan, differed in their ſentiments concerning machinery, the great changes that have ſince happened in the world, and the diſquiſitions which have appeared on the ſubject, are very far from having reconciled the judgment of modern writers on this important article. Two eminent Critics of the preſent time have delivered opinions on this topic ſo ſingularly oppoſite to each other, that I ſhall tranſcribe them both.
‘"In a theatrical entertainment, which employs both the eye and the ear, it would be a groſs abſurdity to introduce upon the ſtage ſuperior Beings in a viſible ſhape. There is not place for ſuch objection in an Epic poem; and Boileau, with many other Critics, declares ſtrongly for that ſort of machinery in an Epic poem. But waving authority, which is apt to impoſe upon the judgment, let us draw what light we can from reaſon. I begin with a preliminary remark, that this matter is but indiſtinctly handled [Page 220] by Critics. The poetical privilege of animating inſenſible objects for enlivening a deſcription, is very different from what is termed machinery, where deities, angels, devils, or other ſupernatural powers, are introduced as real perſonages, mixing in the action, and contributing to the cataſtrophe; and yet theſe two things are conſtantly jumbled together in the reaſoning. The former is founded on a natural principle; but can the latter claim the ſame authority? So far from it, that nothing is more unnatural. Its effects at the ſame time are deplorable. Firſt, it gives an air of fiction to the whole, and prevents that impreſſion of reality which is requiſite to intereſt our affections, and to move our paſſions; which of itſelf is ſufficient to explode machinery, whatever entertainment it may afford to readers of a fantaſtic taſte or irregular imagination. And next, were it poſſible, by diſguiſing the fiction, to delude us into a notion of reality, which I think can hardly be, an inſuperable objection would ſtill remain, which is, that the aim or end of an Epic poem can never be attained in any perfection where machinery is introduced; for an evident reaſon, that virtuous emotions cannot be raiſed ſucceſsfully, but by the actions of thoſe who are endued [Page 221] with paſſions and affections like our own, that is, by human actions: and as for moral inſtruction, it is clear that none can be drawn from Beings who act not upon the ſame principles with us. Homer, it is true, introduces the Gods into his fable; but the religion of his country authorized that liberty; it being an article in the Grecian creed, that the Gods often interpoſe viſibly and bodily in human affairs. I muſt, however, obſerve, that Homer's Deities do no honour to his poems. Fictions that tranſgreſs the bounds of nature ſeldom have a good effect; they may inflame the imagination for a moment, but will not be reliſhed by any perſon of a correct taſte. They may be of ſome uſe to the lower rank of writers; but an author of genius has much finer materials of nature's production for elevating his ſubject, and making it intereſting.—Voltaire, in his Eſſay upon Epic Poetry, talking of the Pharſalia, obſerves judiciouſly, that the proximity of time, the notoriety of events, the character of the age, enlightened and political, joined with the ſolidity of Lucan's ſubject, deprived him of all liberty of poetical fiction. Is it not amazing, that a Critic who reaſons ſo juſtly with reſpect to others, can be ſo [Page 222] blind with reſpect to himſelf? Voltaire, not ſatisfied to enrich his language with images drawn from inviſible and ſuperior Beings, introduces them into the action. In the ſixth canto of the Henriade, St. Louis appears in perſon, and terrifies the ſoldiers; in the ſeventh canto, St. Louis ſends the God of Sleep to Henry; and in the tenth, the demons of Diſcord, Fanaticiſm, War, &c. aſſiſt Aumale in a ſingle combat with Turenne, and are driven away by a good angel brandiſhing the ſword of God. To blend ſuch fictitious perſonages in the ſame action with mortals, makes a bad figure at any rate, and is intolerable in a hiſtory ſo recent as that of Henry IV. This ſingly is ſufficient to make the Henriade a ſhort-lived poem, were it otherwiſe poſſeſſed of every beauty."’ —Elements of Criticiſm, vol. ii. p. 389, 4th edition.
‘"The Pagan Gods and Gothic Fairies were equally out of credit when Milton wrote. He did well therefore to ſupply their room with Angels and Devils. If theſe too ſhould wear out of the popular creed (and they ſeem in a hopeful way, from the liberty ſome late Critics have taken with them) I know not what other expedients [Page 223] the Epic Poet might have recourſe to; but this I know—the Pomp of verſe, the energy of deſcription, and even the fineſt moral paintings, would ſtand him in no ſtead. Without admiration (which cannot be effected but by the marvellous of celeſtial intervention, I mean the agency of ſuperior natures really exiſting, or by the illuſion of the fancy taken to be ſo) no Epic poem can be long-lived. I am not afraid to inſtance in the Henriade itſelf, which, notwithſtanding the elegance of the compoſition, will in a ſhort time be no more read than the Gondibert of Sir W. Davenant, and for the ſame reaſon."’ —Letters on Chivalry and Romance, Letter X.
I have thus ventured to confront theſe eminent critical antagoniſts, that, while they engage and overthrow each other, we may obſerve the injuſtice produced by the ſpirit of ſyſtematical criticiſm, even in authors moſt reſpectable for their talents and erudition.—Here is the unfortunate Voltaire placed between two critical fires, which equally deſtory him. The firſt Critic aſſerts that the Henriade muſt be ſhort-lived, becauſe the Poet has introduced inviſible and ſuperior agents;—the ſecond denounces the ſame fate againſt it, becauſe it wants [Page 224] the agency of ſuperior natures: yet ſurely every reader of Poetry, who is not influenced by any particular ſyſtem, will readily allow, that if Voltaire had treated his ſubject with true Epic ſpirit in all other points, neither the introduction nor the abſence of St. Louis could be ſingly ſufficient to plunge the Henriade in oblivion. Indeed the learned author, who has ſpoken in ſo peremptory a manner concerning the neceſſity of ſupernatural agents to preſerve the exiſtence of an Epic poem, appears rather unfortunate in the two examples by which he endeavours to ſupport his doctrine; for the Epic poems both of Davenant and Voltaire have ſufficient defects to account for any neglect which may be their lot, without conſidering the article of Machinery.
If I have warmly oppoſed any deciſions of this exalted Critic, it is from a perſuaſion (in which I may perhaps be miſtaken) that ſome of his maxims have a ſtrong tendency to injure an art highly dear to us both; an art on which his genius and learning have caſt many rays of pleaſing and of uſeful light.
This anecdote of Neanthus, the ſon of King Pittacus, is related by Lucian. The curious reader may find it in the ſecond volume of Dr. Francklin's ſpirited tranſlation of that lively author, page 355 of the quarto edition.
The Indian mythology, as it has lately been illuſtrated in the writings of Mr. Holwell, is finely calculated to anſwer the purpoſe of any poetical genius who may wiſh to introduce new machinery into the ſerious Epic Poem. Beſides the powerful charm of novelty, it would have the advantage of not claſhing with our national religion; for the endeavours of Mr. Holwell to reconcile the ancient and pure doctrine of Bramah with the diſpenſation of Chriſt, have ſo far ſucceeded, that if his ſyſtem does not ſatisfy a theologiſt, it certainly affords a ſufficient baſis for the ſtructure of a Poem. In peruſing his account of the Indian ſcripture, every reader of [Page 226] imagination may, I think, perceive, that the Shaſtah might ſupply a poetical ſpirit with as rich a maſs of ideal treaſure as fancy could wiſh to work upon.—An Epic Poet, deſirous of laying the ſcene of his action in India, would be more embarraſſed to find intereſting Heroes than proper Divinities.—Had juſtice and generoſity inſpired and guided that Engliſh valour, which has ſignalized itſelf on the plains of Indoſtan; had the arms of our country been employed to deliver the native Indians from the oppreſſive uſurpation of the Mahometan powers; ſuch exploits would preſent to the Epic Muſe a ſubject truly noble, and the mythology of the Eaſt might enrich it with the moſt ſplendid decorations. Whether it be poſſible or not to find ſuch a ſubject in the records of our Indian hiſtory, I leave the reader to determine.—Our great Hiſtorian of the Roman empire has intimated, in a note to the firſt volume of his immortal work, that ‘"the wonderful expedition of Odin, which deduces the enmity of the Goths and Romans from ſo memorable a cauſe, might ſupply the noble ground-work of an Epic poem."’ The idea is certainly both juſt and ſplendid. Had Gray been ever tempted to engage in ſuch a work, he would probably have convinced us, that the Northern mythology has ſtill ſufficient power to ſeize and enchant [Page 227] the imagination, as much in Epic as in Lyric compoſition.
It may amuſe our ſpeculative Critics, to conſider how far the religious Gothic fables ſhould be introduced or rejected, to render ſuch a performance moſt intereſting to a modern reader. Few judges would agree in their ſentiments on the queſtion; and perhaps the great diſpute concerning Machinery cannot be fairly adjuſted, till ſome happy genius ſhall poſſeſs ambition and perſeverance enough to execute two Epic poems, in the one adopting and in the other rejecting, ſupernatural agents; for Reaſon alone is by no means an infallible conductor in the province of Fancy; and in the poetical as well as the philoſophical world, experiment is the ſureſt guide to truth.