Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB

Of creatures rational, though under hope
Of heav'nly grace; and, God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes enow besides,
Which, day and night, for his destruction wait."

Paradise Lost, II. 496.

In Canto XV., Christ's ascension is described:

"In this array the triumph marched on,
Abashing day, and dazzling the sun.'

"2

"So saying, on he led his radiant files,
Dazzling the moon."

Paradise Lost, IV. 797.

Of these resemblances, the first is by far the most remarkable, and the passage which contains it is the only one which is not to be found in the first edition of Psyche. In this instance, therefore, it is evident that if the coincidence were not the result of accident, Dr. Beaumont must have been the copier. We think, however, that the similarity, though remarkable, is not too great to be accounted for by chance; and we verily believe, strange as the supposition may appear to those who have not read Psyche, that our zealous high-churchmanwould have regarded the adopting an idea of Milton's, however valuable for the illustration of a religious subject, as little less criminal than bringing the accursed gold of Canaan into the camp of the Israelites. The other instances are less striking; and though Milton's reading was extensive, and it was his common practice to borrow the mere skeleton of his ideas from other writers, giving them a life and character of his own, we are disposed to think that in the present case there was no borrowing whatever.

ART. IV.-Roman Comique de Scarron, 3 vols. Londres, 1785. Edit. Cazin.

"The last new Novel" we cannot discuss; and heaven forfend that we should ever lose our prudence, and our regard for our editorial tranquillity, so far as to criticise the last new

French novel. Leadenhall has boasted, still boasts, but in these days of refinement ought not to boast of the fecundity of her Pallas; with her no proper blue-eyed maid, but a naughty wench, teeming with a never ending progeny of bad print and worse paper. The Minerva press, however, is modest and barren, if put by the side of the sister machine at Paris; which beginning with M. Barba,* and the countless copies of the countless tales of Pigault le Brun, and ending with the dispensers of the fine writing of D'Arlincourt, pours forth from heads of writers, translators, and adapters, a deluge of ingenious lying, such as the world never saw before. It is physically impossible, we speak seriously, it is physically impossible to say which is the last new Novel" at Paris.Ipsiboé; be sure, before you decide, that Madame de Montmorin has not flown again in the face of the public on the wings of a score tales of Auguste Lafontaine, from Leipsic. Be sure that Madame de Souza, or M. Picard, does not threaten to stifle you with a Roman de longue haleine, a serious one too, to teach you the virtue of weariness. Be sure that some ingenious gentleman of the Chateau has not just lauded the Bourbons, by turning a little tale of 12 vols. upon the vices of Napoleon, in which that homme borné, as he is pleasantly called, is made to play a sadly imbecile part, to the infinite amusement of all the Marquis de Carabas of the court and chambers: Madame de Staël is no more; M. de Chateaubriand has forgotten his fantastic fables of savage life in writing political pamphlets; and Benjamin Constant has forgotten not only his novels, but even his politics, in whining, in a bastard tone, some of the accents of Lepaux. Still neither death, nor desertion, thins the writing phalanx. Are the books of these innumerous writers read, and how? Behold a question which we would not venture to solve. The geometrical friend of the Homme aux quarante écus could alone assist with effect at such a discussion.

This excessive fecundity in letter-press might be supposed to indicate a proportional barrenness of idea. The French novels, however, seldom, like ours, sink below a certain level of respectable mediocrity, and, in many instances, rise to a pitch of excellence rarely reached in this country. For many reasons they are not much read on this side of the Channel, and it would be no difficult task to point out writers of the greatest celebrity in France, whose names have never been heard in this country. And of those with whom English

We have just learned that the French government has deprived this gentleman of his brevet; so that he is no longer a bibliopole.

[ocr errors]

of

readers are acquainted, few are here properly appreciated. We will mention the name of one in particular. Though many his works are translated, how few know any thing of the_real merits of Pigault le Brun. For ludicrous incident Pigault le Brun is perfectly unrivalled, we believe, in the whole round of novelists; whilst he frequently emits sparkles of wit that strongly remind us of the spirit of Candide. The naïveté and singleheartedness of Brandt, his perfect freedom from delicacy in deed, and, at the same time, his immoveable affections ; the stupid indifference of the Baron (somewhat of a copy of Commodore Trunnion) contrasted with the refinement of the Countess, and the feminine archness of Crettle, make the first volume of the Barons de Felsheim one of the most amusing books in the world. The latter part of this novel, as is the case with all the others by the same writer, except L'Homme à projets, is rather dull, though, strange to say, it has given birth to sundry mawkish operas and dramas. It is unfortunate that Pigault le Brun has given too loose a rein to his passion for promulging notions upon certain subjects, which are not in accordance with prevailing opinions. This unfortunate heterodoxy has sealed his infinite wit to many who will not seek it in a mixture of unseasonable levity, and M. Franchet has thought this distaste sufficiently prevalent. to back him in prohibiting the publication of too many of his works. Pigault le Brun, like too many others, has written himself out. Il compilait, compilait, compilait. Wit is not an article that can be dispended at will; it must be reserved for few and distant

occasions.

*

Take some historical facts, and put them together without regard to dates or probability; have an impertinent imbecile for a hero eo nomine; put in a savage knight, a high-flown woman, and an idiot, a beggar, or a madman, to make the duller parts more piquant by the contrast of a good bore; make your characters all speak in a forced style, a kind of slang; paint a mountain, a cataract, or a sky; do all with a show of learning, but without wit or humour; and you may chance have your book mistaken for a production from the north of the Tweed. Take a common sort of personage; fill him entirely with one passion, such as hate or curiosity; or expose him to be acted upon by a series of events so arranged as to appear unnatural, or make use of an unnatural power like ventriloquism or self-combustion, or of a loathly and horrible superstition; write earnestly, but in a tone of exaggeration, with no regard to verisimilitude, and you may be mistaken for the author of Mandeville, Edgar Huntly, or Melmoth. These are the recipes by which the different classes of our contemporary novelists compound their books. There are some who make use of all the ingredients,

and, by that means, produce works of a mixed character; but the traits of this mulatto progeny may be distinctly traced up to the different parent stocks. They have all one distinctive mark; a total absence of wit and humour, either of character or incident. Quaintness of speech and extravagance in action supply their place. The ridicule of those false generalities, which pass so gravely and currently, like the subject of Candide, is but rarely to be met. Imitations of Voltaire there have been a few; but with doubtful success. Those that have most succeeded are Melincourt, and the other productions of the same author. We know not how to account for this universal dearth of wit in English Romance literature; for we discover nothing in the popular taste which should lead our writers to eschew it. We speak of it as one of those moral phenomena which, like the total want of poetical genius from the time of Grey down to Cowper, have causes too mysteriously concealed for the acuteness of a Retrospective Reviewer. We need not confine this assertion to romances. Plays, poetry, oratory, have all the same "flat, stale cast." Smartness, imagination, and judgment are plenty. The last embers of English wit, and they but faintly burning, were extinguished with Sheridan.

The literature of French fiction has, with the exception of its character of wit, become very assimilated to our own in all its features. The same scenes, the same passions, the same interests, the same, or nearly the same, morality are to be found in both; but, we think, of a better kind on the side of our neighbours. There is a strong tone of vulgar pretension, vulgar sentiment, vulgar philosophy, and vulgar piety pervading many of our leading novels. Those of Miss Porter, Miss Edgeworth, and Mr. Godwin, are, perhaps, the most strongly marked with various of these qualities. With them the French cannot be justly charged.

There was, however, an æra when the romantic literatures of the countries were as strongly distinguished from each other as they are now closely assimilated. Why they are become alike, it is not our present business to inquire. We only propose to speak of their condition at the time to which we refer. It has been supposed that each people has a mode and taste of its own; a species of literary idiosyncracy. Thus the lighter observers refer us to German literature, or Spanish literature, as systems belonging solely to those particular countries, originated by those countries, and having, in fact, their

+

being, end, and aim" exclusively within them. It has always appeared to us that the taste of each country may be traced, without difficulty to some foreign source; from which it has, been derived by means of superior ascendancy in politics.

66

Political power not only claims the obedience of the citizen, or of the inferior state in the ordinary political services, but it also vindicates the submission of taste and opinion. Who are the creators of tastes, feelings, and habits of the mass of the people? The governing aristocracy. Who dictate the poetry, the music, and the painting, but they who pension the workmen? Who create the religious feeling, but they who ordain and sustain the ministers? Who prescribe the rules of common, current morality, but they who are regarded as the head and front of society? If these creators and dispensers of taste and sentiment be themselves under authority, we have only to use the same reasoning to shew that the power they exercised, when uninfluenced, will be exercised in obedience to the will of the influencing authority. Have the aristocracy a foreign fashion to follow? It is most probable they have. Would you search the reason? See whether the foreign country inflicting the fashion has not some political ascendancy. Let us see how this reasoning applies towards accounting for the state of the literature of English and French fiction at the æra we have referred to.

The source which supplied Europe with romantic literature was Italy; which poured the works of her tale-writers and poets into England, France, and all the rest of Europe, with the exception of Spain. Chaucer appears to have been familiarly acquainted with Petrarch and Boccacio. Italy, in other words Rome, was the mistress of those countries. She influenced their politics and their creed, formed their morals and their habits, and created their tastes. From Chaucer's æra, down to the Restoration, we have, with a few exceptions in a different style, romances either borrowed or imitated from the Italian; whilst our plays consisted of dramatic adaptations of the tales of Boccacio, in some cases so faithfully rendered, as to be little more than versifications of the original text. Sir Philip Sydney wrote the Arcadia after the model of Sannazaro; and the whole list of poets, Milton inclusive, were close imitators from the same school down to the same period. Romance literature had assumed very different features in Spain, which, however, up to the time of the prodigious ascendancy which that country reached under Ferdinand and Charles the Vth., had followed nearly the same courses. But during the continuation of that ascendancy, Spain, following the example of all ascendant countries, inflicted her own tastes and feelings upon all those countries which were submitted in any degree to her. The romantic literature, which she had not received from Italy, and which, owing to the stirring Spanish spirit of the time that scorned every thing which had not its ostensible origin within the

« AnteriorContinua »