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Mean language, therefore, or ludicrous sentiments, are unnatural in an epick poem, for this l'eason, among others, that they do not naturally occur while one is composing it. And hence Milton's humorous description of the limbo of vanity,* however just as an allegory, however poignant as a satire, ought not to have obtained a place in Paradise Lost. Such a thing might suit the volatile genius of Ariosto and his followers: but is quite unworthy of the sober and well principled disciple of Homer and Virgil.
In dramatick poetry, the persons act and speak in their own character, and the author never appears at all. An elevated style, may, however, be natural in tragedy, on account of the high rank of the persons, and of the important affairs in which they are engaged. Even comedy, who takes her characters from the middle and lower ranks of mankind, may occasionally lift up her voice, as Horace says,t when she means to give utterance to any important emotion, or happens to introduce a personage of more than ordinary dignity. But what if persons of low condition should make their appearance in tragedy? And as the great must have attendants, how can this be guarded against? And if such persons appear, will not their language be unnatural, if raised to a level with that of their superiours? Or, would it not give a motley cast to the poem, if it were to fall below that level? No doubt, an uniform colour of language, though not essential to tragi-comedy, or to the historick drama, is indispensable in a regular tragedy. But persons of mean rank, if the tragick poet find it necessary to bring them in, may easily be supposed to have had advantages of education to qualify them for bearing a part in the dialogue, or for any other office in which he may think proper to employ them. Besides, language admits of many degrees of elevation; and a particular turn of fancy, or temperature of the passions, will sometimes give wonderful sublimity to the style even of a peasant or of a savage. So that the style of tragedy, notwithstanding its elevation, may be as various as the characters and passions of men,
* Paradise Lost, book 3. vers. 444.
Hor. Ar. Poet. vers. 92.
may yet in each variety be natural. Moreover, the subject, and consequently the emotions, of tragedy, are always important; and important emotions prevailing in the mind of a peasant will exalt and invigorate his language. When the old shepherd in Douglas exclaims, « Blest be the day that made me a poor man;
my poverty has saved my master's house;" the thought and the words, though sufficiently tra
gical, have no greater elevation, than we should expect from any person of his character and cir. cumstances. Simplicity of style, for which none are disqualified by the meanness of their condition, often enforces a sublime or pathetick sentir ment with the happiest effect. Let it be observed further, that poetical language is an imitation of real language improved to a state of perfection; and therefore, that the style of tragedy, though raised above that of common life, will never offend, so long as its elevations are at all consistent with probability. In fact, when the passions are well expressed, and the characters well drawn, a tragick poet needs not fear, that he shall be found fault with for the elegance of his language: though no doubt a great master will always know how to proportion the degree of elegance to the character of the speaker.
The dignity of a tragick hero may be so great as to require an elevation of language equal to the pitch of epick poetry itself. This might be exemplified from many of the speeches of Lear, Othello, Hamlet, and Cato, and of Samson in the Agonistes. But, in general, the epick style is to be distinguished from the tragick, by a more uniform elevation, and more elaborate harmony: because a poet, assuming the character of calm inspiration, and rather relating the feelings of
others, than expressing his own, would speak with more composure, steadiness, and art, than could reasonably be expected from those who deliver their thoughts according to the immediate impulse of passion.
The language of comedy is that of common life improved in point of correctness, but not much elevated; both because the speakers are of the middle and lower ranks of mankind, and also because the affairs they are engaged in give little scope to those emotions that exalt the mind, and rouse the imagination. As to the style of farce, which is frequently blended with comedy; it is purposely degraded below that of common life; or rather, it is the ridiculous language of common life made more ridiculous. I have already remarked, that farce is to poetry what caricatura is to painting; as in the last we look for no beauty of attitude or feature, so neither in the first do we expect elegance of diction. Absurdity of thought produces absurdity of words and behaviour: the true farcical character is more extravagantly and more uniformly absurd, than the droll of real life; and his language, in order to be natural, must be exaggerated accordingly. Yet as nothing is esteemed in the fine arts, but what displays the ingenuity of the artist, I should imagine, that, even in a farce, one would not receive much pleasur mere incongruity of words or actions; because that may be so easily invented. Studied absurdity cannot be entertaining, unless it be in some degree uncommon.
1.* We may therefore repeat, and lay it down as a maxim, " That language is natural, when it is “ suited to the speaker's condition, character, “ and circumstances.” And as, for the most part, the images and sentiments of serious poetry are copied from the images and sentiments, not of real, but of improved, nature;t so the language of serious poetry must (as hinted already) be a transcript, not of the real language of nature, which is often dissonant and rude, but of natural language improved as far as may be consistent with probability, and with the supposed character of the speaker. If this be not the case, if the language of poetry be such only as we hear in conversation, or read in history, it will, insteadof delight, bring disappointment: because it will fall short of what we expect from an art which is recommended rather by its pleasurable qualities, than by its intrinsick utility; and to which, in order to render it pleasing, we grant
* Essay on Laughter, chap. 3.
+ See above, part 1. chap. 3, 4, 5. VOL. VI.