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EP. ART. II. 1. Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who
lived about the Time of Shakspeare. With Notes. By CHARLES LAMB. New York: Wiley & Putnam. 1845.
16mo. pp. 448. 2. Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. By William Hazlitt. New York: Wiley & Putnam.
16mo. pp. 216. Among the English critics of the present century, none was entitled to speak with more authority of the Old English Dramatists 'than Charles Lamb. His letters and essays show that his choicest hours were spent in their company. Their scenes and characters did not merely pass before his mind for review, but seemed to run into his blood and imagination, and blend with his life. He was the representative of the Elizabethan age to the nineteenth century, and enforced the claims of his stalwart veterans to attention with a nicety of criticism which had the sureness of a fine instinct. The notes to his Specimens, quaint, keen, and short, are good examples of penetrating and interpretative criticism. The fine fusion in Lamb's mind of humor and imagination gives to these meagre notices a peculiar raciness and sweetness, unlike most retrospective criticism. Marlowe, Decker, Webster, Massinger, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, were not to him mere names of persons who once existed, but he had a genial sense of their presence, as he bent lovingly over their time-stained pages. Their hearts and imaginations spoke directly to his own ; theirs were the old, familiar faces, known from his youth upwards. We conceive of him, at times, as being present at the wit contests at the Mermaid, and as feeling the words of subtile flame” which flashed from the lips of Shakspeare, Jonson, and Fletcher. From his realization of them as persons, he was less likely to exaggerate their merits as authors. He saw them as they were in their lives, and judged them as a kindly contemporary spirit. Consequently, his volume of Specimens is infused with the very soul of the time ; and it may
be set down as one of the most fascinating of compilations.
The Lectures of Hazlitt on the same period are a good counterpart to Lamb's book. They display more than his usual strength, acuteness, and eloquence, with less than the usual acerbities of his temper. His stern, sharp analysis pierces and probes the subject down through the surface to the centre ; and it is exercised in a more kindly spirit than is common with him. His volume is enriched with delicious quotations. Hazlitt had a profound appreciation of the elder dramatists, though a less social feeling for them than Lamb ; and their characteristic excellences drew from him some of his heartiest bursts of eloquent panegyric. From his Lectures and Lamb's Specimens the general reader would be likely to gain a more vivid notion of the intellectual era they commemorate, than from any other sources, except the originals themselves.
The period of time in which those whom we call the Old English Dramatists flourished runs from the middle of the reign of Elizabeth to the Great Rebellion, - about sixty years. The most brilliant portion of this period was the reign of James the First. The drama commenced with Buckhurst, and died out in Shirley. In the intervening time, we have the names of Marlowe, Shakspeare, Webster, Decker, Tourneur, Heywood, Middleton, Chapman, Ben Jonson, Marston, Massinger, Ford, and Beaumont and Fletcher, - a constellation of genius, which, in power and variety, in imagination, passion, fancy, wit, sense, philosophy, character, nature, is unexampled in the intellectual annals of the world. Bacon, Hooker, Hobbes, Browne, Cudworth, Barrow, Taylor, Napier, Spenser, Sidney, Raleigh, and, we may add, Milton, may be classed in the same generation. These sixty years were most emphatically “rammed” with intellectual life. Great men, men of originating minds in different departments of literature and science, men eminent in action and speculation, men whose names ring now as sweet music in the ears of all who speak the English tongue, seemed to have been crowded and crammed into this era, “ infinite riches in a little room." Yet the age was what we would call rude and coarse in its manners, the language had not been trained into a facile instrument of thought, few people were “educated," in our sense of the term, and civilization had but imperfectly done its work on the old barbarism ; and yet we doubt if external circumstances were ever more propitious to the development in a people of the greatest energies of intellect and passion.
The age to which we refer was one of vast intellectual
and moral activity. That great movement of the European mind at the revival of letters, whose splendid results were seen in the invention of gunpowder and printing, in the Reformation, the discovery of the American continent, the overthrow of feudalism, the new importance given to the middle class, the spread of the classics, the creation of national literatures, the assertion of individual rights, and the general tendency to transfer the sceptre of influence from the soldier to the thinker, was most deeply felt in England during this period, and, as regards literature, it achieved there its mightiest triumphs. When we contrast the age with that which immediately preceded it, we seem almost to realize the vision of Milton, of a “mighty and puissant nation, rousing itself, like a strong man after sleep, and shaking his invincible locks." Every thing was in motion. Great events stimulated great passions. An old order of life, with its institutions, its manners, its superstitions, was shaken to its foundations. New ideas and images were rushing into the national life from a thousand sources. Greece, Rome, Italy, Spain, poured into the one great channel their blended streams. In the vast background of the national history, in the manners and passions of the feudal age, were exhaustless materials of heroic romance. What was passing away in actual life was transferred to the imagination, to reappear idealized in poetry.
The old times were sufficiently recent to be ideally apprehended. They lingered in knightly feelings and accomplishments, and shaped the highest minds of the age in a mould of heroism. An artificial civilization had neither tamed nor refined the energies of the heart. There were great diversities of culture, character, manners, ranging from extreme coarseness to high delicacy, and a corresponding external costume, which afforded the poet a wide variety of subjects, from which to select striking individualities and picturesque images. The intellect of the country was prying, inquisitive, bold, disposed to innovation, and yet creative. The understanding and the imagination were both alive and active. There was a certain fulness, roundness, and harmony of mental development in the great men of the time, which gives a character of majestic ease to their sturdiest exertions of power.
None of their faculties acquired a diseased activity at the expense of the rest. It was not a time to produce Humes or Schellings in philosophy, Crabbes
(where it belongs, if anywhere), because, from the legitimate or factitious sanctity attached to this ceremony, it was possible for private combinations of men, united by extra-legal oaths, to disturb or outrage the public tranquillity.
According to the view which we bave now presented, a state is to be regarded as a body of individuals so combined under the essential principles of social order, and by an organization based upon those principles, as to constitute a political unit, and to act as such for the joint protection of individual rights, and for the maintenance of suitable relations with other political units. The state, then, can have no rights which the people cannot give ; nor can it have a moral code exclusively its own. Political organization cannot make wrong right, or evil good. Men cannot do guiltlessly, in their corporate capacity, deeds which they are forbidden to do singly. The existing rights of a state will, indeed, be determined by the degree of moral culture to which the people have attained; but its real rights must needs be commensurate with the supreme rule of right.
Let us now look separately at the rights claimed for the state by our author. The first is a right to the national territory. It is alleged, that individuals derive their rights to special property in land from the state. We have shown, however, that individual property in land existed prior to any distinct political organization. The state, indeed, , regulates the descent and alienation of national property ; but it does this in such a way as to perfect, not to invade, individual rights. If men wish to sell or bequeath their lands, the state prescribes forms by which the will of the seller or testator can take effect without the suspicion of mistake or fraud ; and with reference to the landed property of intestates, it simply carries out the prevalent idea of rightful descent. A state which should depart from this course, and enact laws which obstructed the right of transfer or bequest, or impeded the mode of natural descent most in accordance with the ideas of the nation, would be regarded as chargeable with the most arrant despotism, even though important public ends were the alleged plea ; but such laws would be within the legitimate scope of a state which had a right to the national territory. The state, indeed, appropriates the land of individuals for public uses ; but this is a power requisite for the perfecting of individual rights ; for what would private
property be worth, without means of intercommunication adapted to the condition and the direction of business and markets? But in these cases, the sacredness of private property is recognized both by the imminent necessity, which is held to be the only justifying cause for a procedure seemingly arbitrary, and by the full remuneration tendered for the property taken. In no nation that has made any sensible advancement in civilization would a government dare to perform any acts that implied public ownership of the whole country ; and we feel constrained to regard such ownership as an unauthorized figment.
The right of war comes next on the list. This right will undoubtedly be claimed and exercised, so long as Christian nations rest in their present imperfect degree of moral culture. But if, by the supreme law of duty, individuals are bound to love their enemies, and to overcome evil with good, we are unable to perceive how they can be authorized in their corporate capacity to hate their enemies, and to overcome evil by inflicting greater evil. In war, states command, compel, individuals to commit the very acts which are forbidden to individuals by the moral law. They constrain their subjects to become thieves and murderers. It is said, indeed, that there is no tribunal before which, nations can plead their rights and prosecute their claims. There is indeed none; but can we not conceive of such a tribunal, created by the joint consent of nations recognizing the same moral standard, and its decisions enforced by a public opinion pervading those nations to such a degree as to render them inviolable? Or, without such a tribunal, may not the progress of moral sentiment render arbitration the established mode of settling national disputes, especially as in the same progress the conduct of nations will be marked by a uniform reference to justice and good faith, so as to render the differences between them few, slight, and easy of adjustment ?
But what is to be done in case of a wanton invasion of the territory of a nation that has committed no aggressive act and sanctioned no aggressive measure ? We might fairly doubt the possibility of such an event. But supposing it to take place, and supposing the invading army to be forcibly repelled, still the seeming necessity of such a measure does not settle the question of abstract right. The case is a case of necessity, corresponding to those cases in which an indi