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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 6/97 -

chivalrous tales and legends; but its wonders and its heroism were the very reverse of those of the ancient mythology.

Several inquirers who, in other respects, entertain the same conception of the peculiarities of the moderns, and trace them to the same source that we do, have placed the essence of the northern poetry in melancholy; and to this, when properly understood, we have nothing to object.

Among the Greeks human nature was in itself all-sufficient; it was conscious of no defects, and aspired to no higher perfection than that which it could actually attain by the exercise of its own energies. We, however, are taught by superior wisdom that man, through a grievous transgression, forfeited the place for which he was originally destined; and that the sole destination of his earthly existence is to struggle to regain his lost position, which, if left to his own strength, he can never accomplish. The old religion of the senses sought no higher possession than outward and perishable blessings; and immortality, so far as it was believed, stood shadow-like in the obscure distance, a faint dream of this sunny waking life. The very reverse of all this is the case with the Christian view: every thing finite and mortal is lost in the contemplation of infinity; life has become shadow and darkness, and the first day of our real existence dawns in the world beyond the grave. Such a religion must waken the vague foreboding, which slumbers in every feeling heart, into a distinct consciousness that the happiness after which we are here striving is unattainable; that no external object can ever entirely fill our souls; and that all earthly enjoyment is but a fleeting and momentary illusion. When the soul, resting as it were under the willows of exile, [Footnote: _Trauerweiden der verbannung_, literally _the weeping willows of banishment_, an allusion, as every reader must know, to the 137th Psalm. Linnaeus, from this Psalm, calls the weeping willow _Salix Babylonica_.--TRANS.] breathes out its longing for its distant home, what else but melancholy can be the key-note of its songs? Hence the poetry of the ancients was the poetry of enjoyment, and ours is that of desire: the former has its foundation in the scene which is present, while the latter hovers betwixt recollection and hope. Let me not be understood as affirming that everything flows in one unvarying strain of wailing and complaint, and that the voice of melancholy is always loudly heard. As the austerity of tragedy was not incompatible with the joyous views of the Greeks, so that romantic poetry whose origin I have been describing, can assume every tone, even that of the liveliest joy; but still it will always, in some indescribable way, bear traces of the source from which it originated. The feeling of the moderns is, upon the whole, more inward, their fancy more incorporeal, and their thoughts more contemplative. In nature, it is true, the boundaries of objects run more into one another, and things are not so distinctly separated as we must exhibit them in order to convey distinct notions of them.

The Grecian ideal of human nature was perfect unison and proportion between all the powers,--a natural harmony. The moderns, on the contrary, have arrived at the consciousness of an internal discord which renders such an ideal impossible; and hence the endeavour of their poetry is to reconcile these two worlds between which we find ourselves divided, and to blend them indissolubly together. The impressions of the senses are to be hallowed, as it were, by a mysterious connexion with higher feelings; and the soul, on the other hand, embodies its forebodings, or indescribable intuitions of infinity, in types and symbols borrowed from the visible world.

In Grecian art and poetry we find an original and unconscious unity of form and matter; in the modern, so far as it has remained true to its own spirit, we observe a keen struggle to unite the two, as being naturally in opposition to each other. The Grecian executed what it proposed in the utmost perfection; but the modern can only do justice to its endeavours after what is infinite by approximation; and, from a certain appearance of imperfection, is in greater danger of not being duly appreciated.

It would lead us too far, if in the separate arts of architecture, music, and painting (for the moderns have never had a sculpture of their own), we should endeavour to point out the distinctions which we have here announced, to show the contrast observable in the character of the same arts among the ancients and moderns, and at the same time to demonstrate the kindred aim of both.

Neither can we here enter into a more particular consideration of the different kinds and forms of romantic poetry in general, but must return to our more immediate subject, which is dramatic art and literature. The division of this, as of the other departments of art, into the antique and the romantic, at once points out to us the course which we have to pursue.

We shall begin with the ancients; then proceed to their imitators, their genuine or supposed successors among the moderns; and lastly, we shall consider those poets of later times, who, either disregarding the classical models, or purposely deviating from them, have struck out a path for themselves.

Of the ancient dramatists, the Greeks alone are of any importance. In this branch of art the Romans were at first mere translators of the Greeks, and afterwards imitators, and not always very successful ones. Besides, of their dramatic labours very little has been preserved. Among modern nations an endeavour to restore the ancient stage, and, where possible, to improve it, has been shown in a very lively manner by the Italians and the French. In other nations, also, attempts of the same kind, more or less earnest, have at times, especially of late, been made in tragedy; for in comedy, the form under which it appears in Plautus and Terence has certainly been more generally prevalent. Of all studied imitations of the ancient tragedy the French is the most brilliant essay, has acquired the greatest renown, and consequently deserves the most attentive consideration. After the French come the modern Italians; viz., Metastasio and Alfieri. The romantic drama, which, strictly speaking, can neither be called tragedy nor comedy in the sense of the ancients, is indigenous only to England and Spain. In both it began to flourish at the same time, somewhat more than two hundred years ago, being brought to perfection by Shakspeare in the former country, and in the latter by Lope de Vega.

The German stage is the last of all, and has been influenced in the greatest variety of ways by all those which preceded it. It will be most appropriate, therefore, to enter upon its consideration last of all. By this course we shall be better enabled to judge of the directions which it has hitherto taken, and to point out the prospects which are still open to it.

When I promise to go through the history of the Greek and Roman, of the Italian and French, and of the English and Spanish theatres, in the few hours which are dedicated to these Lectures, I wish it to be understood that I can only enter into such an account of them as will comprehend their most essential peculiarities under general points of view. Although I confine myself to a single domain of poetry, still the mass of materials comprehended within it is too extensive to be taken in by the eye at once, and this would be the case were I even to limit myself to one of its subordinate departments. We might read ourselves to death with farces. In the ordinary histories of literature the poets of one language, and one description, are enumerated in succession, without any further discrimination, like the Assyrian and Egyptian kings in the old universal histories. There are persons who have an unconquerable passion for the titles of books, and we willingly concede to them the privilege of increasing their number by books on the titles of books. It is much the same thing, however, as in the history of a war to give the name of every soldier who fought in the ranks of the hostile armies. It is usual, however, to speak only of the generals, and those who may have performed actions of distinction. In like manner the battles of the human mind, if I may use the expression, have been won by a few intellectual heroes. The history of the development of art and its various forms may be therefore exhibited in the characters of a number, by no means considerable, of elevated and creative minds.


Definition of the Drama--View of the Theatres of all Nations--Theatrical Effect--Importance of the Stage--Principal Species of the Drama.

Before, however, entering upon such a history as we have now described, it will be necessary to examine what is meant by _dramatic_, _theatrical_, _tragic_, and _comic_.

What is dramatic? To many the answer will seem very easy: where various persons are introduced conversing together, and the poet does not speak in his own person. This is, however, merely the first external foundation of the form; and that is dialogue. But the characters may express thoughts and sentiments without operating any change on each other, and so leave the minds of both in exactly the same state in which they were at the commencement; in such a case, however interesting the conversation may be, it cannot be said to possess a dramatic interest. I shall make this clear by alluding to a more tranquil species of dialogue, not adapted for the stage, the philosophic. When, in Plato, Socrates asks the conceited sophist Hippias, what is the meaning of the beautiful, the latter is at once ready with a superficial answer, but is afterwards compelled by the ironical objections of Socrates to give up his former definition, and to grope about him for other ideas, till, ashamed at last and irritated at the superiority of the sage who has convicted him of his ignorance, he is forced to quit the field: this dialogue is not merely philosophically instructive, but arrests the attention like a drama in miniature. And justly, therefore, has this lively movement in the thoughts, this stretch of expectation for the issue, in a word, the dramatic cast of the dialogues of Plato, been always celebrated.

From this we may conceive wherein consists the great charm of dramatic poetry. Action is the true enjoyment of life, nay, life itself. Mere passive enjoyments may lull us into a state of listless complacency, but even then, if possessed of the least internal activity, we cannot avoid being soon wearied. The great bulk of mankind merely from their situation in life, or from their incapacity for extraordinary exertions, are confined within a narrow circle of insignificant operations. Their days flow on in succession under the sleepy rule of custom, their life advances by an insensible progress, and the bursting torrent of the first passions of youth soon settles into a stagnant marsh. From the discontent which this occasions they are compelled to have recourse to all sorts of diversions, which uniformly consist in a species of occupation that may be renounced at pleasure, and though a struggle with difficulties, yet with difficulties that are easily surmounted. But of all diversions the theatre is undoubtedly the most entertaining. Here we may see others act even when we cannot act to any great purpose ourselves. The highest object of human activity is man, and in the drama we see men, measuring their powers with each other, as intellectual and moral beings, either as friends or foes, influencing each other by their opinions, sentiments, and passions, and decisively determining their reciprocal relations and circumstances. The art of the poet accordingly consists in separating from the fable whatever does not essentially belong to it, whatever, in the daily necessities of real life, and the petty occupations to which they give rise, interrupts the progress of important actions, and concentrating within a narrow space a number of events calculated to attract the minds of the hearers and to fill them with attention and expectation. In this manner he gives us a renovated picture of life; a compendium of whatever is moving and progressive in human existence.

But this is not all. Even in a lively oral narration, it is not unusual to introduce persons in conversation with each other, and to give a

Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 6/97

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